By Jamie Ruby
Syfy's newest scripted series, Alphas
, created by Zak Penn and Michael Karnow, follows a group of five people that come together because of their superhuman abilities, abilities that enhance the capacities of the human mind. Led by Dr. Lee Rosen (David Strathairn), they investigate strange crimes dealing with others having powers similar to their own.
The newest member of the group is Cameron Hicks, played by Warren Christie, who has hyperkinesis - near perfect agility, balance, and hand/eye coordination.
Star Warren Christie and executive producer Zak Penn took some time to talk to members of the digital press about the new series, which airs Mondays, starting July 11, on Syfy.
Syfy Conference CallAlphas
Zak Penn and Warren Christie
July 7, 2011
12:00 pm CTQUESTION:
What can you tell us about your character, [Cameron] Hicks?WARREN CHRISTIE:
It's all right, everybody calls him just Hicks anyway so it will work out fine. Cameron is a guy who we meet in the pilot, he's had a bit of run of bad luck and he's divorced, his son doesn't really want to spend much time with him. He's a recovering alcoholic and through a chain of events is brought into this group run by Dr. Rosen who wants to help him while at the same time using the ability that is just new to him, that he is just figuring out that he has to help him investigate other alpha abilities.
So I think Cameron is interesting because I think in the pilot specifically he's kind of the eyes for the audience because as he is brought into this group of individuals who have been together for a short amount of time, he doesn't just jump right in with both feet.
He's very skeptical, he doesn't understand what these abilities are. He doesn't necessarily believe in them. And so it's not like a type of thing where he's just all gung ho and sign me up and let's do this. He's very resistant to the whole thing. And by the end of the pilot he's almost forced to choose to work along with them.
And so he's spent a lot of time as a loner and he has had a really bad run of luck and so he's got trust issues and used to being alone. So immersing himself into a group is not the first thing that he is looking to do.QUESTION:
Why should people tune in to Alphas
? What makes this unique?WARREN CHRISTIE:
I think what we're doing is we're putting a new spin on a genre that has been around for a while. Any time you have a show of this nature people want to compare it to this and they want to compare it to that.
But we're putting our twist on it. We're really delving into people and how their abilities, which are exciting. And yes, there are these action-packed sequences but really there's drawbacks to it. Whether it be physical, whether it be psychological, they're all dealing with things. And when you bring this eclectic group together it causes drama but a lot of humor. It's just a very dysfunctional group, you know, individuals and as a group.
So like I said, I think that at the end of the day we're working very hard to make sure that we are going to entertain the hell out of you for an hour every week and hopefully at the end of the day that's what we do.SCIFI VISION:
How did you come to work on Alphas
, you know, it was kind of a very boring, regular process. The script came my way and I kind of fell in love with it right away. And then the order of events with Zak and then next Jack had signed on to it, Jack Bender. And Jack and I had worked together about - I think about a year before that. We had worked on another pilot together.
And I was a huge fan of his and I knew that in his hands he could take what was already a great script and great characters and really take it up a notch. And then finally when David Strathairn signed on it kind of became "I need to get into this project and do whatever I have to do."
So, I was working on something up in Vancouver, I sent a tape in and they kind of took it through the works. And I was working so I wasn't able to kind of follow up on it and I just kind of got the job from there.SCIFI VISION:
What do you find the most challenging about filming the show?WARREN CHRISTIE:
Like any show, we have extremely long hours. Anytime you add, you know, we have great character development, we have a lot of great things going on but we do have stunts and stunts end up taking time and things like that.
I really love that aspect of it; it was another thing that attracted me to it. Actually it's the character and what he's going through but the physical elements that - something that I hadn't really delved into as much as I have on this show in a while and it has been a great challenge. It has been a fun challenge, it's interesting the things that we try and do.
And the other thing is with Hicks, he's new to the group and because he is just scratching the surface of what he can do his abilities are expanding and growing. And so the stunts are getting, you know, bigger and more elaborate and I find that it's a really fun challenge on a daily basis.ZAK PENN:
Hey Warren?WARREN CHRISTIE:
This is Zak Penn calling from Los Angeles.WARREN CHRISTIE:
Oh hello Zak. Do you have a question?ZAK PENN:
Yes I do. How come I didn't call in ten minutes earlier? Guys I'd like to apologize. There was a bit of a mix-up on my end and I was under the impression I was going to have someone call me but I am now calling in.WARREN CHRISTIE:
Just so you all got that, Zak Penn doesn't make calls, he takes calls.ZAK PENN:
I take calls, thank you Warren. What did I miss? Could everyone repeat everything they've said so far? No I'm just kidding. I'm sorry.WARREN CHRISTIE:
Hey Jamie are you still there? No? Jamie from SciFi Vision
? Wow, I've got to be honest Zak, it was going well and then you came on.ZAK PENN:
Is it over now? It's over, no more questions?WARREN CHRISTIE:
You can collectively hear...SCIFI VISION:
Yes I'm still here.WARREN CHRISTIE:
Oh there you are.QUESTION:
I guess I was muted. I'll ask you the same questions then. I asked Warren how he became involved in the project.ZAK PENN:
Well, we saw his audition and thought he was excellent. Jack Bender knew Warren, I guess they had worked together on something. What show was it Warren that you guys had done together?WARREN CHRISTIE:
We had shot a pilot about a year before that never went to air so I refuse to name it.ZAK PENN:
Okay so Jack had known Warren's work so we got one of those audition tapes from Canada where the person is like off in the distance shot through a dirty drinking glass. But even that way we could see that Warren has a charisma that we wanted for the role. I distinctly remember actually, I guess you had shaved your head for the audition or cut it down?WARREN CHRISTIE:
Yes I had done it. No no, I hadn't done it.ZAK PENN:
And he immediately popped for us so it was actually one of the less controversial, you know, there's always a lot of back and forth but Jack had told us about him and I was aware of his work. He had worked for some friends of mine so we saw him, we said that guy is Hicks, let's go get him. And we did.WARREN CHRISTIE:
And I sent a blank check.ZAK PENN:
That blank check really did help by the way. I mean, none of the other actors did that.WARREN CHRISTIE:
You didn't even watch the tape. You were like "This guy knows the business, get him."ZAK PENN:
Yes, and once I got that check and I was able to buy myself that solid gold Prius that I've always wanted, I was like we've got to cast him.QUESTION: Alphas
is an effects-based show...Do you have to do a lot of green screen work and what exactly does that involve?ZAK PENN:
Do you want me to field this one Warren?WARREN CHRISTIE:
Yes, go for it.ZAK PENN:
Okay. What screen? No, we do have to do some green screen. Most of the movies that I work on are like I feel like they're set at a green screen. They're just like - there's so much green screen in the big comic book movies.
