How 'The Killing' Backlash Influenced Veena Sud and Her Netflix Drama 'Seven Seconds'

The showrunner talks with THR about how the divisive season one finale played a role in the anthology-style format of the Regina King starrer.
Charley Gallay/Getty Images (Sud); Courtesy of Netflix (Still)
"Seven Seconds" with Veena Sud (inset)

Still expecting a mea culpa from Veena Sud about The Killing? Don't hold your breath.

"I was saddened and surprised by some of the reaction, especially on social media," Sud tells The Hollywood Reporter when asked to reflect, six and a half years later, on the show's divisive season one finale. "Look, at the end of the day, creators make artistic choices. That's what we do. What I learned, though, [is that] when you're a woman creator and you make a choice that may not be popular, the endless demand for public apology is something that male creators don't go through."

Certainly, Sud is hoping for a less-critical reaction to her forthcoming Netflix series Seven Seconds, her second collaboration with Netflix, which revived The Killing after it was famously axed at AMC. This time, the showrunner tackles the thorny issue of race in America through a story involving the hit-and-run of an African-American teenager by a Jersey City cop (Beau Knapp) and the crime's subsequent cover-up by the mostly white police force. For Sud, teaming with Netflix on the ambitious project was a no-brainer after the company saved her previous series from cancellation not once but twice, allowing her to see her vision through to completion.

"Netflix is the first and really the only place I wanted to go with the story, because I knew they'd do it right," says Sud, who cut her teeth on the CBS procedural Cold Case but much prefers the "novelistic" approach afforded by the binge-watching model. "[It] allows you not to have to repeat or dumb anything down…[with] the act break, or the 'tune in next week' thing," she continues. "We can just watch a show in the same way you read a novel, with that level of intelligence and commitment and depth."

"We had such a great experience working with Veena on The Killing that we were very eager to work with her again," says Netflix vp original series Allie Goss. "I admire that she's looking to explore these types of stories and am proud to support her. They may be darker, harrowing and complicated, but [they're] very necessary."

Seven Seconds is in some ways an even more ambitious undertaking than The Killing. Over 10 episodes, the show takes an often brutal look at the systemic racism that allows crimes like the one that opens the show to go unpunished. (Sud was inspired by real-life stories of police brutality against black men and boys, including Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice.) In its casting and character work, the show also challenges ingrained stereotypes around race and gender, particularly through the character of K.J. Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a prosecutor tasked with solving the hit-and-run case.

Like Mireille Enos' Sarah Linden from The Killing, K.J. is a tangle of contradictions in a way that few women professionals — and particularly women of color — are allowed to be on television. She is blunt and unemotional, floundering at work and prone to drinking alone in bars. In one early scene, she shows up late to court and even mixes up the name of the defendant she's there to prosecute after a day spent imbibing.

"I feel like I've seen so many beautiful, interesting anti-heroes personified by white guys, whether it's Paul Newman in The Verdict or Walter White in Breaking Bad," says Sud, who was born to an Indian father and a Filipino mother. "[There is] this hunger for women, and women of color in particular, to be those flawed heroes. 'Flawed' is a key word, and 'hero' is a key word. We get to be human. Everyone I know, every woman I know, all my friends, my family, we have those qualities of the hero and the fuckup. So to be able to see that [in K.J.] felt very revolutionary."

True to Sud's mission of reflecting inclusive casting on television, Seven Seconds boasts not one but two meaty roles for actresses of color. The second is inhabited by Regina King as Latrice Butler, the mother of hit-and-run victim Brenton Butler who searches for answers when her teenage son ends up broken and comatose in a hospital bed. Underutilized by Hollywood for years, King has only recently been cast in roles that are worthy of her talent, from Southland to The Leftovers to her two-time Emmy-winning performance on ABC's John Ridley limited series American Crime. Sud, who says she wanted the actress for the role from the very beginning, says that when watching a cut of episode two (directed by the late Jonathan Demme, whom the episode is dedicated to), she was brought to tears by King's heart-wrenching performance in a harrowing and pivotal scene.

"I was not on set for that performance. But I saw it in the cut, and I couldn't talk for minutes afterward," says Sud. "I wrote Jonathan and I said, 'Oh my God. This is unbelievable. I cried.' And Jonathan said, 'Me too.' He was so proud. I'm so happy, knowing what a humanist Jonathan is, that he was able to work with Regina before he passed."

