• INTERVIEW: Friday, 7/14 - 5:00pm ET - Midnight, Texas - Monica Breen
  • INTERVIEW: Tuesday, 8/1 - 9:30pm ET - Wynonna Earp - Tim Rozon
  • INTERVIEW: Thursday, 8/3 - 4:00pm ET - Midnight, Texas - Peter Mensah
  • INTERVIEW: Friday, 7/4 - 6:00pm ET - Midnight, Texas - Parisa Fitz-Henley

Spotlight: Midnight, Texas Set Visit - Showrunners Breen & Janollari: from Book to Screen

David Janollari and Monica BreenEarlier in the year, SciFi Vision attended a press day with other journalists at the Midnight, Texas set in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The series, which is based on the book series by Charlaine Harris, centers on a town that serves as a sanctuary to supernaturals.

When medium Manfred (François Arnaud) comes to town to escape his past, he learns that the town has its own secrets: it sits on a weakening veil between the living and Hell.

Showrunners Monica Breen and David Janollari talked to journalists about bringing the book series to life.

David Janollari and Monica BreenThe producers talked to SciFi Vision about the structure of the series when it comes to a season long arc versus mystery-of-the-week. Breen said, “Fringe did this thing called the ‘mythalone,’ which is my favorite thing. It means that each episode has a beginning, middle, and end, but combined you tell a story. For me, it was really important to be able to come into an episode and be able to follow it and have fun, but at the same time, if you watch the whole season, it’s better, [laughs] and it adds up to something. By the end there’s a story that you’ve built to the entire season.

“So, I think we’re trying to do both. But the emotional stories - you know, these characters are evolving. They’re getting to know each other; they’re falling in and out of love. So, there is a sort of serialized component to make those stories richer.”

Janollari added, “I was going to add to that, when we started to figure out what the series was and what part of the three books to focus on for the big season arc for the first season, we kind of came up with the mantra of three engines that should run through each episode. One is, ‘What’s Manfred’s story? What’s Manfred’s journey?’ He’s the centerpiece; he’s the new guy in town. So, every episode furthers understanding or drive of him coming into his own.

“The second thing is, ‘What is the thread of the week, whether it’s something coming from the outside or something within our town?’ In the pilot, you have the opening of the thing under the floor, which tends to become one of our bigger season arc things, as well as who killed Aubrey (Shannon Lorance), and how do they solve this mystery?

“And then the third thing was, ‘What’s the Midnighters’ story-of-the-week?’ Each episode we try to focus on at least one of the main Midnighters and give some insight into their backstory or their secrets or their loves, and that kind of three-prong formula pays off, I think, in every single episode. So, there’s a lot going on in each episode that does contribute one episode to the next, to the next, to the next, until you get to the end, and you see the whole big picture.”

The two also talked to the site about the characters venturing outside of Midnight. According to Breen, “We’ll see outside of the town. I mean, they live in a small town, but in a county in other towns, in other places. And in the fourth episode they have to go to the Davy bar where they meet up with the locals. They don’t exactly fit in there. So yeah, we sort of situated the town in a larger world.”

Janollari added, “Olivia (Arielle Kebbel) takes jobs and goes out of town to El Paso and things like that, so it doesn’t just exist on that one street.”

The showrunners also talked to journalists about going from page to screen, the amount of sex and violence in the series, working with great directors, and more.

Please check out the full transcript below.

Midnight, Texas
Showrunners/Executive Producers Monica Breen and David Janollari

January 31, 2017


Monica BreenWhen you have books like this, how challenging is it to produce material that will surprise people who have read the books so that not everything is laid out?

MONICA BREEN: You know, one of the great things about these books, are the characters are so rich that I actually felt like there was so much more to tell with them. So, it actually hasn’t been challenging in that way, because her backstories are so detailed and so specific, and the characters that she created have such interesting relationships. It’s interesting, because I think that we kind of added a little more plot to what was already there, as opposed to trying to change the characters themselves.

