3 “RECTIFY” Writers Discuss How the Magic Happens
We sat down with RECTIFY‘s co-executive producer Victoria Morrow, writer Scott Teems, and assistant-turned-writer Kate Powers to discuss working with Ray McKinnon, their influences and how they get inside Daniel Holden’s head.
Q: What’s it like working with RECTIFY creator Ray McKinnon?
Scott Teems: Hmm…. Where to begin? I’ve known Ray for a long time, we’ve done several projects together, and what makes Ray special is that he never settles. He always pushes you to make it better. It can always be better. And he’s never going to ask you to work any harder than he’s willing to work himself…. That starts in the writing, and all the way through the production and into the editing. They edit this show—they must have spent like 60 days in a row without leaving the edit bay, quite literally, to finish the show, because he was so committed to making it as good as it could be. When you work with someone like that, it makes you raise your game, and you have to really be on point and you have to really push yourself.
Victoria Morrow: One thing I want to say about Ray is that he’s fearless. I mean he’s fearless in the face of human pain and in the pursuit of beauty, of revealing human pain, of seeing the, um, is it pathos? I don’t know, what’s the word like that? Scott, you’re a big word guy.
ST: Um… yeah. Pathos, yeah.
VM: [laughs] And I just think that’s the mark of a true artist, who can reveal something about human nature that you suspected was true, but you didn’t know for sure was true until you saw it.
Kate Powers: I would add that he’s got focus to burn…. He really models a, “Let’s think about this, and let’s just keep thinking about this until we have the answer we like the most, and we’re not going to get distracted by emails from agents or news or anything.” I mean, when he’s in the room and he’s on story, or he’s on set, in particular… the rest of the world is gone, because it’s just, “Let’s do this. Let’s capture this moment, let’s watch this performance, let’s see what we think and then let’s do it again.” He’s such a role model in that, “I’m not gonna get distracted, I’m not gonna get caught up in side issues because this is your one chance to do this. You have to do it right.”
Q: How do you get inside the head of a character with a lifetime of experiences as unique as Daniel’s?
VM: Well, research, right? Right, kids? A lot of research about exonerated prisoners and biographies for that part of the experience. But the part of Daniel that was just kind of a… fucked-up teenager, or a misfit or an outcast? I think everybody feels like that when they’re 17 and 18. Everybody makes stupid mistakes, so that’s just human, that’s just part of the human experience I think.
ST: I think particularly for this show we get inside Daniel’s head by getting inside Ray’s head as much as one is able to. What’s really unique about this show, and interesting, is that it’s so personal in many ways to Ray. The four principle characters, I’d say Daniel, Amantha, Teddy, Tawney… those four particularly are all parts of Ray that you can see once you get to know him. They all represent a part of himself, and so he’s able to explore those different parts of himself that are sometimes in conflict, sometimes in harmony. We can explore those parts of him by getting to know him, and he is a wonderful mystery, Ray McKinnon is.
VM: That’s true.
ST: He’s an enigma, much like Daniel is, in a wonderful way, and that’s part of how I approach it at least.
KP: All I can add to that is: we got really lucky in the first season that The Innocence Project and a lot of death penalty activist groups—anti-death penalty activist groups—put us in touch with some great folks that we could talk to and hear in their own words what their experience was like.
Q: Are there any specific sources you all keep in mind as reference points or inspirations?
VM: Well Scott’s from Georgia, so we just listen to what Scott says. [laughs] “What’s it like in your strange, strange state?” I did a lot of West Memphis Three stuff—just reading, researching. That was interesting to me.
ST: Yeah, there’s always gonna be those kind of connections to that case. This very ironic thing that happened is in episode nine that aired this last week—Daniel gets banished from Paulie and the only town he can live in in Georgia is called Echols County. And that’s a real thing, that’s truthfully the town and county he could live in, and it’s just very ironic that, of course, Damien Echols. But we very consciously didn’t want to mirror that case. It’s not about that case, it’s not a parallel of that case, but you can’t really avoid that case when you’re dealing with a death row story, in a lot of ways, especially when you’re dealing with dead teenagers. I know a seminal film for Ray was The Thin Blue Line, the Errol Morris documentary, that was a big seminal piece for him and we’ve all watched that and talked about that. There’s a kind of terrifying ambiguity in that film…. Because in life you don’t always know the truth about things, and that’s appealing to Ray as we explore all these many different opinions and sides of this issue and this case. The truth is very hard to see.
KP: I would also say we have a real problem when we look at actual things that have happened. Most of the time, reality would blow the television viewer’s mind and they’d be like, “That’s an exaggeration. There’s literally no way that a prosecuting attorney would argue that a man had sexual contact with someone’s underpants and then, like, carried them into a bedroom and left them there to frame someone.” I mean these are actual things that people have argued in court, and so sometimes reality is not that useful. I want to make sure that we talk about Flannery O’Connor and Tobias Wolff. Something about the way that certain fiction writers work, the way they take the lens of the language and they shine it on the interior character of the people they’re talking about, is very true to the way that RECTIFY tells its stories. We hold on a person when they’re at a crossroads, and we’re just so so lucky with our cast that they work at this level where you just watch in their eyes and in the muscles of their face the emotions that are… raging, in some cases, inside of them, and then we go with them as they make their choice. Both Flannery O’Connor and Tobias Wolff as writers work in that same style, and that’s always been an inspiration I think. Would you guys agree with that?
