HitFix Interview: Mark Verheiden talks 'Falling Skies'
Writer-producer discusses aliens, resistance and Steven Spielberg
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It was a busy time for "Falling Skies" co-executive producer Mark Verheiden when I sat down with him last month in Beverly Hills.
The science fiction veteran had been linked to the TV portion of the ambitious plans to bring Stephen King's "Dark Tower" series to the big and small screen, though that project had just been put into possible turnaround by NBC-Universal (a month later, nothing has been settled). With that on Verheiden's plate, Remi Aubuchon had just been brought on as showrunner for a possible second season of "Falling Skies," which won't even have its series premiere until June 19.
Verheiden was already a late addition to "Falling Skies," coming onto the alien-flavored survival story after the Robert Rodat-scripted pilot was already shot. With credits including "Battlestar Galactica," the "Falling Skies" subject matter -- humans form a resistance against seemingly malevolent ETs -- was still familiar terrain for Verheiden.
Click through for our full interview, which touches on the drama's metaphorical value, his approach to the humans and aliens and the influence of executive producer Steven Spielberg...
HitFix: This was not a pilot you wrote. What brought you to this project?
Mark Verheiden: The business answer is, "I got a call." But it was actually kinda a funny process. They were looking for somebody to come on for the series and basically what they had was that Graham Yost was there as an executive producer and he'd started breaking stories with two other writers, but then they needed someone to come in and work with Graham and the other writers and then take over the show when Graham went back to "Justified." So I met with Graham, but before that, to see the pilot, I had to go to DreamWorks and go to this room where they lock the door and then you watch it and you walk out. It was a very sorta... like, "Wow, I'm seeing the Bin Laden Tapes!" or something.
But the bottom line was that I saw the pilot and I went, "Wow. I love this. I could do this. This would be fantastic." So I met with Graham and we were sorta off to the races.
HitFix: In that locked room, what about the pilot's sensibility hit you?
MV: Well, I love science fiction. I always have. A lot of my work has been in that world. But beyond that, there were two things I really hooked onto in the pilot: One was that it's not an invasion story, in that it's not about "Oh, they're here and they open fire" and it's all about the running and the screaming and stuff. That's fun, by the way, but we've seen that. There was a sense that the shock-and-awe had faded and now it's about, "OK, how do we get on with our lives? And how do we figure out how we live under this occupation and how are are we going to fight back?" So there was that part. But I also thought there was a sweetness and a hope to it that I really, really enjoyed. It's possible to get cynical or go real dark with this sort of story -- and this has got its heavier moments -- but I really responded to the idea of a family man with three boys trying to protect those kids -- one son's been kidnapped by the aliens, so there are his attempts to bring that boy back. And then there was also the sorta fun of "Well what do they want? What are they doing?" So we got to sit down and try to figure that out.
HitFix: And how deep into that question do we get in the first season?
MV: You get pretty... You get an interesting glimpse of what they're up to. I'll just say that. Yeah. I probably shouldn't say anymore. It comes after the ones that got sent out. That was a real tricky thing. The question is: They've taken over Earth. Some people are still alive and they're taking kids. What is that about? So I think that in the first season, there are some, if not answers, there are clues to what that's about.
HitFix: And with the treatment of the aliens themselves, how much were you sorta paying homage to traditional treatment of aliens and how much were you saying, "These are our aliens"?
MV: Well, they were designed for the pilot by Steven Spielberg working with the design crew and [pilot director] Carl Franklin and everybody who worked on the pilot, so I wasn't privy to sorta what the thinking was. What I've heard is that for the Skitters particularly, they were looking for something totally alien, scary alien. So this is not your "Day the Earth Stood Still" guy or someone you go up to and say, "You know, we should really have a talk about why you're here and maybe we can work something out." These are aliens who are alien and very difficult to understand. So that was the thinking for them. And then the Mechs are their sorta robotic soldiers that work for the Skitters. So the Skitters are the brain-power and then the Mechs are essentially the tanks.
HitFix: And from there, the balance of how much you show the aliens, how much of that was production budget reality and how much of that was narrative desire?
