Wayward Pines’ Chad Hodge reflects on how the limited run of his Fox mystery series gave him a creative advantage and why a writer should never begin without knowing their ending.
Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
(July 2, 2015)
Chad Hodge has exactly one criterion for devoting himself to a story, both as a writer and an audience member: an interesting character in a wild situation. Which could just as well describe the suburban Illinois native’s own series of adventures in La La Land as the outlandish happenings and curveball folk populating his summer event series, Wayward Pines. Raised on Broadway musicals and poised to tread the boards in song and dance, an adolescent Hodge was captivated – and liberated – by the power of story, though it wasn’t until the final hours of his stint at Northwestern University that he considered himself, finally, a writer. Tuning up with staff writing chores on television series and movies like Veritas: The Quest, Tru Calling, and I Want to Marry Ryan Banks, which starred a pre-Silver Linings Playbook Bradley Cooper, Hodge found a creative harmony in storytelling, even if the first shows he created – CW’s Runaway and NBC’s The Playboy Club – were played off quickly by antsy network executives.
With Pines, wrapping its 10-episode run on Fox, Hodge has at last gone full voice and legato, serving up an artfully composed adaptation of Blake Crouch’s series of international bestselling novels, honoring his own sole criterion with vivid, dynamic, occasionally ghoulish high notes and a narrative that sticks to viewers the way airport paperbacks require quick page-turning skills. Unlike most puzzle-laden television series, Hodge gave viewers the cow and the milk with episode five of Pines, offering up a mind-bending data dump that answered the bulk of the series’ enigmatic mysteries, paving the way for a final run of episodes that, Hodge believes, are not only just as entertaining as the big payoff, but necessary too. “In real life, the revelation isn’t the end of the story,” he says. “When the truth is revealed, that’s often when the real story begins. That’s the case with Wayward Pines.”
Like the best genre stories, Wayward Pines is a fine entertainment, but it’s also got some heady, topical undercurrents. It’s got more on its mind than just giving viewers a fun ride.
Photo: ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co.
Matt Dillon in Wayward Pines.
I’d agree with that, absolutely. Wayward Pines is really an allegory not only about our country, but about the world in which we live, the role of government in our lives. How many rules do you need? Many, probably. Well, what kind of punishments can you put in place to enforce those rules? Most of us probably would not agree with the rules as enforced in episode two, but you do need to have consequences for rule-breakers. Maybe. [Laughs] People see what happened with Juliette Lewis’ character in episode two and they go, “Wait! That’s insane!” But that kind of thing happens every single day around the world. So it’s true. We want to be a great, entertaining, addictive entertainment, but we might have a few other things on our minds too.
In your career, Wayward Pines came along at what seems to be a very opportune time, with you coming off NBC’s The Playboy Club, which never was given the space or oxygen to fully ignite for audiences.
I was very bummed about that show. It took a couple of episodes to find its way, and just as we were getting there, we met the same fate as so many TV series. It’s typical. It’s just how the industry goes. But it was a tough show to find an audience. It’s not like we had a huge turnout for the first episode and then everyone abandoned ship. We had very, very low numbers out of the gate, and then they stayed low. You can blame it on scheduling, or any number of things, but as much of a blast as I had making it and as many good friends as I made doing it, there were just not a lot of people who wanted to watch a show about the Playboy Club. Go figure!
Your earlier CW series, 2006’s Runaway, met a similarly swift demise. It must have been kind of sexy to tackle a show like Pines, which came with a fixed run.
It was really sexy, yeah. I've been working in television as a writer for 15 years, and Wayward Pines is the first experience I've had where I was given a fixed number of episodes, where I had the time to crack the entire story and write most of the episodes before we shot a single frame. That freed me – and the rest of us – from the chaos and grind that very often happens in television, where you’re always just insanely trying to catch up. Write. Rewrite. Shoot. Rewrite. Shoot. Rewrite while shooting. Shoot while rewriting. Editing. There was never a moment on Wayward Pines of, “Hurry up, we have to air this in 10 days!” The best part was being able to go, “Okay, we have 10 episodes. What are these episodes going to be exactly?” Its extremely different – and extremely luxurious – than how television is usually made, having the time to craft a full arc and structure before you’re on that insane production treadmill.
A lot of showrunners relate their experiences of being five or six episodes into a 22-episode season and realizing that they’re just screwed beyond salvage by the grind.
