Fox’s new drama series WAYWARD PINES is a 10-episode limited event series. It is a mystery thriller set in a small town that may or may not be more than it appears on the surface. When Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillion) goes in search of two fellow agents who have gone missing, he finds himself a victim of a brutal car crash that may have altered his cognitive perception of what is going on around him. He awakens in the town of WAYWARD PINES, where the residents are either too scared to tell him what is really going on or too blissfully idyllic in their routine lives to be that content and happy. When he does find his fellow agents, the answers shock him. One has not fared well, the other is alive and living in WAYWARD PINES and in spite of only being missing a few weeks, seems to have settled into the town’s odd way of life. As Ethan struggles to discern what is real and what maybe the lingering effects of a head-injury, viewers will wonder as well. Did his ex-partner Kate Hewson really settle in this seemingly quiet town, or is she being kept there against her will. One of the residents quick to aid in Ethan’s journey is Beverly (Juliette Lewis), who only wants to get the hell out of WAYWARD PINES. Each episode reveals one more twist in the mystery and it will leave viewers’ heads spinning as the clues start to reveal something much bigger is going on.
In a press interview, executive producertalked about taking this labyrinthine story from the books it is based upon and bringing it to life for television. He also talks about casting the key roles and the fun of telling these types of twisty, mystery stories.
How closely did you stick to the books? What did you decide to pull and how did you decide where you wanted to go with it?
NIGHT: It’s an interesting anamorphous answer to your subject. The normal provenance of a project seems clear. We adapted it from a XYZ book and that’s the end of it. In our case, we had Blake [Crouch’s] first book, which was fantastic, and they wrote the pilot and the information from the first book was basically in the five episodes that you saw, maybe a little bit into the sixth episode that you’ve seen. The decision to basically get to the reveal midway through the season was something that I felt strongly about, and everybody concurred that we didn’t want to have more the traditional format of tease, tease, tease, tease and then at the very end tell you the answer, because I thought the answer was a very exciting world to live in. Subsequently, as we started to write episodes, Blake continued to write books. Book 2 came out well into our shooting and Book 3, so he started to evolve the world. So to some extent, we were parallel creating our world post Episode 5-6.
What turned you on to WAYWARD PINES in the first place? What made you want to do this project?
NIGHT: It’s a really wonderful question. I’ve been hesitant about doing things other than movies for a while and very tempted to do something on TV. It was a tentative ride, got to the altar a few times and found a reason to not do XYZ projects. I felt a little bit like maybe I will never feel the clarity of the decision that I feel when I do most of my movies, when I do an original that I’ve written – a thriller or something. I always feel a great clarity and a commitment to how I want to put in this time. I can’t wait to do this for the next year and a half to two years and I wondered whether I would have that clarity. Then just when I was doubting all of that—and it’s been a while, maybe a year and a half of trying to find something that felt right to start the journey in TV, and then the pilot for WAYWARD PINES came across my desk and I’m really, really lucky that it did and lucky they chose me as their first choice and just that they thought of me and it just fit so well with what I was interested in. I was interested in doing dark material and doing, for me, a dark humor attached to that material and certainly the pilot had that approach. As it entered this world of mystery and stuff and suspense it took a dark irreverent tone to it. If you’ve seen the trailer to my new movie for Universal, that also has very inappropriate dark humor throughout. I’m a big fan of that and I’m in that headspace, so this pilot really spoke to me and it was such a great puzzle and a great mystery. And, ultimately, when you find out what’s going on, I thought meaningful. So it was a really easy decision.
There’s only ten episodes to this run of WAYWARD PINES. What do you see as the drawbacks and the benefits of only having ten episodes rather than anticipating a second season or knowing you have to fill a full twenty-two episode order?