We don't have to do anywhere close to as much of that on this show, partly because our goal with the effects is to make them as naturalistic as possible so we're quite often enhancing in more subtle ways. But that said, sure there is plenty of green screen. I mean, Warren and I, we have certainly had to do a number of green screen shots when I've been up on set.
But it's less - here's the thing. The show is so set in the real world that quite often if we are doing green screen it's not to put in some sort of amazing backgrounds or to show them jumping out of a plane or whatever. It's far more often simply to make the locations in New York City feel more seamless.QUESTION:
Do you have a favorite artifact from the series that you wish you had for yourself?ZAK PENN:
Warren, I'm sure it's that giant sniper rifle.WARREN CHRISTIE:
Well, I've been stealing things since day one so that's why it's such a broad question, it's a tough one to answer. I've been pilfering things from the get-go.ZAK PENN:
But I don't think they meant office supplies Warren, I think they're talking about more substance.WARREN CHRISTIE:
Oh cool stuff, then I misunderstood.ZAK PENN:
I can't really think of anything that's really that mind blowing, which is funny because normally you would think – oh, I probably would steal one of the cars I guess. I mean, that's all I can really think of.ZAK PENN:
Yes that's a good...WARREN CHRISTIE:
Is that too big? Would I get caught? I would probably get caught. That's too big.ZAK PENN:
Take it.WARREN CHRISTIE:
Yes I'll take a shot at it today.ZAK PENN:
Do you mean like artifacts like a prop or something from the show? Because actually I will tell you that the one - well I have a couple. This is weird, you've kind of asked me the perfect question. First of all the ghost's notebooks I wish I had taken. I probably could have gotten away with taking them. You have seen the pilot I assume?
Those notebooks, you know the scene where they're looking through the ghost stuff and there's like these meticulous drawings of everything he ever did?
It's got even a drawing of Hicks firing his sniper rifle. Our artist, you know, one of those people in our art department meticulously drew those over the course of weeks and they are incredible, they really are. So I wish I had taken one of those and maybe it's not too late.
And the other thing is that they mocked up for the record store scene with Dr. Rosen and I'm going to say this because my friends from high school will be psyched. I was in a band in high school and kind of as a joke they took the picture of my band and created an album and when Dr. Rosen is looking through albums in the kind of vintage record store one of them is my crappy band from high school's album.WARREN CHRISTIE:
What was the band called?ZAK PENN:
It was called Oedipus and the Mama's Boys. And they actually framed it and gave it to me at the end of the shoot. So of all the artifacts I have gotten from almost any movie I've worked on or show, that actually meant quite a bit to me.QUESTION:
Zak, can you talk about the alphas and how they're a metaphor for tapping into your true potential, as opposed to superheroes?ZAK PENN:
Well interestingly, I mean, obviously when you do a superhero movie usually that is working on a metaphorical level, right, because no matter how Jean Grey's struggle with turning into Phoenix is obviously so extreme but it's operating on a metaphorical level.
I think with Alphas
part of the point is these people's abilities and problems are so close to reality that sometimes it's not only not metaphorical, it allows us to actually tell the same human story.
You look at Hicks' story. It's pretty close to the story that any of us would have who have a talent that kind of we have trouble managing. Even look, there's a long history of writers who have an instrument that they can access occasionally but when they can't they turn to drinking or turn to other things to manage that problem.
And Warren can speak better to this but we really tried to keep both the upside and the downside of their problems so close to human that we end up writing stories that are, I mean, I don't mean to get all semantic and a lecture about semantics versus metaphorical but it's actually a real - it's fun.
I mean, on the X-Men
it's pretty hard to write a story about Wolverine's problems, paying his rent and working in a grocery store, whereas with Hicks those are real issues. Warren?WARREN CHRISTIE:
And byproducts from what has led him up to this point in his life. Like Zak said, I think Hicks sees this as much more of a curse than a gift because he has known there has been something different about him but it seems to always have failed him at the biggest times.
So because of that, like Zak pointed out, because Hicks is so agile you can have something like a professional athlete. Professional athletes go through a lot of different things where they have these highs and then because of that they have these very big lows. And I think it's that fine line and that balancing at that is what makes each of the characters so rich in the show.ZAK PENN:
And also, yes and most professional athletes by just the thread that's in there, like whenever you read about, I'm a big baseball fan, I'm a big sports fan. Warren and I have talked about this a bit.
But almost every professional baseball player, 70% of their job if they're good is failure. Any good hitter, if they bat 300, 70% of the time they're failing. So it's something that Hicks is kind of coming to grips with that, you know, I think is real even for quite a few players.QUESTION:
What interesting things did you learn through neurology research on that side of the story? And is there anyone out there like Gary (Ryan Cartwright) and Rachel (Azida Ghanizada)?ZAK PENN:
First of all, in terms of what I learned during the research, it's so, so much more and so voluminous compared to anything else I have ever worked on just because it's been five years I've been working on this project. And everything about the brain fascinates me and I was already a huge fan of Oliver Sacks and so I had already read everything he had written. So, I really wouldn't even know where to start.
