Kyle Killen & Howard Gordon on ‘Awake’

The creator and executive producer of NBC's new series talk to us about the challenges of creating two realities as well as the endgame of the first season and beyond.

Blair Marnellby Blair Marnell

"Awake" is one of the more challenging shows of the current TV season because it forces viewers to pay attention to twin narratives across two worlds. The series stars Jason Isaacs as Police detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), who finds himself living in two realities after a horrific car crash. In one world, his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) lived and in the other world, his son Rex (Dylan Minnette) survived.

During the production of the first season, CraveOnline was invited to the set of "Awake" to speak with series creator Kyle Killen ("Lone Star") and his fellow executive producer, Howard Gordon ("24" & "Homeland") about creating the first season and the dueling storylines, as well as their thoughts about the length of the series and the end of the first season.


CraveOnline: How do you sustain Michael having these two realities without falling apart or figuring it out?

Kyle Killen: I think we actually play with the idea that it does in some ways cause you to fall apart. It is really difficult to hold up and sustain two completely separate realities. Especially as they begin to diverge and each life begins to take on a flavor of its own, it’s hard to live in both of those places. So I think actually that becomes the drama of the show. That is what makes it sustainable.

Howard Gordon: That’s the price of the premise of living in two worlds.

CraveOnline: Does he remain adamant that he doesn’t want to give one up?

Kyle Killen: He remains 100% adamant that he doesn’t want to give one or the other up. I think what we’re really exploring in the first season is that the price of needing to figure out what happened to him that night, how it was that he came to be in that accident means looking back at the very thing he’s trying to avoid, which is the issue of what happened. When you talk about what happened, you risk knowing who lived and who died so the price of that knowledge is potentially understanding who’s real and who’s not. So he’s sort of conflicted about how much he wants to know and how much he needs to avoid knowing.

CraveOnline: Is this more or less difficult than mapping out a season of “24"?

Howard Gordon: It’s actually more difficult because at the end of the day, “24” was… it’s obviously all hard in different ways, but if Jack had to live in two worlds, I think it would’ve been definitely challenging.

CraveOnline: Maybe in one world Kim lived, and in the other his wife, Teri lived?

Howard Gordon: Imagine that. But this has really been challenging, but it’s constantly been incredibly rewarding because it’s something… What attracted me to this was it’s something I’ve never seen before and I’m not likely to see again. Because you’re telling a story with two beginnings, two middles and two ends. In a way you really have to make sure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

CraveOnline: Is Michael the only one aware of the two worlds?

Howard Gordon: The shrinks respectively are aware of it but yes, he’s the only one who certainly traverses them. Everybody who lives in those respective worlds obviously is very convinced that theirs is the real one.

CraveOnline: Kyle, what did you learn from the “Lone Star” experience?

Kyle Killen: I think a lot of the things that were a challenge for “Lone Star” were things that this was sort of designed to address. There was a lot of the question of the sustainability of a show that didn’t have a weekly (series) that was purely serialized and didn’t have a crime or a medical procedural angle.

This has that. There was a big question of whether or not a morally ambiguous character like the lead in “Lone Star” was something that would do well on network television. This is someone who while trying to hold onto two lives, in a way that’s very similar to “Lone Star,” is trying to do so for reasons that I think we can all empathize with. There’s nobody who is (I think) questioning how they feel about Britten in the way that you might have with the lead of “Lone Star.”

CraveOnline: Is there something about dual lives that appeals to you?

Kyle Killen: Yeah, I think everybody looks at their life and thinks about the fork in the road where you went one way instead of the other. So I tend to be super interested in characters who are trying to do both.

CraveOnline: Does Michael Britten have any control over which world he goes to?

Kyle Killen: It’s actually like clockwork. He closes his eyes at the end of one day in one world and wakes up in the beginning of that same day in the other. It just follows. It’s a Wednesday in one world and then a Wednesday in the next. A Thursday and a Thursday, a Friday and a Friday.

CraveOnline: So he couldn’t cheat by taking a nap?

Kyle Killen: No, we did play with the various ways, situations that might cause him to get from one to another or what would happen. He might find himself stuck in one or the other and what would that mean and how would he react to that. Playing with the premise in as many possible ways is something that we’ve been excited to explore.


CraveOnline: What was the reason for taking the filming hiatus?

Howard Gordon: It was because we could. Yeah, we weren’t up against an air date and we had the post schedule with the luxury of doing it and it’s an extremely challenging show. Because we had the opportunity to get it as right as we could, we took it.

CraveOnline: What was it like doing it in a vacuum?

Kyle Killen: It’s kind of liberating in a way. It’s both good and bad. The thing is, with “Lone Star,” you’re so far ahead of what’s airing, it’s not as if you can adjust next week’s episode but that real audience feedback, well, I guess in that case was not helpful. They just said we should stop making the show.

But the idea that it’s not people theorizing about what people will like, test scores. You just try it and you see if it works or if it doesn’t. That seems like it’d be really valuable. At the same time, you can avoid being guided by any voices other than your conception and vision for what the show should be. So in a way it lets you make the purest version. You may be totally wrong having done that but you get to do…

CraveOnline: On your own terms.

