Interview: 'Awake' producers Kyle Killen & Howard Gordon
Can they make the NBC drama about a cop living in two realities work long-term?
We're less than a week away from Thursday night's premiere(*) of NBC's "Awake," which was far and away the best broadcast TV pilot I watched for this season. It conveniently brings together creator Kyle Killen, who was responsible for the best broadcast TV pilot I saw last season in FOX's "Lone Star" (which was canceled after two abysmally-rated episodes), and producer Howard Gordon, who co-created the best new cable show I watched this season in Showtime's "Homeland."
(*) The broadcast TV premiere, that is. The "Awake" pilot has been available online and On Demand since last week.
"Awake" stars Jason Isaacs as LA cop Mike Britten, who's in a car accident with wife Hannah (Laura Allen) and son Rex (Dylan Minnette) and begins experiencing a weird double life, where half the time he's in a reality where Hannah survived and Rex died, and when he closes his eyes to go to sleep in that world, he wakes up in a reality where the opposite is true.
The show does its best to differentiate between the two worlds, giving each reality its own color scheme (red for Hannah, green for Rex), its own psychiatrist for Britten to discuss his problem (B.D. Wong for Hannah, Cherry Jones for Rex), and its own detective partner (Wilmer Valderama for Hannah, Steve Harris for Rex). But even with that, it's not what I would call easy viewing — you're not going to confuse it with one of the "NCIS" shows — and there have been many questions about how long the show can sustain the concept. At one point, Killen and Gordon actually shut down production for a while so they could focus on that exact issue.
(For what it's worth, I've seen three episodes past the pilot now, and while there are bumps, they mostly make it work. I'll have more to say in a review closer to the premiere.)
Back when I was at press tour (when I had only seen the pilot), I sat down with Killen and Gordon to discuss the genesis of their partnership, why Killen seems drawn to stories about men living double lives, what they accomplished during that production shut-down, and, towards the end, the reality-warping finale of "St. Elsewhere," among many other topics.
I guess the first question is for Howard. Did you see "Lone Star?"
Howard Gordon: Of course. Chris [Keyser] and Amy [Lippman], who worked with Kyle on "Lone Star," are old, old friends, the operative word being "old." No, I guess "friend" is the operative word. But I worked with them on "Sisters." They came and pitched to me on "Beauty and the Beast" when Chris graduated from law school, so I've known them forever. So I was aware of it even in the embryonic stages.
Okay, so what did you think of it when you saw it?
Howard Gordon: I thought it was really, really smart and it was great. I loved it, and I was as stunned as everyone was by what happened.
Well I remember when it went down. The things you (Kyle) did on Twitter and on your blog. Among the more interesting reactions I've seen from a show runner.
Howard Gordon: What was it? What did you say? I didn't follow it.
Kyle Killen: I think I waged a two-day, highly unsuccessful Twitter and blog campaign to save the show. Yeah, you could see clearly that in fact we're on a different series now.
Howard Gordon: You got a second episode out of it.
Kyle Killen: I think we may have done that. We may have gotten an episode two.
So you had never done the show before. You do this. Everybody loves the pilot but then numbers were what the numbers were and [after] two weeks you're gone. You said today you're feeling bullish about the TV business. At that time what were you feeling?
Kyle Killen: I think I was prepared. Even at the TCAs, I said I think this will be a spectacular hit or a spectacular failure and it did not disappoint in the latter category. So I think we all knew we were taking a big risk. I don't know that we knew we would go down quite that way and quite that fast, but there was a part of you that knew this will either work or it won't, and it didn't, so it wasn't out of the blue.
While these are two different shows, there is the duality of it and the man with two lives. What is it about that concept that speaks to you that has found its way into some scripts?
Kyle Killen: I don't know. I think everybody looks at their life as a series of forks in the road, where they chose to go one way or the other and you can't help but wonder [what would have happened if you] had you gone the other. I like characters who try to go down both at the same time. I think it's a dilemma that weirdly we can all relate to even though none of us actually gets to do it.
And Howard, at what stage did you come into this?
