Canadian screenwriter Graeme Manson had seen success before he created and served as co-showrunner for BBC America’s Orphan Black, but few of his previous credits—including the script for the film Cube and work on Canadian TV shows like Endgame and The Bridge—proved as quickly popular as the sci-fi series about a woman who learns she’s just one in a number of clones. Sure, it took a short while for Orphan Black to catch on, but within weeks of the airing of its first-season finale, the show was packing rooms at San Diego Comic-Con and series star Tatiana Maslany was winning acting awards from critics organizations and getting nominated for Golden Globes. Manson recently sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about keeping the show’s momentum going in season two, the moment he knew Maslany was up to the task of playing dozens of characters, and the feminist underpinnings of Orphan Black.
The A.V. Club: How do you recapture the momentum of season one after you’ve been gone for a while?
Graeme Manson: Well, a couple of ways, I think. One of the ways is—the show just takes off like a bullet in season two. It’s to not lose that momentum, to let the audience feel like that time didn’t even pass. Here you are. You’re back with these characters right in the same moment. That’s how we’re going to start season two.
But with the changing way of television and viewership, people have been watching the show continuously since we finished airing. It’s been really rewarding and interesting to see the online support swell up, pick up the show, put it on our shoulders, move it forward. And I think that the BBC America Digital Media team has done a pretty masterful job of nurturing that community. So that side of it, we feel like we’re in really good hands. We feel like there’s a lot of anticipation around season two.
AVC: There’s been a lot of talk about how some of the really innovative shows that sprung up in this last year were only possible because of streaming and niche channels. With all of your visual effects, is there any way you could have done this on a smaller network budget even five years ago?
GM: I don’t think so. I think we could have done versions of it, but some of the things that we do with our vis effects and with Intelligent Creatures, our vis effects company. Some of the things we do with the Technodolly. I don’t think that was available five years ago. Some of our clone stuff we do old-fashioned, too. We do over-the-shoulders with doubles. We do the simple split screens and things like that. But the more complex stuff with camera moves, with characters crossing, with touch and interaction, that’s still very hard to do and very time consuming—but I think it’s more possible now, certainly, to look seamless. It takes a very skilled technical actor to do it seamlessly.
AVC: Which you have. Was there a moment when you realized how good Tatiana Maslany was at playing all of these variations?
GM: There was. For myself, and I think for John Fawcett, my creative partner, it really started happening with the introduction of Alison. When that character came in and we did our first—it was actually our second because the first real clone scene was in the first episode with the German, but that was a fleeting one. That scene at the soccer field with Alison was the one where we were like, wow, they are very distinct. They are in the same frame, and you’re not thinking it’s the same actor. That was a real moment for us, a real moment where we were like, okay, this is working. And then we were like, wow, man, people might have favorite clones at that point, too. And sure enough, that’s what happened.
AVC: Do you have a favorite clone?
GM: I’m partial to Cosima. I really like Cosima. She’s West Coast, I’m West Coast. She’s super smart, and I always crush on science-geek girls. I’m partial to Cosima, though of course I love Sarah as well.
AVC: The pacing of that first season is so well done in terms of the kinds of backstory revelations the viewers get. How did you develop that ever-accelerating pace without overwhelming people?
GM: Yeah, it’s tough. I’d like to say trial and error, but there’s not a lot of room for error. Any trial and error takes place on the page, in the writers’ room, where we are trying to work as far ahead of what we’re shooting as possible. The writers’ room spends a good solid month talking about the big picture, getting a framework for the season and then filling in the tentpoles along the way, so we know big revelations, where they could come, how they make logical narrative sense. We like very visual “bam” reveals, but we also like our informational reveals, and those are the ones that are informing the backstory and informing the larger mystery, the bigger picture. It’s important you don’t do that stuff too fast. And I think if you try and jam too much in, you start to lose people with too many details that aren’t important, especially if you want to keep the pace up.
AVC: Was there a time during season one when something shifted because of something that happened on set, or you went in a direction you hadn’t anticipated, and you just sort of went with it?
