Showrunners Jennifer Johnson and Daniel Pyne Talk ALCATRAZ, the Show’s Mythology, and Their Plans for Season 2

     February 20, 2012


The Fox drama series Alcatraz follows a unique and unlikely trio, working together to investigate the mystifying reappearance of 302 of the prison’s most notorious inmates and guards, 50 years after they vanished. When San Francisco Police Department Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) and Alcatraz expert and comic book enthusiast Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia) teamed up with government agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) and his associate, Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra), to piece together the inexplicable sequence of events, they had no idea that what they would ultimately discover would be a much larger, more sinister present-day threat.

During a recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, showrunners Jennifer Johnson and Daniel Pyne talked about what made them want to get involved with the show, answering questions by the end of this 13-episode arc, the challenges of keeping so many aspects of the story and mythology straight, their gauge for just how dark things can get, and thinking ahead to the next level of the mystery for a possible Season 2. Check out what they had to say after the jump:

jennifer-johnson-imageCollider: For people who aren’t familiar with what you do, can you talk about your duties are on the show?

JENNIFER JOHNSON: We’re the showrunners, so what we do is everything.

DANIEL PYNE: We work with the writing staff to generate stories for each episode, we cast, we cut, we edit, we spot music. We basically are responsible for the final product, along with our other executive producers, Jack Bender in Vancouver, and J.J. [Abrams] and Bryan Burk at Bad Robot. But, we’re the day-to-day people. Basically, we’re the arbiters of the storytelling, in whatever form it comes, whether it’s through the music, the visuals or the words. That’s what we do, with the help of a staff of writers, great editors, great directors and great actors. It’s like being the conductor of an orchestra.

JOHNSON: The one thing that we are solely responsible for, that is our most important job, is generating the scripts and making sure that we have good scripts ready to film in Vancouver, every eight or nine days.

What was it about Alcatraz that initially hooked you in and made you want to get involved with this particular story for what could be a long period of time?

JOHNSON: For me, it was the science fiction elements and the magical element of these criminals who are coming back, because I didn’t understand them at first. It was impossible to understand what it would be like to be transporting from 1963 to 2012. So, I was intrigued by the criminals and where they had been, and what they might want to do here, in the present-day. Certainly, the mystery of the island and Alcatraz prison intrigued me, with the way it’s situated on an island in the middle of the bay and how isolated it is. There was a feeling that anything could have happened there, and I wanted to know more. It’s a very magical place. It feels like a secret clubhouse that you want to go visit and understand and explore.

What can you say to tease where the show is headed for the remainder of this season, and how many questions you’ll be answering?

daniel-pyne-imagePYNE: We’re trying to arc out the first 13, so that by the end of them, people will have answers to many questions rather than just continuing to wind out the same questions, over and over. By the end of 13, we hope that people will see what’s behind the secret door, they’ll understand what is being put into the blood and maybe the reason why, and a little bit more of the architecture of what’s happening present-day with these guys who are coming back. Clearly in the past, they were in prison and that was their life. But, now that they’re coming back, there’s a sense that there’s a master plan afoot, and we’re going to try to answer some of that question.

JOHNSON: Rebecca (Sarah Jones) will finally face off with Tommy Madsen (David Hoflin), her grandfather who killed her partner.

How do you guys keep everything straight between the inmates, the guards and the doctors, and connections between past and present? Do you have a giant room where you can keep trying of all of the connections between everyone and everything?

PYNE: We have many white boards with scrawling on them, like a mad scientist’s laboratory. It keeps shifting and things disappear. It’s tough. It’s actually a huge challenge.

JOHNSON: It also makes you a little bit crazy because you have to live in that world, in order to remember, the same way that we remember where we live and who our friends are and their telephone numbers. We live in two worlds, at once. We live in this reality, and also the reality of Alcatraz and Rebecca, Hauser (Sam Neill) and Doc (Jorge Garcia), and understanding Lucy (Parminder Nagra), and feeling like we’ve caught each of those inmates that they have caught, and we’ve lived in Alcatraz, in 1960, with the inmates whose flashbacks we’ve seen. It might make most people crazy, but you live in two worlds.

Have you had a favorite inmate whose story you’ve most enjoyed bringing to life, so far?

JOHNSON: That’s hard.

PYNE: They’re all so different.

JOHNSON: I was going to say that they all feel like your children, but I don’t want my children to end up like that. The one whose interior life we get to know a little bit better are, for me, the ones that I gravitate towards. I enjoyed Paxton Petty (James Pizzinato) and understanding what his motivation was, and what he was doing present-day. They’re all so different.

Do you have a gauge for how dark things will get, or can it ever get too dark, when you’re dealing with Alcatraz?

JOHNSON: That’s a really good question. We try to let it be dictated by what the actual inmate would or would not do, and so, it’s what feels organic to the story. There’s always an artful way of hiding gore or horror, but if it feels organic to what the inmate would actually do, or try to do, then we try not to shy away from it. We try to stay true to the character.

PYNE: It just depends on where the criminal takes us.

When you’re doing a show like this, where everything seems to be so connected with everything else, do you have to start thinking about where you’d want to go in Season 2 pretty early on, so that you can start layering some of that into the first season?

