Full disclosure: We’re big fans of Frank Spotnitz. After all, he spent years as a writer and executive producer on the iconic ‘90s sci-fi droolfest The X-Files and rebooted the creepier-than-creepy thriller Night Stalker for ABC. Though Night Stalker was never really given a proper shot (marketing and time-slot issues), it made for some compelling TV. So imagine our delight when we discovered that Spotnitz was back developing a kick-ass spy thriller called Hunted, starring the lovely Melissa George and airing on Cinemax (go figure!)—did we mention it’s written and set in the U.K.? Snakkle was lucky enough to speak to Spotnitz while he was in town for the Television Critics Association press tour and asked him about working in the U.K. TV system, the genesis of Hunted, casting Melissa George (Alias baddie!), and, of course, his thoughts on a third X-Files movie.
Snakkle: Tell me about the genesis for Hunted and how quickly after the second X-Files movie (released in 2008) did you have this idea bumping around in your brain?
Frank Spotnitz: I was invited to the U.K. to speak in 2009, and that’s when I thought about going over there to do a show. And I called Kudos [Film and Television], and I called Stephen Garrett and Jane Featherstone, because they’d been talking to me for seven years at that point about coming to London to do a show. I always wanted to go to London. I could see how the business was changing, and I thought there was an opportunity if you did the right type of show to do it in London and have it broadcast around the world. And so I called them and said, “I think I’ve got an idea for a spy show.”
Snakkle: How do they do things in television across the pond as opposed to here? Is it all written beforehand and do you shoot a pilot and then they “pick it up”?
Spotnitz: No. There are no pilots. It’s completely different. Everything about the business there is completely different. And that’s been one of the big surprises for me. I didn’t realize quite how different it was. We pitched it, which they don’t do normally. We did verbal pitches with the broadcasters, but in terms of the sale, it was more like an American show. So we wrote the first script and then they commissioned the whole series.
Snakkle: How many episodes did you get and how long are they?
Spotnitz: It’s eight one-hour episodes. It’s 58 minutes, where in the U.S. it’s 44. That makes a huge difference, actually.
Snakkle: So you don’t need 12 episodes. You’ve got eight full hours.
Spotnitz: I’d still take them, don’t get me wrong. I’d take 10, anyway, if they’d give them to me.
Snakkle: Talk a little bit about wanting to do a spy show. You’ve written about conspiracies and character-driven procedurals, but Hunted is more of a kick-ass thriller. It’s dark and sleek and spotlights this beautiful woman spy, Sam, who’s been betrayed by her employer. What made you go down that spy route?
Spotnitz: Well, I was trying to think of something I could do that would have international appeal, even with a British cast, and obviously if it worked in Britain it wouldn’t necessarily work in the U.S. I thought an American audience will accept British spies, and we’ve been watching them. It’s just an accepted genre, and I don’t think Americans even think twice about it. And, it happens to be my favorite genre—at least in movies and television. I grew up on I Spy and Mission Impossible, Man from U.N.C.L.E. and James Bond, who was hugely important to me when I was a kid. Every movie. Every book. I was obsessive about that. That was both the great appeal and the most terrifying thing about trying to do something in that genre. So many good things have been done, how do you do something new? So my starting point was to take a character like Jason Bourne. What if he were real? What if it’s a real guy? What’s he really like? Because this is television, it’s got to be character-based.
Spotnitz: You can’t just do the stunts and expect people to stick with it. I thought, well, he’s probably not actually all that warm and loving. I mean, he deceives people, he kills people, he’s going to be very cold, remote, unreachable, kind of emotionally not [able to] let people get close.
Spotnitz: So that was interesting to me, but then how did he get that way? And that’s really what the genesis of the show was. In this case, Sam’s a female spy, and we realize something bad must have happened in her past to make her this cold, emotionally remote adult that we’re seeing. And then I thought, well, what happened? So that’s really still what the heart of the show is. It’s really, thematically, can you overcome your past? When bad things have happened in your past, can you move past them and have the future you want to have, or are you forever going to be shaped by these things? And so for her, these terrible things happened to her as a girl, which we flash back to.
Snakkle: I was going to ask how the structure of the show will work. Will there be flashbacks every week?
