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SurrealEstate creator George Olson says the SYFY series is much more than a 'haunting of the week'
Ever look at a piece of property and wonder, “Man, how are they ever going to sell that thing?” Most of us who wonder just walk away and leave it to fate, but for writer George Olson that exact question inspired his upcoming SYFY dramedy, SurrealEstate.
In his prior career in advertising, Olson often worked with real estate brokerages and got to know some of the agents who handled those “difficult” properties that sat on the market for a myriad of reasons. One friend told him a story about a house that came with an add-on ghost dubbed “Sad Sally” because the specter cried in the kitchen overnight. They went on to discuss how in good conscience you can sell such a “quirky feature” to unsuspecting buyers. Consumed with that quandary, Olson turned it into a pilot about an agency — the Roman Agency — that only takes on special properties, led by expert seller Luke Roman (Tim Rozon, Wynonna Earp).
As a pragmatic believer, Roman has enlisted an eclectic support crew to turn over the properties by hell or high water, including lapsed Catholic priest Father Phil Orley (Adam Korson), proprietary tech guru August Ripley (Maurice Dean Wint), and Roman Agency newcomer Susan Ireland (Sarah Levy). While the goal is to be as ruthless and efficient as any Million Dollar Listing series, Roman and his team often take the extra time to find what's behind the haunt.
SYFY WIRE got on the line with Olson to clear some chakras and flush out the story behind how he landed a mini-Schitt’s Creek reunion with Rozon and Levy inside his own show, and how SurrealEstate goes deeper than just “haunting of the week.”
Let’s start with Tim Rozon’s take on Luke Roman, which is so pragmatic yet still has heart. Was that his spin on the character, or your vision from the start?
Well, Tim just absolutely made that role his own in such a terrific way, but the pragmatism was baked in. The [agency] regards these hauntings and these phenomena very much like the leaky roof or radon gas. It's just part of the house that has to be mitigated so you can derive the maximum value from it when you sell. And that's what was fun to me, the fact that these people are really all business.
The concept of the series — investigate new houses and their interior mysteries every week — seems very procedural in nature, but is it?
One of the reasons that it always felt like a show to me is that it does have that procedural framework. Luke has found that most of these hauntings really do come down to one thing: unfinished business. But when I was taking the pilot out [to sell] originally, a lot of people were like, "Well, wait a minute, this has some really funny parts in it. But then there are some scary parts. And there are some parts that are poignant, too. Is this a drama, or a comedy, or is this horror?" And I was like, ‘The answer to that is yes. It's a floor wax and a dessert topping!’” But Luke's backstory is also going to be a driving force, definitely in the first season.
Fans of Schitt’s Creek are going to be delighted to see Mutt (Rozon) and Twyla (Levy) reunited in this series, except they’re playing real estate agents with some extra talents here. How did they come aboard?
It certainly was just a great moment in my life when Tim and Sarah agreed to do the show. It's so funny, because when Tim did his audition for us, he had the big Doc Holliday mustache [from Wynonna Earp]. And that was a serious mustache. He looked so different from the way I had always envisioned [Luke]. But as he read the lines, and as you absorbed the Tim Rozon of it all, the charisma and all of those things came through. And when you talk to him, the inherent decency of the guy is so congruent with what I saw Luke Roman as being. Because Luke is this guy who could just blast all of these things to kingdom come using their proprietary technology. But he wants so badly, and he works very hard, and sometimes makes things harder, because he wants to help these things move on.
And what was also fun about this is it was something different from what I'd seen Tim in. He's so fun in Schitt's Creek. He's so fun and just owns the Doc Holliday character so effectively. But the first time we saw him on our set in these really nice, well-cut suits, clean-shaven, it's just like, ‘Wow, this is really a Tim that his fans haven't seen, and I think they are going to love.'
What about Sarah as the newest agent to join Luke’s team?
It was very much the same kind of feel with Sarah. The sweetness of Twyla you just absolutely love. And then you see her in this as Susan Ireland, who's a very Type-A businesswoman, yet throughout the series you see these little flashes of that sweetness. She couldn't suppress it if she tried it because that is who she is. It brings such a nice warmth to the Susan Ireland character. Then you put Tim and Sarah together and they know the secret handshake. You see them playing off each other and sharing those scenes. For me, it's just a present.
How will the characters in the agency reveal themselves through the properties they take on to investigate and sell?
We will see new houses every episode but what I found really fun was — and where I always start with these things — is with the characters. What their backgrounds were, and where they've been influenced, and how they react? Luke has a little bit of a hard edge to him, and is backed by this proprietary technology. Susan's unique abilities become clear and are a factor throughout the season and how she deals with those. Father Phil introduces himself jokingly as a fallen priest, but his belief drove him to be in the priesthood, and his belief in the enemies that he's encountering every day, those play different notes in his life, and watching that is fun. Following those stories, and those characters with some of the serialized elements gives us that thing that makes it feel a little less, like just a spook of the week show, which I didn't really want to do.
SurrealEstate, in any given episode, can swing from the comedic to the heartfelt and the scary. Director Paul Fox (Schitt’s Creek) helps establish that in the pilot. Was that hard to land?
Paul was so good at navigating those differences and those nuances, finding the place where they gracefully connect. But also being able to let the [cast] have those moments where they're talking about their past, and their families and their history and really emotional things. Our whole troupe of actors was so good at throwing away those lines in a way that they become even funnier because they're not trying to be funny.
And I have to just give a huge shout-out to SYFY for wanting more of that. There's a real trope that networks always want just more action, more scares, more this, more that. SYFY has, from the first day, said we want to feel the characters and we want to see what they're really like. They really challenged me and my wonderful writers to come up with those moments and those backstories and those quirks, and those irrational things that make people people, and bake them into the scares and the horror.
SurrealEstate premieres on Friday, July 16, at 10 p.m. EST.