If there's a pivotal scene or moment that readers know that's coming, to put a twist on that stuff, how challenging is that so that everything’s not just laid out and they know where you’re headed?

Well, we come to things differently; they pay off a little differently, but we’re still true to the tent poles of the story she’s set up. And also, we’re sort of mashing a bunch of the books together, so it sort of rolls out very differently. I think season one is mostly from the first book and the third book, and knock on [wood] season two will be the second book.

Do you ever get anxious to her reaction to how you’ve done things?

MONICA BREEN: Well, it's funny. The first time I met her, I was a little nervous. She's like "Oh, I went through it on True Blood. No, I understand this is your baby." She just sort of gave me permission not to be, and so I gratefully accepted that permission. [laughs] But I love the characters she created. So, I don't have to move too far afield from who they are, even if we put them in different circumstances and different situations. There's still the truth of those characters.

DAVID JANOLLARI: And a lot of the core storylines we’ve kept from the pilot on through the series too, because we really like what she wrote; it got us excited about doing the show in the first place.

MONICA BREEN: Completely.

DAVID JANOLLARI: So we’re kind of in sync with it.

How do you two work together? How do you decide who has what responsibilities and when and where?

MONICA BREEN: It’s a collaborative medium, and to pretend otherwise would be weird. One person can't make television. It's between me, the producers, the network, the studio, and the actors.

DAVID JANOLLARI: Our infrastructure here in Albuquerque is like a whole other part of our machine.

MONICA BREEN: So, it's a collaborative process. We collaborate at every step of the way, from the pitching of "I think this episode's going to be about this character," to how it actually unfolds, to the clothing they wear, to all of it.

DAVID JANOLLARI: And luckily, because I've certainly worked on shows that don't work well and didn't last for that reason, we're incredibly in sync. We have source material that we all agree on that we love, and we've created the show based on that material, and we have the same kind of vision on who these characters are. You know, a mantra that's really important to us, is, "How do we surprise the audience? How do we subvert your expectation?" which is kind of what Charlaine did in the book series. And we're just luckily very in sync about what the show is, and the network is very in sync with what it is that they bought. It's one of those wonderful experiences where it all works together. [laughs]

MONICA BREEN: It's never happened in my career that everyone's been on the same page, and I think it's a testament to Charlaine's words and these characters. So, we're just true to those characters, and I think we all want a show - you know, when you have a vampire and an assassin, [laughs] and a witch, there's no end to story and set piece and big events that can happen. So, we kind of just play in that sandbox and let that sand build some crazy stuff.

David JanollariYou’ve worked on a lot of shows that have high concepts to them, but they’re always very character based. So, having worked a lot of shows where the idea it seems could be overwhelming, but it’s really the characters you fall in love with, how did that help you break the season, and how do you stay focused on the thing that you do best when it's telling stories?

My honest opinion is that if those characters aren't fun to watch, the concept will never sell a show for me. It might sell a movie, because it's an hour and a half, but a TV shows needs characters that I can sink my teeth into.

I'm not great at the set piece without a character motivation. I remember taking a film class in college and watching the French Connection, and the teacher's like, "Why was that car chase good?" And everyone's like, "because it did this and this," and he's like, "No! Because he's obsessed! Because he's driven!" And that's kind of like my mantra: “Set pieces are only as good as the character's motivations to be in it,” but then again I love a good explosion. [laughs] I love a good fight sequence, if you just earn it. So, all of our characters have really good reasons to fight.

Was there one character who you fell in love with when you were looking at the source material? Was Manfred your -

Manfred, to me, is a man looking for a home, and that's a really interesting narrative for me, and he's a man looking for a home with his dead grandma, who's his only friend and confidant. To me, there's something so kind about that and so sweet, and it sort of smooths out the edges. To have a family member who understands what it's like to be as plagued as Manfred is, is kind of beautiful.

But I love them all. To be honest, I've loved every single character when I read the books. I love their backstories, I love what brought them to Midnight, and I love that they all struggle to find a home, and now they've found their tribe and they're willing to do anything to protect it.

