“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.” – Philip K. Dick
What: With its tragic charismatic lead, Detective Bobby Collins, and demonic Charlie Manson-styled arch villain, Archie Sweet, the dark television series “Cult” has garnered a subculture of freaky, obsessed fans.
Who: “Cult,” a television show with a small but rabid fan base, airs Thursday nights. Centering on detective Bobby Collins, who lost his wife and young son in a ritual kidnapping-murder influenced by the imprisoned Archie Sweet, Collins is determined to track down the Archie Sweet cult responsible. When a new victim is found at the local art museum disguised as a Greek statue, Collins is immediately convinced that it was committed by Archie’s followers. A visit to Archie in prison only solidifies that belief.
Collins appears outside the diagonal double bars. INSIDE THE CELL, A FIGURE steps into f.g., his back to us – grey ponytail held by a beaded band. First thought: aging hippie. Collins can't completely mask the chill that runs through him upon seeing this man.
Reverse shot – Archie Sweet, 55. Our first look at him. Not at all what we might expect. The kindest eyes, gentle smile. So why the double set of bars?
Collins: Hello, Archie.
Collins signals the Guards to step away. They disperse reluctantly. A BUZZ as the door in the outer set of bars unlocks. Collins enters the four-foot wide No Man's Land between inner and outer bars. Collins can't help but stiffen slightly as the door BUZZES locked again behind him. Archie switches OFF the music. And -- from a completely stationary position -- suddenly springs forward, jutting his arm through the inner bars. A gnarled hand with horn-hard nails instantly five inches from Collins' nose.
Archie: Bobby, so good to see you again, man! (beat) And so soon.
Collins looks at the hand and fingers before his face. Bearing several arcane tattoos. Collins hates this man as much as one man can hate another. Tries to maintain. Archie lowers his hand for a handshake. Collins doesn't move. Moment more, then Archie withdraws his hand.
Archie: The social graces are always the first to go...
Collins: We need to talk, Archie.
Archie: (small, contained grin) I understand the last time we talked you had a bit of an accident... (subtly licks his lips) C'mon. Let an old friend has a look.
Collins doesn't want to give this monster anything. But he also knows what he needs to do if he wants Archie to talk. Collins raises his left sleeve, showing the gauze on his arm. Archie shakes his head.
Archie: My people did that to you? Shame on them. Though it doesn't look that bad, really. (looks up, intense eye contact) I bet it could've been much worse.
The subtlest threat we'll ever hear.
Archie: Problem with wounds like that. Sometimes they take extra long to heal. That happened over ten days ago. And you still need a bandage. Imagine that...
Archie smiles like he somehow knows why it's taking so long to heal.
Collins: Archie. We are going to talk. About him.
Archie: Him? You mean -- our friend?
Collins: The Artist.
Archie: The Artist. I wish the press could show a little more imagination with names...
Collins: They simply called you The Un-Human.
Archie: See what I mean... Un-Human. What kind of word is that anyway? Inhuman, I know. But Un-Human...
Collins remains silent. He isn't going to get caught up in Archie's banter. Archie knows when Collins gets like this. He shrugs.
Archie: So, I take it our friend has unveiled something new? A new work?
Collins: You know he has, Archie. Because he's doing it for you.
Archie studies Collins.
Archie: What was it this time? Another landscape rendered in viscera? A sonata composed of recorded victims' screams...?
Collins: A statue. Female nude. Painted... sculpted... to look like the Venus de Milo.
Archie processes this...
Archie: Venus de Milo. Sculpted? You mean like -- with the arms—
Collins: Both missing.
Archie actually LAUGHS out loud. Such deep appreciation.
Collins: I know he's one of yours, Archie.
Archie: My followers -- what's left of them -- are all nearly pensioners, like myself. I've been behind bars almost twenty-eight years. (beat) I can't harm a fly...
Collins just stares. Tortured eyes trying to slice their way into Archie's soul. Archie is in complete control...
Collins: This wouldn't be one of your original followers. We're talking about the new breed. The ones on the internet. Like those here in prison—
Archie: You mean those miscreants who attacked you last time you visited me?
He indicates Collins' arm. Then...
