With a roll of the dice, NBC is throwing a very unique police procedural onto the television landscape – the premise involves a cop lives in two realities simultaneously: one in which his wife is alive, and other in which his son is alive. Unwilling to choose between them and experience the loss of either, Detective Michael Britten wakes up each day to a different world. His worlds not only differ based on whether his wife or son is alive, but he has different partners on the job and is working different cases. The mystery of which is real boggles the mind, and yet captivates as you become sucked into the special reality in which Michael Britten lives. Taking a few minutes to chat with press in a recent conference call, star Jason Isaacs provided insight into this labyrinthine world and how he keeps it straight in his mind.
With Michael Britten living in two separate realities, does it ever feel like you are working on two different shows with different casts simultaneously?
JASON: It does actually. I have two different sets of people I work with. I work with Wilmer and Laura [Allen], who plays my wife, and whatever is going on that side of the story. Then I work with Dylan [Minnette], who plays my son, and Steve Harris is my partner. Laura Innes who plays a police captain in both is the only person that overlaps — although as the season goes on the writers started to be slightly more insane and very imaginative, as things happen where people cross-over. But I feel like I’m the hub. Normally there’s a cast that feels like a family but most of them only have scenes with me and I’m the only common thread. But it’s less really that my colleagues are split, and more that I have to really work to remember what has happened in what world in exactly the same way that Michael Britten does. And hopefully it’s me struggling through that, that is entertaining to watch because we all like to watch other people suffer.
When you shoot an episode, do you film all of the red-world scenes together and then all the green-scenes or do you flip back and forth to add to that confusion?
JASON: Wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing if they designed the schedule around making it easy for me? No, we don’t shoot anything in any kind of order or any way that makes it simple and I’m very often to be caught in the corner of the set just frowning fetally and sucking my thumb and wishing to God I could understand what was going on. But luckily there are some smart people around me with scripts with many markings in it. It’s like doing a cryptic crossword-puzzle blind with your hand tied behind your back. But by the time we finish it and pull it all together our top priority is to make sure that an audience has to work just hard enough to enjoy it and not hard enough to be put off.
How do you look at your struggle to play Britten effectively in contrast with what he’s trying to figure out as a character?
JASON: Well, all great storytelling is “what if?” I mean, all the things I love to watch are just scenarios in which you can just try and imagine yourself in them. And nobody wants to watch, “ what if I had to go to the grocery store and buy bananas.” We all want something more exciting and different and this is incredibly engaging. So all acting is the same. “What if I was a wizard? What if I was stuck behind the lines in Somalia?” I’ve done all those things. “What if I was a priest or drug dealer?” And now it’s, “What if I didn’t know which of my worlds was real? How would I cope?” So I do my job because I find it fun and exciting and sometimes I think it’s useful as well, and that living a life through other people’s challenges can be illuminating and invigorating. So I just try and throw myself into his dilemma and not prepare too much and see like most of us. Most of us don’t plan what we’re going to do, the day happens to us. We just try and roll with the blows and that’s what I try and do as Michael.
Although there are two realities at play, how do you see AWAKE as being grounded in a universal reality that audiences will connect with?
JASON: Well, I think that the fear of losing a loved one is — for anyone who has a family — is ever present and that hand-in-hand with the opportunity to rebuild, the opportunity to take a second-run at making a marriage work or being a parent to somehow step outside yourself and go, “what if I had a chance to do this differently?” I think that’s a very universal thing. Then, for me, I dream very vividly and I often wake up and there’s a hangover from the dream that takes me into my life. I treat people differently during the day based on things they did in my dream which is really no part of their problem. So those things I think are very universal. And then the other thing is that as a man I’m playing a man who is a fixer, he’s a guy that sorts other people’s problems out. He doesn’t like to have problems — and that’s certainly true of a lot of men that I know. They don’t like to think of themselves as needing help ever, and this is a guy whose job it is to fix the world. He sees himself on a mission to make things right everywhere and he’d like to make things right for his wife and son. But we can all see, all of us in the audience can see, he’s probably the one that needs most help of all. I think for anyone who has ever had to deal with a man, I think that’s a pretty universal thing also. And then mostly the first level of any storytelling needs to be that it takes you on a ride and this thing takes you on an extremely unusual ride that holds your imagination. We have this plot engine every week that he’s a detective, so cases come his way, and he and us, the audience, are constantly thinking is this really a case or is this — I can see so clearly how this could spring from stuff that’s going on in his life — this could so easily be his imagination creating this. So there is a puzzle and everybody loves puzzles — certainly I do. So I hope the combination of those things and the rest of the fact that we’re making moving pictures so we actually have some very talented people in the craft departments. I don’t think anyone can ever discount how important it is to literally create interesting, dynamic pictures things that are visceral and geophysical and the part that music plays. And I think we have people in every craft department who are just playing at the top of their game. I personally think it’s very engaging but I admit that I’m slightly biased.
