From Academy Award-winning writer Christopher McQuarrie and executive producers Heather McQuarrie and Remi Aubuchon, Persons Unknown is NBC’s one-hour mystery drama, in which a group of seven strangers must come together to solve the puzzle of their lives.
All of them have been taken from their families and have arrived in a deserted town with no recollection of how they got there, and they must rely on each other to get out. While being held hostage, the strangers are constantly watched by security cameras with no idea who or what is behind them, and every attempt to leave is thwarted by unforeseen circumstances. At every turn, these strangers are threatened physically, psychologically and emotionally.
Showrunner Remi Aubuchon recently talked exclusively to Collider about developing the 13-episode series, figuring out how to gradually reveal the show’s mysteries to viewers and what he loves about the sci-fi/mystery genre. He also promises that fans will be freaked out by the end and that they’ll never see it coming. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: How did you get involved with “Persons Unknown”?
Remi: Chris McQuarrie had actually written this pilot awhile ago, and everybody thought it was a really fascinating idea. It’s got a lot of that great Chris McQuarrie, “What the hell is going on?,” kind of stuff, but no one could actually get a grasp on how to make it into a series. I’m not saying that I’m the grand genius that came in on a float and made it happen, but they liked my pitch. I was on my way to a camping trip with my daughter when my agent called and said, “This thing came up and it’s really wild and crazy, do you want to read it?” And, I said, “Yeah, why don’t you just send it to me? But, I’m going on this camping trip, so I probably won’t be able to read it until I get back.” Only in Southern California do camping grounds actually have wifi, so I was sitting in my tent and I started reading it on my computer, and I couldn’t put it down. More importantly, I kept getting up in the middle of the night going, “Oh, this is cool,” so I pitched them an idea that they seemed to like.
It was pretty clear, from the beginning, that Chris, because he’s very busy, wasn’t going to be really involved in it, so it was just like, “Can someone come in and stay true to Chris’ vision and also, at the same time, make it into a 13-episode series?” Even after all of that, after I’d gotten it, it was like, “Oh, my god, what have I agreed to?” Suddenly, I realized how tough trying to structure a story like this is. It was a lot of work. The one big advantage that we had was that we had eight scripts written before we started shooting, or even started casting. We had a really good opportunity to look at it and figure out where we were going to go and how to do it. Once we got a cast, which I love, then we started doing some revisions to make sure that they fit into it.
Just how difficult was it to write this show and plot out exactly where you were going with it, from start to finish?
Remi: It was tough to write. We had the shadow of “Lost” hanging around and I just kept saying, “Guys, we need to take a really wide birth around ‘Lost.’ We’re going to get lots of comparisons anyway, but we need to prove, within a couple episodes, that it’s not ‘Lost.’” I’m a huge fan of “Lost” and I loved it. I’m a little disappointed in the ending, but I believe I’m part of a large legion on that. But, we needed to make sure that we knew exactly what was going on, and how to tell the story and find those really bizarre left turns into alleys that make people go, “What the fuck!” I feel confident that it will always keep everybody guessing, and yet not in that weird, maddening way where it’s like, “Oh, come on, guys!” I think you will be freaked out by the end. I really do. I don’t think you’ll see it coming at all.
Did Chris McQuarrie oversee what you did, at all?
Remi: We were on our own, after awhile, because he got very busy. He and (his wife) Heather didn’t have very much involvement in it.
For those who might not have seen the show yet, what can you say about “Persons Unknown” to get more viewers interested?
Remi: There’s been a lot of comparisons to “The Prisoner,” and sometimes people take a negative tact on that, but to be really honest, I count that as a compliment, in the sense that what I felt “The Prisoner” was for the ‘60′s, in how the individual triumphs over the state and authority, our show is really about how complacent we have become in our lives, which are scrutinized. Hardly anybody thinks about typing in their social security number as ID. Hardly anybody pays attention to the myriad of security cameras. There isn’t anybody that worked on this show that doesn’t look at security cameras differently than when they started. And, what we’ve allowed ourselves to become – and this is part of Chris’ ideas – is complacent, in allowing our lives to be taken over, or at least in allowing that kind of scrutiny into our lives. We’ve given up a little bit of that, and this is the existential nightmare of all of that. What happens when you suddenly find out that people have been watching you, with a purpose?
