U.S. pickup of Canadian “Combat Hospital” put pressures on production

By Brian Gorman

One Monday Elias Koteas was in Los Angeles reading a script, and the next he was in a military hospital performing surgery.

In Canada, TV crews and filmmakers often work on small budgets, short deadlines and tight schedules. But, when Global Television’s U.S. partner, ABC, decided it wanted Combat Hospital for the summer, everything went into hyperdrive.

This was complicated by the fact that the series is one of the most elaborate and complicated ever made in Canada.

For example, the show is shot on a massive 1,700-square-meter indoor-outdoor set in Toronto that replicates the Canadian-led Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit in Kandahar, Afghanistan, exactly as it looked in 2006 — basically thrown together from plywood, packing containers, spare parts and state-of-the-art medical equipment.

“The set is huge,” Koteas says. “I saw this thing on The Fifth Estate (“Life and Death in Kandahar”) about Role 3 hospital in Kandahar, and I thought, ‘How are they going to do that?’ But when I walked on set I was blown away by it — the detail and the exteriors.

“You feel like you’ve been transported. Whatever money they have, they’re putting it up there on the screen. It’s beautiful. It transports you. It’s mind-boggling what they’ve done with such short notice.”

A Canada-U.K. coproduction, the series is set in what was the sole military hospital in southern Afghanistan, manned by a Canadian-led force that included NATO personnel from countries such as the United States, Britain and Australia.

The multinational cast includes Canadians Koteas, Deborah Kara Unger (The Game), Terry Chen (Sanctuary) and Arnold Pinnock (The Listener), Briton Luke Mably (28 Days Later) and American Michelle Borth (Hawaii Five-0).

Koteas hails from the Montreal neighborhood of Outremont and studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York. Over the years, he has established a reputation as a quirky character actor who is best known for playing memorable oddballs, outsiders and villains in such films as The Prophecy (a spooky priest turned detective), Fallen (a killer who sings “Time Is on My Side” as he walks to the gas chamber), David Cronenberg’s Crash (in which he costarred with Unger, as a man turned on by carnage) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (a vigilante).

Combat Hospital is something of a departure for him, in that he’s playing a bona fide hero, Col. Marks, the fictional Canadian commandant of the hospital.

“Somebody who is working for something bigger than themselves, I find that heroic,” he says. “[Marks] is a guy who has been in the army and the medical profession for 25 years. He’s got a family and a couple of children back home.

“I think he’s fair and he’s firm when he needs to be. He knows how to work the military system, to get things done. I think he’s way, way smarter than I am. He’s like a sage.”

The show has a large cast, drawn from auditions in Toronto, Vancouver, Los Angeles and London, says executive producer and showrunner Daniel Petrie Jr. Koteas — with his Canadian citizenship and high profile in the United States — seemed like a natural for the role of commander, but the producers weren’t sure they could hire him until the cameras were ready to roll.

“We were on a real roller coaster,” Petrie says. “ABC wanted the show for the summer, whereas Global had anticipated it for the fall. And that meant we had two months less prep time than we would have ordinarily had. So it was very much a case of racing to get the show ready, to get it cast.

“Elias was always in our mind, if we could get him and we could afford him. But that didn’t become clear until the last minute. He’s one of the great actors of our time. He’s tremendously fun to watch.”

Combat Hospital is a ground-beaker in that it may be the first time a TV show has had extensive cooperation from both the Canadian and U.S. armed forces, Petrie says. Along with locations in Morocco, some of the exterior shots were filmed at a U.S. Air Force base in Riverside, Calif., and the producers and writers had access to a battalion of Canadian veterans of the Role 3 hospital.

“There was a tremendous amount of research, and we had tremendous access to the people who served, from people who went in as medical technicians to set up the operating rooms, to the commanders and the surgeon general of the Canadian Forces — at all levels —nurses, medical technicians, doctors,” he says. “And they were extraordinarily helpful in giving us information and sharing with us the incongruities and strange and bizarre things that would happen.”

The series doesn’t dwell on the politics of the Afghan war, but it doesn’t shy away from the realities either, Petrie says. For example, one episode deals with female doctors going out into the community to see women who don’t dare go to the base for care.

“One of the reasons we wanted to set it in 2006 is that it gives us a little bit of historical distance from the events,” he says. “But it’s not very much. When we show our doctors and nurses blowing off steam, or relaxing, we also want to show how incredibly dedicated they are. That is the central truth of these people. And that’s the kind of care and dedication that wounded service people and civilians, and the Taliban, too, benefited from at the Role 3 hospital.

“Given everything the people at the Role 3 medical unit did, it’s an honor to be working on this show. And we all feel it.”

Combat Hospital premieres tonight on ABC at 10pm ET.

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© 2011 Sienna Films Productions ICC Inc. Credit: Kerry Hayes

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