The wait is nearly over as TNT today offers up the two-hour premiere of “Falling Skies,” a new sci-fi series from creators Steven Spielberg and Robert Rodat. Set six months after an alien invasion that has wiped out the majority of Earth’s population, the show stars Noah Wyle, Moon Bloodgood and Will Patton as members of the Second Mass, a band of New England-based resistance fighters named for the historical Second Massachusetts Regiment, the men who protected the newly-formed United States during the American Revolution.
ComingSoon.net had the opportunity to speak with one of the series’ executive producers, Mark Verheiden about the series and where it’s headed throughout the course of its initial season. No stranger to science fiction and genre entertainment, Verheiden began his career as a writer for Dark Horse Comics in the late 1980s, transitioning to the silver screen through drafting duties on the film versions of The Mask and Timecop (the latter from his own comic). On television, his credits include “Smallville,” “Battlestar Galactica” and many more.
Joining “Falling Skies” as it went to series, Verheiden guided the first season’s development and, in the below interview, speaks about defying some of the conventions of “survival” dramas, tying the show back into his comic book roots and how the mysteries of the show will be unraveled in the weeks to come.
ComingSoon.net: You came aboard after the pilot. Can you talk about what brought you to “Falling Skies”? Mark Verheiden: Yeah, I started with the series, so the nine hours after the pilot. The gestation of the pilot I can talk about in general terms. Basically, it was pitched by Steven Spielberg and Robert Rodat, who wrote “Saving Private Ryan.” They had done work before with Michael Wright at TNT and he loved the idea of doing an alien invasion show. Bob wrote the pilot and they produced that two years ago. Then last March they got the order to do another nine episodes. I came in there. Graham Yost was working on stories, but was going to go back to “Justified” and they needed someone to take over when that happened. I came on board at that point and we all worked together. When Graham went back to “Justified,” I took over.
CS: Was this a case where a series bible existed right from the pilot stage? Verheiden: Robert Rodat had definitely written a lot of information about his thoughts on the invasion and stories that could pop up for the first season. We used that as the guidepost and then sort of had things change. It was one of those things were a lot changed along the way, but we definitely had a good road map when we started on this.
CS: Survival stories have always served television well. Were there any specific pitfalls that you wanted to avoid? Verheiden: One thing we really wanted to do was to make sure that the story that was set up wasn’t too overwhelming. We come in six months after this invasion and aliens have wiped out 80 percent of mankind. They’ve taken out all our communication and our electronics and all our military. I think that, in terms of the human story, we wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just a story where everyone goes, “Oh no!” but one of hope and of how people, even in the face of this great danger, are able to put aside any issues they may have with one another and form the Second Mass and also play up that sense of community that everyone had lost after the attack. We wanted to make sure there was a sense of hope and that the fighting spirit wasn’t coming out of a dark place. It’s about them trying to make a home for their kids and that’s why they’re doing this. That was one of the main things we thought about.
CS: You’ve had a long career dealing with genre material. Is there something specific about sci-fi/fantasy that engages you? Verheiden: It’s funny. I’m one of these lucky guys that, from age five, knew I wanted to write and tell stories and my first stories were always horror or science fiction. I grew up loving science fiction and loving comic books and hoping to one day work in the field. I’ve been very lucky to be able to do that. In terms of the work life in Hollywood, the fun of working on a show like a “Falling Skies” or a “Battlestar Galactica” or a “Heroes.” The fun of those shows isn’t that there are no rules, but that there’s a very different set of rules. If you’re doing a cop show, a cop might pull a gun and shoot it. There’s physics involved there and that’s sort of the name of the game. But in “Falling Skies” when an alien shows up and you pull a gun, who knows what might happen? The fun for me is being able to extrapolate and expand on the “what if?” of if this had happened. What do the aliens want? What are the mysteries behind that? What are the technologies they brought? It’s just really fun for me to explore those sorts of worlds.
CS: Is there a specific layering involved in how quickly you answer all the questions and/or generate new ones? Verheiden: Well, it’s funny because the engine of the show sort of helps us with that. With the communications out, the information that our resistance force picks up all has to be first-hand or first-person. It’s not like there’s a pool of information where they can go, “Hey, in Paris they figured out that they can do X” or “In Los Angeles, they can do Y.” So the learning curve that our resistance has in figuring out what the aliens want and their possible weaknesses is the same learning curve that the audience gets to follow along with. On the show you have the same information that our resistance fighters have as members of the Second Mass. I will say, though, that in season one of our show, as you get further into it, there are some mysteries and some twists and turns about what the aliens are doing. We begin to explain, I think, the method behind their madness. But I don’t want to suggest that, at the end of season one, an alien will just sit down and go, “Well, we came here to do X, Y and Z.” That doesn’t happen. But our guys figure out as much as they can.
