Ray McKinnon on Making Rectify, Sadness on Set and Micromanaging Performances

Aden Young - in the SundanceTV original series
Aden Young - in the SundanceTV original series “Rectify” - Photo Credit: Tina Rowden Photo: Tina Rowden/SundanceTV

Tonight, Sundance TV’s beautiful gut-wrenching series Rectify returns for a second season. The story follows death row inmate Daniel Holden, who, after spending 19 years in prison for the rape and murder of his teenage girlfriend Hanna Dean, has his sentence vacated. Rectify doesn’t particularly care whether or not Daniel committed the crime. The first six-episode season burned slow, concerned almost exclusively with Daniel’s state of mind in the first week of his release back to his family, to a world that’s changed in the last two decades and to a hometown sharply divided in its opinion of his guilt or innocence. The new episodes pick up right where we left off: Daniel’s in a coma having been beat within an inch of his life by Hanna’s brother. Series creator Ray McKinnon, an actor best known for his work on Deadwood and Sons of Anarchy, chatted with Vulture about deciding to continue beyond the initial season and the challenges inherent in doing TV’s most meditative, slow-moving drama.

You had originally talked about Rectify as a six-hour story. At what point did you feel like there was more story to tell?
There was always the possibility that we would do more, but I didn’t know if they’d want to, or if I was up to it. I figured, let’s make it the best six-part story we can, one without any regrets, not necessarily structure it in a way that we would angle for another season, although we did leave it in a way that makes you wonder what happens. My way of looking at it was every episode was connected to the next episode, and it’s about seven days in the life of Daniel Holden, who’s been in a box for 19 years. That’s what I wanted to experience myself, what that must be like, almost on a — well, literally on a day-to-day basis. I wanted to elongate that time, and television’s a great medium for doing that. Sundance wanted to do another season, and I got to say, Oh Lord, now what?

Did you structure season two in the same way?
I knew one thing we couldn’t do, which is have the first seven days of Daniel Holden’s freedom. We couldn’t do that again. So now what? But I also didn’t want to flash forward six months later and miss a lot of those changes. I didn’t think so consciously of time, and I didn’t want the audience to be so conscious of time in the second season. More time does pass than the day-by-day episodic storytelling. But we’re not flying by, either.

Daniel was the center of the first season, but we come back right where we left off, and he’s in a coma for a couple of episodes. Was that unavoidable because of the way time works on the show?
It’s not just Daniel’s experience of being let out of a box, it’s also the ramifications of his return into the town. The town’s like a little pond, and when he’s dropped back in there, all these ripples start happening, especially with his family and his new family. When Daniel is not of this world for a time in the second season, it gives all the other players time to deal for a minute with the effects of Daniel’s return. In some ways, it’s a pause for Daniel, but for others, it’s a time to not be in the eye of the storm.

You’ve said that the audience knowing whether or not Daniel killed Hannah is not particularly germane to the story. But is it important to you when you’re writing for that character?
I was interested in a lot of different themes that run through society and the criminal-justice system and law and order. Sometimes order is more important than justice, and that’s one of the reasons people get wrongfully convicted. As a society, these horrible things happen, and we want to have at least the illusion that things are put back in order and that the person who did this is caught and punished, and a lot of times, that causes us as humans to make mistakes and put the wrong people in jail. That’s a long way of saying that we as a society need to know who did things, and we as both storytellers and watchers of story also are conditioned to want to know what happened. Sometimes in real life we don’t know. There are things we never know that are never solved. Often times in stories, we try to solve those in a fictional way that makes the audience feel more satisfied and like there is order in the world. Another long-winded way of saying: I’m intrigued by the idea that we may never find out the truth, and that may frustrate people, just like it frustrates people in real life when we don’t find out absolutely what happened. So I’m not quite as interested, I guess. I mean, I’m still not sure.

So then, are you writing in either event?
Um, yes. That’s my shortest answer.

I guess I’m asking because when you have characters like Trey and George, well, George is no more —
Oh, he may show up again. You never know about George.