Kyle Killen: Yeah.

CraveOnline: Is Michael's mental state in question in both worlds?

Kyle Killen: Yeah, I mean, he pulls things off which, while being the audience understands how he got from A to B to C, the people in each half of the world, they see gaps. They don’t understand how he made the leaps he made and he can’t always explain himself.

So that coupled with the stress and strain of trying to hold up these two universes and his increasing curiosity and the consequences about that, about what happened to him that night, they all take his character in directions that people who are as close to him as his partners can’t help but notice and comment on.

CraveOnline: Does Michael really not sleep?

Kyle Killen: That’s right.

CraveOnline: So his mind never shut down?

Kyle Killen: Well, that’s definitely one of the things his therapists are warning him about, that he’s failing to get as near as they can tell, he’s the only person in the world that anybody knows who has this particular condition, but yeah. His brain seems to be holding up an alternate super detailed universe when it should be just off. So they’ve sort of intimated that down the road there will be consequences for that and we’ve found episodes where we’ve enjoyed playing those consequences.

CraveOnline: Does his wife know he has the other universe?

Kyle Killen: The two definitely know. He’s made the mistake of talking about the other world as if it were real a couple times in the pilot. And he’s seen that that has really horrible consequences for his wife and for her to hear about things he imagines their dead son doing is emotionally painful. He’s the only one who gets to have both sides, but as much as he would love to, he can’t really share between the two universes what’s going on in the other.

CraveOnline: If Michael goes on a date in the other universe, he should probably not tell his wife.

Kyle Killen: It probably wouldn’t go over well. Even if you said to your wife, “I had this dream where I went on a date with someone.” She probably wouldn’t be too excited about that.

CraveOnline: Does the show take a position on which is real or not?

Kyle Killen: We actually protect the idea that both are real and we’re really playing what the character is protecting which is the idea that there are always equally good arguments why either world could be real and that’s the thing that he’s struggling to hold onto so that’s what we embrace. We treat them both like they’re real.

CraveOnline: Do his injuries carry over from world to world?

Kyle Killen: It’s only broken in that world.

Howard Gordon: But finding the fault line of finding the things that do translate from one to the other has been a fun exercise. So there are things that do influence and appear from one to the other.

CraveOnline: Are your continuity notes more extensive?

Kyle Killen: Yeah, they’ve been real… the worlds inform each other in a way that you may approach what seems like a standard scene between a husband and a wife but he’s carrying with him the fact that he was desperate to do something in a previous scene in the other world. Sometimes it’s hard for us to even remember that, so we’ve all been learning the language of the show.

CraveOnline: You must have one hell of a script supervisor.

Kyle Killen: I think yeah, it’s a real challenge.

CraveOnline: Do you have a script supervisor for each world?

Kyle Killen: We don’t, no. We’ve got one great one who handles both.


CraveOnline: How many years do you think "Awake" willl run?

Howard Gordon: Six.

Kyle Killen: Six to eight.

CraveOnline: Do you have a plan like “Breaking Bad,” where they knew they wanted five seasons?

Howard Gordon: Did they know they wanted five until they started cutting? I think Vince kind of figured out. Once you get in it, you really can see the end.

Kyle Killen: I will say having planned for one season, knowing how light on your feet you have to be to get through that, and even reading Vince’s interviews about season two where they knew exactly where they were going and the way that he felt locked in by that, the way that actually made it harder and worse rather than better, I think you have to be open to being light on your feet. You have goals, targets, things that you know you need and you’re excited about getting to, but I think it has to be fluid how you get from A to Z.

CraveOnline: If there’s no second season, are we left with a cliffhanger?

Kyle Killen: I think there’s a central season one mystery that will have a satisfying end. But I think you’ll be super sad if there’s not a second season.

CraveOnline: And if you’re picked up for season 2, would it be for 13 episodes or would you expand to 22 episodes?

Kyle Killen: There’s something I think you would love to share as much of your show as possible with everybody so obviously there’s advantages to 22 but when you look at what shows like “Homeland” and “Breaking Bad” are able to do with 13 handcrafted carefully put together episodes to tell a story, it’s the difference between reading a novel that feels like it was crafted, and…

CraveOnline: Quality over quantity.

Kyle Killen: I think so.

Howard Gordon: It’ll be really interesting to see, I know the networks are threatening, or promising I should say, that. I imagine that there’s an audience for the alternatives is 13 really, really, really good episodes or 22 less good episodes.

Kyle Killen: And the more cable informs the way people watch television essentially, the more times you see something like “Homeland,” not to keep referencing that, just because it’s going on and it’s really good. The more you demand that and demanding that sometimes means creatively you’ve got to put the time and effort into it the way that they do.

CraveOnline: Do you know the ending for the show?

Kyle Killen: The ending, we have an ending for the first season. There’s sort of a meta serialized story that we’re trying to tell which really comes down to what happened to him that first night and confronting and understanding that. The ending of the series is so many years away.