Features, Interviews, New Shows

Interview: Kyle Killen

2 Comments 02 March 2012

Kyle Killen, creator of NBC's AwakeHere at New TV Shows we’ve been big fans of Kyle Killen ever since we saw the pilot for Lone Star, the show he created for Fox in 2010. One of the smartest, most interesting pilots for many a year, it seemed to lay the tracks for what could well become a modern classic. One episode later Lone Star was axed; despite critical acclaim the show didn’t bring in the numbers the network demanded so it was cut down before it had even had a chance to reach its prime.

Disappointment followed once more when The Beaver, based on a highly regarded Killen script, performed poorly at the box office — presumably largely because of widely publicised accusations of racism and domestic violence against its star Mel Gibson in the run up to its release.

But now Killen is hoping it’ll prove to be third time lucky with NBC drama Awake, a show which follows a police detective who is involved in a horiffic car accident with his wife and son. When he regains conciousness he finds himself caught between two worlds — one in which his wife survived but his son died, the other in which the roles are reversed. He skips from one reality to the other every time he wakes from sleep, causing him to question which version of his new life is indeed ‘real’. But as he tells one of his psychiatrists (he’s got one for each reality, naturally): “When it comes to letting one of them go, I have no desire to ever make progress.”

With the first episode of Awake set to air on NBC tonight, Kyle Killen was good enough to answer some of our questions about a show we’ve been excited about for quite some time.

Both Awake and Lone Star feature central characters struggling with a double life of one kind or another. Was that a deliberate choice? Are there themes you had planned to explore with your previous show that you plan to include in Awake?

Something like that. My mind was kind on the dual life place coming off of Lone Star so I think it was still fertile ground when I went looking for another story to tell.

What is it about the double life dynamic that appeals to you?

I think we all wonder about the decision we might have made differently and the lives that might have resulted from them. I’m kind of interested in people who refuse to pick one and instead try to take both sides of the fork in the road at the same time.

Is there anything you learned during your experience with Lone Star that has affected your approach with Awake?

Lone Star had a much darker core — the lead was essentially an anti-hero, someone you cared for despite his behaviour. I think part of the fun was that the audience could never really tell if they wanted him to succeed or fail. Ultimately, that turned out to be a  barrier to a network audience and we had trouble getting enough people to try it out to keep it on the air.

Awake really turns that dynamic on it’s head, giving you someone who’s struggle is something we’re completely empathetic to and our rooting interest is pure and clear. Lone Star was also a very serialised story that required commitment while Awake will offer a serialised overstory, but also has a procedural engine that provides stories that begin and end every week.

Does the fate of Lone Star make you nervous about Awake‘s prospects or is it a case of ‘well, it’s unlikely we’ll be treated as badly as last time’?

I think no one really ever knows what’s going to work and what won’t. If Lone Star had been a giant hit I’d still be very nervous that no one was going to turn up for Awake. In the end, making films and television is a giant leap of faith and Lone Star demonstrated that when you take that leap you can very easily end up on your face.

Awake NBC

Does Awake live and die with its central mystery or can you eventually answer that and still have more to explore? Is there a worry that if you take too long to answer the big question fuelling the show that the audience will give up?

I really don’t think it’s a show about which world is real. I think it’s a show about man who treats each world as real and struggles with the ways those two worlds start to pull away from one another and demand different things from him. I think that to the extent people keep watching, it will be because they’re invested in both worlds, not because they’re waiting for one of them to go away.

Do you have an ‘ideal run’ in mind for the show in terms of number of episodes/seasons?

I don’t.  No one wants it to be a show that outlives it story, but given that my last show made it two episodes, I haven’t spent a lot of time worrying about that particular problem.

Do you have a solid idea from the outset what’s really going on with [main character] Michael or is that something you’ll decide upon when the show naturally approaches that point?

I tend to start with really defined places that I want to get to in a season, something to build to or explore, but I think you have to be open to how to get there. You’re working with a lot of creative and talented people and they’re going to bring amazing things to you that you’d never have considered on your own. Being able to accomodate that and see it all grow and mesh together is the single most exciting thing about doing a show like this.

How do you feel about the timeslot you’ve been given? How much sway do you give to that factor in terms of successful a show is?

This was ER‘s timeslot, a space I grew up watching NBC dominate, so it feels like an honour to land there. There’s no safe harbour on television. It’s like an election every week, and ultimately people vote for what they want more of. We enjoyed making this and are excited about, so we hope people dig it. That’s about as much as we can control.

Jason Isaacs and Laura Allen in Awake

In terms of the detective elements of the show, will there be a new case to be solved in each reality every week or are we looking at longer arcs?

Yes and yes. There’s a case or cases each week in most episodes, though eventually the dominoes on the over arching story arcs start to fall in a way that demands more of our time and attention. Hopefully it’s a satisfying blend of the weekly and serialised.

When The Wire was shown in the UK a couple of years back David Simon was asked if he was worried that the casual viewer would feel lost when dipping into his show halfway through. His response: “Fuck the casual viewer”. With a relatively complex set-up for your show is there a chance people joining the show late will feel alienated — and if so, do you care?

As an enormous fan of The Wire, I’m extraordinarily grateful that Simon took that approach. I think there’s a few different ways to look at it. First of all, I think we underestimate the intelligence of the audience and their bandwidth to handle things that are different or unique. There’s nothing about this show that’s more mentally taxing than Jersey Shore. It’s just an entirely different type of story.

As for the casual viewers, I think it’s completely legitimate to say that you’re making something that is intended to be a deep, meaningful and incredible insight into a particular world that demands investment from and audience and rewards them with both entertainment and eye-opening insight like The Wire. I think it’s also legitimate to say that there are a lot of people who work incredibly hard all day and simply aren’t up to a challenge like that for the hour they spend in front of the TV each night.

Anyone can decide to aim their efforts at either audience, and we can argue the merits and cultural importance of the shows on either side of the divide, but as a writer it ultimately has less to do with the audience than your own interest and investment in what you’re giving your time to. So in that sense, regardless of what kind of show you’re writing, it’s always less about the audience than about the writer deciding what makes them happy.

The first seven minutes of episode one were available to view online early. How do you feel about that kind of marketing? You’ve written the opener to hang together as a whole so does taking a chunk of that and putting it out there on its own cause any issues?

I think the first seven minutes do a great job of setting up what the show’s about, so I’m all for it. The reality is that people don’t consume TV by setting their clocks and showing up on a certain channel at a certain time any more. The more we embrace that and explore ways to use and benefit from it, the more I think we’ll discover a host of opportunities where currently we see threats.

To wrap up, what would you say to somebody who prior to coming across this interview is undecided about whether or not to give Awake a go? Why should they tune in?

I think it’s a bit of an experiment, an effort to see if we can bend some conventions and offer something new that’s satisfying to a wide audience. As with any experiment, you tune in to see if it might go horribly wrong. We’ll know March 1.

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Your Comments

2 Comments so far

  1. The Chin says:

    Great interview, and sounds like a fantastic show that I hadn’t heard anything about before reading this. Thanks! Do I recognise Kyle Killen as an Actor?

    • newtvshows says:

      Thanks! No, I don’t think he’s done any acting. I think he looks a little like Breckin Meyer in some shots, so that could potentially be who you’re thinking of. That said, from a quick check nobody else on the internet has drawn the same comparison so it may be that my eyes are broken.


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