There seems to be a big trend these days towards paranormal and sort of alternate-reality shows. Why do you think people are drawn to these kinds of shows?
JASON: Well, first of all, I don’t think anybody ever buys a ticket to go and watch the village of the happy people. So we like to watch people who are struggling because struggles are great and challenging and they have been at the heart of every great story since people have scratched cave paintings on the wall. And secondly, why tell stories about the mundane and naturalistic when we can live fantastical lives? So we can do things when we tell stories that don’t happen to us when we go down to buy a light bulb or we get a pint of milk. But actually I think it’s difficult to classify our show. People before they saw it started comparing it to things that it really isn’t comparable to. We’re hoping that we defy classification. It’s not sci-fi. There’s no aliens and although he comes from Howard Gordon who was one of the key writers on X FILES and incidentally on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, but also on 24, it’s not sci-fi and it’s not action. It’s a combination of everything. It’s kind of an emotional psychological thriller. Really if anything, it’s a psychological mystery. So why do I think there is an upsurge in that? I think that these are troubled and difficult times and we all like to escape the mundanity of our daily lives.
How do you in your mind decide what is Michael’s reality and what is his dream just to play the part?
JASON: If we were ever forced to make a decision to tell the public I know exactly what we would do, something Kyle and Howard and I know and we are never going to tell anyone. Well certainly I have taken the pact of secrecy. I haven’t told my wife. I don’t know if they have told theirs. But it really doesn’t affect anybody watching because for Michael Britten, both worlds are real and that’s the central hook and concept of our show. That’s our premise. And he doesn’t know which one is real and has to treat both with equal respect and honor them. It’s one of the things obviously that frustrates his therapist and frustrates him because he knows one of them must be his imagination but he just can’t tell which. But I know exactly what’s going on.
Did you feel it was important to be able to play the part to know in your own mind what was real and what was unreal?
JASON: No, I’m a producer on the show. I’ve been in on the discussions from the beginning, shaping the story and the story lines, and it’s one of those things obviously when we sat down over coffee to dream ourselves into the universe we discussed with each other. But it’s not that relevant. For people who have only seen the pilot, if they think the show will be about guessing which world is real or not, then they’re being slightly misled. That’s sleight of hand anyway that’s setting out the premise. It’s what is called a premise pilot and our show is not like that every week. In fact to tell the truth, our show is not like itself every week. The central conceit is the same and the characters are the same often, but the writers have found this to be — I know because I’ve spent a lot of time and talked to them — found this to be one of the hardest things they have ever worked on and also one of the freest because their imagination can go nuts. And you will see towards the end of the season they have kicked the walls down. When they really found their feet, it’s amazing what they let fly. So the premise just takes us into a universe and then the universe takes hold. So not every week is about whether it is heads or tails at all.
Can you talk a little bit about why you decided to get involved with this project?
