(The Booth At The End is a mystery series starring Xander Berkeley that is currently showing on Hulu.com. Blogcritics caught up with Christopher Kubasik, Booth’s creator and writer, to delve into some of the show’s origins and themes.)
For those who haven’t seen The Booth At The End, can you give us your preferred summary of the show?
Sure, I’ve talked about the show for about three years, so yeah… (laughs)… I’ve got it down! The Booth At The End is about this guy who sits at the back corner in a booth at a diner. And you can ask him for anything you want: your son will live, your wife will love you again… Anything. But he wants you to do something in return for getting what you want. And he doesn’t actually care whether you do it or not, what he cares about is the story of how it’s going. So all the characters who make a deal with The Man have to come back and tell the story of how this thing they’re [supposed to be] doing – the last thing they ever want to do – is going. That’s the show.
Where did the original idea of the show come from?
Well, I pitched a show to ABC’s Stage Nine, which was an Internet production studio – they wanted a shop for building internet content. I sold them one show called Weirdness.com, which never saw the light of day because they shut the studio down before my show was made. But while I was working on that, I was thinking about other shows that I thought would work well for the internet. In particular, I wanted something that was going to be easier to make. Weirdness.com had a certain production budget, which was one of the reasons they were looking at it keenly and trying to figure out the budget concerns. So I wanted to try to figure out how to make the best internet series I could, but also have a nice big story; something really ambitious in some ways. But production value-wise, how much story could I put into a very small area to keep the production costs down.
So I would say that in many ways I was really trying to figure out… I was designing it from the outside in. I had certain rules that I wanted to work from. I wanted it to depend on actors rather than cinematic language, so that it would be less expensive than having to move a camera around to different locations or having to set up one shot after another. I remember there was an argument [online] that I read where two guys were complaining… they were fighting over Michael Bay…
Yeah, of course… And one guy said “Michael Bay is never gonna make a good movie until he learns how to make a movie about two guys in a room talking.” And I thought that was ridiculous, but I did start wondering what a Michael Bay movie set in one room with two guys talking would be like. Because that means it has to be a story that’s big in scope, because that’s how Bay is gonna make a movie, but it’s gotta be just two guys talking. So how big a story could I put into a very small space was my challenge. And something else that I wanted was a show that was based on “getting to it,” that I wanted a very packed design to the dramatic narrative. So I thought, how about I just get two guys: one person who wants something from somebody else, and the other person wants something from that other character. Go. And that’s when I began teasing out the basic structure of the show. Then I had to grow from that the more complex elements of who The Man is, how the deals work, what kinds of deals, things like that.
Did the scope or the ideas of the show change over time, or is what we see now kind of what you always planned it to be?
Well, it did grow. It took me about a year, honestly, to hammer out all the details. The first idea of a guy who goes to another guy who can give him anything, and then the other guy’s gonna ask for something in return… that was the first moment of it. Then I had to figure out other things, like what kinds of things can you ask for and what does The Man, the dealmaker, ask in return. That took some time to work out. And I figured out that could be pretty broad, that the magical abilities are fairly large, so I had to move on to “does he just want something in return?” And then the real breakthrough moment was that he wants the story. The Man wanting the story is what allowed me to build the show where the characters have to keep coming back and talking about it. That’s where we get the line “Tell me the details.” Because that’s what drives the structure, what makes sense of the show, is that The Man is feeding on the story element.
Then my friend Eric Heisserer – who just had Final Destination 5 come out this summer – every time I would bring up the show while I was still working on it, he would kind of roll his eyes and purse his lips like he’d just swallowed a lemon. To him it was just two people talking in a booth and he couldn’t figure out how it was going to work. And I really respect him and so I kept working on it. One day I said, “What if some of the stories start interconnecting?” And his eyes kind of lit up – and then they faded quickly, because he still didn’t think it was a very good idea (laughs). But that was me trying to find ways to get Eric to think it was a good idea, so I added that into the mix as well. And then the final bit – and this I think was the longer part – was me figuring out what The Man is about; why he’s doing these things. How to make him more than just the devil character. If he’s just trying to do bad things to people, after a while that’s just going to be boring. So I needed to mix up what was going on, what the mythology of the show is. And after I did that, it opened up a bunch of options, both in terms of The Man’s dialogue and responses, but also the kinds of tasks that could be assigned. Because they’re not all bad things any more.
Because of the diner setting, this one-room location for the show, it has an almost theater or one-act play vibe to it, and then the theme of it sort of reminisces back to older science fiction shows such as The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Were those inspirations at all, or did you have other inspirations for the show?
People bring up the theater a lot, and I honestly don’t see it that much because I think this would be a very bad stage play. It’s two people sitting, and I think theater depends a lot more on a whole actor’s body. I would say that what really inspired me was when I was looking at the internet, I realized – and this was in 2007 and 2008 when I was really kicking this around – that the browser windows were very tiny. This was before the iPad, and even if you move up to the iPad it’s about the size of the original television screen. And so I began thinking, what were the early days of television shows like? The budgets had to be small. Even when they began thinking of how to build things, it was very much dependent on the actors’ faces and dialogue.
