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Rockne S. O’Bannon on ‘Cult’

The creator of “Cult” explains how the show within the show works and looks back at “Alien Nation” and “Farscape.”

When The CW presented a panel on “Cult” to the Television Critics Association, they were faced with a lot of questions about the show’s logic.

“Cult” is about a reporter investigating a show on the CW called “Cult;” which is about a cult, and its cult of followers who are involved with missing people in real life. Simple! We got some one on one time with “Cult” creator Rockne S. O’Bannon to delve into this unique concept.


CraveOnline: What’s so hard to explain? It’s a show within a show.

Rockne S. O’Bannon: Then you watch it and we have 13 hours to better explain it all, but yeah.

CraveOnline: Are you essentially producing two shows, “Cult” and “Cult?”

Rockne S. O’Bannon: Yeah, in a way, it’s interesting. It ultimately homogenizes down to one big production, but keeping them both straight, especially early on, has been kind of a fun challenge for everybody because obviously there are dangerous followers in what we refer to as the inside show, the Billy Grimm/Kelly show.

And then the Matt Davis/Jessica Lucas side we call the outside show, there’s also people that are dangerous. There’ll be times in production, they’re going to put some of the dangerous minions from one into the other and it’s like no, no, you can’t do that. You can’t cross-pollinate like that. From a production standpoint, there’s been a fun challenge to keep the two separate in nature that the two worlds are different, because part of the fun of the show is creating those kind of crossover points.

For example, the pilot, for me the iconic orange car, the Valiant that you see in the show and then you also see it out in the real world, that crossover starts to blur and then from the production side, it blurred for them too.

CraveOnline: When there are scenes on the set of “Cult,” do you have two setups? The cameras, lights and cranes within the show, and another set of cameras, lights and cranes shooting that?

Rockne S. O’Bannon: Yes, it’s exactly that. What was fun is also it gives us an opportunity to portray some of our crew within the show as background, as extras. It’s great fun for everybody.

CraveOnline: I caught the line about “Joss on Fox.” Was that a nod to fans who have opinions on how Joss Whedon has been treated by that network?

Rockne S. O’Bannon: That was two levels. One, it was a nod to Joss, to fans to get that. Plus, in a very short amount of time I was trying to establish this network executive as something of an A-hole, so it was like what better way than to have him dissing Joss Whedon, taking claim for something that a network executive shouldn’t be doing. It was kind of doing all that duty at once.

CraveOnline: You’ve called this show your baby. When were you coming up with the idea? Where did you fall in the sort of meta movement that’s grown from Adaptation to “Community?”

Rockne S. O’Bannon: It started, I was working on a miniseries for Syfy called “The Triangle” and they were shooting in South Africa. I was here in L.A. so I had a lot of free time on my hands and then I was doing rewrites while doing production, but because of the time difference, I would get the notes at odd times. So I had a lot of free time on my hands and this idea had been kind of gestating for me all the way back from “Farscape” days, which had a very strong, passionate fan base.

Watching the fan base and how they interacted with each other and with our cast and the makers of the show online, and how that developed, that interaction with the fans started me thinking okay, “Farscape” is this kind of benign science-fiction adventure show, but what if the show that these fans were rallying behind was something a little more edgy, something with more of a dangerous topspin? What kind of fans might that generate?

So I just basically had time on my hands and I’m always looking for something to do so I wrote the pilot. The great thing is by writing it entirely on my own just casually, of course it’s the one that here it is on the air and it became my favorite.

CraveOnline: Even when you were working on “Defiance” for Syfy, that already had multiple levels to it because they were developing a game and the show at the same time. How deep did you get into that before you left?

Rockne S. O’Bannon: I spent nine months on “Defiance” getting it up and running. There’s an interesting parallel between the two shows in a certain way in that they’re both about trying to create a different experience for the audience. “Defiance” is a game and a TV show, not a TV show based on a game or a game based on a TV show, but literally developed at the same time.

So I came up with the characters in the town and the concept for the TV show part, but the game side was also coming up with all of their designs and all that. To attempt that kind of synergy was really interesting developing both at the same time, because both have very distinct needs and all that but to me it was exciting because it was trying to create a unique visceral experience for the audience in that you play the game and you interact with the world in a way you’d do with a game.

But you look at you watch and you go, “Oh gee, it’s whatever time, 8 o’clock on a Friday. Time for the TV show.” Then you turn on the TV show and you get the emotional content. You get richer, deeper character stories and that blending of the two experiences I thought was a really unique opportunity. Syfy was hugely behind that, so it was a great nine months.

I really enjoyed it, I think it’s going to be a great show. “Cult” came about and I just figured “Cult” was never going to happen. I was never going to find a network that was bold enough to go for it. Mark Pedowitz and Thom Sherman at CW always knew of the project, always kind of held onto it and was looking for his moment. So it was a difficult transition for me because I really did and do love “Defiance,” but “Cult” is really my baby.

CraveOnline: The pilot is so much about finding clues and establishing this mystery, the glasses, the line “These things break right off, don’t they?” What are the focuses of subsequent episodes once it goes to series?

Rockne S. O’Bannon: The focus remains, the primary drive for Jeff, our main characters, is “find my brother.” It really is that very strong, very clear emotional pull for him, but then married to that, and then on the inside show for Kelly, the detective, Alona Tal’s character, it’s finding her sister.

So there’s a certain blending there, a blur for Jeff even in terms of the circumstances he finds himself in and then what’s going on in the show. So it’s just continuing to dig down and make sure that the audience is, because it’s this odd kind of storytelling, that the audience is comfortable and is able to make sure they can absorb it and then dig deeper and deeper. By the time you get to Episode 13, I think, I’m hoping it’s a rich experience and people have learned how to watch the show.

CraveOnline: When you were developing “Alien Nation” and “Farscape,” did those shows have their own sets of rules too?

Rockne S. O’Bannon: “Alien Nation” for me was always about making it about these two characters. That’s why it was very important to me that we didn’t have technology from the ships. That was not a focus of it. They were a slave race that was in a fully automated ship, so to me it was very much about keying into the mismatched cop brothers kind of thing, and to be grounded that way.

With “Farscape” it was just a matter of trying to present a television show that’s bolder and kind of the anti-”Star Trek” in a certain way. I’m a huge fan of “Star Trek,” but instead of it having a military hierarchy and all very organized, I wanted it to be this ship of very disparate characters who were the antithesis of a unified crew, but were in fact everybody with a very strong individual personal agenda and throwing those people into a ship and stirring it up.

“Farscape” was also the first full-fledged show for Sci-Fi Channel. It was kind of their flagship series. They were looking for something to establish themselves as a unique purveyor in speculative fiction and plant their flag as a unique destination. I think we kind of did that for them.