Interview: ‘Orphan Black”s Graeme Manson reveals origin story plan

04.10.14 4 years ago 5 Comments

BBC America

With a break-out hit in “Orphan Black,” co-creator Graeme Manson could be forgiven a smug attitude about creating such a smart, fast-paced series (full disclosure: I'm a fan), but no reason — the friendly, easy going writer-producer still seems a little stunned by the show's success. When I got a chance to talk to Manson, he enjoyed talking about all things “Orphan Black,” including the science and politics driving the plot, challenges facing our favorite characters in season two, some possible plans for an origin story (!), and he even gave a few hints of his master plan for the series. This is a long interview, but if you're a fan you'll want to read it through to the end, promise. 

HitFix: I still remember worrying that “Orphan Black” was going to be like a '70s scifi movie.

Manson: No, no, not a room full of stasis tubes!

HitFix: Obviously, the show is so much more than that. You're grappling with big, current issues, namely intellectual property rights. Was it always your agenda to make intellectually challenging issues 

Manson: I mean, I found it super interesting territory and I always, you know, I always like that.  I like the existential sort of conundrum that that stuff provides.  It”s like self and ownership and free will, freedom, you know.  Going back to Aldous Huxley and great writers like that.  I mean, since I was a teenager I was like an existentialist.  So, yeah, I”ve always liked those kind of mysteries.  But the key to them is that it”s not really what the show”s about, right.

HitFix: Exactly

Manson: It”s that those are big themes, and we don”t want to get bogged down in them.

HitFix: It does feel like this is a way for us to understand current, complex issues that we need to understand.

Manson: I think so, yeah.  You know, we have a science advisor on the show, the real Cosima.  Did you know that? Cosima Herter is in Minneapolis, and she has her post-modern television character named after herself, which is kind of cool.  But when I first came up with the concept with John Fawcett, my partner, I was trying to wrap my head around the themes of cloning and what is cloning.  She was the first person that I went to. So, I”m thinking about this clone stuff and she just immediately goes, “Oh, it”s so fascinating.  Synthetic biology and all of this stuff.”  And starts to put it in a wider context.  She”s a historian of science. She”s also very good with story and pop culture. So we just end up in these long conversations that are truly fascinating and inspiring for us both.  I bring her to the writer”s room at least three times a season to just talk about the season and the big picture and what she”s seeing so far.

So she reads the scripts all the time as we go through and she”ll say, “Do you know what you guys are doing? You are on these themes and this and all of the feminist themes running underneath it.”  She helps put those things in focus, so that we can weave them into the show… and I like them to be woven into the show in action and in discovery rather than just in like…

HitFix: … having a character stop and deliver a monologue.

Manson: Yeah, exactly.

HitFix: It's always a little miracle to get a television show on the air, and it's impossible to predict how long you'll be on the air once you're own. So, back when you were developing this, how far into the future did you plot it out? Do you have a seven year or a ten year plan? Because I think you might need it.

Manson: When we were pitching it, we had our pilot script and we had a bible. You know, we had a pretty elaborate bible because it”s a complex pitch. My pitch was sit down and talk for 20 minutes. This was not an elevator pitch kind of thing. It was a sit down and build the world, this is what”s happening pitch. And this is why it”s perpetual. So I had to be able to say, “And in the second season we could go here, and in the third season, this is why it could keep going – this is why it could keep spinning.” So we do have our big picture. We”ve always had our big picture.  It”s just now that we”ve got, you know, a second season and fingers crossed that the third.

HitFix:  I don”t think you have to worry about that.

Manson: That third season, it”s like we”d imagined a three season arc. Now we can go okay, if it”s three seasons, we can look at pushing that sort of endpoint, that answer, those answers – some of those big answers that we want to get to. We push them down the road or we get to it and figure out a way to reboot the series in a way that”s not all new characters or anything like that.

HitFix: A complete reboot? Oh, oh no. 