People reference specifically Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone, but it had less to do with those specific shows than the early days of television. In fact, I would go even earlier than television. We have to remember that Rod Serling was writing TV, 90-minute teleplays, even before he got involved with The Twilight Zone. And I would say that his experience as a producer and writer on those early shows are what really informed his ability to build an anthology series that worked so well. So I would say that to me early television, rather than specific shows, is what informed my trust that I could pull this off. It took a lot of trust to believe it could work.
Then I would say I stole from theater the messenger speeches from Greek tragedy, where the messenger in one play or another has to go deliver a speech or story to someone he’s afraid of; and I think I stole techniques from that. And then oral storytelling as well, I’ve done volunteer work at preschools, through the Screen Actor’s Guild book program, and children’s museums where I go in and read fairy tales and things like that. And I trust that people like hearing stories; I just trust that. You can see that in Quentin Tarantino’s work as well, where he trusts his actors to deliver not only dialogue but stories. And if you have good actors and good stories then an audience will sit there and listen to them. And I trust that the camera can capture that, without having to get fancy cinematically, and still engage an audience.
Xander Berkely fits so perfectly into this main character of The Man. I’m curious if the role changed at all after he became involved, or if it’s just good magic that this character and the way that he delivers it meshes so well.
I’m not saying there’s not some magic, because who knew, right? I’ve been a fan of Xander’s for a long time. I love good actors, and he’s a very good actor. For some of us… I mean the stars matter, but I just like really good actors, and I remember people like that. The way this all came about was… I did not have Xander in mind, but Jessica Landaw, our director, was at a dinner party where she met Xander. Then about a week later she was thinking of casting, and who is The Man gonna be, and she thought, what we really need is a Xander Berkeley type. And then she thought, wait a minute, I know him, I just friended him on Facebook. So she sends him this message via Facebook and says you know “don’t hang up, but I want to talk to you about this web series. It’s really interesting and Michael Eisner’s company is producing it. Would you please read the script.” And he said sure, send it over. What Jessica didn’t know, and neither did I, is how interested Xander is in independent filmmaking and small screen projects. He’s a painter, has a very artistic sensibility and is willing to very much step outside the box. So he read the script, she sends it to him in the evening and the next morning about 7am, Jessica had an email from Xander already saying “yes, I want to do this.” So he jumped on board.
Then one of my creative execs – I didn’t know anything about this yet – called me and said, “So, in terms of casting for The Man, what do you think about Xander Berkeley.” And I said, “well now we’re screwed, because he’s perfect for it. I’m a huge fan of his, and if we don’t get him we will have failed the show, so you have to make this happen.” And as soon as I got off the phone with him I actually went back to the script – and this was the only change I made once he got involved – I did a pass where I took a lot of the lines and tried to make them more in Xander’s voice. A lot of it was already there, in terms of that strange, mysterious, judging but gentle quality that Xander has. That was already a part of The Man, but I tried to find some syntax and sentence structure that I thought would work for Xander, and then I did a rewrite that way.
Let’s talk about his character a little bit. There’s a sense that what he’s doing with these people is sort of a job. Is this who he is, or is it more just a role that he fills?
I have to apologize, there’s a lot about The Man I either can’t or won’t talk about…
Part of the structure of how I built it out, I definitely wanted to play with this idea of an anthology series. I was very drawn to the structure of Lost, especially the first two seasons, where there was the A plot, this overarching mystery of the island which could hang from season to season. But in the first two seasons there was essentially in every episode a little O. Henry styled short story about a character told in a flashback sequence. And it actually had a premise, a middle, a climax, an end and then a surprise twist. I was really intrigued with this idea. So what I built was an anthology series where in each script I could finish up the stories of these clients in the diner, but then The Man would be a story that keeps going, because he has an arc and a story that I’m going to tell about him as well. My creative exec, Josh Rimes, is always saying to me when I try to give things away about The Man, “you know what, let’s tame that back, pull back a bit on that” and so there’s a lot of secrets I didn’t even get out the first season that I want to get out. I’ve already turned in the script for the second season and I’m beginning to address those in that script. But then there’s things he pulled me back on that as well.
As for the other characters, is there a reason you picked those particular types of characters and the particular requests that they have, or is the setup of the show more that he could be talking to anyone, because there are so many relatable, everyday struggles that people deal with.
I’m sorry, do you mean the tasks or what they want?
Both the tasks and also the particulars of these people. You have a nun, you have a father with a dying son, there’s a loner guy, and then a teenager… Just these different character types, and then also the particular matchings of their need and their assignment.
I specifically wanted to have a nice, broad tapestry of faces and types of people. Different backgrounds. People in Hollywood don’t understand the broad demographic of people online, so I wanted to make sure to reflect that… I wanted to have a broad sense of society and different life experiences. And then in terms of who they are… sometimes I find a task in my imagination first, and then figure out what kind of person I wanted to address that. Other times I had a kind of person and then I thought, what would be a nice resonant “but I don’t really want to do this” quality for the character. Melody is someone who doesn’t want… She’s young, she doesn’t want to go to a stranger’s home. Even though that doesn’t seem like a big deal, there’s still resistance there because she has no business going into a stranger’s home. So sometimes it was the type of person and then the task, and then sometimes it was the task and then the type of person.
