Rockne S. O’Bannon on “Cult”” And Farscape”
By Abbie Bernstein
Writer/producer Rockne S. O’Bannon will be forever beloved as the creator of FARSCAPE, the four-season-plus-miniseries wild, emotional, hilarious, tragic tour of the far reaches of the universe that starred Ben Browder as astronaut John Crichton and Claudia Black as his lethal love interest Aeryn Sun. O’Bannon also wrote the feature film ALIEN NATION, which was turned into a television series that ran only one season – but then lived on in five serialized telefilms.
O’Bannon has now created and executive-produces CULT, which is airing on the CW Friday nights at 9. CULT has two storylines. In the show within the show, also titled CULT, written by the mysterious Steven Rae (which not coincidentally is O’Bannon’s real-life Writers Guild of America-sanctioned pseudonym) ex-cult member/current FBI agent Kelly Collins (Alona Tal) seeks to bring down cult leader Billy Grimm (Robert Knepper). In the show’s real world, where CULT is a TV series, journalist Jeff Sefton (Matt Davis) and CULT production assistant Skye Yarrow (Jessica Lucas) are trying to find out how the show and its following relate to the disappearance of Jeff’s brother, the death of Jessica’s father and several suicides. Tal and Knepper play, respectively, Marti and Roger, the actors who portray Kelly and Billy.
CULT plays somewhat more straightforwardly than the above synopsis might suggest, with Jeff and Skye chasing down some arcane clues at the same time Billy plays mind games with Kelly.
Following a panel on CULT held by the CW for the Television Critics Association press tour, which includes the main cast plus O’Bannon’s fellow CULT executive producers Josh Schwartz (CHUCK, GOSSIP GIRL) and Len Goldstein, the writer obligingly hangs around for some more conversation about his newest creation.
For starters, O’Bannon is well aware that CULT can be a bit challenging to describe. “We’ve all seen so much television in our lives that what was interesting to me was to attempt to create a show that was truly different. And doing so can make it a little harder to explain and describe in a show with a lot going on. I have a great deal of faith and trust in the audience to be able to hook into that. But we’re very aware of the fact that we have a complex, multifaceted show going on and we’re trying to keep it as clear in our heads as possible. For me, part of the fun is, being someone with an incredibly short attention span, the idea that we’re actually presenting two shows at once and that inside each episode is a complete episode of the inside [show-within-a-show] CULT that you can take away, the short attention span theatre version.”
Although FARSCAPE’s devoted fandom does not resemble the cult on CULT, O’Bannon says his experience with the earlier series gave him the impetus to create this one. “I witnessed the kind of incredible fan passion for a show and the ability of fans to find each other through social media and connect up. FARSCAPE is a very benign science-fiction adventure show, but it started me thinking – what if the show were something with a little bit darker edge, and what kind of fans would that then draw?”
CULT was created by O’Bannon about five years ago and then went through a process that is all too familiar to many in the film and television industry – it kept almost getting made. “I’d actually written a couple versions for other networks,” O’Bannon says. “I had gone out and pitched it as a miniseries, as a feature trilogy. Honestly, I had to put it away as though it wasn’t going to happen. And of course, that’s exactly when it happened.”
More specifically, the CW decided it wanted CULT when O’Bannon was in the midst of working as a writer/executive producer on Syfy’s DEFIANCE series, which will premiere in April. Although O’Bannon was a valued member of the DEFIANCEteam, his colleagues there were aware that CULT was its creator’s baby and let him go to oversee its life, though O’Bannon is still involved, albeit at a less intense level, on the Syfy show.
Given CULT’s multiple versions, how has it changed since O’Bannon first developed the concept? “The main character [Jeff] has changed,” O’Bannon replies. “Originally, the character was kind of a slacker, a guy in his early twenties. One of the biggest changes – I did a version for ABC a couple years ago, which is where I think [CW top executive] Mark [Pedowitz] became aware of it, where I made the character a little bit older and made him a reporter, which gave him a skill set and all that and I think just really helped the series, helped the concept even more. I think it grounded it a little more.”
While the changes in technological hardware haven’t played a big part in CULT since O’Bannon first imagined it, other developments have, he says. “Not into the mythology of it, but when I conceived this, I wrote it four or five years ago, the idea of social media, interaction among fans, was in the earlier stages. Now it’s become so ingrained in the promotion of shows. And also, as we know, looking at this [television] season, shows like THE FOLLOWING and HANNIBAL, the kind of show we’re portraying on the inside show, the edgier kind of show, is something that wasn’t really on four or five years ago. There was only DEXTER, but there really wasn’t a world where those sorts of shows existed and now there is.”
Are there people who prefer the “inside” show to the “outside” show? O’Bannon laughs. “That’s funny, because when we were shooting the pilot, a lot of us were going, ‘Maybe we should just shoot the inside show and make that the show.’ If that’s the case, that’d be great. I’d love that.”