CS: As much as you plan things, though, you’ve also got to set up the opportunity for you to make things up as you go along. How do you give yourself the leeway to, in the future, introduce new mythology retroactively? Verheiden: Well, we’re still at the beginning of the show so there’s the mythology that was created by Robert Rodat and, as you work on the show, it’s more like the mythology expands. The wonderful thing about working with TNT is that they’re so open with brainstorming and the sort of happy things that come out when you’re four or five episodes in and you go, “I just had an idea of how to do X or Y!” They’re so supportive of those creative inspirations. It’s not like you’re ignoring the roadmap you already have. It’s just that inspiration sometimes comes out of actually doing it and going through the episodes. One character might do this or you might have a flash of what an alien might do in a given situation. There’s an openness, but also a firm roadmap of where we’re going in mind.
CS: How much does the cast influence that? Once they’re actually performing, does the actor’s personality influence how you write the part? Verheiden: It does quite a bit. In this, we’re so lucky with the cast. There were no sort of surprises where you went, “Whoops!” Noah Wyle is just a fantastic actor and a very intelligent actor. He oftentimes had suggestions about where his character should go and what he thought he should do. Those were always very spirited and thoughtful and always coming from the place of, “Here’s what I think my character would do and if you have a counter-argument, let’s hear it.” That was the same with Will Patton and Moon Bloodgood and all the cast. It’s a twofold thing. One is what they bring to it, playing the character every day and having a deeper understanding of that character, probably than anyone. From my point of view as a writer coming at it on our end is how we make those two things merge emotionally. When you see dailies and parts of the show come together, you’re able to make a more informed decision about what works and what direction you want to go in. It’s very much a collaboration.
CS: Dark Horse put out a comic book tie-in and your career started with “Timecop” at Dark Horse. Is that something you’d like to see integrated more or just something you did for fun? Verheiden: That was actually in place before I got there! I was so thrilled that it was Dark Horse that was doing it. I’m not sure what the impulse was to do it up front, but what it turned into was, when we talked about what the story might be, a chance to go back from the six months into the invasion where the pilot starts and show sort of how dire and difficult survival was just a month later. It was almost like doing a prequel to the series. Dark Horse did a great job of putting that together. Paul Tobin was the writer of the comic and did a great, great job. But that was fun because I do come from a comics background and I’ve done tons of work with Dark Horse and have known all those people there for many, many years. It was fun on both a personal and professional basis.
CS: Is that something that may continue? Verheiden: If we go into season two, I guess we’ll see. If there is a season two, knock on wood, I don’t see why not. The graphic novel itself will be online now and hits in weekly increments at TNT.com and at DarkHorse.com. It’ll be out in a printed form very soon, too. It’s a cool piece. What was cool was that the writers of the show were able to keep an eye on it, too and make sure that it was true to the spirit of the show that we were doing which, by the way, was evolving as the comic was being prepared.
CS: The landscape of television has changed a lot over the years and, not that long ago, it would have been unheard of to have a show of this scope not appear on network television. Does airing on cable give you more freedom or less freedom? How does that change the dynamic? Verheiden: Well, I’ve done both and I think it mostly depends on the people that you’re working with. But as far as TNT goes, they’ve been fantastic through this whole process. I can’t understate that. This is a difficult project to pull off because it’s so ambitious and they’ve been supportive every step of the way. I did “Battlestar Galactica” and there’s the question of whether that show could have succeeded on a network as opposed to on the sci-fi channel. I don’t know. I can’t really answer those questions. I think that expectations on a network are different from those on cable. This is certainly up to the quality of anything on the networks. I think we really achieved a lot when we shot the show. Maybe there’s a little more patience with the show on cable. They’re not so quick to pull the cancellation trigger.
CS: Is this where your focus is for the time being or do you have time to work on other projects as well? Verheiden: There’s time for other things in-between, sure. We wrapped in November. I mean, the experience of working on “Falling Skies” was great, but I don’t know what the future holds. We have to get picked up. As work experiences go, though, this has been a great one and it would be hard to replicate. If you’re a freelancer, you’re always job to job and it’s always, “What’s next?”
CS: Are you still involved with the “Dark Tower” film and TV adaptation? Verheiden: Yeah, but I really can’t talk about that. All I can say about that is that it’s a very cool project. Other than that, there’s not much I can say.
CS: There’s always rumors popping up of a “Timecop” reboot. Verheiden: Boy, I’d love that. I like that rumor. “Timecop” was a fun project and one of my earlier movies. It was fun to do then and I really think there’s a franchise there, whether its TV or film. It would be great to bring it back. I think we should get that rumor going! As long as I’m involved. If it’s some other dude, I don’t care.
“Falling Skies” airs its two-hour premiere this Sunday, June 19th 9/8c on TNT.