Tucked into the back lot of Albuquerque Studios in New Mexico, part of a quirky little town has been constructed. There's a cafe, a dirty clapboard church with a peculiar pet cemetery lying adjacent and literal tumbleweeds rolling in the afternoon winter sun. The main drag belongs to the town of Midnight, Texas, and we can attest that it's rife with secrets.
On this late January day, SYFY WIRE is one of a few outlets visiting the little burg created on the page by bestselling novelist Charlaine Harris for her Midnight trilogy and then brought to life by executive producers Monica Owusu-Breen (Alias, Fringe) and David Janollari (Six Feet Under) for their NBC-backed adaptation of the books. The production of its freshman season is in its waning days, with only one more episode to go before the finale is filmed, so there's not much they're ready to share about a dramatic confrontation they're setting up to shoot on this particular day.
But that doesn't mean the executive producers don't have plenty to talk about regarding what inspired both of them to jump into this character piece, which is deliciously loaded with supernatural surprises ...
The man at the center of the story is psychic Manfred Bernardo (François Arnaud). He's a grifter who also happens to have the gift of seeing, and communicating, with the dead in the exact state in which they died. Needless to say, that's a little bit of a stressful ability, which pushes Manfred, at the urging of his dead grandmother, to seek out the town of Midnight so he can settle down for a bit and figure out what to do with his life. As it turns out, the little town is a safe haven for others with peculiar talents and origins not of the human variety.
It's a strange world crafted via the gray matter of Harris, who won over supernatural romance readers with her New York Times best-selling Sookie Stackhouse books. They, in turn, became the basis for Alan Ball's hit HBO series True Blood. However, the Midnight TV series and books are populated by far warmer characters and an assortment of supernatural beings just looking for a place to belong. We first sat down with Harris in the wiccan shop of character Fiji Cavanaugh (Parisa Fitz-Henley) to talk about her journey as a thrice-adapted TV author.
How does it feel sitting in the sets built around your imagination? Do you have a favorite?
Charlaine Harris: Oh, I have enjoyed all of the sets. But I love the [pawn] shop. It's not quite like the one in my head, but it's intriguing, mysterious and rich.
Have you had any say in the specifics of how your books have been adapted into Midnight, Texas?
I have no say in anything, and I've had to make my peace with that. But then I thought, "They don't tell me how to write the books, so it would be strange to tell them how to do what their profession is." I've always been told the writer was the least important person on the set, and that's true. [Laughs] But that means I can have fun without worrying about the outcome. I've calmed down a lot more. At first, I was hyperconscious of talking to people who do things I couldn't even imagine doing. I was really terrified, but once you to talk to all the people who do this creative stuff, you find out they worry about their mortgage and car insurance like anybody else. I got pretty Zen about it after that.
Does sitting in a set like this change how you think about the world you created in your head?
No, what's in my head is my product I created, and it stays the same. Every now and then I'll see a plot point and think, "I wish I thought of that." And I've gotten used to my work being populated more densely when it's on television, because books are a singular action throughout. TV has to fill with other incidentals. I've enjoyed a lot of it.
Do you have any strong thoughts about how they cast characters versus how you see them in your mind's eye?
Not anymore. I got disillusioned by that with True Blood. I always thought the King of the Fairies should have been played by David Bowie. He would have been so perfect. It was the only thing I wanted. But that didn't happen, and now he's gone. This may sound very un-enterprising and un-passionate, but I leave it to the experts. If the casting director thinks the actor can do the job, then they can do the job. I'm no arbiter.
Do the different interpretations other creatives have regarding your work surprise you?
Yes. Alan [Ball] is obviously a very political filmmaker. He made points I never thought about making, but I was totally in agreement with his philosophical and moral viewpoint. The spirit of this story is that unlikely people can bond together to create their own family and they're stronger as a unit, and that's my philosophical view of the books. I think that's going to come through in the [show].
How did you dream up the Midnight trilogy?