Although the pilot episode contains a wonderful scene where Skye is attempting to explain the difference between a network-made fan website, a benign fan website and an alarming fan website to an uncomprehending producer, O’Bannon says we shouldn’t expect, for example, anything quite so fannishly specific as an explanation of slash, at least this year. “I’ll keep it in mind,” he claims with a laugh. “The intent of the first season is to make it a palatable experience for everybody and not get inside fandom. But again, [if the show is a] success, there’s a lot of opportunity. Believe me, I’m champing at the bit to do that.”
If CULT should end when its first thirteen-episode season finishes, how closed-ended is it? “It completes the first season,” O’Bannon says, “but there are some cliffhangers at the end.”
There are some eye-tricking shots in CULT where, for example, what seems to be a wall turns out to be a human face. Will this be a visual theme throughout the series? O’Bannon gives a qualified yes. “That definitely will be a factor in this, but again, it’s very important for me that this isn’t a show where you have to have a pad and paper. You’ll see some [more] of that in the latter part of the season. We’ll dial it up a bit more once people get comfortable with the characters and the situation, but it’s not going to be a vital part of it.”
All of CULT’slead actors have experience being in cult favorite productions – Tal had a recurring role as Jo Harvelle on SUPERNATURAL, Davis was Alaric Saltzman on THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, Lucas was in CLOVERFIELD and is in the upcoming EVIL DEAD remake and Knepper spent four years as the notorious, diabolical T-Bag on PRISON BREAK. Do any of them have stories that O’Bannon has been able to incorporate into the show?
“Well,” O’Bannon replies, “Knepper was just talking anecdotally about interacting with fans when he was T-Bag. One of my favorites was, he said right in the midst of the PRISON BREAK experience, he was standing in wait for an elevator and suddenly the elevator opened and there was a young couple inside. And [the woman] saw him outside and screamed. And then immediately apologized, but it was like T-Bag standing outside the elevator. So that to me is a great story. He’s told me stuff about being on planes and stuff, how they react to him and stuff, and so often, it’s people saying, ‘You scare me to death’ or ‘I hate you on TV.’ It’s like, ‘I hate you!’ He knows the perspective, but it’s got to be kind of strange when the first thing they say to you is, ‘I hate you!’” he adds with a laugh, “In a good way.”
O’Bannon goes on to praise Knepper’s work in his CULT dual roles. “Robert just kicks it – he’s Billy Grimm, who’s this edgy, interesting, complex, troubled man. And then he plays Roger Reeves, the actor who plays Billy, and you see Roger in a very different light, but a troubled man with a lot of baggage. And so even though you’re seeing the actor who plays Billy, when you come back to Billy later on, it’s not like you’ve diminished Billy at all – it’s sort of like it’s almost informed what it’s like to be [him] – you can see in Roger what makes him capable of playing Billy, and I think that [Knepper] just knocks it dead.”
Despite the genre street cred of the actors, O’Bannon says none of them were cast because of it. “That was an added bonus. It started with Matt. Matt was someone from the beginning, we said, ‘Someone like him. Bring me a Matt Davis type.’ Because I thought he was stuck on THE VAMPIRE DIARIES. And then we got word that they were going to kill him off on VAMPIRE DIARIES, so we got really excited and immediately made a deal very quickly. My daughter is a big VAMPIRE DIARIES fan. I went home and I said, ‘You can’t tell anybody, but guess who I got to play the lead in CULT? Matt Davis.’ And it was amazing. She goes, ‘You got Matt Davis?’ And then she goes, ‘He’s leaving VAMPIRE DIARIES?’ She was horrified. ‘You can’t tell anybody. You can’t Facebook this.’ But she was that wonderful two-level, ‘Holy shit, he’s leaving VAMPIRE DIARIES.’”
Is anything happening with FARSCAPE? O’Bannon relates, “No plans right at the moment, but I’ll tell you, I get a call from [fellow FARSCAPE producer] Brian Henson every three months or so about keeping it alive, what we can do.”
So whatever happened to the announced but never-made FARSCAPE Webisodes? “That was through Syfy,” O’Bannon explains. “We just couldn’t get it to work. It was a really expensive show to make initially and to try to do Webisodes that didn’t look undernourished relative to the original show, we couldn’t figure out a way to do that. So believe me, we took a huge swing at it and really tried to make it happen, but everything we came up with was just such a diminished version of FARSCAPE that we just didn’t want to do that.”
As for what else O’Bannon may have going on right now, he says, “Look, it’s been a whirlwind twenty months of creation, so right now, we’re just finishing post on CULT and DEFIANCE, we’re kind of in the same place with that, so it’s a sigh of relief at the moment.”
Is there anything else that O’Bannon would like to say about CULT at present?
“It isn’t like anybody else’s TV show,” O’Bannon replies. “We’re very proud of that fact. I’d like to think it’s a very unique experience and I hope people give it a chance and tell their friends about it if they like it.”
Interview by Abbie Bernstein
Abbie Bernstein is an entertainment journalist, fiction author and filmmaker.