VM: Totally. You can take all those female writers of the South like Carson McCullers and Flannery and there’s something unflinching about the way they can look at human ugliness. RECTIFY can have a very literary lens. You have a little more time to get into nuances of character. You’re not so attached to the runaway train of plot. You can luxuriate in these moments of character.
Q: Does working at such a contemplative pace ever present any challenges?
ST: That’s where the cast really comes into play. Casting is such a huge part of the process of film and television, and when you have actors who have something going on behind the eyes, who are right for this role and who are great actors, you can be fearless in how you stay with them in the quiet moments. You don’t have to be afraid of silence. And silence is powerful and Ray understands that. Our show understands that silence can speak volumes and often can tell you a lot more than words ever could. And you have to sometimes train an audience to come into this place with you, but I think the nice thing about the way the show was built, only having six episodes in the first season, I think it allowed audiences to take that plunge even though it may have been a different kind of language, in a sense, a different pace. Because they only had six to get through, I feel like it probably kind of allowed them to go there and they could be kind of taught how to watch. You have to be taught how to watch sometimes.
Q: What was it like expanding from Season 1 (which lasts a mere week) to Season 2 (which spans a greater length of time)?
ST: That was a big part of our conversations all through the writing process. How do you pass more time in a traditional television sense while still maintaining this pace, and our kind of style and the lyrical quality of the show? And again, I think it comes back to silence. It comes back to the moments between the moments, as Ray would say. Or the seconds between… what does he say? [laughs] The seconds between the moments? The time between the seconds? Is that what is, Kate?
KP: Time between the seconds sounds right.
ST: The time between the seconds.
VM: I think one of the things we also talked about was how in the first season you had six days, so it was kind of like the first five minutes after a big earthquake. Daniel’s out and everybody’s just kind of reeling and, “What the fuck just happened?” And you see all these people just responding to the fact that he’s suddenly a person in the town. He’s not somebody who they can dismiss anymore because he’s not away behind walls. And the second season it’s like, well, how’s he going to live in this town? And how’s he going to make a life or not make a life? How’s he going to make the decision of whether to live or not? Right? Because how much did he give up living when he was inside, and what does it mean to live? Does it mean he’s going to make connections with people in the town? Does it mean he’s going to wall himself up in the basement? Your character’s out in the world now. It’s not just like, “The neighbor’s going to see me!” It’s like, “I guess I’m going to talk to the neighbor because the branch of his tree just fell, and I guess I’m going to walk over there, and I guess I’m going to try to help him. And let’s see if I’m the pariah of the town and he, y’know, sets me aflame, or….” You know. Anyway.
Q: RECTIFY doesn’t condemn any of its characters. Do you ever pick sides for the sake of argument in the writers’ room?
VM: Hell yeah!
KP: [laughs] Sometimes I feel a really strong connection with someone in our story. Of all the people who are in the room—the fictional room where the characters are—or at that moment in the story, there’s somebody who I feel like I know exactly what they’re feeling, and then I will advocate for them. I’ll be like, “Well, I really feel like we should see this person be at this moment because they’ve been doing this thing.” I co-wrote 204 with Ray and we were [writing the storyline where] Amantha takes a job at the dollar store, and I thought so much about Amantha’s internal life and where she was that it was like a hangover I had for the rest of the season. Any any given moment I was like, “Yeah, what is Amantha up to now?” And I wouldn’t say I necessarily argued in Amantha’s voice, but I did sometimes feel like this is a moment where Amantha would be climbing the walls.
ST: Part of what makes this show resonate, I think, is that the characters are human. And I think as writers, your obligation is to love the characters for better or for worse, and that’s the only way you can make them real. As soon as we judge the characters they become caricatures and so our job is to avoid that. And it is hard, it’s hard not to judge people that you think are not good people or are making bad choices or are doing things different than you would do them. But the only way you can ever make anyone a full character is to see them in their full humanity, see them as no different from you. We’re all capable of terrible things, and the sooner we can come to terms with that ourselves, the sooner we can offer grace and mercy to these characters who need that in order to be fully human.
Q: Which other aspects of producing the show do the writers get involved in? Do you talk costumes? Settings?
VM: Well, the writers on the set obviously do a lot more. Scott and Kate were on the set, I was out here [in Los Angeles].