Howard Gordon: I actually stole Kyle's script off of an executive's desk. I just took it as I was going to New York and I read it. I read it on the plane. I called my wife and I said I read this amazing pilot. Now I wasn't even involved. It was a first draft. I plucked it off Michael Thorin's desk unbeknownst to Michael, and I just loved it. I thought it was actually just the most ingenious pilot. I kind of had the same feeling I had when I read "X-Files" and I had that kind of feeling that this is really something new. It really was about something important and something that I related to and I connected to it. I had a competing pilot at NBC at the time, in fact, and when it got ordered I was lucky enough to get asked and so I worked with Kyle, and with Jeff. We worked on it together and produced the pilot together and that was my moment.
So when the two of you got together what were the things that you said to him or that you heard from him? How much did the script change as a result of the collaboration?
Kyle Killen: Well I think Howard has a much more robust body of experience in the procedural parts of television and how cops move and talk and how those things happen. I tend to be in the soapier, fluffier, emotional side — which is not to say Howard doesn't have the brilliant ideas. He's a very fluffy fellow, but I think there were a lot of things on that side that he helped shore up and really brought an edge to.
Howard, from your recollection, what were the things you told Kyle when you came on to work on it?
Howard Gordon: I believe "make it shorter" was what I said, but then I said-
Kyle Killen: But that note continues.
Howard Gordon: And then when he didn't. Honestly, what was interesting about it was really coming to an understanding between ourselves. What does it mean? How does this work? I can't remember. I had three things I wrote down. I can't remember them, but I think they still remain. I don't think it's entirely understood right now, oddly enough, that Hannah doesn't understand that Britten can't distinguish the dreams from reality. So I think there are some things that still require deep understanding. This is actually something that wasn't entirely clear in that early draft of the pilot. I think the therapeutic context was something that we continue to work on. The two therapists were something that were a Greek chorus, but what are the dramatics? Why are they there? What are they doing? What's the condition? What happened to him that night?
What's interesting [that] I found in re-watching the pilot again yesterday is [that] it's not really a premise pilot. He's already been experiencing [it for] a while. He's already gone through the stuff with his wife where he told her and she rejected it. You just kind of dive head on into the process.
Kyle Killen: "Lone Star" had a very premise pilot. It wasn't until the closing frame that you understood what his dilemma was going to be going forward, so I set myself the challenge of [being] allowed to have a premise teaser, but after that it needed to be what the show was going to be on a weekly basis. I tried to explain it to you all in the first ten minutes. That was the goal that I set.
And of course obviously the shrinks help with exposition, but I'd be curious to see what kind of interaction [they'll have]. Obviously they're never going to physically interact, but what sort of interaction the two characters will have in terms of things that Britten is passing on from one to the other. If he doesn't really follow up on the constitution thing with B.D. Wong in the pilot, will there be that sort of thing going forward?
Kyle Killen: Yeah, I think they're always rattling -- through him -- the other person's cage and they're providing problems that the other ends up inadvertently having to solve. Again they always see that as "you took something from here, you went away, you fought your way around it." It's an endless argument between themselves and him. So they sort of interact, but we found interesting ways because his dilemma blends itself to things [in ways] that are almost surreal. I think we're looking for interesting ways to get them out and into the world and part of his life.
In the pilot, the police work is pretty symmetrical. The two cases feed into each other, and one helps with the other. You were talking before about how once you played it out and started tweaking things. Might there be episodes where we're spending a lot more time in one [reality] than the other?
Howard Gordon: Yeah, I think Kyle really meticulously and wisely structured this thing so that there was no doubt that you could argue that one was real and the other [wasn't]. The dream ebbs and flows depending on what story and what emotional content we need to anchor Britten to. So sometimes there is a story in one world that's really kind of personal and slender, and [it's] weighted very heavily procedurally on the other side.
So it won't just be every week that one crime helped him solved the other crime, this crime helped him solve that.
Howard Gordon: Sometimes it is and sometimes it's a small little criminal thing that actually informs a much larger one in the other world.
The look of it is gorgeous in the way that the two realities are color coded, but in terms of deciding how different you wanted the realities to be, Steve Harris is relatively prominent in both of them even though he's his partner in one of them. How do you decide how different you wanted things to be beyond one is alive and one is not?