It's true. It might not even be five or six episodes before you realize it! Obviously, there's a financial model of the 22-episode season that works for some broadcast networks, but in terms of doing a bang-up creative job, where every episode is given the time to be the very best it can be, Wayward Pines was just a fantastic experience. It’s impossible to do that kind of quality control in a 22-episode season. With 10 episodes, it’s very possible – and very fun.
Knowing your background in music, then hearing you talk about crafting a 10-episode structure and arc, brings to mind Milan Kundera’s piece on the novel as symphony, with its various themes, movements, and resolutions. Does that resonate for you?
I never thought about that before, but I absolutely agree with you. Doing a show like Wayward Pines is very much is like doing a big symphony. The full series is a complete piece, but each episode is a movement, the pilot as overture, the ability to recapitulate, to work with various themes and motifs, all those things. I’d never thought about it in those terms, but that’s exactly right!
When you shopped Pines, you included the script for the series pilot and Bible, which you wrote on spec, and also attached M. Night Shyamalan to direct the pilot. Why was that an important strategy for you?
It was twofold. The producer Donald DeLine gave me a copy of Blake’s novel, which I read in one day – I just couldn’t put it down – and I was so inspired and excited. I had zero patience when it came to writing the script. I saw the show so clearly in my head that I had to write it, even if it never sold. Of course, it matters to me to find a home for my work, but this was one I had to write no matter what. The second reason probably harkens back to some of my other television experiences, being cancelled so quickly and wanting to figure out the best way to connect the story to a network and get that commitment to tell the whole story. I mean, pitching a show like this can be very tricky. It’s a mystery, right? It’s supposed to be mysterious. In the early episodes, not everything is supposed to make perfect sense. Mysteries take time. They are full of bizarre moments and big questions and things that don’t seem to add up at first. If you go in to pitch Wayward Pines to the networks, you basically have to take all the air out of the balloon in 20 minutes, boil down all the things that attracted you to the piece – the mystery and ambiguity and freakiness and questions – into a quick, bald explanation. That’s just not any fun. It’s not fun for me, because I love that place of mystery, and it’s not fun for the network either, because it spoils everything. You know: “This guy crashes his car in this town that is kind of weird, and this is exactly why it’s weird. Cool?” It just ruins the entire thing.
So you went at it in a different way.
I just thought, “If I can make these executives feel the way I felt reading the book, then I think we'll win.” I knew a spec script would give me that chance – to really hook the executives, to get them kind of intoxicated and giddy about the show and its mysteries. So I spent four weeks writing the pilot and that attracted M. Night Shyamalan, who had never directed for TV before and was just perfect at cracking the very specific tone of the series, and it all just worked. We had so much interest in this, and it’s because the networks only had that first script, but they had a whole script, and that script is setup and big question marks, and the calls we got were, “Okay, so you’ve gotta tell us: what happens next?”
The art of seduction.
Going back to your youth, what was the first story to capture your imagination?
Theater and musical theater were really my thing when I was growing up. I used to perform in a lot of musicals. When I was five years old, I was in The King and I. There’s something about that story, which I just saw on Broadway about a month ago, that says almost everything about the human experience. I had forgotten that until I saw it last month, but it moved me so deeply. I was just bawling in the theater, almost the entire time. That was a big influence on me for sure.
You performed in a lot of shows during your adolescence. When did writing become your primary pursuit?
I had a really great theater teacher in high school, Scott Schoenberger, who really brought me out my shell – not just as an actor, but as a person. I thought all the way up until the end of high school that I was going to be an actor. But I started making more and more actor friends and very quickly realized that they were really talented actors and I wasn’t that great. I had been writing stuff my entire life, but I never thought about myself as a writer. I was just a writer. In college, I was interning for a producer, doing coverage, reading a lot of scripts, but I didn’t like very many of them. I was just so interested by the idea that all of these writers were being paid to write these scripts that were not very good, maybe not even very good ideas. So the producer, tired of hearing me complaining all the time about the scripts, finally said, “Well, why don’t you write one?” I said, “Because I’m not really a writer.” He said, “You know what? You’re young. Try it.” And I thought, “I’m not young! I’m 22 years old!” I figured I was way too old to become a writer, but in my senior year of college, I took two screenwriting classes, fell in love, and I’ve never looked back.
And a year later, at 23, you had your first TV series. A deal with the Devil?