Can you give any hints as to what’s coming up on the show and with the characters?
Remi: The only thing I will tell you is that every single person is in that town for a specific reason. As has already been revealed, not all of them are who they say they are, or who we believe they are, and that will continue to change. What we were trying very hard to do, just in the way we shot it, was to make it feel as if we’re in that environment ourselves, just so we can get a grasp on what it is. A lot of our influence was about getting stuck on a level on any of those video games, where you find yourself caught and you can’t get out, and it’s maddening. We talked a lot about that. And, there’s clearly not going to be any outside help coming, anytime soon. These people are going to have to figure out some way to get out of this situation, and they’re going to choose all sorts of crazy-ass strategies.
Moira (Tina Holmes) is the most fascinating for me. She’s just going to go for anybody that might help her. I wouldn’t trust Moira for a second. There’s little things like that, that we paid a lot of attention to. We don’t always know how to bond together to get help or to do something, and our attempts are often awkward, selfish or weird. We talked a lot about how to open things up. I loved the tunnel idea in Episode 3 the most because none of them really wanted to do it, but none of them saw any alternative to it. The horrible end of that was, “Oh, shit, we’re really dealing with someone who’s figured out all the angles.”
What we’re really trying to tell, even though it’s very much a genre show, is a very human story. Even in this heightened situation, it still comes down to people being people, and dealing with people as people. It really is about the seven people in that town. Yes, there’s a lot of crazy stuff going on there, but it still comes down to those seven people. What are they going to do? How are they going to deal with everything?
How important was it to add the bits of humor?
Remi: That continues throughout the whole series. I just think that it’s part of human nature to do that. Even in the worst and darkest of circumstances, things can be funny. What we’re going for, in those humorous moments, is the absurdity of it all. The craziness of the night manager offering them an umbrella in the height of what is a horrible disaster was like, “What?!” That’s Andy Greenfield, and he nailed the audition. He’s the sweetest guy in the world, as is often the case with those guys, but on camera, he’s so creepy that a lot of us kept saying, “You know, Andy, don’t look at us like that anymore, okay? You’re scaring us.”
At what point was the decision made to do this more like a mini-series with a resolution at the end of 13 episodes?
Remi: I think that was in the discussions when NBC finally bought it and was trying to figure out how to distinguish it as an event. I’ll be honest, we did shoot it with the idea of it being an on-going series, but because I am insane when I get to the end of a season and they give you a big, giant cliff-hanger with no answers, I insisted that we provide all the answers to the questions that we set up, at the beginning. And then, what I hope will happen at the end is that there will be a big enough springboard that, if we chose to go for a second season, we would have one. But, there will be none of those maddening teases that we’re going to tell you the answers and then we don’t tell you the answers. That gave NBC the idea of making it a mini-series.
So you have thought of the possibility of a second season, then?
Remi: It’s not unheard of, in the course of life, that if there’s enough interest in it, we could consider going a second season or doing another chapter. I keep looking at it as books in a series, and this season is the first book. I feel confident that we will have a beginning, middle and end, in this season, and it was wise of NBC to then call it what it really is, which is a mini-series. “24″ is a really good example, in that there was a definitive beginning, middle and end for the first season. They had a slightly different format than we have, but the second season just retained Jack Bauer and a few other players, with the same basic format and idea, but it was a completely different show. I’m not saying that that’s exactly where we’re going, but certainly I think that there’s room for saying, “Hey, look, we told one story of a continuing saga.” You should be able to pick this book up and get to the last line of the season and go, “Wow! Well, I hope there’s a second season, but at least I feel satisfied that I got to see all of this. They answered it all for me.”
How did you go about casting this show? Was it more about finding the right actors and then tailoring the character types around them, or did you have specific character types that you were intentionally looking for?
Remi: Certainly, we had ideas about what we thought the characters should be, and we looked for actors that would fill that bill, but at the same time, we weren’t very rigid on that. Tina Holmes came in with something really special, with Moira, that we never expected, and we were happy to make modifications for that. Jason Wiles was not exactly what we had in our minds for Joe, but he came in with such strength, power and conviction that you can’t not pay attention to that sort of stuff. It was like, “Wow!” Janet was the hardest character of all, and we cast from all around the world, literally. One day, a tape came to my office that had Daisy Betts on it, from Australia, and I just went, “Oh, okay, I hadn’t expected that.”
