Image courtesy Syfy. Editing by Tom Gardiner.

The “Childhood’s End”-terview with Matthew Graham, Mike Vogel & Yael Stone

Syfy has been hitting it out of the park lately, haven’t they?  The network has been returning to its science fiction roots and fans seem to have an overwhelmingly positive view of that move … one that we’d longed for for years.  And with shows like Childhood’s End it was definitely worth the wait.  Earlier this week, Three If By Space participated in a conference call interview along with several other outlets.  The interviewees included Matthew Graham (creator of Life on Mars & Ashes to Ashes, writer for Doctor Who) who adapted the novel and serves as writer/executive producer and stars Mike Vogel (Under the Dome) and Yael Stone (Orange is the New Black).

As with any conference call interview, the questions come from various reporters from multiple outlets and every question was just fantastic.  The answers were even more fantistic-er.  Some light editing has been done to the interview for the sake of brevity and readability.  The integrity of the conversation, however, was preserved.  Please note that while the Q&A is what most would consider spoiler-free, there are bits of information and hints that might cause some hardcore spoilerphobes to burst into fits of nerdrage.  Read at your own peril … and pleasure.

How familiar were each of you with the book when you first started working on the project and have you read it since?

Mike Vogel: Initially, I did not realize the full weight of the project that I was committing to until I was on an airplane headed to Australia. As I started researching the book, and researching the history, and the sort of position that Childhood’s End held in the eyes of the fan base, I went, “Oh man, wow, this is a big commitment.”

But, yes, I read the book while we were filming, and that will speak to it. But I think Matt has done a fantastic job of maintaining the integrity and a lot of the characters and a lot of the main ideas of the book. There are some parts of it that have been altered a bit.

My character in the book is the 60-year-old head of the UN, and from Finland. So we worked with a 35-year-old Missouri farmer, it’s a logical leap. And I think it made him more relatable, more trustworthy as the every man rather than the politician. But, yes, that was my experience with the book heading into this.

Yael Stone: I was familiar with Arthur C. Clarke kind of in a peripheral way as the guy who kind of predicted the internet, and the use of personal computers, and as a visionary and a kind of futurist. I haven’t read the book, and then when the project came up, I then read the book. And I think there are a lot of fascinating big, big questions. But obviously the book comes through from this very 1950s framework, it’s a very sort of hetero-normative viewpoint. I think Matthew has done a great job in just re-imagining the story and this incredible novel, while also kind of paying homage through that truth but also modernizing it.

Matthew Graham: Well, it was a book I read when I was 14, and it kind of stuck with me mostly because as a 14-year-old to be told some aliens won’t show themselves because we can’t handle it, was just frankly the coolest thing you’ve ever read in your life.   And you couldn’t wait to get through the pages to the point where they would reveal themselves because you couldn’t imagine what it would be, that it would be awful, so challenging.

So that was kind of the initial thing and then, of course, the fact that the story plays out the way it does. It’s haunting especially to kids who are used to kind of reading stories where things are kind of spoon fed emotionally to you in the way that makes you feel comfortable. So it kind of was with me on and off through most of my life, it was a book that I remembered always fondly and was always excited by.

So, yes, we’ve done something to update it in some ways and make it more accessible to a broad audience, which I think is essential if you’re writing about the future not knowing what’s going to happen to us. You can’t set it in the 50s because we all live in the 21st century and we know that those people in the 50s have been worrying about the nuclear war and it’s not going to happen – at least for a while. So we have to be updated in order to keep a sense of paranoia and uncertainty that pervades the book. And then, you know, Mike touched on making Ricky a farmer rather than a politician. I think again that reflects the age we’re in now where we’re a little bit less … we’re more distrustful of politicians and we’re certainly more aware of the cynicism that pervaded, and the problems that pervaded global politics. So, I adopted a more kind of Old Testament approach, really. It’s a kind of God speaking to the farm boy rather than God making him a king, rather than God speaking to the king.

The book was published in 1953, but now we’ve updated it to 2015. What do you think it is that makes this a good time to tell the story?