I can just tell you maybe the persistence of vision, the nature of the persistence of vision was one of the things, the way that our sight is so much less real than we think it is. Something that kind of blew my mind when I first uncovered the idea that you have two giant blind spots in your vision and your brain just kind of fills it in for you. So that was fascinating for me. And what was the second part again?QUESTION:
Is there anybody out there like Gary and Rachel?ZAK PENN:
Yes absolutely - in terms of Rachel there's people who are incredibly close to her in terms of - there is a woman who, you know, and all of these people we did a lot of research. We put together videos. In fact part of the way we sold the show was presenting, you know, here's the real people that are the equivalent of this.
Now with Rachel there is this one woman for example who has a very similar type of synesthete which allows her to perceive things with her senses that other people can't. Admittedly it is a science fiction show so it's all - Rachel is maybe ten times better than she is.
And certainly that woman doesn't have the same downside. Although, for example, there was a very touching thing where she talked about her inability to go to certain public places because sound is color to her, it would overwhelm her and she could not deal in big public situations. So for Rachel, and we talked with Azita a lot about this, it's incredibly close to reality albeit, we need to push it at times.
Gary, I don't know that there is a person out there like Gary. There's certainly people who can perceive different wavelengths that others can't. There's people who can hear things that others can't. I do think his ability is probably the one that we most took a leap with, I mean, just to be - just to divide them up. His is the one where we said we haven't found a person like this but what if they existed.QUESTION:
There is a legacy of gifted individuals not only in comic books but also on TV. How does your show take a different spin on what has been done before?ZAK PENN:
Okay I think I've got to field this one. Although Warren, you feel free to interrupt when I make mistakes.
I've never seen any of those. Nno, okay I have - I am of course familiar with those shows, some more than others.
For myself personally, obviously I've worked on the X-Men
franchise so even though it's not a TV show it definitely had, you know, I have worked in the business of people with extraordinary abilities so I'm pretty familiar.WARREN CHRISTIE:
Thank you.ZAK PENN:
Exactly, I mean, I've worked with Warren and he is an alpha of acting and particularly of acting with his shoulder is something I have learned.
But what I would say is first of all Ira Bear, who is the show runner of our show and my partner in crime, obviously worked on The 4400
and so did a number of people on the staff and we have some people who worked on Heroes
here and there.
We're definitely aware of those shows. One of the things that we did set out to do from the very beginning, we always said as opposed to most of the shows that we've seen like this which usually start with let's say a pretty heavy science fiction or fantasy premise, we tried to start from the standpoint, Michael Carnell and I when we first came up with the idea of what's the most real version of this story we can tell? How can we start at the absolute reality of it and then build up from there?
And so, it always gave us this perspective of there would be times when we would accidentally arrive and we would go oh my God, that's actually pretty close to something that happened on one of those shows. The difference is our guys are driving a minivan and they don't get there and Gary has to be home by 9:30 and Hicks misses the shot and Harken has a heart attack.
So, that became the real differentiation point from those other shows. I think there's a reason why the Marvel movies have been so successful which is there's just something innate in all of us, that idea that a regular person could have abilities that fulfill some sort of fantasy or wish fulfillment in our head that is just so powerful that it endures.
People who don't understand comic book culture, for example, who don't get why do these people want to keep seeing these stupid comic book movies or why do they want to keep doing things about, people with extraordinary abilities? They're not getting that is our modern mythology.
I believe it was Neil Damon who astutely said, he might have said this to me, actually, but he made the point that the Marvel universe is the single largest work of contiguous or continuous fiction in civilization's history. More than Greek mythology, more than the Bible
, more than anything. It's an enormous mythology.
And I think the reason for, and obviously DC is closed and all those other shows you mentioned. But there's a reason why people want to keep watching stuff like that. It's not because they're dumb or they don't know what else to do, it's because it touches into something really profound that appeals to us.QUESTION:
As you're familiar with the X-Men
, there's a good core of mutants and then there's a bad core of mutants too.
Will we get to see if there is an alpha, is there going to be a group like the Omega? Is there something like that the alphas have to defend against by the end of or the middle or the end of this first season?ZAK PENN:
There absolutely is and I'm going to have a good segue to Warren at the end of this Warren, so be ready.WARREN CHRISTIE:
So first of all Red Flag, which is introduced even in the pilot is a group of alphas with a very different agenda than Rosen and our government. One of the things I will tell you, and I feel like perhaps one of my contributions to the X-Men
franchise was from the very beginning I felt like, you know, let's pull this as far away from mustache twirling villains and as much towards an actual movement or a terrorist group or et cetera. And, you can judge the success or failure based on those movies of whether everyone listened to me or not.
But on Alphas
one of the things we set out is -- and I think you will really see this in the upcoming episodes -- that Red Flag, who is absolutely the antagonist for the team, is not your average group of antagonists, they are some very unusual people with a very political and specific point of view. And the debate over whether or not they're right or wrong is an extremely cogent one.
So while they serve as a foil and there's a lot of confrontation with them and obviously they weren't too nice to Hicks in the opening episode, ironically it's Warren's character and even he has gotten a taste of this already.
Because he is the newcomer to the group and because he's not as much aware of what Rosen has been doing, the more he learns about Red Flag and the more he learns about other alphas and their attitudes, he's the one who is really kind of saying "Well, wait a second. They kind of seem to have a point, you know."
And from my point of view, what's so much better about what you're saying than what they're saying. And to me that's what makes a good antagonist. So I don't know if Warren...Warren that was my segue to you.WARREN CHRISTIE:
The thing I would add to that, which is one of the things that has been so great about this is, we don't just open up every episode and say "Oh, we've got to get so-and-so" and then wrap it up and go. There's always storylines.
So the Red Flag is always hovering. We introduced them, we learned about them in the pilot. So they are always something that's going on but it's just so blurred. There's no black and white, there's gray.
And it's not necessarily always tracking down someone with alpha ability who is just out there trying to hurt people. Sometimes it's an ability maybe that just they can't control. So, it's never getting from point A to point B from the beginning of each episode to the end because that gets very cut and dry and a little bit boring. There is always different things interwoven.
