Interview: ‘Bloodline’ creators talk casting and their new Netflix home

03.20.15 3 years ago


Whether or not you happened to be a fan, it's hard to deny that “Damages” was, in many ways, ahead of its time.

“Damages” was intensely serialized within seasons, but then each season was largely a reboot, bringing in a handful of big name supporting actors to play along with Glenn Close and Rose Byrne.

FX chief John Landgraf admitted that it was a hard show for the network to handle and maintain, because viewers couldn't jump in midway through a season and other viewers would store up three or four or 13 episodes and then plow through them well after the Nielsen measuring windows circa 2009 were closed.

In effect, “Damages” was a show designed for binge-viewing and anthology storytelling at a time when being a binge-favorite would get you cancelled by FX and shuffled off to DirecTV. [FX was also a producer on “Damages,” which incentivized them to keep the show going in some form, even if it wasn't working in the landscape of that moment.]

“Damages” creators Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman didn't know it at the time, but they were already making a show that was designed for Netflix, not that Netflix knew it at the time either. 

Since “Damages” ended its five-season run, Netflix has gone from red-envelop deliverer of DVDs to an original programming behemoth build on binge-watching and ratings-ignoring, so it's not surprising that KZK, as the Kesslers and Zelman are often dubbed, have made Netflix the home for their new drama “Bloodline.”

Superficially “Damages: Florida Keys,” “Bloodline” is a story of buried secrets and ambiguously motivated crime set against the backdrop of a mostly close-knit family that reaches a breaking point after gathering to celebrate a pier being named after the parents. The absurdly packed cast includes Kyle Chandler, Linda Cardellini, Norbert Leo Butz, Ben Mendelsohn, Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard.

In January, I sat down with the KZK team to discuss finding a home on Netflix, the unique challenges of working in the Florida Keys and several key casting points on the twisty series.

DISCLOSURE: Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman are a collective unit making up KZK. As they say in this interview, they have a singular collaborative process that doesn't include strict delineation of responsibilities. They also have very, very, very similar voices and although they each identified themselves at the beginning of my interview, distinguishing between them a month later, even with carefully taken notes, is an inexact science. I've done the best I could and if Glenn, Todd or Daniel would like to clarify that while one was attributed with saying something that the other clearly stated, I'll happily change. These are the sentiments of the KZK unit, but there may be a time or two my Kesslers are reversed and I apologize sincerely.

Check out the full Q&A below. “Bloodline” premieres on Netflix in its bingable entirety on Friday, March 20…

HitFix: So I remember sitting at one of these press tour panels a couple years ago and John Landgraf was talking about the challenge of “Damages” being that you couldn't do anything with the ratings because people like to back up six episodes and then watch binge style. Does this feel somewhat like destiny to you, like you were waiting for the right place to eventually end up and here you are?

Todd A. Kessler: Well, we had an amazing experience with John and are grateful for that time with him and FX. So in terms of that, we wouldn't have traded that for anything. In terms of our storytelling with this show and it landing at Netflix, absolutely it feels like there's no better place for the show to be and the ability to stream episodes and watch multiple episodes and really we think it will augment the experience of the show to watch it that way. So there are very few places that are doing what Netflix is doing and we happened to end up at a place like Netflix who are doing what they're doing.

HitFix: Is that's the kind of thing where when you guys first see Netflix do what they did with “Lilyhammer” and “House of Cards” you immediately go, “Oh my gosh that's the right model? That's the model that works for what we do?”

Todd A. Kessler: You know, that's interesting too, because I think when we saw those shows it was probably before we had the idea for this show, but it's also so integral of who the executives are. So yes technically to watch episodes like that, but then it's a relationship. So working with executives similar to the amazing experience that we had with John Landgraf, Netflix has been incredibly supportive of what we're looking to do with the show. So for us it's a combination of format and the personalities behind these corporations.

