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Colony: Chatting with Producer Ryan Condal, Part 1

Colony’s executive producer Ryan Condal took some time last week to chat with TIBS and several other reporters about Colony. I was very pleased to be able to participate! He gave us some great info about the show’s themes, the show’s world-building, and how he and producing partner Carlton Cuse made some of the show’s decisions.

How did you come to this decision to start the series after the arrival had occurred? And what changes and creative opportunities have resulted from that decision?

Ryan Condal: You know, Carlton and I are genre-heads, and I think when we were initially talking about the theories, we were really fascinated with this idea of trying to reinvent or at least present a new look into the sub-genre, the sub-sci-fi genre of alien invasion. And there have been alien invasion stories told across every platform of television, film, literature since War of the Worlds, and we really felt like in order to be a new entry, you had to have something new to say or at least a new way into it.

And we became really fascinated with this idea of telling the story after we lost, because most of these stories deal with, you know, the war or the invasion itself, and we were really fascinated with the idea of telling the after.

And that came out of a love for history, and when I initially brought the idea over to Carlton, it was really inspired by this idea of the Nazi occupation of France and of Europe, and the stories that came out of this world where you were living and you were home in your city but suddenly it had changed and had become this dangerous place where the rules were different.

But in order to tell the story from that perspective, the sort of the war already had to be lost, and we thought it was just a great ground, a platform for storytelling that had a really long runway ahead of it. So there are many, many seasons of material in front of us because we’re dealing with this kind of open ended situation that makes it really perfect for television.

When you and Carlton choose the designing the world and society of colonies, what did you draw from for inspiration?

Ryan: A lot of history, as I mentioned. I mean, we’re both big students of history. And Juan Campanella, who was our director on the pilot and in the first two-episode series, grew up in Argentina during the dictatorship in the ’70s and he had this really – he had lived through something like this. And he had this really kind of visceral, clear perspective on it. And he brought a lot to the design. He had a design of the world on the pilot.

But the point is, we all wanted to make it feel very real and present. And whereas in most dystopian stories, like in Blade Runner and in The Walking Dead and in even something like Children of Men, the world always feels very upended. And we’re really intrigued by this idea of the 90/10 role, which is that 90% of the world looks exactly as it was, and the 10% is wildly different.

So, you walk out into the streets of LA and you see sunny skies and palm trees and most of the buildings are intact and then you start to notice there are no cars on the road. There are 300-foot walls surrounding the city and there are drones crisscrossing the skies. It’s that 10% that’s very recognizable that really unsettles you and sets you off and makes it feel like you’re living in a real environment where something really radical has happened.

COLONY -- Season:1 -- Pictured: Josh Holloway as Will Bowman -- (Photo by: Justin Stephens/USA Network)

COLONY — Season:1 — Pictured: Josh Holloway as Will Bowman — (Photo by: Justin Stephens/USA Network)

In each of the episodes so far, we discover that no character is who he or she seems to be. Is that part of your goal with this, to maintain a feeling of instability and unpredictability? And will there ever be a moment of clarity later where we see how everyone fits together?

Ryan: Yes, I think this is the condition created by the fog of this war, or this invasion. And unfortunately, because of this situation, everybody in Los Angeles in some way or another has had to really reinvent themselves.

Whether it’s something as simple as an FBI agent working in a state run garage to put fuel cells into the cars of the wealthy and privileged members of the green zone, or it’s something like a wife and a bar owner suddenly becoming a lieutenant in this resistance or against the occupation, it’s the story of instability in a government, in this city where the roles have been upended and it causes everybody to suddenly have to become somebody new — either by choice or not by choice.

This happened all over Nazi-occupied Europe and when the Soviet empire was at its height, it just forced people to have secrets and to really keep close to the vest truths about them and play a different role depending on what situation they were in. And I mean, that’s the rich pool of drama that we’re really interested in drawing from.

And it inspired us. It inspired the series and all the characters. And I think the good news is for fans who are watching and paying attention is that we do have a lot of these mysteries and backgrounds already worked out and we’re waiting to unveil them, when the time is right. So I think fans who keep watching and stay loyal to the series will be rewarded as the show evolves.

I was a little bit shocked — well, a lot shocked — when Phyllis was killed in last week’s episode. And like everyone else, you know, you just mentioned she has secrets. When are we going to find out more about her? Will is now head of the unit. How is that going to affect things?

Ryan: Well, yes so Phyllis – I love the response on Phyllis. I mean, Kathy Baker was such a huge get when we cast her, and we had always planned to introduce this character in episode two and then kill her off early in the season as a way to show the brutality and the reach of the resistance, and also to show that nobody in this world is safe so don’t get too attached to anybody.

But yes, Phyllis is a fascinating character. I mean, I think the thing that people are really responding to with her is the fact that she did have a practical point of view on things. And she wasn’t – she’s running this counter-resistance unit and will do kind of brutal, inhumane things in order to reach her goals, But her goals are to – at least from her perspective – to keep the block safe, or as safe as it can be, and to minimize the unnecessary loss of human life.

Kathy Baker as Phyllis

Kathy Baker as Phyllis


Seeing the big game, which is at the end of this, the resistance is somehow effective, there are these very powerful – this very powerful occupying force could lay waste to the city or it could kill a lot more people than the transitional authority is even harming day-to-day.