Manson: What we don”t do and won”t do, I don”t think, is [set] the new season six months later. That”s not how we approach this season at all.  And I doubt highly that we would do that in the third season.

HitFix: That's a relief!

Manson: I think that the pace is [to] keep running, keep running as mysteries unfold. We just have a high pace.  But there may be an opportunity to get to a point in a season – in a third or a fourth season — where you do do set it six or eight months later  and pick it up again.  That”s a possibility. I don”t know if we”re gonna do that at all. I”d prefer to keep it just charging [ahead].

HitFix: It does feel as if Sarah is running and running and running, and more and more people are chasing her. 

Manson: And she”s running faster and harder this season.

HitFix: I'm worried about Mrs. S, but I'm hoping she's on Sarah's side. 

Manson: Well, we”re really looking forward – we love Maria Doyle Kennedy. And we are really looking forward to expanding her character this year.  And we do. Pretty early in the season we”re like, whoa, that”s Mrs. S. Yeah, she”s gonna be pretty – really – she was a sleeper in the first season, no doubt.

HitFix: It also seems that Felix is getting pulled into the action in a bigger way.

Manson: Yeah, he is.  And I think in season two his relationship with Sarah is seriously challenged. He has his own challenges and his own decisions to make, and he has allegiances with different clones other than Sarah, as we saw with Alison.  So yeah, I mean Felix is challenged in season two.  He”s challenged because this shit comes to his doorstep, you know.  

HitFix: He has always been rolling his eyes and trying to hold a boundary and, of course the boundary keeps getting trampled on. I wonder when he'll be pushed too far. 

Manson: Yes. He”s got backbone, that Felix.

HitFix: I loved the Max Headroom reference in casting Matt Frewer as Dr. Leekie. Even without the scifi reference, I just love him in the role.

Manson: I love him too. John had worked with him so we went right to him and asked, would you come do this?  There wasn”t a lot of discussion of who the Leekie character would be.  John had worked with him, and really liked him and so [we got] Matt Frewer – and to be able to [make a reference] to Max Headroom was a bonus.

HitFix: Still, it seems we”ve moved away from Neolution and now have Rachel as the Big Bad. Is that where we”re going for the Big Bad?

Manson: We”re keeping multiple mysterious enemies, yeah.

HitFix: Multiple Big Bads, okay.

Manson: Yeah, we”re not done with our Prometheans. You know, because conceptually in the long [game] – conceiving the show, science and religion have always been there.  These competing forces and the bigger picture for us.  And that, you know, the interesting thing is that you might put them apart but they”re really, you know, at a certain point those two things can come together.  They can be…

HitFix: For better or for worse.

Manson: Yeah, I mean it”s just not true to say that religion and science don”t mix.  They mix all the time. And they”ve competed in ways, but in many ways they”re bedfellows, too.

HitFix: Yeah, how do you interpret the science…

Manson: …and who”s in service to the science.

HitFix: All roads lead back to Tatiana but – given that you said you might bring in more clones and obviously we”ve had – I have to tell you how sad I am that we've lost Helena.

Manson: Rest in peace. It”s very sad.

HitFix: I got very attached to her. But how many different clones can Tatiana be in a single episode before it”s it's a strain on her, on time and on the budget, given the effects you have to do for shared scenes?

Manson: Per episode? It does become a scheduling nightmare, yes.  When it becomes difficult is when you try and try to write a story in which she can play a character for a day and doesn”t have to do a changeover. Because a changeover takes an hour and a half for her to go in the trailer and come back out as someone else. It also requires a lot from her. But at least once an episode, often twice. We do have to have those days where she plays more than one character. Sometimes it”s because we are doing a big clone day where there”s two or more clones within the same frame and we use that technology which is the thing that allows us to do the camera moves and allows us to have the characters cross and touch. But we also do a lot of the old school stuff, the over the shoulder, using a double and the simple split screens which can be less complex.  We don”t use that technology every episode.  We call it the time vampire. It”s so time consuming.  But man, is it cool to watch that process.