And I also love westerns, and for me there's a component of the show that is a little bit of a western. It's like my little homestead and the outsiders coming in to screw with our town. So, it's fun to take a sort of American narrative like the western and add vampires and witches to it. [laughs]

One of the big selling points is that these stories are based on the author of True Blood. There are certain expectations that people have automatically. How are you approaching those elements, such as violence or sex? How are you kind of either trying to push the envelope on a major network or reeling back what's in the book.

MONICA BREEN: When I read the books, as I was telling the story, they asked me, "Do you think this could be network?" I'm like, "It can be, because with the books, the central metaphor is love." In True Blood, its central metaphor was desire and sex, and so I don't know that True Blood would have existed on network, but when I read these books, there was never a moment where I felt "we can't do this," because at its core, it’s about people who love each other and finding love. It’s got a little bit more of a romantic bent. Also, you know, you don’t get stopped. [laughs] I keep waiting. I wait for them to say, "You can’t do that," and they don’t.

DAVID JANOLLARI: We didn’t set out to push the envelope in terms of sex and violence, but we certainly have a lot of fights and a lot of gore. But what’s really emerged in the series that I’m excited about, is you fall in love with these characters falling in love. Yes they have sex; yes they go through breakups; yes they have emotional highs and lows. It’s not [graphic] HBO quality, but it’s really emotional, and it’s really honest, and I think that’s the commonality between the Midnight family and the True Blood family. The real core fans of True Blood watched it because it was a soap, [laughs] because of those characters. And I think that’s the similar DNA that we share with True Blood.

You said you were surprised by some of the gore. Can you give us an example you were surprised you got away with?

DAVID JANOLLARI: [There are some] bloody deaths and frightening horror moments. The network actually keeps telling us, "No, make it scarier; go for it." I thought the standards and practices group would be like, "No, you can't do that," but they've wholly embraced it. And it's not gratuitous, I don't think. I think the pilot is very much indicative of the tone of the show, but we do have great special effects.

Monica BreenMONICA BREEN: Manfred sees the dead, and they exist in the moment of death, and dead people are generally not pretty. [laughs] I think that we also take seriously the fact that this is sort of an adult genre here. He is looking at death every day, and he has to take that in, and it can take him over, and [there's] the violence of that. I mean, he plays it really awfully. Like it's painful to watch him be hijacked, and so we really try and not just be gratuitous, but have it tell us about a character. So, Manfred is in need of a home, [laughs] because his life is really hard.

The one scene in the pilot, the scene where he calls the spirit, and he thinks he's calling one person and he gets a room full, there's no gore, but it's definitely a scary scene.

MONICA BREEN: Yes, and the funny thing about this show, [is from] the point of view of Manfred, seeing dead people isn't the scary part, [laughs] its seeing a room full of dead people and a hell mouth opening. You have to take it to the next level, because vampires are not going to be scared by much.

DAVID JANOLLARI: And I think our series does go further than that in terms of blood and guts and things like that, but it feels very organic to the world we're living in, and it adds to the fun ride of the show.

In terms of lessons learned, you guys have had long careers...You have all these different bench marks along the way and people that you've worked with - genre/not genre. Can you talk a little bit about each of your pathways in terms of things that you find yourself referring to or drawing back to and how they shaped you?

MONICA BREEN: Every job I've had has taught me something. I think that for me, action is something I learned on Alias, emotional honesty and genre is something I learned on Fringe. [laughs] I learned how to tell a really sad story on Brothers and Sisters.

And I think what I loved about the material, is that I didn't feel like I had to pick and choose a lane. All those lanes were available to me. So, Bobo (Dylan Bruce), despite not being supernatural, he has a violent history and a really dark past. So there are stories that I would have told in a different show, but that's in Midnight. And I think the variety of characters lets me draw from every single show I've ever worked on to sort of make every episode its own thing, depending on whether Fiji (Parisa Fitz-Henley) is the central story in it or Olivia's the central story in it. You know, there's a little sort of wink and a nod to Alias in the pilot.

