Rectify, a beautifully contemplative series that follows Daniel Holden as he adjusts to life outside prison after 19 years on death row, has been widely praised by television critics, but the series, starting its second season on Sundance TV June 19, almost never saw the light of day.
It was initially developed for AMC where there was great enthusiasm for the drama created by Ray McKinnon, who directed and starred in the 2001 Academy Award-winning short The Accountant and is also known for acting roles in series ranging from Deadwood to Sons of Anarchy.
But the network ultimately decided the show wasn’t the right fit, and McKinnon assumed the project was kaput until he heard from SundanceTV a few years later. Turns out Sarah Barnett, the EVP/GM of SundanceTV (then known as the Sundance Channel), read the pilot for Rectify after Ed Carroll, the chief operating office of AMC Networks, suggested she take a look at it.
As Barnett told Co.Create in an interview last year, she was amazed by what she read, and SundanceTV asked McKinnon to restructure the series, which was originally designed for a 10 to 13 episode run more suited to AMC, to make it six episodes.
“I think the right thing happened, and good on AMC and good on Sundance for being good partners and allowing the show to continue and eventually have a life,” McKinnon reflects.
McKinnon talks to Co.Create about the genesis of the series, admits to being hesitant about revisiting the project at first and explains how he ensures that every element of the lovingly crafted Rectify is in line with his creative vision.
Co.Create: Going back to the beginning, can you tell me what inspired you to create Rectify?
McKinnon: The story itself has been in my head for at least a decade. It’s probably a little more than that by now, but the genesis started with a number of DNA cases in Illinois that all happened around the same time. A number of guys who had been on death row or had gotten life without parole were found to not be the person who the prosecution said did [the crime] because it wasn’t their DNA.
I watched some of the guys who were released after years and years or decades. They were asked what were going to do when they got out, and most of them were in a kind of shock, and the answers were as they would be in a sound bite, simple and broad. You know, ‘I’m going to go have a steak and spend the evening with my family’ or whatever.
I was intrigued when I thought, what about the next day? What must it be like for a person who has been in that kind of austere environment for so long to be able to go through a door and walk outside in the world? So that stimulated my imagination, and I saw in my mind’s eye this character that would become Daniel.
The show wound up in development at AMC, but the network didn’t go ahead with it, and it appeared this project would likely never get off the ground. How did you react when AMC’s sister network SundanceTV showed interest?
When [SundanceTV] came to me, I mean this is a few light years later, I’d gone on with my life and moved past Rectify. I really had gone forward, and when they came to me I wasn’t exactly sure if I wanted to do it. That may sound crazy, but there’s more to life than just work. I knew that if I took this on, it would be an extraordinary amount of work–both the highly concentrated nature of it but also just the time. I was at a place in my life where I wasn’t as driven as perhaps I’d been at other times in my life. I was in a more reflective place, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to move forward with this. Even when I was in the writers’ room I was having doubts that this is what I should be doing with my life.
So what made you put those doubts aside and go forward with Rectify?
Well, we kept just moving forward, first seeing if we could find the budget level that we could realistically do the show at and make it to a level where we could have a chance at succeeding with some of the aims we had. It’s certainly not near the budget of most of the cable shows you see on television. It’s one of the lower ones, but I wanted it to be at a level that at least we had a chance at some of the aims that I saw for it. When we landed on that, and we started talking about our writers’ room, it just all happened in increments. Even in the writers’ room, honestly, I’d get there and I’d be thinking, I can’t wait to be at home. You know, that was part of where I was in my life. But, eventually, you move forward, and suddenly, you’re casting, and then you’re in pre-production and that side of me that wants to have everything be right takes over, and it’s just pushing it up the hill every day and finding meaning in that just as Daniel is trying to find meaning in his life.
Television critics loved what they described as the meditative feel of season one. It’s rare to experience that on television. There were so many scenes in which Daniel isn’t saying or doing much. He is just observing or remembering. Do you think your experience as an actor might have allowed you to tell a story in this way whereas maybe a typical showrunner without acting experience might not have understood that this approach could work?
I don’t know. Maybe on a subconscious level that was the case. I work a lot from an instinctual, place and I make judgments based on what my heart, head and gut feels is right. I can’t gauge what would feel right for another person. The only thing I have to go on is what feels right to me and what I like and what invigorates me and charges me. That’s why this show is the way it is. Whether people would respond to that I had no idea. I really didn’t. Some people don’t like that kind of pace. They don’t like this kind of storytelling, and I understand that. I don’t like all kinds of storytelling either. I always had to hope that there would be enough people that would respond to it positively. As far as critics go, to have some of the true criticism, more like old-school film criticism where they’re reflecting back to me in a very specific way exactly what I intended, it’s unbelievably gratifying. In some ways, some of the comments deepened my understanding of the show. Instead of, this is a critique of the show and that ends the conversation, it was an ongoing dialogue between me and the person reflecting that back to me.
Season one followed Daniel for a specific time period–his first week of freedom. Will season two be so specific when it comes to time?
Even having written or revised every show, I can’t exactly tell you what the timeframe is. I think part of the intention in the writers’ room and my intention was to not make time so evident as we pass through these chapters or these episodes this season. It won’t be a day-by-day thing. You can mark time by various ways, and last year, we were more specific about that.
