Welcome to ShoHawk’s page for our exciting project, in-development, Bison Island.
Stay tuned to this page for ongoing updates and information on our series in-the-making, and background on Bison Island’s origins.
ORIGINS OF BISON ISLAND: NOTES FROM CHRISTOPHER SAKR
Bison Island’s story came to me when I first saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura.
What began as a modern adaptation morphed when I wondered what may happen if the missing woman returned home?
We’ve always loved classic Horror Films. I really think something’s been lost in the genre over the years. I love some modern horror, but when I look at the films we mentioned in our pitch, or films like The Exorcist, The Omen, and more recently The Ring, I see an attention to character and tension that’s missing in most modern horror stories.
This interest in the classic roots of a popular modern genre developed Bison Island’s story even further, and gave life to the question of the woman’s return.
While writing the story as a feature script, I simultaneously grew interested in the history of Pioneers to the Northwestern United States. Growing up in Oregon, that history was exposed to Michael and I at a young age, but much of it went forgotten.
The horror element for the historical piece came together when Michael showed me this frightening image of a shell-shocked WWI soldier. It blueprinted the concept of the pioneer settlement descending into madness, and the imagery we’d use to display that decay.
The island I envisioned for Bison was one that captivated me since high school: Government Island, nestled on the Columbia River between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. From the Portland side, it can be seen from an area called Marine Drive.
I frequented Marine Drive as a teenager, and still do to this day. It’s a calm place to watch planes come and go from the Portland Airport, while relaxing by the river. The island though has always seemed a bit haunting. It’s deceivingly massive and the thick trees lining it obstruct any view of what’s inside.
Incidentally, as I researched Pioneer times, I learned Government Island has its own pioneer history, with remnants of a small settlement somewhere on its surface. It seemed meant to be.
As the story evolved in feature format, I felt limited by the form: I wanted to spend time with these characters on their own, which lent itself more readily to an episodic series.
Over time, I’ve embarked upon other projects, but this one has always been present. It’s been one that I’ve known I’d get to when the time was right, and now is that time.
Ultimately Bison Island is a smaller part of a bigger mythology, one that we’d love to explore in further seasons, stories, time periods, and with new characters all together. The island is the main character—the antagonist and the catalyst to drama that could occur throughout human existence. But, for now, we want to focus on this first story. The original tale that began our obsession with Bison Island.
When I first saw Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, I was completely taken by its masterful opening:
I love stylized preludes that give a sense of history, defined by a unique look that’s seperate from the remainder of the story. When I wrote the short story below and adapted it to screenplay format, that was my ultimate vision for how it would fit into the final series. It would occupy its own space, then the story would commence.
Much like the opening of The Leftovers, Season 2, Bison Island’s opening will serve to create a mood or feeling surrounding the island, not to tell a related story.
The Leftovers changed everything. It showed some new and boundless possibilities for television and episodic content, and greatly influenced our approach to developing Bison Island. It does a beautiful job at using a catalyst event to tell human stories.
With all the horror and scares outlined for Bison, this is ultimately a story about people with unique traits and struggles, dealing with an unexplainable situation. After years of writing, rewriting, and development, I know these characters well and know how to make them tick.
Aside from the opening history on Bison Island—to be captured in aged-looking black and white—the remainder of the series will be visually modeled off all those horror classics.
I’m a huge fan of something I don’t often see in today’s cinema: a realistic color palette.
When lighting scenes, John Cassavetes used to say,
“I want to feel like I can touch the skin.”
That’s the look we’re going for: textured in a familiar way. Tonel use of shadows, without over-manipulation of tone. More Kubrick or Jonathan Glazer than George Miller or David Fincher.
Here are a few reference images from other films that resonate with Bison Island’s sensibility:
Here is my original story that sparked the Bison Island saga, and will be the first episode of the series.
BISON ISLAND 1855-1857
Bison Island’s name was crowned in the most infant stages of the industrial revolution. The formerly nameless island had previously been explored, but to no great conclusions; those early conquistadors often found the place had remained uninhabited, with exception of a few settlers in the mid 19th Century, and for less than one year. Few had been conclusive as to why they had left. In spite of its rich vegetation, atypical prominence of animal life, and flat surface, it had remained vacant.
By 1919, Dr. Martin Romkin had developed a formidable reputation at the forefront of disease etymology. Like many of his contemporaries his motivation was not political, but to alleviate the world of the deadly antibodies plaguing developing society. Having lost his Mother to the great outbreak of 1889, Dr. Romkin’s attention had been acutely focused on Tuberculosis. Ironically his discoveries—while extensive and invaluable—would prove minimally assistive, as a yet undefined form of Tuberculosis too would take him in 1948.
