Based on the best-selling novel Pines by Blake Crouch and brought to life by filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, Wayward Pines is the intense new mind-bending, 10-episode event thriller from Fox. When Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) drives to the town of Wayward Pines, Idaho, to search for two missing federal agents, mysteries within the town pile up and Burke quickly begins to wonder whether he’ll ever make it out again. The show also stars Terrence Howard, Carla Gugino, Melissa Leo, Toby Jones, Juliette Lewis, Reed Diamond, Shannyn Sossamon, Tim Griffin and Charlie Tahan.
While at Comic-Con to premiere the series, executive producer/pilot director M. Night Shyamalan spoke to press at a roundtable interview about what attracted him to this script, why TV is a better medium for this story, getting their first choice actor for each role, working with such a talented cast, how hard he found the TV experience, and developing a show and character bible that shifted completely, as they went. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: You know, I think it just comes with fame. They have these weird quotients now. They’re like, “You’re doing really well. Your positive to negative on the social network is 70 to 30. You’re doing fantastic.” It’s just the way it is. Now, I describe being famous as being in high school forever. It’s all transient. People that love you might have an issue. People that hate you will love you with the next thing you do. If you come from the right place, which is, “Hey, I just want to tell as many stories as possible,” if they can hear that as the repetition and know that there’s an aesthetic standard and an intentionality, it’ll be great. The end result will be all good. That’s something that we’ve talked a lot about. My wife is a psychologist.
Is this a story you could have told in a movie?
SHYAMALAN: Absolutely, yeah, I could have. And we’ve talked about that. It’s a 10-episode Twilight Zone. It definitely could’ve been told in two hours. It would’ve been hard because you’d be at the 40-minute mark going, “We have to do this.” It’d be very, very difficult to go into depth into their characters. You wouldn’t get that opportunity. It would be something that we would never see on screen. Now, you can see all of that played out. It’s just really rewarding. Sometimes I enjoy writing backstories more than doing the movie. I’d say, “There’s Pam’s backstory,” and give it to the actor in a movie, even though it’s never in the movie. It’s just something that we talk about, so when they walk in the room on camera, they know where they came from.
SHYAMALAN: I’m in this black comedy mixed with suspense place in my head. I’ve written a little bit of comedy with Stuart Little, and some in Signs, but I enjoy that, as a storytelling style. As soon as I read it and I understood the humor, and why everyone was acting like they were crazy, and is there a reason. When I finished reading it, I said, “I love it! Just tell me what’s going on.” And then, they told me what was going on, and I was like, “I’m in!” That there’s a grounded reason why everyone’s acting like they are was exciting to me.
What was the hardest role to cast?
SHYAMALAN: We got our first choice for everybody, so that’s a hard one. If someone said no, that’s a sense of difficulty versus who’s the right person for it. Before Melissa Leo came to me, I didn’t know how to cast that part because it so easily can go broad and un-relatable. But it became the easiest because, as soon as I saw Melissa Leo, I was like, “Oh, my god, we’re not doing it without her! Someone get her.” I literally said that. And then, she said yes. I gotta give Fox their props. They allowed me to cast it. I said, “I’m going to cast it like a quality independent movie. Are you guys cool with that?” And they were like, “Go for it!” So, I did that. This is a movie cast.
What was it like to work with this cast?
SHYAMALAN: It’s my first time in television, so I’m a little spoiled. I just thought everybody gets casts like this and that this was normal. It was obviously very lucky that we got this incredible cast. As each person signed on, I was like, “He said yes?! She said yes?! Great! That’s amazing!” I like a certain type of acting from those kind of edgy actors who get into the role and not know what they’re gonna do, in a very non-agenda way, and they get really submersed in it. Almost every single one of them is that same way. In their own style, but that same way. That very much felt like a type of actor that I was casting.
Your movies tend to feel timeless. Now that there are so many pop culture references on shows, and all the technology and social media being incorporated, what sensibility did you bring to Wayward Pines to keep it from being dated?
SHYAMALAN: I guess, unconsciously, I’m always trying to avoid that. I didn’t realize that I do that, but as you mention it, I remember in The Happening, they gave us this phone and were like, “It’s called an iPhone.” This is way before it came out, and they were like, “Do you think you’d want to use it in the piece?” I was so nervous because I was like, “What if nobody buys this thing?” So, The Happening is the first time you see an iPhone in a movie. They had given it to us really early, as a prototype, and that kind of stuff is scary. As it turned out, it was a good decision. But I do avoid all technology, even TV sets on my sets. I try to make it very generic.
SHYAMALAN: That’s the joy of working with world class actors. If I say, “This is where you stab the neighbor,” they will come up with a legitimate defending rationale about why that is justified in their morality. That’s what I do as a writer. Hannibal Lecter is a beautiful villain because he has his morality. It’s not our morality, but his is lock solid, and you can respect that he has his morality. He won’t eat Jodie Foster, but he’ll eat everybody else. Great actors come with depth about how their character sees the world, and they completely defend it. They could defend it in a court of law, down to the reason the patient deserved this. Each of the actors need to have their justification for saying something awful. You want everyone to have a positive and negative thing. Even a positive thing needs to have darkness in it. It needs to have depth. Everybody needs to come in it with the kind of understanding that they bring to the table. What I think separates them from other actors is their ability to empathize with their characters. Whether you’re playing a stay at home mom or a serial killer, it doesn’t matter because you’re approaching it with empathy.
How did you enjoy the TV experience?
SHYAMALAN: You know, it was hard! I’m very previous and anal about everything I do in film, but all of that goes out the window in TV. There’s so much material that you have to do. So, the new muscle was that I had to go twice as fast as I’ve ever gone, and I had to make 10 times as much material. It’s an incredible pressure that’s on you, and that was for all of us. Most of them hadn’t done TV before, so we were all a little shell-shocked together, as a class. We were like, “Woah, aren’t we supposed to take a shower and think about this, and maybe, a week from now, come up with an answer?” But no, you have to come up with it, right now. I think our training in specificity really helped with it. In the end, it made us all humble and return to our instincts. It helped me a lot. I had to let go of my preciousness, but be very specific about the characters. And I brought that to the next film I directed. Nothing can throw me. I’m used to going at any pace, and a problem isn’t going to derail me. I’m going to work through it. The one great thing about TV storytelling is that you find it as you’re going. In a movie, you aim it and if you miss, you miss. That’s it. Almost every show that you love, their pilot was a mess because they didn’t know how to do it. You find it, and then you can amend the show. We had a bible, and then the bible shifted completely, as we went. That’s a particular benefit of TV, and that’s a great thing.
SHYAMALAN: Yes, for sure. With these actors, are you kidding?! They will talk incessantly about where they were born, what their mom did, what school they went to. I’m like, “Just run!” I love to do it, but this group can go on forever. They wanted to know every little particular about everything, so we worked out everything. And as we shifted, I gave the directors and actors a lot of latitude to come back to me and say, “My character wouldn’t do this,” or “I believe this episode wants to be more muscular.” Hopefully, it benefitted the show that we didn’t have an oppressiveness, but that we had a specificity.
How important was it to you that the mystery be grounded in reality vs. being supernatural?
SHYAMALAN: It’s huge! That was the only reason to do it, for me. It has to be relatable. At the end of the day, it should be plausible. The grounded version is what excited me. It was about making all of these weird genres a drama, at the end of the day. I think TV leans towards the drama of it. In film now, drama is a bad word. Don’t say the D-word.