M. Night Shyamalan on The Mystery & Popularity of Wayward Pines

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Wayward Pines has been one of the most entertaining shows of the summer. In a tv environment where every mystery is drawn out for years, Pines refreshing pacing brought us into the story quickly and gave us more than of information to keep us interested, while still guessing.

Based on the book series by Blake Crouch, Pines follows Secret Service agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) on his mission to learn the truth behind a mysterious Idaho town. We learned quickly that something is going on behind the scenes and with the last aired episode “The Truth” our main characters learned exactly what has been going on all along.

We got a chance to speak with one of Wayward Pines’ executive producers, M. Night Shyamalan through a FOX conference call. Best know for writing and directing The Sixth Sense, Night went on to create a brand that became synonymous with storytelling, suspense, and twist endings. Now turning his focus to television, Night has set out to make Wayward Pines as thrilling and surprising as his films.

You made the decision to put the big series reveal early on. Even because of that, there’s still so much going on in the following episodes after that.  Can you talk about keeping that pace going, and did it make it easier having only ten episodes as opposed to a longer run?

Photo Courtesy of FOX
Photo Courtesy of FOX

Yes, very much so. When I was talking to Fox initially [our plan] was to do 12 or 13 [episodes] and then we started to outline it and it did have a little vamp feeling in there. There were a couple episodes that I just couldn’t get enough teeth in it. It felt like I was vamping for the more tentpole episodes.  We talked to Fox, and they felt the same way. They said, “Well, what do you think about doing ten?” and I said, “That’s probably what this story wants to be at least the one that I’d outlined from Ethan waking up in the forest to the last episode.”

I could see it very clearly as ten [episodes] and how the architecture works with the fifth episode letting everyone in, at least, on the big picture of what’s happening. For me, Episode 5 and 6 are the answers episodes. Post that, is the “Oh my God, how are we going to deal with what we know now?” There’s a specific thing I wanted to aim at in my head. I wanted to get to this big moment that is basically in Episode 9 and 10.  I knew I wanted to aim there. For me, when I was pitching it to Fox, what the season looked like, I was like I wanted to get to this—and I’m avoiding saying what it is because I just don’t want to ruin it for you guys—but the format was critical. I think that’s what’s so beautiful about doing television right now. You can fit the form to the subject and not the other way around which is a great benefit to storytellers.

Do you have a favorite kind of surprise moment or reveal—there’s a lot and there’s a couple big, but is there one that…

I did perversely enjoy when Juliette (Lewis) got it, although I loved her, too. I loved her as an actress.  It was so sad because we were having such a great time. I was bumming about doing that to her, but the more that you love her the better it is. So that was probably the most perverse of them, but there’s one to come—that is the thing I’m referring to you—that for me is what the piece has been moving to and that happens in end of Episodes 8 into 9—in that area.

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A lot of the book readers said the episode from two weeks ago was pretty truthful to the book.  Number one, how much did you desire to do that, and number two, does it move away from the book as the series goes on?

It was an interesting process because Blake [Crouch] hadn’t actually written two. He was writing two while we were writing the season as well, so there was a lot of co-mingling of ideas and inspirations.  It was super-healthy on both sides in terms of suggesting, proffering ideas of which way the world could go. I think for both of us, that the subject is just is so rich and fraught with social and plot ramifications that we were just really excited about where everybody was going—the writers. I think Blake was inspired by some stuff, and we were really inspired by some stuff. I think we mutually decided that after the big reveal we could just explore different aspects of it together. I know Blake has been super supportive about everything. There was some invention as we went, but I was hugely aiming at this one idea that happens in Episode 9-ish, that was important to me.

Have been keeping track at all of what people said on the Internet and whether the results have been what you’d hope for in terms of both fan response, critic response, and ratings?

I don’t normally check all of that, but my office has been all over it and is so excited. From what I understand, everything has exceeded my expectations. The audience reaction—there’s such an intense attachment to the show from those that are watching it. I hope those who are going to start watching it now after all this—because we keep, luckily for us, growing and as I understand it, that’s a very rare thing these days in television.  I’m very proud of that—that the people that have watched it have recommended it so strongly that others are adding on each week. Our last episode was our strongest, and I assume last night was even stronger and it’ll keep on growing. That’s a really great feeling.

