Interview: 'Shut Eye' Creator Les Bohem On ''Breaking Good'' With His New Hulu Drama

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.

Hulu's Shut Eye

Was Shut Eye really your baby creating the show?

Oh, absolutely. It's an idea of mine that I had for a long time. I finally decided to set it in this world. I wrote the pilot on spec and found producers and sold it.

Did you ever try it as a movie?

It was always a TV show.

You had great success as a screenwriter. Was there a time in this golden age of television that you wanted to transition?

Well, no. In 2000 I did a miniseries for Steven Spielberg. I'd actually done some TV in the late '80s, early '90s. My parents were both television writers in their later careers. I've always liked television. My career dream would've been to write for The Rockford Files.

Did you take Shut Eye to cable and networks too?

We searched around. Craig [Erwich] at Hulu had been following it for a long time. He liked it when he was producing so it was a very logical home for it. I like everything about them. I like where they were in the zeitgeist of whatever it is that's out there now.

Are we going to see Charlie's sister more?

Oh yeah, she'll be back.

How will Linda develop? She seems badass immediately.

Well, there's a Lady Macbeth to her. What she's going to go through in the first season will set her clearly on that path. Linda is a person who wants more and no matter what she gets, she's going to want more.

Right now she's protective of Charlie. Could she become an antagonist for him?

At times, absolutely. Particularly as he starts to realize that with his powers come some responsibilities and she's not going to like those responsibilities at all. As I said, there's a Breaking Good element and that's the last thing she wants.

Does Rita have a lot more tricks that we haven't seen yet?

Oh yeah. One of the more fascinating things about that culture to me is how strong the sense of family is. It's a very rich culture to work inside of. Rita was always one of the stronger villains of the piece and one of the more complicated characters, but once we knew it was Isabella [Rossellini], then you start writing to that.

It was always a matriarchal gangster woman?

Yeah. It just seemed like a really interesting dynamic, particularly in that world which is a fairly macho world for the most part.

As I've revisited the Nightmare on Elm Street movies as an adult, I have a new appreciation for The Dream Child. Not only the magnitude of a parent meeting her unborn child in a dream, but that the one thing Freddy was afraid of was his mommy. Was that something you were playing with?

Oh yeah. I had gone to them for the third one and said, "How about Freddy has a baby?" They had said no. Then they were doing the fifth and they called me and said, "Remember that Freddy has a baby idea? Wanna do that now?" And I was like oh, yeah. That's a funny series because the mythology sort of developed as the series was. I don't think Wes [Craven] had the whole mythology of everything. It was a lot of fun to work in that world.

It ends up being Alice has a baby. Was "Freddy has a baby" a different pitch?

Well, no. It was Freddy's the father of the baby, at least in her dreams.

I always thought Daylight was one of the better '90s disaster movies. Had you started it before that became a brief trend again?

I was actually out to lunch with a producer who was giving me a lecture about the fact that I was a good writer but I didn't think commercially. Towering Inferno had just been on TV, so just kind of annoyed, I said, "Oh yeah, well, I like disaster movies. How about if I trap 100 people in the Holland Tunnel on a really hot day." Then we both got kind of quit and went, "Oh." I remember saying to him, "Send me to New York, get me in a tunnel and I'll write you a script in six weeks." Then I went home and had a long talk with myself and said, "Les, you can't keep saying everybody's snitty in Hollywood because if they're so stupid, why don't you have more of their money? Play by the rules, write a commercial script." My original script, the one that sold was so far from commercial. The people who got trapped in that tunnel were so weird.

It fit the disaster movie mold where each character had that one defining personality.

There's two models when you do a disaster movie. Dante's Peak is a very different kind of disaster movie but for that kind, the confined one, you're both doing Poseidon or Towering Inferno, but you're also doing the great Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight, all those great ensemble dramas from the '30s, or The VIPs where they're all waiting. The fun of that is the interplay. The bonus is ooh, the tunnel's collapsing but it's a $100-some million excuse for a play in a way. That was really fun.

Which of your weird Daylight characters do you miss?

I like my version of the Amy Brenneman character better. In mine, she was a failed musician assistant district attorney. I think she wound up being a failed playwright. That was not as interesting to me but that's a common feature belly-ache of a screenwriter.

Were you writing Daylight at the same time as Dante's Peak?

I wrote Dante's right after.

Was that a real race because another studio had Volcano?

No, actually the guy who produced Daylight kept telling me that I needed to write a volcano movie. And I kept saying, "Why would I write another disaster movie?" Then I was like just do it. I remember I had some very early America Online internet. I saw how popular volcanos were to kids. Who didn't love a volcano? They're cool. Then I watched this documentary about this couple who photographed volcanos. They were actually out on a boat in a lake and the bottom of the boat was melting, which is a scene in the movie. I was like, "Oh, that's really cool." By the way, Roger Donaldson who directed that movie, a really terrific director. That's an exceptionally well-made movie in ways that don't have anything to do with my script. The thing where they're trapped at the end, it's really claustrophobic and miserable and great. My only regret in that is that Universal wouldn't pay for the Neil Young song "Helpless" which Grandma was supposed to be singing. Instead they're singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" because it was free.

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Shut Eye premieres December 7 on Hulu.