JASON: I really wasn’t. I’m deeply resentful that I’m here, and I know Howard Gordon, we just couldn’t stop ourselves. I was in Los Angeles because I had sold an idea for a TV show that I was desperate to make that I thought would be something that I’d really like to be in and help make, and Howard who I had met a long time before similarly was given this thing to read and I was given it to read. I was being asked if I would like to do various pilots and I said “no” because I really didn’t want to. I wanted to do my own show. And Bob Greenblat who I know from Showtime wrote me an email and said, “I’d really like you to take a look at this thing.” And again I said, “That’s very kind of you but I have my own show that I am developing.” And I sat down with Howard and he said, “Look Jason, I just read this thing. I create my own things I did 24, I’ve got HOMELAND starting. I really don’t want to get involved but I read it, it’s just too good. I’m asking you, just please take a look at it.” And I looked at it and it was like somebody giving me a hit of crack — I just couldn’t get it out of my system. And I took the job not even because I wanted to do it, it was just because I would have been too resentful if anyone else had done it. And mostly if I had to boil it down to one thing I wanted to find out what happened in Episode 2 before anyone else. I had no interest in doing a network show. I was developing a cable show and I had come from Showtime. And the idea was too good. I didn’t know where it was going to go — what we were going to do with it. It felt like an insane thing to try on television but it it’s very rare to find good writing and interesting writing and it’s very rare also to find someone like Howard Gordon whose storytelling skills I respected a lot. I thought HOMELAND — I could tell because he told me about it and it was going to be great — and I thought he was great when he wrote 24 and THE X FILES and stuff, and I trusted Bob from Showtime who had done some amazing work there and I thought, “How often do circumstances come together to bring a talented group of people together with a great idea. I’d be an idiot to walk away.” So I had to let my other series go on the back burner for a while and I hope it does happen sometime. But it was a great giant big ostrich in the bush as opposed to two tiny sparrows, or in the hand, as opposed to two sparrows in the bush. . . The other reason is when I sat with Howard, he said, “Why don’t you want to do it?” and I said, “Well Howard, I’m producing something, I’m rather enjoying spreading those wings and I’m kind of in on creating something.” He went, “Well produce this with me,” and it was like a great secondhand car salesman, he just closed me down. It was like he said, “If I get you the blue leather one by Tuesday with the radio, will you take it?” And I just had no reason to say “no.”
Do you think AWAKE is going to fill a much-needed void in the overall TV lineup?
JASON: Well it’s a two-part question. Do I think AWAKE will be successful? God knows, I have no idea what’s successful and what isn’t successful. Luckily the stuff that I love doing and I enjoy doing is try to create interesting stories in interesting ways where you recognize the humanity of them and so that you’re held by them. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the last six months from dawn-until-midnight every day. So how it does or doesn’t collect an audience and what network it’s on and what its lead-in is and what its demographic is and all that stuff I’m learning about, it’s completely out of my control. And I just can’t read the tea leaves. Who knows? Obviously I hope it does well because this is a really nice, talented bunch of people that I think are doing good work and I hope we get to stay together. But audiences will find it or not.
Do you think audiences are ready to open up their mind a little bit?
JASON: Well, the other thing is there has been an odd thing that has happened actually in the making of this. First of all, the creators themselves were nervous about, “Do we need to make it clearer which world we are in and was it too complicated?” I have two daughters, one of whom is five when I was making the pilot, and I was with her and she was explaining the story to her friend in the park. I shot it on my iPhone and I came back and I showed Howard and Kyle and various other people my 5-year old explaining the story in two sentences, and I said, “It’s incredibly simple. I don’t know who it is you’re worrying about watching it out there, but you’re wrong.” And the other thing is that a lot of critics and journalists I have spoken to have said well I really like it, I love it but do you think the American public will understand it. I just think that’s an insult to American audiences who are very sophisticated and they made THE WEST WING one of the most popular TV shows in the country for almost a decade and that was dealing with the great issues of global politics through character. This is a really simple concept : which of my worlds is real and what would you do if you didn’t know which world was real? So will they get it? Can they follow it? There’s no way we make any story too complicated to follow. Is it unlike anything else on television? Yes, it is. There is nothing that it is a direct copy of and hopefully it’s original enough and yet familiar enough that people will want to come to watch it. But it’s a terrible thing to say commercially, “I’m not really interested in getting audiences for the sake of getting audiences, just making something that is on and is watched.” I want to make something that is really good. I want to tell really good interesting stories in a way that is engaging and gives you both fun to watch and fun to talk about afterwards. So that’s what I try to be part of doing and, if people find it and like it, great, and if they don’t that will be a shame. But I trust the American public if they see it and like it, it will be because they are perfectly smart enough to follow it.
