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Writer Kyle Killen talks Texas, The Beaver and his latest TV drama, Awake

Kyle Killen is ready for his next at-bat. The Chicago-born, Texas-bred writer has had his share of strike-outs. His first network series, the con-man/family drama Lone Star, was one of the best-reviewed new shows of last fall’s TV season, but it stumbled out of the gate to low ratings and a woefully too-soon cancelation by Fox. His screenplay for The Beaver appeared on the 2008 Black List, Hollywood annual insiders’ poll ranking the year’s best screenplays, but the eventual film that was produced was largely overlooked by audiences and underrated by critics. But only a lesser talent than would let a couple of disappointments keep him down.

Killen returns to TV this season with a new show on NBC, Awake, about a police detective (Jason Isaacs) who wakes up after a car accident to find himself apparently living in two parallel realities: one with his now-deceased wife and the other with their dead son. It’s the kind of mind-bending conceptual work that marks Killen’s ambition as a storyteller, and if it works it might just end up being one of the best shows on network television. 

We talked to Kyle about the television medium, the Austin Film Festival and getting off the bench for another turn at the plate.

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You grew up in Texas, and you made a very Texas-centric show in Lone Star. Was there any temptation to set/film Awake in Texas?

Well, these are really very different shows, and Awake is set in Los Angeles. And even if it hadn’t been, because of the nature of it as a crime procedural where they’re exploring murders on a weekly basis, it would have needed to be something that, at minimum, read as a very large city. So potentially you could have done something like Dallas, I suppose. But beyond that, unless there’s a good reason to be on a location, things will tend to be set here. It’s just that Lone Star had a very good reason to be on location.

Thematically, what was it about Texas that appealed to you for the story you wanted to tell with Lone Star?

Well first, obviously it was a show with a story based around oil and it dealt with people in a family whose wealth came from oil. And Texas provides the unique perspective on that, in that you have Houston, which is the giant, cosmopolitan oil city, and then you have somewhere like Midland-Odessa, which is in the middle of nowhere, it’s a little island out there in deep West Texas. And what we discovered in spending time in both places was that there were merits and drawbacks to both places, and a weird sort of longing for the other when you’re in one. When you’re in Midland, you’re thinking, “I wish I could get out of this backwater and into the good life", and a city like Houston, and when you’re a part of Houston you sort of miss the place that felt smaller and simpler and protected from all the things that Houston is awash in. So it felt like a good way to split a character’s life, to let him not have to choose one or the other, but to be able to live in both.

The axe fell pretty quickly on Lone Star, and you yourself have characterized The Beaver and its reception as a “flop”. Was there ever any part of you that felt, as you were developing Awake, that maybe I shouldn’t be going so high-concept with these creations? That you could lower the creative bar for yourself, even just a little, if it meant a chance of connecting with a broader audience?

Umm... I’m kind of a strike-out person (laughs). I’d rather swing for the fences and have to take a seat than not try…

It’s really so hard to do any of this, and particularly for me because it requires being away from my family four days a week and in a place that I don’t live and so on, that it helps if I’m really excited by the possibility of making the best version of whatever I’m working on. I was really sure that the best version of Lone Star was going to be sort of a cable-type narrative that we’d bring to a network, and our ambition for it was to make it as good as the cable dramas that many of us who worked on the show watched and idolized. And I think that with Awake the goal is to push the boundaries of what network procedurals have been able to do and bring some more surrealist, crazy elements to it. And I have the same feeling about this that I did with Lone Star, which is that it either will really work, or it really, really, really won’t. That’s sort of the space where I feel comfortable. That’s the space that makes it possible for me to wake up every day and go through what you have to go through to do it.

You’ve referenced the idea of brining that cable “prestige” sensibility to network television before. Do you think that sort of thing can translate for such a large, broad audience?

I think a lot of people are given chances to do it every year. And sometimes you get something like Lost, which was a hugely successful, extremely serialized show that bears a lot in common with what we talk about as what makes cable dramas really successful. When you think about those shows, they’re more like reading a novel a chapter at a time on a weekly basis. The story progresses, the characters change, the world evolves, and it doesn’t feel like it has to set itself back to zero on a weekly basis and then do the same thing over and over, which traditionally has been the model for network television.

And it’s been done fantastically before, from Hill Street Blues to E.R. to NYPD Blue... These are shows that could evolve over time by changing cast or changing characters, but fundamentally offered you a fairly similar experience every week, they just did it on a very high level. And cable has sort of filled a niche where they tell stories where things can change really dramatically. And I think it’s been tried on network, and it hasn’t always pulled a really really big audience, and that probably has to do with the needs of a television audience. Not everybody at the end of the day wants to sit down and get into something that feels heavy or complicated or even just too different from other things. And I don’t mean this in any pejorative way, I just think that there are a lot of people, and most people I’d say, for whom television is supposed to be relaxing. It’s supposed to offer them a way to tune out and be part of an escapist world for an hour at the end of their day. And what we’re trying to do is thread the needle of offering that and those enjoyable elements of television and see if we can’t do some things with them that feel slightly different, to find our own spin on that.

It seems that a show like Lost having so much serialization and maintaining a huge audience has been very much the exception to the rule for network. Was there ever any thought to going the cable route, since you seem to so admire that sensibility?

Sure. When you look at what some of the cable networks have been able to do, it’s a very attractive to any writer-creator. It’s a different speed and a different mindset, and that is tremendously appealing. And this wasn’t necessarily a long, thought-out plan. The situation was basically that Lone Star got canceled so late in the year that we were past the time of year where you traditionally sell a new idea. And people that I worked with at 21st Century Fox were extremely positive and for whatever reason had faith in me, and said, “It’s late, but if you think you could write something that would be finished when everybody else is done writing, we can take it out at the end of the year and sell it against other people’s finished pilot scripts.” So I just kind of did it, because there was the opportunity to do it right then. And luckily for all of us it ended up selling to NBC and we made a pilot and here we are.

You’ll be appearing at the Austin Film Festival. What do you have going on there?

I believe I’m on a couple of panels, but the main thing I’m there for is to screen the pilot of Awake and do a Q&A about that. And they asked me to be a judge in this year’s television screenwriting competition, so I’ve read the entries and I’ll be a part of that.

You’re part of what seems to be a growing presence of TV writers and producers who are populating the festival more and more.

Well, I think first and foremost, the Austin Film Festival is really a writers’ festival in a lot of ways, and I don’t think they’d debate that. They really cater to and the audience seems to be very interested in writers and have lots of questions about it. And with a writers’ festival, television will be always be a big part of it because television, so much more than film, is really a writers’ medium, because they’re the ones who don’t leave. The directors come and go, but the writers stay with the story from beginning to end. I think that speaks to the increasing presence of television discussion at the Austin Film Festival. And it’s a really good event for writers.

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The Austin Film Festival takes place October 20-27, with hundreds of screenings, panels and parties all week. Badges are still available online. General admission tickets for Metropolitan go on sale 25 minutes prior to the screening.

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