Two men sword fighting in front of a Starbucks. That’s how it started.
Writer-producer Eric Kripke dreamed up that surreal image last summer. His previous series Supernatural was inspired by a similarly random mental snapshot — “a girl on the ceiling on fire.” Now he had this new idea, the coffee shop sword fight. Kripke didn’t know who the fighting men were or why they were using medieval weapons. He only knew he wanted to somehow take modern-day America and roll it back pre-industrial times, to write a quest story like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, only in a land peppered by freeways and fast food restaurants.
“I wanted to take everything I love about Lord of the Rings — swords and swashbuckling and quests and damsels in distress — put all that deep nerd fantasy stuff on the American highway,” Kripke says.
So he took the idea to primetime’s reigning master of big concepts, producer J.J. Abrams (Lost, Person of Interest), who saw the potential, particularly the inherent appeal of a back-to-basics rustic setting. “It’s wish fulfillment,” Abrams says. “We’re constantly being bombarded. It’s a silencing of the din that we live in right now.”
Moreover, Abrams says stripping away technology can help a show creatively, just like with the stranded island castaways on ABC’s Lost. “One of the things that’s difficult and frustrating about all the technology we have is it eliminates a lot of potential for drama,” Abrams says. “[Characters] can communicate instantly, they can research things, they can jump on a plane and be anywhere. Writers contort themselves to eliminate cell phones from scenes. And one of the beautiful byproducts of Kripke’s idea is that there’s no longer that immediate access.”
But Abrams didn’t like Kripke’s apocalyptic device for wiping out modern conveniences. Kripke originally wanted to have the country depopulated by a super virus. But that was deemed too familiar, too much like Stephen King’s The Stand. Instead, Abrams suggested an idea his company had been kicking around: Surviving the fallout of a nationwide blackout.
A few weeks later, the duo had a meeting at NBC’s Burbank offices.
And this is how you pitch a TV show.
Abrams and Kripke settled into their seats across from NBC’s executive team, which included entertainment president Jennifer Salke and entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt. After the refreshments were offered and the niceties concluded, Abrams gestured out 15th floor window to jam-packed 101 freeway beyond.
“Look out the window here, at this crazy rat race of life in L.A.,” Abrams said. “‘Now imagine right now that everything stopped.”
All the executives, Salke recalled, “immediately leaned in.”
Not just cars and lights outside, Abrams continued, but everything in the office — computers, Blackberrys, everything is dead. How would you get home? Where are your kids, your parents? How would reach them?
“What was important,” Abrams said later, “was to really get them to stop for a minute and consider what they would do.” Only after some playful discussion about how each person in the room would react to the crisis did producers launch into the show’s story, about a young girl teaming with her warrior uncle on a quest to rescue her kidnapped brother.
It was exactly the sort of higher-than-high concept NBC wanted. The network launched a hit drama since 2006′s Heroes. And even after big-idea disappointments like The Cape and The Event, executives believed that only a really bold project could break though the heavy fall competition and spark a creative revival. “We couldn’t just put out a cop show,” Salke says.
A few months later, Kripke turned in his script. But Salke proposed a rather huge change. His story was exclusively focused on teenage Charlie’s quest. The NBC executive suggested making the series more of an ensemble epic series: More characters, higher stakes. Kripke dove back in, and revamped the story, expanding the scope. “Eric made a Herculean effort to address all those things in a very short period of time,” Abrams says.
Producers quickly scooped up Giancarlo Esposito off his Emmy-nominated performance in AMC’s Breaking Bad to play Monroe’s congenially psychotic Capt. Tom Neville. But casting the Han Solo-inspired Miles proved far tougher. Production started on the pilot with the role unfilled and Billy Burke on board as Gen. Monroe.
Burke, best known as Bella’s glum dad in the Twilight films, had lobbied for the Miles, but producers just didn’t see it. Then Kripke and pilot director Jon Favreau watched the actor dominate a scene as the show’s villain. “We turned to each other and asked, ‘Why isn’t it Billy?’ Kripke recalls. “[We realized] anyone we cast as Miles he’s going to blow off the screen.”
With the cast was in place, producers had another issue. The title. Kripke’s first choice was Revolution, but there was a new daytime ABC talk show with the same name. Producers considered Downfall, Uprising, Blackout and more. “J.J. and I were kicking around crazy ones — Transistor, Resistor, Transponder,” Kripke says. Then ABC cancelled their Revolution and suddenly the title was available.
NBC gave Revolution its best fall drama slot, airing after The Voice at 10 p.m. on Monday nights. Premiere ratings stunned. The show was the biggest drama premiere in the valuable adult demo on any network in three years.