RECTIFY | ©2013 Sundance Channel

RECTIFY | ©2013 Sundance Channel

In RECTIFY, an original six-hour dramatic series produced by and for the Sundance Channel, with a two-hour premiere Monday at 9 PM, Aden Young plays Daniel Holden. At age nineteen, Daniel was convicted of raping and murdering his girlfriend. He has spent the last nineteen years on death row, but his conviction is set aside on a technicality. RECTIFY follows Daniel for the first six days as he re-enters the world and the small-town family he left.

Ray McKinnon, creator and one of the executive producers of RECTIFY, has a prolific career as an actor, including arcs in DEADWOOD and SONS OF ANARCHY and a role in THE BLIND SIDE. However, the Georgia native does not appear in RECTIFY.

In person, McKinnon gives thoughtful answers as he discusses the origins and ambiguities of RECTIFY.

ASSIGNMENT X: Given the subject matter and style of RECTIFY, it seems appropriate to ask – have you ever been incarcerated?

RAY McKINNON: Not like that [laughs]. No. I’ve been in jails before, but not prison. I’ve always been fascinated with any documentary about prison, the world of prisons, because if you’re interested in human behavior, if you like to watch human beings, and they still fascinated you, there’s no Petri dish quite like the Petri dish of incarceration in close quarters.

AX: How long ago did you start working on RECTIFY?

McKINNON: I guess the original fictional idea came about around ten years ago. A number of cases inIllinois – prisoners were being exonerated or their cases were overturned, and I saw these guys at press conferences and I had this vision of this fictional guy getting out, as I started imagining the fictional story. So ten years ago, or so.

AX: How did RECTIFY finally get made?

McKINNON: Well, I didn’t write it until about four years ago, when I started watching MAD MEN. For some reason – there are reasons I can guess in hindsight – it inspired me to go forward with this story, and I think part of it was how I felt when I imagined this story was in some ways similar to how I felt when I watched MAD MEN. This story is an exploration of private lives, behind the curtains, and watching human beings interact in ways that they may not even be aware of their behavior. MAD MEN has a similar thread. So that was five years ago. Then I felt like just, “Well, can I write it?” That’s always my fear or my challenge – will I be able to write it? And I just jumped in one day for many reasons and then it came forth. It was really kind of an extraordinary experience for someone who’s written a lot. Sometimes writing can be torturous and leading to nowhere.

So I wrote the pilot in about two weeks and then people really liked it, but it wasn’t something they felt like was commercial enough or whatever the parameters were, and until Sundance showed up – if you could imagine a place that it would be right for, it would be Sundance, because it’s very American, and Sundance started out as a festival that wanted to explore American independent film. And they gave me a lot of leeway to tell the story that I wanted to tell – if I wanted to go down strange paths that weren’t part of the traditional narrative engine of television, which I’m drawn to as a watcher, they let me do it. I think MAD MEN’s an example – when Don Draper goes off toPalm Springs for no good reason. I love that, when you don’t have to follow the formula of where people think television must be confined to. Hopefully, there’s that in the series.

AX: One of the themes of RECTIFY is people’s experience of the passage of time, time itself as a concept. Is it difficult to write about that as a dramatic topic? You’ve actually done it, but did you think about how to do it beforehand, or is it something you did and then went, “Oh, that’s what I’m doing”?

McKINNON: No, I did write in the original pilot, all those years ago, that they [prison inmates] don’t experience time in the same way that we experience time on the outside. I wanted to investigate that. But with that, knowing you can’t do real time in a forty-three-minute and forty-five-second show. So I guess we hint of it and we give a taste of it and an impression of it, and hopefully people will recognize that.

AX: With your main character Daniel Holden, did you approach writing him as, “If I were him, what would I want to do?” or are you looking at him from outside?

McKINNON: [laughs] Boy, that’s an ephemeral exploration. I think it’s partly me, it’s partly this imaginary person that has become manifest in my brain who tells me what he wants to do. Writing fiction is – this is going to sound weird, but listening to the muse. And the muse is talking, he or she, it will tell you where to go. And I felt like a lot of that in this story, especially the first two episodes, that the characters told me where to go.

AX: Once you had the main character set, how did you decide what you wanted to have going on around him? For example, the threat of retrial hanging over his head, the family and friends that are around – how did you come to all of those elements?

McKINNON: Well, just being a person interested in the justice system and watching a whole lot of real-life cases of a similar nature happen, and watching the psychology of prosecution, sometimes in cases that are much less ambiguous than this fictional case is, prosecution holds on steadfast to their belief system that this guy did it, even though DNA and all kinds of other evidence is to the contrary. So I wanted to explore the psychology of that. Why does that happen? These are not all bad people, but the brain’s a mysterious thing [laughs], so I wanted to explore that. I wanted to explore how a family that had to pick up the pieces from his sentence, which was a death sentence, could go on with their lives. I wanted to see, first, what that life was, and then what would happen if this man, this dead man, returned. Could they adapt to that?

So there’s a lot of family dynamics going on, there’s certainly the town dynamics, the dynamics of the original prosecutors and this man – all he wants to do is live another day and exist and not become a part of this world right now. I don’t think he knows what he wants to do. But everybody else around him wants something from him. His sister wants him to be the brother that she never had. His younger brother wants him to be the big brother. His stepbrother wants to know that he’s not going to usurp him. The sheriff wants to put him back in jail. And all these people want him to be something and do something, and he gets pulled back into this world, whether he wants it or not.

