At $2 million an episode, Combat Hospital, a new MASH-like war drama set in Afghanistan but made in Etobicoke, needs to find an audience fast

At $2 million an episode, Combat Hospital, a new MASH-like war drama set in Afghanistan but made in Etobicoke, needs to find an audience fast

Combat Hospital’s 185,000-square-foot set, on the site of a former bottle factory, is one of the largest in Canada.
Combat Hospital’s 185,000-square-foot set, on the site of a former bottle factory, is one of the largest in Canada. (Image: Eamon Mac Mahon)

Over the 10 years of Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan, our film and television industry has, on more than one occasion, recreated that country for the purpose of entertainment. Mostly, these efforts have occurred on Canadian soil, no small feat given that Afghanistan is an anarchic, war-ravaged nation where summer temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius, and Canada is a country known for its cold-weather sports and niceness. Ingenuity, it seems, is key. When a production team attempted to build an Afghani village for the CBC series The Border, they did so in a gravel pit in Caledon, a popular film location that, owing to the magic of the lens, has also served as a tropical jungle (Amazon) and the high Arctic (Lives of the Saints). The Maritime producer Barrie Dunn, for his soon-to-be-released film Afghan Luke, used the British Columbia interior, specifically a small town near Kamloops called Cache Creek.

Now there’s Combat Hospital, an hour-long drama modelled on the Kandahar Multinational Medical Unit Role 3, a hospital that serviced soldiers wounded in the Afghanistan conflict until it was decommissioned last year. (The original facility was intended to be temporary; it has now been replaced, depressingly enough, with a permanent structure.) The idea for Combat Hospital, which debuts June 21, started with the Toronto-based writer and director Jinder Oujla-Chalmers, whose previous credits include a TV biopic of former Alberta premier Ralph Klein and episodes of the fat-fighting reality show X-Weighted. She took her idea—a MASH reprise set in Afghanistan—to Global, where the head of programming, Christine Shipton, was immediately besotted. Sienna Films, a production company perhaps best known in Canada for the 1999 film New Waterford Girl, agreed to develop the series.

Thus began the mad scramble that characterizes the launch of any television project. Sienna had to find funding partners and, depending on their location, decide where to recreate the Kandahar base. At one point, the producers considered working with a French company, which would have meant shooting the series in Morocco. Though the dust of north Africa easily doubles as the dust of central Asia, shooting there would have meant flying in cast and crew over seven months, enough time to shoot the first season. Too complicated. Instead, Sienna signed on a U.K.-based production team called Artists Studio as a partner and assembled a writing team that included Oujla-Chalmers and the venerable screenwriter Daniel Petrie Jr., who worked on Beverly Hills Cop and The Big Easy. As buzz about the show intensified, both ABC and the Sony Corporation invested in the project. Sienna eventually decided to build its set in Toronto, where it would require considerable trickery to imitate the look and feel of Kandahar.

The company had just nine weeks before shooting began, and required the help of 40 carpenters, 20 painters, 15 set dressers, one set decorator and an assortment of other trades to carry out the necessary welding, wiring and plumbing. The result, one of the largest sets ever built for a Canadian show, is a 185,000-square-foot replica of a military hospital. It exists in an Etobicoke factory that, in a previous life, was used to make Crown Royal bottles.

I visited on a brilliant morning in early May, driving north along a homely stretch of Kipling Avenue sided by grey single-storey office buildings. A publicist led me through a succession of gypsum board hallways toward the back of the factory. We then pushed through a pair of doors and stepped into the sun-bleached back lot. High above was an immense sign reading, “Welcome to Kandahar Airfield,” which looked blithely out of place against the cloudless Toronto sky.

The perimeter of the camp was defined on two sides by the bottle factory, which, in the show, represented the sides of old airplane hangars. The other two sides of the camp were the sand-filled safety barriers that surround any military encampment. Stacks of battered old shipping containers, purchased from a container dealer out by the airport, formed a second line of defence. There were the requisite plywood army barracks, a volleyball net, showers and, off in one corner, a forest-green medical evacuation helicopter, which had been purchased from an American collector of military vehicles. In the opposite corner was an imitation Afghani village used for scenes in which the doctors leave the compound, an ill-advised endeavour that, in the military, is referred to as going “outside the wire.” It all looked remarkably real, albeit in the way that movie sets tend to look real: you had to mentally subtract the cameras and lights strewn all over the set, and forget that the day’s extras, all 75 of whom were wearing army fatigues or Afghani robes, were standing around drinking bottled water while waiting for their cues.

The show follows the exploits of a civilian neurosurgeon with a questionable moral fabric, played by Luke Mably; the camp’s chief of nursing, played by Arnold Pinnock; and a pair of naively determined trauma surgeons, played by Michelle Borth and Terry Chen, whose arrival kick-starts the series. Deborah Kara Unger portrays an Australian psychiatrist, while Elias Koteas is cast as the hospital’s commanding officer, a hardened yet warm-hearted surgeon. There is also a whole roster of supporting characters, a “large world” being a recent hallmark of quality television—think of The Sopranos and its mob families, or the sheer volume of office drones employed by Sterling Cooper in Mad Men.

