Longtime readers at TV Goodness will know that Motive is one of my ride-or-die series, and as such, I am fiercely loyal to its creator, Dennis Heaton. He followed up that fantastic reverse procedural with Netflix’s The Order and is back on our streaming screens with The Imperfects, which dropped its first season on Netflix in September. I previewed the series here.
Last week, I caught up with Heaton for a Zoom chat to talk about creating the show, writing the season over Zoom, and where he’d like to take his monsters in Season 2, The idea for the series was hatched just as The Order was wrapping what it didn’t know at the time were its final episodes.
“We were just finishing season two of The Order, around the time that we were filming episode eight, which is the episode where everybody gets locked in the temple and they’re performing the Invoca. Our director of the pilot, David Von Aiken, was directing this episode and we went out for dinner. [Series co-creator] Shelley Eriksen and I are at dinner and we just start talking about mad scientists and stuff like that,” recalls Heaton.
“The same way that The Order sort of grew out of a conversation, The Imperfects grew out of this dinner conversation where we were riffing on what we liked about mad scientist stories and what we didn’t like. And Shelley and I went away and we wrote up a pitch document for The Imperfects.”
“The core idea was this mad scientist has performed these genetic experiments on people to deal with genetic anomalies in their DNA, and the result has been nothing that anybody would consider a power or an ability. Everything we wanted people to have, we wanted them to feel was a curse kind of thing.”
“And it wasn’t until a group of disparate, sort of victims of this mad scientist grouped up to hunt him down that they started to find the upside in what had happened to them. And so that was the genesis of the show. The misunderstood monsters of a mad scientist team up to track him down, get him to fix them, and find friendship along the way.”
““[Former Netflix director of series development] Chris [Regina] dug it and he wanted the monsters to be a chupacabra, a banshee, and a succubus. And Shelley and I [pointed out] two of those are supernatural and one of those is paranormal. So we had to wrap our heads around how to mad science these monsters, and that’s where the idea of self-identification came from, of them picking those identities.”
“When they’re in the park in the pilot episode and they’re talking, and Tilda makes the joke about a chupacabra, a succubus. and a banshee meeting in the park. That was very much how we were conceptualizing it. It’s more about the ”monsters” self-identifying as opposed to the angry villagers kind of thing.”
Once the idea was hatched, Heaton and Eriksen set up a writers room, right on the eve of the pandemic. It wasn’t long before they moved their in-person development to Zoom. “It was a show that had a very long development period because of COVID. We started out in a full human room in January of 2020 and by February, 2020 we’re wiping our coffees down with Lysol wipes and by March we’re all at home on Zoom,” shares Heaton.
“It was a very frustrating transition to go from the live room to a Zoom room because we lost the spontaneity of six writers sitting in a room together, riffing. There’s a jazz to that, to steal from a much more interesting medium. In a room, it’s, ‘We have an idea! Let’s get drinks!’”
“Then you switch to a Zoom. I think Zoom is great one on one, when I’m riffing with one person [but] the second you’ve got six people, or three people, even, [someone is] riffing, and then the other person coughs, and then the screen glitches and everybody’s sound cuts out and nobody knows what’s going on.”
“It became a much more structured sort of process. Staring at the screen for six to eight hours during the day is tiring on the eyes and your brain feels dehydrated. It’s hard to do anything on the computer after you’ve already spent eight hours doing a Zoom call. If you talk to any writer who’s been in a Zoom room, they will give you their formula for how they made the room work. And for us it was, it was frequent breaks.”
“We’d go for an hour, we take a ten-minute break, we come back for an hour, we take a half-hour break. And so we did our work in these two-hour chunks with these half-hour breaks to go outside, get some fresh air, rehydrate, and then come back and then you’re just in it. We all had two screens, so we’d have Zoom up on one screen and a mirror board on the other screen, and we all worked on the mirror board like a digital whiteboard, which helped a ton.”
While it was a hard adjustment, Heaton says the virtual writers room did have a silver lining. “I missed writers in the room together, but the thing that I really did love about it is when we got to do a second room [after initial development], we were asked to bring on a couple of writers that Netflix was interested in working with,” he explains.
“One of our writers from the first room had moved on to another project so we needed some fresh eyes. I never would’ve been able to bring those writers on board [from LA] if it wasn’t for the fact that we were doing everything by Zoom.”
Putting the show on its feet also gave Heaton and Eriksen the opportunity to showcase a diverse array of talent in a new world order that welcomed it. “Shelley and I were in agreement that we wanted the group to not look like your standard, monochromatic superhero. It’s clearly been an important conversation that everybody’s been having lately, and Netflix was completely on board,” he shares.
“We wanted to reflect a broader diversity in this cast. It was very intentional [to have] more characters that were female, that we were going to make diverse and tell the story that way. It’s nice that this is the conversation that everybody is in agreement on and doesn’t treat it as a hurdle to overcome.”
Heaton’s series have a very specific tone and humor, and while they veer into dark territory, they are seeded in humor and they never linger on cruelty. He credits his family and Eriksen with helping him nail that balance. “In certain situations, I’ve always had a very macabre sense of humor, going back to my youth, and it’s definitely something that I got from my parents who were both, and I say this with love, very cynical people with very dark senses of humor. And they passed that onto us as a family,” he says.
“Tone [is always set by] the character reaction to stuff. Shelley brings a lot of that to the table. When we’re talking about a situation, she wants to know, ‘What does the character feel?’ She’s always very, very much thinking about the character.”
“I’ll be focusing on the machinations and what’s going to happen. And Shelley will always bring it back to, ‘But what are the characters feeling?’ Even when I’m not writing with Shelley, I can always hear Shelley in my head, as my mental co-writer, asking ‘What is the human reaction to an inhuman circumstance?'”
“I think you can take a story and be fantastic in everything but the human reaction. The reaction has to be human. We go for other human reactions than just awe. We get to do exhaustion, and ‘I’m tired of hunting for this mad scientist that did [this to me].’”
“Because you’re doing a series, you get the opportunity to explore more emotional reactions to something than you would if it was just a 90-minute or a two-hour movie, which [traffics in panic and bombast], which are all the perfectly real, valid, initial emotions.”
Heaton was thrilled to discover, the deeper he got into the show, a storytelling nuance that had escaped him. “I just loved where the world kept taking us. I didn’t cotton onto it until we were getting towards the end of the season in terms of writing. I was writing episodes nine and ten and I hadn’t found out yet that I was going to also direct them,” he recalls.
“There was a Netflix note where they said, ‘We feel like we want some other kind of threat looming over them beyond just finding Sarkov,’ and I said, ‘Okay, well, what if there’s a science organization that secretly polices mad scientists for the government like an Area 51 kind of thing. Let’s explore that.'”
“And it became Flux, which has a very surface public face, and then they’ve got secret mad scientist labs around the planet because they’re also in the business of mad science. I realized as we were going through the season that everybody’s a mad scientist.”
“There’s no such thing as a scientist who isn’t a mad scientist. That became the philosophy of the show. Everybody who’s in science is a danger. And then I realized as I was writing episode nine and ten, film noir is what I was doing with this show.”
“The mad scientists are the femme fatales and the monsters are the chumps who believe the repeated lies. And I just loved the mad scientist pulling the gun, it’s such a 1940s movie serial thing, when Sarkov pulls the gun on on Tilda and he tells her, ‘I literally told you I carry a gun.'” If we’re lucky enough to get a season two, I want to lean way more into, ‘How do we up this noir quality and bring that in.'”
The Imperfects is streaming now everywhere on Netflix.
Photos courtesy of Netflix.
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