NIGHT: There’s not a ton of negatives, I’ve got to be honest with you. You get a certain group of people that wouldn’t necessarily be interested in doing an open-ended long-form type of storytelling like Matt Dillon and others that were willing do a project if I said can you come and work for X amount of months and do one season for me. That’s a benefit. The beautiful thing about TV right now is that the form is very pliable. When it was you had to do twenty-four episodes it was a tough thing to fit, and now it went to thirteen and then it went to ten and then you could do eight, like TRUE DETECTIVE, and you could basically can do whatever the material dictates and that’s a very beautiful thing. Even as we were deciding what to do, the length of this was supposed to be—it vacillated from thirteen to twelve to ten, and ultimately the decision to not have any vamping episodes—that kind of what we all feel is the telltale trait that they’re running out of material is that if they’re getting repetitive or vamping and going to a side thing because they just need to fill space. You don’t have those kind of problems with a ten-episode series. So really wonderful positives on all fronts. I’m trying to think of a negative. If the negative is we love this show and want to continue it, it’s a decision that can be made in the future. But that wasn’t the goal. And for me, especially, being involved with the show it would be something that would have to be made later and not we have to hit this target and we don’t know what we’re doing for that target. So a lot of positives for this format. And including me, I don’t know if I would have been ready to say I wanted to do an open-ended show as my first show. I’m not sure.
Overall casting is phenomenal. So many great actors play the intense characters. Melissa Leo really struck me, especially in the premiere, because ever since Nurse Ratched, you haven’t really seen a nurse that gave you the chills so quickly. Tell me a little about the casting process for this run, because really you couldn’t of handpicked better people to play these roles.
NIGHT: You’re very astute. I don’t know if it was just a coincidence or a testament to your acumen. We’ll give it as a testament to your acumen that you mentioned Melissa. Because really for me, casting for me is the most critical thing. I’m always confused at the onset. I have my aspirations and my agendas and “oh, I’d love to work with this person and that person” and those kinds of things can be false gods sometimes. They can lead you down to the wrong path. There’s a moment where you feel peace and that peace comes from when you know the personality of the entire cast put together. Because basically, you guys as an audience member are going on a date or something, say a relationship with the cast as whole, what is that personality of their cast as a whole? So the first person was Matt [Dillon]. We signed on Matt and he was literally a no-brainer. Then I was, to be honest, a little confused for a second about how to cast this thing. I can’t remember who mentioned Melissa first. It might have even been Matt. I’m not sure and literally when I heard the name—the second I heard the name I wen, “Oh my God, I know exactly how to cast this show.” Because the role that, for me, I was worried about was Nurse Pam because it needs to be handled really deftly, otherwise it becomes a caricature. I was struggling with the tone of the cast and then when I heard her name I was like, “Oh my God let’s get her, let’s get her, let’s please see if we can get her.” And then when we got her, I went, “wow, now I know what the rest of this cast is.” This is the Melissa Leo version of Matt Dillon and those two in a movie, I know exactly how to cast this. This is an East Coast/New York independent movie. So then Terrence [Howard] came on and Carla [Gugino] and Toby [Jones] and Juliette [Lewis], and just one after the other. I just knew the tone of how to cast it and luckily for us everybody said yes. It was a confluence of many, many things that got us this incredible cast. Very lucky. Casting is that the casting Gods have to be with you.
Was it just the ten episode thing that made you decide to do TV for a change instead of movies?
NIGHT: The year and a half prior to WAYWARD was the sense of getting inspired by what was going on in television. Since then even more so this sense of storytelling being led in—if you’re looking at the two mediums of film and TV—and we’re going to greatly stigmatize the two fields for a second just for simplicity. In film, in mainstream cinema right now there’s a great movement towards marketability and a lack of reverence for resonance, storytelling resonance and tone. Marketability is definitely the primary factor looked at when assessing movies and deciding which movies to make and those kind of things. In television, which used to have marketability as its sole god, as its sole criteria metric, because it had to have X amount of eyeballs on this day to sell detergent or whatever it was it came from and cable and all of this stuff started moving the metric towards resonance. It wasn’t about how many people were watching MAD MEN. It’s how many people are talking about MAD MEN, so that I make sure I put AMC on my cable package or whatever. So it started to change the metrics of what the product needs to be. And as you started to see storytelling swinging over to there you started to have filmmakers, and I’d like to put myself in that category, who are driven towards tone first and characters first. So there’s a great want and desire now in television and as you can see even in network TV now for resonance. Please make it sticky. Make it so as we are changing channels you have to stop on this channel because it’s being told in an unusual way. It’s disruptive in that manner. Their desire for that kind of storytelling started to attract me and I would love that. And then selfishly for me, because I write my films, it’s a big gap between movies to me, talking to my audience and having an opportunity to tell stories to an audience. So for me making a thriller, for example, it takes me eighteen months to two years to tell a story to the audience and nowadays that’s an eternity, right? A couple rounds of that and a whole generation has gone by. This is a great opportunity for me to tell more stories in between the movies and hopefully develop a strong broad relationship with them during that time, so they can get to know the stories that interest me and I can get to know their tastes as well. On a lot of fronts it feels like a very complementary thing to do.