ST: I was down there [in Georgia] the whole time. And the writer’s job—well, I was writing, too; we were all still writing as we were shooting…. In fact, I was writing up to two days before we wrapped photography. That’s the cool thing about TV. I’ve only worked in film prior to this show and I liked the opportunity, difficult as it was, to be able to react to what was happening as we shot each show, and as we saw some storylines working out better or worse, or being more powerful or interesting than we anticipated. We can follow those lines and react and change things as we were going…. But the writer’s job on set is really, we know where we’ve been and we know where we’re going, and so our job is to make sure everyone else knows that, the directors and actors. We can kind of give context and therefore calibrate what’s happening in the episode.
KP: I was only really on set for episode four, but because I have this other role on the show as an assistant, I was usually dialed into the conference calls for production meetings and tone [meetings] and whatnot and taking notes, because I proofread and process all the scripts before they go out. So I helped clear setting names and character names, but those things are usually Ray’s choice. I’m just sort of pushing the ball down the road a little bit.
Q: Do you have a favorite character to write lines for?
ST: Teddy Jr. is someone that I really know how to write, because I know a lot of guys like Teddy Jr. and Teddy Jr. is a part of me! Part of me is Teddy Jr., so that’s frightening, it’s liberating, it’s all those things, but again it goes back to seeing part of yourself in each character, and usually that allows access to some part of their truth and allows you to write in their voice. And I think everyone kind of had a character or two…. Vic can write Janet like nobody else.
VM: I love Janet.
ST: And Kate can write Amantha so well. Everyone writes everyone really well, but there seem to be certain characters that connect with us in more specific ways.
VM: I have a son who’s five and so, from becoming a mother, your personality changes in a hugely profound way. So suddenly I see Janet, I see this nuance in her that I never would have seen five years ago. And I see a heartbreak in her, and a grief, and a crushing love and a desire to let Daniel be his own person, but at the same time that’s her little boy who she lost for 20 years, and I have a boy, so when I write her I just can’t wait to get in there and wrestle with that stuff.
KP: I’m just going to admit it’s true, I do love writing Amantha, but in [episode] 10, we were doing scenes with Teddy and Tawney and I was helping do passes on this to find the scene, and there were a couple versions where I was so far inside Teddy’s head as I was writing them that tears were streaming down my face because I was so upset for him. I felt so much grief and regret and—I’m going to use this word, and I mean it in a very specific way—impotence, like an inability to affect the change that he wants in his life. And I just think that’s a very human experience. I don’t have any of Teddy’s background, but I knew a lot of what he felt in these scenes.
VM: We seem like a staff who needs therapy. [laughs]
ST: People respond to the authenticity of the show, and that can be mistaken for kind of a southern authenticity, which of course there is, but I think what people respond to in our show is an authenticity of humanity. You don’t have to be from the South to know that or to write that, and what our writers do is find the truth in these people, and they’re not afraid of exploring the good and the bad, and every character gets a fair shake. We even try really hard to give Senator Foulkes a fair shake, hard as that might be sometimes. You can’t always give each character a nuanced backstory, but even with Trey and with Foulkes, the “bad guys,” we still try very hard to make them real and human so that you can at least empathize and see a little of their point of view.
KP: I think we would be remiss if we didn’t do a little shoutout for Coleman Herbert, who’s not here, who [wrote Episode] 7, with the roadtrip between Trey and Daniel, which I thought was was really, really great…. and also Chad Feehan, who did [Episode] 6, I thought his trip with Daniel and Lezley….
ST: And Chad was down in Georgia too for about six weeks, and was on set a lot and was a huge addition to the set down there. And the nice thing about RECTIFY, too, is that Ray, and me and Chad have all directed feature films as well, and so we’re writer-directors, and we have that on-set experience, and that’s very helpful when you’re dealing with a shoot that’s moving so fast. We’re shooting a show in seven days. We’re shooting half a movie in seven days, basically, so you’re moving fast, you’ve got to make decisions and having people who’ve directed before I think was a big help on set down there.
Q: Is there any character from the past that we don’t see much of now that you’d like to see come back?
ST: Well, everyone always asks about the Goat Man [who took Daniel on a surreal outing in Season 1, Episode 5], and they want to see more of the Goat Man, but what they really want is more of that strangeness, that mystery, that other-worldliness that RECTIFY can sometimes bring to you. And we have that this season, with Lezley-with-a-Z, and we have other characters who kind of bring in a little bit of the oddness of the world. That’s what’s really unique about this show too, is that it’s so real and grounded and yet it allows for these strange asides that almost feel dreamlike or not real…. But you never know. We’re always talking about all the characters, always talking about people from the first season and trying to figure out a way to bring them back.
VM: Y’know, I think the guy who’s working the grill at Murphy’s Diner—you don’t see much of him. You don’t see much of him. Maybe it’s time. Step out from behind the grill.
ST: [laughs] We all love Chet, the bookstore owner [from Season 1, Episode 6].
KP: Oh my god, yes, Chet!
VM: Yes, Chet! We’re so pro-Chet.
ST: So we’re all working hard to find a way for Chet to be back in the show.
VM: Chet’s getting his own show, really. Let’s be realistic here.