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'Rectify' creator Ray McKinnon on his beautiful, contemplative Sundance series
A drama about a Death Row prisoner released into a world he no longer feels a part of
But as someone who’s mostly written movies — whether features or the short film that won the Oscar — what's it been like to write TV? You're now writing this story that gets to play out over many hours and you get to really explore kind of the minutiae of what Daniel's going through.
Ray McKinnon: It's hard, man. It's hard work. It strains the brain every day. You have to really be focused every day. But it's the most beautiful grind. It's the hardest I've ever worked in my life, and it's like pushing the most unique rock up the hill every day but then it comes back down and you push it up again. Television has a voracious appetite. So I really admire the people that can keep up a kind of quality over time.
Did you map out all these episodes, the seven days, or was it more “I'm just going to write them one at a time and see what happens in the course of each day”?
Ray McKinnon: I probably would have done that but once the machine got involved, there was a thing called a writer's room. I hired three writers. And we sat there and we mapped out the rest of the season. It was a new way of working for me. I think it's a better show for it, ultimately.
Whether or not this one winds up continuing past this batch of episodes, do you feel having done this experience that writing another television series is something that would interest you, or is it too much?
Ray McKinnon: I don't know that answer. I really don't. But there's a story that I was thinking about before this came, because I was working with HBO on a deal. We had a deal and I was starting to think about this other story and I was starting to write a little bit on it. And then “Rectify” came back, and I do think about that story from time to time. I don't know what life has in store for me.
“Deadwood” has had this tremendous afterlife. David is even still trying to make those movies, whether or not they happen, and I know both Yost and Sutter seem to be having some sort of nuclear arm's race to see who can cast the most people from “Deadwood” in their shows. Is that something that gets brought up for you a lot, either professionally or just personally?
Ray McKinnon: That's very gratifying when “Deadwood” fans come up to me. Because I had the opportunity to do the kind of work that I always wanted to do. So I like that, and with “Sons of Anarchy,” what a great character I got to play. Kurt Sutter offered me that role, the first few days I had this take on it and some of the writers are like, “Wow.” I wasn't sure if one day they were going to say, “Ray, you know, it's just not going to work out.” Because of the take I had on it.
And then that was the take that stuck?
Ray McKinnon: Yes.That was my take. I didn't audition for it; I just showed up with this take on it, and when writers are looking at you like, “Wow, okay.” But then they embraced it and let me go forward, and Kurt and the staff wrote even more. I freakin' loved it, man. It was just the best ever. As far as people casting people out of “Deadwood,” just look at the actors that were in the show. I think they get cast 'cause they're really good actors, setting me aside, but if you look at all of those guys. I mean, W. Earl Brown and Sean Bridgers are in my show, not because they're from “Deadwood” but because they were the best people for the role. I saw other people. They're fucking great actors. Sean Bridgers, who you'll see a little more of as the season progresses, I think he's just another underappreciated actor and he gets a chance to shine a little bit in this show, and that just makes me very gratified. W. Earl is the goat man in episode five, which is pretty badass.
W was it like on the set that day when Al takes out the Reverend, because it's such this intense and yet tender scene.
Ray McKinnon: “Damn, I guess I won't be getting a paycheck next week. Am I still on payroll? I can't really talk about this. David, please. Let the fucking doctor operate on me.” No, I think because we knew we were doing something that was special and everybody gets emotionally attached to the story and the characters, and that's the crew as well as the cast. So we all felt that death in a way of somebody we cared about. So it was very, very emotional and we just wanted to do the story justice and the character justice. So when Al got his grimy paws around me… yeah, it was a great experience.
I'm always curious what the tangible impact is of winning an Oscar, especially one of the ones that you won. What came out of “The Accountant” experience and you having that award? Was there any sort of tangible impact on your career or no?
Ray McKinnon: No. Zero. It made it more of a curiosity, I think. I think it's a wonderful film and I'm really proud of the film and sometimes the hotlight of the Oscar can overshadow the film itself. Not that I'm against having it, but when all this happened I felt, “Shit, am I going to have to be a citizen now? What does a citizen do? I know I'm not going to like it.” So it was a bit of an adjustment. But (career-wise), I would prefer it as Best Supporting Actor. “Deadwood” did more for my career than (the Oscar), and all of the movies that I've made, finally I think has started to wear people down, more so than that award.
The first episode sets the template in terms of the look and tone and all that. What did you tell Keith (Gordon) that you wanted?
Ray McKinnon: A lot. We spent weeks together going detail by detail and then I was on the set every day. So there are calibration of these performances, you know. It's like, how much do we want to reveal of what Daniel's feeling at the beginning? There's just lots of choices to make.
And did you have any template in terms of anything that influenced you that you said, "I want it to look like this, or move like this"?
Ray McKinnon: I felt like it's going to be set in the south and that there are so many traps to fall in to when you tell a story about the south. There's so many archetypes that quickly become stereotypes and that's also in the way you shoot. I said I don't want us to suddenly be shooting like we've regressed to the 1950s, you know. I want it to feel in some ways classical but also modern in its style. We talked a lot about that with the wonderful DP, Paul Sommers, and I said I want to shoot what's real. I don't want to have a version of the south where there's just farms and beautiful gardens. I want to see the strip malls and I don't want to just see one set of strip malls, I want to see the evolution of strip malls to the big box stores. Whatever is real, we can shoot 'cause it's real.
Finally, as a boy who grew up watching “Dukes of Hazzard,” I have to ask about Sonny Shroyer (who has a supporting role). How did you land on him for that part? It's a very different kind of performance than I'm used to from him.
Ray McKinnon: Well, Sonny's from 20 miles from my hometown. So I've known him from “Dukes of Hazzard” to when he did “Enos” to when he did a wonderful performance in “I'll Fly Away” in the '80s. He played a very serious character, and I just thought it'd be great homage to his career. But I also felt like in “The Sopranos,” you see a lot of these actors who are very much of that world. And they may not go do Shakespeare in the Park tomorrow, but those guys bring an authenticity to that show. I wanted to bring in guys that did that for this, for this culture, and Sonny was one of the guys that's a real trip to have in there.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org