Kyle Killen is a believer. He almost has to be: Despite critical acclaim, his first network TV show, Fox’s promising “Lone Star,” was axed after two episodes in 2010, while his equally lauded second, NBC’s “Awake,” was canceled after a single 13-episode season earlier this year. Yet his bad luck with viewers hasn’t thrown him, and he remains passionate about finding new ways to tell great stories. He recently landed a pilot at ABC called “Influence,” which will once again deal with the way people manipulate each other.
Killen recently attended the Austin Film Festival, where he spoke on several panels about the writing and production process. Indiewire caught up with him to talk about the shifting habits of network TV viewers, the benefits of working in Los Angeles while living in Texas, and what it’s like to lie your way through high school English.
Whenever I hear your name, I realize I’m actually visualizing James Polk [the lead of “Lone Star”].
I could live with that. I’m sure my wife would be fine with that.
Let’s talk a bit about the panels you were on at this year’s Austin Film Festival.
I did one, a showrunners panel, with Rob Thomas [“Veronica Mars”] and Phil Rosenthal [“Everybody Loves Raymond”]… I should never say names because then when you forget one of them, you’re in deep trouble. So Marlene King? From “Pretty Little Liars.”
And then something about “setiquette,” a panel I don’t think any of us quite knew what it was. Just an opportunity to hang out. They all sort of devolve into… there are a lot of aspiring writers, and they have questions about how to become non-aspiring, employed writers. And I’m happy to do my best to answer those questions, regardless of the title of the panel.
Are you still based here in Austin? How does that compare to working out of L.A.?
I am. Though it’s kind of cheating to say “based here.” It makes very little difference to the people in L.A. — all my meetings are there. When we did “Awake,” I was there every day of the week. So as far as they’re concerned, I just have a very long commute. When I’m not on a show, you go a few times for meetings and pitches, but when you go off to write, they don’t care if you’re on another planet. So it lets me come back to a place where I’m really comfortable and happy.
You never wanted to transition out there? You wanted to keep your roots in Texas?
Yeah. I mean, I lived there for a number of years in college and just after, and it’s not that I dislike it. I love visiting and seeing my friends there. I didn’t like traffic living there.
The good and bad side of it being full of people in the industry is that you have a lot of people to commiserate with and say “Can you believe this?” and talk about [the job] with, but you also can’t ever get away from it. You can’t ever turn it off. It’s what everybody does, all the time, everywhere. When you go into Starbucks, everybody is writing the next great American screenplay. So I like being in a place where it’s less like that. It’s more like the real world.
You grew up in Burleson, right?
I did. I lived in Chicago till I was three, and the rest of it was Burleson. I’m surprised you got the name.
Well, I’m from Texas. To someone outside of Texas, you’d just say “Dallas.”
I start with that. It’s like Texas, Dallas/Fort Worth, then Burleson, home of Kelly Clarkson. That’s how we move down.
When you were growing up there, what was it that got you into writing?
I think I was always a storyteller. I just liked making things up. Remember when you get into high school and you start doing research papers, where you’re supposed to learn how to do a bibliography and go study? I always found it so much easier to invent sources that said exactly what I needed and then just go back and be like, “I just need a book and a page number.” I’m lucky I was pre-Internet because I don’t think I would have gotten away with that. But that was probably an indication I belonged in fiction as opposed to documentary.
You falsified sources for high school papers?
So many! So much ease finding studies that said exactly what I needed them to.
In that era, were there certain TV shows or movies you saw as a kid that got you excited to work in the industry?
Countless movies as a kid, I remember coming out of the theater in a fog where I was still kind of in the movie and a member of the movie. I was still in Indiana Jones’s world, and I didn’t have the hat, but I was still an archaeologist on an exploration. Or if my car hit 88 miles per hour on the way home, we were probably gonna travel through time. That feeling was something that I knew I wanted to be a part of, to share in that kind of experience, something that could take over somebody’s world and then stick with them afterwards.
It’s a weird workplace drama that’s set around this idea that we’ve conducted 60 years worth of research into the science of human behavior and manipulation. So this is a one-of-a-kind company that is trying to turn all that research into a weekly “Wag the Dog” kind of problem-solving company.
You’ve said that “Awake” came from one tiny observation about one man’s clinical self-deception. Was there a similar moment that acted as a seed for “Influence”?
I think people who talk to me on a regular basis roll their eyes when I’m like, “You know, they’ve done a study that says…” or “There’s some research that indicates…” — I’m super into all those weird things you don’t expect about the way humans behave. So that became something I was into, trying to use all of that proactively. Like “Lie to Me” in reverse: where “Lie to Me” was about how you watch people to tell what they’re doing, this was about how you put stuff out there to get them to do what you want them to.
You’ve spoken before about your approach to pilots. You said that the pilot of “Lone Star” would become clear to viewers in the final moments, but you wanted the pilot for “Awake” to have everything the viewer needed presented in the first ten minutes. How has that trajectory played out with “Influence”?
In network, I think it’s probably pretty important for people not to know everything, but if they understand what kind of show they’re watching before the first commercial break, then you’re probably [better off]. The thing is, all your rope is shorter in network. You’re not gonna get a season, you’re gonna get a certain number of episodes before you’ll get canceled. I would watch Twitter when the shows would premiere, and it’d be like “I watched ‘Lone Star’ for like 30 seconds, I wasn’t really feeling it, so I flipped over to ‘The Event.’” So I get 30 seconds?
