I was able to have the honor of interviewing the showrunner/creator of Channel Zero. As well as being a very talented writer/co-producer/producer, he’s a truly nice person. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did doing it. ENJOY!!
You are an award winning writer, winning the 2009 Shirley Jackson Award for your novella, “Midnight Picnic,” (congratulations for that). How did you make the transition from writing books to writing for such shows as Mtv’s “Teen Wolf,” and “The Last Resort?”
I never thought I would be able to make a living as a writer. For five years after college I lived in New York. I got a day job as an assistant at a financial company. I wrote stories and books at night. I wasn’t a big TV watcher but at some point I became addicted to The Shield, the cop show by Shawn Ryan. The writing was so good, so novelistic. I figured somebody was actually making a living by writing that stuff for TV. So I wrote some TV specs with my best friend Ned. After I got laid off from my day job, I moved to LA to try and find work as a TV writer. My first job on staff was “Teen Wolf.”
Then moving into the world of co-producing 13 episodes of “Hannibal?”
I was a fan of “Hannibal” before I ever worked on the show. I was dying to write for it. I just wanted to see from the inside how Bryan Fuller was able to get a show like that on TV. An executive named Lorenzo de Maio recommended me for the writing staff. Steve Lightfoot, the other executive producer, read my short story collection “The Girlfriend Game” and recommended me to Bryan, and I was hired.
Each step is a step into a different TV world…something new to learn. Was it difficult to make those transitions?
It was easy but it’s not brain surgery. If you love to write and love to tell stories, and you’re reasonably good at interacting with people and you are not a maniac, you should be okay in a writers’ room. It’s like starting any new job. I am still grateful and amazed that I am able to make a living as a writer. I can’t believe I get to make a show. I love doing it.
Before you ventured back into TV land, you wrote two movies: the reboot of “Friday the 13th,” and “The Forest,” both from 2016. I enjoyed “The Forest” very much, by the way. Which was easier: rewriting a cult classic, or writing something completely new?
Well, both of those were assignment jobs from the studios, and I enjoyed both very much in different ways. I was the third writer of three on “The Forest.” With a job like that, the requirements are very specific. This character arc is confusing… the mythology isn’t clear… fix this or that part of the script. The movie has a release date and it’s about to shoot and you work surgically to address the concerns of the studio and the producers. It’s fun and it’s a challenge.
“Friday the 13th” was also a rewrite job, but it was more of a page one rewrite. The previous version had been found footage, and I started over and did a version that was not found footage, and I reworked the characters. For an assignment job it was really a creative thrill. I was working with David Bruckner, a director I love. But the head of Paramount was replaced while I was writing, and when I turned it in, they just put the script on a shelf somewhere. The new head of Paramount hired a new writer and a new director to take the project in a totally different direction. That’s just how the industry operates. Happens all the time.
How different is it to write a complete movie vs going back to not only writing, but producing and being a show runner?
It’s completely different. As a feature screenwriter you have no power over how the movie turns out. The director has more power than you, and the producers and studio have more power than the director. As a TV showrunner, you have much more creative control over how the final product turns out. And the most important thing you can do is hire good people. Good writers for the writers room, a good, artistic DP to make it look cinematic, and a director with a vision to make it look distinctive. You have the power to make your show NOT look like generic TV.
That’s why for “Channel Zero,” even though our budget is very low, I made an effort to bring on talented people like Don Mancini and Harley Peyton and Erica Saleh and Katie Gruel in the writers room, Noah Greenberg as our DP, and most importantly Craig Macneill to direct the entire first season.
Now….time to pull some teeth…. Before social media really took hold, Urban Legends were spread thru word of mouth. Then, in the last few years, CreepyPasta took over. The stories were far more frightening and believable on the net. I had to actually look up what Creeypasta is, because I had never heard the term. Why, out of all the CP stories floating around, did you land on Candle Cove?
