The Border: Screenwriting in the Space Between

by Jason McBride

September 11 has been explored ad nauseum in cinema (United 93 to Fahrenheit 9/11), literature (William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), even pop music (Eminem to Leonard Cohen), but there has been surprisingly little North American television–save, perhaps, for 24 and a few episodes of The West Wing–devoted to specifically examining the attacks or its fallout, the consequent erosion of civil liberties. It’s easy to see why: the subject’s bleak, dispiriting and frustrating, and to revisit it on a regular, weekly basis, is a tough assignment–for audience and creatives alike. But CBC’s new series, The Border, has proven that it’s equally rewarding territory: its messy and complex conflicts a fount of dramatic possibility. And it’s also proven that audiences are compelled by such drama: the pilot, which aired in early January, drew over 700,000 viewers.

The Border’s an unusual hybrid, both action-adventure show and police procedural, soap opera and thriller. Early observers noted a resemblance to 24 (the kinetic camera work, the obsession with security issues and technology), but in developing the show’s elite, multi-culti squad of immigration officials, the creators looked more to the BBC’s MI-5 for inspiration than Kiefer Sutherland’s ballyhooed star vehicle. The Border’s Immigration and Customs Security (a fictional agency) has its headquarters in Toronto’s harbour (in reality, the terminal that served the now-defunct Toronto-Rochester ferry), and is headed by Major Mike Kessler (lantern-jawed James McGowan), a former member of the JTF2, Canada’s top-secret counter-terrorism unit.

The Border was the brainchild of documentarian Peter Raymont and his late wife, Lindalee Tracey. Raymont and Tracey had explored border issues before, in their 2002 doc The Undefended Border, and thought a fictional series would allow them access to a different kind of truth and audience engagement. Tracey hired writer Jeremy Hole (Night Heat,The City), who developed a MOW for the CBC that was the basis for the current series, as well as many of the characters. Four more episodes were commissioned and writer and producer Janet MacLean was brought on board.

“Being relatively pushy,” MacLean says from her production office, where she sits with producer and showrunner David Barlow, “I re-defined quite a lot of things.” A writer on several acclaimed series, including Danger Bay and Road to Avonlea, MacLean thought the subject matter demanded a focused approach that would deal with one story at a time, with a strong leader at the centre. “I feel that there needs to be an audience entry point, an everyman figure. Audiences find that accessible.”

Barlow, who’s written for many of Canada’s most renowned shows, including North of 60 and Side Effects, seconds the point, adding that a writer has to have faith in what they’re writing. “If you don’t do that, and you get an order for a show, then you have to live with something you may not believe in for quite a long time. And that’s the road to ulcers and craziness.”

For the complete article, please see Canadian Screenwriter Magazine


Fall 2015
On newsstands, or subscribe.

Photo by Jeff Weddell

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FEBRUARY 5, 2016
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