Kyle Killen: I think Steve is only prominent in both for the first half of the pilot. We did find that that was something that had the potential to confuse people, so we've really delineated them. We wanted them to feel fairly separate. We want you to feel his emotional connection to both, but what we don't want is for you to be confused about where you are or what's going on. So we really tried to do everything we could to help the audience understand [where they are] in subsequent episodes.
So in the future when he's in the son reality you're not going to see as much Wilmer and not as much Steve in the other?
Kyle Killen: Right. Yeah, you will begin to see a triad of Steve [Harris], Cherry [Jones], his son and you will know any time you see one of them you're over here and Wilmer [Valderrama], Laura and B.D. [Wong] is the other side.
Howard Gordon: And when you see the crossovers it will be significant, like when you see Wilmer it will be to underscore a point.
The one preponderant reaction I heard from people after they watched the pilot is, "God damn, this is a really good pilot. How is this a series?" How much did that play into you guys taking that break? What was the inciting incident that led you to say, "All right, we need to pause for a little bit and talk about it"?
Howard Gordon: Can I say one thing that was interesting? Somebody asked me right afterward how is it going to be when he cheats on his wife, so we didn't know the sort of emotional metrics of this show. We thought we would accelerate, for instance, the tennis instructor Tara. It illustrates only one point, one part of the mosaic. We said it's a dream, it's a soap opera, and that's kind of the "Lone Star" dilemma. It was an emotionally compromising and a morally compromising thing. Because he accepts both realities. He really can't have an affair in good conscience with Tara, and we had escalated that in a way and we said no, we have to slow that down and that doesn't work. So that's an example of us feeling our way through it. It's about understanding what's the heft of the show. What is Britten's emotional fulcrum in each show and how do the two speak to each other across the worlds? How do you add it up so it's not just this A and B, A, B, A, B?
So what stage were you at in production when you took that break? How many scripts had been written? How many episodes had been shot?
Kyle Killen: We were writing five, but I mean what it really is, is that you're writing as you're finally beginning to see the cuts come in and Howard jokingly says he told me to keep it shorter, but really you started to see that there is a price for having a 60 page script that you feel like nails it when you get to a 43 minute cut and it became about figuring out what is the show can be in 43 minutes, not 60 pages and making sure that it had all the right mix of things. And I think going forward we looked at what he had done and we wanted to make sure that the things that we did really well and the things that really worked were what we were baking into the next batch of episodes that we were heading into.
With "Homeland," that's a show that has no choice but to evolve. Things have to keep changing. And here Britten basically declares he would be perfectly happy if this is his life for the rest of his life. Realistically how long do you think the show could run with this as the status quo? Could this be a five year status quo just as this?
Kyle Killen: I think anytime someone declares that they could be happy with something being like it is then you immediately change those things and I think that his sense that "I can handle having my wife over here and my son over there" is one thing when it's days, weeks, months after the accident. It's another as those lives start to grow and evolve and take on their own problems and become very, very different entities and I think that really, for me, is the show and that seems actually like it has a lot of room to breathe and live without feeling like it's the same. You will constantly see an evolution of problems that remain based on this one central conceit as opposed to having to come up with some other new conceit.
But it's not like "Lost," where you have to explain what the island is by a certain point. You know what I'm saying?
Kyle Killen: Yeah, you're saying it is or it isn't.
No, I'm curious if you think that it is.
Kyle Killen: I don't. I actually don't think it's a show about a question. It's a show about a man with two lives and as long as those two lives are super interesting, as long as the cases that he takes every week are interesting, I think you can watch that until Jason quits.
Talk to me a little bit more about the shrinks and how you decided that you wanted the one in the reality with his wife to be the aggressive one and the one in the reality with his son to be a little bit more nurturing and how you shaped B.D. and Cherry's characters.
Kyle Killen: It's interesting. Cherry's character was originally written to be a 28 year-old, fresh out of grad school person, and when you get Jason and put 28 year-old actresses with him, who are going to tell him how it is, you find that that doesn't really track. Cherry was someone that Howard had worked with and brought in because she has that gravity, and what she also has is the life that you would get from a 28 year-old. So we wrote what the actors were, not what the original script or idea was.