“Candle Cove” the most disturbing Creepypasta. Slenderman is the most famous, but “Candle Cove” is more haunting and distinctive. It’s a simple, sinister concept that sticks with you and suggests greater evil, but gives you a lot of room to build a world around it.
Any stories involving kids are frightening enough, because the kids haven’t learned to suspend their disbelief, but this draws on so much more. You and your co-writers have tapped into the adults fear. How do you do that?
Oh man, I don’t know how to answer that. Because we’re still children at heart?
“Channel Zero: Candle Cove,” is expert storytelling. What is it like in the writers room, trying to keep a cohesive story, but adding those elements fear? How do ya’ll put out this material, and not have nightmares of your own?
We do have nightmares of our own. The Tooth Child came from a nightmare I had. In the writers’ room, we just outline thoroughly and we interrogate ourselves relentlessly. “Is this psychological? Is it horrific on an emotional level?” We try to build the stories on nightmare logic.
Creepy is a word used ALOT to describe Candle Cove. How would you describe it?
Amusing. Also, creepy.
How did you prepare the actors for this type of story? There have been more than a few times that I swear they aren’t acting, that it’s honest fear. Was that the case in some scenes? Also, the child actors are awesome. Did they have a hard time with being afraid at any point in filming?
I love all the actors in the show, especially getting the very lovely Fiona Shaw to play Mike’s Mom and Paul Schneider .
I don’t think the kids had a hard time. The only time I was a bit worried was when they had to be around Olivier de Sagazan, the French performance artist who makes a few cameo appearances throughout the season, when he was wearing his horrific clay makeup face. But they weren’t scared.
All the actors prepare differently. Fiona would sometimes come up with ideas for her character that went in the show. Paul too. He improvises a lot. Every take is different. If we had more time we could’ve shot him doing different takes all day. Before we started shooting, Paul and I spent a long time talking about his character, where Mike Painter was at psychologically. Paul is not afraid to push the boundaries. Paul and Fiona were a dream to work with. They bring so much to the screen, they have so much presence and tension and humanity.
About the Tooth Child…Cassandra Consiglio is relatively unknown, and you covered her in a tooth costume. How did she take getting to be monster?
Cassandra was great. She was trapped in that suit a lot. You can only wear the head for about twenty minutes. She had to be this horrible creature, but she’s actually totally blind inside that suit.
When you start talking about eyes or teeth, adults naturally cringe. Is that part of the fear you’re playing on?
Yes. Also teeth often feature prominently in dreams. What do they symbolize? Usually power, life force.
The reviews for “Channel Zero: Candle Cove” has mostly been very positive. The writing, in addition to the creepy fear factor, has been the reason for that. While you have a very definitive writing style, the writing has been compared to the story-telling of Stephen King and Peter Straub, just to name two. How much were you, if any, by those iconic writers?
I read all their books! Well, almost all of them. Straub and King were huge influences on me. Rich, character-based horror.
“Candle Cove” is only six episodes. How and why did you decide to make it a mini series? Personally, I think that was a wonderful move, because the story doesn’t get old.
That’s exactly why. You can’t make “Candle Cove” an ongoing series. I wanted to make these complex but contained stories. And I wanted to adapt more than just one creepypasta.
For next year, you have “No-End House.” Will it be “Channel Zero: No-End House?” Or will the “Channel Zero” be dropped? Another six episode mini series, you managed to get veteran actor John Carroll Lynch..bravo to that score. Can you give us a little taste?
It will be “CHANNEL ZERO: NO-END HOUSE.” John Carroll Lynch is amazing. So is Amy Forsyth, who plays his daughter, our other lead. I’m so excited about Season 2. It’s going to feel completely different. Every season will be a showcase for an emerging director from the world of indie film. Steven Piet is doing season 2. I think of the season as a horror version of “Solaris.”
Any other upcoming projects you can share with us at this time?
Not that I can describe in any detail! I’d love to do a third season of “Channel Zero” but that’s up to the ratings gods. I know what creepypasta stories I’d like to adapt.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak with you. You have made many, many fans and we all look forward to future projects from you.