Inside Scoop: COLONY’s EP Ryan Condal Previews Season’s Twists

Colony is an intriguing, contemporary, post-alien invasion drama set on the streets of Los Angeles. It explores how society changes under an occupying force, while telling its story through compelling characters who are never quite who they seem. The show has already been renewed for a second season, and OHSOGRAY participated in a recent press call with executive producer Ryan Condal to discuss where the show is heading.

Colony airs Thursdays on USA Network at 10-11 p.m. ET.

How did you decide to start the series after “the arrival” had occurred? What changes and creative opportunities have resulted from that decision?

Carlton and I are genre-heads, and I think when we were initially talking about the theories, we were really fascinated with this idea of trying to reinvent or at least present a new look into the sub-genre, the sub-sci-fi genre of alien invasion. There have been alien invasion stories told across every platform of television, film, literature since War of the Worlds, and we really felt like in order to be a new entry, you had to have something new to say or at least a new way into it. We became really fascinated with this idea of telling the story after we lost, because most of these stories deal with the war or the invasion itself, and we were really fascinated with the idea of telling the after.

That came out of a love for history, and when I initially brought the idea over to Carlton, it was really inspired by this idea of the Nazi occupation of France and of Europe, and the stories that came out of this world where you were living and you were home in your city but suddenly it had changed and had become this dangerous place where the rules were different. But in order to tell the story from that perspective, the sort of the war already had to be lost, and we thought it was just a great ground, platform for storytelling that had a really long runway ahead of it. So there are many, many seasons of material in front of us because we’re dealing with this kind of open ended situation that makes it really perfect for television.

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What was your inspiration for the society of colonies?

A lot of history, as I mentioned. I mean, we’re both big students of history. And Juan Campanella, who was our director on the pilot and in the first two-episode series, grew up in Argentina during the dictatorship in the 70s and he had this really – he had lived through something like this. He had this really kind of visceral, clear perspective on it and he brought a lot to the design. He had a design of the world on the pilot.

But the point is, we all wanted to make it feel very real and present. Whereas in most dystopian stories, like in Blade Runner and in The Walking Dead and in even something like Children of Men, the world always feels very upended, we’re really intrigued by this idea of the 90/10 rule, which is that 90% of the world looks exactly as it was, and the 10% is wildly different. So, you walk out into the streets of LA and you see sunny skies and palm trees and most of the buildings are intact and then you start to notice there are no cars on the road. There are 300-foot walls surrounding the city and there are drones crisscrossing the skies. It’s that 10% that’s very recognizable that really unsettles you and sets you off and makes it feel like you’re living in a real environment where something really radical has happened.

In each of the episodes so far, we discover that no character is who he or she seems to be. Is that part of your goal with this, to maintain a feeling of instability and unpredictability? And will there ever be a moment of clarity later where we see how everyone fits together?

Yes, I think this is the condition created by the fog of this war, or this invasion. And unfortunately, because of this situation, everybody in Los Angeles in some way or another has had to really reinvent themselves. Whether it’s something as simple as an FBI agent working in a state run garage to put fuel cells into the cars of the wealthy and privileged members of the green zone, or it’s something like a wife and a bar owner suddenly becoming a lieutenant in this resistance or against the occupation, it’s the story of instability in a government, in this city where the roles have been upended and it causes everybody to suddenly have to become somebody new — either by choice or not by choice.

This happened all over Nazi-occupied Europe and when the Soviet empire was at its height, it just forced people to have secrets and to really keep close to the vest truths about them and play a different role depending on what situation they were in. That’s the rich pool of drama that we’re really interested in drawing from. It inspired us. It inspired the series and all the characters. And I think the good news is for fans who are watching and paying attention is that we do have a lot of these mysteries and backgrounds already worked out and we’re waiting to unveil them when the time is right. So I think fans who keep watching and stay loyal to the series will be rewarded as the show evolves.

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Phyllis’ fate was shocking. When are we going to find out more about her and her secrets?

Well, yes so Phyllis – I love the response on Phyllis. I mean, Kathy Baker was such a huge get when we cast her, and we had always planned to introduce this character in episode two and then kill her off early in the season as a way to show the brutality and the reach of the resistance, and also to show that you know, nobody in this world is safe so don’t get too attached to anybody. But yes, Phyllis is a fascinating character. I mean, I think the thing that people are really responding to with her is the fact that she did have a practical point of view on things. She wasn’t – she’s running this counter-resistance unit and will do kind of brutal, inhumane things in order to reach her goals, But her goals are to — at least from her perspective — to keep the block safe, or as safe as it can be, and to minimize the unnecessary loss of human life.