How do you think the setup for the show is going to effect the fact that this is not only a complex story, but it’s also a procedural cop show? Will the police storylines take a back seat to what Michael is experiencing in his own mind?
JASON: What’s cool about this show is that everybody working which has got favorite different episodes. In some weeks, it’s very procedural there’s a lot of that. Some weeks it’s incredibly domestic and there’s some weeks it goes absolutely whacko. I’ll tell you, if you can watch it, some crazy stuff happens in his mind that manifests itself in his world and it’s like we’re making an indie movie every week. It’s like, we’ve got 13 episodes and you’ve given 13 different writers — although they’re not different writers — the same team and we get to see what they come up with. Because since one of the worlds at least is a dream, they’re really free to let their imagination roam. So it’s grounded in the reality of some procedural element because we want people to be able to watch any episode without having to watch the others. I think it will be more satisfying if you watch the whole season and hopefully people will either when it’s on TV or when it’s on DVD. But there was a note from everybody involved, the network and the studio, and I think internally as well, that we wanted to give some closed-ended narrative to every week so that people didn’t feel like, “Well, I missed last week so I can’t tune in because that would be a shame.”
How does the two reality worlds of your character help in solving crime cases?
JASON: Well, the really cheesy answer would be tune in and see. Every single week it helps in different ways. Here’s the thing. Sometimes — I don’t know about you but I have a dream and something in my dream when I wake up I think, “Why the hell was I dreaming that?” and it’s because it lodged in my consciousness during the day without me realizing it — Michael Britten is a great detective. He’s a very instinctive human being and maybe because of what has happened to him with his wife and son maybe his antenna are even more available to him, or maybe he’s more sensitive to what is going on around him. But the stuff that goes on in his world that he doesn’t really register but his subconscious does and it gets explored in his dreams. So at some point we said to ourselves, “This isn’t magical, so if something happens in one world that leads him to something in the other world, it’s because he might have noticed that thing in his first world without realizing it, and then sometimes we do something even more controversial that hopefully will make people wonder if there is magic going on.” But it’s in different ways. Sometimes it’s an instinct about human beings. Sometimes it’s actually a clue. Sometimes it’s what something looks like. Sometimes it’s a name. There are rules to this universe, but they are very flexible. And our brief to ourselves was it should cross-over and help him solve crimes in the most entertaining way possible and that’s what we try to do.
Did you do any research any similar reality-type cases that helped you get into your role?
JASON: Well, I did. First of all I went on ride-alongs with homicide cops both in Chicago last year and Los Angeles this year. I have to say it’s nothing like what you see on TV. I don’t mean necessarily on our show, I mean on shows generally. There’s very few shows that reflect the reality. So I tried to bring some of the most dynamic elements back into the show. Obviously there are many, many hours doing nothing at all and taking statements which we don’t want to have on TV. But because of that I asked the advisor — we have a great advisor on the show who was the advisor on THE SHIELD for a long time — and we try and make things more accurate to how investigations are. So that’s on the cop-side of it. And on the imaginative-side of it, my brother is a psychiatrist who deals a lot with post traumatic stress disorder. In fact he was helping me with the series I sold to FX. So I talked with him quite extensively about what might happen in these areas and what would be realistic and what wouldn’t be realistic. But the truth is that this is a flight of fantasy from Kyle and Howard and Jeffrey Rinehart, our supervising producer who ran FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS for a long time. And I’m not sure that there is or has ever been anybody who didn’t know which world was real. Certainly I hope there isn’t anybody who has got a badge and a gun who doesn’t know which world is real. I hope they are just contained to NBC on Thursday nights at 10:00 or else I feel very unsafe walking the streets. . . We’re just trying to put the best stuff we can out there and I just hope people — I’m English so I have a slight natural aversion to saying, “We have made an amazing show, come and watch it, it’s brilliant.” I feel like I would rather be in the supermarket giving people free samples. I’d rather say, “Come and try it. If you don’t like it, don’t come back.” My experience has been– and in fact the pilot is free to download online and millions of people have been watching it and loving it — so that’s the best proof of the pudding is in the eating so I hope people try it at least.
