Exclusive Interview: Carlton Cuse And Ryan Condal On 'Colony', 'Lost', 'Bates Motel', And 'The Strain'

Colony premiered on USA January 14. The new show from Lost producer Carlon Cuse and showrunner Ryan Condal is about an alien occupation in Los Angeles. The aliens have walled off the city and some of the residents are cooperating with the occupiers. At the end of the pilot, we find out (spoiler alert!) that one of the main characters is working with the resistance.

We got a good, long interview with Cuse and Condal when they visited the Television Critics Association the day of the premiere. Cuse also addressed some questions about his other series Bates Motel, The Strain and even a lingering Lost question. 

So many pilots feel the need to start from the beginning and tell us everything that led to this, which I think is unnecessary because people will watch later episodes and be able to follow along anyway. What was your decision to start Colony after the occupation and show how people are already living with it?

Cuse: I think it really was driven by the fact that we had previously done a pilot where we had really front loaded it with a lot of exposition. It was also kind of a complicated world and we had made the opposite decision which was to try to explain a lot of the rules of the world in the pilot. By the time we got down the road on the pilot, it really felt didactic and boring. So when we started out talking about this idea, one of the first decisions that we made was: Let's do the opposite. Let's only tell the audience the same amount of information that the characters themselves know. These characters have been thrown into this completely strange, arbitrary situation and they don't know fully what's happening. Won't it be more engaging for the audience to be on the exact same ride as the characters?

What was the front-loaded pilot?

Cuse: It was a thing called The Sixth Gun that we shot for NBC that didn't get picked up.

What corners of the occupation can you explore week to week?

Condal: All corners. That's sort of the fascinating thing I think about telling a story on a canvas like this is you introduce a world. As Carlton always says, we start the most focused point of the iris and the iris opens up as we go deeper and deeper into the show, and you see more characters. You introduce different corners of the world. As episode two and beyond, the teasers of the show all kind of show you this different little corner of this world from a different point of view. That's the fun of this. What does this look like now? What does a healthcare facility look like now? What does a supermarket look like now? Those kinds of things in this modern day Los Angeles world, that's the fun of science fiction.

Carlton has done shows with secrets before. Is there a difference between secrets the characters know and secrets you're keeping from them?

Cuse: Good question! Yes. There are two types of secrets. There are the secrets that the characters are trying to puzzle out. As a writer you can actually put forth something that the audience knows but the characters don't and you can kind of play the tension and suspense of that. In Colony, we're really doing more of the former. We wanted to be really present with the characters, so we tried very hard to make sure that the characters were neither too far in front or too far behind what the audience knows. We tried to dish out the information really just so the audience gets the knowledge just as our characters get the knowledge. The same was actually true, interestingly, with the actors. Josh [Holloway] was very experienced from doing Lost at getting scripts week to week without any sense of what was happening in the future. It was really great on Lost because it made the actors very present. They were just acting that week's script and in most cases it was because we were still writing the next week's script. It became something that all the actors on that show embraced. It made them feel very much in the moment of the mystery. So we're kind of doing the same thing here. The actors are really only reading the scripts just ahead of when they're shooting them. The difference is that our show is not leading to these mysteries, like who these aliens are, why they're here, what they're doing here? That's not really what Colony is about. Colony is about this family and how are they going to survive this occupation and what is their fate? That's really what we're ultimately interested in exploring and that's where the series is going to stay focused.

Who has more secrets, Will [Josh Holloway] or Katie [Sarah Wayne Callies]?

Condal: I think they both have secrets. I think the big central secret in the show is the fact that Katie's in the resistance and Will has been co-opted by the occupation and forced to collaborate with them to hunt down the resistance. So the secret that his own wife is in the resistance is the big central drama of the show. Week to week I think the audience is going to be on the edge of their seat wondering what's going to happen. Is Josh going to find out? When is he going to find out what's going on with his wife? That's the central story that the whole show is wrapped around.

Colony - Season 1

It is a big question, resist or cooperate. It wouldn't be unreasonable to cooperate for self-preservation. Will Katie learn the surprising toll it takes on her to resist?

Cuse: A very good question. That really goes right to the heart of what this show's about this season, Fred. I think it explores that very question. What are the costs and consequences of choosing a side? She makes a choice and then she derives certain benefits and pays certain costs for the choice she makes. What's really interesting is that what we tried to do is make it so that Josh and Sarah's characters both have really defensible choices. Josh chooses to collaborate because one, he knows his family's going to get sent to the factory if he doesn't. Number two, by collaborating, he gets all this information about the world. He's hopefully picking up things that are going to be really valuable for his and his family's survival. Also trying to get his kid back. Katie decides she can't sit passively in this world and not do anything and she joins the resistance because she feels like she is compelled by who she is as a person to try to do something about what's going on in this world. Plus she also feels like if she's in the resistance she can help keep Will safe, because if she knows what the resistance is up to, she may be able to prevent him from being harmed because their worlds are colliding. So both of these characters have very defensible points of view but they're on opposite sides from each other and the question of this first 10 episodes is what happens when those two perspectives collide, which they will.

