As co-executive producer/writer on the alien invasion drama Falling Skies, Mark Verheiden certainly has the sci-fi background and credibility to bring the highly-anticipated series to life, having served as a writer/co-executive producer for three seasons on Battlestar Galactica, a consulting producer/writer for Seasons 3 and 4 of Heroes, and a writer/co-executive producer for the first three seasons of Smallville, along with writing the feature film screenplays for Timecop and The Mask, and various graphic novels. Stepping in for Graham Yost, who had to return to the FX series Justified after the pilot had been shot, Verheiden used the great template that had been established and set out to continue from there, exploring a story about finding hope in the humanity within yourself, while recovering from this terrible event that has changed their lives and civilization forever.
At the press day for the new TV series, Collider sat down with Mark Verheiden for this interview, in which he talked about his vision for the show, intentionally layering Falling Skies in such a way that it can appeal to people who are not typically sci-fi fans while still making those fans happy, how the aliens’ plan will gradually be revealed over the course of the series, the challenge of giving it a feature film feel on a TV show budget, and how stories are already being figured out for a possible Season 2. And, even though he couldn’t say anything concrete about the status of The Dark Tower, for which he is working as a writer/producer on the TV portion of the project, he did comment on how cool it was, how huge the project is, and that he hopes it will eventually go into production. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
MARK VERHEIDEN: The business side of it basically started with a call. Graham Yost was on the show, at that point, but he was going to have to go back to Justified. So, they needed someone to come in that would work with Graham for awhile, and then when Graham left, take over the show. DreamWorks asked me to come in, and it was like a CIA thing. I had to go into a locked room and watch the DVD with a guard outside, so I wouldn’t film it or whatever. Basically, I watched the pilot and my jaw hit the floor, and I said, “Wow, I want to be involved in this!” So, I met with Graham and we were off.
Were there things that you specifically wanted to bring to this series, once you had signed on?
VERHEIDEN: What we had was an incredibly great template that suggested all sorts of things we could do from the pilot. I wanted to do was continue what had been established, but what was wonderful about working with TNT and with everyone on the project was that they were open to explore things that came to mind, as you were actually writing the episodes. You can have a real strong path of where you’re going, but then you get to a point where you go, “Hey, this would be fun,” or “This is a change,” or “That’s not working as well as we’d like.” But, my mandate going in, for me, was that we did not want to tell a bleak story about humanity on the ragged edge. This is a story about a man with three kids, who he’s trying to protect more than anything on this earth. He’s trying to retrieve one of them from the Skitters and protect the others. And, it’s about six months after an invasion that’s turned their whole lives upside down and taken away everything that they used to take for granted, and finding that hope in humanity within yourself, gathering and becoming that resistance, the Second Mass. Then, the show that TNT wanted was one that had a sense of hopefulness to it. It’s about these people that are thrust together, who had never met, and now are finding ways to not only fight back against the aliens, but who are also reconstituting themselves after this terrible event and making a life that’s not just a life but is one that’s worth living, not just for Tom but for his kids. That, to me, was its core. It was trying to find and make sure that we held onto those emotional values, at the core of it.
VERHEIDEN: Oh, man, was there. They were actually created for the pilot, before I was there, so that was something that Steven Spielberg and a bunch of designers worked out. My understanding is that, for the Skitters, which are the spidery ones, he wanted something that was just totally alien and scary. The idea here is that these are not the type of creatures where you feel like you can walk up to them and say, “Hey, let’s have a cup of coffee and talk about this.” They are scary, utterly alien creatures. That is why the aliens are the way they are. As the series starts, you’re still trying to figure out what in the world they want. Some things come up, as the show goes on, that explore some things about these creatures even further. I get asked a lot, “What is the aliens’ plan?,” and by the end of the first season, it’s not like everything is etched out. It’s not like an alien sits down and explains it. But, you will have an idea of what they’re trying to do.
Have you intentionally layered this show in such a way that it can appeal to people who are not typically sci-fi fans, while still making those fans happy?
VERHEIDEN: Yeah, I hope we make both happy. From TNT’s point of view – and creatively I would totally agree – we wanted a show that both audiences could get into. I have this theory about working on episodic television. I’ve done a lot of science fiction, so if the emotional story you’re telling isn’t real, isn’t true and doesn’t feel heartfelt, then I don’t care what else is going on. You can have all the twists and surprises in the world, but it doesn’t matter. We wanted to tell a story that, on one level, you could watch and say, “This is the story of a man trying to protect his kids, and it’s about a woman trying to get over the death of her family, and it’s about a damaged military man who seems to have a lot of baggage, and it’s about this man’s kids and how they’re growing up in this completely different world, and beyond that, it’s about an alien race that’s come from galaxies away and decided to almost wipe us out.” Both of those are of equal weight, in devising the stories, but I always go back to, “If you don’t feel something for these guys and understand their emotional situation, then we’ve got a problem.” So, we worked very hard to make sure their emotional stories played a big role.