Spotnitz: Well, not necessarily every week. I think we try to be strategic about it, because they can start to become less powerful if you see too many of them. I was always determined that the story was going to drive these flashbacks, but you do consistently through the first eight episodes learn more and more about what happened in her past and how it ties into what’s happening to her now. What you learn in episode 5 is that in order to find out who tried to kill her and why, in order to stay alive now, she has to go back and look at her childhood. Which for a woman like Sam is actually harder than having to kill somebody. It’s harder to have to go back and relive the emotional pain of her childhood.
Snakkle: So you knew what the answer was before you started, and now the challenge is that you have to dole it out slowly…
Spotnitz: That’s the other thing I want to do in the show is not tease. I mean, a lot happens. It’s a very dense narrative. And it’s not boring. So much happens every week. You may think they’re going to make me wait eight episodes to find out who the mole is; no, you’re going to find out really fast. They’ll be trusting that we’ll keep coming up with really interesting twists and turns. You’ll learn pretty quickly watching the show that somebody may seem like a good guy, and two episodes later, no!—bad guy. And somebody you were sure was a bad guy well may be a good guy, which also heightens your paranoia, because you’re never sure. It’s all shifting sands.
Snakkle: For lack of a better term, is there a sort of mythology involved with Sam? And then you intersperse it with kind of like the case of the week?
Spotnitz: Yes, exactly. There’s a story every week that has a beginning, middle, and end. And then there’s the mythology, as you say, of who tried to kill her and why. It ties into a big conspiracy. It’s not aliens in this instance—look, it’s a work of fiction, but actually I think it’s raising real issues that would be good for people to think about. In our world, she works for a private spy agency. She’s not working for CIA or FBI or MI6, she’s working for people who are in this for profit. And the morality of the world we live in is very complicated and interesting. And that’s the heart of the conspiracy. It’s the privatized world we all live in. And then there’s an undercover assignment that she undertakes each year. So in this season, she goes into this house, the Turner house, and that story continues through the first eight episodes, but it will come to an end. Episode 8, that’s all resolved.
Snakkle: Talk about finding your Sam—Melissa George. She’s played a baddie spy of sorts on Alias, so did that enter into your mind as you were casting her?
Spotnitz: Not really. I mean, I’d seen Melissa in Alias and In Treatment. We looked really hard. It was really hard to cast. We saw 200 actresses right for this part. And we had amazing actresses from London, L.A., and Australia. But I will tell you honestly, the moment—she put herself on tape in L.A.—the moment I saw her, I knew she was the right one. I knew it. And the reason is, as good as those actresses were, it’s a deceptively hard part to play. You have to be beautiful, you have to be believably physical, but then there’s the acting challenge of it because she is this cold, remote person. So many of the actresses we saw that’s all you saw: cold, remote, hard. You could see why they’d make that choice, but that’s not interesting. That’s not somebody I’d want to watch week after week. Melissa, from that very first self-tape, had the cold remote wall, but then you saw behind that there was a real human being with vulnerabilities and internal struggle. I don’t know how she does it.
Snakkle: Does she have anyone who’s her sounding board?
Spotnitz: Well, that was the really hard thing. We talked a lot about this—she has no sounding board.
Snakkle: That’s impossible! Poor Sam! Is there anybody that we could see the possibility of her trusting at some point?
Spotnitz: At the beginning of the show, she’s falling in love with this guy, Aidan Marsh, played by Adam Rayner, a wonderful Welsh actor, and then she’s betrayed right away. And he seems like the most likely person to have betrayed her. I think you’re hoping that she’s wrong and he didn’t betray her, that they can get back to that place they were in the beginning of the show when they were in love, but you just, you as a viewer you aren’t sure whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy. I felt like to maintain the maximum paranoia and anxiety for her and her safety, I didn’t want to give her safe harbor with the best friend or the psychiatrist. And it was a real challenge.
Snakkle: Much like Breaking Bad, created by your friend Vince Gilligan, it’s a dicey proposition to have somebody so unlikable as your hero. Walter White is unlikable. He’s almost inhuman at this point; he’s completely turned into an antihero. Were you worried Sam would be too unlikable?