Dr. Romkin’s maps of TB in the United States lead him through an extensive series of journals kept by early pioneers of the Oregon Trail. Of specific interest were the journals of travelers between Ohio and Southern Washington Territory. This area did not contain the most outbreaks, but the most rapidly spreading cases in the country’s history. Romkin aimed to identify whether the spreads were due to the Pioneers’ compromised immune systems, drastic change in bacteria between the Mid and Northwest, or some combination therein. Ever the mathematician, and an avid chess player, Romkin quickly drew a parallel between one journal’s mention of “frazzled new travelers just off a boat from the Columbia River,” and an island only briefly inhabited during that same year. In his own journal, Romkin noted: “I was compelled to believe that there could be a greater connection, yet undiscovered. And upon my earliest visit, it became clear that these grounds helmed a wicked past. One who’s smell rose from the earth at my feet.”
This description was no linguistic accident. Just below the topsoil, near the island’s center, Romkin discovered thirty-six skeletal remains, of varying sizes. “I knew within moments of discovering the first site that I had stumbled upon the remnants of this vicious disease,” he later wrote. “There was something familiar in these skulls, and in the contortions of the bodies. I am no stranger to this black-hand and here, before my eyes, was its imprint.”
Within a week, Romkin and his aids would excavate thirteen more graves, a series of tattered structures, tools, furniture, and clothing. Most valuable among the crew’s findings was a journal, kept by a twelve year-old boy, T.C. Collins. The few scrawls within twenty-five of the fifty pages noted Collins had been one of the last survivors on the island. He wrote extensively about the disease’s toll on the community (an estimated 87 individuals), as well as the speed with which the healthy members evacuated to the river. These evacuees included Collins’ mother and brother, after discovering young T.C. had been fishing on the other side of the island, when his sickly father burst into the coughing fit that ended his life. “Maw lef wif Jesse on a bote I don no wer thay gon but thay lef me lon heer wit da otherz hoo luk lik day gowing too dy soon.” Further notes explained that those with whom T.C. was left slowly withered. In many cases, such immense pain was endured that they began executing themselves and one another—upon request—using cropping tools, knives, rocks, and in some cases, their bare hands.
The conclusion that this particular settlement had suffered a TB outbreak came from young Collins’ use of a term frequently invoked connoting symptoms of TB. One which T.C. likely heard others use to describe the symptoms and their spread. On page six, and the final page 25, Collins referred to the affliction as “The Vampiyr disease.” Spelling errors aside, (T.C.’s language proved he’d had an atypically strong education for his time and place) his intention was clear.
The journal stopped somewhat abruptly, leaving Romkin unsure who the last living person on the island had been, but having little doubt that no one else left after the first run of boats. He finally concluded the island marked the single most rapid spread of Tuberculosis in the Nation’s History. Most interestingly, though, he found no origin. While the journal’s descriptions were clear that the community suffered TB (In some form), there were no visible points of access; the island had no indigenous livestock, or animal life that had been known to carry such a strand. Romkin’s report ended rather ambiguously: “It is as though the disease materialized from the land, swept through at will, then disappeared. It never reared its head upon our stay, though, with every step one could feel its presence.”
Shortly after returning to the Nation’s Capital, Romkin was to deliver his findings, to a State selected Committee on Biological Innovation (later named the Center for Disease Control, CDC). Per Government intervention, the Committee asked that he assist in name selection for the newly documented island. He felt that a place of such horror should remain unnamed and unvisited, an ideal not met with great enthusiasm. Romkin was asked to please submit a name, and soon requested the island be deemed T.C. Collins’ Island. Upon inquiry as to the name’s origins, Romkin told the tragic tail laid out in the boy’s journal, to the Committee’s verdict that such a story would cast too dark a shadow on the grounds. They demanded he re-consider, or his works may be left un-published. One week later, Romkin submitted the name Bison Island. The Committee probed as to whether Bison were indigenous to the area, none of them having ever visited the Northwest? Romkin replied, “A bit further East. But upon consideration, the Island, to me, seems so strong and still. Unflinching.”
While in session one week later, the Committee received a letter. Within the envelope was a small white sheet of paper housing an older, brownish page. On the white paper, the ink read: “A little more on young T.C. Collins. Signed, Dr. Martin Romkin.” The brownish sheet was later revealed to be the last page of T.C. Collins’ journal. It was read aloud by the head of the Committee:
“Befor mama tuke jesse awai I hurd her say papa got kild off by that vampiyr dizeez and evreebudy heer seemz like thay got it to. even me todaee. i think i got that vampiyr dizeez frum mi old man and i wish itd gust kil me off so i don’t hav to see this no mor. maybee the vampiyrz can all bee gawn tomoro and I can hav qwiet. no more screemin in the nite time. Ill tel yoo if thay are gawn tomoro.”