One of Fisher’s first scripts for television wound up becoming a series produced by Spielberg’s Amblin TV banner for CBS with Halle Berry starring. All because he entered a screenwriting contest.
It’s still hard for the Ironton, Ohio, native to believe that his story is fact, not fiction. Before “Extant,” Fisher had been working in New York theater as a writer and director until he decided to sell his motorcycle and head west to break into television.
Early last year, Fisher (pictured) entered his script for “Extant” into the TrackingB TV Pilot Contest. His script earned a finalist slot, and the attention of a young lit coordinator at WME, Allysa Bauer. Bauer was impressed by Fisher’s script, and she and her fellow WME coordinator at the time, Solco Schuit, took it upon themselves to step beyond their job description as coordinators to champion the project to senior TV agents.
In no time at all, WME’s tenpercenters were rallying around the script, and Fisher found himself in the center of a signing battle with multiple agencies. WME had the advantage, thanks to two sharp-eyed coordinators, and the agency quickly sent his work off to execs at Amblin TV. It was clear to everyone involved that the story was “so ‘Spielberg’ it’s not even funny,” according to Bauer.
Fisher got the official word from Spielberg himself on Aug. 7, which happened to be his 40th birthday. “Extant” was quite the gift.
“I was a kid who grew up on Amblin movies and I think in so many ways that I was kind of like programmed by those movies,” Fisher said. “I’m a guy who’s first in line at midnight for all the big genre movies … but I’m also a guy who loves those great family dramas, too.”
In “Extant,” which bows July 9, Berry stars as an astronaut who returns from a solo mission only to find out that she’s pregnant while trying to adjust to her normal home life. Meanwhile, her roboticist husband, played by Goran Visnjic, is at the cusp of a change his own career. He’s created Ethan – their “son” via artificial intelligence – and is in need of funding to expand his work.
As Fisher first developed his “Extant” script, prior to entering it in the fateful contest, he saw the opportunity to create a complex female character at a time when television dramas are dominated by male anti-heroes. “It just seemed like there was a place for this. And not a female anti-hero but somebody who could be a hero but also be complex and interesting and at the top of her field.”
In the age of Don Draper and Walter White, Fisher challenged himself to create a woman who was just as strong, but who was also simply a good person in an impossible situation.
“And then once I had the idea of, ‘What happens if she doesn’t come home alone,’ that was really sort of the spark that set me off writing for a month straight until I figured it out,” he said.
Everything about his “Extant” journey has been a learning experience for Fisher, who is an exec producer on the series. The toughest part was not writing the script or completing work on 13 episodes. The most daunting task was entering the writers’ room after it was ordered to series. “It was my first time being in a room with that many people who were kicking around ideas back and forth,” Fisher said. “I would come home every day just with my brain exhausted from talking and brainstorming and things.
“It took me a while to find my footing doing that. Although it was exhilarating and it was great because you finally had all these great minds to kick these things around with and the story moved so fast.”
The goal that Fisher and showrunner/exec producer Greg Walker set out to achieve was a sci-fi show that would not turn off people who would not otherwise check out a genre series. Landing Berry as the lead goes a long way toward that goal. There are futuristic elements woven into the storyline at every turn — from driverless cars to mess-free trash disposal — but the story is firmly focused on Berry’s emotional drama with her family.
“I always saw it as I was writing it about a family and kind of grounding it in a family. And it think that’s pretty rich territory,” he said.
The family story takes place at an undetermined point in the future. Like so much of classic sci-fi, “Extant” at its core aims to deliver a message of hope for what lies ahead.
“It’s that we’re in existence, that we’re surviving. And how these things — how we ensure that what was human survives in the face of these challenges,” Fisher said.