Co.Create

Getting To Know Dexter: Keeping A Character Killer When Everything Changes

As Dexter enters its penultimate season, executive producer Sara Colleton talks about what drove a major plot bombshell, how the writers craft the show and why you don’t see her on Twitter. Attention: spoilers ho.

Often, television series strain to find compelling storylines as they get on in years. But Dexter, the Showtime drama that inserts viewers into the bloody life of serial killer/forensic analyst Dexter Morgan, enters its seventh season September 30 mining a revelation that will dramatically alter the course of the show.

Sara Colleton

"We always knew that once this shoe dropped, it would be a game changer," says Dexter executive producer Sara Colleton. She is talking about police lieutenant Deb finally discovering that her brother is capable of murder. In the season six finale of Dexter last December, Deb walked into a church and witnessed Dexter stabbing the life out of Doomsday Killer Travis Marshall.

Season seven picks up right where season six left off, and, judging by the trailer, it looks like Deb is going to figure out that this isn’t the first time Dexter has had blood on his hands.

As Dexter begins what is slated to be its second-to-last season, Co.Create talked to Colleton about how the show is crafted, what series stars Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter bring to their roles and whether she sees the need to be active on social media.

Co.Create: Fans have been dying for Deb to find out about Dexter’s true nature. Were you also eager to get to this point in the series?

Colleton: Not really because I knew there were only so many permutations you could have with this. So I really wanted us to take our time and explore every other aspect of Dexter that we could before it became necessary for Deb to be let in on his secret.

Dexter is famous for some dramatic and disturbing season enders. What is it like for your writing staff when a season ends, and how do you gear up for the next season? I understand that you start with the general themes that you want to cover before diving into plot and potential new characters.

When a season ends, it’s always the same thing. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, we’ve brought the ship to safe harbor.’ The last few episodes of [a season of] Dexter are so tense and so much happens, and we’re so emotionally wiped out when a season ends. And every year, by the time we regroup, which is usually with preliminary talks in mid-January, we just sit around and say, ‘Alright, what did we learn? What did Dexter learn last year? What was his takeaway? Where are we with his character, and where do we want to go? What do we want to see him explore? What feels real and natural?’ You try to take everything from the human point of view. That’s always worked for us. So it’s just talking about where he is in his life, and then after some considering going from there.

Season six was an exploration of faith. What is the theme of this season of Dexter?

This season is about the price of knowledge. Dexter’s series-long arc has been that his secret will be known. Well, be careful what you wish for: Deb now knows everything. So it changes everything in his life, and with those changes are some very unwelcome things. There’s a loss of freedom. There’s a sense of responsibility because he’s got to figure out how to bring Deb over to his point of view but not destroy her purity. And so he’s navigating how he’s going to do that. He was always her hero, and so he’s dealing with regret and a sense of betrayal. But also the biggest thing that he has to live with is the knowledge that she, at any moment, could turn him in.

While storytelling is key, Dexter is also a slick, stylized show. Do you have a visual formula that you stick with from season to season?

We have our visual vocabulary that was really set in the pilot, and we have maintained that look. We shot the pilot in Miami over the course of three hurricanes, and then when we went to series, we couldn’t go back to Miami because we couldn’t get insurance since we would always be shooting during hurricane season. So we realized that in order to have a show that had the kind of look [we had created in Miami] in L.A., we had to set rules. Otherwise, the look starts being diffused.

So how do you make L.A. look and feel so much like Miami?

Well, it’s just the angles that we use, the kind of lighting that we use, the use of color, the use of contrast. We have a playbook for locations to make them look like Miami: Floors are not carpeted. They are wood, or they’re terrazzo, or they’re stone because it’s so hot and humid in Miami. The ceilings all have fans. The windows have louvers to let air in. So we bring that Miami look into the show in a million subtle ways.

And what’s it like for you as a producer to work with Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter? On the Dexter panel promoting season seven at the Television Critics Association Press Tour this summer, they both appeared quite invested in their roles on the show.

