‘Wayward Pines’ showrunner Chad Hodge on building paranoia and offering ‘The Truth’

TV audiences crave answers and there's nothing dedicated viewers fear more than mythology-driven series that threaten to stretch out mysteries indefinitely or, alternatively, run the risk of getting cancelled without ever revealing the truth.

FOX's new drama “Wayward Pines” is definitely heavy on mystery. Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) checks into a small Idaho town on an investigation and soon begins to realize that very little in Wayward Pines is what it seems to be. So what makes Wayward Pines unusual? What secrets are the residents harboring? And who knows these answers?

Well, one person who knows the answers is “Wayward Pines” showrunner Chad Hodge, who created The CW's “Runaway” and NBC's “Playboy Club” before discovering Blake Crouch's book and adapting it on spec as a potential 10-episode story back in 2013, before “Fargo” and “True Detective” made everybody in TV giddy on the event series model.

So Hodge knows where “Wayward Pines” is going and when I talked to Hodge about “Wayward Pines,” I knew most of where the show was going, having read all but the last third of Crouch's third and final book in the trilogy. [I finished the third book a day later.] And while we couldn't talk about specifics, one thing we did talk about is the need to give viewers specifics and the fact that the season's fifth episode is very fittingly titled “The Truth.” See, what's actually happening in “Wayward Pines” is a twist, but Hodge makes it clear it's not the totality of what the series is about. Getting answers is one thing, but how the characters respond to those answers becomes the second half of “Wayward Pines.”

Although there's been a knee-jerk desire to compare “Wayward Pines” to “Twin Peaks,” Hodge talks about his own inspirations, particularly Crouch's books and the challenges offered by this adaptation. He talks about using the limited model to get ahead on writing and how that helped with casting, plus the advantages of finishing shooting a year ago, including the serendipity of having shot with Terrence Howard before “Empire” and premiering after.

I'm looking forward to talking to Hodge in detail about some of the twists and turns and “The Truth” after it unfolds, but this is a largely spoiler free interview about the process of building paranoia and offering answers…

Give it a read before “Wayward Pines” premieres on FOX on Thursday, May 14…

HitFix: You've got these three books and you're cramming them into 10 episode, which sounds really hard on the surface, but the books are, I would say to put it nicely, they're very long on plot and incident but maybe short at times on character, I guess. So what is the challenge that comes from having these three books ten hours and that being both sort of not enough time but also too much time to tell the story?

Chad Hodge: Well, it definitely wasn't too much time to tell the story. But I tore through that first book in a day and completely became obsessed with it and wanted to write it, adapt it, and I wrote it on spec. I started writing it the day after I read the book. And as I started plotting the series, after we sold it and I was plotting the whole series, it was obvious that if I adapted the first book exactly as it is story-wise, that we'd get to the end of Book 1 at the end of episode three essentially, it would come pretty quickly. So to me it was about how do I fill out this world? How do I fill out these characters and bring it to even more life. The books I think are astounding and it burns through plot in a very fiery, brilliant way so to me it's a closed ended story, all three of those books it's a beginning, middle and end, literally, and to me I always saw it as an event series.

HitFix: Well, the third book, the one I'm reading now it's basically a sustained action sequence, there's nothing else…

Chad Hodge: Right. Blake Crouch, the author, so just to give you a little backstory, so I received an advanced copy of the first book back in May 2012 and I read that and flipped out, like I told you, and started writing the script on spec. And then as I was writing in the bible of the show, which was this like 110-page thing that I wrote once we had set up the show at FOX, Blake was writing the second book at the same time. So he and I were trading back and forth and I was reading what he was doing and he was reading what I was doing. So a couple of things that I came up with for the show he ended up putting in the book. And as he was writing Book 2, it became so long, the second book, that he decided to split it and make it two books. So it was originally intended to just be two books.

HitFix: You mentioned that you always saw this as being an event series, but this was announced ahead of “Fargo,” it was announced ahead of “True Detective” and whatnot, how hard was it at the time to convince people of the event series thing?

Chad Hodge: Well, I certainly wasn't using the words “event series;” I'd never heard of that before. I always saw it, I guess, as a limited run. I pitched it as a 10-to-12 episode series, basically like a cable show. We sent out the script to all the networks, cable and broadcast, but mostly we were talking to cable networks about this show. It was a competitive situation when we sold it. And Fox was the only broadcast network that we were talking to, because we always saw it as something like a broadcast network would never want to do something that was only 10 or 12 episodes, that we would really only be talking to cable places. And Kevin Reilly, at the time at FOX, was starting this event series model and actually literally had just started an event series division the week before we sent out that script. So when he said, “Yeah we want to do this kind of thing; it's an event series,” and I'm like, “What's an event series?” And we were sort of the first. And of course we're airing a bit later than some of those other shows did, but in terms of development we were one of the first things to be called an event series.

HitFix: You come from more of a regular series background, what has been the learning curve of figuring out this exact pacing of a contained story?

