Elena Michaels craves a normal existence. A Toronto resident with a thriving career, sensitive boyfriend and close friends, she seems to be right on track with that goal. There's just one monstrous piece of baggage weighing her down: Elena is not only a werewolf, but the only known existing female werewolf.
Based on the popular "Women of the Otherworld" series by Canadian author Kelley Armstrong, the freshman TV series "Bitten" follows Elena (played by Laura Vandervoort of "Smallville" fame) as she struggles to distance herself from the lycanthrope curse that governed her life. Elena's torn, however, when her werewolf pack calls for her aid against a mysterious threat targeting them. Now, Elena must journey to the pack's Stonehaven mansion in New York, unleash the beast inside that she's wrestled to supress and confront ex-lover Clayton Danvers ("Durham County"'s Greyston Holt), the man who bit her.
During a Toronto set visit in June 2013, the tension has been ramped up. Some of the pack members are in danger. In Stonehaven's massive kitchen, Clayton and a shaken Elena are in the middle of a heated discussion about the current crisis and the unique perspective it sheds on their relationship. Ultimately, a furious Clayton storms off.
"Everything is coming to a head," explains Holt later in his trailer. "Basically Elena finds out there's this other woman, Amber (Eve Harlow), and she's in love with a werewolf. She opened up that the werewolf came and didn't kill her because he truly loved her. This is ammunition for Elena to come back at me and be like, 'Look, he didn't bite her...' There's some stuff Elena doesn't know yet, that I am holding back from telling her."
It's a dramatic sequence that requires a few takes before director Grant Harvey is satisfied. Once cameras stop rolling, Vandervoort, Holt and executive producer J.B. Sugar plunk down to chat with HuffPost Canada TV about "Bitten," adapting an established property and letting the fur fly.
Sugar knows a sweet opportunity when he sees it. The Women of Otherworld's strong characters, rich mythology and genre setting were ripe for a Hollywood treatment, so the books were optioned three years ago. "Bitten"'s 13 episodes don't stray much from the first novel, but there were other considerations when crafting the overall arc.
"This is a huge challenge, because you're never going to live up to the expectations of each individual reader," says Sugar. "The reading experience is very different than the visual media that film and TV are. You really have to take into consideration preserving the essence of the stories, characters and the world, knowing when to go off-book, so to speak, so you can expand on storylines that can sustain for a 13-episode arc. Thankfully Kelley has been so open and excited about the project, and respectful of the process in terms of being a different medium. As long as we're staying true to the lifeblood of her characters and her world, she's very happy."
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Full Moon Rising
Vandervoort and Holt obviously have chemistry. Pulling up crates to sit on during break, they trade quips, laugh together and yes, even finish each other's thoughts. It's a cheerful environment to witness, but their on-screen dynamic is much more complicated. Those flawed characters and their emotional scars were just a few elements that appealed to the two actors.
"Clayton is strong, impulsive and aggressive at times," says Holt. "I`m the pack beta, protector of the pack and biter of Elena. I brought her into the mix."
"Elena Michaels is everything I've been wanting to play rolled up into one," says Vandervoort. "Having had a very troubled past and some of her foster families abusing her, she`s never really had that family idea in her life. Elena falls in love with her professor (Clayton) at university and he ends up being a werewolf. He bites her and she's pretty upset by that. I don`t know the reason as to why he bit me. I only know he did and he didn`t give me a chance. Elena tries to get away from the werewolf life and she heads back to Toronto. She tries to have a normal life and falls in love with a human."
"She is strong and bullheaded," Vandervoort continues. "Oftentimes she's the dominant one in her relationships. Elena has many weaknesses and secrets and that's what's really interesting about her. She has so much going on, yet she stays strong."
Capturing the essence and sensibility of fantastical creatures is never easy. Werewolf 101 usually consists of binge-watching classic monster flicks or studying wolf movements and patterns. Vandervoort and Holt skipped those typical paths and chose different approaches for getting into the proper mind space.
"I read this book, Wolves of the Pacific Northwest, that followed them around that area and their behaviour," reveals Holt. "The one thing I learned is how strong pack mentality is and how family-oriented wolves are. That was a big thing for me. And I also ran around the forest naked in Vancouver. I went up this popular hiking trail and just went off it about an hour in. I then took off all my clothes, everything, and just ran around and howled."