HitFix: Is there a sweet spot for you in how many clones we have in the show? It seems like we bump off a couple, we get a couple of new ones.

Manson: Yeah. They”re hard to kill. We really fall in love with them. Tat[iana] falls in love with them, too.

HitFix: I'm always shocked that I get so attached to these clones that I start thinking, hey, you can”t bump off anybody else!

Manson: Yeah, it”s hard. And Cosima”s sick, you know, so… It”s serious is what it is.  And, you know, that”s part of our medical or our scientific mystery.

HitFix: Is this one of the ideas the real-life Cosima kind of brought to the table or…

Manson: Yes, yeah.  Or part of it, yeah. Partly. We”ve always known that there would be some genetic problems with clones and that we would do that body horror and that Cosima would get sick.  We knew we were gonna do that with her character in the first season.

HitFix: It reminds me of how Dolly the sheep didn't live as long as the sheep she was cloned from. 

Manson: That”s true, yeah. There are very different theories about why.  [There's] this theory that telomeres are shortened from your DNA, so that if you”re cloned from an adult you”re born with shortened or lengthened telomeres. That”s one theory.  Some people don”t agree with that. 

But in terms of that sweet spot [for scheduling Tatiana], I don”t know.  We”re on the edge of what we can actually do in terms of how many characters in terms of scheduling the show to shoot the show.  We have to be very careful about how much clone on clone stuff we do. Which is why we do a lot of phone calls and Skype calls and things like that, to keep the story rolling.

HitFix:  When this blows up, is it going to blow up in like an international scale?

Manson: I always wanted to feel that way and I would love to go overseas at some point, you know.

HitFix: It almost feels like you have to, given the Ukrainian angle. 

Manson: John and I have been talking about doing an origin story.

HitFix: Would that be in season two or a season three or how far in the future?

Manson: Yeah, I don”t know.  Maybe it”s a feature [film].  I don”t know. We”re talking about a graphic novel. It would be a cool way to do an origin story.

HitFix: Would it be both a graphic novel and on television?

Manson: I don”t know about that. You know, I think an origin story is extremely difficult to cast, extremely difficult to, you know. We haven”t really been doing it, you know.  But we fill in our backstory in season two.  It”s not an origin story season or anything like that.

HitFix: I don”t think we can rewind too much.  We are so on this train and it”s hurtling down the road at such speed. Is Sarah okay?  Where”s Kira?  And I was really upset with you guys when Kira ran into the street and I thought, “No, you can”t do this. You cannot kill the child.”

Manson: “They just ran over a kid with a car!”

HitFix: I was a little mad.

Manson: I love the fan reactions, you know, they”re like, oh, you show!

HitFix: Speaking of hitting a kid with a car, do you feel there are lines that you don”t want to cross?

Manson: Absolutely not.

Interviewer:  But as you mentioned, the fan commitment is crazy.  Waiting to get into the Orphan Black panel at Comic-Con took about three hours. 

Manson: Well, that was the moment for us when we knew. We were like, “Wow.”  We connected. We really did.  And we had the sense because, you know, the season aired and it was getting great press and it was beginning to pick up.  But then the season ended and the online support of the show kept growing, the critics awards, and it just kept building from there. That was really like when Clone Club took off.  I found that to be  super fascinating how it”s evolved.  And super rewarding. And we”ve got these fans – our fans are so cool.  They”re so crazy and creative, right. All the Tumblr stuff just knocks my socks off.

HitFix:  And then how did you react to Tatiana”s nomination? Sci-fi has been so overlooked by the industry, it's quite a feat that she got a nod. 

Manson: Her and Jillian Anderson. She got an Emmy for “The X Files.”  But yeah, no, I think it”s great if we”ve broken through for sci-fi, [though] we don”t consider ourselves just a sci-fi show. If it does anything to get recognition for genre stuff I”m all for it because I love it and that”s where a lot of the smarts are.

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