Chad Hodge: The big difference it was such a relief to tell a story in this way and to really write it in this way. Because once we set up the show, I had four months to write this bible where I could literally map out what happens in every single episode before we ever started shooting anything for even the first episode. So to have that time to figure out the story, to write the scripts beforehand, was so luxurious and you're not scrambling in the middle of shooting like you usually are in a broadcast network writing model where you're shooting and editing and airing and promoting and shooting and editing and airing and promoting, all at the same time. So this, I really had the luxury of time, no pun intended, to create the series rather than figuring it all out on the fly.

HitFix: And what were the advantages of that in terms of casting? How much were you actually able to give prospective actors?

Chad Hodge: That was a huge thing, because by the time we were actually casting I had two episodes written and an entire 110-page bible. I didn't show the bible to the actors, but I gave them all the first two scripts and I was able to walk them through the entire series and what happened. So there are certain characters in the pilot, as you know, like you may not want to spoil this but as you know in the first episode Toby Jones plays a guy who has one scene, one and a half scenes, in the pilot and then becomes a huge part of the series. And so obviously I was able to explain that to him. Because he was going, “Why do you want me for this just to play the doctor?” And I was able to say, “This is where it goes.” To be able to literally tell the actors exactly what they're getting into was really rewarding for me and them.

HitFix: Do you get the impression that now in a post-“Fargo,” post-“True Detective” world those conversations would be completely different with actors?

Chad Hodge: No. I don't because the conversations we were having, it wasn't so much about the model of an event series, it was about their character and the story, this specific story and those specific characters and what the truth of Wayward Pines was and what they were getting themselves into, not so much from a scheduling perspective but from a creative perspective.

HitFix: And Matt Dillon came onboard relatively early, what did casting him do in terms of shaping the tone and approach to Ethan as a character moving forward?

Chad Hodge: My favorite thing is the transition between a script when it's just me and my script and the characters in my head and then when actors step into those roles. I love actors so much and what they bring to a part is half of it, and then we work together to shape the character. So he is incredibly dynamic, incredibly smart and what he brought to the character definitely shaped how I wrote Ethan going forward.

HitFix: Well, how would you quantify that, though?

Chad Hodge: I would say that he has a sense of humor. Matt Dillon has an incredible sense of humor that works really well with the tone of “Wayward Pines” and I was able to inject more humor into his scenes because I knew that he had the ability to play off of it.

HitFix: And when the first trailer came out, “Twin Peaks” was the reference that everyone made it, obviously. To me it feels more like “The Prisoner” as a conceit, but what inspirations were you looking to in your own mind?

Chad Hodge: For me, specifically, my inspiration was the books. I wasn't looking to emulate any other TV show or genre or character or anything like that. For me, my inspiration was solely the books. In terms of the books themselves, Blake Crouch was, I don't know if you read the afterword of the first book, but he was absolutely inspired by “Twin Peaks” when he was a kid and it has always stuck with him and he definitely acknowledges that as one of the inspirations for “Wayward Pines.”

HitFix: Maybe just beyond kinda direct inspiration though, I assume that there's a difference between sort of “I'm trying to do a new 'Twin Peaks'” and “I love the show X, Y and Z and it is infused in my thought process.”

Chad Hodge: Yeah. For sure. I mean the things that I love, I mean “The Prisoner” for sure and “Twilight Zone” to me is more of an inspiration for this than “Twin Peaks.”

HitFix: And when you know that this Creepy Town with Creepy People being Creepy thing is kind of a cottage industry as a genre, how do you look to differentiate the product that you're producing versus just honoring the genre?

Chad Hodge: That's such a good question. It's all execution-based this kind of thing and it's one of the reasons I wrote the script on spec because I thought if I go pitch this Small Town with Creepy People and Creepy Things to the networks, they hear that pitch every week I'm sure. Like, “Oh it's a small town thriller and things aren't what they seem,” that's pretty typical as far as the description of something. So it's all execution-based, it's all in the casting, so that's why I wrote it on spec to show “This is how specifically this is” and people responded to that. And then the casting I think is a huge part of it. When you have Matt Dillon, Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard, Carla Gugino, Juliette Lewis, they help tell the story. If they're your creepy people then that's what sets it apart.

HitFix: Working on the pilot and then going forward, what was kind of the look/feel that you and Night and the other subsequent directors were looking to give this, again sort of as a differentiating factor of the specific town of Wayward Pines, the physical space of it?

Chad Hodge: The tone we wanted to go for was claustrophobic, tense, frightening sort of bizarre and darkly funny tone. And that's a hard tone to strike and I think we accomplished it, but it wasn't easy. It's a combination of the actors, the production designs, the costume design, everybody being on the same page. And in terms of the look of the town, it's very specifically described in the book and then I took that and then went even a little further in terms of exactly what everything looks like, how many cars there are on the street, what is the color palette is for Wayward Pines versus outside of Wayward Pines. It's very different, purposely, the color palette. And as far as the specific inspiration, I don't know if you've ever been to Telluride, Colorado but that town, that main street was the inspiration for Main Street at Wayward Pines.

HitFix: And the directors who have worked on the series, beyond Night, I noticed a very specific kind of indie film director perspective with James Foley and with Zal Batmanglij, et cetera. Who were the right people to direct episodes of “Wayward Pines”? What was the pedigree?