Can you give me a sense of where the show will go this season? What themes will Rectify explore?
I guess it’s about the ongoing quiet desperation, the creating or finding meaning in your life on a daily basis. It’s belief systems, it’s jealousy, it’s all the themes that run through both storytelling and our human experience. All those sexy, sexy one-liners. [He laughs.] It’s man and woman’s search for meaning.
You’ve got such a strong cast. I understand it was difficult for you to find the right actor to play Daniel.
A lot of wonderful actors came and read for him. But for me, they weren’t what I saw for Daniel. We ended up getting casting directors in both Great Britain and Australia to literally look all over the world. Aden [Young] was in Taiwan or Thailand doing some movie, and after being hounded by his agent, he finally decided to send in an audition tape from across the ocean. When I saw him, and it was late into the game, and I was like, ‘My goodness. I think that might be our guy!’ I feel very fortunate that he turned up. We needed an actor who was really, really sensitive. He also had to be scary, dangerous, and have a sense of humor. There are so many sides to that character. Some actors are strong on one side and maybe not on the other. Aden was able to portray the many faces of Daniel, and he continues to do so. He’s special in that regard and a great bloke besides.
You’re an actor, and you created this beautiful, intense show with challenging roles, and you don’t even get to be on it. Do you feel actor envy? Do you ever wish you had created a part for yourself on Rectify?
Sometimes I would like to be on the show. But it takes a lot to do good work in front of the camera. I just don’t have the time. For the most part, I’m so caught up in the creativity of what I’m doing that I don’t feel creatively bereft.
Going back to the hesitation you had about doing Rectify at all when you got a second crack at it, are you now glad you decided to take the leap and do this show?
I suppose at the end of the day this is what direction my life was meant to take. I decided to go through that door. I mean, to be able to tell this story in the way that I want to tell it, people tell me I’m very lucky, and that it doesn’t happen very often. I do understand that. But on the more personal level, it’s like I never thought that I’d get to tell this kind of story in this way with this kind of physical support. There are times that it’s a kind of ecstasy I suppose, even though I never see anybody anymore. [He laughs.]
And that’s because of how much time you spend working on the show?
I’ve been working seven days a week for the last five months. That’s the tradeoff if you want it at a certain level.
Let’s talk a bit about the writers’ room. You came up with this idea and wrote the pilot, and then you began to work with other writers on subsequent episodes. Is that difficult to do? Are you nervous you might lose control, or they might not get what you want to accomplish? Or is it liberating and helpful to get ideas from other people?
All of the above. Every last thing you just said is all the things that happen in the writers’ room. It’s a challenge trying to maintain a unified…I don’t think it’s a singular vision because it’s a collaborative art form, but to keep the vision unified is always a challenge, whether it’s in the writers’ room, or it’s with the actors, or the director of photography or the editors. It doesn’t take much for it go off course because people are looking at it through their own subjective lenses, and the writers are no different. That balance of allowing them to be creative and not overly restricted but also to keep them on the right path, the path of Rectify, it’s a challenge for me and for them as well and part of the deal.
How involved are you in areas beyond writing? Do you listen to every piece of music before it’s approved? Are you on location with the director and DP talking to them about capturing the sun in a certain way? This show feels so personal. I get the sense that you have a hand in everything.
I look at it as making a really long movie and that each of these episodes are chapters, and they’re built upon each other. Something that happens in the first episode is going to affect what happens in the second. The guest directors that come in, they don’t have all of that knowledge, so you have to help guide them as well. I think this kind of show, for me anyways, requires that kind of management. I can’t help it. I just can’t leave it up to others. I don’t think it will make for a better show. It’ll make for a different show. I don’t know if it would be my show.
So you’re not on the beach in Tahiti while someone is in the editing room cutting the show. You’re there working with everyone every step of the way.
Yeah. I tell all the collaborators, ‘This is very important to all of you, and I understand that. That’s why you’re here, and you’re so good and your jobs. But it’s the nursing home test. I’m the one that’s going to be at the nursing home going, ‘Damn it! I wish I wouldn’t have let him use that shot.’ Whereas you’re going to be on to your next show. At the end of the day, I have to give it the nursing home test. When I’m in my little chair there watching, will I regret not having intervened?
It’s the rare few who get the honor of creating a TV series and having it be seen by the world. Well, at least I think it is an honor. Do you have any lessons from your experience with Rectify to share with people who aspire to do what you have done?
If you’re intent on being a storyteller, you need to put your 10,000 hours in. You need to work on your craft. I was fortunate that I was making a living as an actor. So a lot of my really bad writing, only a few people were punished to have to read that, and it allowed me to perhaps find my voice without a lot of the kind of criticism or the kind of guidance that leads you down a path that’s less authentic to you. So I was lucky in that regard. So practice your craft, find out what moves you personally because you can’t worry about what moves anybody else. Maybe you’ll be like me and be also really, really lucky in the timing of all of this. I feel like this show wouldn’t have happened four years ago, obviously, and there’s a good chance it wouldn’t have happened four years from now. This is a perfect time in television for a show like this to exist. A lot of that has to do with luck. I’m very fortunate. Rub the clover, I guess.