Even in my life, on a much smaller scale, I always anticipate all the ways fighting something could complicate my life. Often you still lose, but maybe people who are natural fighters don't foresee that. Not that she thought it would be easy, but did Katie foresee what she was getting herself into?

Condal: Another great question. I think one of the themes of this season is this idea of idealism and romanticism. We hear French Resistance and we think "vive la résistance" and we imagine farmers and laborers taking up arms against the Nazis. In truth, there was a lot of dirty dealing going on within the resistance. They weren't all heroes and a lot of them were in it for their own self-aggrandizement. What Katie's character is going to learn this year is that the romanticism, the idealism that she's taken into this is not how these things usually go. There are real costs and consequences to the choices that you make taking a side. She's going to come out the other end a different person.

Will Will be faced with moments where he regrets collaborating?

Cuse: Absolutely. I think it's painful for him. There's definitely problems for him. The idea that in a way citizens who are just really trying to fight this external threat are ending up getting locked up, getting arrested, getting sent off to this mysterious and fairly horrible factory. His participating in that is not something that doesn't have a psychic cost for Will.

Have you set exactly what the borders of this enclosed Los Angeles are, down to the specifics streets and geographic?

Condal: Yes. It runs along the freeway border. So we have the 10 freeway running east to west and then it actually cuts across the coast in Santa Monica up through the mountains into Mulholland Drive, all the way back to the 5 freeway.

Cuse: There's the L.A. colony and the L.A. colony is comprised of three blocks, Santa Monica, Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. The Los Angeles block which is where our show is mainly focused for the first season is circumscribed by the 405 freeway, the 10 freeway, then it goes up the 110 to the 5, and then kind of cuts across behind Griffith Park, up to Mulholland. It goes across Mulholland to where it intersects with the 405.

Sounds like you're giving me directions to your house.

Condal: We're "The Californians" right now, but yeah, there's the external wall of the Los Angeles colony and then the internal walls that divide the blocks.

Kids can be very easily recruited. Do you get to explore how the forces play on them?

Condal: Very interesting question. I think we will see a good bit of that this year and how that plays out.

What daily life can we expect to see in weekly episodes?

Cuse: What was really fun was we wanted to give Josh Holloway someone to interact with in the show and we didn't want it to be the traditional buddy cop thing. We wanted it to be an older guy and we had this idea of a guy who was sort of retired and had gotten caught up in this whole thing and just wanted to live up in Big Bear and live out his days. We really searched around and suddenly one day someone suggested Carl Weathers and it was this fantastic stroke of genius. Carl came in and he just looks great. He's jus lively and engaging. I think one of the funnest things about the show is we were shooting in L.A. and we were able to get actors like Carl or Kathy Baker who are really tremendous actors who you wouldn't be able to get these actors if you're shooting in Vancouver or Atlanta. They're not interested in going and relocating for months on end to these cities. So Carl was really fun, Kathy Baker and then we got Kathryn Morris. We had Adrian Pasdar and all these wonderful actors who really liked the scripts and came and decided to join us. That was a really fun part, just having all these wonderful actors play the supporting roles in the show.

I love that Katie owns a contraband bar. Will there be any chance to see these characters having any fun?

Condal: Yeah, Carlton and I were really activated by the allegory of Rick's place in Casablanca. Everybody comes to Rick's and that was the origin port for the Ank. Rick's place was in the middle of the Nazi occupation. It was in Morocco at this sexy crossroads point where all these different characters came in and out, like the bar in Star Wars. We love that as a place to tell stories from. Proxy Snyder smartly saw, as he suggests in the pilot, people need their bread and circuses. They need entertainment. They need some place to blow off steam so they're not trying to fight the government all the time. I think the Ank is kind of a center point for that part of the story.

You've set end dates for Lost and Bates Motel. Will it be important to set an end date for Colony?

Cuse: I think at some point, yes. It's too early now though. We are so excited about how much story we have to tell but also Ryan and I have talked a lot about the ending of the show and what we would want to do. There's some really cool stuff that is part of the endgame of the show so we would definitely, once we have a better sense of how the story's unfolding and how long it's taking to get told, we would want to I think figure out an end date because there's a really compelling ending to the story.