And that's the great thing. It's like what Zak is saying, through Hicks's eyes he is kind of not necessarily saying who are we to say - he actually says a couple of times who are we to get in there and stop this person or that person or how do we know what's right and what's wrong.
And because those lines blur so much, there's a lot of questions that keep arising. Every time they think they [have the] answer, another one pops up. And I think that's what hopefully is going to add texture throughout the whole season. It's not like oh let's go get so-and-so, boom, done, move on, let's go get this person.
It's nice to have the Red Flag always being around and always being this dominant, I don't want to use the word threat because there's no other way it works but it's the other storylines that are being woven throughout it. And these gray areas, trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong, I think is going to add so much texture to each episode.ZAK PENN:
Right. I would add, lastly, because I just saw and Warren hasn't seen it yet, but one of the episodes that Warren and I just worked on together, there's a number of scenes where he and Rosen are watching Red Flag propaganda and Rosen is kind of trying -- and I don't think this is a spoiler -- Rosen is turning it off because he has seen it before and he has heard what they have to say and Hicks is saying "Leave it on."
First of all, because the motive, I'm interested to hear what their motive is but also it's not like, listening to an Al Qaeda tape that's just filled with like horrible, death invective. There's a real point of view that is relevant in all of them.
So in addition to what Warren is saying, sometimes they're chasing people down that need their help, frankly. So it's all kind of all over the place. But Red Flag I feel confident is a pretty interesting antagonist that isn't quite like what you've seen before.QUESTION:
Was there an ability that was pushing the limit of believability but that you felt strongly about having them do?WARREN CHRISTIE:
I'll go quick just because mine will be fairly quick. When we first meet Cameron he really doesn't understand or believe in his ability. Rosen had an actual line where he said, you're just scratching the surface. That doesn't mean that all of a sudden he becomes great at party tricks and flipping quarters and stuff like that.
As we have gone along in the series, the biggest thing he's trying to do is learn how to control it and have it not fail him at really inopportune times. So more than that, as he learns to start to control it, it's growing. And his ability within the realm of what he does is growing and it's being nurtured and he's starting to actually control it but he's starting to see things differently and do things differently.
So as it grows, new things come along all the time which from an acting point of view means our stunts can be a little bit more elaborate and things are happening. So as he progresses as a person his ability is progressing with him so we can introduce a few new things here and there.
We don't want to make too many giant leaps because then all of a sudden we're getting a bit away from what we want to do which is have everything completely rooted in reality. But it's been fun to watch the character grow as a person but see his abilities and a new little twitch coming in every once in a while. Zak Penn?ZAK PENN:
Yes and I would say, Warren, that there's a couple coming his way that he doesn't even know about yet. But one of the things is...WARREN CHRISTIE:
Ooh, spoiler alert.ZAK PENN:
Yes exactly. He flies in outer space and he gets a ring and becomes a guardian of the universe. I mean, I thought that was in the tone, in the show. I don't know why.
No, but for example one of the things that happens quite often is we'll be sitting around researching their abilities even after we've - particularly Warren's because, it's just something that part of the way we sold the show, I don't know if you guys were told this, but we actually created a video of a guy. Iin the video I think his name is Christian Hicks just because the namage was different and we shot in my house for a few hundred dollars, this video of this guy playing quarters.
And we released it onto the Internet, we doctored it up, I got some special effects guys I knew and for very cheap they doctored it up so it looked like he threw ten quarters into ten glasses at the same time. And we released it on the Internet actually somewhat by accident and it got a million views. And by the time we went in to pitch the show nobody believed us and we said oh no no no, we created that for the show. It's not real.
So from the very beginning that was kind of the sales pitch of the show is "this could be real" but it also led to we're always sitting around looking at okay, well wait, what is the neurology of how Hicks - if Hicks can do this what else can he do?
For example, if he's got perfect aim and perfect balance, what does that mean to have perfect balance? And could he - how does perfect balance come in a way that we haven't thought of yet? Could he survive a fall, for example, from a height that most of us, our legs would be broken or our femur would shoot through our brain. That wouldn't be the case for Hicks.
So I guess what I'm saying is I'm going to throw Warren off a building pretty soon.
No, but seriously, there are things that keep coming up where we're like hey, wait a second. And then there are some in an episode coming up where Hicks is able to - it's not just that he has perfect aim but it's also he can see how certain events have happened more acutely than other people can because there's the way his mind is wired. So I don't know if that's exactly what your question was but I answered something.QUESTION:
If you could have any of the characters' abilities, whose abilities would you want?WARREN CHRISTIE:
Somebody asked me this question once and I was totally wrong. I would say easily Nina's (Laura Mennell). The ability to be able to actually tell somebody do something and actually have them listen, I don't get that very much in my life so to actually have that happen I think would be amazing.
The twist on it that I was saying to somebody, I think yesterday, was it's a bit tricky because Laura Mennell who plays Nina is so gorgeous that I feel if she asked somebody to do something they would do it anyway. So that's the twist with her whole ability. But I think if I could look someone in the eye and say hey go do this and they could do it, that would be all right.ZAK PENN:
And I think the subtext of what Warren is saying there is that he would like to look like Laura Mennell, which I think is something he should be proud of but he doesn't like to talk about it.WARREN CHRISTIE:
I mean, like you touched on a sensitive subject.ZAK PENN:
I have to, you know what, it's going to sound very unoriginal but I completely agree with Warren. I mean, for me Nina's ability is the one that would make life the easiest.
By the way, particularly for example on set with Warren, when it's the daily tantrum about where is my bigger trailer, how come I don't have the warm running toilet flush. I could just say Warren, come on man, live with it and he would be okay.WARREN CHRISTIE:
We can - you can set your watch by it really every day, every single day.ZAK PENN:
No, but seriously, I do think that Nina's power is the one that - and even with its limitations, even with the fact that it doesn't last that long, it just seems like the one where your daily - everything you did during the day.
And even when we were conceiving the show we would sit around and say, how would Nina - how exactly would she get an apartment rent-free and we kind of figured out that she would have to find a place that has like a corporate manager and twist that guy into signing a contract giving her the apartment.
