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‘Hunters’ Producers Talk Avoiding Sci-Fi Cliches in Their New Alien Drama

Following the success of “The Magicians” and “The Expanse,” Syfy’s “Hunters” is the network’s latest high-concept literary adaptation, based on the bestselling novel “Alien Hunter” by Whitley Strieber. Executive produced by “The Walking Dead’s” Gale Anne Hurd and “12 Monkeys” EP Natalie Chaidez (who serves as showrunner), the series centers around a decorated FBI agent who is drawn into the orbit of a secret government agency — the Exo-Terrorism Unit — assembled to track down a group of ruthless terrorists called “Hunters” who do not come from this world. The series stars Nathan Phillips as Flynn, the FBI agent in search of his missing wife, and Britne Oldford as ETU operative Allison Regan, who’s hiding secrets of her own.

At SXSW, Variety sat down with Hurd, Chaidez and Oldford to discuss how the genre show aims to avoid some of sci-fi storytelling’s most overused tropes, their dedication to diverse hiring, and the role music plays in the series — thanks in large part to a partnership between the show and Spotify, which is used in the narrative to help the aliens transmit coded messages to each other.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

How did the project come about?

Chaidez: Gale is a long-time fan of Whitley Strieber … so she optioned the book and took it to Syfy. She was looking for a writer, and through our agency at UTA we met, and I was awestruck of Gale. I was in her office, and I was like “oh my God, I’m meeting Gale Anne Hurd.” But I really took a beat about the alien genre, because I feel like the audience knows what to expect. I feel like there’s a familiarity with the shows where you’re like, “okay, there’s going to be a big light and there’s going to be the ship,” and I said I have to not do that. I have to come up with a take that’s wholly original — wholly original mythology, and it took me a minute to think about that. Once I landed on [that] they’re terrorists, they’re outsiders, they’re here, I go, “that’s a great idea for a TV show.”

What were some of the rules of your world and the sci-fi cliches you wanted to avoid?

Chaidez: If they’re here and they’re so powerful, what is taking them so long to take over? Why are they waiting? If they have all this technology, why haven’t they developed it? So I worked backwards, and I don’t want to spoil the season, but how do the Hunters get here and they’re not in a position of power? They’re desperate and they’re hungry, and they’re not in a place where they can take us over yet, and that kind of led me into the story of the series and the first season, and really not wanting to do “Roswell,” not wanting to do some of the clichés and conventions. What it did lead me into was the idea of sound, and I said “I’m not going to do lights in the sky, so what else is there?” Sound. That led me to the idea that Hunters were sound-based creatures; that they communicate through music; that they have this clicking language; and that led us really into our partnership with Spotify.

It was it was actually in the script that the Hunters were using Spotify to communicate, and a couple months into it, I was like, “Gale could we just ask the real Spotify? Do you think they would actually say yes?” And she said, “yeah, we should ask,” and to my great surprise, they said yes, and it’s been an amazing partnership. It’s a storyline in the first season, and it was very natural because it was already there. In fact, it really pushed the storytelling, because once they came on board I did a lot more music-driven [stories]. I was able to even say “okay, I’m going to do this. I’m going to do the kind of storytelling that I haven’t seen a lot in genre television,” and so it really fueled the creative process.

Basically, the Hunters communicate through Spotify, so there’s sort of a code cracking process, and you’ll have to keep watching to actually see what happens, and they’re not in every episode. It’s just one of the tools that the ETU has to try to catch the Hunters, and so it was very natural.

Britne, how did you come on board?

Oldford: As soon as I got the breakdown of the project in to my agency, I saw the Syfy channel, I saw Gale Anne Hurd and Natalie Chaidez, and I saw Australia, and I was like “oh, cool, cool, cool. Okay great, great, great. Awesome. Yeah. I need to do this; this is mine. I should be this character,” and then I read the script and was completely blown away. It was actually one of the scripts that I’ve read the most slowly, which is very interesting because I just had to take it all in. There was so much, and it was such a rich script — the characters, the story, just getting everything built up. First off, I craved the second episode, and I knew that it was something that I just needed to be a part of, and so I went on tape for it in New York, which is where I live. A couple weeks later, after talking to Natalie, she gave me some notes, which was amazing, and then a couple weeks after that, I booked the project, and then I had to get a handle on the fact that I was moving to Australia for five months because it’s in the back of your mind until you actually book it. So, that was huge, and then logistically figuring all that out was a whole thing, but once I got there, it just felt so right.

It seems like being on location away from your friends and family helps bonds a cast and crew closer together, because you’re strangers in a strange land. Did you feel that?

Chaidez: We were strangers in their land because, basically, we shot with an Australian crew, and a mostly Australian cast. We went down there and we really became part of an Australian filmmaking community. It was really cool because we went down there and hired directors. A lot of them came from indie film and haven’t worked in a lot of television, and they all know each other. They’re all part of the indie film world in Melbourne, so we were really taken under their wing and absorbed. Melbourne, and Australia in general, has a rich theater community, so we were able to draw from the theater actors, and it was really amazing.