Elias Koteas plays a surgeon and the commanding officer of the military hospital.
Elias Koteas plays a surgeon and the commanding officer of the military hospital. (Image: Eamon Mac Mahon)

On the day of my visit to the Combat Hospital set, they were shooting a rescue scene that ensues after a wedding outside the camp is disrupted by a bomb. Steve Reynolds, the episode’s director, explained to me how the bride had rejected the marriage her parents arranged for her, and instead married for love. This angered the Taliban, who are presumed to be responsible for the bombing. The hospital’s doctors have been told to expect wounded people.

As Reynolds prepared the shot, I walked toward the elevated wooden boardwalk that, in the real camp, featured a Subway outlet, a T.G.I. Friday’s and the obligatory Tim Hortons. Combat Hospital’s imitation boardwalk houses fast-food outlets with such invented names as Khaki Beans, Desert Igloo, Hoagie Hut and Falafel Farzan. From here, I watched as the crew—some of whom were already developing sunburns—moved cameras, brought in a dolly track and adjusted the large reflective screen known as “the bounce.” A wardrobe crew member rubbed fake dirt on a soldier’s uniform. An effects man turned on a machine that blew a foggy vapour over the set (when captured on film, it would look like blowing sand). A flame bar was lit in front of the camera, so that the camp would appear to be wavering in the heat. A guy with craft services, meanwhile, walked around handing out Jamaican beef patties wrapped in tinfoil.

Finally—television production is nothing if not a laborious art form—the shot was ready. Someone yelled “picture up,” someone else yelled “lock up sound,” and a third person, after a few seconds, yelled “background,” at which point the extras all began walking throughout the set. Two female soldiers carried on a wordless conversation as they walked toward me. One, looking a little too wan for the Afghani sun, gesticulated for effect. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted two off-duty soldiers jogging through the bustle. Farther down the boardwalk, an employee of Khaki Beans waited to take orders.

And then, a second or two later, a dark green ambulance rounded a corner at the far end of the camp, both the driver and his passenger looking suitably intent.

The last boom in televised Canadian dramas occurred in the 1990s, with the advent of shows like Da Vinci’s Inquest, Traders and RoboCop. Many of them received funding from European networks, which couldn’t afford to produce shows on their own. At least one, the ceaselessly charming Due South, developed a following on CBS. Then, in 1999, the CRTC eliminated a licensing condition that obliged Canadian networks to direct a certain amount of their revenue toward the creation of Canadian programming. As Peter Foster, the CRTC’s head of television policy, told me: “At the time we were flying high. We felt that we could loosen our requirements somewhat, and that the networks would just keep on doing what they were doing.”

They probably would have, had Europe not experienced an economic boom. European nations could suddenly afford to produce indigenous television, or at least borrow enough to do so. Foreign investment in Canadian TV dwindled, it being a paradox of Canadian television that the more money the Europeans have, the less of it we get. The Canadian networks responded by producing inexpensive shows like ET Canada, etalk and their ilk. They also began showing reruns of Canadian-made programs that had ceased production; accordingly, original Canadian dramas all but died. “There had been a show called Stargate,” Foster recalled with more than a little rue. “It was a shot-in-Canada sci-fi series that had gone off the air a few years earlier. Then we relaxed the policy requirement. Suddenly, old episodes of Stargate seemed to always be on the TV schedule.”

South of the border, a revolution occurred—dramas like The Wire, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under all had writing, acting and production values that eclipsed 95 per cent of what Hollywood was producing. “I loved the show Hill Street Blues in the ’80s,” Bill Brioux, a Toronto-based television critic, told me. “Today, by comparison, it looks like a creaky old sofa.” In other words, for a drama to feel like it belongs in the same universe as television’s finest, it now has to look extremely good, a requirement that does not come cheaply. An episode that cost a million to make a decade ago now costs double that or more. Combat Hospital costs roughly $2 million an episode. “When making a network show you have to spend the money,” Shipton told me. “Because if you’re making a network show it will sit right next to a big American show. It will sit right next to, say, Mad Men.”

Yet over the last decade the market has massively fragmented—Rogers now offers 600 channels, including one that displays nothing but a scene of a sunset over a lake. Fewer and fewer people watch each show, meaning that individual television programs are producing less and less revenue. In the late ’70s, for example, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson drew an audience of 17.5 million. That’s twice the number of people who now watch Jay Leno and David Letterman combined.

This, then, is the challenge of modern television: it’s taking more and more money to produce shows with smaller audiences. Yet it’s a problem that, ironically enough, has helped Canadian television producers. When the global economy imploded in 2008, European producers began investing again in Canadian television, giving rise to such historical costume dramas as The Tudors and The Borgias.

