WGN America’s latest effort to break into the premium drama game is easily one of the most unusual shows on television right now, in part thanks to an eclectic range of talent behind the camera, including executive producer Paul Giamatti, legendary producer Peter Tolan and creator Peter Mattei.
While this is Mattei’s first major TV project, Tolan has been in the business for decades, starting with sitcom fare like “Home Improvement” and “Murphy Brown” before moving onto shows like “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Rescue Me.” Indiewire sat down with the pair at the TCA Winter Press Tour to talk about their unique take on a clan of mountain dwellers who have created their own society in the woods, but find their way of life under attack from the outside.
Mattei was there from the beginning, while Tolan joined us midway through to dig into the show’s development, why it was so important to shoot in the green depths of nature and why the show’s biggest successes came when they pushed themselves to their craziest limits.
Somehow, “Star Trek” also came up. Indiewire regrets nothing.
So, talk to me about how “Outsiders” came to you.
PETER MATTEI: I was just thinking about a lot of different things about people living in an alternative way. I read an article about some people living in a mountain in New Jersey, the Jackson Whites, and that just fascinated me. I’ve always been fascinated by the choices that Americans make when they just want to get away from it all, either hippie communes or that kind of stuff. I just thought it would be very interesting to see a group like this, that’s really living in a kind of anarchist way, and that their way of life would be threatened.
There were just a bunch of different things going on in my life at the time. I was living in Brooklyn and it was very quickly gentrifying, and it felt like the Bohemians, the free people were being destroyed by the Wall Street people. And then there was the financial crisis and the Occupy movement, and all that, and it really was about the one percent versus the 99 percent. And I just thought about this family and thought that if they represent a kind of more pure and primitive and simpler way of life, and that’s being threatened, what would happen if they had to fight back, and who would they become if they had to fight for their survival and their way of life.
It all sort of fell together in where the show would be set, because I thought that bringing in the issue of Mount Toppermudel was really dramatic and epic, because it’s not just that they’re being kicked off their land, it’s that their mountain is going to be blown to smithereens. So that’s kind of how it all fell together.
What I was struck by with the conversation around the show is how politicized the conversation has become. Is that something you ever intended to be a part of it?
MATTEI: The politics?
The fact that there are themes to it– that it doesn’t seem like a political show but it became one.
[Peter Tolan joins the interview.]
MATTEI: I really wrote something I cared about, and what I would want to see on TV myself. There were politics embedded in it from the get-go. It’s very carefully on the level of metaphor and level of story, not on the level of preaching. So there are themes in the show that are ultimately political, who has power and who doesn’t; what does it mean to be free, and who decides who is free and who isn’t free. What does money mean, and how do we live? Is capitalism a good system or a bad system? I don’t have answers to any of these questions by any means, but those were all embedded in the choices, like the choice of the Farrell family to not want money.
This wasn’t in the first draft of the script, and then as I wrote the script and thought about them and thought about what they were about, I thought it was really interesting if you have people that live kind of like the way people lived tens of thousands of years ago before the invention of money, and if those people were living that way today, it would be a really interesting thing to look at. The fact that people are highlighting the politics of it is really interesting and great, I just hope that nobody looks at like this is a finger-wagging kind of show that’s telling me that this is bad or that is bad. It’s just about raising questions.
It’s funny you mentioned a society without any money — and this is nerdy of me — but that is “Star Trek.” It’s something that came from Gene Rodenberry and from Utopian ideals is that the Federation has no money.
MATTEI: You mean on the Enterprise?
Yeah, they don’t have money.
MATTEI: I never thought about that.
PETER TOLAN: Does Harry Mudd have no money?
I imagine he does.
TOLAN: But he’s sort of a bounty hunter.
MATTEI: That’s fascinating; I’ve never thought about that. You’re right, why would they have money?
Well, it’s meant to be like — not to make this all about “Star Trek” — their society is within a universe where there is money, and they are very confused by the Federation because they have this sort of Utopian-like ideal.
MATTEI: But does that only exist on the ships? Like if you go back to Earth, is there still money on Earth?
I don’t think so because–
MATTEI: I don’t know that much about “Star Trek.”
The ships are Starfleet, like the military arm of this Utopian society, and the Federation is kind of like the United Nations but across the galaxy.
MATTEI: Oh, I see. Wow. And so they don’t believe in money?
They don’t believe in money.
MATTEI: How do they survive?
I’m not totally sure. It’s not very well thought-out.
MATTEI: Space bartering.
Space bartering, essentially. But in terms of themes, for you Peter [Tolan], just to bring you into the conversation — what thematically drew you to this?
TOLAN: I think because all these people talking about, “Is this a Second Amendment thing?” “Is it an anti-government thing?” There were a lot of themes that you could assign to the script, the one plank of which is the environmental one. You know, these people who respect the earth while you’ve got this coal company blowing up the town on the mountain.
