Carlton Cuse’s Colony Isn’t Your Typical Alien Show
First, some good news for the Los Angeles-lovers out there: In the new sci-fi series Colony, your city has been cured of crime, and traffic is a breeze. The bad news: It’s also being patrolled by murderous soldiers and creepy, low-flying drones. That’s the set-up for Colony, which was created by Ryan Condal and former Lost co-showrunner (and current Bates Motel and The Strain executive producer) Carlton Cuse.
The show is set in the not-distant-enough future, one in which LA has been occupied by an otherworldly, seemingly alien power that’s segregated the city by class, imposed martial law, and dispatched a team of eagle-eyed ‘bots to keep an eye on things. Lost’s Josh Holloway plays Will, a former military man trying to keep a low profile by working as a mechanic; The Walking Dead’s Sarah Wayne Callies is his wife, Katie, an ex-barkeeper who, like Will, is pining for the couple’s missing son. When a small-scale resistance group begins to push back against the invaders, Will and Katie’s loyalties shift, and their marriage suddenly becomes a swirl of lies, shootouts, and awesome Carl Weathers cameos.
WIRED spoke to Cuse in advance of Colony’s premiere tonight on USA to get his thoughts on aliens, Airplane!, and the art of keeping a secret.
It’s funny: During the first season of The Strain, they put one of those posters right in front of the 20th Century Fox building in LA. And I was not immune to the fact that this was pretty fuckin’ cool. So I drove over the next day to take a picture, and it was gone! Apparently, members of the neighborhood association next to the studio complained that they didn’t want to drive their kids past that.
So considering you already had a full plate with both that show and Bates Motel, what made you want to take on Colony?
Ryan [Condal, Colony’s co-creator] and I were talking about what we liked—and didn’t like—about alien-invasion shows. And one of the things we disliked was the alien-invasion part; it feels like it’s been done to death. What was more interesting, and what hadn’t been explored as much, was the colonization aspect. If you were a smart alien, you wouldn’t directly impose your will on the indigenous population of this planet—you’d put in a proxy government in the same way we put Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. Good science fiction is allegorical, and we liked the idea that you could use it to draw analogies to everything from the African colonization in the 19th century to Paris during World War II to Iraq.
One of the cool things about Colony is that the future-world isn’t the kind of run-down dystopia we’ve seen in so much recent sci-fi: The occupiers haven’t leveled the city or set up work camps; things are relatively normal. It’s not hard to see why people would capitulate so easily.
That was a very conscience choice. When reading about East Germany, for instance, you realize that when the wall came down, there were things that certain people missed: There was the sense of certainty; there was the lack of street crime; there were the jobs. There are elements embedded in totalitarianism that are ironically comforting, and we thought it was interesting if this version of Los Angeles was like that.
It reminded me a little bit of that Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man,” in which aliens show up, eliminate war and waste, and make our lives better—only to then turn us into food.
I remember that episode was so amazing, because it completely subverted my expectations: “Wow, this isn’t going the way I thought it was going!”
What were some of your earliest sci-fi influences?
My mom worked, and my dad wasn’t really in the picture, so I would come home after school and watch a lot of TV. I loved The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, but I also watched a lot of afternoon reruns, everything from Gunsmoke to Bonanza to I Dream of Jeannie, Green Acres, The Partridge Family. … I consumed a lot of television. And in elementary school, one of my teachers read the Narnia books aloud, and I was so energized, I made my mom go out and buy them all. Then I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Those things all kind of commingled in my brain.
What was your introduction to Hollywood?
I had a lot of doctors in my family, and my mom really wanted me to go to medical school. But by the time I got to college and started doing pre-med stuff, I realized it just wasn’t for me. And I had the weird good fortune of having the filmmakers of Airplane! come to Harvard, where I was going to college, so they could screen it and test the audience reaction—they wanted the laugh track of an intelligent audience, as they put it. [Laughs] It was the first time I’d met anyone who made movies, and a light bulb went off: “Wow, people actually do this for a living. This is what I should be doing.”
After that, you worked on everything from Nash Bridges to Lost. Did your experience on the latter show make you at all skittish about initially holding back some of the big secrets on Colony? It’s a show with a lot of mysteries at its core.
No, not really. I made my peace with Lost, and by and large, I experienced really positive feedback about the show. And I knew that some people wouldn’t like the ending, and that was OK for me. There was no ending for that show that everybody would have liked. It’s just not possible.
But Colony is a fundamentally different show. Lost was really focused on the mystery of, Who are these people, why are they on this island, and what is their fate? And the central drama of Colony is not, Who are these aliens, and why are they here? It’s really the story of this family, and are they going to be able to survive these circumstances. We have incredibly little exposure to these aliens in the first season of the show, and that’s intentional.
So they definitely are aliens? In some early interviews, you were reluctant to describe them as such.
Well, we’re kind of keeping it a secret for a while. They are aliens in some semantic definition of the world—they possess technology that we do not have. But the specific nature of who they are and what they’re doing is [pause] … we steered away from calling them aliens, because it’s not V or Falling Skies. Ryan and I see the show as a family drama first, an espionage drama second, and a science fiction show third.
Finally: How well do you think you’d hold up during some kind of world-leveling invasion? Would you fight, or would you give up right away, Kent Brockman-style?
I don’t really have the secondary job that would serve me well if I was suddenly thrust into a situation like this. Maybe a cook? I can kinda cook, but not good enough. I’d probably be screwed.
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