MV: I would say we showed them as much as we wanted, pretty much. Obviously, in any television show or in any movie or anything, you have production contingencies and exigencies, but TNT was fantastic on this show. I think we got more than we imagined when we started in terms of showing the aliens. They're very complicated to do, so the Skitter was done in a whole bunch of ways. We actually had a full-scale suit that had been made for a guy who was Skitter-esque, but didn't have all of the legs, or I think we did, but then you had to have puppeteers attached to the legs. Then we had totally CGI Skitters that we would use for things that were impossible. But it was a very complicated production -- I thinking our line-producer would say "nightmare" -- but it ended up working out really well.
HitFix: Regarding the human aspect of things, I've talked with Noah and Moon about this, but the pilot -- which you weren't involved with -- has these two characters and they're giving each other glances, not quite yearning glances, but...
MV: Who wouldn't yearn?
HitFix: That's true, but in the next few episodes that I've seen, that's not the direction the show goes. It doesn't go down that easy path.
MV: Right. Here's the thing: When we talked about the series itself, to understand those characters, Noah has lost his wife and Moon has lost her husband and children. These are people who have gone through severe trauma and they're damaged people. It felt that it would take some time for that relationship to gel, if it gels at all. As the show goes on, it's clear that they have affection for one another, but they're both still holding onto things that happened in the invasion that are difficult to put behind them. Moon especially I think. Tom Mason, Noah's character, he still has his sons, but Moon has really lost her entire family and that's a difficult thing to overcome. We wanted to be honest to those emotions.
HitFix: Were there pressures from anyone to push things in that direction?
MV: I have to tell you, TNT has been absolutely fantastic. They were supportive of what we did and where we wanted to go.
HitFix: That just seems like the kind of thing a network would want to have in its teaser reels, that clip of the two pretty people kissing.
MV: Isn't there one? I think there might be one. Look, our hope, obviously, with "Falling Skies," is that it goes for many, many seasons and that we can explore this world in-depth. So I think the other thing, not just talking about those emotional relationships, but about the slow evolution of what we know about the Skitters and Mechs and the alien plan, is it's a learning curve for our characters, so it's a learning curve for the audience. Our guys are totally cut off. They have no communications, not really much interactions with other units except what they get through runners, so what they learn about the aliens has to be sorta first-hand. So we're learning along with them as the show progresses. It's not about stretching it out. It's really about, "What *would* you do if you finally have formed a resistance and now you need to figure out how you can fight back against this insane force?"
HitFix: The pilot script has a lot of backward-looking parallels to it, politically, historically. But then there's a little less of that going forward. How would you say "Falling Skies" functions as allegory or metaphor or whatever? What's the message at the bottom?
MV: Well, clearly... An early title for the show, a title I think Bob Rodat had, was "Concord." That obviously has a double-meaning. So the fact that it was set in Boston and that's where the Revolutionary War had many skirmishes and the founding of our country and all of those sort of things, that's definitely one of the allegories. A rag-tag resistance pulled together once before and fought an incredibly powerful foe in the British and won and that's essentially what we're going to have to do again here. Tom Mason, obviously, as a history professor and an expert in the Revolutionary War draws on those lessons throughout the show. He does less as we get into it, just because he's sorta more practical, like, "OK, this an interesting, relevant moment to the Revolutionary War... But there's a Skitter trying to kill me! So... maybe I won't talk about that for now." It's a huge part of his character, though. What's fun about him is that he brings... Noah is fantastic and he brings this incredible humanity and intelligence to that part. Noah's a family man and his kids were out on set sometimes and you can just see the radiant love he has for those kids and you can see that with his kids on the show. He was great.
HitFix: At Wonder-Con last month, you gave Noah credit for at least one key piece of improv -- the pilot's "Retreat, regroup, return, revenge" mantra -- and I was just talking with him and he talked about how involved he wanted to be behind-the-scenes. What is it like having the actor at the top of the call sheet also having his fingers in the other pies?
