From executive producer/writer Kyle Killen (Lone Star) and executive producer Howard Gordon (Homeland, 24), and with a pilot directed by David Slade (Twilight: Eclipse, 30 Days of Night), the NBC series Awake follows the life of Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), who wakes up from a car accident with his wife (Laura Allen) and teenage son (Dylan Minnette), to learn the devastating news that his wife died in the crash. And then, he wakes up a few days later to realize that his wife is very much alive and his son died in the accident. When Michael goes back to work solving crimes, alternating between realities provides some challenges when he realizes that these realities overlap in fascinating and inexplicable ways.
At a press day held on the show’s set during a break from filming, Kyle Killen and Howard Gordon talked about whether they believe a show can be too smart for TV, how there will be a case-of-the-week element to the serialized storytelling in Awake, how viewers will get answers about the crash if they stick with the 13 episodes of the first season, that little clues and hints will be offered throughout, why they needed a production hiatus during the season, and how important the moments of levity are within what could really be a truly miserable story. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
HOWARD GORDON: That’s a really good question. I don’t think so. I really don’t. I have always said, “Never underestimate an audience.” I think, if it’s good, people will watch it.
KYLE KILLEN: I think too smart for TV tends to get slapped on things that people liked, but they failed, so it becomes the reason. But, The West Wing was a huge success. It was extraordinarily smart and well-written, but it was a bunch of policy stuff. So, the fact that that lasted as long as it did, belies that notion. There are a lot of reasons [why things don’t work], and you can throw “too smart for TV” in there, but I don’t think anybody goes down just for being an intelligent show.
There are some similarities to Lone Star, which didn’t last very long. Does it worry you at all that people have a hard time, separating between two lives?
KILLEN: No, it doesn’t worry me, since I finished that one and just went right into this one. It is something that I am really intrigued by. A lot of the things people ultimately felt like were a reason that Lone Star may not have hit a huge audience on network were things that ultimately Awake tries to answer or address. He’s not a morally ambiguous character who can’t decide between two wives. He’s a guy who is really struggling to hold onto his wife and his son, which is something we can empathize with. Instead of a purely soap, serial engine, which I think a lot of people question the sustainability of, with Lone Star – although, I maintain that we would have made it work – in addition to the serialized nature of the storytelling with Awake, there is a case-of-the-week element that you can tune in to and get, even if Episode 8 is the first one that you see.
Given the nature of mythology shows on television, a lot of them are struggling heavily because fans are resistant to believe that answers are coming. Do you guys have a road map for when answers will come, for certain big questions, whether it’s the crash or which reality is real, if either of them are?
KILLEN: I think the question of the crash is really sort the story of the first season. I think, if you can stick with us for 13 episodes, then you’ll get an answer on that. To us, the issue of what’s real and what’s not, is not really a question the show is trying to answer because it’s actually a question the character is trying to avoid the answer to. To us, what’s more interesting is that, once you stake your claim with wanting to live, literally, in two different worlds that are going two different directions, the drama and the conflict comes from seeing a person who is trying to live in two diverging universes. So, I don’t know that we’re out, anytime soon, to answer the question of what’s real and what’s not. We’re actually out to answer the question of what happens when you absolutely, fundamentally refuse to commit to one or the other being real.
GORDON: I don’t think it is a mythology show. It has a premise that’s interesting, and it certainly has the idea that is the umbrella over it, which is what’s real and what isn’t. But, the fact is that he’s a guy who wakes up in one world with his wife and the other with his son, and solves crimes across those two worlds. So, it is an engine that’s very durable, and it dependent upon what came before or what’s going to come after, in terms of the building blocks of the show.
Is there an element of the show that is built around the audience discovering hidden clues, talking about it online with forums, and coming up with their own theories?
KILLEN: Obviously, we’re only deeply into planning out and mapping the first season, but in telling that story of what actually happened to him and what the accident was about, and then doling that out, we begin in the first episode. Long before the answers are there, there are things that the character is picking up on, whether he is doing it consciously or subconsciously. We try not to waste anything. I think the Internet has certainly shown that people are hyper-observant television viewers. This show certainly rewards people who invest in television, that way. If that’s something that you enjoy, then I think it offers those little clues and hints, and you’ll see those things woven together, by the last episode of the season.
In each episode, will the cases in one world help solve the cases in the other world?
KILLEN: No, that’s fundamentally the design of the show. They are interlocking narratives. Whichever is real and whichever is a dream, one is trying to inform the other. It doesn’t always mean that it’s two cases. Sometimes there is something going on in his personal life, in one world, that it is calling attention to something, in a case in the other, and vice versa. But, that overlap and interplay is fundamental to the show itself.
Will he ever get savvy to that?
