On the surface, “Colony” doesn’t look all that much like sci-fi — and that’s kind of the point. The USA Network drama created by Carlton Cuse and Ryan Condal tells the story of a family living in an occupied Los Angeles. Who (or what) has Los Angeles under its control? That’s not as important a question as how this new world order affects ordinary lives — even though as we find out pretty quickly, Will and Katie Bowman (played by Josh Holloway and Sarah Wayne Callies, two of the hottest parents on television since Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell of “The Americans”) are far from ordinary.
At the 2015 TCA Summer Press Tour, Indiewire sat down with Cuse and Condal to dig into how the show came together, why USA was the right home for the project and how “Colony” drew upon both recent great television and real historical events to tell a story about the near future. An edited transcript is below.
I want to start off by getting the origins of the project because it’s such a special thing to have an original concept on television these days.
CARLTON CUSE: I guess that is true. We are so much into an era where pre-existing IP matters so much. Ryan and I worked on a pilot called “The Sixth Gun” together for NBC, and that didn’t go forward. We just started talking about this idea and we just fell into a long series of conversations about it. We really loved this idea. We were fascinated by this idea of Nazi-occupied Paris. The fact that there was this real attempt for normalcy, that people were trying to go about their lives in a normal fashion. You see people sitting at sidewalk cafes, wearing nice clothes, drinking espressos while at the same time Nazi storm troopers are going by in the street. The idea that, even in the worst circumstances, people try to find ways of maintaining the consistency of normalcy in their lives, and the conflict that would occur between that desire and the incredible pressures that would be put on people by being in a really oppressive occupying society. We wanted to find a modern way to tell that, and we did that through science fiction.
In terms of the collaboration process, what was it like? Were you shooting emails back and forth or sitting in the same room?
RYAN CONDAL: [laughs] We were licking our wounds after this experience we had, but it was great for me because my first foray into television, I was blessed to be able to work with Carlton. I had been working features for years before that, and I was trying to get into the TV game because it just seemed to be a much more creatively fulfilling place to work. I got introduced to Carlton — we actually had a blast, writing and making the pilot for NBC — and then I wanted to keep it going. We started talking and we met a couple of times and it all just kind of came out very organically. We talked about the things we were interested in, and the great thing about this show, really from concept until now: When people get it, they get it. We had a great creative shorthand built in with “The Sixth Gun,” a much more different thing, tonally and genre-wise. I think we were just really interested by the same things and it really bloomed very organically.
Tonally, what was the thing you were really aiming for?
CUSE: I think the idea was, we wanted to do an espionage thriller set against the [laughs] backdrop of a family story with science fiction elements. We love cross-genre storytelling, but I think that tonally we were trying to make it feel like a completely different take on an espionage show, with that sort of level of tension and intrigue.
It’s interesting you bring up the cross-genre element. I feel like that is something that audiences are becoming a lot more accepting of. Do you feel there is one particular thing that can be pointed to when it comes to that?
CONDAL: I think audiences are just getting savvier. Their ability to take in sophisticated entertainment has probably multiplied, since even 10 years ago. I think about 10 years ago you had “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica,” and those were very, very challenging TV shows. We were just talking the other day– Our DP on “Colony,” Jeff Jur, worked on “Carnivale” for HBO. I was saying to him it’s such a shame that show launched when it did because I feel if that show came out now, people would be much more accepting of it and open to it and I think it would find its audience. That’s the great thing now, these big titans like “Lost” and “Battlestar” conditioned the audience and made them much more accepting of, “Okay, I understand what that is and I know spy shows and I know sci-fi and I’m interested in those two things and let’s see how they blend together.” And they don’t just say, “That’s not this, or it’s this, so I’m not going to watch.”
The pilot does put a lot of trust in the audience paying attention and picking up on important details. Where do you find that balance, of making sure they know enough?
CUSE: I think that is just an intuitive thing. It was the same on “Lost.” Ryan and I go over each of the scripts many, many times, and I think we feel being incredibly rigorous about the scripts is the key to that process working. I think we shift that line all the time in the writing process until we get to a place, just on a gut level, it seems right. I think there is no other way to do it, but you can’t second guess the audience you just have to make the show the way you would most like to see it yourself and I think that is what we strive to do.
You’re bringing the show to USA, which is in this really interesting place. When you were initially doing the pitching, were you aware that they were trying to rebrand their approach?
CUSE: Absolutely. I think that it seemed far more exciting to us to be a part of a new wave of storytelling on USA than to be the seventh or eighth drama on another network, where our show might not feel as distinctive or be treated with the same specialness that we’ve gotten from USA. It was absolutely the right decision to go there, they’ve been incredibly supportive. I think “Colony” is a part of the next evolution of storytelling on that network. We responded enormously to their passion and enthusiasm for the script. It was totally the right decision for us.
You’ve brought up Vichy France a couple of times, and I looked up how long that lasted and it was only from 1942-1944. Not saying that “Colony” has to parallel with Vichy France, but if it does, how much of a run do you have?
CUSE: If you look at colonial India…
CONDAL: …They had a good long run. [laughs]
CUSE: That was a good long run. Colonization is something, which in many circumstances, has lasted hundreds of years. The Nazi parallel has its usefulness, but it’s just one example of what we’re trying to do. I think what’s really great, and what spells success for our premise, is that you can find lots of examples. I wish I could remember who said this quote, someone said this quote to me the other day: “The history of humanity is people looking up with a boot on their neck.” I feel like, in a lot of ways, this proclivity that we have to lose our own humanity in our effort to rule our fellow people is something that is really fascinating.
[At this moment Cuse had to leave, and Condal finished out the rest of the interview.]
