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Showrunners Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke on Timeless, the Perils of History, and How Their Series Is Like The X-Files

Eric Kripke (L) and Shawn Ryan (R).

Timeless operates like two shows at once. The NBC time-travel drama is a collection of period capers, each set at a crucial moment in history, embedded within a larger story line about the central band of heroes — Lucy (Abigail Spencer), Wyatt (Matt Lanter), and Rufus (Malcolm Barrett) — fighting a nefarious cabal known as Rittenhouse. Given that duality, it’s fitting that Timeless has two people to oversee it, co-creators Eric Kripke, who previously created Supernatural and Revolution, and Shawn Ryan, who’s best known for dramas like Terriers and The Shield. Before Monday night’s mid-season finale, Vulture caught up with Ryan and Kripke to discuss how they choose historical events, the perils of time travel, why the Rittenhouse mystery isn’t going to take over the series, and how Timeless is inspired by The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

How you decide which era the characters travel to every week?
Shawn Ryan: We spend a lot of time in the room talking about what historical tales we want to tell that week. We’re always looking for a time period that has something iconic about it, but also something surprising about it. We gauge that by whether it surprises us as we dig deeper into an era. Most importantly, we first try to figure out what the emotional stories we want to tell with our main characters are. In [last week’s episode], we felt it was a good time to explore Lucy and Wyatt’s relationship — and maybe, growing attraction — so we came up with the idea of exploring Bonnie and Clyde. We do that more than picking a time period and then trying to cram emotional stories into it.

When you did an episode about the moon landing, there was a bit about Katherine Johnson, who’s also central to Hidden Figures. How did you choose that story?
SR: The moon episode was a story that Eric and I had discussed way back in May, I think, or April. We knew that we wanted to do something around the moon landing. We had an original story that included Katherine, but also included some of the astronaut wives. Then we changed that and had a story that didn’t include Katherine. As we got further into that story, we realized that was actually more Rufus’s story than it was Lucy’s, and we realized we needed Katherine back in. At the time we were breaking that story, we were aware that there was some kind of movie that was going to be centered on Katherine Johnson, but we knew nothing about it.

When I talked to Abigail Spencer earlier this season, she said it takes a lot of planning to make each episode. How do you manage that?
Eric Kripke: It’s the most difficult show I’ve ever been on, because we are creating these entirely new worlds every single week. In a typical show, you have one big, long, painful conversation in the beginning about what all the sets look like, what the wardrobe should be, what’s the hair, what’s the makeup, what’s the tone of it. We’re restarting that conversation every single week. Every new period brings with it a whole new series of questions: What’s it going to look like? What are they gonna wear? How should the director shoot it? Can we afford it? How can we shoot it in a way that we can afford it?

How do you make sure that the show maintains a common thread between those eras?
SR: We don’t want the show to feel prim and proper, like Downton Abbey, and we don’t want it to feel like a museum piece. A lot of that comes from using modern filmmaking techniques in a period environment. It might look like Bonnie and Clyde. It might look like the old West. It might look like Civil War Washington. But if you notice, the cameras are usually handheld and it’s rougher around the edges. There’s a certain documentary feel. We push the directors to really ground the performances so they don’t feel like highfalutin people giving speeches, but like real people in real situations. We try to add a lot of grit and grime. We do whatever we can to make it feel like it’s not stagy, as if we were bringing the viewer back to what it would really be.

With Rufus and Lucy, you touch on how American history is especially dangerous for women and black men. Is the history of progressive change something you’d like to explore more?
SR: Progressive change is one thing, but we’re also interested in showing the reality of what the world used to be. We’ve gone through a bruising presidential election that had a lot of debates about where we are now versus what the past was like. In many ways, this is the safest, best time to ever be alive in human history — but sometimes you can look back on things with rose-colored glasses. There may be things in the past that were better now, but there are also things that are worse. We’re interested in exploring both of those. Certainly for African Americans and certainly for women, there are places and times where things weren’t as enlightened and progressive as they might be today. Putting Rufus in some of those situations and putting Lucy in some of those situations — characters with real intelligence and fierceness and a fighting attitude — is always interesting dramatically.

As the Rittenhouse conspiracy unwinds, Flynn has gone from being an antagonist to possibly an ally. What do you do to ensure the audience doesn’t get lost in the mystery of it all?
EK: Shawn and I both have done episodes or seasons of television that have self-enclosed episodic stories and then overarching mythologies. Luckily, there are two showrunners here that have some experience with how to balance it. There are things you pick up along the way — for instance, you always ground everything in character. We like the Rittenhouse conspiracy and we think there are some cool reveals, but that’s not why we’re doing this. We’re doing this because we think it’s fascinating to have someone who really seems like a villain, but turns out to be more interesting and complicated, which causes a lot of angst and discussion among your heroes. It was important to Goran [Višnjić, who plays Flynn] to not just create him as some mustache-twirling antagonist.

In terms of the Rittenhouse mythology and how to tease it out … we know there’s questions to answer, but what makes a show like this useful — unlike, frankly, like Revolution, another show I’ve done, or a show like Lost, or shows that are nothing but serialization — is that Timeless is for all intents and purposes a procedural. It’s a procedural from Mars, but it’s a procedural. So, out of your 50-page scripts, you’re able to fill up 40 pages with that week’s adventure. The amount of Rittenhouse you’re actually dropping in is in very manageable, bite-sized chunks. You can really stop it from becoming what happens in too many genre shows: an overcomplicated, down-the-rabbit-hole, bewildering thing that loses the casual viewer. We wanted something that was accessible. It gives us a delivery system that we can control, while still keeping things mysterious and ominous. When I was coming up as a writer, the stuff that inspired me was stuff that’s not so much on the air anymore, like The X-Files and Buffy. These are shows that, at least in their early seasons, were procedurals with dabs of mythology to keep moving the ball forward slowly every week. I think we’re aspiring to a similar format on this one.

How would you characterize your working relationship? Do you focus on different aspects of the show?
EK: First of all, I don’t like to talk to Shawn and we don’t like to be in the same room, so it’s hard to know what gets done where.

SR: I would describe our relationship as pleasant on the surface and backstabbing below. [Laughs.]

EK: Roiling with tensions. No, one of the most enjoyable things out of this process has been working with Shawn. I don’t know how I’d ever survive this show without him. To have a marriage that’s been as happy and successful and functional as this one is has been a great joy to us both. It goes without saying Shawn’s an unbelievable writer and an incredible showrunner, so certainly his contributions are immense. He’s got brilliant ideas on every facet of the show. We have a surprisingly unified vision as to what to the show should be like and the times we argue are minimal.

SR: Eric spends more time in the writers room than I do and a lot of the great story stuff springs from his mind. He oversees and approves a lot of the visual effects. He obviously does some of the polishing of scripts. There’s enough for two showrunners on this show. We do come from two different places in terms of our earlier work. I’d say this show moves each of us closer to each other, artistically. I’ve learned so much about genre work from him and these kinds of stories and using metaphor to tell stories. In my career, whether it was working with David Mamet [on The Unit] or Ted Griffin [on Terriers], I’ve tried to find people that were more talented than myself to work with, because I think that’s the only way to learn. There are areas where Eric eclipses me and I’ve learned a ton.

EK: I think the headline of your article is “Eric Kripke Is Better Than David Mamet.”

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Timeless Creators on Their X-Files Inspiration