The second season of Sundance TV’s critically-acclaimed Rectify is set to premiere June 19th, 2014. The show follows Daniel Holden’s life after he’s released from a 19-year sentence on death row for the rape and murder of his girlfriend. I had the opportunity to sit down with Ray McKinnon, the creator of the show, at last year’s Austin Film Festival where we chatted about the show.
How did you come up with the idea? I was inspired by real life events. About 10 years ago there was a spate of exonerees from Illinois prisons. I would see these guys who’d been in jail for 10 or 20 years being released and, naturally, they looked like deer in headlights. All I’d hear about was that first night with their family going to get a beer and a steak. But I was interested in what happens after that. What happens the next day when they wake up in that room that’s not a cell and there’s no lock on the door and they can walk out into the world and do almost anything? I wanted to explore that dramatically almost in real time, and that’s why season one covers the first seven days of Daniel’s release in just six episodes.
Anyone who hasn’t experienced it personally really has no idea what an ex-con goes through. So much is against them. It’s one thing to say, “Pick yourself up by your boot straps and make your way in the world,” but when you have so many disadvantages already it’s really hard to get back on track. That’s why there’s so much recidivism.
Was it always going to be a TV show? As a storyteller, a lot of my inspiration in the last decade or so has come from television because that’s where some of the great stories were being told. I saw this show tonally in a way that I really didn’t see on TV. I wasn’t sure that anybody would want to do it, and I was almost right about that (laughs). But when Mad Men, which is one of my favorite shows, came out I saw similarities between that show and mine even though they are in different settings.
Both shows are very patient. They’re also both character-driven shows that examine private lives. Though Mad Men has more of a narrative engine, tonally and meditatively, they are similar. There are so many outlets for serialized storytelling now that the studios are really looking for different kinds of material.
It’s a great time. I feel like there’s a television audience for almost any story. There is. And you don’t have to have that big of a number to get that. Rectify is not for everybody, but I feel like if the word gets out and it resonates with enough people they will keep it going.
How did it end up on Sundance? I sold it to AMC four years ago, and they were concerned, rightly so, about whether it was a big enough story to reach a wider audience. They were growing and starting to think about numbers. They loved it but passed on it. Their sister network, Sundance, was getting into original programming and were looking for something that would put them on the map. I think it’s a perfect fit since Sundance started out as a film festival that celebrates American stories.
What was the writer’s room like? I had two episodes written when I sold the show so we formed a little writer’s room and wrote the other four. I realized that people in a writer’s room are not generally people who should be in a room. Period. They should have wide, open spaces and maybe padded walls, including me (laughs). So it was an interesting, sometimes very charged, dynamic with people arguing over what a character would do. It was a really good education for me as a quasi-manager of my fellow humans. I was running the room and I learned how to walk that fine line of being the boss and being humble enough to not be the dictator, and hoping for wisdom along the way.
What would you do differently if you had known then what you know now? I don’t know, but the accidental yet useful thing about my career is that I’ve been an actor, and I’ve made movies and both of those skill sets are very useful for being a show runner. I know production, and I know how to make a little go a long way. A lot of show runners come straight from the writer’s room which isn’t necessarily better or worse – just different. In show business there are so many different ways to go to the kingdom.
While I love the pace of the show, the way Rectify takes its time does force you to sit with it, and it can be uncomfortable. Yes. We discussed what to reveal and when. We as storytellers have to find the balance between being patient and not over telling everything. To keep mystery and restraint, while at the same time not frustrate the audience by being so obtuse, is a bit like math and art all mixed together.
I think audiences are starved for that kind of storytelling on television. Not just in television but in life. Whether it’s from the spoken word in the days of Homer to television, storytelling reflects our condition in some way and if it’s being reflected in only one or two ways we do start hungering for other ways.
How do you work it out when you get stuck on a story? Sometimes when you get stuck the thing to do is to walk away from it and go to the museum or a movie or whatever you do and let your subconscious work on it. Another way is to ask basic questions – the who, what, where, and why – talk it over with a friend. Again, there is no one way of doing something; you have to find out what works for you.