As a fan of scifi-fantasy, mystery-thriller, and supernatural genres, it’s been interesting to see major networks like ABC finally embracing the unusual as so many cable channels have already done. With shows like ABC’s Resurrection, Once Upon A Time and A&E’s The Returned in the forefront, the network is once again delving into the paranormal with an interesting twist. Executive Produced by Steven Spielberg , Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank and Zack Estrin, The Whispers is set to premiere June 1, on ABC.
The series stars Lily Rabe (American Horror Story) as Claire Bennigan, an FBI Child Psychologist, who is called in after a child is suspected of killing her mother. The cast also includes Barry Sloane (Revenge) as Wes Lawrence, Milo Ventimiglia (Gotham, Heroes, Chosen) as John Doe, Derek Webster as Jessup Rollins, Kristen Connolly as Lena Lawrence, Kylie Rogers as Minx Lawrence and Kyle Harrison Breitkopf as Henry Bennigan.
Zack Estrin, one of the series executive producers, has made his career working within the scifi-fantasy, mystery, thriller genres. He’s written and produced such shows as Charmed, The River, Tru Calling, Zero Hour and most recently, Once Upon A Time in Wonderland. As a fan of all of these shows, it was a great pleasure to chat with him about his intriguing new series The Whispers.
The series propels the parents of “chosen” children into a tailspin, as an entity lures them into its sick, murderous schemes. What would you do if your child had an imaginary friend that enticed the innocent into a deadly game? How can one differentiate a child’s psychosis versus an entity and believe? And what does a plane crash in another country have to do with it? Can it be the key to unlocking who or what this entity is and why it’s seeking out children to carry out its diabolical plans? What is so special about the “chosen” ones?
Estrin was clear that the series is not about creepy kids who do bad things. It’s quite the opposite, he explained. They have no idea that the deadly game their imaginary friend “Drill” sucks them into, has such dire consequences. In the opening scene, Minx Lawrence played by Kylie Rodgers, unwittingly lures her mother into Drill’s trap, ultimately causing her death.
Estrin described one of the things core issues discussed in the writing room as the series was created: how to insert the parents into the plot, having them go through the terror of witnessing this monster talking to their kids. Using Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an example, he explained, “What’s brilliant about Buffy, it was essentially a parable of what it was like to be a young girl coming of age. The whole thing with Angel: finally opening up to a guy and he’s a monster. What we wanted to do with that is say: how can we do that for parents?”
This brings up another facet of the series that Estrin feels is an important real-life component of parenting. In today’s world of technology, parents worry about who and what is influencing their children with so many ways to communicate. “What if someone is influencing your child and it’s not you,” Estrin wondered. Who is talking to your child via cell phone, the Internet or on social media platforms? Who exactly is the babysitter at a friend’s house? Is this person appropriate?
The writing team really wanted to take it a step further and ask, “what if something far more nefarious” has got your child’s attention that you are unable to see or hear? Estrin added, “Cell phones always have our attention, answering texts, looking one way,” thinking the kids are occupied and safe. When really they should be paying attention to what’s going on in the other direction. As the series continues and rather quickly, we’ll learn exactly who and what “Drill” is. Then more questions come to the forefront, mainly why did “Drill” choose their child to befriend? What is special about their children that makes them vulnerable? It’s truly a parent’s nightmare come to life!
The cast is stellar, with American Horror Story‘s Lilly Rabe in the lead as an FBI child psychologist, a character with which Estrin credits Head Writer Soo Hugh. The character is based on an actual position within the FBI.
Estrin also likes the irony that Claire is “so focused trying to figure out what’s going on with other children, she can’t see what’s going on with her own son,” who is deaf. He added that Rabe is great at letting the audience inside because she’s so approachable and “brings true accessibility to the role.”
The child actors in the series are really phenomenal, with the ability to stand toe-to-toe with seasoned actors like Rabe and Sloane. Having worked with Kylie Rodgers in Once Upon A Time In Wonderland, Estrin was thrilled to have the chance to work with the young actress on this project and had nothing but praise for all the kids on the series. “We got incredibly lucky with the cast. Sometimes you almost run away from child actors but we found ourselves running to them.” He added that there will be several children that come in and out throughout the series, all of whom will really grow as the season progresses.
The Whispers has 13 episodes, a format networks seem to follow more and more, casting aside the old standard 22-23 episode season. Is it easier to write a series with fewer episodes as more of a chapter? “I completely prefer it. Specifically, with this show, one thing we did, we wrote 13 episodes like it was a movie. The first four are ‘Act 1″, the middle five ‘Act 2’ and the finale four ‘Act 3’. We also have chapters within each act so we get to reach a satisfying peek and cliffhanger, that made it really fun as writers.” Estrin says viewers will feel like they’ve watched a whole journey, similar to American Horror Story. “There’s a satisfying end but you will see where characters can go on” by the end of the season.
Although the series is loosely based on the Ray Bradbury short story “The Whispers,” the series is the brainchild of Hugh which takes quite a detour from the short story.
What was the most difficult part in adapting a Ray Bradbury story in the writing room and in development of the characters? “The Ray Bradbury story was really more of a jumping off point than anything else. The series veers off quite a bit from that material and all of the characters are completely original creations. I’d say the biggest challenge is — how do you make 13 hours of television out of a couple pages in an anthology. The one main thing that does remain from the short story — is the name ‘Drill.’ Soo really wanted to keep that aspect as an homage, and out of respect.”
Another thing discussed in the writing room was what type of show they wanted to create, ie: ghost story, possession story, terrorist story? Estrin and the writing team really want the audience to be wondering that from the beginning. “We sort of all discussed it in the room. What if it was a genre show? How can we take something that the grown ups think is one thing, but the kids think its different and the audience is somewhere in between?” The series will have twists and turns of the political world, security and government, conspiracy, history and a creepiness to satisfy all thriller/mystery/scifi-fantasy seekers. “It’s a bit of a mash up” of different genres.
I’ve been a fan of Steven Spielberg ever since I can remember, and have watched almost ever single film he’s produced. Obviously with Spielberg as one of the Executive Producers, I had to ask what it is like working with the legendary producer/writer/director. What has Estrin learned from him that he utilizes in his own career? “I think, more than anything, Steven brings a sense of wonder — of magic — to the storytelling. He has a terrific gauge for what the important parts of the story are. The parts that will resonate with the viewer and — beyond the plot, what the episodes are really “about.” He is still, after all these years, a fan and he approaches story like a viewer — and not an executive. And on top of that — to have someone like him given notes on cuts is such a gift. It’s like having Picasso or Monet tell you how to hold your brush.”
What I like about the series only having a short thirteen episode season, is we will get a full story without the fear of cancellation, which is sometimes the case. Estrin also sees it as a plus and promises the thrill-ride will be worth the viewer’s time and investment. “You never want to leave an audience hanging. Audiences are gun-shy now and we want to give the audience faith, that no matter what happens, they’ll have a satisfying ending.”
From what I’ve seen of the pilot, I think there will be a lot of twists and turns, giving viewers a journey they won’t mind taking.
The Whispers premieres on Monday, June 1 at 9:00 p.m. ET on ABC.
[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B0058YPL66][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00KS9V6EC][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B009RX85N0][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00XEDD584]