That was just a very lucky break. I moved to L.A. after I graduated Northwestern, and one of the first things I did was look up any Northwestern alumni I could possibly find and try to use that to meet up. There were a few Northwestern alumni in Hollywood, as it turned out. About a year and a half after I moved to L.A., I met with a guy named Andrew Barrett-Weiss, who worked at NBC at Peter Engel’s production company [which produced a lot of television, including Saved by the Bell]. So Andrew called me one day – I was waiting tables to make rent – and said they had a pilot they were doing that needed a rewrite and, based on one of only two scripts I’d written in my life, they thought I was the guy for the job. Just a lucky break. I had two weeks to do the rewrite, and they were shooting it, like, three or four weeks after that, and it was on the air two or three months after that. It was the last Peter Engel produced show to air, so it’s probably fair to say I killed the Peter Engel Empire!
That was a Saturday morning, youth-oriented series, more than a little different from the other projects you’ve written.
But it’s all kind of the same, at least from my perspective. It’s about breaking story, right? You have to find the bones of your story, whether it’s comedy, drama, mystery, or musical. Good story and good character. Those are fundamental truths across the board. It’s the icing that you put on it that makes it different or special, but what makes something good is pretty universal. A lot of people see my body of work as being just all over the map. I just like to decorate my cakes very differently!
What are some of the storytelling fundamentals you learned in those early gigs?
I, almost literally, knew nothing about writing for television when I got that first job. Like, I didn’t know from act breaks or how to structure a scene or how to know what you’re writing towards. When we talk about Wayward Pines and structuring that show and building up to that big reveal in episode five and playing out the final five episodes, that’s about the confidence of knowing what you’re writing towards, where you’re going, knowing exactly what you’re trying to do. For me, the most important rule in writing is: know your ending. Doesn’t matter the genre. If you know your ending – whether it’s a scene or an episode or an entire series – it gives you confidence as a storyteller. When you know where you’re going, you can sort of relax and just be as great as you can be.
In television, of course, knowing your ending can be a mixed bag. If the show doesn’t click immediately with viewers, you might be cancelled before you get to that ending, and if it’s a hit, you might have to stretch your story for seven seasons before you’re finally allowed to deliver the ending.
Yes, totally! That usually results from that 22-episode model because you have a great idea, you write an early pilot, the pilot gets picked up, the show clicks with an audience, and you realize, “Oh, crap, now I’ve gotta do 100 hours before I can turn off the engine!” A lot of the best stories just aren’t built for that kind of format. If I’d been asked to stretch Wayward Pines from 10 episodes into 100, holding our big reveals for five or six or seven seasons, it would make audiences insane. And, frankly, I’d be bored out of my mind. It’s just dishonest too, to your story. On Wayward Pines, some of the characters, they know the truth about what’s going on in that town. If you keep writing episodes where you’re holding back and you’re holding back and you’re holding back, then you have to force those characters to behave dishonestly, in ways that they never really would. You’re just being manipulative at that point.
What advice do you have for other writers?
When I was 27, I got an offer for a double-blind script deal: “Keep your day job, but we’re going to pay you to write two pilots of your own.” Another very lucky break. That allowed me to transition from staff writer to series creator. The funny thing was, after two development seasons with this deal, I still couldn’t sell one of my shows to the network. I’d written, like, five scripts for them. When you have a blind script deal, you still have to convince the network to buy your idea and make it, and I hadn’t gotten that far. So I got to a place where I owed them one more script and I was wondering, “What the hell am I going to write?” I was working with [Sex and the City creator] Darren Star at the time, and we had some really great conversations about my life, my background, my growing up, the stories I loved, the movies and shows that really excited me, and he said, “So go write that.” That’s where Runaway came from. I wrote it in a month. It went to series. The advice in that – and it’s advice I follow myself – isn’t necessarily “write what you know,” but “write what excites you.” Tell stories that turn you on. And do it on spec. As much as possible, write on spec. That’s nothing against the development process. That’s nothing against the studios or the networks. But for me, when I write that script purely for me, at least the first draft, that freedom is a very valuable thing. In my career, when I’ve done that, those are the shows that make it to air.
You’re quite prolific as a writer. Is it a question of lightning striking more frequently for you, or is it simply a matter of staring down a blank page every single day?
Oh, it’s all about putting your ass in the chair every day. It's all about diligence and discipline and hard work. A lot of days, you don’t want to sit down at the computer, but you have to. I treat my job like anybody else who has to go to work every day. Even when I'm working at home, I'll get up and shower and put on clothes and “go to work,” if you will. If I waited for lightning to strike all the time, I don't think I would get anything done.