“Bloodline” premiered on Netflix last weekend, and — as far as anyone outside the streaming giant’s office headquarters in Los Gatos, CA knows — no one watched it. Or 55 million people watched it. Most likely it’s somewhere in between, but because Netflix refuses to relinquish their viewing statistics, not even the creators of the series know how many people are watching it.
That’s just fine with Daniel Zelman, one of three co-creators of “Bloodline,” all of whom argue for their employer’s privacy to varying extremes. Glenn and Todd A. Kessler also don’t feel the need to see numbers, in part because knowing whether their first show — the FX drama “Damages” — was succeeding or failing in the ratings every week became a distraction.
In a sit-down interview with Indiewire, the three men who make up the oft-praised KZK Productions opened up about how they landed at Netflix, what they learned about twists from getting “in a lot of trouble” on “Damages,” and why it’s better for creators not to be beholden to the almighty Nielsens.
Was “Bloodline” always intended to be a Netflix show, or did you shop it around a bit?
: Coming off of “Damages,” we kind of regrouped to figure out what we wanted to do next and came up with this next idea. Then [we] went out into the world and talked to a few different places about it. From our perspective, there was a nice amount of enthusiasm from several different places. Netflix was particularly enthusiastic about it and made an offer that was unprecedented, as far as we know. Just based on the conversation with them about what the show was, they actually picked it up for a whole season. Obviously, that shows a great deal of confidence in the project and in us and in what this could be. It seemed like an opportunity that was going to be very difficult to not pursue, particularly because of the shows that they have been doing. At that time they had three shows, and certainly they were all incredibly high-quality and very exciting things were going on.
As storytellers, there’s been a lot of conversation in the last couple years about what it means to be able to tell stories in that format, where everything’s launched on the same day, where you know an audience is engaged and when they experience the show they’re going to do it on their own time. So you can be confident that they are watching every episode. If they’re going to get to the end, then they’re going to see them all. With the kind of storytelling that we do, that’s a great luxury, to have that confidence as a storyteller ahead of time. People who are going to watch this are engaged in it and have a certain kind of energy for how they process these things; they sit down to do it at a time — most often, it seems, at least anecdotally — when they’re not ironing their shirt and having tea and bathing the dog. No, they’ve sat down to actually experience this thing that we’ve tried to shape for them. So for those reasons and more, Netflix seemed like a perfect fit and a very exciting place to be working.
This series jumps around a lot in its timeline, flashing forward and back. Do you have to have the whole thing plotted out and structured so you don’t back yourself into a corner? How does that work, especially for this season?
Todd A. Kessler
: This show doesn’t play with the timeline as much as “Damages” did, but there’s still some of that. I think you have to know where you’re going, certainly, but that’s sort of within the broad shape of things. You need a plan, but there’s still a lot of room for flexibility within that, because there’s more than one storyline, there are many characters… there’s more than one way to get there. We always have a plan, but we also improvise along the way because we respond to what we’re watching. So we may see a given actor’s performance and say, “Oh, you know what, we’re getting a different energy from that character now. Maybe it’s more interesting for them to make X choice than Y choice.” But you do need a plan, for sure, otherwise there’s no guidepost and you could get yourself in a lot of trouble. And we knew that from “Damages.”
But this show is less about those time manipulations and more, really, about the characters and how the characters evolve; so that time shift, for example, is not in every episode. Also, the past, in many ways, becomes as relevant in this show. In “Damages,” it was much more about the future and building events towards those future events. Here, there’s a future event, but at the same time we learn a lot about the family’s past, which informs not just the characters but also some of the events.
Was there any character that ended up being different from what you expected, because of the actor who got the part?
Daniel Zelman: I don’t think anyone ended up very different, but […] the characters are only theoretical to us until they’re cast. They’re obviously based on very specific ideas, but there’s always a color that the actors bring to it that makes it slightly different. I’m trying to think of specific things that were unexpected. Ben [Mendelsohn], for example, just… the sheer range of places that he could go, we didn’t know that would be the case. When we saw how broad his range can be, it allowed us to write certain types of scenes that we otherwise might not have written. Things like that.
