In case you hadn’t heard, we here at TheFeed dug the hell out of Bright Falls, the live-action mini-series prequel to Alan Wake. (If you missed our impressions of the series, you can find them here: episodes one and two, episode three, episode four, episode five and six.) Not only did the six episodes capture the unnerving peculiarity of the pacific northwestern town that serves as the setting for Remedy’s spectacular (and long awaited) thriller Alan Wake, but it wove itself perfectly into the game's fiction without feeling gimmicky or forced.
I recently spoke with the series’ director and co-writer Phillip Van via e-mail to find out more about Bright Falls, and everything that went into its creation.
G4: How did your involvement in the Bright Falls series come about?
Phillip Van: My manager Rhea Scott sent me boards for the idea, created by agencytwofifteen. They had the subversive notion of turning an ad campaign into a short episodic series that functioned as a prequel to Alan Wake. Because the idea was different for an ad campaign, involving a story, they needed a director who could also write scripts, which totaled about 40 pages. From their initial outline of the series, I wrote first drafts of the six episodes. Then I flew to San Francisco where we workshopped them together into final drafts in three days.
I'm from Oregon and this project spoke to places and characters I knew growing up. There was something immediately personal about it. Over New Years, I spent two weeks shooting a montage of fogged out forests and hidden areas in the northwest. It ended with my first pass at creating the hallucinations that Jake [Fisher] is afflicted by throughout the series.
Bright Falls gave me a chance to advance a tone I've played with in various forms in my other work - a feeling that you're watching something that seems relatable but has a hidden order, one that informs a growing sense of dread. You might believe that you're seeing events that happened, but they're always skewed through someone's eye. Jake's fractured, subjective sense of reality motivated most of the cinematic choices. Actor Christopher Forsyth brought a groundedness and relatability to the character that was perfect for this. It allowed the narrative to slowly pick Jake apart, really tug at his seams. I think watching Chris try to honestly cope with his arc into darkness is half the fun.
Large amounts of subtext and backstory went into this short tale. Certain genres and formats just can't sustain that. Others thrive from it. The fan comments form an awesome circle, not to mention press reviews like your Impressions article on each episode - these investigations are the reason this form of narrative is so compelling and stimulating, in my opinion.
G4: When did you start working on Bright Falls? At what point was it in relation to Alan Wake’s development time? Did you collaborate with Remedy at all on the project?
PV: I began writing in December of 2009, finished the drafts in January, then bunkered down with the agency, collaborating with producer Joyce Chen, co-writer Mat Bunnell and art director Ben Wolan in a short but intense revision period. Art director Nate Able came on during production and post. They were and are a great team that worked as tirelessly as their sleepless director. There's a saying, "a camel is a horse designed by committee." None of us wanted a camel. They truly believe in director-driven content and in work with a personal vision. We pushed through a fast pre-production period and shot in February. That's all well into the game's development time.
Because the series had to fit into a longer fiction that already existed, it was important to work with the Story Bible for Alan Wake and to view scenes from the game for an idea of setting, tone and characters. Remedy generously supplied us with everything we needed and cleared each round of development. Creatively, as long as we stayed away from the heart and center of the fiction they had built, we could roam - this spawned great developments. I think they understand the nature of creativity and writing pretty well, having spent years focusing on it as the central topic of their game.
G4: What was your approach going into developing the series? Did the Twin Peaks influence come out of what you’d seen of the game, or was that just a natural well to draw from, since you were dealing with a creepy, small town? What other films or series served as inspiration for the series?
PV: It was important to stay true to the game's influences, but the series also had to function on its own terms. I'm a huge fan of Twin Peaks and Lynch's other work - Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr., Wild at Heart, all of his films - but Lynch wasn't the only influence and the idea wasn’t to simply emulate him.
I think the scariest type of filmmaking is a bit more subtle and psychological than horror. Walking the line between the supernatural and psychological was paramount. The most frightening movies I've watched aren't horror films. They're European art house films from the 60's and 70's. Polanski's breed of paranoia and isolation is an influence, but even ‘artier' and scarier are films by Tarkovsky and Bergman and not just 'cause they're 'arty.' The film Persona was a much bigger influence on the hallucinations than any quick cutting scare montage from a modern horror flick. These films get to you because they put you in sync with a character’s dreams and subjective experience. And they never forget that that's the point.
Also a big influence was the original Twilight Zone series. I've always been obsessed with it and even made a short called Come Wander With Me that reinterpreted a song from one of the episodes. Needless to say, I'm really enjoying Night Springs in the game.
G4: One of the oddest moments in Bright Falls comes in the very first episode when Jake is having dinner at the local diner, and he is “mistakenly” given a birthday cake. The accompanying singing of “Happy Birthday” would be creepy enough without one of the waiters contributing with “haspy birday.” What the hell was that all about?