Glenn Kessler: But it is interesting to see. It's like people want to watch TV or watch programming now and it was interesting I think people obviously it was a news story, the way people watch “Breaking Bad” on Netflix is they got to watch it the way they wanted to watch it. And it's an interesting idea. If this had existed at a time when “Damages” first came on, potentially it would have allowed people to experience it differently or it would have allowed people to experience it differently. I have no idea what that would have done to viewership, but that show is one that does benefit and it's on Netflix. So it's interesting we do get some feedback from people who watch it that way. And this is where we are now and there's a reason and it's because the audience is very sophisticated and very engaged.

HitFix: Talk to me a bit about KZK and what that working dynamic is and when you guys stopped being I guess three guys and became a fun little series of three initials?

Daniel Zelman: Well, we never stopped being three guys believe me.

Glenn Kessler: Well, one K stands for Zelman and the Z…

Daniel Zelman: It's funny we used to get asked this all the time. We have not been asked it in a while. It's very hard to explain because we've just known each other for so long. So the dynamic is sort of, I don't know, do you have brothers?

HitFix: I have a brother. Yeah.

Glenn Kessler: Did you ever make a TV show with him?

HitFix: I have never made a TV show with him nor have I attempted to find a third person to put a different initial in the middle.

Glenn Kessler: I can't explain it. It reminds me somewhat of… We both come from families of three brothers each. They have an older brother and I'm in the middle. And it kind of reminds me of like when we were kids and you had to invent something to play. And so you just like take a ball or take a pillow or a chair and you just sort of like you just keep…

Todd A. Kessler: In our family it was knives.

Glenn Kessler: You just keep like moving things around and throwing things around until you figure out a game and put rules on it that's fun to play. And so there's no system to it, it's more just about us – one of the things that's incredibly important is there are no boundaries. So any thought is okay and we know each other's like intimate personal secrets. So you just get into a room and just sort of open up your brain and throw things around until something emerges. I don't know how to define it better than that really.

HitFix: Does it shift or has it shifted over the course of all of these seasons and shows that you've done now? How fluid is your process?

Todd A. Kessler: It's fluid enough to be solid.

Glenn Kessler: I think the only thing that's changed is that we delegate a little more now. It's more efficient at times to say, “Okay you do this and I'll do this.” We used to all do everything more. We still do all do everything mainly, but there's a little bit more delegation and that just has to do with two of us have kids now and like it can be more efficient that way.

Todd A. Kessler: And one of the great challenges this show versus “Damages” is that for “Damages,” for the majority of it not for every season, but it was shot in New York and we all lived in New York. This show is written in Los Angeles and New York and shot in the Florida Keys and none of us lived full-time in the keys. So managing a production like that was very challenging. So we spent a massive amount of time down there, but television or what Netflix is — I don't even really know “Netflix,” it doesn't sound right but you get the idea — it can't be done by one person and this show absolutely highlighted that, underlined it, made it in 3D that it takes multiple people to pull something like this off, especially with the location in a place such as the Florida Keys.

HitFix: Well, was there a conversation that anyone wanted to have? “Can you do this in Shreveport?” or something?

Todd A. Kessler: Sure.

HitFix: Okay. And how did that conversation go?

Todd A. Kessler: Well, for us the Keys, as we started to look for a place to set the show, there are many reasons and Daniel enumerated several of them on the panel of what we drew from the Keys, but one thing also is that really we were looking for a place to set the show that had kind of an iconic sensibility for the United States, if not the world. Many people if they've never been to the Keys have at least heard of the Keys or most people have at least heard of the Florida Keys. Something weird goes on down there. It's kind of like New Orleans or Las Vegas or Los Angeles, you know, places that people know of. So when we decided to write the first episode and set it down there we did a big search of, “Where can we make our life easier by setting it?” But we looked at several places and realized there is no place quite like the Keys and the color of the water and being outside and it really feeling like paradise and then having this kind of underbelly of what's going on underneath it. So we even, at some point, looked to do some exterior shots in the Keys but mostly shoot it in Georgia. But the water looks completely different. So it felt like, “Well we can't double it and make our lives easier so let's just take off a big bite of ambition and set it down there.”