We've had a lot of fun figuring out if you could go around making people do what you wanted for a short period of time, how many things could you organize for yourself that would just make life fun and easy? I do think it would backfire on you and you would end as a very sad person but I sure would like to have it in the abstract.WARREN CHRISTIE:
Well Zak, you've got three kids, I mean, come on.ZAK PENN:
I know, God, bedtime would be so easy. "You want to go to sleep."QUESTION:
Warren, how did you approach this knowing that you were going to have some time to build this character, that you were going to have 13 hours to really work on him? What did you look for to inform his background?WARREN CHRISTIE:
Yes well, that's always the hope. When you shoot the pilot for anything you never know what's going to happen. But it was an interesting character and it was one of the things I fell in love with right at the top was this character. He's just got so much going on in his life and not good, in too many ways.
What I really loved about him, he's definitely nobody's hero. He doesn't want to be anybody's hero, he has kind of painted himself in a corner with his life and he's had so many ups and downs and recently so many more downs than anything that he has isolated himself and he almost just kind of put his head down and said this is my lot in life and this is what I'm going to do.
And then at the end of the pilot he is given this opportunity force. I really don't think he wants to do this and you see at the end of the pilot that he is kind of brought in against what he wants to do. And I found that one of the most interesting things.
I remember the first time reading the pilot screaming "Oh! This character is great and then there's these action sequences and this is so much fun!" And I love the fact that it didn't get a big bow put on it at the end of the pilot and it's like "Oh, let's go team." I mean, this guy, he is forced into a situation that he's not comfortable with, that he's not necessarily looking for.
And I just thought that the pilot left – not just with Hicks but all the characters and the team – so many places to go. I've read some great pilots before and when you turn that last page it was kind of wow, that was great. And now what are you going to do? I think that Zak set up such a good situation for us to have so much play. And then when get in the sci-fi genre you are able to push the boundaries a little bit.
So it was about making sure that Hicks was going to fight in his own way, he's going to try and pick himself up and trying to do that.
But like I said, from the get-go he was nobody's hero. He was an anti-hero, he was just trying to get through. And I just thought the texture of him and his life and all this different stuff was going to be a nice challenge. And it was nice to not be the bad guy again although it's not exactly loads of fun all the time.QUESTION:
The alphas are refreshingly normal. Was that intentional, to keep them as grounded in reality as possible so that they have normal lives except for their jobs?ZAK PENN:
Yes, I would say you've probably hit the key point of the series for me right on the head, which is not only did we want them to feel normal, you know, for me. And this is true for Michael Carnell as well who is not on this call but the guy who - a good friend of mine who really brought a whole sensibility to the show which is we felt like we wanted to see what the normal aspects of life are that we all deal with.
It's a pet peeve of mine in every movie and TV show if a group of people are pulling up to a crime scene or wherever they park. And I'm from New York City and I can tell you that does not happen. There is not a parking spot in front of any building that you want to go to when you want it to be. And when there is you call friends and say "Oh my God, I got a spot right in front, it's amazing."
And the office politics of just dealing with people every day. Those are things that you don't normally explore, certainly I haven't been given the opportunity to explore those things in the other things in the genre that I have written and that was essentially, I mean, I felt like that's what makes - first of all it's what makes the show funny at times. Second of all it's what makes me believe that it's actually happening.
And it just tickles me and it interests me. And I don't want to spoil it because it's really one of my favorite moments in the series so far but there is a moment between Gary and Hicks that is coming up which is just this incredibly simple moment that uses both their abilities but it's the equivalent of someone turning the air conditioning down because they know the guy in the office next to him is a little too cold.
To find those kinds of human moments with these types of characters, to me that's the reason to do the series honestly more than anything else. And obviously all the stuff about the back stories of characters are essential to creating something actors can play.
But literally finding those moments like Rachel's sense of smell when people don't clean up or when Harken leaves his food out, it's a bigger deal than when one of the other writers does it in my office. Although by the way it bothers me there too, particularly when Carnell does it.
So I think that those elements of the show at least to me - that's like the life and soul of it and it has been there in every draft and as you can imagine it's sometimes hard. There are sometimes fights where people are like do we really need a scene of them stopping to put change in the meter?
And me and Michael are saying we absolutely need that, we need that as much as we need Hicks to fire a sniper bullet through an air grate. We need there to be change for the meter and things like that. So I'm glad you noticed that and I hope people appreciate it because it's something that we care very much about it.QUESTION:
Zak, is there anything you can tell us about the episodes after the pilot, what we have to look forward to?ZAK PENN:
You know, this is going to reveal my ignorance. This is the first time I have done a television show. I've exclusively done movies my whole career so I don't know exactly what the rules are in terms of spoilers. So forgive me if I'm - I might be more careful about this than other people would be. I think that some of them have been announced...Valerie Cruz has been announced.WARREN CHRISTIE:
And we all know Callum Keith Rennie was in the pilot. Callum is very well-known from Battlestar
and whatnot.ZAK PENN:
...I could tell you that we will be going in a lot of unexpected directions and there will be a lot of different people coming into the mix and a lot of interesting guest stars. I know this is like the lamest answer ever but...WARREN CHRISTIE:
And also what I'll say on top of that since Zak...ZAK PENN:
I'm being the low point so yes go ahead.WARREN CHRISTIE:
What we do have is some really...obviously you can't give story points away. We have some really incredible guest stars who have been in and out and specifically ones that I think people who like the genre are going to be - a couple in particular are going to be really blown away by and they're going to really like to see how they come in.
And they're also going to get to see them play against type a little bit which I think is going to be real exciting. But other than Valerie Cruz and Callum Keith Rennie I think that's about all we can really say.QUESTION:
Warren, were you a science fiction or comic book fan before doing this show?WARREN CHRISTIE:
Yes I was. When I was a kid I was crazy about X-Men
comics and whatnot and then coming up I've always been a film TV junkie in general but the sci-fi genre. But what I really love about it is the leaps and bounds it has made in the last, I don't know, I'm going to say like five to ten years.