You mentioned you don’t quite see AWAKE as a science fiction show, so how do you find the balance with not getting too science fictional and also kind of keeping that balance with the procedural detective material?
JASON: Well, dreams aren’t science fiction, dreams are real or rather dreams are real, there you go. People do have dreams and people have very vivid dreams. People have lucid dreams, people have recurring dreams, and we’ve gone one step further and we have dreams in which nothing supernatural happens. They’re so realistic and they’re ongoing dreams as opposed to recurring dreams, with an unfolding narrative so much so that the person dreaming doesn’t know whether they’re dreaming or not. But I don’t know that that’s science fiction. It feels like it’s more psychological-fiction to me.
Can you give us a little more insight into how Michael is going to cope with this never knowing where he is?
JASON: Sure. Well I think it’s fair to say it doesn’t go well for him. We like to see protagonists in jeopardy and he is in both physical and psychological jeopardy, and there was a season long arc as well as weekly procedural which is to do with the fact that the accident that killed either his wife or his son might well not have been an accident. And I can tell you this: we finish shooting tomorrow and I cannot wait to sit and go and see various doctors for the various injuries I picked up as I’ve been shot and crashed in and thrown over walls and thrown in prison and on the run. So the walls close in on me both in the real world and psychologically as things get tougher and tougher. Because there are consequences for living in this kind of denial and there are consequences for trying to chase down the people who are trying to kill you. So we just ratchet things up tighter and tighter and the stakes get higher, and along the way I think the frays begin to show. This thing, it’s not just that we meet him in the pilot when this is relatively fresh. He’s like, “Okay, well this seems to be working for me.” Well it doesn’t continue to work that well or that easily for him and hopefully that makes for an enjoyable hour’s viewing. I mean, it’s been very enjoyable living through his nightmare, I can tell you that much from my point of view.
Is there any relief for him as he is going through all this?
JASON: There are times where there’s a respite from the unfolding catastrophe in his life. I mean, there are times when he’s just solving a case and he seems to be working the life with his wife goes okay, or life with his son goes okay. I mean, obviously, as an undercurrent there is always the thought that this can’t be okay in the long-run. I mean, who could ever sustain this? But the crime that week takes precedence. And there are times when it’s just not going well enough with his wife or well enough with his son or something is going wrong for him and the world begins to fray. I mean, there is one time when he can’t seem to wake-up in one world and there is times when it looks like he might have to give one up. I mean, there’s times when the therapists get him and he thinks such strange things happen in one world that he has to try and acknowledge or try to avoid acknowledging to himself that one of these worlds must be a dream. And we play with an awful lot of it, every permutation of nightmares seem to go through. We put him through the ringer.
Does he share what he’s going through with anyone besides the psychiatrist?
JASON: No, and in fact, he doesn’t. In fact he starts to retract with the psychiatrist. He’s not stupid. He’s not a stupid man. He’s been around death a lot. He’s a homicide detective. So he understands what’s going on with him and he realizes it’s ridiculous. Or not ridiculous, he realizes that it’s perilous for him in terms of stability. But he knows what the next stage is and the next stage is acknowledging that somebody is dead and he doesn’t want to. So as much as they have an insight into the fact that he has these very realistic dreams and they feel very real when he’s having them, he doesn’t want his badge and his gun taken away, and that’s their job. Ultimately he’s mandated to go to these people, for them to assess whether he is safe to be a serving detective. So there’s a limit to how much he can share with these people. They know he has these dreams, so he tells them all about the dreams and he’s looking for insights. He’s interested in their insight into what it means, what it might mean. But whenever it strays too close to either getting him taken off the job or taking one of his worlds away the alarm bells begin to ring for him. So there’s nobody really he shares it with apart from them. To me, all the filming I’ve ever done whether I’m playing a wizard or a priest or detective, the camera loves secrets. The great conceit of all storytelling on camera is that you are sharing something with the audience through the camera that nobody else in that world knows. And whether it’s literally not telling someone something or what you’re feeling that you don’t even know yourself, an audience is engaged by secrets. And I think there’s only one Michael Britten only truly shares what he’s going through with the people who are watching TV and they live vicariously, live that life vicariously through him.
