How would you describe the story of Briarpatch?
Allegra Dill [played by Rosario Dawson] is a senate investigator who is drawn home to her existentially corrupt hometown to investigate the murder of her sister, a homicide detective. In the show, everyone could be a friend, and everyone could be a suspect - and you really don't know who to trust, which makes it very intriguing.
What can you reveal about the style and tone of the show?
First and foremost, we are fortunate enough to be an Esmail Corp show [the production company of Mr Robot and Homecoming creator Sam Esmail]. Sam is really interested in cinema and he's a brilliant director. In any conversation you have with him about the type of story you want to tell, he always asks, "How are you visually going to tell the story?" For me, that was really exciting. Secondly, there's a lot of TV out there. If you're going to ask people for their attention for 10 hours, you want to make it worth their while. You want to give people something that's worth looking at. You want to show them something they haven't seen before or at least entertain them to the point where they have forgotten that they've seen it before. That was very crucial for me from the beginning, too.
What else inspired the striking visual tone of the show?
Speaking about the pilot specifically, we interviewed a number of really talented and brilliant directors to potentially direct the pilot episode. The day we met with Ana Lily Amirpour, she walked into the meeting with her Suicidal Tendencies T-shirt, her biker shorts and she explained that her influences were Oliver Stone's U Turn, David Lynch's Wild At Heart and Tony Scott's Top Gun. I was like, "Take me!" We wanted to make a hot noir. We wanted to make a classic story but update it, spice it up and heat it up for our contemporary era. We definitely give her a lot of credit for giving us the push we needed in that direction.
How would you describe your experience as showrunner and executive producer of the show?
Briarpatch has been the opportunity of a lifetime. For me, it's been a dream come true. As a former TV critic, there's a long paper trail of me saying that I hate dramas that are too serious and I don't like things that are too dark, so I got to make something that is hopefully as funny as it is serious. I like things that are able to pivot from surrealism to real emotion - and I love the fact that I was able to pursue that with Briarpatch. I also got to work with brilliant actors, who elevated everything on the page. It's been a really great experience.
Briarpatch is an adaptation of the 1984 Ross Thomas novel of the same name, but you made a number of changes to the story. Why did you decide to add a border town storyline to the show?
When it comes to the border town aspect of the show, that came down to wanting to update the story. The idea of setting a show in a place where eyes are turned right now felt really exciting to me. Also, I wanted to confound some people's expectations about what a border town story could or should be. We had a brilliant consultant on the show named Francisco Cantú. His book The Line Becomes A River was really influential in the writing of the show. I really recommend everyone check it out. He is a Mexican-American graduate student who became a border patrol agent to learn more about the border. His story influenced the character of Lalo [played by David Zaldivar] and that storyline within the show.
There are lots of animals on the loose in the town after a zoo breakout, which is different to the story in the book. Did you use real animals or CGI?
They're real. There were no CGI animals. There was a version of the pilot with a CGI tiger, but we then shot a real tiger. As it turns out, you can do almost anything in Albuquerque, where we shot the show, but you cannot bring a live tiger up to the third floor of a hotel. For that reason, we were unable to shoot a real tiger in the pilot - but we remedied that on the last day of production. There is a real tiger. And there were two real giraffes. No offence to the cast, but the giraffe was one of the best actors I've worked with.
Why did you decide to kill the kangaroo at the beginning of the show and not the crocodile? Is there any significance in this?
That's a great question. I was writing this pilot in a bit of a fog, and it felt very vibey and creative. I don't know where it came from. When I was writing that scene, I didn't have an outline. I was writing about Allegra arriving in town and it just made sense that someone had just shot a kangaroo at the intersection. The rest of the story came from that. To me, this told the audience what kind of town this is right off the bat. This is a town that will deal with something inexplicable and wild and maybe beautiful with brutality; in brutality and violence. The ultimate fate of the crocodile remains unknown, but I will say that this particular crocodile's name was Snuggles and it was very sleepy. I don't want to disparage talent, but it was not very scary, so it would have been hard to sell it as an existential threat.
As a former TV critic, what aspects of your former career did you hope to bring to television?
I never thought this was going to be easy. I just wanted to collaborate with brilliant people, which includes the cast and the people in every department; people who do magic as far as I'm concerned. When I started going into writers' rooms as a writer, the one perspective I thought I was going to be able to bring was hopefully an ability to see the forest, not just the trees. When you're trying to solve one story point in Act 3, there's very little time to think about how the whole project is going to feel, how it's going to be received and what the marketplace it's going into looks like. Not your competition, but what you're sharing the screen with and what people want to see and what they're fatigued of seeing. I think that muscle is fading as I'm now just staring at one tree all the time, but that definitely was something that came from my life as a critic.
What TV shows influenced your new career?
For me, the formative text of any cultural experience in my life was Twin Peaks. When that was on, I was in middle school and I made a fanzine in my school's computer lab. I'd read [American movie magazine] Premiere Magazine and copy it. Other shows that I fell in love with as a critic include Top Of The Lake, which is a story that was so cinematic, off-kilter and surprisingly funny, dark and emotional. It could be all of those things and it starred an incredible female lead [Elisabeth Moss]. I have a deep love for television and I wanted to make something that was episodic, because I love the episode as a unique way of communicating a story. If you have the temerity to ask people to sit on their couch with their limited private time and watch something, you want them to feel like it's a place they want to be and it's with people they want to be with.
Twin Peaks and Top Of The Lake both deal with dead women that incite a story. Were you eager to move away from any TV tropes connected to this in Briarpatch?
I was very fearful of falling into that trap because I didn't want to tell the story of dead women. I'd rather tell the story of living women, so it was definitely at the forefront of our mind. It was in the forefront of our mind in our writers' room as well. For me, one of the joys of genre is that these people show up wearing armour. Rosario Dawson is literally in this incredible power suit and Kim Dickens has her uniform. Over the course of 10 episodes, we can blow that armour off them and hopefully unpack what emotions are working beneath that armour; the emotion that causes them to need the armour in the first place. That's the hope.