From show creator/executive producer Kevin Williamson (The Vampire Diaries), the dark, fast-paced thriller The Following is an epic story of good versus evil, as told through the eyes of ex-FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), who is forced to return to the case that destroyed his career, when it becomes evident that notorious serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) is at the center of a cult of like-minded killers who have created an insidious web of blood and carnage. With Hardy’s help, a team of agents, including Mike Weston (Shawn Ashmore) and cult specialist Debra Parker (Annie Parisse), attempt to unravel the deadly plot of murder before the body count rises.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, Kevin Williamson talked about developing so many different layers for the series, the elements needed to build and sustain a great thriller, the challenges of building suspense to the commercial breaks, his surprise that Kevin Bacon was looking to do television, and what makes James Purefoy so riveting in his role. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
KEVIN WILLIAMSON: I wrote Scream because of Bob Dole’s comments about Natural Born Killers. He went off on Natural Born Killers. The characters, at the end, state my views on violence in cinema. The killers do, when they’re in the kitchen, cutting themselves up. I have nothing else to say about it.
With so many layers to this story, was there one that came first when you started developing it?
WILLIAMSON: It’s about seconds for me. It’s about second chances, second chapters, rebirth. When you look at me and my age and the mid-life crisis of it all, I notice that my characters are going through a second phase or some sort of second chance. I think that’s just par for the course when you get in your 40’s. That was the emphasis. I wanted to do a story about an FBI agent and dive into the world of the FBI. I’ve been reading these novels my whole life, and I just wanted to go there. And I wanted to tell a story about an FBI agent who gets a second chance at life.
It’s a rebirth and an opportunity to bring himself back to life. But, in order to do that, I wanted to create a serial killer that was so diabolical and insidious, who absolutely wants the same thing. That’s why I came up with the idea that he’s actually escaping from prison, for a crime he committed, all these years ago. He’s also, in a weird way, looking for a rebirth. He’s writing a new book and telling a new story. It’s meant to be this modern-day gothic, romantic horror story. It’s full of romance and Edgar Allen Poe. Ryan Hardy has a heart problem. The allegories just continue. It goes on and on and on. It’s a big pulpy paperback that you’re going to sit on the beach and read, one chapter at a time. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to make it exciting and somewhat smart and engaging.
Are there elements that you need to have in place to not only build a great thriller, but sustain it?
WILLIAMSON: There are, and that’s where the cult came in. That sustains it. When you talk about the layers, you need something that has tentacles. You have Joe Carroll, and he’s got tentacles that can go out. I realized that he’s this cult leader and a master of this very twisted story. We’re not dealing with the lower IQ people. A lot of these cult members are college educated. They’re either bored or empty or discontent, but they’re quite educated. They’re very smart, which makes them scarier because they have an analytical mind that can plot and plan and cover their tracks. There’s a lot of organization going on, which is really creepy. And the flashbacks allow us to tell a lot of the story.
You only have 42 minutes and you have six act breaks. Trying to craft suspense, knowing that you’re writing to an act break, is an impossible feat. That’s what cable has on us. They don’t have commercials and they can actually build and escalate suspense, in the proper way. We’re constantly doing it to the commercial break, and then it just goes away and you have to rebuild it. That’s a challenge. But, you have to put a lot of things in place. In a weird way, the flashbacks are the first movie and the present-day story is the sequel. That’s how I see it. We flashback to the first movie all the time, to show what happened 10 years ago, because that informs present-day, and both are hopefully equally scary.
Is it challenging to do what is really more of a cable show, on a network?
WILLIAMSON: I don’t want to say it’s cable because I don’t know what cable means. There are some good cable shows and some bad cable shows. But, I do think the story content and the idea behind it implies so much. We could do a lot more on cable, but I always saw it as a network show. I felt Fox was the right home for it because this show is designed to be my serial killer version of 24.
When you got a phone call that Kevin Bacon was looking for a TV show, did you think it was a joke?
WILLIAMSON: Yeah, I did. I had said, just days before, “We need to get someone like Kevin Bacon because he’s got the gravitas. We need someone who’s a movie star to come in and play this part. Anyone else is just going to be silly.” I wanted him to have weight from the damage, and all that stuff. And they said, “Well, why not Kevin Bacon?” I thought he was going to want to play the killer. But, he was interested. I got a call and they were like, “He wants to meet with you,” and I was like, “No way!” I was thrilled. So, we met and he wanted to know about the story and the character. He really responded to the script and, for whatever reason, he wanted to do it, so it worked out.
WILLIAMSON: Yes. I knew, at the end of the day, this wasn’t a story just about a serial killer. It’s about a charismatic cult leader. All cult leaders have some sort of charisma. Even Charles Manson, for his day, had this charisma. When you read about all those people, they always speak to their charisma as being the integral element that allows them to do their brainwashing. So, that’s what I was looking for, more than just a killer. I don’t want to see someone on screen, just being evil. That will get real old, real quick. I wanted to see a charming, handsome, smart, well-spoken, charismatic man, seducing these people. He seduces men, women, prison guards. He just knows how to get in to each one of their heads and play with them and pull them in.
James is a good actor. He’s so riveting. His training is so intense. He’s a very complicated man, and that’s what he brings to the role. And I wanted that to go with Kevin Bacon. I needed someone like that. These shows are only as good as their villains. I wasn’t sure about the English accent because of Anthony Hopkins. I was worried about The Silence of the Lambs comparisons. But then, we heard the American accent and I went, “Do the English again.” So, he did the English again, and I said, “Do the American again.” And I was like, “I don’t want to hear the American. I want to hear the English.” It’s just so delicious. When he was doing the American accent, I felt like he was holding back. I thought it stifled him. I felt like he was too busy trying to get the accent right, and he wasn’t able to let loose.
How much fun is it to get Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy in scenes together?
WILLIAMSON: It gets so insidious. It goes on and on, and it takes turns that are fun. It’s fun to watch them. They’re a delight to write for. What’s nice is Kevin just comes in damaged. You think he’s that cliched FBI agent, but as the show goes on and we start to rip him open, you’re like, “Oh, okay, I didn’t realize he was like this and this and this.” We keep adding to him, as we move forward, and his character gets multi-dimensional. What you think is our stock, cliched FBI agent who’s being pulled out for that one last case, is not exactly that. He actually has dark sides.
The Following airs on Monday nights on Fox.