Q & A with Awake's Howard Gordon and Kyle Killen

By , Contributor


(L-R): Awake's Laura Allen (as Hannah Britten), Jason Isaacs (as Michael Britten) and Dylan Minnette (as Rex Britten)

For most of us, distinguishing between reality and fantasy is no big deal and part of daily life, but for Awake’s Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) that has recently become much more difficult. Following a tragic car accident, the police officer suddenly finds himself living in two separate realities. In one “reality” his teenage son Rex (Dylan Minnette), died in the crash, and his wife, Hannah (Laura Allen) survived, while in the other “reality” it is the exact opposite.

Needless to say this causes an upheaval in the detective’s personal, as well as, professional life. Michael is assigned two workplace therapists, Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones) and Dr. Lee (B.D. Wong), who attempt to help him determine which of these worlds is, in fact, real. However, he is no hurry to leave either behind. While all this is going on, the detective carries on working and discovers that his footing in both realities gives him a unique crime-solving perspective.

Awake premieres this Thursday, March 1st @ 10:00 p.m. EST/PST on NBC, and was created by Kyle Killen (Lone Star) who is also the Executive Producer along with Howard Gordon (24, Homeland and The X-Files).

Last week Gordon and Killen shared their insights on the series with journalists. The following is an edited version of that Q & A. Enjoy!


Kyle, can you talk about how you came up with the concept for the series?

Kyle Killen:  Sure. I think it had some things in common with my last series, Lone Star, and when that ended some of those questions of duality and trying to make a go of living a life in two spaces continued to float around in my head.

So that was something still of interest to me and this seemed like a good vehicle for exploring a lot of that. In addition, there was the concept of the way your dreams feel real and how you seem to experience them as something that you don't blink at until something crazy happens to sort of burst that balloon. I think I also became interested in the question of what if nothing ever popped that balloon. What if you couldn't tell the difference between when you were awake and when you were asleep?

I then started looking for a way to marry those two ideas up and a few months later we had Awake.

Can you and Howard talk a little bit about how you decided on casting the series lead?

Howard Gordon: Well, we obviously started with the lead, Michael Britten, since he had to shoulder so much of the story. Initially we were afraid until we decided that we could actually break point of view. It seemed that he might have to be in every scene, which for anybody who has ever done hour long television knows that's pretty impossible.

There is a very short list of leading men of a certain age who are substantial. Jason Isaacs was at the very top of that list and we were lucky enough to get him. I’d had a general meeting with him a couple of months before, and he was very sketchy about whether or not he wanted to do television. However, Jason was as intrigued as I was by Kyle's pilot script and he jumped in.


We’ve seen a real trend by people who produced serialized shows in the past, and while Awake is serialized in one way it looks like you’re going to solve a crime or maybe two cases in every episode. Is that kind of a priority now that people realized that maybe audiences want something to end at the end of each hour?

KK:  I think I know the two shows you’re referring to. Lost and 24 inspired a lot of imitators that tried to do the same thing but didn't meet with the same success. The risk with a completely serialized show is that your audience is all in or all out, and that’s a tremendous gamble. We are very interested in the serialized elements of our story, but we also recognize that in the fractured landscape of television today it is hard to get everybody to commit in the first week.

What you really want to do is leave the door open so that hopefully the good word filters out and people can come to a show without feeling like they’re already hopelessly behind so why not just give up. Or maybe even if it goes a second or third year then they’ll catch up on DVD. We’re hoping that if someone tunes in for the first time in Week Six, that they will get a satisfying hour of television that they can completely follow and understand.

Hopefully that experience makes them excited about going back and catching up. I just think the trend is towards making sure your audience has an opportunity even if they are not there for Week One.

HG: I think Kyle is exactly right. There's also one thing I'd add to what he said, and that there’s a mercenary aspect to it as well which is TV shows that you can occasionally watch or sporadically watch are more likely to be syndicated. So there’s more of an incentive for the studio to do shows that have standalone beginnings, middles and ends.

I’m just curious if you could just wrap it up in a nutshell as to how you explain the show? Because to me, the therapists are saying it is not a dream and yet it is almost like a parallel universe where we are in two different worlds. Could you elaborate on that?

KK: Sure. I mean, it’s essentially about a detective who has experienced a tragic accident and has lost either his wife or his son. One of these worlds is real and the other is a dream that he has created to compensate for it. The therapists in each world argue that their world is real and the other one is a fiction created by Michael's brain. Ultimately what we see in the pilot episode is that he is actually less interested in figuring out what's real and what's not than maintaining those two worlds.