Chad Hodge: The pedigree was imaginative visionary directors who really could bring their voice to it, while at the same time taking a cue from what Night established in the first episode. So we had a combination of TV and indie film directors. We had Charlotte Sieling, she directed at the second episode and she was the original director of “The Bridge,” the Danish version of all those episodes. She's a genius. Zal Batmanglij who is such a poet. His episodes are two of my favorite episodes, episodes three and four. And just a willingness to play, which they all did and to go with this huge story. They all, I thought, I did an excellent job.

HitFix: And not spoiling anything specific but episode five is called “The Truth” and indeed…

Chad Hodge: Subtle.

HitFix: Exactly. But it does give the answers that fans are going to be clamoring for to many of the questions, at least. Why was that the right point in this story to do this and what were the challenges for that key episode?

Chad Hodge: That was the big decision I made when writing the bible, was to put the truth at episode five, at the halfway mark, because you can only go on for so long, I felt, in this story not revealing the truth. Because unlike something like “Lost,” where none of the characters knew the truth, in “Wayward Pines,” as you know, many of the characters on screen from the very beginning know the truth. We don't and Matt Dillon's character Ethan doesn't and there are a handful of others who don't but most of them do. And so having to continue drawing out the lying and drawing out of the game for more than five episodes to me would feel like a cheat. And so I wanted to reveal the truth. And then what happened afterwards, how do we deal with this truth, is almost more interesting than what is the truth. I wanted to tell a new kind of television story because I think we're very used to “What's going on here? What's going on here? What's going on here?” for sometimes a season or four seasons or seven seasons. And me, personally, I don't have that kind of patients. So I wanted to get that truth out there and then write about that truth instead of that being the end-all-be-all. What happens afterwards is more interesting.

HitFix: And paranoia about living in a privacy-free surveillance state is something that we get in the real world very frequently. Did you have any conscious effort in layering in 2014/2015 specific allegory or is the thriller the real engine here and the paranoid stuff is more universal in your mind?

Chad Hodge: In terms of privacy and security and rules and government that is absolutely intentional and it's what's underlying. One of the main underlying themes of this show and of this story is that the rules that seems so crazy that are part of our show — Do not try to leave; do not discuss the past; always answer the phone if it rings — those seem insane and they are, but also if you step back, Wayward Pines is a microcosm for the world we're living in and that's absolutely intentional. There are rules that we follow, many of which we're aware of and some of which we're not, like we're just unconsciously following a lot of rules in our life and the relationship that citizens have to their governments, not just in our country but in many other countries, in the way dictatorships are run and Third World countries are run, those themes are absolutely intentional.

HitFix: You guys have had a long time since you finish production, have there been any advantages to that a post-production point of view or have you guys just been in the can now for a year basically?

Chad Hodge:  We finished shooting about a year ago and then we wrapped out post in September/October. Of course that's an advantage. Having more time is always a good thing. It's the same as the writing of the show, I had the time to do that before we shot it. And then to have the time after to do extra post-production work, and especially a lot of visual effects stuff we have in this show, it was such a luxury. And we were ready to go on the air in the fall, I believe, but then in terms of the scheduling of the show that's all FOX and when they thought the best time would be to launch this. In the fall there's so much competition and so many competition rivals in the fall. And I think this being an event series and sort of a unique just 10-episode closed ended event they wanted to launch it in its own sort of special way. So it's nice I have to say like being able to promote the show and talk to you and like all this without having to run to the set in 10 minutes, just to be able to really focus on each thing individually, whether it be the writing, the shooting, the post or the promotion, it was nice that it all didn't have to happen at the same time.

HitFix: Given the close ended nature of this that puts a lot of pressure on the end, so what has it been like for you to mull over the way you ended this series for now nine/ten/11 months. How much second guessing have you done?

Chad Hodge: I have not done a lot of second guessing. I'm very, very excited about the way the show ends and whether it turns out to be the actual last episode forever or whether there is another season, I'm very thrilled with the ending.

HitFix: And you say that there is a possibility of a second season. When did you realize that was something that you could do? When did you realize it was maybe not as closed ended as you thought?

Chad Hodge: Well, you know, when did I realize it? I've always sort of known that there could be a second season and Blake Crouch, the author, and I have become very close over the course of the last few years of doing this show and we've talked about ideas for a season two for a while now. And we have a really cool direction that it could go in, both for him to write possibly a book four and a book five and for us to do a season two.

HitFix: And describe the happy dance you did when “Empire” premiered the way it did and you knew that you had Terrence's follow-up series.

Chad Hodge: No joke. I mean Terrence shot his episodes of “Wayward Pines” before he ever shot an episode of “Empire,” so we weren't like, “Oh let's get Terrence Howard from 'Empire,' that will be great.” We had already had him and that was just such a gift that “Empire” was so successful and that he is so great in it and that there are obviously so many more eyeballs now on FOX. It was just a huge happy dance. And if Terrence and I were in the same room we would be doing that happy dance together. He loves dancing.

“Wayward Pines” premieres on Thursday, May 14 on FOX.