Matthew Graham: I don’t think anything has changed. I mean, in 1950 we were coming out of a very brutal war and a very expensive one. No change there. We were entering an age of austerity in the 1950s, no change there. We were terrified by the cold war. No changes there, as it seems that potentially is rearing up again. And substitute any fear that they had in 1952 to the fears that we have now coming out of the Middle East. So the relevance I think has not changed one iota.

Mike Vogel: Yes, I think the scary thing is that you sort of fast forward 60 years and we’re kind of still in the same place, which is I think is all the more reason why the story needs to be told. You know the whole reason that these aliens come down to Earth, you know, to say, “you guys have had your shot, you screwed it up, that’s enough of that right there. It’s time to fix some things.” And that we’re still having these conversations this far down the road, and that you can almost insert the same players into the story; the same international and global players in the story then as now, shows that for all the advancements that we had for in technology and medicine and everything else as it comes to people, as it comes to us dealing with each other, sadly, not much has changed.

And so, as Matt would say, and with the history of this book, there have been many people who’ve tried to undertake the huge task of somehow taking this book and putting it into film or television. But I think I’m glad that it’s going to happen today because the ability that we have to reach such a global audience with a project to deal with some issues amongst humanity, which are global issues. So I think now is a great time to tell the story and I’m glad we’re able to be a part of doing that.

This question is for Yael. What’s it like for you filming at home in Australia?

Yael Stone: It was wonderful. Yes, it was really fantastic. Obviously, I wasn’t filming in an Australia accent so still doing some (verbal) gymnastics there. But it is wonderful to be working in Australia, and I think you know the Australian crew members that we work with were just always incredibly professional and incredibly talented, so that was great to feel proud of the Australian industry that’s so strong and full of wonderfully talented people.

And there were also a lot of Australian actors, a lot of familiar faces I see recently when I watched night one and two. I haven’t quite seen three yet, but that’s also a wonderful thing. And I’m about to head home again for another three months and I’m really excited to do that. It’s a great place to work.

Mike, those meetings with Karellen where we can’t see him, was that tough to shoot? I mean, was Charles Dance around or was this all kind of using your imagination?

Mike Vogel: Yes, you know, it’s interesting because when I read that script and was preparing for it, you don’t … when you’re reading it on the page you’re seeing two characters interacting. But it didn’t really dawn on me until I got there and was talking over with Matt, and was talking over with Nick Hurran about how we were going to shoot it.

It was then brought to my attention, you realize that you’re by yourself here standing in front of a mirror that there’s no one physically there that you’re acting against. And, you know, there’s just this – there was this instant feeling of vulnerability and nakedness that, “oh crap, I have to somehow hold this thing.” Now don’t get me wrong, the voice of Charles Dance demands – the man yawns and everyone snaps to attention.

You know, that was a great help. We had him – Charles was actually off stage and we piped him through a loud speaker that was hidden on stage there with me. So I had his voice to respond to. But it’s a lot of time kind of sitting there in front of a mirror which was great, and as Matt pointed out it’s sort of this thing with Ricky where part of the reason they choose Ricky is because he’s not a guy that’s too worried about appearances, and his ego doesn’t play a huge part in who he is.

But then all of a sudden he’s kind of thrust into this world stage, thrust into this spotlight. And he’s having that moment of, you know, a bit of that start to creep in, and he start to believe his own presence for a second, and kind of like – kind of like the power and the position that he’s finding himself in, and here he is in front of a mirror basically playing to his vanity, and constantly everywhere he looks is reminding him of this other world.

So I thought it was a really great touch but, yes, it was an interesting switch that I went through of when I finally realized that, oh man, it’s just me kind of out here by myself doing this whole thing. And you don’t … it’s funny how your mind doesn’t connect that when you’re reading because it just reads like a normal script until you realize that wasn’t the case at all.

If aliens were to land tomorrow and offer to solve all the world’s problems, but it will mean the end of science, the end of culture, would you take that deal?

Matthew Graham: You just hit on the ballroom conversation we have almost every single night in Melbourne. It’s a really tough one because there’s a bit of me that kind of sides with Colm Meaney on this one … Colm Meaney’s character, Wainwright. In some ways you kind of want to be just in charge of your own destiny for good or for bad. We don’t want to be condescended, we don’t want to be mothered. We want to do it ourselves. But right now with everything that’s moving down the gun barrel, whether it’s ISIL, whether it’s the fact that we’re going to run out of antibiotics, and we’re going back to medieval science -medieval medicine in the next generation. I think I would take the gamble; I think I’ll have the overlords.