I feel like critically I couldn’t have asked for any more, and audience reaction feels pinned in such a positive, supportive way, just beyond my expectations. It’s my first time doing television and to be embraced so generously, it just couldn’t have worked out any better. For me, to some extent, the way we structured even the airing of the episodes so that there was a break right here after Episode 5 was with the hope that at this point—we didn’t know whether we would have a fan base that would talk and spend time and try to tell everybody, the strategic intent was to give it a little break after this, as we get to the last five, to get everybody to get caught up. That’s the beauty of doing ten episodes.

TV has changed what they mean when they say things like mini-series, limited run, etc., if it continues to be successful, will there be a second season?

It’s all very pliable and fluid. I think what’s so great about this format, event series and all that stuff, is it feels so complete and it was wonderful. We have the particular advantage in our case because of Blake Crouch and his books that he kept writing and he kept thinking of stories. We also have the fact that the world that he created is so rich and fertile that it wants more stories, whether we ever decide to or not is a separate thing, whether Fox asks me and we talk about it and all that stuff. I don’t know—I mean, I’m open to it. It’s just I’m so happy that the format, in and of itself, seems to be working the way it was intended, the ten episodes. I can’t speak for other limited series, but it’s a beautiful thing that you can aim with intensity at a storytelling style that I think imbues it with some integrity and if that integrity then merits another story that’s a wonderful thing.

In the last episode where you have the big revelation comes in a way that’s totally different than in the books. How do you approach that kind of expositional change?  What are the reasons for it, and how much work does that take?

WAYWARD PINES:  L-R:  Juliette Lewis, Melisa Leo, Matt Dillon, Tim Griffin, Toby Jones, Terrence Howard, Shannyn Sossamon, Charlie Tahan, Reed Diamond and Carla Gugino.  ©2014 Fox Broadcasting Co.  Cr:  Frank Ockenfels/FOX
WAYWARD PINES: L-R: Juliette Lewis, Melisa Leo, Matt Dillon, Tim Griffin, Toby Jones, Terrence Howard, Shannyn Sossamon, Charlie Tahan, Reed Diamond and Carla Gugino. ©2014 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Frank Ockenfels/FOX

The Duffer brothers, who wrote that episode, were at my house and we spent a great deal of time talking about how that’s done. I watched it again with my family as it was aired, and I immediately was thinking about all the story meetings at my house where we were talking about the structure of this episode and Episode 6 — what is the order of the information and how it’s revealed. It is a puzzle that needs to be unraveled just carefully. Thinking of the coins and  how you start with this and then what do you start with—and then was like we start with the abbies first. We introduce the abbies first and explained that, and then say, “Well, that’s not possible.” That’s what that lunch episode was about, that doesn’t make any sense because how can you evolve, that takes forever to evolve.

So you’re leaving out a huge chunk of information, then you use the coin. Then you’re using, cinematically, Matt (Dillon) finding the abbies in person, finding the sign in person, finding the post-apocalyptic city in the distance at the same time that that’s going on. Then in a minor way, the wife is finding out through the new tenant, Wayne Johnson, about the pods that they were put in and everything dovetailing together to give you more of the picture rather than it being a monologue.  We wrote it first with a monologue from Pilcher and I was like this is just too much literary information, and we’re going to have to make it visual. It was a great exercise. The Duffers—I was really, really proud of their writing. I mean, the Duffers wrote a lot of the episodes and they just did a great job; they’re great filmmakers.

After last episode it seems like Theresa (Shannyn Sossamon)is the only member of the family that has no idea what’s going on in Wayward Pines.  Can you talk a little bit about how she’ll come to find out and when?

Soon. She’ll find out soon. I can’t tell you how and all of that stuff, but definitely. That’s also a fascinating part of the conversation. It’s intimated—it’s touched on there, in the indoctrination scene of the children, but that will be expanded on over the next episodes of what the differences between adults in this situation and children in this situation and which one has a handicap and which one has an asset.

Photo Credit:  James Minchin/FOX
Photo Credit: James Minchin/FOX

Because you touched on the children, it seems like the first generation, the people in the town put a lot of influence and power into the hands of the kids. How will we see that play out over the course of the season?

It’s a big deal. The kind of—I’m trying to—the reason I’m stuttering—I barely ever stutter. The reason I’m stuttering is I’m trying to avoid everything that’s popping into my head to tell you.

