Exclusive: Writer Leonard Chang Talks "Awake"

Exclusive Interview with Leonard Chang, writer on Awake
Interview by Jamie Ruby
Written by Jamie Ruby

Leonard ChangNBC's new drama, Awake, will air it's third episode tonight. The series follows detective Michael Britten, played by Jason Isaacs, who was in a car wreck where either his wife, Hannah (Laura Allen), or son, Rex (Dylan Minnette), died. Britten lives in two realities. In one, his wife is alive. He goes to sleep and wakes up and he is there with his son in the other. Torn between losing a loved one, Britten refuses to accept either reality as being a dream and is content with living in both. As a detective, he often uses clues from one reality to help him solve the case in the other.

One of the writers of the series, Leonard Chang, recently sat down to talk to Jamie Ruby of SciFi Vision in an exclusive interview about the show.

Leonard ChangChang loved the script and was excited to get the job. "It was not only one of my favorite scripts when it was in the early stages, but once they shot the pilot it became clearly one of my favorite pilots ever. As a staff writer I apply for different jobs, and this is one job that I really wanted. So when I got it I was extremely gratified.

"And it's been a crazy experience, very hard, but ultimately really rewarding, because, as you know, it's a crazy cop show, and breaking it down and working with these guys has been a tremendous experience."

Chang explained the structure of the writing crew and what his job entails. "Kyle [Killen] is the creator, and Kyle and Howard [Gordon] are basically running the show. But logistically they can't write every episode, there's too much going on. If you think about it, they're putting together a mini movie every eight days, the scale of which is just incredible in the things that they have to do. So that's why they bring on a bunch of writers to help them articulate and put on the page the vision that they have. And they choose their writers very carefully, making sure that they can fit within the voice and tone of the show and they all have the same sensibility.

"Then once you have this team, we get together and we meet as a group. And slowly, after the pilot and the first episode, we get together and sort of break stories together depending on what specifically Kyle wants.

"Then we divide up the stories and we go off, sometimes individually or sometimes paired off, and we write the scripts. And then we bring them back and we critique them or go over them and go off and rewrite them. So it's a process of collaboration, and then ultimately writing it and having it critiqued and rewriting it.

"You need this process because a TV show is like this monster that requires scripts very quickly and very rapidly and costly. So while Kyle and Howard are running the million things that they have to do, a lot of us are off writing the scripts, and then we get back together, and once the scripts start shooting, we help in any way we can in terms of the casting, production, and editing in whatever capacity we can help."

Chang, however, does get to work on full scripts as well. "Episode, I think it's going to be eleven, all of us contributed to it in some way...As we got toward the end of the season, and in the scripts, all of us in a group were talking about things that we wanted to see happen, things that we needed to see happen, with Kyle being the guiding force, the captain.

"Then, for that particular episode, Kyle and I co-wrote it based on a lot of his ideas and some of the ideas of the group. We worked on it together, and that's why we have co-credit on that particular script.

"It's messy, but what often happens is that in a TV writing room, everyone is contributing. Howard is always giving his input and talking about, from his vast experience, what's working and what's not working, what we should think about doing. And Kyle, of course, has his very singular vision of how this show should be and how this series should look and the storylines and the character lines. And so it's all kind of this group effort to shape things. And then someone has to literally sit down and write it out, so that's why it's divvied out and given to various members of the team."

Some fans consider Awake to be science fiction, but it fits in many genres. "All I can say about that is by the end, it's crazy cool what happens. This has been such a fascinating show to be on because it encompasses all these elements of psychology, of philosophy, of sci-fi, of crime, criminality, and conspiracy. It's really a wonderful mix of things that was so much fun to work on and it was just a kick to be able to write some of these episodes. So I think that is people give it a chance, they're going to love it. It's definitely a different kind of show than a lot of the shows out there."

Whether you consider the series to be science fiction or not, there are a few sci-fi writers on staff, including Darin Morgan. "We have one of the most reclusive sci-fi TV writers out there, Darin Morgan. I didn't know who he was until I met him and then I did a little research. There's this great article out there called "How Darin Morgan Saved The X-Files. They talk about his really unique, quirky point of view and how that helped shape the first season of X-Files.

"Anyway, he is on staff, so it was just great to see this huge range of sci-fi, crime, character-based, procedural, all these different kinds of writers coming together and trying really hard to make this show - which is kind of a hybrid in its own way - work."

Leonard ChangConsidering the show is made up of two realities, there are things the production crew has done to help viewers keep track of which is which, such as the color shift used in the pilot, according to Chang. "The production crew are really, really good because they are extremely mindful of how complicated this could be. So what they've done is, just through production design and how things look and the colors they use and the picture we're seeing, they use the template that was set up in the pilot in terms of the cinematography and how things look, and overlay that with production design.

"So, for example, when you're in red world you will know, if not explicitly then on some subliminal level, where you are just by the kinds of, for example, clothing that they wear or the kinds of backgrounds that are there. It might not be as overt as in the pilot, but it's definitely there to help guide the viewer in terms of figuring out which world they're in.

"And the crew themselves, depending on what scene they're shooting they will be wearing the red rubber band or the green rubber band so they [will] know and they will be painting the palette of the scene visually to make sure it corresponds.

"I haven't seen all the final cuts yet of all of it, but hopefully it's being done in such a way that we the viewers can discern what level we're in by what we're looking at, and how we're looking at it, and what's on the screen."

Even though he is the lead actor, another person who is involved behind the scenes is Jason Isaacs, who also serves as a producer on the series. "He definitely reads all the scripts in advance and gives notes and talks especially with Howard. Howard's the main point man in terms of production issues. So he definitely has a role and a lot of his questions and concerns are ultimately integrated into the scripts, because he does have a producer's role. He's involved. He's not in the writers' room because he's actually shooting scenes on set, but he is involved in that he does give us notes and give us input, and we listen to him and we talk to him about that."