It was exciting because we had a filmmaker named Glendyn Ivin, who’s an indie filmmaker. He also does some prestige Australian television, and he was — they all were so excited to be able to shoot genre stuff. When he came in the first day, he goes, “I just want tool around with my camera,” and he goes in the autopsy room and goes, “I’m shooting an alien autopsy! I’m shooting alien autopsy! If I could talk to my 12-year-old self this would be the highlight of my life!” Because Australian TV doesn’t really have that, so they brought an indie filmmaker sensibility to shooting it that was really cool, and they were so excited, and it really gave you a fresh take on stuff you’ve seen a thousand times.

Oldford: You definitely see that in the cinematography and the way that they shot — it’s gritty, it’s dark and it’s gorgeous.

Chaidez: And we have a female DP. It was a big deal for me because I’ve never, in 20 years in the business, worked with a female DP. We found this woman coming out of indie film. She hadn’t done television. There was a little resistance, but I was like “no one is going to tell me and Gale no.” She came in a wealth of shooting a lot of documentaries or “docos,” as they call them, so her eye and her feel of shooting a genre show was really cool and different. You’ve seen those scenes, but you haven’t seen them kind of exactly like this, and it’s cool.

We had a female Australian writer and we had a female director named Daina Reid, who was equally excited because she goes, “no one ever lets me do this. I always want these jobs and no one gives them to me.” It was really remarkable, because she actually ended up, just by the luck of the draw getting two very large, hard-to-shoot episodes. She did a prison riot and she was fantastic.

Producers and creators have to push for that kind of inclusiveness in hiring, otherwise nothing changes, so it’s good that you made that a priority.

Hurd: To give the studio and the network credit, they had to say yes. They had to say yes to all of us. They had to say yes to a really remarkable storyline for [Oldford’s] character as well as to significant crewmembers being women, including our post-producer.

Chaidez: Yeah. It was really important to us. We have quite a strong female contingent.

Hurd: It can be done. People just don’t try.

Chaidez: Yeah, and then people have that credit, and they say “oh, she can direct science fiction.”

Hurd: You can have an American TV series with an aboriginal character.

Having a diverse cast and crew was clearly very important to you guys.

Chaidez: Extremely important. I mean Gale’s, obviously, the pioneer with “Walking Dead,” and I’m Mexican-American, and it was really, really important to me. Of course, Britne was just terrific.

Hurd: It came down to two women for the lead, and one was blonde and brown-eyed, I think. But the best actress won. And the part was not written for a particular ethnicity. Natalie found the best person, and made sure that the role with Mark Coles Smith reflected his [Aboriginal] background, so that we don’t have people playing an ethnicity that they’re not.

Chaidez: Originally, [Mark Coles Smith’s] character was named Chou, and he was an Asian character. And then we saw Mark Coles Smith, and we were both like “holy cow, did you see that guy, he was amazing.” So he’s playing Aboriginal, which he is, and I hope we get a second season, because I would love to do his origin story. The diversity was extremely important to us.

It’s also a very atmospheric, creepy series. How did you find that tone?

Chaidez: One of the cool discoveries of the show was the horror element, which is there in the pilot, but we go further. It’s gory. It’s about the monster inside of us … “Walking Dead” is the monster that’s chasing us, and “Hunters” is the monster that’s sitting next to you, inside of you. We really opened up that storytelling across the season. We got down to Melbourne and had a terrific prosthetics guy named Justin Dix. Once we saw what he could do, we were like “oh, we’ve got to do it” [with] the gore and the blood.

Hurd: That’s not CGI, that is right there. You’re not adding stuff after the fact, and he’s a mad genius. He’s also a filmmaker himself. It was amazing too because he’s got more energy than anyone I’ve ever seen. He comes in with a great idea and you’ll go “okay,” and he’ll say, “we’re going to make all the props right here.” We’re like, “oh, we’re going to get plasters and molds?” and he’s like “no, no — we’re going to create them in a 3D printer.” So, we had two 3D printers — which, by the way, I have to admit I’d never seen a 3D printer before — so it looks like a microwave and you put stuff in it and you come in the next day and …

Chaidez: Whole alien guns come out!

Oldford: From an actor’s perspective, that was just a dream, because I didn’t anticipate that going in. The bread and butter of the show, everything’s practical, and it just makes it so much easier. I think we used a green screen maybe three times, if that.

Hurd: Being able to go back to low-tech [instead of CGI], it looks just as good, and it makes everybody better.

Right, it’s hard to care about the stakes of something when it’s just CGI armies fighting CGI armies, and CGI buildings falling down — where’s the humanity in it?

Chaidez: Right; ours is all about character and the choices and ramifications of the choices our characters make. Every episode really hinges on that, and really every character in the piece has to face a life-changing decision.

“Hunters” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on Syfy.

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