There are a few creators who — when they have shows that rely on twists or secrets — keep things from their actors to try to keep them in a certain space so that they’ll have the same kind of reaction that their character might or that the audience might. Is this something you guys practice?
: I don’t really understand that concept, at times. When they read, it’s not happening to them on that set on that day. They don’t learn this happens to their character that day on the set, with the cameras rolling. You know what I mean? Although maybe there are circumstances in a particular project where someone is able to keep information from an actor and really let it happen on-camera. From our perspective and from our side, we like to give the actors as much as we know, and inform them as fully as we can about as much as we can so that when they go to play it, it is as full for them as it can be.
Part of our process is that we don’t have 13 scripts written ahead of time. We don’t even have 10 scripts written ahead of time. So there’s a lot of room for flexibility and improvisation within this structure of the story, and we have options for what might happen or options for what did happen that we keep alive until we have to make a decision. And there are even times when we’ll talk to an actor about, “What this means is this, and where we may be heading is here or here. We’re not going to betray anything you’ve done to date. Nothing we’ve told you, we’re going to say ‘Forget about that. I know you were playing that for three episodes, but we’re not doing that anymore. Now it’s this.'” We’re very on-guard against any kind of shaky ground for an actor, any sense that they thought they committed to an idea and now that idea is changing. We’re very actor-centric when it comes to making sure they feel that they’re on solid ground, and that the reality they’ve been playing is never going to be betrayed.
I do think that from an actor’s perspective, who gets a script without the amount of time that they might want to use to prepare, or are used to getting scripts two weeks ahead of time, and being able to map everything out and get their hands on everything… This was a project that worked at a different pace than that, so people were given information and scenes to play closer to the time it was being shot. But it wasn’t because we were springing something on them; because decisions were made in that timeframe, now we know what we want to do and, “let’s move forward with this set of facts and these ideas.”
And our cast was very game for that. As Sissy [Spacek] was saying, it’s kind of a new process. It makes some people uncomfortable because they have their own process they want to bring to things, but there is a spontaneity to it, that we have seen in five seasons of “Damages” and even in this. There’s a life to it, and the actors that are game for working this way and can thrive working that way, it’s been very exciting to see what they bring to it.
So how did this casting come together? Were these the people that you had in mind, then you pursued them and they were willing?
DZ: They’re all unwilling.
[laughs] It seems like you couldn’t have been more blessed.
: It really is that feeling of… It’s very fortuitous how any of these things come together. Because it’s what’s happening in the actors’ lives, the desire […] and the show is shot in the Florida Keys. No one lived in the Florida Keys prior to the show! So it was asking actors to move down there from February to November. People had families — what that means and just life; so many things have to align to get lucky enough to have a cast that we’ve assembled. When we started conceiving the show back in 2013, a few of the actors who ended up being in the show were people who we thought, “Oh, Robert Rayburn could be someone like Sam Shepherd, and Sally Rayburn could be someone like Sissy Spacek.”
Then when we started to cast it, it’s another level of amazing fortune that those people are available and interested and willing to move their lives. And those are the people who, when we were just sitting around, discussing conceptually who could play this character, turn out to be available. Same with Kyle. He became available and we were huge fans of his. And when we went out to cast Danny Rayburn, who’s played by Ben Mendelsohn, we had all been huge fans of Ben’s. He’s not a household name, not a widely-known actor, but we were very excited by his performances in everything that we saw him in. Oftentimes there are lists generated of who’s available, who’s looking to do something like this, but we only met with him to play the role of Danny. He had never done a series before, so there was concern about what would that mean, how does that work, all of that stuff. We had a few people like Sissy and Ben and Sam who had never done a series before, and that was very exciting for us to have the experience of their first experience with it. Because it’s very different than features.
