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‘Orphan Black’ Origin Story: Co-Creator John Fawcett On How the Show Nearly Never Happened

'Orphan Black' Origin Story: Co-Creator John Fawcett On How the Show Nearly Never Happened

When “Orphan Black” first launched three years ago, it was a complete mystery. The first original series from BBC America introduced itself to new audiences with nothing other than one striking image: A young woman (Tatiana Maslany) sees her apparent clone on a train platform and then watches the stranger leap to her death. 

Of course, no one was using the word “clone” at that point, but the mystery that unfolded over the following episodes revealed a deep mythology that now, entering its third season, has become a cult hit and also made a star out of Maslany. During this year’s TCA Winter Press Tour, co-creator John Fawcett sat down with Indiewire to reveal the difficulties of marketing a show about clones without using the word “clone,” what we can look forward to for Season 3 and what it was about the show that made it special, exciting — and nearly kept it from getting off the ground in the first place.

READ MORE: Watch: ‘Orphan Black’ Season 3 Teaser Gets Wild on Instagram

So I want to start off by finding out a little bit about how you got initially involved.

How I initially got involved? Well, it was my idea. [laughs].

[laughs] Well, there you go. That helps.

It sort of began with the idea of a woman seeing her twin or her clone or her double commit suicide in front of her. At the time, we were in a subway station. We wanted to do it in a subway. Then I had this idea, because I’ve always been a fan of genre. I’ve always been a fan or science fiction and horror. Gareme [Manson] was a buddy of mine and he’s a very good writer. I approached him with this concept and we started working on it together as a feature film. I kind of went, “Here’s a really cool idea for an opening scene, what is it?” So we kind of started working on it together and developed the idea that this was a clone story.

When you see “created by,” it’s never quite clear how that breaks down, so that’s really interesting.

Yeah, that’s how it broke down. Him and I work together because he’s a writer and I’m a director and we’re producing together. I have never been a showrunner before. I’ve been a director. I’ve worked a lot with writers, but I’m not a writer. It’s been an interesting process of discovery in terms of running a show and beyond just a normal director-writer relationship. It’s so much more than that because it’s having this other massive responsibility. But I don’t know. It’s been a good partnership so far.

It took a very long time, I think, for the initial awareness of “Orphan Black” to go beyond anything other than this odd mystery happening on BBC America. I don’t feel like I heard the word “clone” until the show had been out for a while. What was the strategy in keeping so much of the genre element kind of quiet, in the initial phase of releasing the series?


That was very difficult. We wrote the show as a mystery and right from the ground up, we wanted to tell a story where the audience doesn’t know the answer. In the structure of the writing, Sarah doesn’t know what’s going on and we wanted it to be from her point of view. So it had to be this kind of slow realization that she’s actually a clone. That being said, when you get to the end of the show and you have to market something, how do you go about doing that without giving something big away? The trouble is, you can’t really. You didn’t know, when you watched the show for the first time that it was about clones?

Not really, no.

Well, that’s good. Obviously we did something right. I think that’s part of how it caught fire, and how word of mouth really created the fandom and the critics. It was a combination of critics and fans that really made this show. I was worried about keeping so many secrets that people just wouldn’t watch it.

Do you feel like you were successful in keeping those secrets?

I don’t know what we did, honestly. I think we kind of had to just come out and say it was a clone show. How else do you market something, you know?

Well, with Season 2, I feel like you were able to do that.

Yeah, we definitely kept a lid on a lot of the big secrets of the show and that’s just become the culture of our show, to protect the spoilers and to kind of keep people guessing.

In terms of promoting Season 2 versus Season 1, how much more liberating was it to be able to use the word “clone?”

It makes it easier to talk about and discuss, I guess. But in the beginning, no one really wanted to talk to us, as the show was first coming out and airing. No one really wanted to do any interviews, because no one knew who we were. Until they started seeing what it was and word of mouth started building, that’s when people wanted to talk to us. By the time we were really into the interviews and doing heavy press for it, people had already seen the show.

So is there a tipping point in your head for when the show first became something that people were actually talking about?

Well, I just remember getting our first batch of reviews. I felt like we had a really good show. I’ve seen so many good shows just fall off the radar or get lost in the cracks. It was really amazing seeing the good press that initially came out. It was really exciting to be in that and to see the fan response grow quickly and fast on the internet and the social media and in our numbers, too. It was really amazing. I think the tipping point for me was really seeing Tat [Tatiana Maslany] get nominated for the Critics Choice Award and then win it.

Well-deserved.

Yeah.

With all these things, it’s always a hard show to categorize. How much of that do you think comes from its origins, as a BBC America co-production with what I feel like is Canadian DNA?

Oh, it’s completely Canadian. I think that when we were first pitching the show and we had a script, we saw everyone. Everyone liked the story and admired the script, but everyone was scared to death of it. No one wanted to make it. BBC America was literally the only network that wanted the show. They were the only ones who said, “We want to do this. We believe in you. We believe in the show.” 