HitFix: Georgia and Louisiana both poured so much money into infrastructure in those places. In the Keys, how much did you feel like you were starting from scratch?

Todd A. Kessler: Very much. We work with a line producer named Mark Baker who worked with us throughout the whole run of “Damages” and he was the one who was tasked with, “How do you make this work?” Basically our home base was 45 minutes south of Miami and then we shot basically anywhere between half-an-hour and an hour-and-a half-south of that, so that he was in really kind of virgin territory when it came to – there was no infrastructure. So it was very much starting from scratch and he did a spectacular job of converting a lumberyard into soundstages and none of that existed before he showed up and turn it into that. Like the local community was incredible about allowing us to film there and was very supportive of it and allowed us access to certain things. And it's a very tricky place to shoot because literally there is one road that gets you from the mainland down through the Keys. And so when you have production trucks and you have a one-lane highway it's yours and it's a testament to the cast and crew that this thing was pulled off and the local community and it was something – it felt like we were starting from scratch and it felt like that was something very exciting about the prospect of no one has been here to do this before and let's see if it can happen, which was something akin to our feeling about let's take the family drama and try to do something with it that had never been done before, which was to escalate it into a psychological thriller. And so there were many elements about what was attempted that felt it was unchartered territory.

HitFix: It also strikes me that there were probably environmental concerns that have to kick in in a place like that.

Todd A. Kessler: That's a huge thing. That's a good question and a huge thing. When we shoot in New York City, like we had for five seasons, you get permits to do things very easily. There are no environmental concerns nor were we trying to do anything that would have me environmental impact really. But you go down to the Keys and you want to put a boat somewhere or you want to set a boat on fire somewhere or you want people to walk out into a certain area of the reef or the ocean but it's protected. Like the mangroves there's sections even in the pilot you see Kyle Chandler's character steer a boat through the mangroves and he's doing police work as well as there's sequences where he and his brother are moving in the rain through the mangroves. And that requires months of permits. So things that could happen overnight in New York, to accommodate production in Florida was much more difficult.

HitFix: Ben [Mendelsohn] feels kind of like the breakout to me here and for probably 98 percent of viewers who haven't seen “Animal Kingdom” and haven't seen “Place Beyond the Pines,” he's going to be the person who they don't recognize. What was the strategy in casting him? How soon were you able to latch onto him?

Glenn Kessler: The strategy was just to get the finest actor we could for that role. We knew that it was going to require a lot of an actor and that we wanted to be able to go to a lot of different places in terms of the charm and his sense of humor and also at times a menace and a vulnerability. So we were familiar with his work and he really is the actor that we sat down with to try to play this role because we had seen this work. We did understand that probably he was not as well known as the other people or he wasn't as well known as the other actors in the cast. And in our minds that was a great asset because you just didn't know what this character was up to. And as an actor you don't know what he's up to and to bring somebody into that role who an audience, much of the audience wouldn't have other associations with, allowed for a certain freedom and allowed that character to operate with a certain freedom. So it was that element of who Ben is and what his career has been served our hopes exceptionally well.

HitFix: And I feel like Kyle was the first person announced for this right? How much was he sort of a linchpin that allowed you to cast around him once people know, “Okay Chandler is set there?”

Daniel Zelman: I guess we'll never really know.

Todd A. Kessler: I think that's right. But whether it was announced or in the community, but people were aware that he was in. And we're huge fans of Kyle's and his work on “Friday Night Lights” and other films. But for us it was really, as Glenn said trying to find the best actors. There's a combination of talent with actors and then also understanding what we're asking them to jump off into and what their personalities will be like and our desire to collaborate with them and have them influence who their characters are and us downloading as much as we know to them about who their characters are. And some actors are flexible and we've been very fortunate to work with many who are and some actors, from just sitting down and talking to them, we realize, “No this isn't really a great fit.” So for us like Kyle being a linchpin, we didn't really see it that way. We didn't experience it that way.