It’s a fascinating thing to—they reference the ark and Pilcher’s (Melissa Leo) intentions to make an ark. There’s a way—gosh, I’m trying not to avoid telling you everything that’s going to happen. There’s a thing that we take for granted because there’s so many of us right now that freedom and lack of rules or flexibility of social environment is a given—that’s a right. But if there was only X number of us, does one of us get to jeopardize the group? Well, no that couldn’t be allowed, right? Those kinds of freedoms couldn’t be allowed because there’s so few of us, so we’re going to have to make really stringent rules. So this kind of mentality — I’m really dancing around it—but this kind of thinking of how valuable this last group is and to what extent would you go to make sure that that group expands.  It pushes all moral things that we take for granted right now because there’s seven billion of us.

The projects that you work on always have great, really shocking twist and turns. What do you like about that facet of storytelling and why is it important to you?

You know it’s funny, I don’t think of it that way.  I know that’s how it’s taken, but I don’t see it that way, I don’t think of it that way at all.  In fact, when I think of it like that it becomes thin and meaningless.  It is all a continuation of character’s awareness for me.  If I put myself in the shoes of a main character and that person is learning more about their world, more about their situation, that feels very organic to me.  Things aren’t right, I’m feeling clouded, obscured.  I’m feeling like suffocated, why, why, why, and getting those answers feels very organic.  It’s an increasing of our main character’s knowledge.  Are they ready for that?  Did they misunderstand something fundamental?  When I think of it more from the character’s perspective, it feels much more exciting for me to tell these stories, because then what my job is as the storyteller is to make you in sync with the main character so that your misunderstanding is the same as theirs and every piece of information that they have you have, and you’ve misunderstood it the exact same way.  Then when it comes, it should’ve been inevitable in retrospect.

Photo Credit: James Minchin/FOX
Photo Credit: James Minchin/FOX

Your show has a great cast.  It’s a cast that has been shrinking in the past couple of episodes.  What was the conversation like with the actors that have been axed?  Did they buy in immediately or did they need some convincing?

I’ll be honest, there were a couple of conversations where they were begging to live a little longer and I was like, “Man, I’m sorry. This is Wayward Pines, this sh** happens.  I’m sorry.”  It was hilarious conversations, and they even pitched me stuff,  “Maybe I’m not really dead and I got severely hurt and I can get back up again.”  Then I was like, “Maybe, maybe.  Let me think about it.”

It’s sweet actually. The conversations were super sweet in terms of they wanted to be in it, and they were so supportive. All the actors were—it was a great team of actors that really loved the idea and loved the premise so much and they were super supportive of everything. Really, it’s funny, I feel very tied to all of them in almost an equal way. Even if they were in three episodes or four episodes or all ten episodes, they feel very attached to the piece. It’s strange, even Juliette for example, feels so embedded in the whole piece, and she feels, from her point of view as well, very committed to it.

You’ve revealed in the most recent episode the truth of what’s going on and we know that what’s going to follow is how are the different characters reacting and can they handle the truth, can they not.  Do you think if you ended up in Wayward Pines tomorrow, memory’s lost, everything’s changed, do you think you could handle it?

I’ve asked this question to myself.  You know what, if I had my family there I think so, but if not I’m not sure.

Do you think you’d try to discover more of the mystery of it or just nope, this isn’t for me, see you guys, scenario?

You know what, I think I would try—I’m not very good with authority period, so I don’t know how that would work out.  I probably would do very Ethan-like things and ask a lot of questions and keep pounding away at least I think.  Maybe in that circumstance I’d be so scared I wouldn’t do anything, who knows

Wayward Pines airs Thursday nights on FOX

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Matthew Nando Kelly is an incredibly cool and handsome staff writer for Pop-Break who was allowed to write his own bio. He focuses on film, television, music, and video games. Matthew also has a podcast called Mad Bracket Status where he discusses pop culture related brackets with fellow Pop-Break writer DJ Chapman. He loves U2, cats, and the New Orleans Saints. He can also occasionally be found writing lists on Topless Robot and his twitter handle is @NationofNando
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Matthew Nando Kelly is the cool and tough Managing Editor of Pop Break who was allowed to write his own bio. Besides weekly Flash recaps, he has a podcast called Mad Bracket Status where he makes pop culture brackets with fellow writer DJ Chapman.

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