Yael Stone: I’ve got to say I agree with you. I feel like it would be deeply egotistical to say, “no, no, our culture is much more important than people’s lives in the state of our environment.” I guess I look around and I think, “you know what, we haven’t been doing such a crash hot job so far.” So I’m interested to see what the aliens would do.

Mike Vogel: And, you know, I follow the other. Daisy (Betts) has an interesting saying that I’ve heard her say, she said, “you know, we should strive for utopia but, maybe never achieve it. And I fall on the other side, and it may be that sick, sadistic side of me, but I just think that … I mean if we look at the story, yes, the aliens come down and solve the problems but it comes at a price, doesn’t it?

It’s not for free. There’s a time where everything works out, but there’s still a price tag attached to it and a pretty hefty one. Where as I look at it and say, “yes, we screwed a lot of things, but I still have a strong belief in the ability and the decency of humanity. As ugly as we can get, and we can get pretty sick and ugly, that in the end decent people, people of courage, will rise up and will stand for what’s right.”

And what comes out of that will be something beautiful and it leads to great culture, great art, all of those things I think come from that. So, I may be alone on an island on the other side of it, but that’s where I side.

What was your most challenging part of filming?

Yael Stone: I never worked with imaginary things in front of me. I have to say that was a first time for me. And on my first day on set I was looking at a piece of green tape and imagining the arrival of a being that represented everything that my whole life was set against, and perhaps the thing responsible for the loss of my mother. And I’ve got to say it was pretty tough to be working off that green piece of tape. And I think I wrote on my script, the date, and I wrote, “this is the day I have to stop acting because I can’t do it and it’s impossible.” I didn’t tell anyone but that’s how I felt.

Mike Vogel: I think I would second Yael’s issues there with acting to a lot of things that weren’t there. It was an incredible surprise once I saw the effects laid in, saw the ships laid in. But literally all we had was a black rectangular box that we’d be stepping in and out of and we step in the pod that would take us to the ship.

And so, maybe not rewarding in the moment and difficult in the moment but the payoff was pretty fantastic. I was blown away when I saw what they were able to kind of craft around the black box that I stepped into and out of and seeing how it all seamlessly fit together kind of blew my mind a bit.

Matthew Graham: I think probably the most difficult aspect of it all for me was every single morning seeing what we have to shoot and do in a day and it never seemed to get smaller. I kept thinking one day we’re going to look at a call sheet and it’s going to say, “Mike sits under a tree and eats an apple” and it never did. It just said 5,000 extras, 100 utopian giant spaceships, huge aliens.

And it was such a daunting task. It’s always a good idea, I think, to never fully know the scale of something, if it’s a big project, to never fully understand the scale of it going in because you just wouldn’t do it. And once we got going, as exciting as it was, every day was so daunting, just so much to do, and the scale and the ambition of it all. So, yes, that was probably it.

Yael Stone: And you didn’t like the insects very much, did you Matt?

Matthew Graham: No, I don’t. Everything seems to want to kill you in Australia. Even the little plants, the little lovely flower that you’re suppose to touch, or there’s a nice bush and someone says, “Oh, there’s probably a snake in there that eats babies.”

Mike Vogel: Don’t go in the water, the jellyfish will kill you.

Yael Stone: I like when people talk about these kind of rumors because it makes me feel really tough.

Mike Vogel: Yes, right, right.

Matthew, how did you become involved in this project?

Matthew Graham: I basically went from meet and greet with one of the producers, Mike De Luca, and he brought the book up from behind his desk and said, “Do you know this book?” And I said, “Yes, I love the book, I read it as a teenager.” And he said, “well, Syfy has asked me to bring it to TV as a mini series, do you want to do it,?” And I said, “yes” and it really just sprang from that. I mean, I had to jump through a few hoops for Syfy and for the studio, and talk to them at length about my take on it, but that’s kind of how I got involved.

Adapting a novel to the screen is always a challenging process. What were those challenges like for you?

