Inside the Unlucky/Lucky Life of 'Awake' Creator Kyle Killen
The quirky Texan writer behind acclaimed debacles "The Beaver" and TV's "Lone Star" is currently sleeping in his office as he attempts to break his streak with the new NBC drama.
In the year or so that followed, the Meet the Parents director and The Office actor fell out because of scheduling, and names from David O. Russell to Jim Carrey surfaced and vanished until Foster came forward and said she was eager to direct and act in Killen's film. Her other request: that her longtime and famously troubled friend Gibson star opposite her.
Gibson's casting, which initially excited Killen, turned problematic when a collection of profanity-laced voicemails to his ex-girlfriend surfaced in summer 2010, causing further delays to the film's release. "From beginning to end, The Beaver was like a crazy, crazy roller coaster," Killen sighs, noting that once Gibson's troubles became an issue, the project was already out of his hands. "It was like you were holding onto the last car on the roller coaster but you're not directing it and you can't even see what is coming ahead." By the time the $21 million film that The Hollywood Reporter called "a risky bet that pays off solidly" finally hit theaters, it grossed less than $1 million domestically.
By fall 2009, Killen had sold his first TV project, Lone Star, to Fox. He had big interest from the other broadcast networks but was particularly struck by the passion of network entertainment president Kevin Reilly. "Fox was not only the most aggressive but also the most like: 'We get what you're trying to do, you're trying to sneak a cable show onto television. So if you come over here, we'll all try to sneak a cable show onto television and we bet it works,' " recalls Killen, who seems to harbor no resentment toward the network or its executive.
In the months leading to the drama's late September 2010 premiere, the first-time TV producer, along with veteran showrunners Amy Lippman and Christopher Keyser of Party of Five fame, began to get nervous. Although Lone Star received hefty promotion and tremendous reviews -- among them, TV Guide called it the "fall's best and most original drama" -- its Monday night competition was growing more intense. Charlie Sheen had announced he would return to Two and a Half Men after talk of leaving (a year before he actually did); then Bristol Palin signed on to do Dancing With the Stars. "Add in The Event and Monday Night Football, and it suddenly looked like a murderer's row," quips Killen, his hands now gripping his pale cheeks in jest.
With one week to go before Lone Star's Sept. 20 debut, Killen called his WME agent Marc Korman to inquire about ratings. As he recalls, Korman gave him a brief tutorial: "Well, 3 and above, and you'll be on the air for a long time; and 2s, 2s are pretty solid, and I think they'd let that build and grow," says Killen. "And that was kind of it. It was like the scale must not go below that. It starts at 2, and I hope to exceed 3." In the wee hours of Sept. 21, Reilly called Killen to break the news: The drama had garnered a 1.3, a figure so low reporters soon would be plastering "D.O.A." references across their morning stories.
Two days later, Killen took to his personal blog with an entry titled "You're Invited to Our Stunning Upset," in which he made offers to mow lawns in return for viewership. But more viewers did not come. Week one's dismal 1.3 rating fell to a 1.0 in week two, and Fox yanked the series from the schedule. Millions spent on marketing lost, whole episodes scrapped, cast and crew left jobless -- and a devastated Killen, who for that period was sleeping on an air mattress on an L.A. friend's floor, back home to Texas. Months later, Reilly spoke candidly about the heartbreak: "We had an A-plus team, we had an unbelievable amount of creativity, and we put a lot of marketing behind it. This was not one we were just sort of throwing out there."
Those in the media seemed to blame everything but Lone Star's quality. Intense competition, adulterous themes and a cable-esque feel were listed as culprits. Killen was convinced he'd "never be invited back," and any dream he may have had of finding another home for the series was quickly dashed. "No one wants to say, 'We're a network that trades in other people's damaged goods.' There isn't like a 99¢ Store network," says the producer. Killen settled for taking his unaired episodes to festivals instead, where they could be celebrated by the show's rabid fans.
Ratings notwithstanding, Killen had made an impact. Jennifer Salke, then 20th TV's executive vp, reached out just days after production on Lone Star wrapped in October and urged him to try again. To her delight, he had another idea. Although it borrowed from Lone Star's duality theme, it had a procedural engine and centered instead on a sympathetic character. After making the obvious cracks about another multiple-realities project, she encouraged him to go back to Austin and write a spec script, which she would need before Christmas if they were going to have a shot of selling it that season.
Within weeks, Killen handed his agent a nuanced script about a detective who toggles between alternating realities in which either his wife or his son has survived a family car accident and uses the perspective of both worlds to solve cases. "It was 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning, and I remember I was so freaked out by the script that I went upstairs to our guest bedroom where my wife was sick with the flu and I got into bed with her," Korman recalls, adding that he forced himself to read it again at 7 a.m. and was equally floored. "I called Jen and said: 'I'm telling you, this script is remarkable. I've never read a pilot like this, and for a guy who has never written a procedural show in his life, he's actually making two cases work."
Korman and Salke slipped the spec to a handful of networks, including NBC, whose not-yet-official chief Bob Greenblatt had been a big Lone Star fan. That he came from the cable world and would have his hands on the project from inception -- as opposed to the many others he would inherit -- made it an easier sell. Also on that list was Fox, where lower-level executives were said to be fawning over the script, but Reilly exhibited some understandable apprehension. Missing from the grouping was a cable channel such as FX or AMC, a path 20th TV chairman Gary Newman says the studio opted not to explore.
"We read it and really believed it was a network show. I just don't accept that the difference between cable and network dramas is how smart it is," argues Newman, adding that the modern marketplace now offers multiple means -- from streaming to on-demand -- to find and keep up with a complex network show, an advantage that cable's rerun-heavy environment has long offered series. (His studio signed Killen to a two-year overall deal in June.)
Ultimately, NBC's enthusiasm won out, and Killen was paired with showrunner Howard Gordon, who had built his brand on making hits out of complicated premises, whether it was Fox's 24 or more recently Showtime's Homeland. "I read the pilot, and once I got past my envy, I was struck by the voice. So few writers have real voices," Gordon says of Killen's deeply layered plot lines, adding that he has found it at once challenging and rewarding to collaborate with someone as specific as Killen. "Kyle is disarmingly self-effacing; and at the same time, he's disarmingly confident. It's that duality thing: On the one hand, he's open; on the other, he's closed."