How sci-fi series Extant built a realistic future (Wired UK)


Halle Berry
stars in the cutting edge sci-fi series

© 2014 CBS

Sci-fi drama Extant explores a world where human level artificial
intelligence is a reality. Centred on the Woods family, it follows
astronaut Molly (Halle Berry), who finds herself pregnant after a
year alone in space, husband and genius roboticist John (Goran
Visnjic) and their son Ethan, a robot and the most advanced AI ever
created. caught up with creator Mickey Fisher and showrunner
Greg Walker to discuss Extant’s creation, how to build a
realistic future, using tech to foster personal connections and
partnering with Steven Spielberg. How long had you been working on
Extant before you got people like Halle Berry and Steven
Spielberg involved?
Mickey Fisher: I’d been carrying the idea round for a
couple of years, just in my head. Then I sat down to write it,
finished, and put it on the shelf for a year. There were a couple
of similar things out at the time, so I thought there was no chance
[of it getting made] but that it would be at least a good writing
sample. Early last year, I entered it into a contest for TV pilots,
which led to a manager and an agency. The next month, the agency
said “let’s start at the top and take it to Steven Spielberg”. So I
went from being completely outside the industry to having the most
successful filmmaker of all time reading my script.

It was so surreal. My girlfriend was listening to me take the
call. I told her they were sending it to Spielberg and she was all
“ahh that’s amazing!” But then she went back to whatever she was
doing and I stared at a wall for 15 trying to wrap my head around
it. I was sat at a kitchen table looking at a white wall!

Greg Walker: I got involved about a week after it went to
Spielberg. The agency did a kind of interview with different
showrunners and the network sat down with Mickey and different
writers to see who he clicked with best. A couple of days later, I
found out that he liked me best and asked me to come along with
him. This was early on in the process, before anyone was attached
besides Steven.

What was the inspiration for the script and
MF: I’m certainly a kid who was programmed by Steven
Spielberg, growing up with his movies. My earliest memory of any
movie is the original Star Wars. I grew up in that sweet
spot of not just the movies he directed, but everything he had a
hand in. That’s another cool thing about being on this TV show. I
feel akin to that, in that same spirit. I grew up watching those
movies and when I wrote the pilot, you can see two of the things I
was watching heavily at the time — Doctor Who and
Friday Night Lights. If those two had a love child, it
would be Extant.

There’s a lot I love about Doctor Who. I love what it
has to say about us as people, what makes us human beings.
Friday Night Lights was about a community, about a family.
What we strive to do here, day to day, is tell a genre story rooted
in a family. Hopefully we succeeded.

Did the similarities between Extant and
Spielberg’s own A.I. help get the show going?
GW: I think Spielberg came with a tonne of credibility
about being able to convey these big ideas dramatically and in a
hugely popular form. I think that since Mickey’s script was
trafficking that made for a natural fit.

MF: It’s one of those things that revealed itself more later on.
The early concepts were much more about the astronaut, Molly Woods,
being in space and coming across a person from her past even though
she went to space alone, and coming back pregnant. Then I got into
writing her husband and that’s where a lot of the show came from.
We really felt illuminated by early conversations, about what
humanity is and how do you preserve that in the face of great
challenges. How do you make sure it survives? That’s the test of
these artificial intelligences, the arrival of extra-terrestrials,
these massive sea-changes.

You also get a bit existential in places. Was that
always planned?
MF: The scene that I wrote early on, which encapsulated
everything I really wanted from the show, is where John is giving
this presentation on the Humanics program for the Yasumoto
Corporation. It becomes this debate over what the nature of the
soul is. Are human beings just a collection of memories and
information? Is there something more divine about it? It’s a debate
I’ve had with myself. There are moments, like when they told me the
script had been sent to Spielberg, that it all feels divinely
orchestrated. And then there are other days that I feel like a
complex sack of meat. That debate rages all the time to define for

Extant is Halle Berry’s first regular TV work
since 1991 — how did you get her involved, and did her coming on
board change the scale or perception of the series?
MF: Halle had been given the script by her producing
partner, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, before we even started pitching
the show. Lucky for us, she expressed interest and an excitement
for the material. From the moment her name was mentioned we
couldn’t see anyone else in the role. She had all the attributes we
wanted for the character — the strength, intelligence, and strong
emotional core. Her coming on board gave us a lot of leeway with
the character because of how strongly the audience identifies with
her. We felt like we could hold them through this journey even when
Molly is disconnected or distanced from her family because they’re
rooting for her to work it out. One of the biggest things it
changed is that we decided to shoot in Los Angeles to accommodate
her schedule and family life. The crew was thrilled about that.

