The Portal, Riftworld Chronicles and fan support

Here's how short fantasy film The Portal, starring Tahmoh Penikett, was turned into TV series Riftworld Chronicles...

A not so very long time ago, in this galaxy, in those geeky communities where the card-carrying members of the geek clubs congregate, a trailer was making its rounds for a certain short film. Entitled The Portal,” it starred Tahmoh Penikett (of Supernatural and Battlestar Galactica fame, thus upping the geek factor some more) and promised an intriguing premise: the dimension-travelling wizard Alar (played by the aforementioned Penikett) accidentally ends up in our magic-less, technology-full world, and attempts to navigate it. Hilarity, naturally, ensues. Fans watched the trailer, shared, liked, commented, and demanded, when do we get to see the damn thing?

Tempers grew. Frustrated keysmashes occurred. The question was repeated again and again. Supernatural aired some more episodes with Penikett, and everyone wanted to see the charming and adorably clueless Alar battle with the technology of our world and hit it off with travel agent Kim (Erin Karpluk), who helps him navigate the human world. Finally, the short film was released in late 2014, running to a full fourteen minutes and frustrating fans entirely. They wanted more.

But that wasn’t the end of the saga. Instead, the story grew, and the story of the story grew with it. The Portal transformed itself into Riftworld Chronicles, a television series with a storyline of “epic proportions,” according to writer and producer Jonathan Williams. Serving as a sort of “reboot” of the series rather than a continuation, it starts with the same premise: Alar accidentally enters the human world, where he meets Kim (now a magazine fact-checker rather than a travel agent). As he fights to get back to his own world, mysterious evil forces from his own come into play.

Having just wrapped up the filming of its first season in cold, snowy Toronto, Riftworld Chronicles hopes to see the light of day on screens this spring. In the meantime, to give fans a glimpse of the final product they’ll be getting and whet the appetite, series creator and writer Jonathan Williams answered some of my pressing questions and gave me a sneak peek of what’s to come.

The creation of this series has been quite a saga – from the trailer and the curiosity it sparked to the short film to the TV series. Can you say more about how this story originated and where the idea came from and how it grew to be what it is?

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Jonathan Williams: I have been toying with the premise for The Portal for at least 5 years. The idea of a character right out of Middle Earth or Westeros wandering around downtown has always made me laugh. My original concept was actually for a feature film. Inspired by fish out of water films such as Elf, Enchanted and Coming To America – I wanted to make a romantic comedy about a dimension travelling wizard who gets stuck in the mundane world because cell-phone radiation interferes with his magic. I decided to make a short film as a “proof-of-concept” for this feature idea – to demonstrate the tone of the comedy and the basic set-up of the story. It was only after we completed the short that I became convinced that television might be a better direction to go – one which would offer deeper and more open-ended story possibilities.

Tell us in more detail about what looks like the long and arduous process of bringing this project to fruition.

JW: As a first step I got together with Andrew and Laura at First Love Films, the producers who helped make the short, and applied to the Independent Production Fund (IPF) – a private fund for Canadian web-series.  Part of the application process involved demonstrating our ability to draw an online audience through social media platforms – which is why we released the trailer for The Portal on Youtube.  Both our lead actors have incredibly strong fan bases, which embraced the project and helped spread the word online. Tahmoh’s following among the Supernatural fan community was especially vocal about supporting the project. Our social media campaign was hugely successful and within 6 months we had over 2 million hits on Youtube.  Because of this clear evidence that an audience exists for this show IPF green-lit us to make a web series. 

About a month before production began on the web series, Sienna Films came on board as executive producers.  Julia Sereny and Jennifer Kawaja, who head the company, were instrumental in helping bring the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (the CBC) on board – and because of this our web series will air on PUNCHLINE – the CBC’s website, when it is finished.  

You have some amazing actors working with you – in particular, Tahmoh Penikett, who was excellent and greatly loved on Supernatural last year as the angel Gadriel. Tell us about what it was like to work with such talent.

JW: Getting such amazing talent on board was the real secret to the success of The Portal.  There were three key factors that helped it work out. 1) The actors and their agents liked the script. 2) My producers are very charming and determined people and saying no to them is hard. 3) Tahmoh and Erin knew each other from the Vancouver acting community and were excited about the opportunity to work on a project together for the first time.

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I have to say as a new director I learned a tonne from working with such talented veteran actors. They brought their characters to life in ways that I had never imagined, and were an inspiration I could draw from in the writing of the web series. Erin brings all the sparkle and cynicism that Kim’s character requires, as well as being a grounded protagonist our audience can relate to. Tahmoh fully committed to the persona of Alar thereby making not only his character but also the world he comes from real. I remain very grateful that these established stars took a risk on us and helped raise our production to the next level. They have a real chemistry with each other and I think they both had a blast on set.

Do you have any fun (or funny) stories from set and the filming of the series?

JW: While we were filming the elevator sequence we accidentally broke the elevator. In the process of trying to shoot a close-up of the ‘up’ button we somehow managed to short circuit the entire elevator. The elevator doors were critical to the scene but they no longer worked. To solve the problem we were forced to wedge the doors open and film the scene without them – then later in the editing room we added them in digitally, animating a still photograph of the doors opening and closing.

From what I’ve seen so far, The Portal – and, presumably, the ensuing series – touches on some really interesting themes, such as the relationship between magic and science/technology. We all know Clarke’s dictum: that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Is that a theme we’ll see you touching on and playing with in the series?

JW: The relationship of technology to magic is definitely a major theme that I want to explore further with the web series. Part of the fun of looking at our modern world through the eyes of someone from a medieval world is rediscovering the magic in the many amazing technologies we take for granted.  Kim is an extreme case of a person who has lost the ability to see the magic that surrounds her and this theme is fairly central to her relationship with Alar.

So, what is the future for the series? Right now, the first season is waiting for the post-production magic of our otherwise magic-less world, and actors, writers, and producers  hope to have the same enthusiastic support of the fans, who blogged, tweeted, retweeted, reblogged, shared, liked, and demanded, to make that happen. This time, they can be an even bigger part of the creation of the show by participating in its Kickstarter and helping the show with is post-production endeavours (special effects, graphics, music, and everything that makes the story look like a finished project). If it does, the eight episodes of the first season will hopefully see the light of day this spring, and Williams is hopeful that a second season could even happen. The ultimate goal, though, is to make the web series a stepping stone to a full one-hour TV show, for which he already has a five-season arc mapped out. But, he says with hope, “only fan support will help us attain this goal.” Fans and fandoms these days are gaining more and more say, and he hopes this’ll be another case in which fan support will make a difference.

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