Those characters seem to be a part of that mystery and its resolution.
Yes, there was a murderer, and there is some doubt as to what happened. That is a part of the story. We’re just so conditioned as television watchers, and also in film, to think in whodunnits. I’m less interested in that than how people make sense of a world that doesn’t always make sense.

In some ways, Rectify is the saddest, most wrenching show on TV. What’s the set like?
Well, yeah, it’s very emotional. I don’t think our brain stem can tell the difference, like, We’re just pretending we’re upset. Great actors, in pretending they’re upset, really have to be upset. Their whole nervous system is upset. It’s difficult on the actors, it’s difficult on the crew and on the writers. Because, yeah, you have to feel those things. But most of them, certainly the actors, know it’s for a good cause. They’re all artists in their own way. They don’t mind going there. Some days, they might. I’ve heard after some tough scenes they’ll be at the local bar. It’s tough. I’m thinking about a single-camera comedy now.

How does it work with Aden Young, who plays Daniel? So much of that performance is silent.
He and I have a very close relationship in regards to that character, as I do with all the actors. It’s definitely a collaboration, and Aden’s such a wonderful actor and has the range to play these kind of complexities and the changes that go on, the mercurial nature of Daniel. We just have to be specific in what we’re trying to accomplish for a scene or a moment, and he’s very open to that, thankfully.

Are those beats more scripted or talked through?
We mostly talk about it. We watch a take and might talk some more with the director as well, because it becomes a different animal once it comes off the page. Sometimes when it comes off the page, we need to reassess and make changes in the moment. We’re always recalibrating what we’re doing, and that includes all the actors. There have been plenty of tricky situations. I’ve been on TV as an actor, and a lot of times the actor is left to their own devices, and they often know the characters better than most. But I felt like in this show we had to be really specific and track these characters scene by scene and episode by episode, because they all build on each other. I’m not sure about all TV shows, but there was a lot of micromanaging going on in this one. But in a good way, because we all need guides.

The show is filled with dreams, but “Drip” starts with an especially vivid, involved one. Daniel going on an overnight goat-stealing adventure with a stranger in a truck. Where did that come from?
The ongoing conflict within me when it comes to explaining fiction is one of the great things about fiction is it allows for mystery, and it allows for an audience to read into it what they will. I feel like sometimes explaining or overexplaining some of the aspects of the show diminishes the mystery. My sort of answer is, I don’t know where he came from. He just showed up one day in my brain, and then one day he left. I’m still baffled by what he was there for.

Two people we haven’t spent a ton of time with are the victim’s mom and brother, who are sort of single-minded in their need for Daniel to pay. Can you talk about the way you see them?
I just try to think of them as real human beings at their socioeconomic education level, and the psychology of human beings, and how different people can react to similar circumstances much differently. Hannah’s mom, in some ways, has decided not to go forward and to live in this stasis of grief. That decision or inability to move forward, whatever that is, has greatly affected her son. That psychology between them and the dynamic between them is fascinating to me. I felt bad for her, but I also felt bad for her son that she couldn’t somehow move forward and be more present for him. The damage continues to happen, and I think with most of the players in the story, that’s a constant theme. None of them can truly move forward fully until it is rectified.

In a similar way, I’m curious how you feel about Senator Foulkes, and how you avoid him becoming this villainous character.
I modeled him after some of the prosecutors I’ve read about over the years, and in nonfiction, it’s even in some ways less dimensional than fiction. There will be this overwhelming evidence that a defendant didn’t do a crime based on very specific DNA results, and yet the prosecution is unwilling to let go of their beliefs. So Foulkes is kind of a representative of that psychology and that kind of person who’s driven by ambition and other things, like ego and so forth. That was the genesis, but it’s tricky when you’re dealing with a character who is not a — you have nine or ten people who are main characters in the story, so we don’t get to see Foulkes spending time with his estranged wife or his son, or whatever his life is, the way we did the others. It’s a challenge to have him fulfill a need in the storytelling trope but also dimensionalize him. It’s one of our ongoing challenges with characters who are not main characters.

Rectify Creator Ray McKinnon Talks Season 2