Sunday, June 04, 2006

After the Break: An Interview with Prison Break Creator Paul Scheuring

Prison Broke? The Fugitives?

Skeptics wonder about the longevity of a show whose title promise was fulfilled in the first season finale. How do you sustain a show a called Prison Break after the break? But the show's creator and executive producer, Paul Scheuring, has no such qualms.

"I always had a two-year plan. Before I even wrote the first page of the pilot, I had to know the end game for all the characters and all the story arcs, because I'm really only comfortable writing closed-ended stories," said Scheuring, who wrote the film A Man Apart, starring Vin Diesel, before making his first foray into television with FOX's Prison Break.

In case fans despair for the longer-term future, though, he explained the show's lifespan isn't limited to those two years. "Of course with our success now, there's the question of season three, and we're beginning to explore some things with that that are pretty exciting, too," he promised. "But again, season three will be a complete reinvention, just as season two was of season one."

The success of the show has led to an invitation for Scheuring to share his experiences with industry insiders at the upcoming Banff World Television Festival. "What's interesting is that it's called a Master Class, and I'm involved in it, but I'm essentially a neophyte," he said. "I'm gladly going to share what I can in terms of my personal experiences in doing this show, which is a very unorthodox show for television."

Prison Break's first season revolved around the elaborate plan Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) devised to free his brother, Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) from prison, where he was on death row after being framed for the murder of the Vice President's brother. Scofield, a structural engineer who helped design the jail, gets himself incarcerated in order to break out from the inside, while working on exonerating Burrows.

Scheuring thinks the audience, like the characters, were ready for release from the claustrophobic prison setting by the end of the season, and will gladly follow the characters through the aftermath. "It's basically a reinvention of the playing field," he said. "Our guys are going to be scattering to the four corners of the country, in all different modes of conveyance – you're going to have planes, trains, automobiles, everything."

In a TV landscape where a show like 24 reinvents itself and thrives each season, the fuss over Prison Break's change in direction seems linked to the title, as if the event becomes irrelevant even though it drives the action that follows. But as he prepares to begin shooting season two, Scheuring hints at more dramatic changes than simply a change in setting and mission.

"Overall, the season's going to be a mix between The Great Escape and American Idol," he revealed. "People are going to slowly fall by the wayside. We're going to pare away one escapee after another after another until only one's left standing. It's going to be fun, and we're playing for keeps. The audience is going to understand that from the very first episode – that no characters are sacred."

Last season, loyal fans stuck with the show despite a lengthy mid-season break, one they'll have to endure again in the coming season if FOX's recently announced 2006/07 schedule remains unchanged. This year, however, the producers are anticipating the hiatus. "Last year we were apprised of it after starting to shoot the 13th episode, which made this false cliffhanger," said Scheuring. "This year we're anticipating it."

While preparing for the second season of Prison Break, Scheuring recently turned in his script for the movie Yucatan, based on a pet project of Steve McQueen – star of The Great Escape. McQueen had traveled extensively to the Yucatan peninsula as research for a film on a treasure hunter in Mayan Mexico.

"He compiled all his notes into 16 custom-made leather-bound journals that were then placed in two custom-made treasure chests that he kept in his vault," explained Scheuring. "His son, Chad, discovered them and brought them over to Warner Brothers, and Warner Brothers obviously was very excited about it. There were storyboards in there – it was just amazing, there was a whole film in there."

Scheuring, a long-time McQueen fan, was honoured to be chosen to write the script: "It's a piece of Hollywood history." But he also noted that writing for movies is the antithesis of writing for television.

"In television, as creator and executive producer of the show, I've got final cut on the episodes, making the final edits, music choices, that sort of stuff. It's very, very empowering as a writer because the writer really becomes a filmmaker in a way," he commented. "Whereas in features, you're not involved in post production, you're not involved in casting decisions. They sure pay you a lot to complain, but by and large, you're just one of a stable of people they can just keep cranking through that project, and get new people to rewrite you."

Besides writing and producing Prison Break and continuing to write films, Scheuring hopes to turn to directing, possibly including later this season on the show. He discounts his one past directing credit with a laugh. "(36K) was a small film we made for a thousand dollars, and somehow it showed up on IMDb. I don't even have a copy of it. I don't think it exists anymore. So I don't think that really counts."

For more of my discussion with Paul Scheuring, see the Q&A.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics.)