I mean, first of all it has become so much more mainstream I think, for lack of a better term. And there was a time when maybe sci-fi was viewed as something with low quality, low budget. But as you have seen and as Zak pointed out with the Marvel franchise and the television series that it has become this hugely viable genre that at this point in time, not just the people enjoy but people of different generations can enjoy.
And I think that if you also get the right show, you can have a father sitting down with his son or a mother sitting down with her son or daughter or whatever and enjoying the same type of shows and doing that type of thing. Because it's really starting to bridge generations and it has become very mainstream.
But I love it because also from an acting point of view it allows us to kind of push the parameters a little bit and do things. I mean, the one great thing about our show is that like Zak has said, it's always rooted in reality and I think that's what's bridging the gap a little bit.
But it gives you a lot more play and when a script comes in there are times when a script will come in on Alphas
and I'm blown away and you see how it works in. And at the end of the day I hate to say this word but it's just a lot of fun.
QUESNTION: Zak, as the show has developed has it changed very much from your original vision?ZAK PENN:
Well has it changed very much from my original vision? It certainly hasn't changed that much from the pilot obviously because it has been the same people and it has been pretty consistent. There has been some stylistic changes that are partly choice, partly necessity of trying to move quicker. Obviously you have a lot more time when you're shooting a pilot.
If you go back to the original documents we wrote up it's pretty amazing how similar it is because it seems like we've had two years of arguments with 25 different people about what exactly the show should be and it is weird to go back and look at our original pitch and it's pretty damn close.
There's characters, a couple of the characters have changed. Not Hicks for example but there are a couple of the other ones have changed because either who was cast or nationality or other details.
But no, for the most part it has been pretty weirdly consistent. I have to tell you I have such a bad track record, you know, the first script I ever wrote was Last Action Hero
so I was fired the day that they bought it. And when I went to see the premiere, I was looking around at my writing partner saying "Oh my God, what has happened?"
And that has happened to me a number of times in my career where I have written something about a bunch of real people and I go see the movie and they're all psychic now.
So that has been actually a fairly painful part of certainly the early half of my career. So it is kind of almost like a weird dream that I keep expecting to wake up from, like I'll turn on Alphas
and suddenly it will be a wacky comedy. But so far that does not happen to me so good news.WARREN CHRISTIE:
But the one great thing...obviously I don't do any writing. The one great thing I have to say about Zak and Carnell and the writing team in general is as we have gone along they have always been very open to listening to us, just little things, you know, and making it as naturalistic as possible.
And then what great writers do...is they so quickly found everyone's voice that you see it changing and working their characters are really flushing out. I mean, they just kind of tweak things as they learn more about us as actors and the characters, where they're going.
And the little tweaks – which may not seem like the biggest thing at the time – make it much easier on the actor and it really helps to solidify the voice of each of the characters.ZAK PENN:
Thank you. Let me add to that. I have done a couple of improvisational movies and when I set out to do this show, despite some protestation, I said I want actors who are able to improvise, who are able to ad lib where they will feel comfortable making the dialog sound naturalistic. I'm a little bit tired of like every line having to be a pronouncement.
So, the actors really do deserve a lot of credit. They all are very shy about admitting this but quite often, we'll let them come up with stuff on their own and say that's better than what we wrote. Let's put that in there.
Because I feel like that's one of the problems a lot of writers have is they get very precious about their words and, unless you're Shakespeare, and I'm not, I know that sometimes happens, the confusion.
I feel like a lot of the character growth comes from each of these guys saying, you know, I was thinking, wouldn't I do this and maybe I should say that. And we try to always be open to them and take it and it really has allowed the characters to evolve. But the vision of the show I would say has actually stayed pretty close to what it was.
Yes so I count my lucky stars.QUESTION:
Are we going to find out more about Dr. Rosen's background and are we going to find out more about how he got this team together?ZAK PENN:
You absolutely will find out a lot more about that. You're going to find that out almost immediately I would say, in the next two episodes. You will find out a lot more and that continues to be a crucial part of the storytelling.
And in fact, with David Strathairn - we wouldn't get him if the part was just every week you're going to deliver a case. And he knew going in that was not going to be the case.
We definitely started with Rosen when we were creating the show. For me the idea was instead of having someone who's suited to this job, what would make sense is a guy who has got the background in the clinical and the neurological part of this but is completely unsuited to running a tactical team for the Department of Defense.
And that is something that not only drives a lot of the plots and how they approach the cases but the more you find out about Rosen -- and look, Hicks has a good scene with Rosen at the end of the pilot which I think is one of the better scenes where you realize that Rosen is not quite the warm cuddly guy that he appears to be.
Well, put it this way. It will not - even that will not take the twists and turns that you might expect, you know, it's not going to be exactly what you might expect. But he's also not just this benign guy who is there to help. He's got his own agenda and he's got some stuff in his back story that a number of things are going to come out that are pretty big that will change and change again your opinion of him I think.ZAK PENN:
So if you like that, get ready.QUESTION:
Gary is autistic, is that correct? What made you decide to give him that particular disability to go along with his extra power?ZAK PENN:
Well obviously that one really came out of the research and having read all of Oliver Sacks, I don't know if you're familiar with his books.
Between An Anthropologist on Mars and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and all the other fascinating books he has written, the more we talked about - first of all one of the things that fascinated us was the idea that these kind of repeated stereotype movements that you sometimes see in people who are autistic.
I know people who are autistic so it's a pretty common thing. We just thought wouldn't it be fascinating if there was a secret language going on behind that.
And as Warren could attest, Ryan has created that secret language, I mean, he is the one who knows it. So when we have questions about it we call him. And we have worked with a number of doctors to make his portrayal incredibly accurate.
But I will tell you that we felt like really we were looking for in every case where we came up with an alpha ability, we tried to say like if this were in Oliver Sacks' study, if this were about a guy who could draw incredibly well, what is the most likely problem or what part of his brain would have suffered.
