Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Q&A with The 4400 Creator Scott Peters

The 4400 creator and executive producer Scott Peters kindlly let me interrupt his rushed lunch break on Friday for the Blogcritics article The Return of The 4400. But for more of our conversation, the following is a minimally edited transcript of our chat.

DK: So you're directing an episode right now? How far along in the season are you?

SP: Yes, we're shooting number nine out of 13 right now.

What can you share about what's ahead for the third season?

SP: Lots. There's a lot that's new. We're moving away from the 4400 freak of the week, from following new and heretofore unknown 4400 members. We're trying to build the mythology a lot more, trying to stick with our core characters throughout their travels this season. We found last year that we liked meeting new characters and having them interact, but we didn't want the show to just become that. There's still an element of that, it's just we've pulled back on that a lot and really focused on the main characters, the main cast, and how their lives interconnect. Not only that, but we're giving a little more background on how all this came to be. We know who did this, but we don't know specifically who did this. We know why they did it, but we don't know specifically why. So we're trying to give the audience more of a peek of that behind-the-curtain aspect of the show.

And you're going to answer some of the questions raised by the finale?

SP: As we try to do every year, we like to answer some big questions, and in the answering of those questions, create bigger questions. That's our goal.

Has your vision of the show evolved over the years, or did you have a pretty firm idea of where you wanted to go with future seasons?

SP: I did have a firm idea and I think that as with anything, as you start something and you have a target you want to hit, after a while it begins to take on a life of its own, and so evolves and it changes. Like when you're bringing on an actor to play a character, you start to write to their strengths and stay away from their weaknesses. As you see they can do something really well, you write more stories for them that allow them to do that thing they do really well. So like that, as the series begins to unfold and evolve and take on a life of its own, you get a sense of what really works well and what doesn't work so well, given our time and budget and what we can achieve. You try to steer the series into directions that will be interesting and exciting, with things that we can achieve and do well. If you start to see that you can't necessary pull one aspect of a story off, you probably don't want to go down that road again, because you'll hit another brick wall.

So it has a life of its own, and I like that it's evolving, and I like that we're deepening the story between all the characters. It's not just a story of plot, but it's a story that really brings these characters to life and keeps them as three-dimensional people and not just cardboard cutouts.

You've said in the past that the events of 9/11 helped inspire the premise - do you see current events, like the war on terror, shaping storylines as well?

SP: They absolutely have an influence. I think last year we played into themes of religion, the role of government in our lives, the bigger issues of the day, and prejudice and bias and all that kind of stuff. As we come into the third season, there's still those aspects going on. There's a splintering of the 4400, and different points of view that arise, and it's a very complex, sophisticated issue, just like the major issues of the day are right now. It's not just a simple cut and dried, yes or no, right or wrong all the time, same with everything that's going on with the war on terror, with the war in Iraq, with all the things we struggle with on a day-to-day basis. We hold a mirror up to that in this world, and have it be as sophisticated and complex and difficult, with issues that are as difficult to struggle with, as in the world we face every day.

Do you ever think there's a bit of a stigma with sci fi, that people miss the real-world relevance of your work?

SP: Yeah, we struggle with that a little bit. We want to keep the stories fresh and we want to keep the surprises coming. But I don't think this show wants to be anything that's really out there in terms of science fiction. I think any time you have a world where 4400 people appear out of a ball of light, you've already got a pretty strong sci-fi convention. So I don't think you have to keep pounding it into everybody's head, and having it be spaceships flying around, and aliens running back and forth, and all that kind of stuff. Once you've signed off on that one big sci-fi premise, if it settles into more of a drama, that's better for me.

You skirted the alien issue, too. People were surprised that wasn't the answer.

SP: That was one of the reasons why. I think that was the very obvious outcome for the show. In fact, it was kind of a blessing that we were able to so much put in everybody's mind that it could be nothing but that. It really helped us with our twist at the end because nobody really saw it coming. That was really fun for us. When I talked earlier about working toward the strengths, we found that that worked really well. So we love to take an audience down one path and have it be clear and obvious that it must be A, and then suddenly we turn a corner and it's actually B.

What will you be sharing at your Master Class at the Banff World Television Festival?

SP: I think the best I can do is talk about my own experiences, what I've learned, what I would be cautious of, and what I would tend to try and go for. Because it's a really difficult business and there's so many variables, so much potential for pitfalls, and so much potential for huge success. It's a definite steering through shark-infested waters. I can just speak to the process of getting this show up and running on the air. You hear about people who have projects that took years to get going, and this is one of them. We've been through many hurdles, we had to avoid many landmines, we had to protect the show at times, we had to let the show go in a certain direction that maybe wasn't intended another time. There's a lot of politics, there's a lot of diplomacy, there's a lot to it. It's a very sophisticated and complex process.