…I think one of the great things about this show is not feeling like I have to choose. It’s like all my favorite things in a blender.

DAVID JANOLLARI: And I think for me, similarly everything that I've been involved with over my career that has been successful really starts with character and really is all about character. From Friends, which was not a big concept, just about six characters living their lives, to Six Feet Under, where I always say, "It was not really about the funeral business at all." [laughs] It wasn't about death; it was about life. It was about living our lives together.

And the couple genre shows I've worked on, Supernatural at the WB and Teen Wolf at MTV, as much fun of genre shows as they were, we were always having conversations about, "If we don't fall in love with these brothers, if we don't care about these brothers finding their father, there's no series." We're not just going to care about the monster of the week. And we're not going to care about Teen Wolf if we're not rooting for the forbidden love to actually conquer all.

And I think similarly here we have a great scary, fun thrill ride, but we also have a family that's really embraceable and fun to watch fall in love and fall out of love and care for each other.

MONICA BREEN: There was a moment in episode eight, where we're in video village and we're watching them perform it, and I'm sobbing, and I look around, and everyone's sort of tearing up, and I was like, "Damnit!" [laughs] I think at the core, if you don't care about the characters - you know, there's a lot of TV out there. You have to care.

SCIFI VISION: I know you had said last night that the episode is sort of like another pilot. Can you talk about how kind of serialized this show is versus a mystery-of-the-week type of thing?

David JanollariMONICA BREEN: To quote Fringe, Fringe did this thing called the “mythalone,” which is my favorite thing. It means that each episode has a beginning, middle, and end, but combined you tell a story. For me, it was really important to be able to come into an episode and be able to follow it and have fun, but at the same time, if you watch the whole season, it’s better, [laughs] and it adds up to something. By the end there’s a story that you’ve built to the entire season.

So I think we’re trying to do both. But the emotional stories - you know, these characters are evolving. They’re getting to know each other; they’re falling in and out of love. So, there is a sort of serialized component to make those stories richer.

DAVID JANOLLARI: I was going to add to that, when we started to figure out what the series was and what part of the three books to focus on for the big season arc for the first season, we kind of came up with the mantra of three engines that should run through each episode. One is, "What’s Manfred’s story? What’s Manfred’s journey?" He’s the centerpiece; he’s the new guy in town. So, every episode furthers understanding or drive of him coming into his own.

The second thing is, "What is the thread of the week, whether it’s something coming from the outside or something within our town?" In the pilot, you have the opening of the thing under the floor, which tends to become one of our bigger season arc things, as well as who killed Aubrey, and how do they solve this mystery?

And then the third thing was, "What’s the Midnighters’ story-of-the-week?" Each episode we try to focus on at least one of the main Midnighters and give some insight into their backstory or their secrets or their loves, and that kind of three-prong formula pays off, I think, in every single episode. So, there’s a lot going on in each episode that does contribute one episode to the next, to the next, to the next, until you get to the end and you see the whole big picture.

How do you decide on the directors - I mean you had Niels Arden Oplev, and that was an interesting choice. So I’m wondering [it made me wonder], how did you select directors? Are they directors that you saw in other contexts, and you thought that they could bring in something? How do they bring in different things when there’s this format, and what do you expect out of them to add or not add?

DAVID JANOLLARI: That’s a great question. I mean, we had a love affair with Niels.

MONICA BREEN: It was perfect. I was like even if it doesn’t go [to series] I got to work with Niels Oplev! [laughs] He’s awesome.

DAVID JANOLLARI: He's such an artist.

MONICA BREEN: And then, a lot of these directors I’ve worked with before. Kevin Tancharoen I worked with on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and I was like, “Okay, this guy does the best fight sequences I’ve ever seen!” [laughs] So, I’m like, “I know what we’re doing in episode eight.” But they’re all great genre directors; they know how to do character, and they all were drawn to the material.

Was there a particular director where you said, “Now I have a chance; I’ll bring them into this,” that you looked for or found?

