What attracted you to the project?
I had been a fan of Kris Straub’s story Candle Cove for a long time. I read it several years ago, and then I heard that Max Landis had the rights to it and was trying to adapt it. So I proposed doing not just an adaptation of Candle Cove but an anthology series where we do a different story each year. There are so many of these great stories; they function as the modern urban legend and I thought each one could be a really cool season of TV. With six episodes you have a concentrated story – a beginning, a middle and an end. You don’t have to have any filler and you can concentrate on moving the story forward and telling something really scary and intense and really cool each season. And the other thing is, each season can be radically different – so with the format we got really excited about basically making a different horror film each season.
It also allows us to have a different director for each season doing the entire season, so we’re bringing in exciting young directors from the world of independent horror, like Craig William Macneill doing the whole of the first season, whose film The Boy was one of my favourite films of the last couple of years. (By the way, that’s the 2015 The Boy, the psychological horror film, not the living doll film!)
It makes each season a showcase for a really cool director; TV is traditionally a writer’s medium and the directors are journeymen who come from episode to episode but we wanted each season to have a very strong cinematic voice.
It seems to be something increasingly common in the way horror is being treated by American television: we’ve had the very idiosyncratic Hannibal, and American Horror Story’s changed gear each season. What do you think has prompted it to go in this direction?
There is so much content that to distinguish yourself you have to be different and take chances. It’s really exciting because it used to be there were four networks and everything was quite similar, but now, because there’s so much stuff and so many people doing so many interesting things, you really have a reason to say to a studio or a network, “let’s do something different, let’s take a chance, let’s experiment.”
This show is an experiment in a lot of ways: it’s something that Syfy has never done before. It’s very low budget. They gave us their blessing and were very supportive in terms of us wanting to make a really interesting, cinematic unusual show that isn’t jump scare horror, it isn’t gratuitous horror, it’s very psychological. I was fortunately able to say, “I’ve just come from Hannibal – look at what we did over there. Let us take some chances.”
Were there any things they asked you to avoid or was it “all bets are off, do as you like”?
It’s never “all bets are off, you can do as you like”, but they didn’t ask us to avoid anything, for sure. We went in and pitched basically the season that we’ve made and we told them from the very beginning it will be very psychological, and scares that are based on mood and dread and atmosphere and an escalating sense of menace. It’s not going to be things jumping out at you every five minutes. It’s much more Twin Peaks, Hannibal, The Returned – they were very excited and supportive.
And it’s filling a gap in the landscape in general. There isn’t really another show that feels like this or is doing exactly what this is doing. To my knowledge there is no show that is doing what we’re doing with the directors, using the anthology format to make the show a showcase each season for a really interesting director who wouldn’t be doing TV otherwise and hasn’t done TV entirely from the world of independent film. It’s just a different vibe and atmosphere from any other show on TV.
In terms of the story, the original creepypasta is short – the world has been added to immeasurably by people subsequently – but that original piece almost feels like a mood than a story. Where did you go for the story of the TV series?
It all came to mind from Kris Straub’s story. The creepypastas are all very short. The good ones are built around just a great concept, and they tend to suggest mysterious forces at work in the larger world without getting into exposition or explanation.
In adapting any creepypasta for a season of TV, the challenge and the opportunity is to build out from around it. A great creepypasta is like concentrated nightmare fuel, so I think of each season of Channel Zero is like the nightmare that you have after you read the story it’s based on – whoever you are, you’re going to bring your own nightmares to these stories because they’re so suggestive.
Each season is not meant to be the definitive adaptation of this creepypasta – it’s our nightmare based on the story itself. So we try to preserve what we love about the original story and draw out the mood and unpack some of the ideas behind it. In doing that we get inspired and create a whole new world around it.
We had a great writers’ room, me and four other people including Harley Peyton, our co-executive producer who has written a ton of stuff, but most notably for us, wrote 13 episodes of the original Twin Peaks. And we have Don Mancini as our supervising producer – a really good friend of mine, I worked with him on Hannibal – who created and directed every Child’s Play movie. He’s Chucky’s Dad! We had a great group of people.
Were there touchstones in tones of the mood you were going for?
In terms of modern TV, the closest thing in terms of what influenced this was The Returned, the French original, which I absolutely love, and also Hannibal both on screen and off screen. I took a lot of stuff from how I saw Bryan Fuller get something so unique and psychological on TV on NBC which was crazy.
First of all we were looking for great actors. With the genre you don’t always tend to get extraordinary dramatic actors, although with people like Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal, and all the amazing people on American Horror Story, that’s changing. It was by no means guaranteed that we would be able to get terrific actors to come to Manitoba for a couple of months to star in our Syfy original series. But we sent them the script and we pursued people we really admired.
I loved Paul Schneider since I saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which is one of my favourite movies ever made of all time. I wanted to work with him ever since then. People know him from Parks & Rec, but I never saw him in that. I knew him as a dramatic actor from The Assassination of Jesse James… and from Bright Star, so we went out to him. He says no to everything but he was willing to come up and do this, which was really cool. Fiona Shaw, I mainly knew her from Tree of Life, and we went out to her and she was into it. It was very fortunate and a very surprising thing.
Most of all we had to get actors who play this like serious drama, wouldn’t play campy, would play nuance and could play convincingly wounded. And we got the perfect people.
Wounded or vulnerable?
Both. These actors are playing characters who are dealing with really intense painful stuff from the past and who have a very complicated relationship, so we needed actors who were primarily experienced in drama.
Nothing kills a drama show quicker than someone dialling it up to 11 for every emotion!
The limits of time and money. With relative creative licence comes restrictions on how much money you can spend. We had very little time and very little money to make the show and that’s why we were able to go off and do some interesting stuff in Canada for a couple of months. That’s another place that experience in independent film becomes very valuable because you have directors who are used to improvising and doing it on a very limited budget who are very resourceful.
We had a great team in Manitoba. Everybody goes to Vancouver and Toronto, but we were in Winnipeg – we had a great group of people there who worked their ass off.
What to you makes this show stand out – in a one-line description?
I think that it is so unusually cinematic and so focused on creating an atmosphere of dread and discomfort, it’s horror that will stay with you the next day. It’s not going to go through and then you forget about it – it’s going to stick with you, we hope.
Channel Zero: Candle Cove airs on Syfy on Tuesdays at 9
Thanks to Michelle Marron and Abby Freemire for their help in arranging this interview.