Ray McKinnon is a true Southern gentleman. His relaxed drawl perfectly embodies the thought and complexity of the man and his show, “Rectify.” He speaks deliberately, not slowly, a moniker too easily identifiable with ignorance to apply to McKinnon, who possesses an immediately impressive wit. He asks to be called Ray rather than Mr. McKinnon because “the only people who call me Mr. McKinnon are, like, my former parole officer” (who was “a pretty good guy”). And he uses words like “boy” and “brother” in such a way as to form an instant bond between former strangers.
Much of this attitude also applies to “Rectify,” a show difficult to explain in tone yet instantly appealing in its demeanor. The drama made a splash last year with critics and performed well enough on the newly founded Sundance TV to earn itself a second season, just as its creator landed job after job as a character actor for more than 24 years before setting pen to paper for his first television show. His first acting role was in “Driving Miss Daisy,” but you would recognize the Adel, Georgia native from recent hits like “Mud,” “Sons of Anarchy,” and the “Footloose” remake.
McKinnon is pleased with the show’s early reception, but in an expectedly modest way, says he’s “glad some people like it.” The actor-turned-director was kind enough to take a few minutes away from the editing room to discuss reaction to Season 1, the benefits of airing on Sundance, streaming on Netflix and if he’ll ever put himself in the show.
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Season 1 of “Rectify” primarily dealt with the challenges of re-entry for Daniel, as well as the resulting issues with his family and the town. Season 2 still has that, but there’s more. He seems to be coping with a version of acceptance.
Well, I mean, I think we all as human beings want to be done with things in our past, but that’s easier said than done. So we’ll see how successful he is, you know, at that declaration of “I’m done with it,” because chances are it’s not done with him. From a psychological standpoint, for him and lots of humans, we can’t really truly move forward until we deal with some issues in our past. So he’s probably going to be forced to not be done with it.
It’s exciting to see more of Daniel’s psychology played out in Season 2. It reminded me of Season 1, when he went hitchhiking and it didn’t even feel real, to him or to the audience. How do you balance the action with inaction in scenes like these?
I try not to worry too much about those things because ultimately the only guide I have to go by, other than a few trusted advisors, is what I would want to see and what I would want to experience. I think that’s what any storyteller has to start with. I think if you start wondering or second guessing if an audience would be attracted to that then you start creating something that’s neither fish nor fowl. There’s risks with every kind of storytelling trope, but what’s great about television today — especially with the Sundance channel and channels like it — you don’t have to hit a more populist mark. That allows you to take more storytelling risks. Some people will be attracted to it and some won’t. And neither one of them are at fault. In dealing with my own subconscious and that manifesting in dreams and flashbacks and that sort of thing, I think it’s an element of our human experience worth continuing to explore. So that’s what I try to do.
In the first season, you dealt with time a lot — literally how Daniel dealt with the stillness of time while imprisoned, and then how he adjusted when he was released.
It was interesting creating the narrative for the flashbacks this season and what we would explore differently and do differently than last year. It seems right now that Daniel, in current form is inactive as someone can be and still be alive — in a coma. He’s suddenly very active in the flashbacks as he rebels against the system, his condition, and himself. I like that. Last season, it felt like he was more at peace with where he was in that box on death row and less at peace in the world, the current world. This season he’s obviously completely inactive but very agitated in the flashbacks. I’m curious to see how those flashbacks will continue. In a way, they’re a B plot line, so it will be interesting to see how they play out the rest of the season.
The look and the feel of this show are unique, especially in its pacing. We wondered at the world in a similar manner as Daniel did. Now, though, he has a new purpose. A new directive. Did you try to alter the atmosphere at all for Season 2 to match Daniel’s mental progression?
One thing I learned from Season 1, there was one episode that we actually had enough time in editing — which won’t be the case this year — to truly explore the pace to the point where we made it too fast. We did enough trimming where it just was paced beyond what the show should be paced. The cut of that particular episode told us that. It wasn’t like we were suddenly watching an episode of “The Shield,” but it was too fast for this show. A lot of times, hopefully, if we’re doing our job right, the show itself will let you know what the right pace is. There may be times of the show where things are paced up more and there will be more energy propelling it, but that’s more dictated by what’s going on in the scenes rather than us try to manufacture something. So it is what it is.
Like you mentioned, that’s a relatively new development and one somewhat unique to cable networks like Sundance TV.
For me, when “Mad Men” first came out, it was a show that allowed you to sit there and observe as opposed to being dictated to with this shot after this shot after this shot. I like that kind of show, too, but that kind of meditative quality you’re talking about, I liked it on “Mad Men.” When I saw that show I thought maybe there would be a place for this show, partly because of the idea that trends come and go but there still is a place for the kind of storytelling that requires the viewer to observe rather than be dictated to.