I don’t think that he even fully trusts that he’s in this world. I don’t think he’s fully sure that this is real. I guess he’s in shock. If you’re in a box for nineteen years, and suddenly you’re let out of that box to this big world with all the complications of that, how does a person deal with that? I think on a physiological level, you’d shut down a little bit, and that’s what he tries to do, and in the third episode, he retreats to his room and he creates his own box. So that’s going to be his ongoing struggle – does he want to really re-engage with the living, with life, considering what happened?

AX: Is it correct that the time span of the story in the first season is one week?

McKINNON: Yes.

AX: Does RECTIFY allow for the possibility of a second season?

McKINNON: I know that there have been discussions about it [laughs]. I feel like this was a six-part story for me and that’s the way I approached it. And I felt like regardless of if there’s more story or not, I was going to make a six-part story that I could feel good about. And that’s what I did.

AX: With Aden Young playing Daniel, how much of his performance is the character that you envisioned? Is he bringing anything different to it than what you expected?

McKINNON: Yes, he is. It required a person who has a certain ambiguousness. The character needs to be vulnerable, the character needs to be scary, the character needs to be emotional, the character needs to be withdrawn. It’s a really difficult character to play. We don’t know what really makes him tick deep down, so it’s a person who is asked to portray all these different levels of this guy, and we looked at a lot of people to play this role. AndAden showed up and was able to embody all those characteristics. He’s a wonderful actor.

AX: You’re an actor yourself. Do you show up at all in RECTIFY?

McKINNON: I wanted to [laughs], because I love to act and I felt I could create a really interesting character for myself, but I’m too busy, so I haven’t had time. I fortunately have made friends with some wonderful actors along the way that I’ve been able to bring in to play roles, and actors that I feel like have been under-appreciated in their careers, and so it’s been gratifying to bring in W. Earl Brown from DEADWOOD and Sean Bridgers from DEADWOOD, who are friends of mine, and Michael O’Neill as the senator – I’ve admired his work and he’s a friend. So vicariously, I get to live through them for now.

AX: At least in its first two episodes, RECTIFY seems to have a lot of empathy for all of the characters. There’s nobody who seems to be behaving unreasonably.

McKINNON: [laughs] Well, define “unreasonable.” [In the] show, the explosions are of a different nature, of a different sort, meaning we don’t see a surface-to-air missile in the first episode. It’s a different kind of show, and the unreasonableness is – I don’t want to say “subtle,” but it’s of a different nature. But I did want all of the characters to be three-dimensional, to have a point of view. The stepbrother, Ted Junior, who is in some ways Daniel’s antagonist, is also not necessarily wrong. I wanted to explore that. Clayne Crawford has done a wonderful job playing that. I like it when I am challenged by the complexity of humans in storytelling. We wanted to portray that.

AX: There are flashbacks to Daniel’s prison experiences that are more suggestive than graphic, which are fleshed out by his monologues. Is that a way of dealing with a lot of the violence in the show?

McKINNON: The flashbacks are Daniel’s memories, Daniel’s recollections, and memories are fallible and recollections are fallible. So it’s more of an impression of what his life was like. I think the flashbacks for me are a way of helping us understand better why Daniel is the way he is in the present, and whether something happened to him, or just him being in that environment for so long, it gives us a little better understanding of why he’s so ambivalent to re-engage.

AX: So far as we know, did Daniel not try to kill himself because he assumed that the state would do it for him, or does he have a will to live, or is that one of the questions that’s through the show?

McKINNON: That is one of the questions that I was intrigued by. That wonderful documentary that Martin Scorsese did about George Harrison – George Harrison spent a large part of his life preparing for that last journey. Most of us avoid thinking about that [laughs]. We keep dancing as fast as we can. And I felt Daniel, for his own reasons, has accepted his fate, whether just or unjust, and he’s preparing for that journey, and when he gets taken away from what he had come to terms with, which is preparing for the final journey, which is death, he’s not sure what to do. He’s adrift. So when he gets free, the first six shows are about will he or won’t he engage again in life and try to live. That is an ongoing question.

AX: And do you have any other projects going on right now?

McKINNON: No [laughs], Lord God. This last year has been – television is an all-consuming enterprise. I think I might run off and do a movie for a little bit as an actor, because I love to act, but also they tell me where to go, what to do …

AX: You’re starting to feel like Daniel, you’re going, “Just tell me …”

McKINNON: [laughs] That’s exactly right. So that’s the only thing I have planned.

AX: What would you most like people to know about RECTIFY at the start?

McKINNON: Oh, my. If you like not to see the usual suspects, that this may be a good chance for that. I just made a show that I would like to see, and that’s all I can do. I hope others come to it and I feel like there will be some. It goes back to storytelling. Part of what storytelling does for humans, I think, is it gives a framework to our existence and that’s why we generally like beginnings, middles and ends, a denouement and closure, and sometimes in life, you don’t get that. Sometimes in life, we don’t find out really what happened. And I’m not sure if we will in this show. And so I guess let there be mystery in some of our storytelling, let there be even restraint. We don’t need to have everything spelled out sometimes. Your interpretation of something is not wrong. What I intended changes. I try as a watcher to just be open to it.

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Article: Exclusive Interview with RECTIFY creator Ray McKinnon

 

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