Chad Hodge was convinced that Blake Crouch’s intense novel Pines would be the basis for a compelling television series when he read—actually, devoured—the book a few years ago. But the television writer and producer, who had previously created and executive produced the series Runaway and The Playboy Club, also knew that the story told in the book would be difficult to explain in a quick pitch meeting with network executives. “I thought, I’ll be met with a lot of blank faces and a lot of questions,” Hodge recalls.
That’s because Pines proffers a strange and brilliantly convoluted tale about an FBI agent—Ethan Burke—who goes to an idyllic Idaho town called Wayward Pines in search of two fellow agents who have gone missing only to learn first-hand that once you enter Wayward Pines, you can’t leave. Everyone is under constant surveillance, there is an electrified fence around the town, and there are rules to follow—for example, if your phone rings, you had better answer it!
So Hodge decided to just go ahead and lay everything out by writing a pilot script on spec, confident that he could generate interest in a series based on Pines if he could write a pilot script that made people feel the tension, curiosity and excitement he felt when he was reading Crouch’s quirky, mysterious book.
The time and effort put into writing that pilot on spec paid off. Hodge got M. Night Shyamalan to come on board as executive producer before he went on to sell the project to Fox as Wayward Pines, a limited-run 10-episode series premiering on May 14, though you can watch the pilot online now.
Hodge also wrangled an all-star cast, including Matt Dillon—in his first-ever television role—as Ethan Burke as well as Terrence Howard (who actually shot Wayward Pines before he did Empire), Juliette Lewis, and Melissa Leo.
Here, Hodge talks to Co.Create about making Wayward Pines, highlighting the critically important—not to mention uniquely collaborative—writing relationship he formed with Crouch. Hodge also discusses the benefits of being bound to a 10-episode run and addresses comparisons to Twin Peaks.
Co.Create: Is Wayward Pines solely based on the book Pines, or did you draw from all three books in the trilogy? [Crouch followed Pines with Wayward and The Last Town.]
Hodge: The latter. It’s three books that tell this whole story. Now, when I first came into the project, there was only one book written. So the first book covers about the first five episodes, except I added a lot of stuff. If I had adapted that book straight as it is, we would have come to the end of the first book at episode three.
Blake Crouch was writing book two as I was writing the pilot and selling the show and putting the whole thing together, and then as I was putting together a bible of what the remaining nine episodes would be, he was writing book three, and we were talking all the time.
Actually, some things that I came up with ended up in book two and book three. Mostly, it was the other way around—the stuff that he was writing was what I was adapting for the series, but there were a couple things that went the other way, and it became a fun collaboration.
Most screenwriters and authors don’t collaborate like that.
Typically, authors and the people who are adapting their work are famously—I don’t know, enemies is too strong a word, but there’s not a lovefest because there are things that are being changed. But Blake really gets the whole adaptation thing, and he really appreciated what I did with the pilot, and then we just got along really, really well. He’s a consulting producer on the show. He also had in his contract that he was going to get to write one episode.
I was like, great, the author is going to write a script—I’ll just end up rewriting the whole thing. And he turned in the script, and it was fantastic. I was blown away that, first of all, he was able to adapt his own work. It wasn’t strictly faithful to what he had done in the books. It was a different sort of version but brilliant. Also, just the formatting of the script and everything, he knew how to do it.
It was so great, and I said, ‘Do you want to write another one?’ So he did. He actually wrote two more episodes with me in the back half of the show.
We ended up really striking up not only a great working relationship, obviously, but a great friendship, and we’re developing some other projects based on other things that he’s written.
As we see on Wayward Pines, the sheriff, played by Terrence Howard, is obsessed with ice cream and eats it at the strangest times. I am curious: Is that a quirk that the character had in the first book, or is that something you added?
That’s something I added. That’s something I added the day before we shot [the scene in which Ethan Burke meets the sheriff]. I wanted something visually, immediately bizarre when Matt Dillon’s character Ethan walks into the room.
It’s pretty well understood, I think, for actors that you don’t have to actually consume all the food you’re eating in every take, but Terrence ate every single ice cream cone. He really liked the ice cream.