Michael and Jennifer are two actors who have an ability to access the truth in themselves. When they speak as their characters, you forget that they are Michael Hall and Jennifer Carpenter. They become Dexter Morgan and Debra Morgan, and it’s this odd thing because I know both of them so well personally by now, and I’ve spent hours, hundreds of hours, looking at their dailies, editing their scenes, and they become characters that are so fully realized you can’t believe that Dexter and Debra are not real people. And yet the characters are nothing like Michael and Jennifer. It’s magic as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never seen a bad moment from either one of them, and I can’t say that about a lot of actors.

It was announced earlier this year that season eight would be the last season of Dexter. But when Showtime entertainment president David Nevins spoke at the Television Critics Association Press Tour, he made it clear that he would love to extend the run of the show. Would you consider doing more seasons? Michael C. Hall has said that anything is possible.

Like Michael said, anything is possible. But we never get ahead of ourselves because the minute you start thinking too far ahead, you take your eyes off of what’s right in front of you. We’ve always thought of these last two years as a two-year arc. These two years, in our minds, were thought of as companion pieces because we always had an idea where we’d go once Deb finds out about Dexter. So whether that becomes the series end remains to be seen. We have to feel like we’re not on vapors, that there’s new territory that excites us and that we clearly see some way that we can advance.

Some showrunners—Glen Mazzara, the executive producer of The Walking Dead immediately comes to mind—are on Twitter all the time, tweeting their thoughts and talking with fans. Meanwhile, others like Marc Cherry of Desperate Housewives fame, don’t have a Twitter account. Where do you stand on social media, especially given that Dexter fans are so active online?

I find that it could be your full-time occupation, and I think a little bit of it is good, and it’s great to have access to the people who are so passionate and are such huge fans of the show. But too much of it is very unhealthy for me. I need to stay in my head, and keep the show in my head. If I’m always thinking of what to share, it ruins what’s in my head. I did look at Twitter a couple of times, and then I said, ‘This isn’t healthy for me because I don’t want anyone policing my thoughts.’ At the end of the day, I feel that we and the writers are totally honest to what we want to do and honest to what we feel are the characters and not someone else’s idea. It’s human nature that once you hear or read something, you can’t help but think about it. So I steel myself from ever going on the chat boards and elsewhere.

Are you planning on being with Dexter until the end of the show’s run?

Absolutely. It is so rewarding on a creative level. To have read an article in The New Yorker and to have gone and bought a book, read it over the course of a weekend, sold it, developed a pilot, and then seen something like this emerge from it, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime fabulous sense of accomplishment creatively that I’m just incredibly grateful and humbled to have.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter and the other Dexter books could have easily spawned a series of movies, and you have produced films like Riding in Cars with Boys and The Painted Veil. But you went to Showtime and sold Dexter as a television series. What have been the benefits of bringing the story to life on television versus the big screen?

I started out working in the feature film business, and I realized that the kinds of stories and the kinds of movies that I was lucky enough to work on are what’s being done on cable. So it’s a very comfortable home for me. You have enormous freedom, and what’s wonderful about the twelve-episode serialized story is that you really get to develop and explore all these kinds of emotions and different character issues that even if it was a big feature film, you’d be like, ‘It has to be an hour and forty-five minutes. You have to cut this subplot and that subplot. Oh, that’s too complicated.’ Everything gets streamlined down to one storyline in a movie, and in a show like this you can really tell a lot of stories in a very nuanced way.

Add New Comment

1 Comments

  • Sam B

    I like how she talks about keeping her ideas about the show pure by avoiding social media because they do such a great job of telling a story that is intriguing and has deep levels of understanding.  The social media world would turn the show into a soap opera where every week there was a new twist and an old one is explained.  I am so excited for this season to start, but I work late nights at DISH so I always miss the show when it first airs.  It is alright though because I can watch it on my iPad on my train ride home with the DISH Remote Access App and my receiver with a sling adapter.  Having my recorded shows to watch really makes my ride home go by a lot faster.  I can’t wait to see what the writers and producers have had up their sleeve all this time!