Seven Seconds is chock-full of distressing moments like the one described above, which is true to Sud's M.O. Where other creators might pull back from the abyss, she almost inevitably leans in. The horrors shown on screen — while never gratuitous — are often upsetting, including one visual from episode three (based on the experience of series writer J. David Shanks, a former Chicago police officer) that will be difficult to shake for even the most hardened of viewers. Sud says that in a film and television culture that so often glorifies violence, she wanted to show its real cost. "I am interested in what a fight really looks like, how a woman deals with sitting in an ER looking at her child's broken body," she says. "In small doses, ripping off the mythology of violence and showing what it really looks like can be powerful, as long as it's not done with gratuity or for its own sake."

Sud's tendency to explore the darker corners of the human experience is deeply ingrained. Both her parents, she says, grew up surrounded by war, and they were often unsparing in their recollections. As a child in the Philippines, her mother was captured and tortured along with her own mother and sister, leading to recurring dreams that evoked both unimaginable horror and transcendent beauty — a dichotomy that has become a hallmark of Sud's artistic work.

"She had dreams constantly about being chased by soldiers up into the mountains," says Sud. "In her dreams, she was able to get to the top of the mountain and fly away. It's in some ways a beautiful story, and in some ways a completely macabre thing to tell a child. I guess that stayed with me, that we are capable of terrible and beautiful things all at once."

It is a mark of these rapidly changing times that a woman of color is in a position to dive into her obsessions on screen the way men have had the privilege of doing for decades. Sud, whose The Killing was frequently compared to Twin Peaks, like David Lynch often begins with a single visual and builds her story from there. "With Seven Seconds, the driving force from the very beginning was, what does blood look like on the snow?" she says. It is this combination of intense drive and fertile imagination that have garnered Sud admiration from collaborators who describe her as both a visionary boss and a giving creative partner.

"Veena is a stunning leader and is breathtakingly intelligent," says Enos, who reunited with her former showrunner on Sud's upcoming feature directorial debut Between the Earth and Sky. "She has absolute clarity about the worlds she creates and understands collaboration and generosity of spirit. I admire her."

"She's like a freight train," adds Fox 21 Television Studios president Bert Salke, who developed Seven Seconds with Sud after the studio produced The Killing. "Once she has an idea, you have to be really on your toes to disavow her on it.… She has a single-mindedness of purpose and mind that I think has been especially important for a woman of color rising through this business. It's been an engine for her, and I don't think there's gonna be any stopping her."

Indeed, Sud understands she's still an outlier in an industry that has remained frustratingly unwilling to provide equal opportunities to women and people of color. When discussing the #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite campaigns, she notes that despite recent gains, 80 percent of shows are still run by men and 90 percent by white creators of either gender. "The bottom line is, these stories that aren't just about white guys are getting so much traction and so much attention, and people are hungry," she says. "We're all hungry, no matter who we are, for different stories and different ways of looking at the world. It's to all our benefit. And so the industry should recognize that, that this is not about charity. This is about representation and about good storytelling."

"It's interesting, because in over 30 years in this business, working with Veena will only be the fourth time I've been on a project with a woman in that position," says King, who enjoyed a breakthrough dramatic role on the Ann Biderman–created drama Southland. "So, personally, it's bittersweet. It's bittersweet because I feel a sense of pride and excitement, but also a tinge of disappointment because the opportunity is rare."

As for Seven Seconds, the future is unclear beyond these first 10 episodes. The hope is for additional seasons, with old characters returning along with new in an anthology-style format that will remain rooted in Jersey City (where the creator herself once lived). "This I think in our mind can go on for four or five [seasons], even more," says Salke. "Each year will be a chapter…in the book about that city and what's going on in the struggle to survive in urban America today."

In the meantime, Sud clearly feels blessed to be working with a company whose outlook and ambition mirrors her own.

"The culture at Netflix is and always has been one of welcome to the artist," she says. "I feel like they're very brave, far more than probably a lot of places I've worked at. And that's why they are they are who they are.… They're not afraid."

Neither is she.

All 10 episodes of Seven Seconds premiere Friday, Feb. 23 on Netflix.