DAVID JANOLLARI: You had worked with a couple; I had worked with a couple. I had worked with Greg Beeman, who did an episode for us. I’d heard a lot of great stories from Steve Shill, having done a lot of great episodes with friends of mine.

MONICA BREEN: And David Solomon, who’s our producer and director; he’s fantastic.

DAVID JANOLLARI: And he’s really lived here before. He’s done three episodes for us, and he comes off of Buffy and Angel.

Monica BreenMONICA BREEN: Fringe.

So, we really have a great group of seasoned, kind of genre directors, which helped, because we've tried to pull off a lot in each episode.

How has being here in Albuquerque been? Like you said, there’s a western element to it, so you get an authenticity of being here. Has that helped shape the show maybe even a little bit? Have you leaned more into being on location as you’ve established that you can use your environment? Has it taken more of a life even as you’re writing?

MONICA BREEN: Completely. I mean, the landscape of New Mexico is so beautiful that we write to it; we use it. We wrote an episode, because we saw an abandoned train station, and I was like, “This has to be a set at some point! This place is awesome!”

It’s funny on a show where some of the creatures are day creatures [laughs] and some are night, and the fact that we have absolutely gorgeous sunsets and sunrises is a big thing on our show. We rely on it heavily, and just that idea of being isolated in the middle of nowhere and how that brings a group of people together. Our cast is really tight too. A part of me wonders if that’s because they’re all here from elsewhere, and they’ve all bonded. [laughs]

DAVID JANOLLARI: When you see [the main street], you’ll see it kind of sits in the middle of nowhere, and there’s vistas of mountains, and the plains that we get in each shot as we shoot, so it feels like you’re in the middle of west Texas.

SCIFI VISION: Do we get to see outside of the town at all, or is it mostly just inside the area?

MONICA BREEN: No, we’ll see outside of the town. I mean, they live in a small town, but in a county in other towns, in other places. And in the fourth episode they have to go to the Davy bar where they meet up with the locals. They don’t exactly fit in there. So yeah, we sort of situated the town in a larger world.

DAVID JANOLLARI: Olivia takes jobs and goes out of town to El Paso and things like that, so it doesn’t just exist on that one street.

You were talking about a season one arc, and we get a taste of something beneath the floorboards in the pilot. Can you talk about how that threat manifests and what you’re building towards over the season?

[...]

MONICA BREEN: One of the things that’s fascinating, and it's from the books, is that there’s a reason supernaturals are drawn to this town in the middle of nowhere. It’s because it sits on a vale. So, it will manifest in all sorts of awful ways throughout the season, [laughs] many of which are in particular to some of our characters versus others. I’m sorry to be cagey. I just don’t have much to say that’s not a spoiler! [laughs]

DAVID JANOLLARI: But the Colconnar demon is from the books, in the third book, I think. And what you start to learn is that there is a big, bad demon that is about to break through into Midnight, [laughs] and that’s what’s set up in the pilot when Manfred’s bedroom kind of opens up under the floor. Episode two is that. That’s the big kind of arc for the season, and it’s largely written from the books, so if anyone has read the books, they know it.

In terms of the timeline, is it compressed, where you let the story unfold over a long period of time, or does all of this kind of unfold in a tense, quick time of getting to know each other? Is it months, or do you let this unfold over like a year?

David JanollariMONICA BREEN: I think it unfolds over a compressed period of time, but where a lot happens and you know a lot about the characters. But I can’t give you a specific timeframe.

So, the episodes are done. What happens next for you guys?

MONICA BREEN: Sleep! [laughs] Post-production, tying it up.

DAVID JANOLLARI: Yeah, because a lot of those effects are the second half of the battle. We’ve added a lot of effects in each episode. We’ve tried to deliver as much as the pilot did, so we didn’t look like we paled in comparison. [laughs] So, they’re chock-full of effects, but that means angel-wings, demons, and ghosts-of-the-week, so now it’s sort of the fun part where we get to start seeing those features kind of come to life.

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