Being that the story revolves around Britten, and it seems at least one of these realities are from his dreams, one might think that Isaacs would have to appear in each and every scene. Logistically that would be really difficult, especially on Isaacs. The writers, however, have come up with ways for it to be possible. "There are enough conceits that we need to take for storytelling and also for Jason Isaacs, that guy is one of the hardest working actors around and we have put him though some grueling, grueling scenes, emotional scenes and physical scenes. So there's also part of it that we're doing what we can to not drive him to exhaustion."

In the series, the only character besides Britten that is consistant in both realities is Captain Tricia Harper (Laura Innes). However, some of the other characters do exist in each reality (like Britten's partners), but you don't see them much. "If you think about it as a tree, and once you go up the tree trunk the night of the accident, the tree begins to diverge. And then you begin to go into the red and the green realities.

"Part of it is these things in the tree trunk that have happened, and that is objective, But once you get to the accident and move beyond that, it's an issue of bifurcating realities, essentially.

"Logistically it would have been terribly confusing to have multiple characters in both realities interacting with Britten, not just for the viewer but for poor Britten himself. So some of it was narratively to make it easier for everyone, not just the viewer and the writers, but also the characters, literally the characters and how they deal with each other.

"But this is important; later on some of these issues will come back. Like who are these characters, and how do they appear, and what's the purpose of that? Those are really good questions that will be extremely pertinent, and I'm trying to be elliptical without revealing too much."

A big part of the series is understanding the two realities. One of the big questions, is which reality that Britten lives in is real. However, an answer to that question is not essential to enjoy the series, and not necessarily the one you should be focused on. "Sometimes, at least early on when the premise was announced and people just got a glimpse of it, they're asking all these questions which might be legitimate but aren't necessarily the right questions. And then once you see the show and begin to immerse yourself and begin to participate in Britten's point of view, you begin to understand that it's less about which is real, and it's more about how do you function in this dual world, how did you arrive in this world, and how do you progress in this world.

"So there're all these various other questions that are slowly...being spread out and being more multilayered than the simple questions of what's real and what's not. Because I think it's technically more involved in terms of who Britten is."

Another big part of the mystery is with the car accident. "Remember, in the pilot Dr. Evans asks Britten about the alcohol level and Britten says quite frankly and explicitly, "I don't remember drinking."

"So there's this question of was he drinking or wasn't he? Why was there a blood alcohol [level] and is that related to the accident, and if so, how? And if not, why not? The question of what exactly happened that night and why can't he remember is something that Britten on some level needs to know, but it's not something that's going to surface very clearly or very cleanly, or not immediately for him, because he does have this blocked-out moment in time.

"So I guess the only thing I can say is that there is more to it than you might think based especially on what you've seen with the [second] episode, and that we all just hope that viewers can participate in Britten's exploration and investigation of what that means. But that's always on the back burner, because he is a detective, and he is solving cases, and he does have a job to do. So that's woven into the overall story of the series."

Another big part of Britten dealing with his own questions is with his therapy sessions. "Ultimately, their goal as professional therapists is to help Michael Britten deal with his loss and to confront what those losses are. And they both go about it in different ways, they both have their own therapeutic agendas and how they go about doing this...I can definitely say that what they want to do is they want to help Britten in their own way. And they're professional therapists, they're bound by that even...if Britten is required to see them for his job, even though there's that requirement it doesn't stop their professional ethics in terms of helping Britten achieve some kind of equilibrium with his and with his life."

Chang revealed that Killen has enough of the story planned out in his mind that it could continue for multiple years. "Kyle has always had a multi-season vision for the show from the very beginning. He even knew very clearly how this first season would end. So we all knew that coming in, what he wanted, what he was imagining. We helped him get to that point as best we could. There's absolutely multiple seasons planned."

Leonard ChangChang and the other writers are aware of what is going to happen in the series. "We definitely know a lot because we needed to write it, and Kyle made sure that we understood it all. These were some of the longest hours in the writers room, dealing with these issues. Literally ten hours straight, of arguing and fleshing out and philosophizing about what all this means, and so all the writers have a really good idea of what's going on and what's going to happen, and what's real and what's not real. But – and Kyle's really smart about this – not having us be wedded to anything because if Michael Britten doesn't know what's real and what's not, and we're trying to write TV within Michael Britten's point of view, then we wouldn't want to disrupt that by having any internal biases about that. So Kyle's really careful about how we constructed that. Not to say it was a really complicated writing process or a really complicated writers' room, and complicated scripts."

Even if Chang can't reveal much, as a fan, he is satisfied with the ending. "All I can say about is that I feel, as a fan of the show – not even thinking about it as a writer, as someone who's looking behind the scenes – as literally someone who really, really likes this show, and believes in this show, and is a huge fan of the show, I was VERY satisfied with the ending. That's just my own, personal point of view. And I was very satisfied with what could happen after that.

"So I'm not sure if I can speak for everyone, but being an avid fan of TV, and all the permutations of TV, sci-fi and crime and all of that, I have been disappointed in the past with other shows. I was not disappointed with how this season evolved and ended for season one and made me excited about a possible season two. And I can only talk personally as a fan and as a TV viewer."

There was however a bit that the writer was able to tease about the end of the season. "In terms of how this first season ends, it's all about understanding all the various elements that we set up in these opening episodes, understanding what happened and why, and understanding Britten, even, in a more fundamental, organic, and deeper way. It answers some questions, but not the big questions that you're probably thinking about, only because Kyle does have an overarching vision of how this series works."

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