Seeing the big game, which is at the end of this, the resistance is somehow effective, there are these very powerful – this very powerful occupying force could lay waste to the city or it could kill a lot more people than the transitional authority is even harming day-to-day. I think people really responded to that and I think part of the fun of her, the mystery of who she is and her background is one of those things that it’s just, that’s life. It’s not always going to be fully and completely explained but it still is clearly with a very experienced character actor in this world of spies and espionage. As Snyder says to Will in the first episode, a rare breed these days. I mean, a lot of these people were taken out or eliminated. So I think a little bit more will be filled out about Phyllis but I think a lot of her will be left to be debated about.

Was it a conscious decision to keep the sci-fi element of the show low key?

Yes, very conscious. I think it’s one of the big reasons that when we were speaking with NBC Universal, the larger, sort of earlier conversations that Colony landed at USA versus the Syfy Channel. I mean, I think there’s a lot of really awesome programming on over there. The tradition sort of started by Battlestar Galatica — one of my favorite TV shows. But the sci-fi shows that are on Syfy now are much more kind of hard sci-fi. The things that really appeal to me as a fan but aren’t necessarily the kind of shows that grab audiences that don’t have a predisposition towards sci-fi. We really wanted Colony to appeal to a broad audience that was interested in some element to the show. So there’s going to be an element that’s drawn to the core family dynamic of the show that sees this as a drama set in a wartime place. There’s going to be an audience that’s drawn to the espionage elements of the show. One of the great shows on TV now, The Americans, that element of this husband and wife in a world of secrets and lies. And you know, we have sort of jokingly called the show the first spy-fi show and we like that.

Then I think there’s the under layer of science fiction, which is, Carlton and I are huge sci-fi fans ourselves and have loved sci-fi all of our lives. One of the things that we were really inspired by was taking this kind of allegory for an occupied world and putting it into a modern science fiction context and then playing with all of the mysteries that come out of that. It was very intentional and I’m glad that people seem to be responding to it. The nice thing is that people – I think sci-fi is less now than it was 10-15 years ago — and in a good way — but the term can be a pejorative and we like that, with Colony, that it adds to the puzzle instead of having to be this, you know, kind of barrier that people have to get past in order to become engaged with the show.

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What are the motivations of the people at the top of the power hierarchy?

The nice thing about complex, long-form storytelling is that there is no one answer to that. One of the things that is a quality of a lot of these kind of alien invasion stories, because of the nature of the medium in which they’re told — which is usually film — is this idea of this kind of hive mind and it’s like it’s the black hats against the white hats. The black hats are often the aliens and the white hats are often the humans trying to survive. We wanted to really create a complex world of gray where on either side of the conflict there are people that have made their choices for selfish, self-serving reasons and there are people that have made choices to try to survive, to protect their own family, to be able to get ahead, to get the things that they couldn’t have in the world as it existed before and now they can with this new opportunity. You will see that through the ranks of both the resistance and the occupation, and just the day-to-day survivors of Los Angeles across the show. That’s the milieu that we really wanted to create.

Are we going to find out more information about the transitional government? What is it going to transition into?

That’s a lot like alternative music, and alternative to what? Both of those questions are left sort of intentionally open ended and interpretable. And, you know, we were really – I will say this, the show is very fast-paced. We live in a world where there are 411, 412 or whatever it was scripted television shows on in the last 12 months in the United States alone. So, it’s hard to grab eyeballs, I mean really especially with a show that doesn’t have any preexisting IP. I mean, we have the great, reunion of Carlton and Josh going for us, which is great but other than that, it was just something entirely created new for television.

You want to draw viewers discerning very, often picky and taste driven viewers that have a lot of choices into a world that will grab them and hold them immediately and I think we’ve been successful with that and we’re proud of that and part of that is they’re kind of dropped into the second act of the story that’s already moving and they’re asked to participate with us to catch up, which we like and we’re very proud of.

We were very fascinated with — Carlton and I — with this current culture of language and how things are presented to people. There’s a lot of play. If you watch the show and continue to watch — which we all hope you will do — depending on what side of the conflict you’re on, things are termed differently. If you’re on the red side of the conflict — on the side of the occupation — you don’t refer to yourselves as the occupation. You refer to yourselves as the transitional authority. And you don’t call the police force the red hats. You call them homeland security. And you don’t call the resistance the resistance, because that empowers them. You call them the insurgency or the terrorists, right?

Then on the other side of the equation, there is the occupation and we are the resistance and those are the red hats. And we were fascinated with this idea that at some point in this formation of the human proxy government, there was some kind of meeting between marketing and branding minds where they tried to select terms and phrases to make the occupation a little bit more palatable to the people.

You’ll notice a lot of terms in the show that are used — like green zone, for instance — that are pulled from preexisting current events and things that would’ve existed in this world before the occupation happened to try to make people feel like that things haven’t changed all that much and that there is this kind of familiarity about everything. That layered in that is some sort of insidiousness and sinisterness that is just part of the show that we’re trying to create.

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Your background is in accounting and economics. How did you get into sci-fi writing?