Archie: The ones who buried your wife and son. Buried them in that awful—
Archie taps his own left forearm. Collins doesn't want to look. He already knows what is there. But he can't help himself. There on Archie's left forearm is a simple tattoo of A BOX. Collins labors to control his rage.
Archie: Can I help it if my people have chosen to single you out? After all, you chose to single me out... trying to connect me with those awful Harris County murders just because they had a certain -- delicious – ritualistic flair to them...
Collins looks Archie square in the eye (something few people can do for more than a few seconds).
Collins: If you want to keep your current privileges... like your music, like your occasional internet access... you will help me.
Moments. Archie's intense gaze never breaks from Collins.
Archie: Ms. De Milo. Check her left arm. The stub of her left arm. If I'm correct, you'll find the cut slightly more -- precise. He took more time with it. (beat) He wants the left arm. Needs the left arm. For something else he's working on. His pièce de résistance. (cocks his head; by way of explanation:) I do so enjoy my internet.
And he turns back into his cell, moves away. Collins quickly signals the Guards. The outer door BUZZES open.
Archie: (without turning around) Take care of that arm of yours, Bobby...
Collins pushes out the barred door like a man desperately seeking fresh air.
The lines between television and reality are becoming more and more blurred, and the actors portraying Collins ( Matthew Logan) and Archie (Roger Hooks) must have all their fan mail screened as obsessed fans have been known to send the occasional animal part and sick snapshot.
Tensions are rising in the fandomain as “Cult” is in danger of cancellation. The execs are unimpressed with the numbers and immune to the water cooler buzz generated by the show. Unaware of the depth of feeling by the rabid audience, they are also unaware of the rogue websites emulating the actions of the characters and the dangerous games being played out with miniature black coffins.
One such fan, Nate, realizes too late that he is in over his head. A desperate call to his estranged brother Jeff yields more mystery. Arriving at Nate’s apartment to investigate the incoherent message Nate left him about “Cult,” Jeff finds no one there, only a chair thoroughly saturated in blood, blood he suspects is Nate’s but which the police soon discover is that of a soon-to-be-found unrelated victim.
Now a possible murder suspect in the eyes of the police, Jeff finds an ally in the comely shape of an ambitious young production assistant on the series. She has been convinced that there were deeper, more ominous layers to the fan-atics of the show and with Jeff’s help she feels she may be on to uncovering a cult within the “Cult.”
She’s right but it may place them in the crosshairs of a group intent on imitating the ritualistic killings on “Cult.”
No Meaner Place: O’Bannon has successfully accomplished what must be considered an impossible task – creating a show within a show that blurs the lines between a false reality that generates an actual reality. He has melded the worlds of the fictional “Cult” television series with its real life actors/stars, the fan base and its hangouts; a real world murderous cult that takes its cues from the series; and the poor schmoo who accidentally falls into the middle of a burgeoning murder conspiracy. Dark layer upon dark layer unfolds until two parallel stories emerge – one fictional, the other a reality based upon the fiction.
Life Lessons for Writers: In the words of Charles Manson, “No sense makes sense.”
Conversation with the Writer:
Neely: I have to say at the outset that this script made my skin crawl, and I bet you’re happy about that.
Rockne: Yes. I am (Neely laughs). That was the intent.
Neely: That’s what I thought.
Rockne: My tendency is that I like to write as extreme as possible. “Farscape,” a show I created that ran for 4 years on the Syfy Channel, was a very extreme example of science fiction – certainly television science fiction. It pushed a lot of boundaries. And with this, the intent was to really see if we could make something that was truly scary.
For me, the way to do that was to break down the fourth wall and make it as visceral an experience for the audience as possible. I wanted it to seem as though the show was invading the room with them, invading their space, because they’re watching a show called “Cult” that’s about people watching a show called “Cult.”
So, yeah… my intent was to be as chilling as possible.
Neely: Where did the idea for “Cult” come from?
