Inside the Unlucky/Lucky Life of 'Awake' Creator Kyle Killen
This story first appeared in the March 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Kyle Killen's 6:30 a.m. wake-up call comes not from his wife or three toddlers but rather from the commotion of workers scurrying around the 20th Century Fox lot.
For three nights each week, the writer-producer best known for creating Fox's short-lived but critically acclaimed Lone Star calls his sparsely decorated office on the lot home. A lonely beige towel hangs beside a single air mattress in the corner; the shower is across the street in the grip building. The words "Do Not Clean" are scribbled on a piece of paper that is tapedoutside the office so that he's not awakened by vacuuming at two in the morning.
"It's like an amazing, free, gated community," Killen quips of his home-away-from-home as he readies for the March 1 debut of his next TV series, NBC's Awake. Although surely he can afford a hotel or a place nearby given his success selling two series and the films The Beaver and the upcoming Scenic Route, he opts for a sterile office and sleeping bag with a collection of stray cats roaming outside his window. He acknowledges that many find the living arrangement peculiar, even crazy, but he considers it a cost-effective perk that he insists he'll be taking advantage of if Awake makes it to season two. After all, it allows him to immerse himself in the world that he's created for actor Jason Isaacs, who plays a man who has lost either his wife (Laura Allen) or his son (Dylan Minnette) -- depending on which reality he is living in at the time.
"To have your commute be from that chair to this floor is pretty phenomenal," he adds, not an ounce of sarcasm in his voice, "and I get more time to get work done." The latter is key because, by Thursday night, Killen is gone. After a full work week compressed into four days, he's back to Austin, where his focus is not on scripts or actors but on his family. The married father of twin 4-year-old daughters and a 2-year-old son spends his weekends consumed by a world of spirited children and friends so far outside the entertainment industry that his career is something of a mystery.
Knowing his lifestyle, it's easy to understand how Killen, 36, has built that career on dramas revolving around fictional characters living in two vastly different worlds. Lone Star, Killen's first shot out of the box, was about a Texas con man with two personas, two jobs and two spouses. Despite sterling reviews, which catapulted Killen, a onetime construction worker, to industry-darling status, the Fox show proved a spectacular flop and was pulled after two episodes. Then came The Beaver, a Killen screenplay about a depressed man who takes on an alternate personality as a hand puppet. The film, starring Mel Gibson and directed by Jodie Foster, premiered at the SXSW Film Festival to much fanfare but generated dismal box office due, in part, to disturbing audiotapes of Gibson ranting at an ex-girlfriend.
Despite Killen's success getting projects greenlighted, he represents a paradox in Hollywood: a knack for continually impressing development executives without the proven ability to crack a fickle public. But NBC brass is betting big that his latest high-concept series, which treads on the same dual-reality theme that was the cornerstone of his first, will change that.
"I guess I like characters who, when they get to that fork in the road, want to go both ways at the same time. They can't pick a route, and they get to do what the rest of us wish we could do, which is pursue both of those things," he says, leaning forward as if to push the intensity of his thoughts at you. It would be disconcerting if not for the morsels of self-deprecation that he often sprinkles into conversation.
That his own life is somehow a study in duality is sheer coincidence, he insists. But after prodding, he acknowledges that if one had to draw a comparison, his own storyline is more akin to his Awake protagonist's arrangement than that of his deceiving Lone Star antihero. "The Bob character had to be two different people in two different places," he explains as he tugs at the sleeve of his shirt. "Somehow I get to be me in both spots, and no one has rioted yet."
Raised in a small town outside Dallas by a graphic artist mother and a stock broker-turned-photographer father, a young Killen fancied himself a movie junkie. He was as enthralled by such blockbusters as Back to the Future as he was by small-budget films like Before Sunrise. That his passion could double as a career only became apparent when Killen discovered USC's film school. But after a series of Hollywood internships at such companies as Disney and Douglas Wick's Red Wagon -- along with an overnight shift pulling newswire tape at a stock brokerage to pay the bills -- Killen soured on Los Angeles and packed up his car.
"It was really hard to want to be a writer in Los Angeles, because every time you opened your laptop anywhere you were aware that every other laptop was potentially generating the world's most brilliant screenplay," he says. "You were face to face with your competition in a way that in Texas, or anywhere else, I was the only idiot writing a screenplay, so I just had to beat myself."
On the advice of a professor, who told him, "Writing is like a heroin addiction -- if you can quit, you totally should," Killen tried to get out. He dabbled in everything from tech support to constructing prison laundry rooms, but with each new gig he'd find a way to write about it, a clear sign quitting wasn't an option.
An early screenplay titled Taste of a Tuesday, about a severe sleepwalker who is anti-social by day and gifted by night, got him representation; trips to the major agencies disguised as a courier got the script read. (His reps at WME and Anonymous Content are still hopeful the film will get made. In addition to the buddy comedy Scenic Route, starring Josh Duhamel and Dan Fogler, other Killen films in the works include an untitled Daredevil reboot.) A well-received but ultimately passed-over TV pitch about a brilliant 16-year-old college student came next, but it was The Beaver script that in 2008 landed Killen on the industry's coveted Black List, the annual collection of the best unproduced screenplays.
The idea was at one point fashioned as a novel, but Killen was struggling to make it happen by the deadline that his then-pregnant doctor wife had given him before having to move on to a more conventional -- and for that matter, paying -- career. (Killen's backup plan was law school, a path his younger brother followed.) He realized it was time to go another route and turn it into a screenplay when he found himself flailing amid hundreds of pages, which included such digressions as Today show host Matt Lauer doubling as a big-game hunter.
A few days after his twin daughters were born, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind producer (and Anonymous chief) Steve Golin called and said he had read Killen's screenplay and wanted to make the movie. "You fantasize in the shower about that moment when someone will finally call and say, 'You're in the club,' " says Killen, "but if you've just had twins, all you can come up with for a response is: 'Awesome! Thanks, man! I have got to go sleep.' " In short order, Jay Roach and Steve Carell signed to direct and star, respectively, in the Killen project.