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.
Could you talk a little about “Influence,” your project for ABC?
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.