PASADENA – The critics at press tour unsurprisingly spend a lot of time talking to each other about what they thought of this show and that show, and one of the most consistent pair of opinions I’ve heard expressed at this tour is as follows: 1)ABC’s “The River” (it debuts on Feb. 7) is one of the best pilots of the season (fall or spring), and 2)No one’s entirely sure that it will work as a series – that, like NBC’s “Awake,” it might work better as a movie.
And as it turns out, the series – a found footage horror show about one documentary crew journeying down a fictional branch of the Amazon in search of another crew that went missing earlier – was initially designed as a movie. Creator Oren Peli – the man responsible for the “Paranormal Activity” films and “Insidious” – explained that the premise was just a movie idea he had a few years ago and never did anything with until Steven Spielberg approached him about collaborating on a TV show together.
As Peli recalled, a writer friend told him, “Why waste it on one movie? You can turn it into a whole TV show.”
Part of the process of transforming the film concept into an ongoing series involved hiring veteran TV producers Zack Estrin and Michael Green, the latter of whom got critical but not ratings success with his NBC Bible-in-modern-times drama “Kings.”
Green said his primary focus when he came on board “was really just a character focus.” He asked ABC executive Patrick Moran, “How scary are you willing to go with this?” and he says, “Patrick said, ‘You can go as scary as you want if people care about the people.'”
In horror films, Green said, the characters tend to be “surface stereotypes,” and Estrin noted they didn’t just want viewers to be scared for how they might react to things, “But really caring about the people week to week and being scared for them.”
There are fatalities in the pilot, which makes the ongoing cast – including Leslie Hope, Paul Blackthorne, Bruce Greenwood and Eloise Mumford – also very scared about what might happen to them, given that it could lead to unemployment.
Recalling her time on “24” as Teri Bauer, Hope recalled, “I was on a TV show where I got killed unexpectedly in my mind, where I thought I was in good shape because I was the wife of the hero.” She joked, “Michael made a promise that it would be at least 40 episodes before they stabbed me in the gut.”
“It’s nervous reading,” Blackthorne said of getting the scripts, where he just keeps checking to see how if his character’s name is on the pages near the end.
“And if you haven’t read the script yet,” said actor Shaun Parkes, “people come up to you going, ‘Oh, wow!’ And you go, ‘Oh, no!'”
Estrin and Green acknowledged that the mortality rate is going to be a tough balancing act, with Estrin noting, “I think it’s very important to establish those stakes. If it’s an empty threat every week, no one gets scared,” while Green added, “But we also don’t want to violate people’s trust by getting them attached to people and then kill them for the sake of a gag.”
Asked if he would spare the lives of any characters for the sake of the series’ longevity, Green said, “My philosophy in television is treat every script like your last, because it could be. So we don’t leave a lot of cards off the table.”
But that still leaves the larger issue of how you turn a show that would suggest a finite miniseries (the first season is 8 episodes) into something that could in success run for many seasons.
Green compared their storytelling model more to “The X-Files” than to “Lost,” saying that, “We wanted this to be a show with standalone episodes, where each episode is its own horror film,” while mixing in “longer-term horizontal arcs for those willing to lean forward and pay attention.”
I asked how you follow “The X-Files” model in a relatively fixed location (the characters are stuck on the same old river boat in barely-charted territory) and with a specific goal in mind.
“Surprisingly easily, actually,” Green said. “It’s one of the reasons we chose to shoot the series in Hawaii. There’s a lot of different terrain and landscapes. We say that they’re on this fictional part of the Amazon that has a lot of surprising twists and turns.”
Can it work? As with all shows of this type, there’s a high degree of difficulty.
“We’re all fans of that kind of television and know the pitfalls and do not want to fall into them,” said Green.
“This is a big swing, let’s be honest,” said Estrin. This is a very different, daring show, but I think in a landscape of television that’s become quite homogenous, taking big swings seems to be the way to go.”