6 Questions With “Orphan Black” Creator Graeme Manson

Orphan Black creator and head writer Graeme Manson talks channeling his mother to write a favorite character, his personal sci-fi fandom and the right way to kill off a character.

Q: Where did the idea for Orphan Black originate?

A: It originated between [co-creator John Fawcett] and I when we were looking to work together, pretty much 10, 11 years ago. We’d been to film school together and been buddies and worked together on some stuff, and we were looking for our own project, but it was a feature idea. We were looking for something kind of high concept and sci-fi and we were both really into things like Memento and Run, Lola, Run. We really liked that kind of pace. We were also into X-Files and conspiracy stuff.

We hit on the idea of clones after John sort of pitched me the opening sequence of the whole thing, where a girl gets off the train, looks across the platform, sees someone who looks exactly like her, and in that moment, they commit suicide. That was it. And it was like, “Okay, what was that?” “I have no idea!” So we worked it through and came up with clones, but at that point it was a feature film. So we worked on it and worked on it and never really got through it because it was too big. Then, when television started to change with Six Feet Under and The Sopranos and the cable world opened up to tell these serialized stories, that’s when we turned our attention toward getting this thing we could never corral into a longer story.

Q: Have you always been a sci-fi lover?

A: Yeah, John and I really both have, and sort of approached it from different angles. John is really a Star Wars kid and a comic book kid through and through, and I came at it more from an existential… I loved Albert Camus and that kind of thing. I loved The Stranger, sort of literary sci-fi writers like Vonnegut, et cetera. So yeah, we both were digging sci-fi when we met and we share similar taste. Not just in sci-fi. I think it’s very important in our dark humor. We think the same shit is funny, which is usually really dark and twisted!

Q: What’s it like in the writers’ room of Orphan Black? Do you have any mantras? Is there any specific way you nail down the arc of a season?

A: We start early. We give ourselves a long runway, because getting the big picture takes us a long time. It takes us at least a month to get the big picture together—what we want to do, how we might structure a season, what are the important sort of tent-poles you can put in a season. Because we have to not just think about the season when we’re doing that, but the whole story and where we might want to go with the series as a whole. So making those decisions is very important in the process, and then we have our blueprint.

Things change constantly. Even though we give ourselves a long runway, the real work doesn’t start until you’re in the frantic part of shooting it. So we leave ourselves lots of leeway in the plan. Things change as we go. We leave ourselves enough room to adapt what we thought it was to new clues or new concepts. We fall in love with actors that come on the show, like, “Well they were good, let’s bring them back!” Or whatever. So we go in with a framework that’s loose enough to incorporate the things we discover in the process of shooting.

Q: Which clone is your favorite to write dialogue for?

A: I think my favorite to write dialogue for is Alison… I sort of channel my mum. And John channels his sister when he’s thinking about her and directing her. Alison is just very funny. I love her expressions, and I love how sort of repressed and psychotic she actually is.

Q: Are there any characters that you miss that have been killed off?

A: There might be some this year! [Laughs] And yeah. There are. Y’know, we really like working with Matt Frewer, but his death… If you can honor the character through the time they’re on the show—not talking about redshirts, here; we don’t do a lot of redshirts—but a character that comes in like Dr. Leekie, which spanned a season and a bit, as long as you give the character their due and you give them a great send-off, there’s not that much you can regret. We’re a show with lots of cast and lots of choices to make as it is, so it’s not like killing a character has ever killed our story engines, if you know what I mean.

Q: How did you and John Fawcett start working together?

A: Well, we went to film school at the Canadian Film Center. We were in different years but we ran with the same circles. We were buddies, and then we first worked together on a CTV TV-movie that was called Lucky Girl… It was “teenage girl gets addicted to gambling,” and we cast Elisha Cuthbert in her first adult role. It was really great. It was a TV movie, but we really managed to bring our own sort of darkness to it. I think we pushed the envelope of what was acceptable by making it weird and it was set in this suburban world, as well, that’s a lot like Alison’s. It’s a world John knows very well, and he often sets his stuff there. But it was after that experience that we started looking for something to do together and came up with the concept of Orphan Black. And I think our first notes are 2001.

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Read the interview with Orphan Black co-creator John Fawcett.