This piece was not my idea. It was Linda Holmes'. If you're reading this blog, you probably share my regard for her take on popular culture. So my ears pricked up when she suggested I look into doing a radio piece on Kyle Killen.
Killen created a new NBC show, Awake, premiering Thursday, March 1, at 10.p.m. (NBC has the pilot online early as well, for those who don't want to wait.) It's a densely plotted drama about a middle-aged police detective who's been in a car accident with his family. When he wakes up, he's caught between two devastating realities. In one, his wife has died and his son has survived. In the other, it's only his son who lost his life.
"You can't make good TV by committee," Killen said when I asked about the problems inherent in making and selling intricate, relentlessly somber dramas. "Somebody has to be following their own north star. And mine has certainly led to places where there are not a lot of people there."
Killen's first movie was directed by a big-deal actress and starred an even bigger actor. But The Beaver, as you probably know, was an epic flop for Jodie Foster and Mel Gibson. But it led to Killen's next flop, which immediately won the hearts of TV critics. The Fox show Lone Star was a darkly complicated drama about a con man balancing two lives as well as dealing with the wiles of his flimflam artist father. In Linda's words, it was "one of the very few --perhaps the only well reviewed network pilot for the fall 2010 season." But nobody bothered to watch it. Lone Star got summarily yanked by the network after only two episodes.
I met Kyle Killen in an incongruous location --a Tudor cottage built on the Fox lot. It was originally constructed as an on-set home for Shirley Temple. Now, it's where Killen lives as he works on Awake. (On weekends, he commutes to his real home in Austin, TX, where his wife and children live.)
"I think we were all stunned and disappointed by the scale of that failure," he says now, about Lone Star's abrupt cancellation. But it's altogether possible Killen could fail again with Awake, says Bill Gorman, of the website TV by the Numbers.
"It's already going in with a lot of handicaps," Gorman says. He notes that it's a midseason replacement for a show with awful ratings, even by NBC's dismal standards.
"That can't be good," Gorman observes. "Is the show going to be successful? That's a really, really, really difficult timeslot for NBC."
Awake will be up against The Mentalist and Private Practice -- two highly rated shows on CBS and ABC. Now, if Awake were a novel or even a studio album, the stakes would not be as high. It would not cost a fortune to produce, or create work for scores of people, or be one of the last hopes of a network desperate for hits.
But the stakes are very high. And Kyle Killen has gotten chance after chance --partly because it's seemed as though his interesting failures hold more promise than uninteresting hits. He insists that keeping perspective is not a problem. (In fact, on Twitter, his profile says, "I wrote that show that got canceled and that movie you didn't see.")
"I was working construction not very many years ago," he says. "And ..at some point people will wake up and realize I'm still a guy who belongs over there, doing that."
Probably not. Even if Awake becomes the latest of Kyle Killen's interesting failures, the people who admire his career are still convinced he's off to a good start.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
There's a new show coming to NBC next week, it's called "Awake." Promotional ads for the show ran during the Super Bowl. A middle-aged man who's lost his family in a car crash quietly talks to his psychiatrist.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "AWAKE")
JASON ISAACS: (as Michael Britten) I close my eyes. I open them.
CHERRY JONES: (as Dr. Judith Evans) And this has been happening since accident.
ISAACS: (as Michael Britten) Yeah.
JONES: (as Dr. Judith Evans) Your mind created an entire reality. Your wife survived in one and your son in the other.
BD WONG: (as Dr. John Lee) Detective Britten, the reality is that you can't tell whether you're asleep or awake at this very moment.
MONTAGNE: A daring premise. "Awake" was created by writer Kyle Killen. His entire career has been defined by interesting failures - TV shows and movies that ended up losing millions of dollars for the companies that gambled on them.
NPR's Neda Ulaby met Killen and asked him about taking creative risks in an industry that's generally risk-averse.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: It probably doesn't hurt that Kyle Killen is the kind of Hollywood writer who looks like an actor; the kind who'd star in an upbeat romantic comedy. But "Awake" is just like all his other scripts: challenging, densely constructed. And it's about an emotionally wounded family man with a psyche splintered by trauma. So it's a little surprising when Killen mentions the movie that made him want to be a screenwriter.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BACK TO THE FUTURE)
MICHAEL J. FOX: (as Marty McFly) Are you telling me that you built a time machine out of a DeLorean?
CHRISTOPHER LLOYD: (as Doc Brown) The way I see it, if you're build a time machine into a car why not do it with some style? Look out.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND EFFECTS AND A SCREECHING CAR)
ULABY: Yes, the splashy mainstream comedy "Back to the Future."
KYLE KILLEN: The structure of that thing like the brilliance of how it was put together and everything interlocked, and it all worked. And it worked in this way that was super emotional and made you happy.