This time around, with a moribund economy exacerbating the problems of fragmentation and rising costs, another big player has reluctantly joined the game: the American networks began investing in Canadian television as well, usually by pre-ordering Canadian shows for summer air dates. “The U.S. networks no longer have the money to produce a summer series,” Petrie Jr., the Combat Hospital writer, told me. “So they can go with a rerun or a reality show. But if they want to run an original, scripted series they have to have international partners.” The cop dramas Rookie Blue and Flashpoint were both notable summer successes on American networks—Flashpoint broke open the American markets—and Combat Hospital will air on Global and ABC simultaneously. Jim Mirkopoulos, a vice-president of Cinespace Film Studios, told me that the demand for studio space in Toronto now outweighs the supply. “NBC alone has five major series shooting in Toronto,” he said. “Two are being shot in dedicated studio spaces. Two are at the Downsview air force base, and one is being shot in an old warehouse in Scarborough. I can promise you that all of those producers would love to be in proper studio space.”

Terry Chen plays a trauma surgeon who is newly arrived on the base.
Terry Chen plays a trauma surgeon who is newly arrived on the base. (Image: Eamon Mac Mahon)

The bottom line, though, remains a monetary one. By taking advantage of federal and provincial film and television tax credits, indigenous producers can immediately raise 30 per cent of their production budget, which impresses foreign co-producers. Canadian producers are also eligible for seed money from both the Canadian Media Fund and the Ontario Media Development Corporation. (Though the CMF hasn’t yet calculated its contribution to Combat Hospital, shows such as Being Erica, The Border, Crash and Burn and Lost Girl received more than $6 million each in the 2009–10 broadcast season.) Finally, Canadian television producers enjoy transfer benefits, a penance that broadcast companies have to pay when the CRTC allows an industry merger. Last spring, BCE acquired full ownership of CTV for $1.3 billion, and in the fall, Shaw Communications bought CanWest Global for $2.05 billion. Ten per cent of the money from those deals—a not inconsiderable $330 million—is now finding its way into the hands of Canadian television producers.

All this investment has meant more Canadian drama—much of it excellent. When a show is green-lit, more money gets spent on each individual production, resulting in a level of sophistication that is new (or at least new-ish) in Canada. When I met Petrie Jr., I asked him if a set as good as Combat Hospital’s would have been possible in Canada 10 years ago. “Ten years ago?” he responded. “I highly doubt that something like this would have been possible even two years ago.”

For a full hour I watched that ambulance stop at the doors of the hospital, at which point someone would invariably yell “cut—let’s go again” for no reason I could discern. The crew would then scurry around, the actors would sip water while more dirt was rubbed on them, and the two joggers would return to their takeoff marks. On take three, someone had an artistic vision, and two ambulances pulled up instead of one. On takes four and five they reverted to one ambulance, and for some reason it was the sixth (or maybe seventh) take that seemed to satisfy everybody involved, those few seconds of the show finally in the can.

Thus came the next shot, in which Koteas’s surgeon attends to a wounded Afghani the drivers have pulled out of the ambulance. For the shot to work, three things had to happen. First, a soldier with handsome Indian features had to announce the state in which they had found the injured man. Second, another soldier had to wave a metal detector over the patient, ensuring that he wasn’t rigged with a weapon or exploding device. Finally, Koteas had to look toward the doors of the hospital while making a series of hand gestures that, in the world of military doctors, indicate how the medics inside the hospital should treat the patient.

This time I decided to watch via monitors in a broiling black cloth tent. I sat in the back; in the row of seats in front of me were the director Steve Reynolds, his director of photography Gavin Smith, and Donna Gardon, a script supervisor who sat quietly scribbling on a clipboard, looking mildly disgruntled.

In one take, Koteas had some trouble with the hand signals, necessitating a conversation with the show’s military consultant, a Kandahar veteran named Chris Kaye. In another, one of the effects guys was “hot,” a pejorative term meaning that he’d been picked up by one of the cameras. Between the third and fourth takes, there was much discussion as to whether the wounded man would be wearing his dusty village sandals. (The consensus: he would.) Kaye counselled when and how the metal detector would be waved over the man’s body. Another take was aborted when Reynolds noticed that the patient’s blanket was pulled all the way to his chin and not folded halfway down, as it was in all the other takes. At one point, Reynolds called for more blood, and inside the tent someone jokingly wondered if the effects guys could add a cloud or two to the sky, the weather in Etobicoke being so glorious that, through the camera, Kandahar was looking insufficiently dismal.

And then, as if by divine filmic providence, it all came together: the amount of blood was right and Koteas flashed his signs just right and the ambulance pulled up to the right mark and the wounded man’s sandals did not fall off and his blanket was lowered to his hip and, for better or worse, it was accepted that the sky would just have to be muddied in post-production.

“Cut,” Reynolds called, leaping up from his director’s chair.

He then charged out onto the set, and from the inside of the overheated tent, I heard him yell, with evident relief, “We got it, everybody! Thank you!”