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.
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."
The process of constructing the 13-episode first season has proved anything but simple, which became evident when Killen and Gordon asked the studio and network to shut down the show for a few weeks in October to work through some of the plot's complexities. "In a weird way, cancellation was a get-out-of-jail-free card on Lone Star. We were just getting rolling, so it never stopped being fun, but I have a feeling it was just about to get hard," Killen said of his first foray. "With Awake, it's been really challenging to make sure that you follow the rules of the two worlds and that you're always true to the concept."
What became increasingly clear as he and Gordon moved forward with Awake was that there was no owner's manual for what they were trying to do with a network show. Law & Order this was not. "We trade horrifying metaphors all the time: We are landing a plane that's on fire with no manual, or we are landing a plane with no wings and no manual," says Killen of his conversations with Gordon. "It depends on what day of the week it is and how equipped our plane is, but the key thing is that we never have a manual."
Still, Killen, along with his network and studio backers, is adamant that viewers will have an easier time following this show than they did Lone Star. Among the project's -- as well as Killen's -- biggest supporters is Salke, who has since moved to NBC, where she serves as Greenblatt's entertainment president. "Kyle is interested in complicated emotional states, but there's an elegance to the way that he executes those things that makes them go down like honey," she says, commenting as most do on both his focus and his intelligence.
But as the March 1 bow inches closer, the man whose Twitter profile reads, "I wrote that show that got canceled and that movie you didn't see," grows more jittery. "I'm hopeful and excited, sure, but you can't have had the particular experiences that I've had and not be a little nervous," says Killen, whose reps are prepared to take his next project to cable if this effort doesn't pan out. He shrugs and continues. "But if there is an unaired Awake festival some day, I know how that thing turns out too."
KILLEN'S TV ADVENTURE IN TWEETS: From the Twitter account of @Killen8, whose profile reads: "I wrote that show that got canceled and that movie you didn't see."
"The apocalypse must be nigh, Fox just picked up our show. Countdown until I start harassing you to watch starts … now."
-- On the pickup of Lone Star
"Someone gave me a plant so I would have a family between weekends. I named it Mojo and am taking it to dinner."
-- On his weekday home in Los Angeles
"Making my weekly trek from Austin to LA to write a show set in Houston and Midland that we shoot in Dallas. Efficient."
-- On the making of Lone Star
"Watching Giants game. Shot of Times Square. Still got a 4 story Lone Star billboard. Guess we paid in advance."
-- On the show's cancellation
"Office empty, car packed. 23 hour drive and it's officially over. Never realize how much you want to stay until you have to go. RIP Lone Star."
-- On the heartbreak post-Lone Star
"Dear internet, leaving country. Too cheap to pay for intl phone service. Let me know how the whole TV thing turns out. Will get u baguette."
-- On awaiting Awake's pickup as he traveled to Cannes for The Beaver
"Awake -- Thursday March 1 -- Appointment television for at least 40-50 of you. Only takes three aired episodes to crush our old record folks!"
-- On Awake's scheduling announcement
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