Howard, going back to "X-Files," you worked on a lot of shows that had looked really impressive, especially given TV schedule, budget and all of that. This is a great looking pilot; how much is the look of that maintained throughout the show and what things did you want there to be in the aesthetic when you were working with the director on it?
Howard Gordon: David Slade, who directed the pilot, did a terrific job of creating the vocabulary both in terms of the color and the graphic style of the show and we're pretty faithful to it. Jeffrey Reiner, who is our directing producer, absolutely extended that concept. We want you to tune in [while] you're switching channels and you'll say, oh that's "Awake." I think you will.
This is something I've noticed again going back to "X-Files." That was a show that was -
Howard Gordon: Very cinematic.
Yeah, cinematic and you were able to be cinematic every week, not just the pilot.
Howard Gordon: Yes and I would say that we're really striving to do that.
What did you learn there that you've been able to carry throughout "24" and all these others?
Howard Gordon: Not a thing apparently. Seriously, every show has its own alchemy. Everything has its own thing that's beyond anybody's individual wisdom or ability.
But it does seem like all you guys who came out of that, even though you're writers, have that sort of visual flair. Look at "Breaking Bad" and what Vince Gilligan does with that.
Howard Gordon: Even when he was a film student he had this amazing visual vernacular. I hope the show has a style. We talked about ways to shorthand. My biggest thing was clarity, really trying to make sure we understood the journey that we were on with Britten more than, let's make this the coolest-looking show in the universe because I really believe that at the end of the day you're really following the story of a person.
You will have all 13 in the can likely before you go on. Right?
Howard Gordon: Close.
Kyle Killen: They'll certainly be written.
So you're not going to know by the time you finish up whether this will be a show that will continue for a second season. Is there going to be anything done with the final episode, like an alternate take in which you would say, "all right this is what's actually going on"?
Kyle Killen: The season itself has a mystery that he ultimately is pursuing. So either way there is a conclusive element to that.
The mystery he's pursuing as a cop or the mystery he's pursuing in terms of what's going on with the two realities?
Kyle Killen: Well, what he's really pursuing is what happened to him that night and as he gets towards the end of the season that question becomes more urgent to be answered and he really has to look back at those events that he's avoided. So I think you're going to get an answer to that and if that's all there was then hopefully that answer would be satisfying.
Howard Gordon: We may as well shoot it.
Kyle Killen: Oh, it was you.
It's not like you're gonna shoot the "Twin Peaks" thing where 20 years later Dale Cooper is in the basement with the dwarf talking backwards, explaining what happens.
Kyle Killen: Actually we're going to shoot exactly that and just have it not make any sense.
Howard Gordon: Or we'll add -- remember this was before Kyle's time -- remember "St. Elsewhere," the end?
Howard Gordon: Yeah, the snow globe, it's all in [the kid's head].
Either the greatest ending ever or the biggest "fuck you" ever.
Howard Gordon: I didn't like it.
You didn't like it?
Howard Gordon: I didn't.
I liked it because I came to the show after it had already aired so I wasn't someone who had spent six years watching it every week.
Howard Gordon: I was someone who had been invested in it.
Kyle Killen: So the world was -
Howard Gordon: Was the fantasy of a guy who was the chief of staff who wasn't a doctor but a plumber or something.
The main character has an autistic son and it's revealed that the autistic son is having a fantasy about the hospital and in reality his father doesn't even work at a hospital. He's a construction worker. It's all in a snow globe and the final shot is him putting the snow globe on top of the TV.
Howard Gordon: It doesn't play any better than that sounds.
Kyle Killen: I don't know. For some reason it sounds okay. I kind of like it.
There's a big philosophical divide here.
Kyle Killen: That's right. Where do you come down on "St. Elsewhere?"
Howard Gordon: You got to see it.
Yeah, you got to see it.
Howard Gordon: Snow globes, okay, it's a snow globe in Rex's-
So if comes down to snow globe or no snow globe, who gets the winning vote here?
Howard Gordon: Kyle.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com