ULABY: Happy is not exactly Kyle Killen's stock in trade. He studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California. And when he graduated, he found himself writing in L.A. coffee shops filled with other people doing exactly the same thing.
KILLEN: My wife had become pregnant with twins, and we literally had a conversation about how I needed to either make money writing or get a different job by the time those kids were born.
ULABY: Now most people would say OK, I need to write the most commercial screenplay possible - something I can sell. But not Kyle Killen.
KILLEN: I just decided I would do something, even if it seemed super problematic and unlikely to ever be made, a story that I believed in telling. And so, for whatever reason, that involved a man and his British beaver puppet.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BEAVER")
MEL GIBSON: (as Walter Black) Did you read the card?
JODIE FOSTER: (as Meredith Black) Yes.
ULABY: Before "The Beaver" became an epic flop and one of last year's most denigrated movies, it was widely regarded as one of most intriguing screenplays floating around Hollywood.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BEAVER")
GIBSON: (as Walter Black) Read the card.
FOSTER: (as Meredith Black) The person who handed you under this card is under the care of a prescription puppet, designed to help create a psychological distance between himself and the negative aspects of his personality.
ULABY: Here's where I have to admit this story about Kyle Killen wasn't really my idea. It was suggested to me by Linda Holmes. She's NPR's pop culture blogger. She supports Kyle Killen's career so much, she's even got something nice to say about "The Beaver," like, it's wildly original.
LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: It's not as if you can say: not another movie where a guy has his personality taken over by a prescription beaver puppet.
ULABY: She says if you look underneath all the noise about Mel Gibson's bizarre comeback movie after so many years of horrible behavior, you'll find a smart idiosyncratic screenplay. And, like many other TV critics, she adored Kyle Killen's next flop. The Fox TV show "Lone Star" was about a con man torn between two women he's leading on and his scheming dad.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LONE STAR")
JAMES WOLK: (as Bob Allen) I'm not working an angle here.
DAVID KEITH: (as John Allen) What do you mean?
WOLK: (as Bob Allen) I mean I'm not doing this anymore. I don't ever want another situation like Midland again.
KEITH: (as John Allen) You mean the fact that you had a girl there, too? Now, whose fault was that, son? I mean I've always taught you, you can play any character you want. Never play yourself - that's what let's you walk away when the time is right. Now, you forgot that and you got hurt. That's why we play by rules. Eat up.
HOLMES: "Lonestar" was one of the very few, perhaps the only, well-reviewed network pilot of Fall 2010 Season. And it lasted two episodes.
ULABY: Two episodes. Then canceled because practically nobody watched it in spite of all that critical love.
KILLEN: I think we were all stunned and disappointed by scale of its failure.
ULABY: Kyle Killen is trying not to look morose, as he says he's learned a lot from his last show. But it's possible he's being set up to fail again.
Bill Gorman runs a website called TV By The Numbers, and he cast an appraising eye on "Awake's chances.
BILL GORMAN: Its already going in with a lot of handicaps.
ULABY: Gorman said, first of all, it's a midseason premiere. That doesn't signal confidence. And it's replacing a show with pathetically awful ratings - even by NBC's low standards.
GORMAN: That can't be good. I mean, I don't know. Is the show going to be successful? That's a really, really, really difficult timeslot for NBC.
ULABY: "Awake" will be up against "The Mentalist" and "Private Practice," two of the most highly rated shows on CBS and ABC. Now, if "Awake" was a novel or even a studio recording, the stakes would not be as high. It would not cost a fortune to produce, create work for scores of people or be one of the last hopes of a network desperate for hits. But "Awake" is all of those things, as well as being a complex, relentlessly somber TV show about a cop caught between two devastating alternate realities.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "AWAKE")
WONG: (as Dr. John Lee)I don't think I've ever seen a coping mechanism quite like it. An elaborate and ongoing dream relieving you of the obligation of dealing with his death.
ISAACS: (as Michael Britten) It all feels completely real to me.
ULABY: I asked Kyle Killen what it's like to have produced such a string of interesting failures when the stakes are so terribly high. But I was a little more diplomatic.
How do you balance being a creative risk taker with reality of the industry that you're in?
KILLEN: Perhaps not very well. I mean I think, like, you can't make good TV by committee. Somebody has to be following their own North Star. And mine has certainly led to places that it turns out there are not a lot of other people there.
ULABY: But Kyle Killen has gotten chance after chance in a high stakes industry, partly because it's seemed as though his interesting failures hold more promise than uninteresting hits. But keeping perspective he says is not a problem.
KILLEN: I was working construction, like not very many years ago, and all of this is sort of, like, all right. I mean at some point people will wake up and realize like I'm still a guy who belongs over there doing that.
ULABY: Or may be not. Even if "Awake" becomes the latest of Kyle Killen's interesting failures, the people who admire his choices and follow his career still think he's off to a good start.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: This MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve will be back with us tomorrow morning. I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.