GORDON: For the first time, in the pilot, this super-power presents itself to him. So, while he knows that he is living in two worlds, it’s the idea that this thing begins to crossover. He’s suddenly finding himself with this new insight, and how he uses it and how he looks for things and how his attention is drawn to certain things that appear to him in one world and that he pursues in the other, is absolutely the meat of the show.
KILLEN: Is it pre-crime? Are you seeing the future, in one world? Those are questions that he explores and dispatches, as any superhero who has discovered a power is trying to figure out. What are the edges of it? What can it do and what can’t it do?
KILLEN: It really hasn’t been a change or tweak process. It’s complicated to put together. It’s all interlocking parts. It’s how I think 24 must have been. You couldn’t be in Episode 8 and realize something that you wanted to do. Everything that came before was leading to everything that came after. This show is like that, on an episode basis. So, it’s really been more about what we learned in early episodes, that we could and couldn’t do, and the right ways to do things and really applying that, so that we can make sure the latter episodes were as good or better than the first episodes. For me, it’s been about acknowledging and accepting the difference between a fantastic 60-page script and a finished 43-minute cut. When you start clipping little bits of information and character, and you get it down to the bone, you wish that maybe you had not tried to bite off so much, so that this would all be digestible and entertaining in the 43-minute format. It’s really just been about seeing episodes finished, so that we knew, “All right, those ingredients went in, they got baked and here’s how it came out, so here’s how we should tweak the recipes, slightly.”
Did anything get moved to other episodes that couldn’t fit into one episode?
GORDON: Yeah, actually. That’s an ongoing process. We just take a story out of one, stripped it out and put it downstream.
GORDON: It’s structurally rigorous on an intra-episode basis. You can make a mistake and course-correct. With 24, it was littered with discarded scripts, along the way. I probably chucked a script a year out, and we shut down a number of times, and had a couple of forced hiatus. Time is a benefit. TV is this wonderful accident that happens, and you have to get very lucky. When it comes out, it’s a happy accident. And, we’ve learned. The learning curve has been steep, but we’ve learned.
Do either of you have a favorite universe that Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) resides in?
KILLEN: For me, the universes change, on a week-to-week basis. I am excited that this world has a penguin in it this week, so that’s my favorite right now. It’s advertised, in the pilot, that it must be extraordinarily difficult for your mind to construct an entire alternate universe, keep all the details straight, keep it separate from this other one, and protect you from ever knowing which is real. Over time, there’s probably consequences to that, and in one episode, you spend some time with the penguin, in one of your cases.
Have you had to come up with a set of ground rules for these universes?
GORDON: Everything before the accident is sacrosanct. Objective reality happened. After the accident, obviously, things were twinned. So, what does that mean? Does it mean that, if somebody is dead in one world, I can go to that address in the other world and ask that person, “Who would have killed you?” No, it’s not that simple. It turns out that the worlds have diverged, after that moment. That was something that we all talked about, amongst ourselves, and took for granted, but really had never articulated. Kyle is now actually writing this episode, which we hope to put way early in the order, that explains that very premise. So, we are writing the manual, as we go.
With such a big cast, is there room for guest stars to come in and play?
KILLEN: One of the great things about a procedural that has cases-of-the-week is that there tend to be juicy parts that you can find for other actors. We’ve had really good luck, drawing from Howard’s 24 well. When you do eight seasons, he’s run across some really incredible actors, so they are usually high on our list, when we need a really reliable guest star.
GORDON: But, honestly, some of them are actors who are just really, really good. The casting has been terrific. We have been lucky so far.
A tremendous contribution in the pilot comes from David Slade’s direction, in establishing the visual template. How much is that a template that you guys are using, visually, going forward?
GORDON: The pilot was not an especially expensive pilot. I think David absolutely gave the project a palate, a look and a feel that has carried forward. The network was very happy with it and, without being slavish to it, we’re definitely taking our cues.
Given that there are consequences for keeping his brain this active for a considerable amount of time, as we go further in the season, is there a chance that there will be a merging of these two universes?
KILLEN: Yeah, the penguin example is that. If half of your existence is imagined, when it begins to appear in the other half, and you never know whether you are awake or sleep, that loss of a clear delineation between the two worlds is something that we’ve found ways to play with, in a couple different episodes, whether it’s something hallucinatory like a penguin, or just something feeling extraordinarily dream-like.
Is this the type of show that will venture into the quantum mechanics and science fiction of there being these two different, existing worlds?
GORDON: Not on Kyle’s watch.