Rockne: This idea actually came from my experience with “Farscape.” “Farscape” was a “cult” favorite on the Syfy Channel. It’s been off for some years, but even now there are still fan conventions for it. It had and has a very passionate fan following. When we were doing the show, the whole interaction between fans and the makers of a show via internet was just beginning – it was all very new. It was the first time, at least in my experience, that we, on a show, had an instant idea of what an audience was feeling, what they were thinking about. It was virgin territory at the time. Now all shows have websites and blogs; showrunners tweet all the time. It was very interesting to see this incredibly passionate fan base that spread across international boundaries.
It just struck me that it was very powerful. There were a lot of people who had a connection to “Farscape.” The blessing for “Farscape” was that the fans were unbelievably kind and nice; they were really good people. We had marriages that came out of people meeting based on the show and people naming their kids after characters on the show; that sort of thing.
When I first conceived “Cult” it came out of that. I thought, what if the show wasn’t something like “Farscape,” a science fiction show that had a slight amount of edge but was essentially an entertainment? What if it was a show that was darker, had darker elements? What kind of fan base would grow up out of that, especially considering the anonymity of the internet? It would potentially yield a very interesting opportunity for some very strange people to connect with the show. So that’s where it all began.
Neely: This was truly a case where absolutely nothing was as it appeared to be, especially when it came to the so-called innocent and guileless. How cynical are you?
Rockne: (laughing) If you look up cynical in the dictionary, you’ll actually see my picture. (Neely laughs) I like to think that I’m a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, but no, I trade in cynicism. My view of the world is a bit cocked in that direction. And again, for the purposes of “Cult,” it was just a matter of pushing every aspect that I could, and making it as intense an experience as possible. The fact that you don’t know who’s good and who isn’t was intended not only to intensify the experience but also to make it that much more visceral for the viewer.
Neely: Who was it taken to and what was the reaction?
Rockne: I wrote it as a spec script and we did something that was really uncommon in television about 5-6 years ago. We actually sent it out like a feature spec, sending it out to all the networks at once to see what kind of reaction we’d get. We got very positive reaction and I had meetings with 4 network presidents based on the script. The meeting that had the greatest juice for me was with the now defunct network The WB and David Janollari, its president at the time. The other networks were very interested but we just knew that The WB was going to put it on the air.
The WB was on the bubble, which was (chuckles) ultimately very significant. Janollari, reading this material, definitely had more of his HBO producer hat on, than his WB network president hat, and really said that this could be a break-out, must-see show for The WB; something he really needed. So we went with The WB because we knew that it was likely it would get on the air. For the lead we cast Matt Bomer, who’s currently on a USA show called “White Collar,” and we had Yves Simmoneau, a fantastic director, on board. We were already in preproduction on the pilot when my line producer called me early one morning and asked, “Are you watching CNN Business?” “No,” I answered. And he followed with, “You should, because it looks like The WB is going away.” Lo and behold, here we were in pre-production and The WB folded.
Dawn Ostroff, who took over, had been running UPN and when the two networks – UPN and WB – merged, she slid over to run the new network, the CW. She read the material and said that it was too dark and not the direction she intended to take the network. So it died at that point.
The irony is that a few years later, the development folks at The CW came back asked me to redevelop it. This time around, Dawn ended up being very passionate about the material. I made some changes, most significantly making the two lead characters women – to make it a little bit more CW-friendly; that sort of thing. In this case, though, it was just deemed too dark a piece, too off-brand, for all the other types of shows The CW was doing. So once again, it went back up on the shelf.
Neely: What were some of the development comments you got when people first read the material?
Rockne: I was really really surprised. When I wrote the original script, I didn’t know whether it would go cable or network. I thought it was pretty extreme for network, but I knew that network was always looking for things to compete with the bolder cable material. Although possible as a network show, I thought it more likely cable. So I was really surprised when I got these network president meetings. Then when it ended up at The WB, I thought for sure that we would be meeting and talking about how we should take the bolder big concepts and make them more appropriate to fitting in at The WB. And it never happened. The same thing when I redid it for the CW.
Much to my surprise and pleasure, the reaction was so positive that people didn’t want to change it. There was never any talk of softening it. The main revision I did for The WB was budgetary to make it something that had a manageable pilot budget for them.
Neely: There was a lot of bad luck involved, but do you think there was another network for this. Or, if you had it to do over again would you go the same path and hope for no shut down of the network; or would you go in some other direction to get it on the air?