Kyle Killen said that you do a lot of like preparation to help keep the two worlds straight in your mind. Can you talk about some of that and how you deal with it?
JASON: Well, I have to have a little timeline separately because different things have happened to him in these different worlds. But the great thing for me is that very early on there was quite a lot of discussion about will an audience know that what has happened in this world, will they be able to separate the two worlds. And I kept on saying to them, “Guys, that’s the whole hook of our story. If Michael wakes up and he’s at work and he says the wrong name for the case or he looks for the wrong partner or the wrong relative walks through the door and he’s surprised, that’s exactly as it should be.” The audience should go, “Oh my God, I forgot.” This is where Rex is alive because I’m forgetting. So – I don’t live in two separate worlds, I live one life. And if you woke up one day in France and the next morning in Louisiana and the next morning in France, you’re still the same person who’s waking up. So my job is the same as it is on every single film or television program or play I’ve ever done, which is I just have to put it in order in my mind. I don’t separate the two worlds at all because it’s quite tough for him to separate the two worlds. So the real challenge like anything on camera is that you shoot all the scenes at one location in one go. So you have to go, “Wait, is this guy dead yet or have I met this here? Has my wife cried yet? Oh no, this is after my arm is blown off or whatever it is.” And so that’s really the preparation you have to do. But Kyle is being very sweet because the horrifying truth for the crew until they got to know me and visiting directors is that I seem like I haven’t done any preparation at all because I never learn any lines. I never look at the script or the sides. I have taken a quick skim through it before we start and then I arrive in each scene. As long as I know the order of events as they have happened to me which I have a simple list on one piece of paper, I then just let it unfold and I either learn or evolve or rewrite the lines as we rehearse the scene then shoot it. And it’s a technique I learned from much more experienced and better actors than me and it makes everything fresh and organic. But I’m sure that many of the visiting actors who come in think I’m I’ve just finished drinking a bottle of Tequila in the trailer. It’s exactly a considered approach.
You have played obviously all different kinds of roles, bad and good, and this time you’re more of a good guy. Do you prefer one over the other?
JASON: It seems like my job is to try and tell stories in a believable way and find the humanity in anything. The hardest work I have ever done in my life is with crap scripts to take a really bad story or somebody saying something they would never say in a situation they would never find themselves in and try not to look like you’ve got egg all over your face, and to try and stop people either switching off or throwing baseballs at the screen. So good stories well told, where your character is saying, doing, or thinking something that we believe they would do are all the same. And whether it’s this is one of those brilliantly written stories or these hour long episodes in which I work hard and fight hard sometimes to try and make things believable, that’s exactly the same journey. But I could point out and I won’t indiscreetly name some of the unutterable builds I’ve done in the past, that’s the stuff that’s hard to do. But, for me, there is literally no difference between having an elf next to me or having an LAPD badge on my belt — if the story is well written.
When you say AWAKE is not science fiction, does that mean that’s its definitely all in his head from his post traumatic stress?