MV: What's funny is that people think that's a problem sometimes, but he's playing Tom Mason. He knows Tom Mason better than anybody on Earth. We can point directions, but Noah and Moon and Drew [Roy] and Will [Patton], they know those characters. They live with with. They have to make them real on screen. It was an incredibly respectful relationship with everybody, so there's nothing either wrong with that, or like it never happens. It happens all the time. In that case, the improv I mentioned, it was a reshoot and we were trying to come up with a good line and so I was like, "I dunno... How about this? Or how about..." and he said, "How about this?" And I'm like, "Good. My job is done. I can go home now." I didn't. But basically, the other thing is that good ideas are good ideas. I don't care who brings them up. I'm not precious about that whatsoever. I thought it was a really fun line, a good button to that scene, so I was glad that he'd been thinking about it.
HitFix: And the other big guy who's name is on the poster is Steven Spielberg. What actually is/was his involvement?
MV: Well, he was obviously very involved in the pilot, so I wasn't there. He was involved with casting, the design of the Mechs, the design of the Skitters, the feel of the show, working with Robert Rodat. Then for the series, as we got into the practical design of doing Skitters and Mechs every week, there were some subtle things we talked about on how to change that. He was involved in the stories, vetting the stories. So he was very involved and in a fantastic way. I remember we had a call once and my co-co-executive producer Greg Beeman, who I worked with on "Heroes" and "Smallville" so we go way back, Steven Spielberg was talking about a Mech foot-fall, what it should look like and sound like, and so we finished and Greg, he goes "Wow. It's like having a master-class in filmmaking and we've been doing this for a while." It's just his attention to detail, which is astonishing. Obviously, if you can have a world-class person like Spielberg guiding your show, you're in great shape.
HitFix: I feel like every episode, or maybe nearly every episode, ends not with a piece of action or a piece of alien drama, but with a smaller human moment, something to remind viewers of what's being fought for. Was that an intentional piece of the architecture of the show?
MV: Hmmm... That may have been how they ended up when we cut them. I don't recall actually sitting down and saying that we wanted to end on one moment or another, per se. We made an attempt, I think, to have each episode feel like you've learned something in the episode, so if you'd come into the show in this episode, you'd go, "OK, that's the one about... Now I understand this" or "Now I understand that." I don't think we had any sort of formulation where we said, "I want to end on this." And we don't always, because the last three end on... very different notes. It may have just been how they ended up cutting them together.
HitFix: There have been reports that a second season order could be very soon in coming. You're a fairly busy man. What would your involvement be in a second season?
MV: It's good to be busy. You know, as of this minute today, I don't know. I love this show. It's one of those Cadillac problems. I love this show. There's absolutely no issue between me and the show. I just don't know yet. So we'll see. The show has to be picked up, so this is all for TNT to answer. Look, my bottom line is I love this show and I had a great time working on it and it's great to be busy.
HitFix: How much have you guys sketched out the basics for a second season?
MV: There are ideas. The thing about it is it's like all shows. You get in the room and we start figuring out where you want to go. Bob Rodat has sorta a long-term plan that he's talked about, but you find when you actually sit down... There are some things in the series that came up just when we were sitting there thinking about it. That's been true on every show I've been on, actually -- "Battlestar," "Smallville," all of them -- is that you have a direction and you know where you want to go.
I could give you my speech on how to write an episode: You're in LA and you want to get to Seattle. So you go can up the I-5 or you can go down the coast or you can go to New York first and then come back. But ultimately, you're going to get to Seattle. The fun of the writers' room is figuring out the stops along the way, figuring out which way-stations you want to go to, what's interesting to you. And then other thing when you do a show is you start seeing people on-screen and you go, "Wow, that is really fun" or "Oooh, that's really cool" or "That's not so cool." The evolution of a show is always like you have a path -- and we definitely have path for this -- and then when you get in the room with writers, you figure out the details. But that's true of every show. I don't know any other one, I'm sure there are, where they come in with giant 10-pound Bibles...
HitFix: And what are you hearing about where "Dark Tower" is at this moment?
MV: Well, that's a good question. You know, it's being discussed. I really don't feel comfortable talking much about it. It's a very cool project with very cool people and we'll see what happens.
"Falling Skies" premieres on TNT at 9 p.m. on Sunday, June 19.
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