PYNE: Yes and no. If you think too far ahead, you run the risk of losing the audience and losing your fans. You want to give people satisfying stories, so that if they miss next week, they’re not going to feel completely lost the week after. At the same time, you want to be able to lay the groundwork for really good stuff later. You want to have enough pieces, so that you can go to a lot of different places and so that the narrative doesn’t start to narrow down and go in just one direction.

JOHNSON: This season would be a chapter in a novel. On a macro level, we think, “Who will the main players of the next chapter be? What will the shift be? What will the new paradigm be? How much will we know, coming in? What will be the new mystery that we want to tell?” A lot of the mysteries we’ve set up now will be answered, and then we’ll get on to the next level of that mystery.

PYNE: This season is really about Tommy Madsen, and about Rebecca pursuing this distant, weird connection that she has with this guy who killed her partner, and solving the riddle of why he was there and what happened. That will close out, and then a new mystery will emerge. Next season will be about something else.

Does that mean you would change the cast, or would you just add to the cast you have now?

PYNE: We wouldn’t change the cast, but there would perhaps be a different question. It doesn’t mean that Tommy Madsen won’t still be out there, it just means that there will be an emotional conclusion to that story. Next season could be exploring Warden James (Jonny Coyne) and what he did at the prison, and whether he jumped and is here now, or any number of other things. It could loop back to Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce).

JOHNSON: Once we open the door, at the end of this season, that mystery will be answered, but it will give us a jumping-off point for a whole new level of mysteries. We think of, “How can the whole season stand on its own?,” and it is. In the pilot, we introduced Tommy Madsen and the relationship that Rebecca had to him, and we wanted to have them see each other and come face-to-face, for the first time. That was really important to us, to do by the finale. We’ll have answered the questions that we’ve posed, at the beginning of the season, by the end of the season. And then, once we open the door, we’ll platform new mysteries.

For those big questions that you’ll be answering, how much of that was laid out, from the beginning, and how much have those answers surprised you, as you’ve gone along and figured out what they are?

JOHNSON: I would say that we’ve simplified from where we started. What we’ve done is focus on one element of the mystery, for this season. We have this huge, three-dimensional galaxy, and we’ve just focused on our solar system, to use an analogy. There’s a huge idea that’s multi-dimensional, and we’ve just made sure that we focused on the first part of it. So, it still lives. We haven’t abandoned the huge idea. But, we’ve focused on the more concrete and specific questions that we’ve raised this season, so that we can feel that we’ve answered that question. We’ve watered that plant, and now we’re ready to move on to the next part of the garden because we know that that’s stable and works and we can build upon it, as opposed to feeling like it’s all shaky ground. I’ve mixed about 16 metaphors in there, but it’s the idea that we’ll complete the first piece, so that it just becomes part of the bigger puzzle that we can build upon, as opposed to never quite answering that question and raising new questions. We’re just taking care to answer the questions that are right in front of us first.

Was the relationship between Detective Madsen (Sarah Jones) and Dr. Soto (Jorge Garcia) so playful, from the beginning, or has that evolved out of how the actors have gotten along and played the characters?

PYNE: A little of both. It was always intended to be a good and complimentary partnership, but Jorge and Sarah bring their own respective stuff to the party that makes it that much more interesting.

Are you going to get deeper into why Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) decides to work with some of the people who come back and why he locks others of them up?

PYNE: Yeah, we’re going to deal with that a little bit more. There are a few key players who were on the island when everybody disappeared, and who disappeared with them and came back, like Lucy (Parminder Nagra) and Beauregard (Leon Rippy), who have their own stories of what happened. They become key players. There are definitely factions at play.

JOHNSON: As Warden James (Jonny Coyne) evolves, we’re really enjoying his character, immensely. He tasks different people on Alcatraz to do different things for him, and makes them feel like they’re in on the whole plan, but they’re not and they start to realize that. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Everybody knows a little bit, but nobody knows everything, and that starts to become more clear, by the end of the season.

Are there challenges specific to working on this show, with all of its moving parts?

JOHNSON: There are a lot of things to think about. It’s the bringing together of the flashback narrative and the present-day narrative and the mythology narrative, and then our characters’ relationships to each other and their lives.

PYNE: There’s the thriller element, the men-in-prison element, the period element, and the romantic short story of the past element that has to blend with the more familiar police procedural element of the present. There are a lot of different things that you have to weave together, and we hope that we do it seamlessly. It’s a challenge because you need to keep it all tonally consistent. There are a lot of different ideas floating around.

JOHNSON: With these chapters, one season will feel one way, and the next season might feel another way. These inmates that have come back this season, we very much felt that they work up yesterday or last week. We may start to get the feeling that some of these guys are a little more integrated into the fabric of their surroundings, so they may become harder to find, for different reasons. So, a future season might make finding them different and might make the tools we need to use to find them different and give us a little bit more to dig into, in terms of who the ‘63s may be interacting with, who they may have befriended, and who they might have taken on as a girlfriend or an employer. We’d like to sink into that a little bit more.

alcatraz-tv-show-image-sam-neill-01Have either of you guys ever thought about directing an episode yourself, or do you feel like you’re already doing more than enough with the show?

PYNE: I don’t think we’d have time to direct, given all the other stuff that we’re doing.

JOHNSON: It’s an intriguing idea, but in the first season of a show, there are so many things going on. We’re all figuring out the show and the characters and the mythology, and the alchemy of all those parts fitting together, but who knows what the future holds.

Alcatraz airs on Monday nights on Fox.