VERHEIDEN: I think you’ll come to understand some of it, as more episodes air. When you start out, they are taking kids, putting these strange looking harnesses on them, and making them do things for them. Even from the first minute of the first episode, they are employing slave labor for some reason, so that’s a reason not to kill everybody. If you need slaves, you need to leave them alive. I also have this theory about just nuking everything. If you’re an invading force, if you demolish things entirely, you just have a pile of rubble. The infrastructure is an important part of the territory you’re claiming, so to just nuke everything and flatten it and kill everybody was definitely not their plan. They have other plans in mind.
Are the harnesses used strictly as a communication device, or do they also have a deeper purpose?
VERHEIDEN: The why of the harnesses was something we actually discussed for a long time. Without getting into it, I’ll say that you learn quite a bit about what those are doing, as we go on.
What was it like to give this series a feature film feel on a TV budget? Was that constantly challenging?
VERHEIDEN: Yes! From a production standpoint, this was a very challenging project. We shot it in Toronto, Canada. We had no standing sets. Everything was on location. We shot many, many, many nights. TNT has been very supportive, but everybody has production contingencies on how much you can spend, so every episode was a challenge. Frankly, we had an incredible crew, including Greg Beeman, who was my co-executive producer partner up there, and who also directed the first couple of episodes after the pilot and the finale. We just worked very creatively to find ways to give it the look with what we had, and I think we managed to do that, but it was incredibly challenging. There was a lot of negotiation over, “Can we keep that and lose that?,” and that kind of stuff.
VERHEIDEN: I think Noah just brings this great Jimmy Stewart, everyman thing. Noah is a father. He brought his two little kids out, several times, to the location. He was blasting aliens and his kids were like, “Dad’s cool!” But, what he brings is a total sense of humanity. When you see how he’s dealing with his kids and the questions he’s asking them, that’s coming from a very real place. He really brings a heart and an emotional core to this. I could not be more happy with that performance. Aside from that, he’s a great guy and a very thoughtful man, in terms of talking about the material. We couldn’t have had a more wonderful collaboration.
For Moon, it’s been interesting because she’s done Terminator and she’s done the shows where she’s using to having a gun in her hand, and this was a chance to show a little bit softer side. Of the main characters, her character is probably the most damaged because she’s lost everyone. Her arc is a complicated one. She’s buried herself in her work as a doctor, so she’s been burying the pain that she feels by helping other people. How does she overcome that pain to really live? Her story is interesting, from an actor’s point of view, in that she gets to do something a little different than she’s done before. Although she gets her share of killing Skitters and stuff, it’s about finding that real emotional center. Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) is the same way. How does he get over his issues to move forward emotionally? Those two are on a bit of a collision course, but it felt like it needed to take its time.
VERHEIDEN: Yeah. The conflict between the human beings and the choices they make, in terms of how they’re going to fight back, is as much a part of the story as the aliens, and figuring out how they’re going to shoot them down. The Pope character, who is clearly this renegade wild card, and even the interactions between Will Patton’s character and Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), are about two differing attitudes on how to approach the alien threat. One is, forget the civilians, we should just be killing the aliens, and the other one is that the civilians are all we’re fighting for. They totally agree with killing the aliens, but if they do that at the expense of everybody being killed, humans are a finite resource and, if you’re on a mission where chances are that you’re going to get wiped out, you’re in big trouble, especially when you have 300 people and you lose 30 of them. So, those arguments and discussions of tactics and, on the broader scale, what we’re saving and trying to hold onto, were a huge part of developing the first season and flushing it out.
With a show of this size and scope, have you given any thought to Season 2 yet?
VERHEIDEN: I think stories are being figured out for Falling Skies Season 2, but questions about whether it’s been renewed or not are more for TNT. I don’t think it’s actually been renewed yet.
Do you have any update on the status of the Dark Tower project that you’re a producer on?
VERHEIDEN: I really can’t say anything about Dark Tower, except that it’s an incredibly cool project. That’s all I can say about it right now.
Do you think it’s something that will eventually happen?
VERHEIDEN: I sure hope so! It’s huge. But, at this point, there’s really nothing I can add to that.