“Wayward Pines,” the ten-episode scripted mystery series developed for Fox Television by Chad Hodge and M. Night Shyamalan, launched with a screening of its pilot episode at the Chicago Comics & Entertainment Expo. Series star Matt Dillon and director Shyamalan, along with moderator Josh Hamilton, were on hand to discuss the ambitious series, along with other Shyamalan projects.
The series opens when Secret Service agent Ethan Burke (Dillon) awakes in a beautiful Idaho forest unaware of where he is or how he got there. Burke stumbles into an idyllic town, collapses in a diner, and finds himself in a hospital bed where he is attended to by the Nurse Pam, played by Melissa Leo.
So begins Burke’s odyssey. He has no contact with the outside world, cannot reach his wife (Shannon Sossaman) in Seattle, cannot reach the Secret Service, and cannot find his partner. His mission, to locate two other Secret Service agents who came to the town some time ago for unexplained reasons, heightens the mystery. Following the episode’s close, questions about it were answered by Dillon and Shyamalan, with the promise of many more mysteries to come with subsequent episodes.
Asked about the inspirations behind the series, Shyamalan and Dillon pointed to several in particular.
“I know that [author] Blake [Crouch] was heavily inspired by ‘Twin Peaks’ and its tonality,” answered Shyamalan. “I’m a David Lynch freak,” he added, saying, “Right now, I’m writing a new script, and ‘Blue Velvet’ is like, on my desk — osmosis.”
At the same time, he said he viewed “Wayward Pines” as a ten-episode “Twilight Zone.” Dillon agreed.
“‘Twilight Zone’ is what it feels like to me,” said Dillon. “‘Twilight Zone’ scared the hell out of me,” said Dillon about watching the show growing up. “I don’t think ‘The Twilight Zone’ ever did anything wrong.”
The show features a cast of accomplished stars, including Dillon, Leo, Sossaman, Carla Gugino, Reed Diamond, Toby Jones, Tim Griffin, Charlie Tahan, Juliette Lewis and Terrence Howard. Shyamalan credits the ten episode format as a magnet for such top level actors. When he approached the actors, he asked, “Will you give us this amount of time?… So we got an incredible amount of talent to come and give that level of intensity” to the project knowing they would not be roped in to an ongoing, open-ended television series.
Dillon hinted at another factor may have attracted actors to the project. “I like the way [Shyamalan] approaches character,” he said. “The story has to come out of the characters. There’s a lot of plot, there’s a lot of stuff that gets revealed here. But I think the key is that it has to come through the characters. It can’t be something that’s applied to the story. And we agreed on that. Hopefully that’s what comes through.”
In “Wayward Pines,” it is clear Dillon’s Burke knows as little as — or even less than — the viewing audience, and much of the drama, and dark humor, comes from riding along with him as he figures things out. “It wasn’t important that Ethan [Burke] know things,” Shyamalan said, “but that he has the agency and he’s going to find out.”
“When the character starts to misbehave is sometimes when the most interesting stuff starts to happen,” Dillon added.
It is the focus on character that drew Shyamalan to the television medium. “I’m a first act guy,” he said. “I love [that] the setting of TV is so much about character… I’m much more interested in doing the dinner table scene than the big war scene. I was actually offered one of those giant war movies, and I was imagining it with two people talking about war and not about to go to war. And I was wondering if I could sell the studio on that.”
Shyamalan said he viewed some films as actually more of a first act, mentioning 2000’s “Unbreakable” as one such movie. This, of course, prompted the inevitable question. “Are we getting ‘Unbreakable’ act two any time soon?” asked Hamilton.
“You know, it’s on my mind,” replied Shyamalan.
“You just have to give me a role in it,” said Dillon, to laughter.
“You never know, you never know. It’s always percolating up there. I just have to be very organic about doing something.” Shyamalan said he was a different person than in 2000, and any new film would “have to be me” now, in 2015.
“You realize the headline that is going to come out of this is going to be M. Night Shyamalan confirms ‘Unbreakable II,'” quipped Hamilton.
“Starring [pause for effect]” Dillon added.
“People keep writing that, and my uncle keeps calling me saying, ‘You are making “Unbreakable II,”‘” said Shyamalan in an affected Indian accent.
Shyamalan mentioned “The Village” as another of his films he viewed more as a first act than a complete piece. “That premise, what those characters are going through, I feel like I could tell more of that story. I’d be interested — even right now, I feel like writing out what happened.”
“After ‘Unbreakable II,’ we’ll do ‘The Village'” miniseries, said Dillon.
“We’ll combine the worlds,” joked Shyamalan.
Turning back to “Wayward Pines” and the choice of the ten episode series format as the delivery medium, Dillon said, “The thing that is really exciting about this format is, it’s movies-plus. Instead of trying to compress the story into something that’s 90 minutes to three hours, you are able to tell it over long periods of time. Serialized television is really a great way to go.”
Dillon agreed with Hamilton’s assessment that we’re in a golden age of television. “I think serialized television” is more attractive than movies right now, he said. “It’s sort of like reading a novel. It probably takes about ten sittings to get through a novel. John Ford used to talk about short stories being the best for films… [but] a limited show like this is a much more extended period so the audience can really get involved. Myself, as an actor, I can really get to develop a relationship with my character that I might nor be able to in a film.”
“It’s an interesting time in our industry,” Shayamalan said. “Back in ‘Five Easy Pieces’ time, when Jack Nicholson starred in ‘Five Easy Pieces,’ it was about how sticky the movie was, by that I mean how resonant it was. How much that world stayed with you. That was the only way people would talk about movies…
“But now… it is only about marketability. Can you sell this movie. And if it’s resonant, great. But it’s certainly not super important,” said Shyamalan.
“As this is going on in film, the exact opposite is happening in TV,” he continued. “It’s not about how many people are watching ‘Mad Men,’ it’s about how many people are affected by ‘Mad Men,’ how many people are talking about it… A broadcaster like AMC, which aired ‘Mad Men,’ realized “the resonance of a product is the most important thing for us.”
Even with non-broadcast networks such as HBO and AMC having so much success in serialized programming, Shyamalan said without hesitation that “Wayward Pines” is exactly where it belongs. “We made the decision to do the show at Fox because that’s where the show wanted to be. It had a certain tonality and I felt Fox was the perfect place for it,” said Shyamalan. “You can see that its genetics is a ‘Darkman’ love, the sci-fi love, the ‘X-Files’ love. It’s there in the genetics. It’s a sweet spot that they have.”
“Wayward Pines” debuts May 14.
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