But, ultimately, it’s not really about that. I really thought it was interesting. It really was, easily, the most compelling script I’d read in a year. When somebody else writes something for me to say, “this is fucking great,” I just had to do it.
Is there ever any sort of jealousy in your mind, along the lines of “Why didn’t I write this?”
TOLAN: No. I just couldn’t write this. I just couldn’t have. Peter’s obviously a different writer and he’s in a different track than me. But I admire that. I admired the creation of the world. In reading the script, so much of it I saw, and that doesn’t happen a lot. But I knew what it would look like when we shot it, and it eventually did. I just loved the idea of this people with these conflicts living under this green canopy, with this beauty around them. I loved it.
Those scenes especially make it easy to understand why they’d choose to live this way.
TOLAN: Exactly. One of the first challenges we had in production was that the network had a schedule of when they wanted us to shoot, and when they wanted it to go on the air, and it would require us shooting through the winter. We said from the very beginning, “It will cripple the show.” We need an audience to look at that world and go, “Yeah, I’d do it. It’s so beautiful. It’s so luscious. Of course, I understand why they would fight to keep it.” Whereas if we shot in January, it would be this bleak thing, and a lot of people would go, “who would want to stay there? That’s crazy. They’re crazy for wanting to do that.” So we really had to push to shift the dates.
What’s it been like working with WGN?
TOLAN: Good. I think there’s a natural progression of the lives of networks where they are much more open to you, and much more collaborative. As soon as they have a big success, then they start to tell you, “Well, we’ve got this big success. We did it.” Then they start to tell you more of what to do. So I think we’ve had a very collaborative, and sometimes contentious, but, ultimately, respectful relationship with them. Don’t you think?
MATTEI: Yeah, I think the best thing to say about them, about Matt and everyone else, is that they have balls. They wanted to really take a risk. With all their shows they take risks. They are certainly taking a huge risk with this show because it’s so weird; it’s not like anything else. You can’t really point to things about it and say, “Oh, this will succeed because of some other show.” A couple of little elements here and there, but, the meat of it is just so weird. The fact that that’s what they liked about it, that’s why we wanted to work with them.
TOLAN: The fact that they picked up 13 episodes. There’s no pilot. They picked it up. I think there were times where they were like, “Huh, what did we do?”
MATTEI: We’ve tried as hard as we can to make sure that it fails.
MATTEI: But maybe it won’t, who knows.
When you say you’ve tried as hard as you can to make it fail…
MATTEI: I’m joking. But I will say that there was one point in the writing process where we were having some very big arguments about what one character should do in the first particular scene, and my theory was they wanted to do something really sort of expected, like network TV, and they thought that what I was doing was too…We were just not communicating at all. I got really pissed, and I screamed at one of the executives on the phone, which is not that unusual in this process. It was like a really bad moment and I just thought, “Goddammit. Here I am, playing the Hollywood game, trying to please these executives. I’m going to write the most fucked up thing I can think of. And fuck them, they want something crazy, I’m going to give them crazy and then they’ll realize the other idea I actually had was fine.” So I wrote the crazy thing, and they loved it.
TOLAN: And that’s what we shot.
MATTEI: And that’s what we shot. And I realized that I had a really good ally; I had really good partners for this thing. The problem was I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough, so that’s why I say “fail,” [or] in other words, take big chances. Don’t try to just succeed, take really big chances. That’s what we tried to do with the show.
It kind of speaks to something you hear a lot of writers say, which is that the thing that they write that becomes the really successful thing is the thing that they really go all out for.
MATTEI: Well, that’s all true of this whole thing for me. I just wrote it as a joke, just for myself, for fun. I just thought that this will never get made, but I had fun writing it. So there you go.
A WGN PR REPRESENTATIVE: You have time for a few more questions.
MATTEI: Please make them “Star Trek”-related.
I have some questions about the Cardassians that I know you guys will be able to answer.
[Note: They actually heard the word Kardashians.]
TOLAN: [laughs] I hate them.
MATTEI: Well, you know Kim [Kardashian], in Season 2, she becomes the matriarch of the Farrell clan.
[laughs] Of course. That’s a natural fit.
MATTEI: You know why? We’re actually casting her to play herself. In our version, she actually has a nervous breakdown. She goes nuts. She wanders off the grid and up the mountain and just goes native. She becomes a Farrell.
TOLAN: But then everybody in the clan becomes confused because they see her ass and they think it’s the mountain. They don’t know what to do. People are following her thinking they live there.
In terms of Season 2, are you thinking that far ahead?
TOLAN: We look forward to it. So much effort went into the creation of the world, answering questions and Peter having to answer questions, and now we have that world. So we are a little more unfettered to just tell stories, while still keeping an eye on traditions.
Especially building out the family and the characters.
TOLAN: The Farrells are only one part of that clan. There are two other families that we don’t see. So we have that to look forward to.
MATTEI: We have a lot of other things that we can get to know.
“Outsiders” airs Tuesdays on WGN America.