As long as he has both worlds, he has access to his wife as well as son, so he hasn't really lost anything. And the upshot for a detective living across two worlds is that he discovers that the cases in one seem to sort of be reflected or replicated in the other. That provides him with insight along with clues that allow him to do his job differently than before and differently than any other detective we’ve seen on television.


That sounds great. Now can you tell us about any upcoming guest stars?

HG: We have a wonderful casting director, Cami Patton, who has given us some fresh faces. One standout is Brianna Brown, who’s just terrific. Can you think of anybody else, Kyle?

KK: We've got Kevin Weisman from Alias. He did a long arc at the end of our season. He is in the last three episodes. And then there's Laura Innes from The Event and ER. She’s someone that I think originally came on for a sort of guest spot but we ended up fleshing out her character, so she's in numerous episodes and has a really big part in the season arc.

So in the show Michael has these two separate realities that are similar in some ways and different in others. Can you talk about how you guys keep track of all of that from the writing and production side of things?

KK: That absolutely was one of the trickier elements of getting started. We found that we would get confused when discussing what someone was pitching or talking about. So we’ve adapted. One world is the green world. That's the world in whichMichael has his son and his partner is Bird (Steve Harris) and his therapist is Dr. Evans. That matches his green rubber band. When we are talking about it we write in green marker and use green note cards. Our outlines are written in green and red ink; anything to make it crystal clear.

The other world, the one with his wife and rookie Efrem Vega (Wilmer Valderrama) as his partner and Dr. Lee, that's always red. That’s reflected in the final product with the way the show itself is shot and color timed. Both worlds have a different feel, and David Slade, our pilot director, developed that language for separating the two. So hopefully when you see it on the screen you’re pretty instantly oriented as to which world you are in.


As to the question of which is the true world and which is the dream world, is that something you’re actually going to answer or is that going to be left open, at least for the foreseeable future?

KK: Well, it's an inherent question at all times and there are people and events that take place in the show on a weekly basis and seem to reflect on the nature of what is real and what is manufactured. Sometimes pursuing those questions are important to the case that Michael is on or understanding his own story as he looks back at events that happened to him that caused the accident that got him here.

I think in the long term, though, the show isn't built around answering a single question. It’s really about a man who has decided and desperately wants to live in both these worlds, and who refuses to acknowledge which is real and which isn't.

As you try to live two lives in parallel worlds, you see them start to go in dramatically different directions. I think the idea is that hopefully the audience along with the character becomes invested in not wanting to let either of those worlds go.

HG: Adding to what Kyle said, obviously that question will ebb and flow over the course of this first season. But there is also a big question that is answered and that we drive towards at the end of this season, which is what exactly did happen the night of Michael's accident? That question will be answered and should give people a pretty strong sense of closure in terms of the ongoing question.

The original name of the show was R.E.M .but you decided to change it to Awake. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

KK: Honestly I believe legally it's hard to name your show after a band that has been around for 20 years. So we came up with something different, and ultimately it’s a name I’ve really kind of grown to like and I actually kind of like more. I think it somehow reflects the emotional content of the show rather than the phenomenon of the show in a way that really speaks more to what it is about.


Kyle, what do you think is going to make this show snap? What’s the one or two words that you would say that would make somebody sit up and take notice?

KK: I don't know. Unfortunately, being a writer - it takes me 60 pages to say what makes the show work - it’s tough to put it in two words, but hopefully it feels new and refreshing because of that.

I was wondering if you could speak to how the actors, specifically Jason Isaacs, are able to work on these dual realities on-set. How do they deal with the segregation of the two realities, because it seems like it is almost like two different shows are going on, on the same production?

KK:  I think that is an accurate description and it's sometimes as difficult for them as it is for us, because not only is the show two stories in two worlds, but it’s not shot in order. So this scene isn't just this scene. This scene has to reflect not just what would have come before it, but what would have come before it in the other world.

It therefore informs your opinion as a character of this scene in a way that is different from everybody else in that scene. You’re carrying with you a clue, a notion or a sense of urgency that nobody else shares. I think Jason goes to great lengths to keep track of all those things and bake them into his approach to a scene. He does that through an incredible amount of research and preparation. Jason invests a great deal of time in every scene and understanding what he and everyone else needs to be doing in order for the scene to make sense to the audience.

Is there any crossover between the two realms by way of the characters? Is there one character that is consistent in both worlds?

KK:  That's an element that we have certainly played with. I mean, since one of the realities is in Michael’s mind and comes from him, we’re able to toy with what he brings from one world to the other. Sometimes that is a character and other times it’s these clues.

We play constantly with the idea of things crossing over from one to the other and sometimes that's helpful and other times it's extremely problematic. The Kevin Weisman arc towards the end season kind of goes to the heart of that idea of being able to keep characters from one world separate from the other and the problems inherent when you aren't able to do so.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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