One of network television’s most resilient idea generators, Kyle Killen makes his living by coming up with high-concept dramas. First, he got Hollywood's attention by crafting Mel Gibson’s talking hand puppet movie The Beaver. Then he crafted bigamist drama Lone Star for Fox, about a man with two wives and two lives, which lasted only two episodes. Next came NBC's doppleganger thriller Awake, which featured a traumitized cop who lived in a dream state half the time and challenged viewers to puzzle out what the hell was going on.
This week on ABC, the Austin-based storyteller delivers another off-kilter premise for primetime consumption. Mind Games casts Steve Zahn as bipolar behavioral scientist Clark Edwards who goes into business with his con man brother Ross (Christian Slater). Clients hire Edwards & Associates to modify decisions made by "marks" who don't realize they're being brainwashed at the subconscious level.
In Tuesday's debut episode , for example, Clark and Ross manipulate an insurance agent by staging a high-adrenaline incident that turns his brain into the equivalent of "wet cement."
"That’s basically a variation on what happens with post traumatic stress syndrome," Killen explains. "It usually happens accidentally when an experience becomes crystallized this way. The question then becomes, what if you could determine what was crystallized? No one’s ever attempted it in the way our team does, but I think all of the underpinning psychology stands solid."
How does Killen come up with this stuff? "It’s a mix of random inspiration when you’re not looking for it combined with brute force hunting," Killen says. "If I say ‘Oh, I’m just going to walk around until something hits me,' It doesn’t. You have to force yourself to sit down for hours at a time."
Speaking from the 20th Century Fox Television lot in Los Angeles, Killen talked Co.Create about the craft of hatching, testing, and fleshing out high concept TV.
In the early stages of story creation, Killen sketches out a for-his-eyes-only document. "I type letters to myself, mostly because other people get sick of talking to me and listening to me," he says. "So I just write a letter to myself that no one else would read and try to talk through what would be interesting, why would I watch something?"
Once he pleases himself, Killen throws the idea against the wall—Fox development executives—to see if it sticks. "At a certain point I no longer want to be talking to myself about it, I want to talk to somebody else because the process when you work at Fox is you need them to be excited about the same thing that you’re excited about. If they say ‘That sounds like something that someone talking to themselves would have come up with,’ then I go back to the drawing board. You just have to keep going until everybody’s very enthused."
Killen arrives at each high concept from a different vantage point. The seed for his 2012 series Awake was planted by his wife, an ER doctor. When she mentioned a patient believed, with 100% conviction, that he was covered in worms, Killen realized delusions could serve as compelling dramatic fodder. "I liked the idea that your dreams feel so real until something strange happens—you're flying and then you fall or something," he says. "But if that didn't happen, if the impossible never revealed itself in your dream, then how would you know what was real and what wasn't?"
In the case of Mind Games, Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking helped catalyze Killen's long-standing fascination with behavioral psychology. "I’ve always been interested in the idea that there’s stuff that makes us tick that we aren’t aware of us. Mind Games is about 'What if you understood how all of that works and you don't just research it, but actually apply the science to change how people behave? That’s where the notion of people opening up a firm that puts this stuff into practice came from."
While the writer-producer "created by" position resides firmly at the top of the food chain in the world of television production, Killen emphasizes that the final on-screen product is not so much auteur-driven as it is collectively generated. "There’s a part of the process in the beginning where it’s just you, and that's both thrilling and lonely," he says. "I’ll have 60 pieces of paper where I’ve done everything that I can and I think they’re right and I think I know exactly what the show's going to look and feel like. But then you assemble the director, the actors, the costume people, the people building the set. To see what I conceived get better because all these other people are adding to the process, that's exciting to me."
Judged from ratings only, Killen’s shows have yet to gel with mainstream America. One reason might be that Killen avoids straight-down-the-middle procedurals. He points out, "If you do a medical show or do a lawyer you show, you need to trade every week in legal cases and medical cases which are all in some way similar in some ways. For Mind Games, you can have any kind of situation where someone is saying no to that you would prefer they say yes and arguably, that's something Clark and Ross could help you with. That premise gives us this vast universe of stories to pull from."
Mind Games presents the latest in a series of TV characters who benefit in some fashion from their mental disorders. Sherlock Holmes probably has what would now be diagnosed as Asperberger’s Syndrome. Monk is OCD. Homeland hero Carrie Mathison, like Zahn's Clark, struggles with manic depression. In Mind Games much of the drama comes from the contrast between Slater's street-savvy scam style and Zahn's mercurial rants. Killen says, "Clark has this disorder he wishes to understand and that leads him to have this large body of knowledge about how human beings behave and how to manipulate that behavior."
Killen re-jiggered lessons learned from master magician Ricky Jay during his consulting work on the earlier Lone Star series to build out the dueling brother drama. "The history of the con game is that guys who weren’t scientists, who just wanted your money, figured out little things that bent you this way and that way, long before any cognitive psychologists decided to study it with an MRI," says Killen. "In Mind Games you have Christian Slater's Ross learned to con people from the streets, and Clark, who learned it academically. The combination of those two things together is really what enables them lets them do what they do."