JASON: Oh no, I’m not in any way narrowing it down. I’m saying it would seem to a viewer watching the pilot that he’s probably dreaming one of these worlds. The show is called AWAKE because whenever he closes his eyes he’s instantly transported to the other world. It stands to reason if what we’re seeing is real, the crash at the beginning, that either his son or his wife is dead, he has experienced both funerals. So one’s first instinct will be to say that he must be dreaming in one of the worlds. Beyond that, we don’t want to be narrowed down because we’re taking people on a journey, taking people on a trip and hopefully we don’t want to close down options for ourself. . . Sometimes if you’re certainly very careful to ease people into the concept and initially when certain things cross over from one world to the other in his procedural life you go, “Well he could have noticed that or he might have noticed that.” And then sometimes we play tricks with that or we’ve shot things and then we cut them out in the edit so you can ask yourself, “How the hell would he have known that? How could he have known that in his dream?” I have actually always got some unbelievably convoluted explanation and sometimes I speak to Howard and I go I think we should put that in and he goes, “Nah, let’s let people argue about it.” Because he did THE X FILES for a long time and he knows how to create intrigue. But I think of it more as a psychological thriller, a mystery thriller. But if you want to think of it as sci-fi you are welcome to go ahead. Who knows? Maybe season 23 we might bring some aliens into it.
How far ahead do the writers plot what is going to happen on the show?
JASON: Well, that’s a very good question because it’s pretty well documented that we shut ourselves down halfway through the season. We were a few stories ahead and then as we started shooting it we found that it was a lot more work than we thought. They would write the initial story and then the second draft and third draft and you start shooting it and you realize it needs refining constantly because it’s like making a puzzle backwards or Rubik’s Cube backwards. So we just got to a point halfway through the season where we went, “Actually, we’re not confident the stuff we’ve got coming up is as good as the stuff we shot already, and now we want to stop and review what we’ve done and check where we’d like to go for the rest of the season.” And we went to the people who run 20th and we went to Bob Greenblat who runs Showtime, we went to the studio and the network and we said, “Can we stop?” And they went, “What are you talking about? We need to get you on the air.” I went, “I know, but since we don’t have an air date we really want to try and get this right. It’s the first season and we want to make sure that the stuff is both complicated enough to be engaging and entertaining and simple enough to be easily followed and that we make emotional and character full and procedural.” And they went, “Oh, all right if you have to.” And they watched what we had done and they liked it and so they let us stop so that we could get back ahead of ourselves because we caught up, we literally caught up. It was like YouTube buffering. Then we got a chance to get ahead of ourselves again and then by the time we got to the end of the season quite a lot of days we’re two days ahead of ourself. The ideas and where the story is going to go, we had a long time ago. But the actual execution to make it we have a lot of veteran writers on this and veteran show runners, people who have run shows as popular as FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and THE X FILES and 24 and people who have written on many other things, and I don’t think any of them have experienced anything as challenging to make as this, I’m sure I speak for all of them. And that’s because to make something complicated seem simple to an audience is harder work than to do something that is just cookie cutter. So the answer is we tried to get far ahead of ourselves, we were catching up, and then we were allowed the license to stop and catch up on ourselves again.
Touching on the aesthetic of the show, with Michael’s wife we get kind of a sunnier, brighter filter whereas with his son it’s almost a cloudy aesthetic, that obviously helps to distinguish the two realities, but what do you think it does sort of semantically and in a less direct way?
JASON: Well, funny enough, this is one of the frustrating things about doing press when you haven’t seen it. That is true of the pilot, but it’s not true of the other episodes. There is a different aesthetic, and David Slade who was our pilot director who is a magnificent director and has real aesthetic vision, that’s what he did with the color palette with grading the film. But then Jeffrey Rinehart, who is our supervising producer director who did most of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, came on and we decided to do something else for the rest of the season. What you’ll see is that in Rex’s world which is green-world very subtly there are hints of green everywhere. They are more in the set decoration than in the a wash of color; and in Hannah’s world you’ll see red everywhere. Not so much that it will be nauseating. But if you look very carefully, the detail on people’s desks and the background and paintings on the wall and stuff have red themes in them. What does it do? Nothing consciously. It does nothing. But unconsciously or subconsciously, it’s just a hint and it keeps the set decorators fully employed and hopefully adds texture to the pictures. But really the story should tell you where you are in the world. And if at any point the viewer goes, “Wait a second, I’m not quite sure what’s going on,” that should be exactly the same point that Michael Britten goes, “Wait a second, I’m not sure what’s going on.” And instead of that being a drawback that should that’s part of the fun of watching the show.
As far as the series goes, where would you situate it within sort of the overall television landscape?
