Jeffrey Donovan in Shut Eye / Les Bohem interview

Hulu’s new original series Shut Eye is set in the world of psychic hustlers. Jeffrey Donovan stars as Charlie, the front man to a psychic operation that looks up their clients on Facebook, and scams them for thousands. In the pilot, Charlie starts having genuine psychic visions. Charlie works with his wife Linda (KaDee Strickland), and his sister runs afoul of the turf of rival psychic boss Rita (Isabella Rossellini).

Les Bohem created Shut Eye. Bohem’s name graced many ‘90s movie posters as the screenwriter of Dante’s Peak, Daylight, Nowhere to Run and 1989’s A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. We spoke with Bohem about the world of Shut Eye just before Hulu’s panel for the Television Critics Association. 

It seems that there could be a whole show in just the fakery of fraud psychics, even before Charlie gets the gift. Did you ever think about doing that show?

No, because I started on the other end. I started with this idea, what would happen if a fake psychic started to have real visions? I had no idea where to set it. I was like, “It could be TV psychics. It could be a Vegas performer.” It wasn’t until I’d gone into a couple of parlors that I was like, “Oh, this an interesting rich weird [world].” Once you start to notice them, you see them everywhere. Then when you see the one three blocks from here in Beverly Hills, you’re like, “They’re not paying the rent with a $20 tarot reading. What’s this all about?” Because I sort of had backed into the world, I was already deep into the characters by the time I found the world.

Can you still explore the fakery as Charlie deals with this power?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I think part of what makes it so interesting is that when you explore the real world of this, a lot of people who are “fakes” also believe. With a lot of the Romani families, because if you’re going to be a psychic, you’re trained at your grandmother’s knee from the time you’re four or five. So they speak cold reading. They speak body language, all the little signs that people give, like a second language. The line between whether it’s real or whether it’s a fake is so gray anyway, at some point part of what becomes interesting is that it doesn’t really matter. To me, it’s more compelling that this guy who is a fraud in a world full of frauds, who is the last man in the world who would ever believe this, is getting his worldview rocked because it’s actually happening to him.

You call it cold reading and body language. I call it just paying attention. I don’t even abuse it but people ask me, “How did you know that? I never told you” but it’s just observation.

Right, but when you develop those skills, you would have them from interviewing people. A cop has them. A good psychiatrist has them. To a certain extent an actor or a writer does, but there’s a great YouTube where Orson Welles explains what a shut eye is. A shut eye is a magician who starts to believe that he’s really magic. But he talks about cold reading. There are these things called Barnum statements where you just say something so general that it applies to everybody. There are all these tricks but the stuff that you just pick up from years of watching when somebody crosses their legs, body language, all of that.

Isabella Rossellini in Shut Eye

Has Facebook and social media made it even easier for psychics to fake people out, and people don’t even suspect they looked them up ahead of time?

Absolutely. You know, before social media, when you went to a psychic, a lot of times they had a camera that showed the parking lot. They had somebody at the DMV so in the back room, somebody was calling the DMV and getting all this information about you. The psychic would get up to go to the bathroom and come back and suddenly know where you lived. Now, there are endless ways. Obviously, social media makes it very simple to find stuff out but there are much more insidious things, like going into a grief chat room as if you too had lost somebody to cancer, striking up a conversation with somebody, finding out all sorts of personal information. There are nastier tricks that scam artists use.

It is a good service to make people aware of how readily they give up their information.

We gave it all up when we wanted to save three cents on toilet paper at Ralphs. The second you got a Ralphs card, you were giving it away years ago. You go on Facebook and the amount of stuff they immediately know about you, if we weren’t so dulled to it, it would scare the crap out of us.

Speculating that the client’s son could have an ear problem wouldn’t necessarily be psychic. It would be a very good guess but theoretically something Charlie could have intuited. Will the visions become more things that he couldn’t possibly know?

Yeah, they will get more intense as he tries to learn to work with them. His challenge is what’s happening to me and then why did it happen to me? Ultimately, one of the things I set out to do was see if I could do Breaking Good. To see if I could take a bad guy in a bad world and make it funny to watch him try to do the right thing eventually. By eventually, I mean a very long time from now.

Does having actual powers make him a stronger psychic or inhibit is pre-established routine?

It’s going to be a long time before he can use them in any way that works. One of the rules we had in a “no good deed goes unpunished” kind of way was we didn’t want to do a vision of the week show. Part of it was the visions will never help. For a long time, we stick to that until he finally learns how to harness them a bit, but that’s way further into the season.

It’s great material, but do you believe there might be real psychics with real gifts?

Yes, but certainly I’ve never experienced anything like that. I certainly know a lot of people who believe. Far be it from me to dismiss all that stuff. There’s certainly more to life than we know, obviously. I’m open minded and I’ve certainly had things happen to me that seem somehow connected but I’ve never had a glimpse of the future myself.

Or at least psychics who believe in themselves and aren’t overtly trying to cheat people.

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I couldn’t give you a percentage but yes, absolutely. I think ever since the ’60s, more and more. There’s been more sincere interest in New Age-ish stuff.

My personal feeling is that those effective “psychics” are people who have the intuition we were discussing earlier, just by observation.

Look up the Orson Welles shut eye thing. You’ll see that’s exactly what he’s saying. You get so good at it that you start to believe your own stuff.

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