River," the new series premiering on ABC next Tuesday (Feb. 7), world-famous
wildlife expert and explorer Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) vanishes during an expedition
down the Amazon and is presumed dead. But when a signal is picked up from his
emergency beacon, a new team led by his wife, Tess (Leslie Hope), and son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson), follow Cole's trail
deep into the heart of Brazil on the mysterious and foreboding river, where both
natural and otherworldly dangers await them.
That is the basic premise of the show, which was conceived by "Paranormal Activity" mastermind Oren Peli and
executive producer Michael R. Perry and also falls under the production umbrella
of Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. The
showrunners/executive producers are Zack Estrin and Michael Green, both of whom
have experience with genre fare. Estrin wrote for shows like "Charmed" and "Tru
Calling," while Green was a co-executive producer on "Heroes," co-wrote last year's big-screen version of "Green Lantern," and has done a ton of work for DC
Comics, penning the graphic novel "Batman: Lovers and Madmen" and writing for
the "Superman/Batman" and new "Supergirl" lines.
"I just thought it was just a real opportunity to do something that was
special and different," says Estrin -- who, along with Green, is speaking with
us on the phone -- about the show. "I mean, so often you read stuff or watch
stuff on TV that is just the same, you know. And I'm always drawn to the things
that are different and the challenging and 'How the f--- are we going to pull
that off' and 'Oh, they're never going to make this' ... (it's) just the chance
to tell stories that are not on TV, the chance to see people that are not on TV,
the chance to see visuals that are not on TV."
"Part of the fun of TV is figuring out the puzzle of how are you going to
make that work week-to-week, how are you going to make that work even once,"
agrees Green. "That's really the fun part because we looked at that script for
this pilot and had a lot of ideas for how to make it work but weren't sure it
was going to until we not only could like answer a lot of questions for
ourselves but find the right people to help bring it out."
Taking a cue from Peli's "Paranormal Activity" films, "The River" is done in
the "fake-doc" or "found-footage" style, with everything seen through video
cameras either carried by the crew or installed on the boat used by the
expedition. In this case, the conceit is woven cleverly into the story line:
Tess and Lincoln's search for Cole is funded by the TV network behind Cole's
show, on the stipulation that the hunt itself be turned into a series. The
cameras are there for a reason, and the fact that they're often held by
characters who are supposed to be professional cameramen limits the amount of
"shaky-cam" that could be tiresome week after week.
"One of the bigger challenges of the documentary form is we really had to
learn a lot of new skills as writers and as producers," admits Estrin. "We would
have scenes that we thought were incredibly fun to watch or scary or emotional
and then we'd to go, 'Wait a minute. How's the camera there?' And then suddenly
you're like, 'All right, start again.' You realize that some of your best
efforts don't work in this medium. Even simply the tricks of doing horror movies
don't work in this medium because you can't do that classic stalker-cam of the
monster coming up on someone unsuspectingly because the monster doesn't have a
camera on our show."
Ah, yes, the "monster." While the pilot episode introduces the main story arc
of searching for Cole and drops tantalizing hints about just what he got himself
into, the next two episodes find the expedition encounters different,
stand-alone phenomena -- some supernatural, some seemingly so -- as it heads
further down the river. "We tried as much as possible to really pull from local
lore and legends of that area in South America," says Estrin. "It turns out
there's a ton of really scary stories. A lot of it is all designed to keep white
men out, so there are these really, really great stories, and we would sort of
take those as our inspiration and spin them out from there."
"There are so many great legends," adds Green. "We would just read them and
try to make use of them, and then we were hoping we get additional seasons to
keep going 'cause there's so much we are excited to do."
The show's ratings, of course, will determine whether the trip down "The
River" continues past this season, but Green and Estrin insist that viewers who
invest in these first eight episodes won't feel cheated if that's all they end
up getting. "We want each year to have its own beginning, middle and end," says
Green. "We have concepts for years to come, but we really put every ounce of
energy we had into making sure that our first run of episodes was as rich and
fulfilling as we could make it." Estrin adds, "If it doesn't go past first
season, you'll still be rewarded for watching all eight of these and you'll
still be told a complete story."
However the mysteries of "The River" play out, Estrin says that he and Green
have one specific goal in mind as the show moves forward. "Part of the reason
why I want to do this is because TV hasn't really been that scary, at least not
successfully, at least to me," he reveals. "A lot of people talk about there
having been a bunch of failed shows and you can't do horror, and I actually look
at those and I go, 'Well, it's not because they weren't scary; it's because they
weren't good.' There's a big difference, but now it's a question. Can you
maintain tension over the course of six commercial breaks? That's going to be
the big challenge for us as this thing goes forward."
Geeking Out On...J.J. Abrams Directing 'Star Trek' and 'Star Wars'
J.J. Abrams' 'Star Trek Into Darkness' is set to open this week, then begins the task of directing a new 'Star Wars' film for 2015. Check out this episode where Kurt argues why he's the man for the job and how it's enough already about the lens flares. Also, a few other "double dippers" in the dueling franchises as well as a few others.