I don't write from dreams. [Laughs] When I came to the end of the Sookie series, I was casting around for what I wanted to write next. I didn't want to commit myself to a long series, because 13 years was a much longer commitment than I ever thought I would make. But I could write a trilogy. I was thinking of the summers I spent in Rock Springs, Texas, to help our grandmother during the rodeo. She owned a hotel, and it was always full in this tiny town, and most of the people in it were drunk. So my mother and her two sisters came to change the sheets and keep order. When I would stay, I would feel like the culture was so alien to me. The landscape was so different, and the people were a lot tougher than where I came from. I felt like a stranger in a strange land, and I used that location and that feeling.
Are they sticking to your books to build the series?
Yes, they are going to end up where I ended up, but very quickly. Whereas it took me three books, I think after this season, it will be completely their brainchild.
Anything you are most excited to see them bring to life?
I'm excited about seeing the last episode of [this season], because for me I pulled out all the stops. I kept thinking, how can I make this bigger, better, scarier? So I am very much looking forward to what they do with it.
Later, we cluster inside the soundstage set of hit woman Olivia's (Arielle Kebbel) boudoir. An enigmatic mystery in the pilot, Olivia's sanctuary is revealingly dripping in lush, gothic furniture and secret spaces aplenty. It's the perfect place for Owusu-Breen and Janollari to chat specifics about their vision for Midnight, Texas.
How challenging is it to produce material that is going to surprise people that have already read the books, so not everything is laid out?
Monica Owusu-Breen: One of the great things about these books is that the characters are so rich that I actually felt there was so much more to tell with them. So it actually hasn’t been challenging in that way. [Charlaine's] backstories are so detailed, and so specific, and the characters she created have such interesting relationships. It’s interesting because it kind of added a little more plot to what was already there, as opposed to trying to change the characters themselves.
Do you ever get anxious about her reaction to how you’ve done things?
David Janollari: She hates us. [Laughs]
Owusu-Breen: It’s funny. The first time I met her, I was a little nervous. She’s like, "Oh, I went through it on True Blood. Now I understand this is your baby." She just gave me permission not to be [nervous]. I gratefully accepted that permission.
Janollari: And a lot of the core storylines we've kept in the pilot on through the series because we really like what she wrote. It got us excited about doing the show in the first place. We're in sync.
How did the books help you break the season?
Owusu-Breen: My honest opinion is if those characters aren't fun to watch, the concept will never sell a show for me. It might sell a movie, because it's an hour and a half, but a TV show needs characters I can sink my teeth into. I'm not great at the set piece without a character motivation. I remember taking film class in college and watching The French Connection. The teacher is like, "Why was that car chase good?" Everyone was like, "Because it's this and this." He's like, "No! Because he's obsessed! Because he's driven!" That’s my mantra. Set pieces are only as good as the characters' motivations to be in them. Then again, I love a good explosion. I love a good fight sequences if you just earn it. So my characters have really good reasons to fight.
Can you talk about how serialized the show is versus mystery-of-the-week?
Owusu-Breen: Fringe did this thing called the Mythalone, which to me was my favorite thing in the world. Every episode has a beginning, middle and an end. But combined you tell a story. For me, it was really important to be able to come into an episode and be able to follow and have fun. But, at the same time, if you watch the whole season, it's better and it adds up to something. By the end, there's a story you've built throughout the season. I think we're trying to do both. The emotional stories where these characters are evolving. They are getting to know each other. They are falling in and out of love. There is a sort of serialized component to that to make those stories richer.
We get a taste of something below the floorboards in the pilot. Can you talk about how that threat manifests and what you are building toward over the season?
Janollari: What you start to learn is there is a big bad demon about to break through into Midnight. That’s what is set up in the pilot when Manfred's bedroom opens up under the floor. Episode 2 furthers that. That's the big, long arc for the season. It's largely ripped from the books.
Midnight, Texas debuts on Monday, July 24, on NBC.