And how about Pierce Gagnon as Ethan? He’s a remarkable
young actor.
GW: Pierce was quite a find, wasn’t he? We both saw him
in Looper and when I read the script he was the first
actor I thought of. In general, there were a lot of times when we
heard people being interested and there was no further discussion.
People were reading Mickey’s script and it was a bit of a feeding
frenzy on the studio network level but also on the acting

The show airs on CBS in the US and is then
almost-immediately released through Amazon Prime Instant Video in
the UK. Has that changed how you make the show? Is it still
primarily aimed at American audiences?
GW: I hope we’re not, because when you aim at targets
like that you almost always end up missing badly. There is a sweet
spot of American television and shows that can fit in there and
live a long and prosperous life. But my experience is that you
target that area at your own peril. [With Extant] there’s
a thriller aspect to the show and we often start an episode just
seconds after the previous one ended. That, I think, for instant
video binging patterns, is going to be a fun way to watch the show.
There won’t be that gap you find in other shows. We’ve structured
the episodes so that time is compressed. Over the course of the
season, about sixteen days pass. We were inspired by Breaking
and then when you see Walter’s birthday at the end of
season five you realise those seasons have encompassed just a
single year. That was genius because I did not notice that. We
adapted the passage of time to be more amenable to watching.

Did CBS have any qualms over it being internet-broadcast
straight away?
GW: No, I don’t think so. It’s the new model. It’s what
they did for Under The Dome and that was hugely successful
almost straight away. They were very receptive to this. They’re
very open to new ideas — there are means of distribution listed on
their emails that I’ve never heard of before — because that’s how
the market is. It’s what they have to do to stay viable as a
broadcast entity. They’re trying to explore all these different
diffusion channels.

Extant’s approach to the future is quite
grounded — how much research did you do into where technologies
are heading in the real world?
GW: Mickey and I went to the Microsoft museum up in
Redmond, Washington and looked at popular science and future
technology. That was kind of the spirit of the show when we were
creating it, robbing things we like from the future while trying to
not make it gadget-centric. We really tried to make sure we didn’t
put the focus on gadgets but on characters. When I look at the
interactions between people and technology in the show, it reminds
me that I live in a house built in the 1920’s but there’s an iPad
in that house. We like that collision with the future. We knew we
were opening ourselves up to criticism with people saying some
device wouldn’t exist or wouldn’t work like that. In episode two,
Molly’s making breakfast and you see there’s this flat-bottomed
egg. We thought it would be useful, an egg that doesn’t roll,
rather than a flying hover-vehicle.

So your intention was a more subtle attempt at
GW: Yeah, I think so. I think that pure tech or gadgets
are not really the stuff of great storytelling. They’re only
important in that they reflect on the characters in how they use
them. The larger thing we wanted to talk about was how we interact
with technology and how it affects the human experience. It’s
almost a trope now — that technology distracts us — but we wanted
to talk about how it can be used to connect rather than disconnect.
That’s how we’re bettering our thinking. I know Mickey loves all
the gadgets in the show though.

MF: Yeah, I wish they were all real, especially the
remote-control spaceship. The self-driving car is almost here today
though, so it’s not that far off! I think what’s interesting is how
technology can bring us together. People like Bill Gates, Steve
Jobs, or Elon Musk — they see technology as a chance to make the world
smaller. There is a general idea, a general worry, that technology
is dividing us more than bringing us together. I think it’s an
interesting tension dramatically to draw on for the show.

Are audiences more welcoming, or perhaps hungry, for
hard sci-fi compared to the genre shows we got in the 70s through
to the 90s?
MF: It definitely seems like we’re in a new golden age of
sci-fi of all kinds in movies and television.  Over the past
year or so we’ve had everything from Oblivion to
Gravity, Edge Of Tomorrow, Elysium, and
Guardians Of The Galaxy. From the grounded, realistic
drama to the most otherworldly and fantastic. Even Man Of
was treated as much like sci-fi as it was a superhero
story. It’s a great time to be on that same wave and hopefully
contributing something worthwhile to the conversation.

How are you feeling now Extant is out there,
and seeing the response it’s been getting?
MF: It’s been great. We’re shooting the finale right now,
have been for the past two weeks. It hasn’t quite hit me yet but I
was on Twitter after the first episode, scanning the hashtags and
seeing what the general consensus was about it. I’m in this surreal
state, still in the bubble of making the show. I haven’t really had
a chance to step back and acknowledge that it’s happened. But I
couldn’t be more proud of what it is. I think we’ve done exactly
what we set out to do. That’s not always the case, when you pour
your heart and soul into something and it just doesn’t work out.
That’s not what happened here. I think that people will love

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25 July 2014 | 12:14 pm – Source:

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