Interview with the creators of THE CAPTIVE

Sundance Channel recently sat down for an interview with Karin Diann Williams & Stuart Hynson Culpepper, creators of THE CAPTIVE. Watch THE CAPTIVE now at Sundance Channel Digital Shorts.

What was the inspiration for The Captive?

Karin: Believe it or not, we started with just the idea that we wanted to make a web series. We had an inkling that the microseries was about to find its audience and really explode as a popular form.

Stuart: We saw all the activity blossoming on YouTube and sites like it and knew a huge audience was there and they were wanting something beyond the user-generated content, something thoughtful and well produced. So we took the plunge. Part of the idea for the themes and action in The Captive came from studying the kind of person we thought were going to engage: someone fairly tech literate and independent in their thinking.

Karin: And because of the political climate at the time we were scripting the series, it wasn’t much of a leap to the idea of a secret prison. As producers we knew the concept, shooting in a single location where we could try to fully construct a bizarre alternate reality, would allow high production values on a limited budget.

Did you always intend on setting the location of the secret prison in New York? Why New York vs. other locations?

Karin: We purposely included all kinds of cultural references and a variety of languages in the environment of the secret prison; we wanted the Captive to be confused about where he was, and who might be holding him. When the Captive finally escapes, it’s a view of the statue of liberty that brings home the realization that he hasn’t been far from home. Our aim was very much to echo the iconic imagery at the end of “Planet of the Apes,” in a way that is shocking to the Captive, but also in a way that brings home to the viewer the idea that they *should* be shocked — that this kind of institution could be a reality in their own backyard.

Stuart: In fact there have been facilities like this in the United States and we know our country maintains them overseas even now.

Karin: If the Captive had simply returned to life above ground in an anonymous hometown, viewers might have taken that as a given. By echoing that iconic image of the buried statue, we wanted to take the viewer back to that place of disorientation and horror, and we wanted them to apply it to the current political reality.

Stuart: The fact that Ground Zero is here in New York, the epicenter for the War on Terror, had a lot to do with the choice as well.

How did you find the principal cast members?

Karin: Although we held an open casting call, all of our Principal cast members became co-producers on the project. Laura Carbonell, who plays the Trustee, we originally met through an off-off-Broadway play we produced a few years ago. Brian Greer, the Captive, was recommended by our amazing Production Designer Amanda Embry — she and Brian are collaborators in an NYC theater company called City Attic Theater. If you sense a theme emerging here, it’s because we both have background in theater, and first met while working together at the Fritz Theater and the San Diego Repertory Theater in San Diego. We have always loved collaborating with artists who are crossing over from theater into film — we love their thoughtfulness and sense that the work never ends, literally. In theater, the character and story are always being created and re-created for each new performance. It’s not surprising that Michael Gladis, who plays the Interrogator, also has roots in small theater, working with Partial Comfort Productions in NYC among others. But we only came across Michael because our Cinematographer, Austin Lynn, met him in a bar one night and convinced him to come talk to us.

Can you give us a little more insight into the meaning of the cliffhanger ending to the series?

Karin: The ending alludes to the real purpose of a secret prison. In reality, it only serves to collect information that is probably as erroneous and poisonous as the propaganda our enemies would love to perpetuate. But the Secret Prison also exists as an idea … a symbol of fear and social oppression that only works if the occasional escapee exists to make the threat known…

Stuart: …the same way the IRS will randomly audit people and make their lives hell – only to instill fear in the rest of the population and ensure compliance. That’s an actual written policy by the way.

Karin: So escapees are actually like unwitting messengers who the government hopes will perpetuate the mythology of the prison and instill fear, as continually he’s tracked by the RFID chip that was injected in his hand. He’s still in prison, it’s just gotten bigger.

Stuart: But the RFID chip in his hand is also a turning point – he’s asked to “log in” in the final moments because the chip activates something mysterious on his computer. This has been done by a group of fanatical extremists who have found a way to hack through the codes in the chip and create an underground network dedicated to fight the Secret Prison — by any means necessary.

What is the meaning of the codes at the end of each episode?

Karin: The codes are so secret and impenetrable that even we, as creators of the series, don’t fully understand them. (Stuart laughs.) All we know is our colleagues Patrick Rousseau and Noah Workman of Iris Mediaworks – who are huge ARG fans — gave us the codes with the idea they might lead viewers to various site of thematic resonance and interest throughout the web. The codes weren’t easy for Patrick to think up…

Stuart:…he had to create this really intricate matrix of how they can be cracked. Even though this is essentially a television show, we wanted to make it as interactive as possible. The codes allude to all sorts of locations on the web – various sites, a blog where characters have left some thoughts and other clues, a way to discover a cache of music samples from the show, etc.

Karin: All of them are possible to decipher with a little careful thought.

Stuart: We would love to explore more possibilities as well. In the next series it would be fun to create a code that would reveal the location of an entire episode that would only be found by the faithful who could then share it with the audience. Episode thirteen. It would be cool.

Are there plans for a Season 2, and if so, how will it be different from Season 1?

Karin: The scripts for season 2 have been completed, and we already have an outline of season 3. Season 2 will be different because the Captive’s environment will be larger, and the canvas will expand to include more personal details about his rival, the Interrogator. At the same time, our Trustee — the leading lady of Season 1 — will have a rival in the Bartender from episode 11, Liberty. If the theme of season 1 was the about the Captive against the System, the theme of season 2 is “Us versus Them.”

Stuart: We now live in a country where it seems any political idea is immediately polarized into two opposite extremes. The result of gerrymandering in congressional districts and the media’s need to create pithy soundbites has created a society where there is no middle ground at all. I remember after the election in 2004, when George Bush won and the usual call of “now is the time to unite the nation” came out. I knew people, friends and colleagues, who were so alienated they openly swore to remain bitterly opposed to the President. So season 2 will place the Captive in a world where everyone is demanding he choose a side – and what happens as a result.

Karin: But determining exactly who is Us and who is Them might not be as simple or straightforward as it seems.

Stuart: We should stop talking now.