JASON: I would situate it on Thursday nights at 10:00 pm on NBC. I have no idea. I mean the categorizing thing, it’s very useful when you’re selling a show. I’ve been in there and said, “Oh it’s a cross between MODERN FAMILY and THE WIRE, or I’ve sold movies when you go it’s ‘Schindler’s List’ meets Bambi or whatever.” It’s just a way of getting people to commission something. But then all of the best television shows that I have ever like watching and films really become their own category. And then next time someone goes to sell something they say it’s like that thing. Where does DEADWOOD come which is a show that I loved or what was THE WEST WING? So it is what it is. It’s Awake and we would love it if everyone who likes sci-fi loved it and everyone who liked police procedurals loved it and anyone who liked emotional psychological dramas loved it. But it wasn’t designed to fit demographics. It was designed to be a great story, and hopefully it’s universally acceptable. But really good work and storytelling is not designed for the audience, it’s the people who are telling the stories engaging themselves and then you throw it out there and hope that what you find interesting other people find interesting — and they can categorize it however they like.
There’s a line in the pilot that sums it up very nicely for maintaining a TV series, “When it comes to letting one g, I have no desire to ever make progress.” So Michael doesn’t want to let go, but do you think there is another type of progress out there for him?
JASON: Oh yes, that’s exactly what he says because that’s what he would like to have happen. But we’d be idiots if we let that happen for him. So that’s what he thinks. He thinks that he wants things to stay exactly as they are and anybody with any kind of insight in humanity knows that it can’t be good for him and it’s not right and there will be consequences. Look, his wife has lost his son and his son has lost a mother, and he’s the guy that is pretending that he’s lost neither and try to cope and be a decent husband and father. I don’t think it’s going to work out for him the way that he’d like it to. Anyway that’s how he feels initially. The accident has been pretty recent. There are points at which things will become very tricky for him. I mean, they get very tricky emotionally for him. They actually get very tricky plot-wise for him as well. And, I said before, no one ever buys a ticket to watch the village of the happy people. Howard Gordon who ran 24 for a long time, if Kiefer woke up in the morning and the president is having a good day, his daughter was playing on the lawn, I don’t think many people would have tuned in. So we send him on some adventures, and hopefully they’re entertaining adventures.
Do you get a sense the pilot is upping the ante for TV? Have you noticed differences between shooting film and TV and then this project?
JASON: First of all, Bob Greenblat is taking over NBC and Bob Greenblat ran Showtime for a long time. He’s a very smart guy. He’s film maker and creative-friendly, meaning he lets people tell stories the way they like to tell stories. Then Howard Gordon came in to run it who has just won a whole bunch of awards for HOMELAND. So there is a — cable-sensibility is the wrong word — but there is a sense that nobody wants to try and do exactly what has been done before and the way it’s been done before. So that’s true anyway of the people who are overseeing it and then it’s also true that the premise itself meant that when the writers sat down they were given a certain freedom every week to think differently. And some episodes come along and just sideswipe you and they’re nothing like the episode that was the week before. So if you ask me what an episode of HOUSE is like, which is a show that I love watching, there’s very similar plot lines every week and that’s one of the reasons you tune in because it’s familiar and you know roughly what’s going to happen but they deliver it in a very entertaining way. I think it’s pretty hard to know exactly what’s going to happen. Sometimes some similar things happen on our show and sometimes we can go right off pace and take you off in a different direction because once the central idea is established and you’re in tune with the characters, we can take you to many places. I think the writers felt that freedom and that challenge, and so did the directors. We’ve got some great directors and guest directors that come in. And if we get to do a second season I think we would go even further off field with it.
On that last illuminating and inspiring note, be sure to catch the premiere of AWAKE on Thursday, March 1st at 10:00 p.m. on NBC. It will blow your mind!
“Awake: A Double Life, But Is Either Real?”
“‘Awake’: NBC Has A New Unique and Captivating Drama (Advance Review)”
“NBC Releases Full ‘Awake’ Pilot Two Weeks Before Premiere (Video)”