Spotnitz: Breaking Bad is one of my all-time favorites. I think it’s just great, but Sam’s actually on a path to becoming more and more human, and more and more vulnerable and open. It’s very moving to watch this woman who was so cold, and there’s like this crack, and it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and she starts to care more and more. The irony of it is that caring is bad because you’re a spy. You can’t do that. You have to just do your job, follow orders. There’s a little boy that she has to tutor and nanny, and she really cares about this little boy. And she can’t do that. It gets her into trouble. I think the good news is, as hard as this was to launch and as worried as we were about audience engagement, if you stay with it, I feel pretty confident the emotional connections are going to get deeper.
Snakkle: What has been the reaction from the people you’ve shown it to so far?
Spotnitz: It’s been great, but I don’t count on anything. I know you can do a show you’re really proud of and then you just never know what’s going to happen in the world. But one of the things that’s given me confidence or cause for optimism is that we had two broadcasters: We were doing this for BBC-1 in the U.K. and for Cinemax here in the U.S. I was delighted to have all those resources. They couldn’t be more different broadcasters, but I’d say uniformly their responses to the scripts and the cuts of the show have been the same.
Snakkle: You guys got to shoot in some amazing places, right?
Spotnitz: We did. We shot in Morocco, London, Scotland, and then briefly in Wales. And there’s no soundstages. It’s all location. You really see London in a way that it’s rarely seen. It was expensive and a big commitment by Kudos to go invest in seeing that, but I think that you see the results.
Snakkle: When you’re doing a spy thing, it’s really hard to be believable when you have to pretend a backlot is Chinatown, or whatever the location may be.
Snakkle: You need to go to those locations to make everything feel authentic, and I don’t think you’ve really had that opportunity on your other TV shows. Must have been amazing.
Spotnitz: I so agree with you. I think that was so important to the show to make it feel real. Give it that cinematic value. Especially now because TV is so sophisticated and, you know, you flip the dial and you’re watching a $50-80 million movie.
Snakkle: I know this is a weird question to ask, but is there anything you’re worried that won’t click with the audience?
Spotnitz: I’m worried about everything.
Snakkle: No, Frank, no!
Spotnitz: I’m worried about everything. I mean, but I feel incredibly blessed too, because we had fantastic directors, great crew—English crews are amazing. They are so dedicated, and their artistry is enormous, and they were given a chance to do things they rarely get to do because of the resources we had. And that was a joy. And the English actors! I hadn’t realized how good they were until I saw them from the inside. As a writer, seeing them say your lines—how thoughtful they are about literally every word and the best way to say it. You really appreciate the depth of their talent. So I feel really good about all the collaborators that we had doing this. But it’s always a gamble.
Snakkle: So they’re showing Hunted on Cinemax (owned by HBO) in the U.S. Was that a strange pairing for you? Or were you aware that they were trying to break into more of that scripted original programming that’s on par with HBO?
Spotnitz: You know, the funny piece of odd luck was that I came to London to do Hunted and I had six months to wait around to see if the BBC was going to do it or not. I said, I have to make some money and do something, so I got an agent and the next day she calls me and says, Oh, I got a job for you already. There’s this show Strike Back, and they were trying to get Cinemax on board as coproducers, and so I came just as a writer for hire. I wrote the first two episodes, then I ended up writing the next two episodes. And then Cinemax said, what else you have?
Snakkle: That’s great.
Spotnitz: I said, as it happens, we’re doing a show with the BBC called Hunted and they came on board, so it was really completely by accident and luck that they joined us, but you know the great thing is you got the resources and the intelligence to the taste of HBO and they’re trying to launch this new original programming for Cinemax and I think they’re still finding out what Cinemax is and all the things it can be. Strike Back was very successful for them, and I think they’re hoping this will be at least as successful.
Snakkle: I just want to touch on this briefly because the fans will skin me if I don’t ask you. A couple months ago you posted on your blog… it was kind of a little love letter to fans about not giving up hope on a third X-Files movie.
Snakkle: Do you really still hold out that hope, and if so, do you have anything you can share with us to keep the hope burning?
Spotnitz: I do. I actually feel the pressure of time now, and if this is going to happen, there’s got to be a script in the next year and a half.
Snakkle: Fingers crossed!
Spotnitz: But I still have faith. I mean, there’s such a powerful argument for it, and I think if I could just get the right stars to align, it could still happen. I actually just emailed David Duchovny this morning about this very topic, so I can’t say anything now—because I won’t be able to say anything good or bad until long after it’s decided—but I’ve not stopped trying.
Hunted premieres on Cinemax on Friday, October 19, at 10 p.m.