I mean, there's a thing about Einstein, I don't know if it's apocryphal but I believe it's true that they found, after he died when they looked at his brain that the part of his brain that controls visual and spatial understanding was enormous, it was much bigger than it should have been in a normal person.
And other parts of his brain were slightly smaller which explains why he didn't speak until he was - they thought Einstein was mentally challenged until he was five or six years old because his speech was so bad.
So for Gary, the strength of his ability and the nature of it we felt like the amount of stimulus that would have caused, it seemed only natural that he would have the kind of autism spectrum disorder that he has as opposed to someone for example like, Warren's character with Hicks, with hyperkinesis didn't seem like it would lead to that kind of problem. So it really was organic I would say.QUESTION:
Zak, the premise of Alphas
feels a little bit like the X-Men
team. How much has your work in Marvel superhero movies and your background with comic books influenced the initial idea for Alphas
I've been reading the X-Men
comics since I was, I don't know, six. So I think it's burned into my brain in a way that is inextricable. When I did an improvisational comedy about (Burner Hurtsog) I found that I was doing stuff that felt like it had some sort of antecedent X-Men
which don't ask me to explain that further.
But, all that stuff has been such a big part of my life and even my professional life so there's no question that it lurks there in the background. And that universe is so rich.
I will say that there's a lot of different stories that touch on people who have unusual abilities. A number of them have been raised in these questions. The key is differentiating them, the key is making sure that you're not starting in the same universe with the same type of people.
And so, I actually think in a lot of ways I very consciously said, in fact they kind of get sick of me in the writer's room because I'll say we cannot do that, that was in X-Men
, no, that character can't say that, that's exactly what he says in X-Men
. And after a while (Ira) jokes with me, between Star Trek
, all the shows that all of us have worked on we'd never be able to write anything if that was our criteria.
But for me personally I do try to - I'm always conscious of let's try not to do what has been done well elsewhere. Let's try to do something different.QUESTION:
How did you come up with the initial idea? Was it something that you and Michael Carnell had wanted to write for a while? You said that you spent about five years pitching it.ZAK PENN:
Well it actually wasn't so much five years pitching it because it did sell, it kept selling and then there was a writer's strike or whatever. But very quickly, Michael Carnell, who is a bit of a history buff, came to me and said he had been reading all about these programs, the CIA, the KGB ran in the 50s and 60s and 70s where they tried to recruit people who are psychic or people that had unusual abilities.
And most of those programs ended almost hilariously in disaster. I believe that George Clooney was in that movie Men Who Stare at Goats which is kind of the comedic version of it.
But he was basically, he brought me this idea while we were making another movie and said wouldn't it be cool if that had actually worked. Wouldn't it be cool if they actually found a group or people who were helpful and that very quickly spun into the idea that we have right now.
The reason why the development has been so long as I said is that it was purchased by ABC and then there was a writer's strike and then we ended up going to Syfy. So Michael and I have been working on this thing for five years even though it's only been in production for however long it has been at Syfy.
But that is the origin. If anybody wants to write the origin story of the writing of Alphas
which would probably be an amazing comic book, there it is. That's the secret origin.QUESTION:
are kind of like a blue collar X-Men
wrote small who work for an underfunded subsidiary of the Department of Defense. This means they get hassled by government red tape so even as they're trying to do their job there are problems from within. Can you speak to how that will impact the series as it evolves?ZAK PENN:
I certainly can. In fact another shout out to Michael Carnell here. Michael is fascinated and loves the finality of bureaucracy, the fact that - I think both of us are - the idea that, so often in fiction and TV and movies you've got some sort of imperious overlord of a government official who makes them go do something horrible.
When the truth is as we all know, most of the time that person just has to file the report by Friday and just want to, you know what I mean? They're just interested in the paperwork they need to hand in or the requisition form or whether you stayed on budget.
And that's something I feel like – talk about comparisons. In the X-Men
nobody ever comes up to Professor X and says "You know, the hangar for the jet is over budget and behind schedule and we need to cut back on the danger room." You know, like it just doesn't work that way.
So not only did we do that something that interested us and felt more real to us, it actually turns into a pretty interesting conflict for the team for exactly the reasons you just said which are it's - it makes their lives difficult in a totally different way. That some of the conflicts are enormous but some of them are as simple as that's not the way the government works.
So I think Rosen says to Hicks in one of the early episodes, you know, Hicks says so I guess I'm on call or something and he says yes but at least you have a good dental plan and that's true.QUESTION:
Warren, you've got the most complicated role in the pilot, most complicated art. Not only does your character have this unusual power, he also has the most profound art. What were the specific challenges of working under those unique circumstances?WARREN CHRISTIE:
Well it was so well written that it was more about trying to stay true to what was on the page. I think that it was important, when I read it I understood what this guy was going through but I think it was - one of the things was the confusion and the skepticism.
This is a very skeptical guy. It's not until he starts to see the other people's powers that he start to be kind of won over a little bit. Even then as you see at the end of the pilot, it doesn't mean that he wants to jump on board and be a part of it.
I think that the journey goes from the beginning as he is sucked into this world. It's very convoluted. And again it goes back to what we were saying earlier about all these gray areas. And the growth in the pilot and there are times when Hicks doesn't understand what's wrong with what so-and-so is saying, like what's wrong with what they're doing, it's so cut and dry here.
So it was specifically with the pilot, I mean, he's going through so much. He has this blank period of time where he can't remember anything and he's trying to piece that together. He wakes up and he's tied down, he's in an MRI machine. It's just very confusing to him, it's a scary situation to be chased down by people, which he doesn't understand.
So I think that I see it more as a jumping off point. Like I said, it was all there on the page. I think the character is very well-written. He has all this stuff going on but what I'm most excited about is actually where it's going. And as we see, and like we were talking about before, I feel like the fact that there's no ribbon at the end of the pilot and it's like oh great, high fives everybody, let's do it. It's just scratching the surface of where I think we're going.