Daniel Zelman: Which doesn't mean that it didn't influenced other actresses say “Yes,” but one of the things that we had on our side in casting this was the universality of the theme of family. Because when we sat down to talk to actors about what would we were exploring, everyone was very excited by that idea because everyone relates to it. It was incredible how many stories we started to hear about people's own families and how it touched on all the things that we wanted to talk about. So I think that helped getting people interested.

HitFix: I asked the actors about this on the panel, but how forthcoming did you guys feel like you want it to be the actors regarding things that maybe their characters would know but that they wouldn't have to reveal until much later in the show?

Glenn Kessler: We get asked that a lot and we were asked that a lot about Damages as well. To us it's never a question of we have answers that we are withholding because we don't want an actor to know something so that we can manipulate or control a performance. To us not everything is figured out before you start. And so we have ideas for what might be in flight and what we might want to give to. And we will tell actors. I know Norbert said today he wasn't told anything. There are things that we talk about with the actors before it enters into script so that they understand what certain ideas that have been planted early might mean. However, we allow ourselves and kind for afford ourselves the opportunity to keep things flexible so that we can continue to watch performances and develop story and develop even backstory based on what it is we're seeing from the actors. But whether they experience it as, “They know everything and they're withhold it,” it isn't really the case for me.

Daniel Zelman: A lot of times what happens is that we always have an idea about where we're going, but as Glenn said we always want the flexibility to change that to a better idea if we're seeing along the way, you know, oh look at that performance; let's do this with it. We don't want to tell the actors something that we then have to go and change and say you were thinking about it this way but we just changed our minds because then that's not fair to them. So it's not withholding anything for the sake of as Glenn said manipulating their performance, but there are times where we don't want to tell someone something because in case we change that, we don't want them to focus their performance around it and then pull the rug out from under them.

HitFix: But still, I'm watching something like this I'm sort of taking notes and taking notes of the various oblique things that are mentioned involving things that happened in the past. So if an actor says to you, “Okay I just said that, what does it mean?”

Daniel Zelman: We always answer their question as truthfully and as thoroughly as we know. We will always answer their questions.

Glenn Kessler: A couple days before the read-through or a day before the read-through of the pilot everyone was assembling in Florida and I sat down with Ben to talk through the most current version of the script and he pointed to something in the script that he had a question about. He's like, “This is just – I'm assuming this is just a throwaway right?” And it had to do with the pills that he was taking and those yellow pages he was reading. And he was like, “Because maybe we don't need…” – he had an idea maybe we could eliminate an element. And I was like, “Well actually, those pills you're taking are the key to a whole…” – you've seen the second episode so, “that's about the past and this will all lead somewhere. This is all incredibly relevant.” And I explained to him the story so that he knew when, when he was sitting on the bus, he knew why his shoulder was hurting him and he understood what that meant to him, what it meant to the character. So it's things like that. We want to flesh these things out as early as we can so that there is more for them to play and more for them to invest in as actors. It would never be to our benefit to withhold information we had because then they're in the dark about meaning and their performance won't be as full as it could.

HitFix: Just a quick last question. When does it strike you when you're writing a line of dialogue and you're writing it for Sam Shepard?

Todd A. Kessler: That's a good question. When he rewrites it. 

Glenn Kessler: When you're watching dailies or when you're on-set watching it and you get a moment to step back and have a different perspective and it's like, “This is a guy who for 25 years, for more than that, for 30 years we did his plays as actors, we've seen his plays performed and all of a sudden you almost lose track like that's that same guy.” But also as an actor obviously seeing him act as well it's the same with Sissy and it's like we were watching these performances for our whole lifetime and it's a pretty special experience to be in a position where these incredible interpreters are interpreting the things that we're writing.

 “Bloodline” premieres on Netflix on Friday, March 20.

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