Casting is really weird. Honestly, when Alan Ruck’s name came up – and I’ve worked with Alan before – I went, “Yes, he’s perfect.” He came in and read for us, which was really sweet of him because he didn’t have to, and he nailed it in seconds. We knew exactly who we had. That stuff is really good and fun.
So, you modified things a bit, once you had assembled your cast?
Remi: Yes. When you’re working on a television show with actors, what you hope you’re doing is playing jazz with them all the time. You see what they’re giving you, so you try to write back to that, and then they play with that, and you get a sense of what is going on. That’s just a natural way in which TV series usually work. When we finally had a cast and could see what they could do, here was an opportunity to go back and modify things. We didn’t actually do that much modifying, but we did enough to make it feel as if they fit in their own skin, and we got a lot of good input from them. They’re a terrific cast. They worked really hard.
Will viewers continue to learn things gradually until the finale?
Remi: I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will definitely tell you that there are Easter eggs that are going to start coming out. It was a huge thing to drop that picture, showing the reporter and Janet together. We’re going to be doing more and more of that. There’s a couple really huge left turns that are coming up, and more will be revealed than anybody really imagines. I wanted to keep doing that. It unfolds like a flower, it really does. So, the challenge became, “How much do we reveal and when, and are we going to run out of stuff?” And, I don’t think we did. It was a huge challenge, and much more difficult than I thought it would be.
Where did you shoot this and did you build this town to shoot in?
Remi: Yes, we built that entire town. We built it up in the mountains, just above Mexico City. We shot the whole thing in Mexico, and we actually doubled Mexico as San Francisco. There was enough architecture that we could get away with that, but we tried to be very careful with what we were doing. The town itself was designed by Ken Hardy, who also was the production designer for “The West Wing,” and a number of other really amazing things. We talked a lot about the town. We felt that just taking over a small town wouldn’t work, but having a town that feels like one of those towns that you normally would just drive through without thinking anything about it, was the quality that we wanted. Some people have made comparisons to “The Twilight Zone,” and that was conscious. We wanted a little bit of that to be evoked, and also a sense that it’s fairly mundane.
I will tell you, just as a little bit of a thing, that you might want to take a look at the names of all the shops. It’s not that there’s a clue there, but there’s a little bit of a fun thing there. Nobody has actually picked up on that yet, on any of the boards. They’re scrutinizing the rules of the hotel, but they haven’t yet looked at the actual town itself. I keep waiting for that. I keep wondering, “Has anybody noticed that yet?” I have a lot of fun reading the boards because it’s what I would participate in too, if I wasn’t in on the show. NBC has a “Find Tori” website that they’ve set up, and I’m one of the few people that actually knows where Tori (Kate Lang Johnson) is, but they’ll never get it out of me. Those things are fun.
Did you leave the town standing, when you finished filming?
Remi: Yes, that town still exists. We haven’t torn it down yet, and we’re hoping we can keep it up. All of the buildings are pulled from a ton of research that Ken did. There are a few buildings that he pulled out of Pasadena, and a few buildings that he pulled out of some small towns in Texas and Kansas. He really worked hard on it. Because of that, you get a creepiness that goes on there. It’s just a little too familiar, a little too empty, a little too clean and very analog. There’s not a digital thing in there. It’s a little spooky.
How did this fit into your schedule with your work on “Caprica”?
Remi: It’s weird, “Caprica” looked as if it was dead. Ron [Moore] and I wrote it in 2006, and we were shocked and disappointed that SyFy didn’t go for it right away. I took “Persons Unknown” just before the writers strike. We were literally in the room for a week, on “Persons Unknown,” when the strike hit, so after the strike we weren’t sure what was going to happen. But, I got a call, literally the day after the strike, saying that they were a go for it if I was, and I said, “Absolutely!” A day later, I got a call from Ron, who said, “You’re not going to believe this, but they want to do ‘Caprica.’”
