The trio of executive producers who created FX’s “Damages” — Daniel Zelman, Todd A. Kessler and Glenn Kessler — are at it again, with their new twisty tale “Bloodline.” The family drama-meets-thriller, which debuts on Netflix on March 20, boasts a star-studded cast, including Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard as the parents of a clan burdened by secrets, which come bubbling to the surface when black sheep son (Ben Mendelsohn) comes home. It falls to favorite son Kyle Chandler to protect them — and in true “Damages” fashion, nothing is at seems.
Variety talked to Zelman about how and his fellow EPs created their new thriller.
How did you come up with the idea for “Bloodline”?
It really started simply as a scene. We had finished “Damages.” We were partners with Sony, and we knew were going to do another project with them. We just wanted to make sure that whatever we were going to write about was something that was important to us in some form. Glenn and Todd, who I created the show with, are brothers. They have an older brother, and I’m one of three brothers. We’ve all known each other for 25 years. There’s something very similar about our families. We’ve just talked a lot about our families over the years. So when it came time to finding a subject matter for another show, we kept returning to this idea of family. In this current landscape of television, the idea of doing a straight-ahead family drama didn’t feel like something that would really stand out. We weren’t going to do a family show unless we found an angle that gave it a certain kind of edge, something exciting. So we tossed around some ideas and finally hit upon this notion of combining a family drama with a thriller. And that’s when everything fell into place.
What were your inspirations when writing the show?
The real inspiration was writing about family dynamics that we’ve experienced. The show isn’t about our family per se, but a lot of the family dynamics we explore are familiar to us. Movies like “Body Heat” and “Cape Fear” were things we talked a lot about, particularly because of the setting in Florida, but also movies like “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Even movies like “Fatal Attraction” and The Talented Mr. Ripley,” those were touchpoints for us. As was the novel “Crime and Punishment.”
How did you cast the show? Did you write the show with certain actors in mind?
There was no script, so in some sense in some ways we wrote it for everyone. While we were writing the first script we were also casting. Those two things did go hand-in-hand. There was a degree to which we were able to write a little bit to all of them, although we were still learning who they were and how to work with them. Casting is huge in anything you do. With our cast with “Damages,” having Glenn Close at the center of our show, we’ve been very spoiled. Everything fell into place with this show, too. Kyle very early on was someone we identified. We knew this character had to be someone who could be at the center of the show. We heard he was interested in doing something else, but it had to be the right thing. He was going to be very selective. The three of us flew down to meet with him, and we just got such a great feeling from him. His presence was so perfect for what it was we saw in the role of John. We were incredibly fortunate he was willing and able to do it. But just as important since it’s a family, the older black sheep is a hugely important character. Their relationship is very much at the center of the whole show. Ben Mendelsohn is someone we had seen in a string of movies, playing small roles in most of them. Whenever we saw him, he was just unrecognizable from the time before. We knew this character had to have a very wide range of colors. We were just very lucky that we got the people we targeted. When we were pitching the show, we said, in imagining the parents, think of someone like Sam Shepard and Sissy Spacek. And then we ended up getting them. And they all did such an amazing job blending and melding with each other and becoming a family.
How did you write the show differently knowing you’d be on Netflix vs. a traditional network?
For us we feel it’s so well suited to the way we tell stories, because our storytelling is heavily serialized. We already knew that a lot of people that watched “Damages” watched it in a binge fashion. This show is a family drama that morphs into a thriller. There are certain thriller elements early on that are threaded through, but it really becomes more and more of a thriller as it moves forward. We felt like we wanted that to change very gradually. We wanted you to get to know the characters first. We wanted them to be real people and not immediately go to a genre. What it allowed us to do was inch by inch, step by step, bring this family to a place. Very early on in the first episode you see Kyle Chandler’s character in an extreme situation. For us we wouldn’t have thought it was realistic or enjoyed it if Kyle goes from being the man he is to this other guy instantly. We want to see him pushed to this extreme place over time, and we want to see how it happens. Because the next episode is just one click away, we felt like it gave us more freedom to do that. That was very exciting.
