Falling Skies Interview

SFX talks to Mark Verheiden, the producer of the new alien invasion show from Steven Spielberg

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With Close Encounters Of The Third Kind , ET , War Of The Worlds and Taken on his CV, you might have thought Steven Spielberg had had his fill of alien visitation. You’d be wrong.

The aliens in Falling Skies are very much from the malevolent camp, and the show kicks off some six months after some very nasty extraterrestrials have left carnage in their wake – decimating the human race.

Ahead of its UK debut on FX tonight (9pm), we had a chat with executive producer Mark Verheiden (a veteran of Heroes and Battlestar Galactica ) to find out what to expect...

We’ve seen lots of alien invasions on screen. Did you set out to do anything different with Falling Skies ?

“I think we did a couple of things. One really important difference of this show is we’re not starting with the invasion. We’re six months after the initial attack which wiped out all communications, all electronics and most of the military, and caused great havoc on Earth. Now the shock has had time to wear off and it’s about reassessing what our next step is. It’s a twofold story once that happens.

“One is a family story about Tom Mason, who’s played by [ ER ’s] Noah Wyle. He lost his wife in the invasion, but he has three kids, one of whom’s been taken by the aliens – his first mission is to protect his kids but also try to find the other son. The second part of the story is about forming the resistance to fight back about the aliens. This is a battle that’s really uneven from the start, because the aliens have a massive technological advantage. One of the fun things about the show was that because electronics and communications are all out, our people in the resistance have to figure out the aliens along with the audience – there’s no internet where people can say, ‘We saw the aliens do this in Europe,’ or something. For all the characters know, they may be the only pocket of humanity left, they’re totally cut off, so they have to try to figure out what the aliens are, how they think and what they’re trying to accomplish, and whether there’s any possible way to fight back. That’s all part of the first season. It’s really hard trying to figure out what the aliens want from us, because they’re not very articulate – they don’t speak to us and are very alien.”

Steven Spielberg’s name is attached to the show as executive producer. How closely has he been involved with the project?

“I came in for the series itself, and wasn’t actually involved in the pilot, which was created by Steven Spielberg and [ Saving Private Ryan screenwriter] Robert Rodat. They brought it to TNT about three years ago. That’s what kicked this off. For the pilot, Spielberg was involved in the casting and the design of the aliens and the ships and the rest of the show. Once we got to series he was involved in looking at stories, and giving us ideas and creature designs because they evolved a little bit as we went into the series – there were amazing things right down to sound design and things like that, so he was very involved.”

You worked on Battlestar Galactica . Do you see any end-of-the-world parallels in Falling Skies ?

“One of the big differences between Battlestar Galactica and Falling Skies – and by the way, you’ll find no one who loves Battlestar more than me; it was a wonderful experience – is that Battlestar was very military. The people on those ships were combat personnel first and foremost. There were some civilians but the stories were built around the pilots and the people on the Battlestar. They were warriors before the Cylon attack. Also, it was set in its own distinct time, whether that was future or past. Falling Skies is set very much now and the people that are struggling to come together in this resistance are not soldiers – they’re just people, Noah Wyle’s character was a college professor, and aside from hunting with his dad, I don’t think he’s ever picked up a gun in his life. Now he’s teaching his 16-year-old son to use an M-16, so it’s a different look into a story about an alien invasion.

“I think it’s also less technologically based than Battlestar was. We don’t have fighters and we don’t have nuclear weapons or anything. It’s basically us, and it’s about our characters trying to find the warriors inside them – because it doesn’t come naturally – also find a weakness in the aliens.”

You finished principal photography in November, and the show made its US debut in June – an eternity in television terms, especially compared to network TV. Did that make the process easier?

“Not really! [laughs] Because of the nature of the production we technically had a bit more time to prepare the stories, which was great, but once you get into production, the fact that everything’s so expensive means you really have to keep going, and once that train’s rolling, it’s rolling. Production was the usual headlong rush into chaos, at the end of which you hope you have a great show – which is true of every show I’ve worked on. What we did have, though, was enough time to do the CGI effects and the various creature effects – those didn’t have to be rushed.”

Stephen Hawking recently compared a visit from an extraterrestrial superpower being akin to Christopher Columbus’s arriving in America – “which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans”. Do you tap into that idea in the show?

“He did say that. It’s a little scary, isn’t it? Steven Spielberg himself has made several different twists on the alien invasion story, from Close Encounters to War Of The Worlds , and my hope is that if they were ever to show up they’d be more the Close Encounters or ET version. But Hawking’s is an interesting quote. He may be right – the truth is any alien race that had the technology to get here would be a pretty successful species.”

Do you have a long term plan for Falling Skies ? Will it play out beyond the first season?

“When you get to the end of the first season you’ll see that we’ve just scratched the surface about what’s going on, so there are definitely long-term plans. Everybody’s fingers are crossed that if it gets a good audience it gets renewed and it’ll come back for season two and be really fun.”

Falling Skies starts on FX at 9pm tonight

Richard is a freelancer journalist and editor, and was once a physicist. Rich is the former editor of SFX Magazine, but has since gone freelance, writing for websites and publications including GamesRadar+, SFX, Total Film, and more. He also co-hosts the podcast, Robby the Robot's Waiting, which is focused on sci-fi and fantasy.