Going in kind of a different direction, you were talking a little bit about how the audience responds to this and having a very active audience involved in your show. Do you guys care that you won’t see the ratings for this? Do you want to see the ratings for this?
TK: I think it’s such an antiquated system of judging.
Maybe not in the Nielsens, but maybe if you just wanted an idea of how many people were watching. Is that something you’d be interested in?
DZ: It’s a really good question. The answer for me, personally, is it’s great not to know. It’s one of the hardest things to do — I think, when you’re making mass-media entertainment — to stick to your own sense of what you’re trying to do. At the end of the day, all you have is your instincts, so when you start hearing all of this stuff and it pulls you away from your instincts, you’re kind of screwed. Obviously, for “Damages,” we were aware of those numbers, so you try to develop the skill of: “Okay, I know that, but now let’s put that aside and focus on…” So you try to work with it, but it’s really liberating, actually, to never have that come up in the conversation.
GK: I just read today, and you guys probably know more than I do, but at HBO and FX, they announced that they’re not giving their numbers anymore?
: The idea that those numbers are reported to the public is crazy to me. People have talked about this; the idea that box office grosses are in the New York Times every Monday, so you know. That doesn’t mean it’s good, that doesn’t tell you anything. It just tells you how many people have gone to see it. The same with these numbers, and particularly the Netflix model of “You watch this when you want.”
Obviously, it’s even different than DVR. It’s there, it’s always there. I don’t know when you would report numbers. You have to report numbers over the life of it being on the site, as opposed to the first week or the second week. What numbers are you even reporting for Netflix? Our understanding about how people watch shows on Netflix is, they watch that, it’s like reading a novel. I won’t read another novel in the middle of reading this novel. So I’m not going to start a new TV series or show, whatever you want to call it, in the middle of something. I think people like the feeling of accomplishment; that “I’ve finished five seasons of ‘Lost’ and now I’m moving onto something else.” And if I’m on Season 2 of “Lost” and a new show comes on, I don’t know that I’m going to stop to weigh in on the other show.
: It seems irrelevant for a site like Netflix because they’re subscription based. If they start losing subscribers, then they may realize, “Do we not have enough movies that people are watching? Are the series not working?” But if their subscriptions keep increasing, that’s what’s important to them. I’m sure they’re interested to know and they can break it up so they can figure it out. It’s also a worldwide service. There are very few if any, other than Netflix. [“Bloodline”] launches on March 20 and it goes to 50-some million people, 54 million people, or something. So hopefully 53 million of them will be watching.
GK: What does that mean to you guys? Because that’s always been reported on. What does that mean from your side that you don’t know Netflix numbers?
From my side as a reporter, I want to know what the numbers are because I want to know what people are watching. There are 400 original shows out there, and I need to know what’s going to get people reading. From a creator’s side and not from the side of Netflix or the industry or a reporter, I think if I made something — just like when I write something — I really want to know how many people are reading it. Just on a personal level. I just want to know.
GK: And you don’t need to know what they’re thinking about it.
No, I want to know if anyone was interested. It’s good to get a response.
TK: But it’s that thing where it’s your instincts that are out there. As Daniel was saying, you don’t want to be moved off of your instincts. But it’s one thing to say, “I chose to cover this show,” and many people are watching it and many people are interested in following that cover, so that was the right choice for readers. I get that. But it’s fascinating. The exciting thing is that Netflix is so new in terms of being able to have this binge-watching streaming [original content]; I mean, it’s a few years now, but that sense of it. And it’s just turning a lot of things on its head with these numbers and frustrating the networks who are more beholden to advertisers.
: There’s just a danger in it. The story of “Seinfeld”: their numbers weren’t good, but they did not change the show. And what would “Seinfeld” be if they said, “Oh, God, no one’s watching, let’s have them hug at the end of every episode.” For whatever reason, I find it liberating. But it’s a great question; no one has asked us that.
READ MORE: Kyle Chandler & Ben Mendelsohn on ‘Full Contact’ Acting in ‘Bloodline’