TNT’s new science fiction series Falling Skies, from Executive Producer Steven Spielberg, chronicles the devastating wake of an all-out invasion of the planet by an alien military force. Boston professor Tom Mason, played by Noah Wyle, an expert on military history must now use his knowledge to defeat the invaders, leading a regiment of resistance fighters protecting a large group of civilian survivors.
The Executive Vice President of TNT, Michael Wright, and the series producers Darryl Frank, Robert Rodat and Greg Beeman spoke of the new series with the TV Critics at their annual press tour.
Obviously the historical aspect that Noah’s character brings to things is very important. How do you integrate his back story into the action without stopping things for explanation?
Robert Rodat: Well, the great thing about TV is that once you establish that that’s who this character is he doesn’t have to keep saying it, because people hopefully will be familiar with the series. So it can become part of his character and part of the through line of the show.
Greg Beeman: As the show evolves, as much as alien fighting happens, which is pretty exciting, it’s equally about taking care of his children and trying to keep morality going. And a big storyline is trying to rescue one of his sons that has disappeared.
Robert: What we’re trying to do here is not just a sci-fi show, but a show about characters and humanity.
How did you decide what the aliens were going to look like?
Darryl Frank: From a visual effects perspective, the most important thing for Steven (Spielberg) was to create aliens that looked different than anything that had been on before and something that could hold up on a television budget in terms of visual effects.
We hired the best conceptual artists and worked with great visual effects companies. And Steven oversaw everything from design to the execution of it. The most important thing was to do something that looked scary, and we have two or three different variations of aliens that you’ll see throughout the series.
Robert: I don’t think we can overstate how involved Steven was in the creation of the aliens. He would weigh in on the amount of dust coming from a footstep because it would determine the weight that you would sense from the alien. His attention to detail is what created the aliens.
How has technology changed during the years? Are you doing CGI and green screen?
Darryl Frank: We did a combination of CG aliens, and then we built mechanical version as well. So we intercut the two different media to make it appear as one.
Greg: We decided to physically puppeteer some life-size, full-scale aliens, which were used for specific shots. But a lot of the times it’s CG. So the actors have the burden, in the midst of working very fast in a TV schedule, we have to go, ‘Okay, so over there is this thing, and it’s this tall, and it’s shooting at you.’ And they were all excellent at that.
Is there a formula for how much action you have and how much you deal with the characters?
Darryl: It was always about how do you inform character through these action sequences, not just doing random action sequences for the sake of doing them. What does it tell us about these characters, what’s happening, and the type of people they are?
Will there be flashbacks about how the invasion took place?
Darryl: We haven’t employed that in the first season. That doesn’t mean we won’t do it in the second season, but we didn’t want to be derivative of other shows that have done that, like Lost. We’d love to have the Lost ratings, but we don’t want to have the Lost flashbacks right now.
How arced is this and how stand alone are the episodes, and do the nine episodes end with a cliffhanger?
Michael Wright: We’ve talked about this a lot with Steven. The interesting notion of the show was that it does, by its very nature, have a serialized arc to it, because these are people who are either going to survive or not. There’s one ending at the end of the whole show.
But that said, Seven’s notion, and it was really pretty inspired, was that people in this circumstance, they have such an immediacy to their lives. Every day is about, ‘I need food, I need shelter, I need fuel, I need medicine.’
The series lays itself out really wonderfully with both an episodic structure to each episode, but also a really compelling seasonal arc. So it’s the best of both worlds. There’s a very compelling ten-episode story, but there is also, in each episode, something to really sink your teeth into and satisfy you at the end of the episode. If you miss a couple, you’re not going to be lost.
Ten episodes? Does the pilot count as two?
Michael: The pilot is really two episodes tied into one because we wanted to take the audience a little bit further into the story and give them a sense of where the show is going. If you ended after the first hour, I think it would be less clear.
Genre shows like Flashforward and V have had a tough time on broadcast networks with ratings. Did that give you pause starting with this, or is the threshold for success definitely different for you on TNT?
Darryl: It’s really a family story as much as it is a genre story. There’s a line in the pilot where Hal (who is Tom’s son) says to Tom, ‘Six months ago you wouldn’t let me go across town without a bike light. Now you’re giving me extra ammo.’ That’s the core of the show, how they have changed.
What would you do as a family member, as a father, as a son, if this happened? And that’s where we think the relatability comes from.