Matthew Graham: Well, the challenges were enormous, but you do have to kind of put that to one side and you have to be undaunted. The book exists as a book and nothing I ever do will change the brilliance of what Arthur C. Clarke wrote. I just have to think of all the ways of adopting it and making it relevant today and be honest with myself if there are things in the book that I don’t think are going to play well on TV.

So in the structure of Childhood’s End it’s very clear and it’s just it’s more about getting in the philosophy and the other ideas behind it and making sure that you get the right thing in at the right time and you don’t overload it. Because the worst thing is when you suddenly feel that you’re brief, you’ve got to find a way to figure it out without turning it into a PowerPoint presentation.

Yael Stone: I guess I was sort of fortunate that I didn’t have the pressure of a character that appeared in the book. Peretta is a wonderful invention of Matthew that brings very interesting and critical questions about religion that happens in the middle part of the book, as the book is kind of structured in three sections. So I skipped that pressure, but I was delighted that Matthew did create the character.

I think, number one, it’s great to have a woman in the story driving her own story which is fantastic and I’m very happy to be that person, and also in terms of looking at this character who’s so deeply motivated solely by kind of emotional history and also religious text. I think that’s fascinating in our current climate and has always been a fascinating question where humans are concerned, where we use it as justification for certain things. I think that character is crucial and really interesting in this exploration of the story.

There are a lot of effects in this mini series utilizing CGI. The production also used a lot of practical effects. How did that help pull you into this setting and into your character?  

Mike Vogel: For me it was shocking, I think dealing with Charles. I know Charles had a monumental task in that suit acting and kind of pulling that off in all of that makeup and garb. But for us as the actors, I didn’t want to see. I didn’t want to see his suit, or see even the concept of what they wanted to look like until we actually did the first scene. The first scene that he and I did together was in the hotel room which was essentially the last scene of the movie, at least one of the last scenes for me with Charles.

And I was shocked to turn around and to see this guy looking like he looked … that they made that choice to do that practically rather than adding all of this stuff in post. I would say 95 percent of what was there was what you saw in person. And I was grateful for that.

Yael Stone: Absolutely. I completely agree. The difference between working with the piece of tape and working with Charles and also his amazing stunt double. It was incredible because we had both this incredible appearance, which I can’t describe, obviously, but also to have the size of the alien as well. By using the stunt double we were able to actually relate to the creature in terms of our eye line, and our physical relationship to this being which was just as enormous, that 7 foot imposing terrifying creature.

The book has inspired a lot of alien invasion TV shows and movies over the years. What would you say to audiences who might see this as just another alien invasion story? What would you tell them are the qualities that make this different from ones they’ve seen before?

Matthew Graham: I think the big thing is that it’s not about fighting them, it’s a conversation between humanity and the superior intelligence that may or may not be here to hurt us. We don’t know, they don’t know, no one knows for sure, but all the science points to them being benevolent but omnificent.

And so I think the game we’re playing with the audience is hopefully a relatively subtle game. It’s not “Oh, they’re here to help us, but oh, look behind closed doors and they’re cackling and rubbing their claws together and they’ve clearly got a scary plan.” It’s more about how we perceive them. They don’t change, they stay pretty true to themselves, and they are here to help us. But it’s about how we look at challenges from the characters and, obviously, Yael’s character and other characters are profoundly affected by questions raised in their minds about them.

So I think that’s what we’re trying to hang onto – the philosophical aspect of real science fiction as opposed to laser guns. It’s not a wham-bam action type piece, it is trying to honor its literary roots. And I think that’s what makes it different. And also I like that the three nights are different. I would depict them as the first night is “The Day The Earth Stood Still”, the second night is kind of more of a “Rosemary’s Baby”, and the third night is more like “Titanic”.

And there are three different movies with three different vibes, and I think that’s something that doesn’t normally happen in television. So I think these things make it very fresh, but leaving the spoiler aspects aside I would say this is a relatively smart alien invasion movie, and it’s about a dialogue between human and aliens rather than they’re trying to take our bodies over and grow it in pods or something, you know? And that what is so different about it.


 

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Childhood’s End will air on Syfy Monday, December 14, Tuesday, December 15, & Wednesday, December 16 at 8/7c

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