KILLEN: I think we’ve tried to stay closer to reality, as much as you can say a show is grounded, that has alternate universes and penguins. One is a mental construction that takes place when his eyes are closed, and the other is the reality that he takes in when his eyes are open. You just cannot separate one from the other, as opposed to literally transferring between parallel universes. I, at least, am more intrigued, the closer it is to something that you or I could experience. The brain and the divide between your conscious and unconscious is such a fascinating animal and entity, on its own, without even getting into sub-atomic particles and worm-holes. There is a vast area to be explored that isn’t science fiction, per se, but is just the weirdness of how we take for granted the things that we see and the experience that we’re all having as been real.
GORDON: It’s more Philip K. Dick.
Why does he have different partners in each world?
GORDON: Well, part of this thing is an exercise in keeping it clear and making it legible for an audience. When characters appear across both worlds, other than Britten, you have to make sure it’s something that you can keep straight. Initially, Bird (Steve Harris) was actually, still at that precinct in the Vega (Wilmer Valderrama) world, but we had him transferred in a very simple, surgical reshoot. He’s no longer even at that precinct, just to avoid confusion and keep it simple, so that while we are educating the audience, in terms of how to watch the show and follow the stories, they can keep it clear. We can start adding those cross-over characters in, once people are more familiar with how it works.
Is it a possible option that Britten is dead and everyone died in this accident?
KILLEN: I personally tend not to be interested in, “It was all a dream,” stories, even if it takes you seven seasons to get to, “It was all a dream. If you want me to invest in the idea, just do what you promised. You told me, in the first week, that one of these was real and one of these wasn’t, and you couldn’t tell the difference.” I understand that there is a value to a twist on a twist, but I also feel like there is a value to seeing that through to the end, and finding out emotionally what it would mean to literally discover that there wasn’t a way out of the box, and that the rules are exactly as they were laid out, in the beginning.
GORDON: They’re red and green. In fact, on the outlines, we actually write in red and green ink.
As you have been mapping out the season, do you feel like you have to keep reminding people of the basic premise?
GORDON: That’s a good question. Well, we talked about that, even in terms of how the opening credits are. The opening credits are going to be something that will introduce people, very succinctly, to the premise.
KILLEN: You always want to play with the premise. You always want to say, “What if this happened? By these rules, how would your character deal with it?” So, you tend to re-inform them of what the premise is, every time you bend or twist or play with it.
Is the mystery of the brain a benefit to this story, or is this a very rare condition?
GORDON: It’s called schizophrenia, or multiple personality disorder.
KILLEN: I don’t think it’s literally a condition. This character may be the only person in the world with it. But, the underlying science is the fact that everything you see is your brain, constructing it from various firing nerves. My wife is an ER doctor and one of the places it came from was that she had a patient and the chief complaint on the chart was that he was covered in worms. She went in and it was a very normal 23-year-old guy, who knew his name, the day of the week, who the president was, and seemed completely lucid. He just was very confused about why you couldn’t see that he was covered in worms. For him and his brain, in a completely awake and lucid state, those worms were totally real. I think you realize just how thin the tether between you and reality is, and how dependent you are on your brain seeing what everybody else’s sees, and this character is somebody who can’t always count on that being the case.
How much do you plan on taking the therapists out of this safe haven of their office?
KILLEN: They’re amazing actors. They are very cool characters, and we would love to find any and every way. I think that’s one of the reasons you hope for a long series, so you have time to explore those secondary and tertiary characters, in a fuller way. The demands of a 13-episode, procedurally-driven season have minimized the adventures that we can go with Cherry [Jones] and BD [Wong], but we’ve really looked for ways to get them out of their chair, out of their office, and out of the same scene, on a weekly basis.
Britten does have a wife (Laura Allen), but he also has a potential love interest (Michaela McManus). Are you going to be diving into that, in the first season, or is that going to be playing out more slowly?
KILLEN: I was really intrigued with diving into it, in the first season, maybe because I still had Lone Star on my brain, but it’s a really delicate thing that needs to be built towards. It will feel earned, in a way that it wouldn’t, if we try to jam it in now. We have to let that relationship grow and develop, so that in subsequent seasons, that’s something that we can explore.
How important is it that you find moments of levity within what could really be a truly miserable story?
KILLEN: I think it’s really important. There is a real gravity to the situation that he’s in, but we show that levity in the way he talks to his partners, the way that he interacts with his wife and child, or taking advantage of the fact that he still has his wife and his child. Instead of it being about the grief, it’s about the reward of that. We find ways to use the premise to say something positive. It isn’t a show that’s relentlessly about grief because, whether it’s healthy or not, he’s not a person who’s grieving. As far as he’s concerned, he has everyone, so he hasn’t engaged with grief in the way that I think most of us would have, in the wake of a loss like this.
Awake airs Thursday nights on NBC, starting on March 1st.