"Especially for the fight scenes and scenes that are fairly dramatic, I think about the animalistic side of it," notes Vandervoort. "If I walk into a scene like the one I did the other day, I'll circle the actor like a wolf will circle the prey. Or if you're dominant in the scene, you keep eye contact because the other person will look away. That's how animals treat it. When we're doing fight scenes, I love to grab the nape of the neck because that`s how a mother would dominate. And just the way we stand is very strong and confident."
The werewolves of "Bitten" are essentially enormous wolves that run on all four legs -- and not of "The Howling" variety. That's just one of the big decisions the creative team was forced to make. In the developmental stages, they also went back and forth on how to pull off the transformations. Would they be more practical or effects-heavy?
"We made the ambitious decision to go full CGI when our characters are in wolf form," says Sugar. "That's a symptom of how special our action is, and how difficult it is to train practical wolves to do things, as well as the difficulties of creating avatars for our characters. It allows us the ability to specifically design the look of each character when they're in wolf form. Each of the characters, when we see them as wolves, have nuances and ideologies that speak to their human forms."
"Our werewolves are also very unique in that the mythology is not the common mythology you normally associate with them," continues Sugar. "Transformations waxing and waning with the power and cycles of the moon ... we don't have that element in our werewolf lore. When our characters transform into wolves, they actually look like photo-real wolves. They're not bipedal half-wolf/half-man. That's another interesting way we've dealt with the werewolf side of things."
Vandervoort adds, "We always take our clothes off first because we don't want to ruin our clothes or rip them. We put them aside for when we come back to change. It's more of an internal pain. Your bones are breaking and snapping and changing form. You get down to all fours and then really it's the full FX wolf."
Laying The Foundation
At the heart of "Bitten" is a woman being pulled between two different worlds, seeking her own identity and the theme of what defines family. At the same time, fans will be thrilled to delve into a werewolf mythology unique to the Otherworld universe.
"The whole show is about a hero pack," states Sugar. "The notion of the pack, which is the leading group of werewolves, has been around for centuries. There's a device in the novels called The Legacy, which contains all the history of the former pack alphas and the evolution of the rules of the pack. That really helps inform everything we've done in the first season and will do in future seasons as well.
"Their house is called Stonehaven and they have a war room in the basement," adds Sugar. "We took the notion of The Legacy and expanded it into this library where there's scrolls and boxes of evidence and bottles of smells and various evidence they've collected over the years. There are manuscripts and documents that speak to the history of the pack and the ascensions and fall of various packs or alphas, and the whole switching of leadership throughout time."
Forget "Twilight" or those supernatural teen soap operas where romance drives the plot. "Bitten" features darker characters with a grittier tone. In fact, Vandervoort believes the series is more HBO than CW.
"The fact that we're werewolves, there's the erotic side to it," she says. "The animalistic sexual side. They're drawn to one another, especially Clay and Elena. They`ve got that bond that's irresistible. She tries so hard to resist. The show is very sexy. I, as Elena, have two different lives. With my boyfriend Philip (Paul Greene), it's a certain love and attraction. It's more about their relationship and their respect for one another. He just lets her do her thing and doesn't ask questions. But she's just physically drawn to Clay. It's a little more aggressive with the clothes off. There are two different love scene styles when we shoot them."
"I kill a guy," chimes in Holt. "Or that girl getting fed on when her guts are out and a wolf is feeding on her stomach. We're definitely not holding back on the blood."
"Or the nudity," offers Vandervoort.
"Yeah, the nudity," agrees Holt with a chuckle. "My ass makes a cameo."
"It's definitely an adult show in that it's more 'True Blood' than 'Vampire Diaries,'" concludes Sugar. "It's an older take on genre, although it's never gratuitous. It's always in service of the stories we're telling. Space is pushing the envelope in terms of where they're going. We're telling the stories we want to tell and using the visuals to help do that. The show and books are erotically charged and we're staying true to that. It's going to be a sexy, fun, suspenseful thrill ride."