6 Questions with “RECTIFY” Creator Ray McKinnon

RECTIFY creator Ray McKinnon, just nominated for a Writers Guild Award for the series, discusses fascinating characters, the silver lining of life on death row and his thoughts about stepping in front of the camera.

Q: A lot of characters persecute Daniel, but the show always seems to give us a chance to see things their way. What’s the key to finding that balance?

A: I certainly think a lot of characters have made judgments and have prejudices and preconceptions about Daniel… persecution’s a little too strong of a word. But the other words that I used feel appropriate to the characters, when I think of Teddy, or even Bobby Dean in a way. And I don’t know about balance, but as far as seeing things their way, I think if you’re trying to create three dimensional characters, each character like human beings have a subjective viewpoint of the world, and that’s what we tried to understand better. Teddy’s a great example of that, trying to understand what motivates Teddy, how he sees the world. He sees the world differently than Daniel. I think Teddy believes in law and order, or he did certainly in the first season. I think that has changed over time. But if they say Daniel did it and Daniel went to a jury and the jury found that he was guilty then that’s what Teddy believes is the truth, and so Teddy goes about his life verifying things he already believes in, affirming that, and when those things get challenged it’s very difficult for Teddy to deal with that. So I think the balance maybe you’re talking about is trying to make the characters not two-dimensional but three dimensional, where they have a point of view and oftentimes–even with Teddy–that point of view could be valid. Because Daniel could have killed Hannah Dean. We don’t know that answer yet.

Q: Do you sympathize with all the characters that much, or are there exceptions? Senator Foulkes… or Trey?

A: I don’t know if I sympathize with Trey, but I’m fascinated by him. I think you have to be to write. You should be fascinated by everyone you’re writing about or find something about them that’s fascinating. Now making a judgment on them, that’s something I certainly can do as a human being, but… with Trey, he’s certainly not the best egg of the town of Paulie, but he’s damn interesting and I think just like human beings in real life, again you go back to that, there’s plenty of people that we may not admire and we may even revile, but they sure are interesting. And that’s kind of the way we’ve approached everybody. I mean Daniel continues to be a fascinating person who I think always will be in some ways an enigma. And we’re in the writer’s room right now discussing all of these characters and trying to figure out what makes them tick, and thinking about them as characters will oftentimes lead to plot, as opposed to another kind of writing where you let the plot lead to character.

Q: RECTIFY doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the legal and penal systems, but the focus is always on characters. Would you say the show contains any political commentary?

A: Story is always political. It’s about human beings and human interaction and that in itself is political. Whether it’s the politics of family or the politics of the judicial system or the politics of politics, it’s always a part of what makes us human beings. I think even a pack of dogs is political. So in regards to what are the writers trying to say in RECTIFY, I’m sure some of my own beliefs bleed into that, but what I’ve tried not to do is to preach, because I’m a poor preacher and I also reserve the right to change my mind about how I think about things because, y’know, I’m not dead yet. [Laughs] And if you were trying to be political, on some level it’s probably best not to be too overtly so.

Q: Daniel studies thinkers from Buddha and Confucius to Jesus and Nietzsche. Have any works of philosophy been particularly influential in writing the show?

A: I think Daniel’s better read than I am. He’s had a lot more time to read. But part of the show is about some philosophy that our characters have to understand their own lives. And we all have some even rudimentary form of philosophy about life that of course is forever changing, and so that comes through in the show. Through Daniel primarily, we’re able to hear about the philosophy of some pretty influential thinkers throughout time. I think through Daniel it is believable simply because of both how well read he is and how much time he’s had to contemplate these things because he hasn’t been dealing with the distractions of everyday life. He’s been under this kind of monastic form of hell I guess, but that would be the bizarre silver lining of living under those conditions.

Q: You’re a well-known actor (Sons of Anarchy, Deadwood, Mud) aside from your filmmaking. Any plans to step in front of the camera on RECTIFY?

A: I think the longer the show goes on the less likely that feels… I don’t want to mess up a good thing by getting on camera and then they’re going, “Man, that was a great show til you showed up!”

Q: You starred in Deadwood, where David Milch would reportedly rewrite scenes up to the moment they were shot. Do you ever make creative decisions on the fly?

A: Well, I mean… I don’t know if David Milch rewrote scenes til the moment they were shot. I don’t want to put David on the spot in my comments. I will say whatever David Milch wrote, whenever it came, it was worth it. So I’ll take David Milch’s writing a year in advance or minutes in advance. As far as creative decision, yeah, you’re always making creative decisions on the fly. That’s what being creative is, it happens in the moment, so during production we’re always making creative decisions, so they’re on the fly. As far as rewriting scenes up to the minute, I don’t do that… I try and be a little more prepared with the writing. But yeah, we make shit up as we go!

Need to catch up on RECTIFY? Find out where to stream, download or purchase Seasons 1-4.