It seems like during the past few years we’ve seen an uptake of the mysterious, strange, scary, thriller kind of TV shows. What do you think is responsible for that?
NIGHT: I wonder. It’s funny as you say that. I’m trying to think. It’s always been there I guess, but perhaps the format of a mystery just naturally leans towards tune-in and find out what happens next kind of agenda on television, and there’s great storytellers that have done great mysteries. LOST is probably a seminal one, JJ’s show, and THE X-FILES back in the day. There’s all these seminal stories of dark, mysterious, weird stuff. As you know, that’s my particular area of fondness. I try to make dramas that have the fancy clothes of the genre on them. So very kind of a mixture of those two. And that instinct to make drama/genre it feels very much the appetite of what audiences want on television.
You’re pretty well known for your symbolism in a lot of your films. Would you say that there’s symbolism in WAYWARD PINES and what is it?
NIGHT: If I told you it would no longer be symbolism. It would be literal. But there’s definitely a lot of hopes in there in terms of the colors and themes. I hired directors to do each of the subsequent episodes. We have a little, kind of like a guide book that we put together as saying this is what the filmic language is, at least the way I was thinking of it. I wasn’t stringent at all with them. I really implored them to make their episodes their own because I hired them for their particular muscles. Some of them are more muscular than me. Some of them are more kinetic or can handle a particular type of storytelling much better than I can and that’s why I hired them. I didn’t want them to copy me. But I did have kind of a guide book like, “hey if you used artificial light in this capacity it has this connotation,” so that’s one. The way we use light is indicative of what’s going on in the plot. I’m trying to dance around the answer there. Sorry about that. But I didn’t impose as much as I would do like say on one of my thrillers where I would say the color purple means this. It represents the woman that passed away in SIGNS for example or something like that, a very specific thing. But maybe after the show is done, one day you and I will talk and I can tell you more specific this meant this and this meant that. Some I did. I didn’t want to be too suffocating to the filmmakers coming in in terms of hey you’ve got to use this wardrobe or that or this color only. But there were suggestions in the guidebook.
What do you feel will resonate the most with viewers? I think it’s much more terrifying that this is based in reality.
NIGHT: Just one of a few reasons. I do believe that it has, hopefully, a cinematic quality to it. I hope. And by that I mean maybe an attention to the camera work and a pacing that might be more akin to what you might see in film. Certainly the cast in general was a cast that you might see more in film. It’s a giant, giant idea. It’s a big idea. It’s like one of those JURASSIC PARK kind of ideas and I can’t take any credit for that. That’s all Blake [Crouch]. And I’m super lucky to be able to be the one to shepherd it to the audiences. You’re lucky to come across big ideas like that that are both human and gigantic at the same time. I think our format is really unusual. It excited me in making it. I wasn’t once like, “oh, we’re making this show still?” The thing that I think is really amazing for audiences in that the show changes genres halfway through the season. I don’t even tell you what genre you’re watching for a long time and that’s exciting. And the kind of storytelling I love. Which is you can sense the hand of the filmmakers and so you trust them and you’re going to go somewhere but you don’t necessarily know where you’re going but you know you’re confidently being held. I also think that finding out all the answers halfway through the series is an amazing thing I think for audience members. Then to change genres and realize what genre you’re in for the second half, and I can almost argue that it changes into a third genre in the last couple episodes.
To see how the mystery of WAYWARD PINES unfolds and just who can be trusted, be sure to tune in for the premiere on Thursday, May 14th at 9:00 p.m. on Fox.
To find out more about WAYWARD PINES and the mysterious world it reveals and the incredible characters that are introduced, be sure to check out the following interviews with stars Reed Diamond and Tim Griffin and co-executive producer Donald DeLine from WonderCon: