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Master Class

What "Colony" Creator Carlton Cuse Does When He's Staring Down a Blank Page

Although he's a man used to teasing mysteries and crafting intricate plots, Cuse prefers to keep his workdays a little simpler.

Josh Holloway as Will Bowman in Colony

[Photo: Chris Haston, courtesy of USA Network]

When you’re responsible for juggling three ongoing series at the same time, you learn pretty quickly not to be precious about when and where you work. Carlton Cuse, the co-creator of Lost, showrunner/writer/executive producer of both The Strain and Bates Motel, and the man who is launching the dystopian sci-fi series Colony on USA Network tonight, prides himself on being able to get to work any time, anywhere, and under any conditions.

"One of the things I do that I feel is effective is that I use little chunks of time," Cuse tells CoCreate. "So for instance, in the 20 minutes between when I had lunch and when you and I starting talking, I’m rewriting some pages of a Strain script. And that’s fine. I don’t need to sort of sit down and go, ‘You know what, if I’m going to rewrite these pages I need a two hour chunk of time and I need to be sitting facing west with a cup of tea…’ I think that once you sort of habituate your self to that idea that you don’t have to be precious about things, it’s good."

Best known as one of the driving forces (alongside The Leftovers co-creator Damon Lindelof and a struggling young filmmaker named J.J. Abrams) behind the cultural phenomenon that was Lost, Cuse has been a television mainstay since he first took the reins as co-creator and executive producer of the beloved mid-90s oddity The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. With Colony, Cuse re-teams with Lost star Josh Holloway for a story of a near-future Los Angeles in the grips of an alien occupation. For Cuse and co-creator Ryan Condal, the choice of setting went beyond just ensuring them an easy commute to work.

"That was really a critical factor for me. I didn’t want to make the show if we couldn’t make it in Los Angeles," says Cuse. "Ryan and I had really written this with such specificity for Los Angeles that you know we just really felt like it would have been harmed if we’d gone and tried to shoot it in a place like Vancouver or something, and I think it really comes through on screen. We wanted our world to be upended by this alien invasion but not traditionally dystopic." The creators turned to archival photographs of the city in order to capture the incongruous imagery of a nearly car-free L.A. that defines the pilot episode. "We had looked at a lot of artists, photographers and renderings of Los Angeles and one of the common elements of interesting photographs of Los Angeles was a really good use of negative space. And I think that was something that became a very important, operative idea from a production design standpoint. We wanted the show to have a lot of negative space," explains Cuse.

Carlton CusePhoto: Mike Coppola, courtesy of USA Network

"In order to pull that off, we had to do a combination of things—we would send camera crews out at literally first light with digital cameras and we captured a bunch of this stuff at like 5 in the morning when it’s light enough to look like daytime with a digital camera but there still aren’t a lot of cars on the streets. We also shot on Sunday mornings and then we did a vast amount of erasure, we had a number of digital effects houses that worked with us – specifically we’d clear as many streets as we could then we would erase out the other stuff. So there was a lot of manipulation—some practical, some digital—in order to create the look we felt was important."

Photo: Isabella Vosmikova, courtesy of USA Network

For a writer and producer used to teasing out season-long mysteries and keeping multiple story threads touching on aliens and vampires and proto-slashers clear in his mind, Cuse has had to learn to be efficient in how, when, and why he works. Here are some lessons gleaned from decades in the industry.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO DREAM CAST

It’s important to visualize your characters as best you can, and picturing a specific actor or actress is a great form of shorthand. In fact, Cuse thinks you should just go ahead and write something for that person, even if they’re a blue sky choice or someone, say, who starred on one of your insanely successful past shows.

Photo: Isabella Vosmikova, courtesy of USA Network

"One of the things that is very much a part of my process when I write something is, even well before it’s cast, I sort of imagine the ideal casting. And for Ryan and I, very early on we started talking about [Colony lead character] Will Bowman and occasionally in our story meetings his name would end up becoming interchangeable with Josh [Holloway’s]. So we were sort of imagining the show with Josh in the lead and that’s OK, you know? I’ve written stuff for George Clooney and never had George Clooney, but in this case it worked out. Josh really was the perfect guy for this part. Josh and I became really good friends on Lost and we talked a lot about just doing something else together, but it’s hard to work that out. If you get on a successful series, as a showrunner or an actor, you might not have a window of availability for five years. It was just that he was available at the same time Ryan and I were finishing the script. As soon as we finished it I called him up and sent it to him and he read it and loved it and was looking to do something so it was just that perfect confluence of events."

TRAIN FOR IT

Like anything you hope to do well, being creative is a muscle you have to work into shape.

"I think the process of being effective creatively is coming up with all the strategies that you can to get a direct pipeline to your subconscious. You want to throw out all those things that we create to censor ourselves or inhibit that process. I think the best thing is just doing the work. It’s like training for a sport, if you are constantly writing and working on that process of accessing your subconscious over time, with repetitive effort, you ultimately become better at doing that. I think you have to sort of face off the twin adversaries of perfectionism and procrastination. Two sides of the same coin. They are mechanisms that we construct that inhibit us from doing the work, and taking the fearful steps of actually trying to create. You have to get something down on the page first. And I think that’s where most people fail. And even if it’s shitty, getting something on the page is a huge accomplishment and it’s always better to work once you’ve got something down. And you have to habituate yourself to do that. To get that work done."

Sarah Wayne Callies as Katie BowmanPhoto: Isabella Vosmikova, courtesy of USA Network

SET THE MOOD

Even though Cuse can work on the run if he needs to ("I have three television series and I have three different offices for each series so I can kind of work anywhere."), when he gets the chance to work on his own terms, he has certain go-to inspirations.

"I listen to film scores, and I’ll usually listen to one thing to death. During one of the seasons of Lost I listened to one of John Powell’s Bourne scores until I think I know every note. But it just kind of fit that particular season of the show. But I listen to different things at different times. I’m a huge fan of Michael Giacchino who was our composer on Lost and who has written lots of film scores, and his music is always really evocative and helps kinda create a mood. I’ll also read a few pages of good writing, and it doesn’t have to be screenwriting either, I’ll pick up a Junot Diaz novel and I’ll read five or six pages – I think music and reading other good writing are good jumpstarting tools."

Alex Neustaedter as Bram Bowman, Isabella Crovetti-Cramp as Grace Sullivan, Sarah Wayne Callies as Katie Bowman, Josh Holloway as Will BowmanPhoto: Paul Drinkwater, courtesy of USA Network

BE AFRAID

Not surprising, deadlines help more than they hurt.

"I have one advantage over non-professional practitioners and that is fear. I have deadlines. I have these TV shows that are voraciously consuming 6-8 pages of material a day and they must be fed. The fear of not having pages, scripts, stories, episodes is a tremendous factor in me being able to do the work, for sure. That is a powerful motivation."