It’s kind of out there and I think it’s a show that kind of scared everyone off, because it’s one actor playing a whole bunch of parts and the chance of that going sideways is big. BBC America picked it up and had a lot of trust in us. They let us make the show that we wanted to make. 

I think that being hard to categorize is one of the things that I like so much about the show. That mash-up is one of those unique aspects of genres and sensibilities that give the show a very, very different voice than other shows out there.

So it really sounds like you see it as a mash of genres. 

It is. It very purposefully is. The origins of that really come from the fact that as we kind of went into it and realized that as a clone show, what we wanted to make and what made it different from any other of the bad clone stuff you’ve seen out there, was that each girl is very unique and has grown up in a very different environment. So they are very individual characters, and part of that is then creating very separate and distinct worlds for each other. Each world kind of had its own feel and its own tone, so that’s where that kind of comes from. 

Then, you can kind of go horror, you can kind of go action-thriller or you can kind of go comedic. I think we always wanted to, as far as the humor of the show… I think that we always knew that we didn’t want to make a serious drama. We needed it to have a big spine of humor to it, because it’s kind of an absurd premise to start with.

What I end up responding to, as a viewer, is that so much of the comedy comes from unexpected sources. The fact that Alison and Helena are legitimately probably my favorite clones, and you wouldn’t expect the straight-laced soccer mom and the psychotic killer to be the case in that situation.

Yeah, they are vast sources of entertainment. It’s interesting because Helena began life on paper as “Assassin Black.” She didn’t have a name and as she kind of evolved, we started laughing a lot because we realized what we had in a way was this sort of psychotic version of Encino Man.

[laughs]

You know? We went, “Oh my God, this is hilarious.” She’s a killer.  A lot of those discoveries you find as you move and as the show grows and evolves. As we bring things to Tat, we kind of find new things. It’s fun discovering stuff in an organic way, that’s for sure.

I want to talk a little bit more about how you see the show, in terms of “Is it a Canadian show versus a global show?”

I have no desire to make a Canadian show.

Right.

At all.

Is there a definition in your mind for what that is?

Not really. I don’t know. I don’t necessarily think about it that way. I just think about my own sensibilities and what I enjoy watching and would want to see on television.

We certainly didn’t create this for a market. That’s why it barely got made, because we were making something that we were very passionate about and thought was very cool and exciting.

I think a lot of Canadian drama is created for a network because the network shows these kinds of shows. That wasn’t how we went about creating this. We never went about wanting to make a Canadian show. The only thing about it is we both live in Canada and we wanted to shoot the show in Canada. We didn’t want to shoot the show somewhere else, we both wanted to shoot it in Toronto. That’s where we’re from and that’s where we grew up and that’s where we’re most familiar. We know all the crews there and we have kind of a nice family of creative and smart people.

By not coming at it as a Canadian show, in your mind does that help it have a more universal quality?

Well even just bringing BBC America into it. The only thing that they said is “Because we’re BBC, if it’s possible, we really need to hear some British accents.”

Really?

We need to hear some British voices.

That was their only request?

Yup, pretty much. The original version of Sarah was never British. It made a lot of sense on a whole bunch of different levels to us. It wasn’t like we were trying to force things to fit with them. I realized kind of quickly that yes we wanted to create a global show. We wanted to give the impression that this clone conspiracy was out there in the world, so it wasn’t just confined to one little area. Because the show has so many different characters, it’s nice to hear different voices, so you want to hear different accents. The nice thing about Sarah being British is that when Sarah goes and plays Beth, who’s not British, you really see her playing the role of Beth. She’s changing her language. She’s being a chameleon and running this little scam.

Is that what, in creating subsequent clones, lead to giving them equally strong accents?

Yeah. When we hired Evelyne Brochu [who plays the French character Delphine], we said we wanted to hear different voices and different accents. We didn’t want it to only be Canadian or American. We wanted it to have an international feel to it.


So looking forward towards Season 3, of course, you’ll tell me all of the important twists right now.

[laughs] Yeah.

I don’t want to ask you specifics about what reveals are coming, but is there a point at which you feel the reveal of, say, a new clone becomes less special? Or does that create pressure to up the stakes, to some extent?

I think one of the reasons why this show initially was so exciting to us is because we knew we could create characters until we got bored. We could create characters and we have an actor who has the ability to do that. Creating new clones and new characters isn’t something that we take lightly and frankly we are chalk full of characters right now. Introducing someone new always gets the writers going like, “Oh my God.” How does this work? Where does this person fit in and how do we incorporate them into this already very complex fabric that is the show? That’s something that we like to do. It’s part of the fun of the show.

So how excited should we be then for Season 3?

I don’t know. You should be excited! Listen, I like this show because it can go in different directions. I like it because it doesn’t stay the same. We’re constantly trying to go places where we haven’t been before. That’s what I like about it and so hopefully people will go with Season 3. It goes in a very new direction, there’s no question about it. 

“Orphan Black” premieres Saturday on BBC America at 9pm.

READ MORE: 5 Things You Might Not Know About ‘Orphan Black’ and Tatiana Maslany

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