Sometimes you have to wonder how good shows actually make it to air, because sometimes there's way too much interference, and not just from what people may think of as the obvious sources. So it's definitely something I think is a very fascinating subject. I love to hear about how other shows make it and go through their growing pains to get to where they are.

What were some of your biggest obstacles?

SP: The first ones were just what everybody faces, which is just getting a pitch sold to a network and getting a network to be interested in a pilot script. Then it's getting them to the point where they want to spend money on a pilot and getting them to the point where they want to spend money on a series. Those two little sentences I gave you there take years to accomplish sometimes. But then sometimes they just say "go to it." Lost, I believe, was something that was written in January, shot in February, and was on the air in May. That's a huge success story for them. Others take a long time and there's a lot of people involved, with a lot of different opinions.

I think the biggest obstacle all the way through is just to protect the original vision. There are a lot of elements that come at you as you're trying to do that, and you either have to pick up a shield and a sword and try to defend it, or let it go. You have to pick your battles and what you are willing to relinquish and what you're not willing to, in terms of the original vision. Sometimes you have to pick a battle and fight to the death.

You started as a director, didn't you?

SP: Very early on, and then I fell back into writing. The writing piled up to a point where I was doing four and five scripts at a time and I just couldn't do anything other than write. I didn't have the time to do anything other than write. I got into a pattern where there was no time to direct. Now that the show is up and running, I wanted to really begin to exercise that muscle again, and allow myself to step away from writing a bit and get back behind the camera, which is something I really love to do. It's a great change up from writing.

So is one your passion more than the other, or do you want to balance both of them?

SP: I'm more into directing right now, because I haven't been able to do it as much as I have writing. I've done a lot of writing. Like I said, this is really a different creative muscle to flex and exercise, plus it's just a bonus and a huge treat to get to do it on a show I created. I've been with these actors since day one, and I've been with these characters longer than anybody has. It's wonderful because this cast knows me so well, and I know them so well, and we've all bonded so much. There's just this enormous trust from the moment we set foot on the soundstage, and they're willing to let themselves go to places, I think, for me that they're not necessarily willing to go with a director they don't know. Because they give up a lot - they're very vulnerable. Once they're on film, you can do anything with their performance in the editing room. You can make it great or you can ruin it very easily. It's just really nice, and I'm very honoured that they trust me enough to take them to places that maybe they wouldn't go normally with another director.

Do you find time to watch TV as well? What are your favourite shows?

SP: No, I'm completely and utterly disconnected from the world. I have no idea what's going on, I don't watch the news, I have no concept of what's going on outside our little backlot here. I'm not kidding. I'm like, "Oh really, that's happening? When did that happen?"

[Still laughing despite his "I'm not kidding."] Well, that's kind of sad!

SP: Sad, but also there's a strange relief to it because the news is often not so great and sometimes it gets to everybody. It's just a little depressing after a while. Out of necessity, I don't have time to do anything other than this. One of the bonuses is that I just don't have the time to be invested in what's going on. It sounds like a terrible thing, but it is sometimes a little bit of a relief, because the news is just so depressing and it weighs on you. I found that's what's interesting when I'm up here doing this, that I'm so completely disconnected from everything that it's a little bit of a relief sometimes.

You get to create your own world, anyway.

SP: Yeah, really, and it's all make believe.

It's not like I'm some crazy hermit running away from the real world, but it's certainly a relief not to have the morning shows and the nightly news and whatever else is going on. The hubbub of regular life interrupts, so it's great.

You don't live full-time in Vancouver, then? You go back to the States?

SP: Well I go back when I can. I don't get a chance that often. When I'm directing, I don't go home on the weekends because I need the time to prep for the coming week's shoot. Right now I'm doing two almost back to back, so I'm going to be up here for about five or six weeks straight.

You're originally from Canada, aren't you?

SP: I am originally from Canada. I grew up in Windsor, Ontario, and I went to school there. Then I went down to the States for my graduate degree in Los Angeles. The work started piling in after I did that. I shot a half hour film, a student project, which got me an agent right away, and that's when the work started.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

SP: I'm really looking forward to coming up to Banff. I've never been before. I'm really looking forward to interacting with everybody up there and sharing my experiences and learning about other people's, of working and their trials and tribulations in this great, terrific, wonderful, fun business.