I have a sort of weird background. Look, the answer is I’ve always been, you know, I think I was one of those weird kids that always wanted to be a writer. I envisioned myself as a, when I was 12 and I was trying to read Tolkien for the first time, as one of these authors in front of a typewriter with a tweed jacket with a pipe. It’s just always something that I wanted to do. I’ve just always been obsessed with and drawn to storytelling kind of in all of its forms.

But when you grow up in suburban New Jersey to a schoolteacher mother and a software engineer father, you grow up in a very practical household. When they’re about to graciously pay for you to go to a very expensive university like Villanova, they also expect you to get a real degree while you’re there. I don’t think that getting a literature or a film degree at the time would’ve been very appealing to them in the mid-90s. So I chose business because I knew I needed to go and get a real job so I could go out and earn a living when I got out of school and work on my screenplays in the intervening times. I sort of just stumbled my way into accounting, which is probably the antithesis of the writer. Actually the only thing those two professions share is the desire to sit alone at a desk and not talk to anybody all day. So, I think you can tell that there’s some similarity there and that’s probably where the Venn diagram crosses over. But other than that, they could not be a more different pursuit.

Will we explore the parent/child relationship more in upcoming episodes?

You’ll see a lot more of that in the coming episodes. At its core, Colony started as a family drama. We really wanted to tell the story of this occupation from the point of the view of one family that, although this is an extraordinary family in the sense that they find themselves on opposite sides of the occupation and they have this kind of mysterious and hidden backgrounds about them — with Will with his military and law enforcement experience. I mean, other than that this is a typical family in Los Angeles, and we wanted to tell the story through their eyes of what it’s like to live in this occupied world. So their kids and how their kids react to all of that is an important part of it. Charlie, their middle child — the one who’s missing — is kind of what catalyzed this whole story and what set it. In the early part of the pilot, Will desperately needs to get reunited with him.

So as broad as the show will get in terms of the storytelling and seeing different corners of this world and the universe and all the different ideologies and loyalties that are involved with it, it does always come back to the Bowman family and their kids and Isabella and Alex, who plays Bram, are terrific actors. We got a lot of great work out of them and I think you’ll continue to see that through the last six episodes.

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What’s it been like to be the show runner and what kind of impact has Colony had on the way you do it?

I’m very fortunate to have the experience. It’s terrifying at times, I will tell you — less so now I’ve done it once. But, when I got – when season one got picked up and I got dropped into the room, it was not only the first time I’d ever been a show runner. It was the first time I’d ever been in a writer’s room. And to immediately make the transition from not just being there but to running it, it’s kind of crazy. But, first and foremost you’re a storyteller and I think that’s something that doesn’t really change, regardless of what role you’re in, whether you’re the staff writer or you’re the executive producer reporting to the showrunner, or you’re the showrunner him or herself, I think you’re a storyteller.

The benefit that I had in this situation is not only having a show that started as a pilot that we had talked about I think for almost a year and a half before we even got into the writer’s room on season one — just because of the nature of the development of this thing — we had a very clear perspective on what the show was. I had a clear perspective of what the show was and what it wanted to be and what it was going to be. So I had the confidence to go in and say look, I know the show that I want to make. That’s really the first and primary hurdle for all showrunners and all creators is just if you know what the show is, then you can lead that charge. A lot of shows unfortunately just because of the way this crazy competitive environment don’t have that. We were very fortunate to have that going into Colony.

The other thing I was fortunate to have was Mr. Cuse who has not only been a tremendous mentor and partner for me for going on three and a half years now, because we started working together in the summer of 2012 when I was brought into meet with him to write the script for The Sixth Gun which was another show that he was executive producing at the time for NBC and was based on a comic book — much different show. But that’s how we met, and then we made that pilot and the pilot didn’t work out with NBC but we had this really good working relationship where we really inspired by each other creatively. That all sort of led to Colony happening.

So I’ve been kind of with Carlton now for 3-1/2 years, and our relationship has grown and matured over that time. But I’ve always had him to turn to and say like what did you do when this happened and how does this all work. He’s got something like 500 episodes of television produced, so he sort of knows what he’s talking about. So it’s great.

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Can you preview any guests or cast additions coming up for this season that we can look forward to?

Yes. We’re very excited about – most of our guest cast has been introduced, but in the latter third of the season we will introduce a couple of new characters that play on more of the resistance side of the equation. One of whom is Thora Birch, the tremendous and talented Thora Birch of American Beauty and Ghost World fame, who is just an absolutely wonderful actor, a terrific person, and a great get for us on Colony. We’re very excited to introduce her character, Morgan, to the show and have everybody find out, see into a little bit of a different corner of the world.

In the second episode, we saw Carlos getting sent to the factory. Will we see Carlos again, and will we learn more about what the factory is or does?

I will say stay tuned. I think fans who are asking those two questions will be satisfied in some way before the end of the season.