Is there a balance between the characters, because some of them have fairly selfish requests or desires, and then some of them feel more forced into that relationship as a last resort. Is there a balance you were trying to mix between those two things?
I don’t know about balance, but certainly a mix. I would say that every character feels forced, except probably Willem. The way it was written every character really feels like they have no choice in these matters. Whether they do or not is another thing, and I leave that to the audience to debate. But in terms of how I think the show works best, every character should have the quality of “I have no choice but to make a deal like this.”
One of the things I thought was interesting, and it was actually sparked by one of the questions that Willem had, he was asking if his involvement in this proposition is what actually caused some of the events that he now finds himself in. Is there that sense of parallel universes that The Man is offering, where he’s saying “There’s a lot of different ways you can go, and you have to make a choice, but option D that I’m presenting you is the only one that guarantees the outcome you’re looking for.”
Well, definitely the way the deal works is, if you do the thing The Man asks of you then you’ll definitely get what you want. There are other options or ways that things can work out without doing the deal. In terms of the fact that things begin changing, or that it looks as if it’s part of a natural series of coincidences or events, I needed that ambiguity because I don’t want The Man doing big, flashy special effects. The world outside of the deal can’t know that something weird happened. If I don’t keep that ambiguity or disguise over the event, then the world would suddenly know about The Man. So it must always appear as if it might not have been magical. And certainly many people are discussing online whether The Man is magical or not, and I leave that debate open for right now.
I was wondering if you could comment briefly on The Man’s relationship to The Book.
Can you be more specific…
There is a sense where it feels like The Man is working for The Book. These people are reporting back to him, and he in turn has to report back to The Book, and he’s getting his directives there as well.
That… is an awesome way to look at it. And I will say no more!
I’m not trying to blow the question off. I think… About two weeks into the show… You know, I try to engage online with people because I think that’s part of the world we live in now. And so I was watching the arguments and discussions, with all these theories about who The Man is and how it works. He’s not magic; he is magic. He’s God; he’s the Devil. He’s a therapist with extreme measures. All these great things were being floated, and my manager reminded me that I said years ago when I was working on The Booth, I said “the internet is for arguing, and I want a show that will create arguments.” So the ambiguity about The Man, and The Book, and who he is, and how he relates to the other characters… who Doris is, and how they’re connected or not connected… All these things, I wanted to leave a lot of room for the audience to play. The same way that a movie like Inception leaves a lot of room – it’s a big sandbox – for people to go play in, I wanted to create a space like that for the audience with this show as well. To start answering questions is to take away the sandbox.
What is the future for the show, are there going to be additional seasons?
I have already turned in the scripts for the second season. I know there are discussions going on internally at Vuguru, which is the production company in charge of the show. I know that Hulu is extremely pleased with the response the show has gotten, and after that I’d only be talking about things I’ve heard about third-hand. But I do know we’ve had a really good response on Hulu, that all the executives are very happy with the material, and that I turned in a script four months ago that everyone really liked. So where things stand now is beyond my knowledge. As The Man would say, “I know less than you think I do.” [laughs] But it’s certainly my expectation that we’ll be moving forward with more shows, and I certainly have seasons worth of material about The Man’s story. And as long as there are people who want things, there’s enough material to keep the show going.
Do you have any other projects at the moment that you’re working on, things we can be looking out for?
Sure. I’ve got a short film that I just shot a few weeks ago and am cutting right now. It stars Kate Maberly and Jack Conley, who I met on The Booth and I wrote it specifically for them. And thank goodness they both said yes because they’re amazing in it. My DP [director of photography] was Brooks Guyer, who has worked with Michael Bay and Tony Scott, and it looks fantastic. We shot it on the Canon 5D, which was great. I learned about the Canon 7Ds on the set of The Booth. I was really impressed with the quality we got from these small cameras, so I used one on my short film. Then I’ve got a feature assignment which I’m working on right now. Then I’ve got a feature spec I’ve written that I want to direct, which is one of the reasons I’m making short films, to show that I can direct.
I’m loving the internet space, and the variety and fun that can be part of the internet. It’s sort of like Fox television years ago. Nobody knew what to make of them, they weren’t one of the three big networks, and were almost seen as a joke. Then they came out with The X-Files and The Simpsons because they did the things the networks could not do. And then HBO came out with The Sopranos, and FX came out with The Shield… To me, the Internet is where you get to play again. And so I’ve got a bunch of pitches to bring out. My friend Eric Heisserer has given me a short story that we both think would be perfect for the internet, and so I’m taking it out as a producer now, as well as some other projects of my own that I want to get up and running.
Well, thanks so much for your time. Sounds like you’re keeping pretty busy, but we appreciate you’re carving out some space to talk with us about the show.
Oh it was my pleasure. Thank you.
(CK says that The War of Art is one of the books that focused him years ago. He recommends it to anyone interested in writing, art, or getting done what they truly want to get done.)