Lake Cowichan might not feel like Hollywood, but last week the area was treated to some glitz and glamour as the Canadian-made television series Dark Waters of Crime was shot on Vancouver Island.
The show is produced by B.C. company Red Letter Films, airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network Canada, and is also broadcasted in Canada by the Francophone company Canal D. Dark Waters boasts a similar concept to 1990s documentary reenactment series’ Rescue 911 and Unsolved Mysteries.
However, Dark Waters comes with a liquid twist.
“They’re all stories where water is a major accomplice and they’re all told from the point of view of the investigation, so every story starts with a murder,” said series producer, Sylvie Peltier.
Peltier, 51, has been in the film industry since 2000 and has produced 25 hours of aired TV footage.
A White Rock-based producer, Peltier is responsible for overseeing Dark Waters’ cast of roughly 40 actors and 45 film crew.
“It’s all from the point of view of the detectives that were involved in the story, how they found out about it and what they did to get the murderer,” she added.
Peltier said the role water plays in the murders being documented is what makes the series so intriguing.
“Water is very important because it destroys all evidence and makes the investigation that much more difficult,” she said. Not only does water muddle investigations, it also makes filming that much more difficult.
“We actually lost a camera which was soaked because its underwater housing failed,” she described.
In its fifth season, Dark Waters shoots three one-hour long episodes per season. The crew first interviews detectives involved in the cases the show is reenacting. Writers then plot out the script. Peltier stressed maintaining each case’s accuracy is important.
This season’s episodes documented crimes involving a lake, river and ocean. Peltier thought Cowichan Lake-area proved an ideal spot for filming.
“We like working here. The people are great and where else could we find ocean, river and lake within 30 minutes of each other?” Peltier said from the set.
Raymond Wear, a Honeymoon Bay resident, noticed Dark Waters’ film crew at Robertson River on Nov. 7 and decided to stick around to watch.
“We don’t get stuff like that here. It was interesting. It’s places that you know and places that you’ve grown up with so it’s kind of cool,” said the 55-year-old maintenance and security guard.
Wear was astounded at the film crew’s meticulous attention to detail and length of time it took to set up shots.
“On one scene they set up for a good hour-and-a-half just to shoot a 30-second scene,” he said.
Two of the fifth season’s reenactments involve a B.C. case. One tells the tragic story of young Heather Thomas, who was abducted by Shane Ertmoed from her Cloverdale home in 2000.
This portion of the episode was filmed in Gordon Bay Provincial Park.
Weeks after disappearing, her body was discovered in Alouette Lake. A synopsis of the case provided by Peltier indicated that Ertmoed strangled the 10-year-old before disposing of her body first in a nearby forest, and then into the lake.
Ertmoed was found guilty in 2002 thanks in part to work done by Dr. Ralph Matthews, a biological sciences professor at Simon Fraser University, who linked plant debris found in the victim’s hair to the residence of the perpetrator. Ertmoed is serving a maximum life sentence with no chance for parole until 2027.
Christian Stewart is a Victoria actor who plays Const. James Birtch in Dark Waters’ reenactment of a murder that happened in Ontario’s Carleton Place in 1994.
Stewart’s character is a veteran police officer in the small Ontario town. The case involved Gary Samuels and his wife, Barbara Lanthier, who overturned their pickup truck in a river near Carleton Place. Samuels was rescued, while Lanthier drowned.
Closely acquainted with the couple, Stewart’s character begins to investigate the accident, learning that the husband is responsible for murder in an attempt to commit insurance fraud. As a close friend of the accused, Stewart’s character is put in a tough position.
“I’m a conflicted cop because it’s my good friend. I know these people socially, so I’m upset as everybody else but I have to do my job as a police officer so I have to start investigating and ask what’s going on,” Stewart said.
The truck-in-the-water scene proved troublesome for Peltier and her crew.
“When filming at Robertson River, we needed to show an upside down truck in the river. We had to pay for an environmental impact study that led to the refusal to grant us a permit to film with a vehicle in the river. We ended up renting a pool to film this part,” said Peltier.
Dark Waters’ script is fairly loose and all lines are adlibbed by the show’s actors because their voices are not used in the broadcast version. Stewart thinks this adds an interesting dynamic.
“It’s kind of a fun part to play because there’s no real script so we have to act things out in context. As an actor I like that, because you don’t have to remember word-for-word script which is sometimes the toughest part of it.
“Sometimes I feel like that makes for more natural dialogue,” he added.
The episodes of Dark Waters shot in the Cowichan Lake-area are to air in November 2012 on Canal D. Some Vancouver Island cable-providers have Oprah Winfrey Network Canada and air Dark Waters regularly.