GM: Mostly around character. Once we saw Tatiana inhabit these clones and realize that she could pull off very complex things, character-wise, that was very freeing for the writers to go, okay, we can really shoot high. We can do crazy things with this story and this character, because Tat gets it. John and Tatiana and I discovered that we really share the same taste. We like things weird and complex. The weirder, the crazier, the more violent, the more funny we find it, and the more we crack up when we’re talking about it and developing it. So that’s pretty rewarding.
And what I was going to say before was that if you don’t drib [information] out you risk overwhelming your show with mythology. If the show is all mythology, someone can’t come in and just watch an episode. They’re lost. So it’s definitely trying to keep the mythology really interesting but drib it out enough so that you’re not overwhelmed with it.
AVC: Were there shows or movies or books you looked at where you said this was a good way of spreading that out or as cautionary tales?
GM: There definitely was. Strangely, Six Feet Under was a real touchstone for us for storytelling. Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad. All of those were shows that we were engrossed in while we were developing this series. So those really groundbreaking cable series we were big fans of. And then in terms of the mystery, The X-Files all the way.
AVC: What do you think it is about X-Files that speaks to your generation of writers?
GM: Flashlights. [Laughs.]
I have a connection to the show because I’m from Vancouver, so in the heyday of The X-Files, I was living in Vancouver. I was working in the art department, but never worked on the show. But we were intensely proud that the show was shot in Vancouver. I just was a big fan of it. I think it was a well-spun mystery, and it was really well constructed the way that they would be standalone, standalone, standalone. And then you’d get to that episode. And this isn’t what we do, but that’s what they did. You get to that third or fourth episode where you go back into the bigger picture and the Smoking Man shows up. It was good stuff. And Gillian Anderson is a fabulous actor. Again, it was alchemy.
AVC: Orphan Black seemed like it became really popular after it stopped airing. Was there a moment when you really felt, okay, this is much bigger than I ever thought it was going to be?
GM: There was that moment—yeah, it was Comic-Con, because we’d finished the show. We had finished maybe by a month or something. And we just kept watching Twitter, and we kept watching the Clone Club on the sites and all the Tumblr stuff, and it just kept coming, just kept coming. And that’s part of the nature of the new way we watch television. We want to make a show where people are dying to be there for the broadcast. They really want to be there. But then other people come in. You can tell your friends, and they can catch up. You can be too busy, right? And you can go, I’m too busy for this season. I’ll watch it in the summer when I have some time off. And then you can binge it. People love binging it.
You’re absolutely right. Once we finished airing, and it didn’t let up, and Tat got those Critics’ Choice noms and the TCA. It kept growing and that was incredibly rewarding, and then we walked into Comic-Con, and we were like, “Oh.” John Fawcett and I, once we cast Tat, we went for lunch, and we were like, “Okay, here we go. We’re going to make this wild harp of a show. Let’s hope it works.” But we want to go to Comic-Con next summer. Let’s go to Comic-Con. That’s our goal. And we did it, and there was a room full of people, and Comic-Con was awesome.
AVC: You mentioned earlier that the three of you really share this love of weird unexpected moments, so let’s talk about a few of them from that first season. The tail is always a big thing for people. Where did that come from?
GM: I always told people we were going to do a tail. There’s going to be a guy with a tail, and we’re going to lop it off. And people were like, “Okay.” I think the networks were like, “Are you sure about the tail?” But to their credit, they let us do it and it turned into one of those moments where you just go, “This show is fucked in the best way.” So, yeah, it was early we had the idea of a tail. And it fit into our sort of neolutionist, our self-directed evolution ideas, and to me it’s very Cronenberg. He was a big influence.
AVC: How about the scarf in the garbage disposal? That was so gruesome and so over the top but also appropriate in a weird way.
GM: Well that one didn’t come about as quickly. We knew we wanted to do something like that with Alison. We didn’t want Alison to kill her outright. One of our touchstone moments for that was the moment in Breaking Bad where Walt lets Jesse’s girlfriend die in season two, maybe. And I just remember being, like, that was one of those moments, that moment of choice where it’s like, what is that? Negligible homicide or something like that? That’s what we talked about. Maybe we can do that. That’s how you make it more interesting than just a murder.