Rockne: I would definitely go in exactly the same path we took. The other networks were totally prepared to develop it but there were no guarantees. If I’d developed with another network, I probably would have gotten “those” notes, but The WB wanted to do this script, and, as I said, there was every indication that this was going to be on the air as a series, not just a pilot. That was very encouraging to me.
It’s been through a lot of different incarnations. The CW tried to redevelop it, and just this past development season, I did a pass for ABC. For ABC there was a different main character and different thrust to it, but not much. Once again, they were very deferential to the material. But at the end of the day, when it came time to pick pilots, it was deemed too dark and too outrageous.
The good news is that people seem to be afraid of it; the bad news (laughing) is that people seem to be afraid of it.
Neely: This is a Showtime series, definitely pay cable; some place that is willing to take those kinds of risks. But this is a water cooler show, just like it was a water cooler show within a water cooler show.
Going back to the script itself, let’s talk a little bit more about influences. Archie Sweet is so clearly based on Charles Manson. What kind of reading did you do on the subject (and did you shower after reading)?
Rockne: Yeah, really. I had actually looked at Manson and his followers for another project that I had in mind before this. That kind of character was very much in my head when I sat down knowing that I wanted a really evil guy behind bars. I didn’t want him to be Hannibal Lechter but I wanted that same sense of coiled snake where you’re lucky that there is a set of bars between you and him. That kind of creepiness.
Neely: As I mentioned earlier, I felt that you had accomplished the impossible. This show within a show within a show within a show was like looking in a mirror and seeing infinite versions of yourself. I truly had a sense of who each individual character, from minor to major, was and, to a certain extent, what drove them. How did you do that? This was all so complicated in the structure, and yet so clear on the reading. When I took it apart to analyze it in order to write about it, it was revelatory.
So how did you start with this? Did you do an outline? Beat sheet? Character map? Using the grade school analogy – I can envision you doing this much the way we had to diagram sentences.
Rockne: I’m trying to remember. I know I did cards on the wall. Typically I go to cards later in the process. Usually I sit with a pad and dope out each character; I give them a sense of where they’re headed. The first thing I always look for is what the emotional climax for each character is. There’s always some kind of action climax in the stuff that I do, bigger or smaller, so there’s always going to be a plot climax. Initially, though, I’m most interested in the emotional climax for each character because then I know what the last scene is and where they’re going to end up. Then I can go back and reverse engineer it and figure out how I can put them as far away from that as possible or what the journey to that point is.
On this one, I did what I usually do. I sat down and mapped out each character bit; no charts and not too super detailed. The advantage to me was that I was doing this entirely for myself. I worked on it in the middle of a mini-series I did with Bryan Singer for Syfy called “The Triangle.” It was shooting in South Africa and I was here in LA. I would get calls from them for little fixes throughout the production, but these calls would come in at odd hours because of the time difference. So I had a lot of time on my hands because I was dedicated to the mini-series. I developed “Cult” in the midst of that, but entirely for myself.
I didn’t know what sort of reaction I would get, but I knew it was the kind of thing I could never go out and pitch. If I ever went out to try to pitch a show within a show, it would get instantly rejected. I had a lot of executives confirm that. They said, “Look. People come in and pitch a show within a show and we never quite understand it; on top of that, we don’t like to do things that are behind the scenes in television.” Those were all instant reasons to reject something. But the fact that they had something in front of them that was on the page, they saw how it could work. That made all the difference. So that’s why I wanted to write it on spec as opposed to going out and pitching it.
And, at that point, I had the time on my hands to do it. It was something that was in me and something I wanted to do.
Neely: Fan adoration for actors is often a very thin line. When an actor does something that the fans don’t like or he doesn’t live up to expectation, it can get pretty ugly. Did any of that happen on “Farscape?”
Rockne: No, not at all. I’m not just trying to protect the actors or the fans. We had wonderful fans; it was a really fabulous family. There are always times when people want something more from you – “Can you please read my script” – things like that, so they get a little pushier than other times, but the “Farscape” fan community was fabulous. “Cult” was my dark extrapolation of “what if.”