PV: I was writing in a coffee shop that gives away free pastries at the end of the day. For a strong two dollar cup of coffee you can eat your fill of danishes and muffins. They inspired that birthday cake, the idea of them and the sugar rush they gave me. Like the giant plate of food, it was a way for Rose to show her appreciation of writers while messing with Jake a bit.
By having the rough clientele joining in on the singing, the scene is designed to give you an early window into Bright Falls and show immediately that this isn't just a voyeuristic, dismissive look at a small town, it's an interactive experience, where a number of supporting characters will have their own arcs and will come to play some greater roll in the mystery. No one should be dismissed. Characters that might function as wallpaper have a voice, and like to sing with it. This is a nod to the game and a good way to look at stories in general - any character could be of importance, none are stock or secondary; they're all of interest.
In shooting the scene, we tried it a few ways. The "serenade" elements were self-evident and when the actors played to those too obviously, it wasn't as interesting. It was late, a long day off a desolate highway and when they let their fatigue inform their performances it was a lot creepier and funnier. Some of them fell hopelessly out of sync and this dysfunctional welcoming committee seemed to comment the best on events to come during Jake's visit.
G4: So Jake was a were-deer, huh? And he totally blacked out and killed his lady friend, didn’t he? It's ok. You can tell us.
PV: Secret's out - Jake is a satanic vampiric were-deer. A lucifvampwerestag that has no lady friends. Alright. I really appreciate the were-deer theories. To the max. But I would urge all were-deer loyalists to watch Mulligan's scene again at the start of the last episode, and just for the hell of it, entertain the idea that perhaps, in a little act of boasting, Mulligan has absolutely no idea what he's talking about. Just to see how the likes of the brilliant Robert Peters (Mulligan) and Christopher Forsyth (Jake) play out that possibility. I'm not saying this is the truth and I wouldn't dare say that "cut and buck" and "horn-rimmed entry points" are made-up hunting terms. I'm just saying - give it a shot. This was always one of my favorite scenes and changed very little from first inception. Mulligan is one of those character's who just sort of comes out whole on the page. I really loved what Stephen Johnson wrote about the comedy aspects of the scene and if you watch it in this way, those do carry through to the end.
About Jake's lady friend Ellen (the wonderful Allison Lange) and the missing time between their departure and Jake driving - It depends on what you believe about Bright Falls. Keep in mind that whatever Jake did took place outside of the town. If you believe that the town plays a significant roll in Jake's blackouts, then maybe she has a chance.
While we're on topic, I know the title sequence has been analyzed a lot, but there's something cool about it that hasn't been mentioned: it's not just a title sequence - it's a series epilogue. The cup with the key, dead deer, Ellen's shoe, shotgun and little lost Daniel are the wreckage Jake left in the forest. And the perspective of the camera - well - guess who. So if you're really pining for more, watch the titles, or Bright Falls Episode 6.5 again.
G4: Have you played through Alan Wake? Is it weird seeing virtual versions of characters and locations that you recently saw in person?
PV: Yes, I've played through. And yes, it's a bit strange. I sometimes find myself stopping during gameplay to scout locations. The Dark Presence is approaching, I'm out of batteries and bullets and I'm staring at a particularly good-looking bridge or patch of forest, wondering where I've seen it before. What I'm really taken by (no pun intended) is the feeling I get playing the game. The lighting and atmospheres are intense and the woods at night remind me of being home in the northwest. It's incredibly immersive.
Our major challenge for the supporting roles was to find actors that not only looked and felt like the in-game characters but were also good. The actors our amazing casting director Mary Vernieu helped us gather, like Bruce Katzman (Dr. Hartman), suited the characters they were portraying but were cast more on strength of performance than style or look. There wasn't a lot of force-fitting going on, allowing them to focus on their motivations in the scene. I think when the performances are strong and there's an honesty to them, the small differences between in-game and real characters become less of a concern. The exception to this was Ilka Villi, who of course, is actually Alan Wake. And yes, hanging out in the woods with Alan Wake at 3AM in real life is a little surreal.
G4: I’m not the only person to say they’d actually love to see Bright Falls turned into a regular series. Any plans/hopes of that happening? Would that be something you’d like to pursue?
PV: With all my brain and soul, yes. If fans keep on it and there's a constant demand, it may come together. I've been up nights thinking about how the story could progress. The project is personal for all of us involved and I'm attached to these characters and this world. We shot in and around my hometown and you can even find my lovely mom in one of the episodes. It doesn’t really get more personal. With any luck, and the continued and awesome support of our fans, we’ll be able to keep going.
G4: What do you plan to do for your next project? (Please say it rhymes with Plight Malls: Dreason Foo)
PV: I would love more than anyone to make that rhyme scheme work, believe me. I'm working on a script that I hope to have done soon. It's something that I'm passionate about and it involves sleep research. In all honesty, I was blocked on it for a couple of years, but now it's almost writing itself.