You said in a past interview you’d seen shows build an audience through Netflix. Season 1 of “Rectify” recently became available on Netflix. Is it just a happy coincidence or did you have anything to do with that?
You know, not so much. I think that’s kind of the way of this kind of television now. It has a longer tail, and they continue to attract audiences through different platforms. Certainly a big one is Netflix. It’s becoming like when iTunes first came out. We get to go snoop around and find something that appeals to our tastes. There’s certainly an audience for a show like “Rectify,” and now there’s more opportunities for people to find it. That’s great. It’s surprising. I mean, I’m kind of in a myopic world in an editing room for 12 to 14 hours a day, and it’s a little bit surreal to hear people are watching this show that a guy from Adell, Georgia thought up one day. If you put it out there, someone is liable to watch it!
Whoda thunk it, right?
Yeah! Absolutely. It’s very gratifying — no matter the amount — that it resonates with a certain audience.
Do you think about people binge-watching “Rectify” as you write it?
Not consciously. With the writers, we think about it as a chapter in a novel and not a separate episode, so they’re meant to connect whether someone watches it the next day, the next hour or the next week. All the episodes are connected. I think that’s an interesting way to watch it. On one level, it’s a little disheartening that you put so much work and time and sweat and blood and tears — and I mean those literally — and then someone is like, “I watched your show over the weekend. When’s the next one come out?” And I’m like, “Well, as soon as I come out of the sanitarium and can get back to the writers’ room.” It’s a great compliment, but it is very consumable and in some ways disposable. It’s probably a great thing if you start losing your humility, you can then realize someone can watch your whole first season on a transcontinental flight.
Well, sure. You’re putting in an infinite amount more work than the six hours it takes them to get through it.
Oh, yes, but then I’ve done that myself. I’ve experienced shows that way, and it really is addictive. It’s a great way to read a book, right? In a way? That’s what you’re doing. So I understand it, but I do think about the filmmakers who made it. “That was a lot of work, man!” You know, the best kind of work you can ever have.
Some people will just wait until the whole season or even the whole series is available before watching it, which is an easier task these days when shows like “True Detective” are only eight episodes. Other people want to watch week to week, and have that prolonged discussion. Your first season was six, and the second season order was upped to 10. Did you ever consider making Season 1 longer?
No, I mean, I felt like last year we had six episodes to tell a story. We didn’t know if we’d have any more episodes to tell [it]. That wasn’t guaranteed, and I just felt like let’s not have any regrets. Let’s tell the story that we want to tell, that I want to tell, and not feel like we became afraid and were pandering. Having more stories, I don’t know. I don’t know if it serves this particular story to have more episodes. It’s a different kind of animal. So no. Should not.
However, I do like the idea that the water cooler of today is social media. There’s always value in that, when human beings are standing by the water cooler or with social media discussing anything. If it happens to be your show and there’s elements of your show that open people up to different ways of looking at things and thinking about things, then I feel like that can’t be anything but good.
Do you have a plan in place for how you want to end it?
I don’t know. I have some ideas. I don’t know that this show should be on for a very long time. I don’t know if that’s best for this show. It may be, but I’m not sure at this point. We’re still right in the middle of trying to figure out what this whole season means, and I haven’t really looked ahead that far. I definitely have some end game ideas, but I can’t imagine this show going on for five or six or seven seasons. I don’t see that. Doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen, just that my limited brain is unable to look that far ahead.
Probably best to deal with what’s right in front of you first.
I got enough problems. [laughs] We gotta figure out now that he killed Tawny in episode 9, how we’re going to…I’m kidding. Sorry. I probably shouldn’t have [joked about that].
That would be a twist.
[laughs] Yes, it would.
I love the way you shoot this with an eye for small town life. It just feels like where I grew up, and where I assume you grew up, as well, especially when he laid down in the middle of the baseball field last year. How did you go about capturing that look?
I grew up playing Little League baseball in my small town, so those iconic places still resonate with me. I also felt we shouldn’t shy away from shooting what’s real, and what’s real in small towns are the abandoned factories and the strip malls. So it’s the Georgian architecture and the double-wides. We’re trying to capture whatever’s there.
I’m a big fan of the “Footloose” remake.
Oh, it’s great.
I also loved you in “Mud” and with your extensive background in acting, I’ve got to ask if you’ve ever considered taking a part on “Rectify.”
I keep thinking about it, but then I end up not really having the time to because it’s hard to do good work as an actor. It is for me. It requires preparation and all that. This show-running job, it’s a lot. But maybe. Who knows? The timing of it will come along, and maybe it’ll be a guy who just sits in a chair. It’s been so long since I’ve acted, I’m not sure I could do it anymore. That would be a lot of pressure, to go on your own show with the actors you’ve been mentoring and directing and suddenly you’re in a scene with them. I might have to have some kind of medication before I went up there.