QUESTIN: Zak, it says on your IMDB profile that your first memory is of the Watergate scandals. If that's true, that was your first memory, do you think subconsciously that has inspired your writing?ZAK PENN:
I know this is going to sound crazy, I have no idea how that ended up on my IMDB page. I thought it was an old friend of mine put it there as a practical joke.
It is vaguely true that I remember as a kid watching my parents watching the news and seeing things about the Watergate break-in but I have questioned every person who could possibly know that and they all - half of them were like "What's IMDB?"
I have only not asked them to take it down because it's so weird to me that - is it still up there? I don't know that it's informed my writing. I must have been four or five when that happened. So nobody has even asked me this before but I'm glad someone finally did because it's like my own little conspiracy theory and I don't know what's going on.
I don't know that it actually has informed my writing because I really kind of grew up post...obviously being four, I didn't write much when I was four although I did start writing.WARREN CHRISTIE:
Yes, I did actually write my class play when I was nine so I guess I did start early but it had nothing to do with Watergate. Look, the stuff I grew up on more I would say, I grew up on Monty Python, on Saturday Night Live, on Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg. Those were the things that really influenced me.
But of course, Watergate, without going into an incredibly long answer you could make an argument that a lot of Spielberg's films, particularly those great 70s films, feel imminently post-Watergate in their attitude towards the government. But no, I don't think that has had a tremendous influence on me.WARREN CHRISTIE:
What is IMBD?ZAK PENN:
Yes, one day I want to figure out who did it. I mean, I'm really curious.SCIFI VISION:
What have the two of you learned most about yourselves since you started working on the show?ZAK PENN:
You go first Warren, I've got to think about this.WARREN CHRISTIE:
Zak you go ahead, I'm ordering a sandwich and I'm paying for it so you go ahead.ZAK PENN:
Okay. I have learned that Warren loves sandwiches.
No, what I have learned most about myself? God, that's a tough one. I guess I would say, I don't know if this is the most about myself. I have to say I am humbled by the pace and intensity of making a television show and I say this to the guys who I work with every day.
Even compared to features, even compared to the biggest or the most difficult features I've done or even the lowest budget ones, it is really a daunting task to create a show like this and to work as hard as these guys do, as we all do and the actors as well for such an enormous amount of time.
So for me, I had always prided myself, certainly as a writer that it was never, no matter how fast something needed to be written or how quickly you need to shoot something or how many changes we have to make on the fly, that I would be able to do it.
And I have to say that many times making this show where I realize wow, no wonder these showrunners are such valued commodities. Because television actors, sometimes you wonder "Oh, why does that guy want to leave that hit show after five years?" And you realize it's not like a movie where you're sitting there getting pampered in your trailer and you come out for two hours and then you have a nice meal. It's a lot of hard work, it really is.
I think for me that was a big eye opener and as Warren will tell you, I prefer not to work so hard. So it forced me to actually step up my game.
Warren, have you ordered your sandwich?WARREN CHRISTIE:
I have ordered my sandwich and I paid for it. It's coming. This is going to be a weird answer, have an interesting spin to it. Oh thank you, my sandwich.
I think one of the things I have learned, and this may seem a little bit of a silly answer but it's how much I enjoy doing this role...There is a physicality to this role that's new, that's something I have not really done before and I'm loving being a part of it.
I'm loving getting the opportunity to try and do – and don't get me wrong, obviously I don't do them all – but trying to do certain stunts and trying to do certain things along that line.
And that alone I don't think would be enough to have me be as excited about the role in the show if it weren't for such a deep character and a group of people to work with. We have a fun show and we have a lot of fun doing it.
And I've been on shows before, the majority of my career has been television and television series, and I've had the opportunity to work with some great people. But I have also been on shows where it's not exactly a whole lot of laughs.
I think most people are always going to say oh, it's great, but we've got a great cast, we've got great higher ups, great writers. Everybody is great and very supportive of it. I think more than anything it's been an eye opening experience to realize how much joy can be in finding something great. I love playing this character because it's challenging.
I like the physical aspect of it so I think more than anything I've just learned more specifically, and as I get older a little bit as well, what I look for in a character, in a job, in a show.
Because Zak is right. When you sign on to do a TV series you better be ready for some very long hours for possibly five or six years. These are all possibilities. And in a good case, these are all possibilities. I could be wrong.
If you show up and on day two you're like "Oh man, I can't stand these people," then you're looking at a long trek. So I think more than anything it has opened my eyes to the type of people I want to surround myself with to take the jobs that I want to do.
And real quick, even though I know it's not a part of it, one of the biggest things I have to segue into - David Strathairn. This guy is everything that is right with this industry. He is our leader in front of the camera and off. He is a phenomenal talent to work with and just an incredible man to be around and to work with. And so yes, his energy and he attacks his roles with such integrity, he has been a really great example to the rest of us.
So it's been a lot of fun. It is hard hours. I'm on my way to work right now, I've got my sandwich. But when you're going with a group like that and everybody is on the same vibe of trying to do something great it's really exciting.SCIFI VISION:
Are there any specific stunts that that stick out in your mind, talking about the physicality?WARREN CHRISTIE:
Well, sometimes I consider just getting out of my trailer a stunt so maybe I exaggerated a little. No, I'm just trying to think.
When we were doing the pilot I got to do a thing where a car was coming up, hit the brakes and skid. And as it was still moving but coming to a stop I ran up, ran across the hood, jumped down, another car was coming the other way, and was just kind of jumped and used my arms to push off of that and that was exhilarating. It was pretty exciting, scary, no accidents in my pants or anything like that but I'm just going to say it was close. But yes, getting to challenge myself with these things.
And I've got to say, I've had a couple of incredible stunt guys coming through and my man Stefan is my stunt guy right now and he does a lot of hard core. I like to challenge myself and try to do as many of the things as I can but I have to give a hats off to our stunt crew that comes in. I mean, they do a phenomenal job. And it's those things that take our show I think to another level stunt-wise.ZAK PENN:
Warren, enjoy your sandwich.WARREN CHRISTIE:
Oh you have no idea, I'm so excited.