You just have to know that people are investing in it differently. A lot of times with a cable show, they’ve made a decision to watch the show, not to sample the pilot briefly but to say, “I’m in for this until something happens that makes me decide I hate it.” People approach network TV differently. So yes, I’m still of the mind that the sooner you can communicate to people what it will be like to watch this show, the better off you are.
Did you ever consider writing a cable show?
I’m super interested in cable shows and the cable world. I think I have a lot of good cable ideas, and I’m anxious to go over there. At the moment, I’m working with 20th Century Fox, and I’m really focused on network. There’s something attractive about the fact that network drama is down at the moment — it feels like there’s an opportunity there. They can’t be down forever. Something is eventually going to bring the see-saw back to their side. So it’s fun to chase that, even though it’s hard, and I haven’t been successful. That’s entertaining.
What’s fascinating is that network drama might be down, but that’s where the viewers are. We talk so much about “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” but proportionally those viewing audiences are so much smaller than the ones tuning in every week to network shows.
It’s true, but quickly changing. “The Walking Dead” is the largest show on television, bar none. Bigger than, you know, “Mad About You” [laughs], bigger than “Mad Men,” “Modern Family,” bigger than “The Voice.” It’s just a monster, and I don’t know that you could have picked a less likely candidate for that: a zombie show on cable. But it’s huge.
Conversely, network audiences, especially network drama audiences, are all drifting close to cable-like numbers. I think what’s happening is channels are just becoming channels. Nobody has a real advantage, so the audience gets broken and fractured into pretty equal-size proportions. The [network] platform is still bigger, and you still have some bigger crossover opportunities in network than you do on cable, but the idea that it’s just by itself automatically bigger [is disappearing]. NBC’s audiences on many nights are smaller than cable networks. They’ll do less than TNT. I think that is changing, and there’s no reason it has to stay that way just because it was for the last 40 years.
In terms of writing for network versus cable, do you find yourself limited by the standards of what you can show?
It depends on the subject matter. My new thinking is you shouldn’t take a show to network that would be better on cable. You wanna do a show set in the world of porn, that should not be on a network. But something like “Lost,” there’s no reason it would’ve been better on cable. The standards and practices really don’t get in the way. So the limit is totally about subject matter.
We’re here at a festival that’s all about writing. What’s your process like?
It’s always evolving, based on whether or not I’m doing well. But I try to write, actually write with a timer going, for six hours a day. So I’ll write for half-hour chunks during which I don’t answer the phone, don’t answer email, nothing. During those 30 minutes, I’m only writing. And if I can do that for six hours a day — which I can’t always do, sometimes to write for six hours takes 10 or 11.
I change places all the time, because I blame the places when I’m not doing well. “Well, this office is poisoned. I need to go to a coffee shop. This coffee shop is poisoned. I need to go to the library.” I’ll switch it up as often as is necessary, which is weird, because when I’m writing a TV show, I had a real office, and it was like, “This place is poisoned, and I can’t go anywhere. I just have to figure it out.” Then you realize all those things are just psychosomatic anyways, and it becomes about sitting down and making yourself do it.
Do you find yourself thinking about balancing creativity and saleability as you’re generating ideas?
In TV, if you’re successful, you’re coming up with a job for yourself for many years, so even if it’s a good idea, if it’s not one that I would want to be a part of for years, then I try to leave it alone and stay away from it. It’s just not worth pursuing. I try to find something that I would watch, even if it wouldn’t be my favorite show on television. I mean, nothing I’ve generated would I like to watch more than “Breaking Bad.” It’s just, can you see yourself doing this over and over and over again.
Speaking of “Breaking Bad,” what else are you into right now?
Love “Breaking Bad,” still love “Mad Men.” Those are my big dramas at the moment. The flip side: almost all the comedies I watch are on network. I still love “Parks and Rec,” and the last season of “30 Rock” seems like it’s gonna go out in amazing form.
Are there all-time favorites that still drive you or inform your work?
“The Sopranos.” That made [popular] television as novels — slow, serialized storytelling where I’m watching characters evolve. On the network side, things like “ER” when I was younger. I remember being like, Thursday night, 9 o’clock, I gotta be there. And the thing is, I couldn’t care less about the cases. But were Anthony Edwards and Sherry Stringfield gonna get together? This was a really important question for me! I needed to know.
That’s what’s stayed with me: I’m always way more interested in what will happen to the characters over time. Which is why something like “Law & Order” I can completely appreciate but could never get into it because the characters barely exist. It’s about a mystery every week, and I just couldn’t get into trying to solve those on a weekly basis.
Have you ever wanted to expand into writing outside of TV or film?
I started in short stories and had some of those published. I was working on a collection. An agent had contacted me and I was super excited. He said, “You’re this many short stories short of a collection, or you could write a novella-length thing to go on the end of the collection.” And that was going to be “The Beaver,” and then “The Beaver” blossomed into a novel, and then I was buried in hundreds of pages of stuff and didn’t know where anything was going. The discipline of “What if I had to tell this story in 110 pages?” suddenly became appealing. That’s how it became a screenplay, and that got me back into the world of film and television.
Iused to blog all the time. I used to write for fun until it became my job, and now I love my job, but I will sit at night and think about the prospect of writing an email and it’s like “I don’t wanna make the effort to type anymore today.”