I think people really responded to that and, part of the fun of her, the mystery of who she is and her background is one of those things that it’s just, you know, that’s life. It’s not always going to be fully and completely explained but it still is clearly with a very experienced character actor in this world of spies and espionage. And, as Snyder says to Will in the first episode, a rare breed these days. I mean, a lot of these people were taken out or eliminated. So I think a little bit more will be filled out about Phyllis but I think a lot of her will be left to be debated about.

You kind of touched on this already. Was it a conscious decision to sort of keep the sci-fi element of the show low key?

Ryan: Yes, very conscious. I think it’s one of the big reasons that when we were speaking with NBC Universal, the larger, sort of earlier conversations that Colony landed at USA versus the Syfy Channel. I mean, I think there’s a lot of really awesome programming on over there. The tradition sort of started by Battlestar Galatica — one of my favorite TV shows. But the sci-fi shows that are on Syfy now are much more kind of hard sci-fi.

The things that really appeal to me as a fan but aren’t necessarily the kind of shows that grab audiences that don’t have a predisposition towards sci-fi. And we really wanted Colony to appeal to a broad audience that was interested in some element to the show. So there’s going to be an element that’s drawn to the core family dynamic of the show that sees this as a drama set in a wartime place. There’s going to be an audience that’s drawn to the espionage elements of the show. One of the great shows on TV now, The Americans, that element of this husband and wife in a world of secrets and lies. And you know, we have sort of jokingly called the show the first spy-fi show and we like that.

And then I think there’s the under layer of science fiction, which is, you know, Carlton and I are huge sci-fi fans ourselves and have loved sci-fi all of our lives. And one of the things that we were really inspired by was taking this kind of allegory for an occupied world and putting it into a modern science fiction context and then playing with all of the mysteries that come out of that.

So it was very intentional and I’m glad that people seem to be responding to it. The nice thing is that people – I think sci-fi is less now than it was 10-15 years ago – and in a good way – but the term can be a pejorative and we like that, with Colony, that it adds to the puzzle instead of having to be this, you know, kind of barrier that people have to get past in order to become engaged with the show.

TIBS: I wanted to ask you about your interpretation of the motivations of the groups of people you have put in place. The people at the top, do you see their motivation as more that they understand the futility of trying to defend themselves against an overwhelming force? Or do you see it more as the baser nature of taking advantage of gee, I’m not going to die and I could come out of this better than I was before?

Ryan: I think that’s a great question. And the nice thing about complex, long-form storytelling is that there is no one answer to that. I think one of the things that is a quality of a lot of these kind of alien invasion stories, because of the nature of the medium in which they’re told – which is usually film – is this idea of this kind of hive mind and it’s like it’s the black hats against the white hats. And the black hats are often the aliens and the white hats are often the humans trying to survive.

And we wanted to really create a complex world of gray where on either side of the conflict there are people that have made their choices for selfish, self-serving reasons and there are people that have made choices to try to survive, to protect their own family, to be able to get ahead, to get the things that they couldn’t have in the world as it existed before and now they can with this new opportunity. And I think you will see that through the ranks of both the resistance and the occupation, and just the day-to-day survivors of Los Angeles across the show. And I mean, that’s the milieu that we really wanted to create.

I want to start with saying the show is extremely fast paced. More happens in the first three episodes than season two of The Walking Dead. And I really like that. So I’m curious, they keep mentioning that this is a transitional government. What is it going to transition into? And when do we find out?

Ryan: That’s a lot like alternative music, and you know, alternative to what? I think both of those questions are left sort of intentionally open ended and interpretable. And we were really – I will say this you know, the show is very fast-paced.

I mean, we live in a world where there are 411, 412 or whatever it was scripted television shows on in the last 12 months in the United States alone. So, it’s hard to grab eyeballs, I mean really especially with a show that doesn’t have any preexisting IP. I mean, we have the great reunion of Carlton and Josh (Holloway) going for us, which is great but other than that, it was just something entirely created new for television.

And really, you want to draw viewers discerning, often picky and taste driven viewers that have a lot of choices into a world that will grab them and hold them immediately and I think we’ve been successful with that and we’re proud of that and part of that is they’re kind of dropped into the second act of the story that’s already moving and they’re asked to participate with us to catch up, which we like and we’re very proud of.

And, you know, I’m sorry, what the second part of your question was?

Yes. I wanted to know how soon before we find out what it’s going to transition into.

Ryan: Yes. So, we were very fascinated with this current culture of language and how things are presented to people. And, there’s a lot of play. If you watch the show and continue to watch – which we all hope you will do – depending on what side of the conflict you’re on, things are termed differently.

So if you’re on the red side of the conflict – on the side of the occupation – you don’t refer to yourselves as the occupation. You refer to yourselves as the transitional authority. And you don’t call the police force the red hats. You call them homeland security. And you don’t call the resistance the resistance, because that empowers them. You call them the insurgency or the terrorists, right?


And then on the other side of the equation, there is the occupation and we are the resistance and those are the red hats. And we were fascinated with this idea that at some point in this formation of the human proxy government, there was some kind of meeting between marketing and branding minds where they tried to select terms and phrases to make the occupation a little bit more palatable to the people.

So I think you’ll notice a lot of terms in the show that are used — like green zone, for instance — that are pulled from preexisting current events and things that would’ve existed in this world before the occupation happened to try to make people feel like things haven’t changed all that much and that there is this kind of familiarity about everything. And I think that layered in that is some sort of insidiousness and sinisterness that is just part of the show that we’re trying to create.


Part 2 of our interview

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