I was able to participate in doing the “Caprica” pilot, but we were in full swing of production with “Persons Unknown” when the “Caprica” series started, so as much as I would have loved to have participated in it, I just couldn’t. I got all of the scripts and I got all of the dailies from it, for the first season, but I hate it when writers who aren’t in the room and actually doing the work, suddenly throw out their two cents. I just find that annoying, when I’m in the room and doing all the hard work, so I made a choice to just say, “If you need me for anything, I’m here, but otherwise, I think you’re doing a great job. Have fun.” And, I actually think that show is doing really well and I’m very proud of the work that we did in it. Now, I’m working on “Stargate Universe,” so I’m waiting to see what will happen.
Is there something specific that attracts you to the sci-fi/mystery genre?
Remi: I’ve always been a sci-fi geek, and I’ve always loved it. It’s my favorite genre of all. The irony of ironies is that, in my early career, I just really never worked in it. “Star Trek” was very interested in me, partially because I did “From the Earth to the Moon,” and I was really interested in them, but the timing just never worked out. I ended up working on “Chicago Hope” and other things, but always with the idea that, eventually, I would want to take what I’d learned in character drama and try to apply that to the genre that I love, which is science fiction and “The Twilight Zone” type mysteries.
“Caprica” wasn’t actually the first script that I’d written that was science fiction, but it was the one that ended up getting me seen. I had a couple interviews for “Caprica” that said, “Where did you show up from?” I was like, “Well, I’ve always had an interest in it and wanted to do it. You may not have read anything or seen anything that I’ve written, but I’ve always wanted to do it.” And, I have made a conscious choice to stay in this genre area, and yet, at the same time, try to always be working on ideas that are very character and human based. “Stargate Universe” is an example of that. More than the other “Stargate” franchises before it, this is really a character drama that happens to be utilizing the “Stargate” mythology. I’ve also got a couple future projects that I’m working on that are along the same lines as that. Right now, I’ll just take my chances because I just really love writing that stuff.
Remi: I’m on it as a writer and a consulting producer. I’ve always liked that show, and I was happy that they were looking for an extra person. It seemed like a good match. I’m having a blast.
Having worked with David E. Kelley on “Chicago Hope,” what did you learn from working with someone like that, that you’re able to carry with you and apply to the success that you have now?
Remi: I can honestly say that with every show, whether it was a good experience or a bad experience – and it was actually a great experience at “Chicago Hope” – I always learned something. I couldn’t really tell you, specifically, what I took away from working with David, other than saying that when in doubt, for him, it’s all about the human dilemma and human beings. That’s where I pulled a lot of that stuff from.
Part of me is under pressure, all the time, just to turn in a script that people will like, and every writer feels that way. It’s all really exciting and good, until you have to actually write, and then it’s not so much fun. A lot of what I’ve been lucky with, in my career, is that I’ve gotten to do a lot of diverse genres and shows that have given me a lot. I’ve worked with a lot of really great people.
David Kelley is deceivingly emotional. You don’t think he is, but he actually really is, and that the one thing that I thought was really impressive. He’s a former lawyer and much of his stories are almost as if they’re arguments before the bar, but the truth is, when it all comes down to it, he’s really concerned with the human being and how that person makes it in the rules that have been give to him, which is pretty amazing and fascinating. I still am a huge fan of his writing, and always will be, because of that.
As a producer and a writer, how much can you take on at one time, before you start to feel overwhelmed?
Remi: I have found that I can definitely do two things at once. If I can schedule them properly, I can even try to squeeze in three. After that, I’m gone. I once had a year where I was writing two pilot scripts, working on a show and supervising another writer doing a pilot, and I was afraid, during the whole time, that I was going to piss someone off, and I ended up actually really making myself crazy and mad.
So, I’ve decided that my ideal is two things at once. With that, I’m pretty happy. I’m working on “Stargate Universe” and I do have two pilots that I’m writing for next year, but I’ve told everybody that I have to spread them out. I’ll be done with “Stargate Universe” in October, and I’ll be delivering one pilot script by the end of the year, and then another script by the first of the year. That’s how I’ve done it.
I’ve also been doing this for awhile now. Early in my career, I was just afraid that no one would hire me again, so I wanted to do whatever it was that was brought before me. Now, I’m a little more discerning and want to do things well, one at a time. That’s easier for me.
Persons Unknown begins airing tonight on NBC