This is a limited-run series. Is it easier for you to make a television series knowing that you have 10 episodes and that’s all as opposed to an open-ended run?
I’ve been doing television for 15 years. What I’m used to doing is working on an open-ended show where you hope that the show goes on forever and ever and ever, and you’re actually shooting it while it’s airing. You’re coming up with 22 episodes a year. This was for me, creatively, very, very satisfying, and it was helpful really to know that it was going to be 10 episodes.
I wrote a bible that was 110 pages of what the whole show was before we ever started shooting. In fact, eight of the show’s scripts were finished before we started shooting, so it was really nice not scrambling in the writer’s room, running to the editing room, running to set, basically making it as you’re putting it out constantly, which is how most network shows work.
I was able to have six months of time to prepare the entire story, and most of the scripts before we ever started shooting a frame of the show, and the time to edit the entire thing before it airs. We’ve been done now since last November.
Wayward Pines has a distinctly dark look and claustrophobic feel that is established in the pilot directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Even the trees within and surrounding the town feel imposing, like they are conspiring to keep everyone trapped. Can you talk about how you wanted the audience to feel while watching the pilot?
Absolutely. A lot of people tell me that I write directorially. If you read the script for the pilot, there’s a lot of—not instructions for the director—but just mood and tone description. We want to make the viewer feel the way the lead character is feeling, to feel what the town really feels like when you step into it. I try to put that on the page.
There’s sort of what I like to call a single-player point of view for at least for the first few episodes, like a video game, like single-player video game. You’re in the point of view of this guy, or this woman, or this character, and we planned it very much like that, especially in the first few episodes so viewers would feel what it’s like to be in that car crash, or to be in this town, or to be in that hospital bed with Melissa Leo [who plays a creepy nurse] staring down at you.
That feeling—that sort of claustrophobic frustration—it was very intentional. That mood was really important and obviously, with Night, that’s his specialty, bringing that tension.
The other directors that came after him, all brilliantly took a cue from him and really carried that through the whole series and then also did their own thing.
The tone in this kind of thing is very, very, very important. If you sort of misfire on the tone, if for some reason it doesn’t feel claustrophobic and awkward, it doesn’t feel tense, or the pacing is either too slow, or too fast, you can lose in a major way. That feeling is really important to the effect of the piece.
Did you picture Matt Dillon in the role of Ethan Burke when you were writing the pilot for the series?
It’s funny. I don’t usually picture actors when I’m writing. It’s a strange thing because I know a lot of writers do. When you’re reading a book, do you picture an actor, or you conjure an image of the character?
I don’t think of a specific actor. I just create the character in my imagination based on what I read.
Yeah. When I’m writing it’s the same way. Ethan Burke, the character in my head was no actor, he was just a person that I was envisioning, and then when it came time to figure out, okay, who is going to play this guy, Matt Dillon was at the top of the list. He was someone who had never done TV before, and we were so excited to get him and lucky, and he really got the script and was jazzed about it.
How did you get Terrence Howard interested in playing the sheriff?
He was the first person we went to for the role, and he was totally into it. I was at Night’s farm outside of Philly, and I was on the phone pacing around the property and talking to each actor for about half an hour, 45 minutes. They all wanted to know where the story went, of course, what happens, and what is my character doing, and so I pitched the story to each of them, and then we would get off the phone, and they would call their agents, and say, ‘Okay, I’m in.’ Terrence didn’t want to know what the truth of Wayward Pines was—and he was the only one. He didn’t want to know what happened to his character. He just wanted to get a sense of the tone and all that. He was like, ‘I don’t want to know. Don’t tell me. Don’t tell me!’
Some television critics are comparing Wayward Pines to Twin Peaks. Actually, Fox is also making the comparison. Was Twin Peaks an influence?
It was definitely an influence for Blake, the author. In fact, in the first book, there’s an afterward where he talks about how obsessed he was with Twin Peaks as a kid, and he was so devastated when the show was cancelled that he wrote his own follow-up season of the show when he was 14.
So Wayward Pines is certainly not based on Twin Peaks. It’s certainly not story-wise inspired by Twin Peaks, but there are definitely some winks to it and nods to it in Blake’s books, and it was an inspiration for him as a person.