On January 14, Fox debuted The Passage, the TV adaptation of Justin Cronin’s trilogy of vampire apocalypse novels first published in 2010. The tension has ratcheted up quickly every Monday night since, with the series’ fifth episode, titled How You Gonna Outrun the End of the World?, airing tonight at 9pm.
Last week, at the TV Critics’ Winter Tour in Pasadena, Monsters and Critics caught up exclusively with the series’ head writer and showrunner, Liz Heldens, to get the scoop on what to expect for the remainder of this first 10-episode season, and possibly beyond.
Monsters and Critics: When you’re creating a horror show for TV, how do you balance building psychological tension with actual action and even gory scenes?
Liz Heldens: One thing about broadcast TV is that you just can’t show that much. So it’s more about tension on our show. But we try to really balance that out with human connection. Wolgast [Mark-Paul Gosselaar] and Amy [Saniyya Sidney] always bring the warmth to the show.
Monsters and Critics: There was one previous attempt at adapting Justin Cronin’s Passage books. How does your take differ from what had been done before?
Liz Heldens: What was done before was a movie, and I don’t know how you make this into a movie at all. There’s so much material. I don’t know how you would really fully invest in the characters in the same way we’re able to do it in a television show.
Monsters and Critics: What kinds of changes did you have to make to the book(s) to bring them to the screen?
Liz Heldens: We decided, okay, we’re going to focus on the run-up to the end of the world, and Project Noah. So we’ll put our resources there. And that just required us to build out some story from what Justin Cronin had done in the book. Because a lot of that is really interior.
Monsters and Critics: The virals so far are all interior — except in their own interior sequences, when we see them in human form, doing their plotting.
Liz Heldens: Well that’s a change from the book, too. We get to see the people that they once were. And it’s so weird when you take a little break from all the action. When we do those scenes, we see that Jamie McShane and Brianne Howey [as viral Patient Zero Dr. Tim Fanning and test subject Shauna Babcock] are actually really funny.
They’re super smart actors and the audience really will follow them everywhere. So those sequences give them a chance to grandstand and be themselves, and show us who they really are.
Monsters and Critics: Where did the show’s flashback structure come from?
Liz Heldens: The flashbacks came out of us thinking that, if this show is going to take place in one place, wouldn’t it be nice to get out into the real world and see how everybody got here? And also for a broadcast show in particular, I think, it gives the episodes a beginning, middle and end, even though the storytelling is so serialized. So I think you can watch an episode and have a satisfying story with the flashbacks.
Monsters and Critics: The scientists’ plan sounds so stupid: hey, let’s take death-row murderers and give them an untested virus that originated with a vampire. What could go wrong there? How do you make it credible for such smart people to do something so apocalyptically dumb?
Liz Heldens: I think it’s about the potential of this virus that they discover. It has such potential to solve so many problems. And where we catch them, they’ve been testing on death row inmates, which is horrible, but that’s just the beginning.
Monsters and Critics: “Hey, let’s take killers and give them super powers!”
Liz Heldens: They didn’t know they were giving them super powers. Listen, it got out of hand!
Monsters and Critics: Very early in the pilot, it’s obvious that something is very wrong with Fanning. How many experiments did they have to do before realizing this is really dangerous?
Liz Heldens: When we start our show they’re just beginning to understand the dreams, and that these virals might have powers that they don’t understand. Because they initially thought their subjects were catatonic and almost brain dead.
They don’t have any higher brain function; they just kind of stand there and eat. But what we discover from the pilot on is that, no, there’s another whole layer and level going on.
Caroline Chikezie [as Dr. Major Nicole Sykes] and Henry Ian Cusick [as Fanning’s friend and colleague, Dr. Jonas Sykes] just kill it. They’re great. Everybody, all the writers and actors and everybody, just comes to work and tries to find the truth.
So we really try to put ourselves in Dr. Sykes’ position. She wanted to make a difference in the world and cure all disease and make life better. But every decision is leading them down this road, and by the time they start to realize that this is wrong, it’s too late to turn the boat around.
Monsters and Critics: When does the virus escape the Colorado facility? Is it within season 1?
Liz Heldens: That’s what we’re building to. That’s where we get to at the end of the season.
Monsters and Critics: Does the world start to crumble in Season 2?
Liz Heldens: We’re going to make a big leap in the last episode, and all these questions will be answered.
Monsters and Critics: How did you decide how to pace and break up the story?
Liz Heldens: When we were looking at this material and kicking the tires on it, it just seemed that we should break it up into sections and make it about the human beings at the center. It’s going to be a little scary, and thrilling. What I like about our season, 10 episodes, is that it’s really jam-packed. There’s no episode that’s a lull or filler. Everything is taking us one step closer to that conclusion.
Monsters and Critics: Are you telling the story of just the first book, or the others as well?
Liz Heldens: We are pulling characters from the second and the third books into this season. We’re going to get to all of it; we’re going to get to the colony. It is 100 per cent going to happen. We’re just taking our time. As a writer, you have to look at your season and say what are the standing sets? There are practical considerations to make.
I came up on shows like Friday Night Lights, and to me, it’s all about the characters. And really the challenge of the season is, with the doctors and even the bad guys, really understanding and coming to love everybody before all hell breaks loose.
Monsters and Critics: You were inspired by your love of the books. Do you love the horror genre, or just this book?
Liz Heldens: I love the apocalypse. And I think about it all the time. The Walking Dead, The Road — I love it. But my work has not been in genre. The Orville is a “genre” show, but it’s not the same thing. So this is really my first foray.
Monsters and Critics: If the Passage were to happen in real life, what would you do?
Liz Heldens: It’s super anxiety provoking, because we all think about what would we do, how would we survive? I’m going to be dead in the first wave, 100 per cent. But then I think, no, you have to try, you have to get the kids in the car. It’s awful to think about.
Monsters and Critics: Horror fans are very picky and exacting, and not shy about giving feedback.
Liz Heldens: Listen, there are a lot of opinions. But people seem to like it. There are some die-hard fans of the book who I think maybe aren’t happy with the changes, but I’ve gotten a lot of feedback that people like the changes. I talk to Justin Cronin all the time.
We talked through everything that we changed and why. He’s a producer on the show, and he’s a resource for the writers. And he’s a big TV fan, so he understands that there are things that just have to change to bring it into a visual medium.
We changed the sex of some characters, and I think all that makes a show feel more inclusive. I had to change Lacey’s character a little bit. In the book, she finds [the young girl who’s sought as a test subject] Amy first. Before Brad Wolgast. But we wanted to see her bond with Brad.
Monsters and Critics: That was a brilliant change, because that bond is what everyone takes out of that pilot.
Liz Heldens: But I love the Lacey character, and Kecia Lewis is such a wonderful actress. I’m glad we were able to find a way to bring her in, because she has a relationship with Brad now.
It’s really good when everybody’s connected and everybody has a past together. It allows Brad to be able to talk to Lacey about what’s going on, and he can treat her as a peer, and he has a relationship with her, and she has a relationship with Amy now. So there are ways that that really helped us.
Monsters and Critics: If the show is renewed, what can we expect from Season 2?
Liz Heldens: In Season 2, people are going to see a lot of characters they’ve been waiting to see, like Peter and Alicia from the book. All that stuff is going to happen, so I feel like we’ll be kind of back in the Passage narrative, in possibly a more faithful way. But I think the first season is great, and I’m super excited for people to see it.
The Passage airs Monday nights at 9pm ET/PT on Fox.