And then we sat around literally in the writers’ room with a week to go before shooting or something, and we’re like, how are we going to do this? Okay, they’re moving. That’s good. And we thought of a dozen ways to kill someone with household implements, including a fridge on a dolly and crushing her head against the counter or carrying a couch down the stairs and crushing it like that. And then I can’t remember who came up with it, but we hit on the garbage disposal and the scarf thing, and it seemed really ludicrous at first, but then it had all those elements. It had great sound. It has that built-in button. So that’s how that one came about.
AVC: So when you’re comparing her to Breaking Bad, are you saying that by season four, Alison will be running a global drug empire?
GM: I think that’s a very good idea. [Laughs.]
AVC: The moment when the show just really snapped into focus was in the first episode, when Sarah is in the police station and drinks the soap basically to get out of that situation. How did that one come up?
GM: It came up because I love con-artist movies and con-artist stuff. And I was very at-home writing Sarah as a scammer, as sort of a short-con person. And John is always pushing us into corners, so we loved walking her into the police station. And then the question is, “Now what does she do?” But it’s one of those moments that I just thought up. I don’t know. I’d never seen it before, but it made sense. It’s like getting her into a bathroom, and you’re trying to write something. You’re thinking of props and that bathroom soap. Okay.
AVC: That’s another very Breaking Bad thing, to write yourself into a corner you’re not sure you’re going to get out of. Was there one you found yourself particularly stuck in when you were working on season one as writers?
GM: Not really. I tell you what was sticky, is coming out of season one, because we just drove the whole bus off a cliff with a cliffhanger on every thread for every character, and we had some ideas of where we were going to pick it up but picking it up was difficult. Picking it up and making it cohesive was difficult. All of these elements, not just the character stories but the thematic things. It’s like, you can’t do it all at once, so which one do we focus on? Which stories dominate first? What can sit back and boil slower, or what can wait a few episodes to get to without having the audience go, “What about this, or what about that?” That was a real balancing act that I think we’ve pulled off.
AVC: The show obviously is not overtly political, but it fits in with your career in a lot of ways in that it’s got some sneaky feminist themes in the background. Was that always part of the plan?
GM: I think that was part of the plan, but it certainly developed particularly with a couple of key people in the writers’ room. One is Karen Walton, who is our resident keep-the-boys-in-line writer. Very experienced. Great old friend of mine. She keeps all the boys in line, but she always says that all the boys are feminists, so I guess that helps.
The other person who really helps with that is the real Cosima, Cosima Herter, who is our science advisor. Again, another old friend of mine who reads all the drafts and watches all the episodes and then it runs through her incredible brain, and it comes back as, “Do you know what you guys are doing? This is the territory you’re treading.” We have those conversations early in the script, and those conversations really help to inform the script. They help to inform the big picture even if it’s not overt. So those are important thematic things. We don’t want it to take over the show, but we want it to be such a part of the fabric that you can’t avoid it.
AVC: Obviously Tatiana could play 500 different people, but is there a line in your head when the show gets too big and you have to pull it back to something tighter?
GM: I think we might be hitting it. Yeah, there’s a point where it becomes… It’s maybe not too many characters to handle on the page, or narratively, but it becomes a scheduling nightmare because of the nature of the show. It becomes very hard to shoot. Possibilities are endless, but we have to be practical about those choices, too.
AVC: What are we going to be able to look forward to in season two, and also in the back of your head, do you have an idea how long this show could run?
GM: Well, season two, we really pick up where we left off. And a large frame of the season is the Rachel Duncan character that we introduced at the end of the first season, and [she and Sarah go] head to head in a bit of a war—that’s kind of the shape of the season. And that’s a war that encompasses all those things you said. It’s about ownership. It’s about freedom and free will. And within that, for instance, the Felix character, a lot of his boundaries are tested. His loyalties are tested. We see different combinations of the characters, and I think if there’s something that the characters might learn over season two, it would be that we are stronger together rather than divided.
It’s a pretty elastic premise in some ways. We’ve always had a three-season arc, a three-season big picture. And beyond that it becomes, okay, do we kick the endpoint of season three down the road, or do we maybe use that point where we reboot it in a way that you do that sort of six-months-later thing, that we haven’t done and don’t want to do? But there may be that kind of solution. I think the key to it is how you pay out that mystery and keep it rewarding each season, yet keep opening doors. It’s very challenging to do that, but I think we have a way that we can keep going. I’d love to do five and a movie.