Condal: I think with storytelling, the writers that are in the best position when they go into a story know what the beginning and the end is. It's the middle that's a little bit more amorphous. You know some things that you want to do. As Carlton's saying, we're in a similar position now. We know where we want to go and we have some points along the way how to get there. We just don't know exactly how much material is in the in-between yet.

Colony - Pilot

You had an ending in mind for Lost but even Bates Motel has a fairly clear ending, given what's established as happening before the movie Psycho.

Cuse: There is and yes, Bates Motel will collide with the narrative of the feature film but the ending of the two will be different. There will be similar elements but we're not going to end the series exactly the same way that the movie ended, but we are moving towards an end date. We're shooting season four as the penultimate season. Next season will be the end and it's fun to be marching towards that ending. Again, Kerry Ehrin and I have come up with something that we think is really exciting, that feels very much like a part of the Psycho universe but we're not going to deliver up the exact same ending you've already seen in the movie.

Do you think Norma could be dead before the end of season five?

Cuse: She could be. I'm not going to say she is. That's something which clearly Kerry and I don't want to spoil. It'll definitely be a surprise.

This is the first I've heard that it'll intertwine with the movie, rather than lead up to it.

Cuse: Okay, if that's the case. I think we always imagined there's a narrative to the film and we're going to cross through some of those events. It just didn't seem particularly interesting to just go on a five year journey and deliver you right up to the same place that the movie does. There will be similarities but there will be differences.

There was a story over a year ago, one of your Lost writers said that in the first season you weren't planning on answering any of the questions. I understand this wasn't a head writer, but was there ever a plan to be more abstract with the Lost mystery until people started demanding answers?

Cuse: I mean, no. We didn't talk in those terms. Really we were focused at the beginning of the show in trying to build out the world and figure out how we're going to tell our story. We weren't talking about the story in abstractions like that. We were really just trying to figure out what's the most compelling version of this story that we can tell.

You did the first series with an Asian lead, Martial Law. Now there is an actual Rush Hour series. Is that progress?

Cuse: I think it's a little bit of progress. I think we're still woefully short in terms of particularly Asian leads in shows. I hope there will be more. It was kind of even shocking to me when we did that that it was a first. I still think the business has a long way to go in terms of really fully representing the world that we live in.

You did really good martial arts on that show and a lot of shows since have picked that up.

Cuse: Al Gough and Miles Millar were writers who I hired, and I think it was their first staff job, on Martial Law. Now they're doing Into the Badlands. I was just talking to Al Gough about reminiscing about how we had this full stunt team from Hong Kong that came over and did all the choreography, guys that had worked with Jackie Chan. It was really exciting and a great learning experience to do that. They're doing that now with a whole group of highly skilled martial arts choreographers on that show.

What's coming up on The Strain?

Cuse: The Strain we are in the middle of shooting season three and really the fate of New York is really what's at stake in season three. It really turns into a very all out battle. The question is who's going to win? Our characters are in a pitched conflict to see if they can hold the city against this parasitic vampire invasion.

Is this the third book or are you still departing from them?

Cuse: We are still departing. This season is really the second half of the second book and then seasons four and five will be the third book and then the show will end. Really, a tremendous amount of what's going on this season is invented. It's invention that I've done hand-in-hand with Chuck Hogan who co-wrote the books, with a lot of input from Guillermo [del Toro]. It's been really fun because both those guys aren't precious about the books at all. They're very much about the books being a point of departure to tell a story that makes sense for television. The story of The Strain as it's unfolded for television is pretty divergent from the books.

Ryan, do you have anything coming up once Colony is off and running?

Condal: I've been working on this feature that I sold to Warner Brothers last year called Infinite Verizon, graphic novel, Image comic book that was creator owned. It was created by these guys Gerry Duggan and Phil Noto who are now doing the Chewbacca comic for Marvel. Phil is a tremendous artist but they own the rights to this thing and I was obsessed with the book for years and years. A window opened up in my schedule between the Colony pilot and Colony series. I made a pitch to them: Hey guys, option me your graphic novel. I want to write it on spec. I did and Warner Brothers bought it this year. Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter are producing it. It's a postmodern retelling of The Odyssey. It's 15 years in the future, the dying throes of World War III and this Band of Brothers is caught over in the middle of the conflict and they begin the long journey home and they experience The Odyssey in a near future science-fiction setting.

With the success of San Andreas, has Warner Brothers talked about the further adventures of Dwayne Johnson's character in another disaster?

Cuse: Yeah, we've definitely discussed it. Unfortunately I really don't have much time right now. I would love to be doing some more movie stuff but I'm really seriously preoccupied with my television projects.

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Colony airs Thursdays at 10 on USA.