Neely: I’m often under the impression that writers identify with some characters (usually one) more than the others. Who was the character closest to your heart, or maybe to your soul?
Rockne: Soul? Soul? Really? (beat) Well, Jeff, obviously, the main character. I liked him a lot. I liked the fact that he was a drifter. I mean I don’t know if I actually identified with him, but he was a guy who hadn’t quite found what he wanted or what his purpose was. My intent for Jeff in the series was for him to go into this really dark world attempting to find his brother, which is ultimately the thing that gives him his purpose. He’s just a guy cleaning pools at the beginning with no real idea of what he wants to do or what’s going to happen with him.
Certainly when this story starts he’s someone who would never think that he was going to play an important role in anybody else’s life or lots of people’s lives and make a significant contribution to all of society.
Neely: I’m actually hearing from you that there still seems to be life in this; it truly is a television series. But have you ever considered turning this into a book series? It could also be a feature film (although that would be more limiting).
Rockne: There have been so many fans of this work. The spec script originally sold to The WB. Then we went out and pitched it as a mini-series and that got some interest at ABC. So we developed it in that direction, but then ABC stopped making mini-series, so that went away. I went out and pitched it as a feature film trilogy and talked to the Dark Castle company at Warner Brothers. They were very interested but couldn’t figure out the finances since it had originally sold as a pilot script to Warner Brothers Television. It got very convoluted, but they were excited about it as a feature trilogy. Then Laura Ziskin, who recently passed away, became very interested in it and we were trying to set it up with her as a mini-series or find some other way to make it work. This last year, a new executive at ABC who knew of the script brought it to everyone’s attention and I redeveloped it again for ABC.
It keeps trying to explode; it’s alive, it just hasn’t found it’s single true path. The book idea is an interesting one and it’s not what I’ve ever thought of because I see this visually. It certainly could be a book series and that may ultimately be where it needs to live. But obviously, because of the show within a show part of it, it would have the greatest impact in film or on television.
Neely: Book series have become a very successful backdoor route to film and television. But in my mind, it’s a gothic book idea. You have so much going on here. But the thing that has struck me the most, and I believe that is probably what has struck everyone who’s tried to do something with this, is the clarity. It’s that kind of clarity necessary in a book because of the number of characters; but conversely, because you have so many characters, it’s very clearly a book series. In any case, it’s one more approach.
Neely: Returning to Fan-atics. (I cannot help myself with the puns because they’re just too easy, although that may be the very reason I should help myself.) You reference a website in “Cult”: www.fandomain.com. Did it actually exist? Does it still?
Rockne: Did you go to it?
Neely: No, I didn’t. Let me do that right now.
Rockne: It’s not as delicious as I think you would like it to be, but go there and you’ll see…
Neely: It says “This website is currently not available.”
Rockne: Right. But what it was in the past was a portal to the Warner Brothers domain, to their public website. I thought the interesting part was that I came up with the name “fandomain” independently. I just wanted to come up with a name that would be a meeting place for everybody – a combination of “fandom” and then “domain.” I entered it as a URL just to see what came up and the incredible coincidence was that it was already a Warner Brothers website; ironically Warner Brothers owned the script. For me the joy was that since the script is owned by Warner Brothers Television, when and if it ever gets on somewhere, the URL is already in place.
Neely: That’s an amazing coincidence. I would have thought that that would have already been yours, or at the very least have been gobbled up by somebody… well, it was gobbled up by somebody…
Rockne: It was! Warner Brothers created it years ago. To me the amazing coincidence wasn’t that the domain name already existed, but that it wasn’t Fox or Universal, it happened to be Warner Brothers.
Neely: Your impressive CV is jam-packed with Sci-Fi shows. And you did experience fan-aticism (sorry again, couldn’t help it) with “Farscape,” but had you had that experience with any of the other series you worked on?
Rockne: Less so because, series such as “Seaquest” predated intense internet connection; and certainly that holds true for the even earlier stuff like “Twilight Zone” and “Alien Nation.” There has always been “fandom” and passionate viewers of series, but in terms of the kind of connection that I emphasized, my first experience with that was “Farscape.”
Neely: I’m going to break off here and come back next week so we can talk about you and your career in a bit more depth.