So, about the point [Cuse] just made about colonial India: This is my fault for not reading enough Indian narratives of that time period, and being more exposed to the British perspective of it, but the British perspective on colonial India seemed to be, we are civilizing the savages. It doesn’t seem like you are ever going to switch to the alien point-of-view, but is that something that is in the DNA of the show?
CONDAL: We talked a lot about that stuff. For now, our fascination is telling an invasion story from the perspective of the invaded, but all great shows evolve. “The Wire” evolved every year, and changed what the show was about, and the setting it was in, but it was always about the same thing, and that was street crime in a highly dangerous urban environment. Then it went out into all the different areas that affected: the dock workers, the political realm, the students.
“Battlestar,” one of my favorite shows of all time, reinvented itself every year. It’s a story about a ship hurtling through space without a home. Then one year they actually settle on a planet’s surface and they tell this whole story down in the ground there. I think our show, hopefully, if we find our audience — which I think we will — we’ll be able to continue to evolve with the course of the show. I can’t tell you where Season 7 will be, but for now, the idea is to start in this incredibly small place, with this one family, and slowly iris out as we see more perspectives in worlds, change the dynamics, turn things on their head and all the great things that storytellers do.
There’s a joke I came up with after watching the pilot, which is that “Colony” is a show about nobody in L.A. from the west side goes to the east side anymore.
CONDAL: [laughs] We’ve joked that, really, the 405 is no more difficult to cross now with a 300-foot wall over it than it was before the invasion.
It doesn’t matter if it’s aliens or the 405, that person is not coming across town. And it’s such a specific L.A. detail, too, which I think is one of the nice touches.
CONDAL: Yeah, it’s tricky because we as L.A. residents have thousands of inside jokes for L.A. that we can make on the show. While we want to feel very of a place, we want it to feel specific to its environment. So many times shows are shot in places where they do not take place, so the sense of location and specificity is lost because you’re hiding something. We are actually shooting this entire show on location here in L.A., where it takes place. We have to be a little bit loose with, “well, this shot we are actually getting in the Valley, but it’s playing the west side, just because of locations and our stages are up in the Valley.” But the show will always have a specificity in reality of location.
I think that is important, little details like that, as an L.A. resident, you get and you laugh about. The idea is that somebody watching in New Jersey, where I grew up, will see the show and — having never been to L.A. but understand the city has a geography to it — while they may not understand specifically where Santa Monica is in relation to Beverly Hills or Hollywood, they do understand that it is separate and there is a wall between them. That’s the kind of balance you’re trying to walk, where you don’t dislocate people that don’t have a geographical knowledge of the city, but at the same time you make it feel authentic and real.
That’s a great point. We were talking about how the show might evolve and expand. Do you feel that there is a status quo that will always be preserved?
CONDAL: Yes, there will be a character-driven drama on the ground, and it will never be a war show, where we are running from bombs raining out of the sky. We might have sequences like that, but it’s always going to be driven around our characters at the center of the story. Josh Holloway and Sarah Wayne Callies are two tremendous leads. We’ve really been able to write a lot of great stuff for them, for their dynamic. I think the trick with the show is to conquer expectations about what that relationship is going to be and to continually change it over time, so that it always feels like it’s changing and evolving. We never quite settle into anything, but are keeping the show wrapped around these two totally compelling actors and characters that we want to follow for hopefully many seasons.
I really liked Josh, but I also found myself really impressed by Sarah. I haven’t seen her like this before, with this kind of edge.
CONDAL: She’s terrific. We basically wrote the script with Josh in mind — Carlton desperately wanted to work with Josh again following “Lost” — and we tried “The Sixth Gun” and that didn’t end up working out. Then we wrote this one with Josh in mind. Carlton let him know about its existence before we were even ready to cast it. That was always a predetermined thing. We were incredibly blessed to actually convince him to come work with us and could not have done that without their pre-existing relationship. Josh was hugely in demand as a TV star. One of the few true TV stars that could have done our show at the time and we were blessed to get him.
Sarah was a good surprise. We knew she was a terrific actor. We knew she had a huge following, and a huge audience, but to see her transform and become this character that no one had ever seen before was just amazing for all of us. Just watching that in the editing room, seeing her on set, seeing how warm and great she is with the kids — she has her own kids and she’s a great mother — and bringing that to the show, the different sides of her that you can see: mother, survivor, wife and the different shades of that character is awesome, with much more to come with that. She’s really upped her game from the pilot, with the things we are shooting now. And the chemistry she has with Josh, the two make each other better in every scene that they’re in. As a producer, as a creator, chemistry is not something you can cast. You can cast two great actors and it’s possible they don’t work at all together. We cast two great actors and when you put them together it’s like rocky road ice cream — better than the sum of the parts.
You don’t feel like, “This is just the tough heroine lady doing her thing.” It’s like, “Oh, no that’s a real character actually trying to survive in this world.” I believe that, and I want to see more and more of what happens and why and where and what.
What are you most excited about, looking forward to this?
CONDAL: As a creator, and a lifelong fan of science fiction, we have a great alchemy going here — our scripts, our locations and great casts, the wonderful production team that we have, our tremendously talented directors — I think we have the chance to do something really special here, and become a part of the legacy of science fiction television. It excites me, this new world that we are going into where we can finally share. A year ago we started prepping the pilot, so when we air in January we will be a full year and a half since the physical production journey began. To be able to share that with the whole world, and to hopefully get them as excited about it as we are, it’s like bringing the baby into being, so to speak. It is really motivating and exciting now. We’re working 16 hours a day and we’re all exhausted, but I am really truly excited about this. We’ve seen cuts of Episode 2 and 3 and it came out really, really good and it will only get better as we go through the post process. I’m pumped as a fan, and that’s a really exciting place.
“Colony” premieres Thursday, January 14 at 10pm on USA and can be seen now on USANetwork.com.