As with “Damages,” you play with time here. How much fun is that for you as a storyteller?
It’s fun. For us it comes from what we feel is going to be best for the story primarily. There’s less of it here then there is in “Damages.” It didn’t mean anything to us either way, except that we felt this show needed less of it. The thing that happens in this show is that we start seeing bits of the past. Because they’re a family, the past is more relevant to who they are than it was, for example to Patty Hewes and Ellen Parsons in “Damages.” The future goes away, we see more of the past and the future comes back in later. Kyle’s voiceover in the introduction into these events also feels a bit different to us. It’s just freedom, it’s just storytelling freedom. We’ll take advantage of every narrative tool we feel we have to make this show as interesting and exciting as possible.
Can we trust the voiceover? Is he a reliable narrator?
Is anyone? Without giving anything away, in our world in general, people say what they need to say and what they feel they have to say in the moment to protect themselves and protect their family. At the same time, John, Kyle’s character, is a honest man. So there’s a tension there. We answer the question of what that voiceover means at the end of the season. That all is leading somewhere. Whether he is a reliable narrator or not will be revealed to the audience by the end of the first season at the end of the final episode. You’ll have to wait and see. Everything is possible.
Does the finale set up for a second season?
Yes. Even when we pitched the show we had ideas for what five, six seasons of the show could be because that was very important to us to think about how does this evolve season by season. The final episode of this season answers all the questions of this season, which is always very important to us — but then launches a whole new proposition going forward. We always did that in “Damages” as well. We tried to answer every question that we posed in a given season by the end of that season, but then also leave something for the audience moving forward. I guess you could call it a cliffhanger. We did the same thing at the end of this season. There’s very much a springboard moving forward.
What lessons did you learn from “Damages”?
That’s a good question. Probably a million of them, really. I think one of the lessons we learned is that the audience can have such a different perspective on the events and the characters that they see that you can’t worry too much about it. You have to write the show as it feels most organic to you. We were always amazed in “Damages” how people could see events in very different lights. One audience member could see one character as a villain and another could root for that character. Early on we had some kind of testing and people were frustrated with the show because no one was likable and everyone lied to each other — and other people loved the show because no one was likable and everyone lied to each other (laughs). You just have to tell the story the way it makes the most sense to you.
What about lessons in terms of producing the show?
Every day you learn something about how to do best write a scene and to best communicate that scene to the actors. A tremendous amount of what we learned was learned in editing. We are very editing-focused. We give ourselves a ton of freedom in editing. Very often we will rewrite a scene in editing because we will see something in editing we feel is a more interesting idea. It’s a visual medium, ultimately. We’ll squeeze every opportunity out of our process to get the most of the acting, our characters, the story. When you know that going in, you understand the scripts are flexible. You can write a scene a certain way. If you feel it doesn’t work the way you wanted it to, in editing you have options.
Does the season end where you expected?
It’s funny because the answer is yes, it does, even though we give ourselves the freedom to change it. What we do when we think of any of these story arcs, we think of tentpole moments along the way throughout the season. So we always know we’re writing toward a certain event or a character moment. Within that plan we allow ourselves a lot of flexibility and improvisation, until we see what the actors are bringing to the roles, until we see how the stories unfolding. As we watch the actual cuts and see what the actors are doing, what the directors are doing, and see what the locations feel like. we might get different ideas. We never want to limit ourselves if we feel like we’ve come up with a better idea. We allow ourselves flexibility, and that includes changing these tentpoles if we feel there’s a better way of doing it and the ending if we feel there’s a better way. But nine times out of ten, we do end up where we originally planned these tentpoles. Occasionally we will change one. Honestly it can make our jobs harder, but if it feels like it’s better we have to do it. But the end point of this season is definitely something we had in mind from the very beginning. I think a lot of people think we make it up as we go along. I think that’s because in between these tentpole moments we do do a lot of improvisation and changes. But I don’t know how you could create an intensely serialized show like this without having these guideposts along the way. I know it would drive me crazy. You need to have a sense of where you’re going.