WGN America’s newest show, Outsiders, premieres Tuesday, January 26 at 9 PM ET/PT. The series chronicles the Farrell clan, a family of renegades that have lived on top of Shay Mountain in the Appalachians for hundreds of years without society’s influence…until now.
Brief writer Andrew Greene talked with Peter Mattei, the creator and executive producer of the gritty new series. Mattei’s an award-winning playwright, novelist, filmmaker and artist.
But maybe not a survivalist.
How long would you be able to survive in the Appalachians?
I would make it maybe a couple of weeks before I would either get eaten by an animal or I would have to just get back down and check into the Holiday Inn or something. I love being outdoors, and I’m not a fancy person, but I don’t think I would make it too long there.
In Appalachia in general, trying to live there without a job and no source of income, there’s no work there at all, I think it’d be impossible. People would hate me and kill me.
How did you enter this story?
For a while I’d been interested in developing something that had to do with people living an alternative lifestyle. Whether it was hippie communes, gypsies or biker gangs or something like that, I was always very interested in those worlds.
I read something about a group of people living on top of a hill in New Jersey. I realized setting it in Appalachia in coal-mining country would create an epic, dramatic conflict with the coal-mining industry. Then I did my research and basically just made it up whole cloth.
What’s the biggest difference between writing for the stage and for TV?
On stage, everything is very contained. There’s really just one thing: dialogue. Writing for the screen, you have the advantage of being close to an actor and they can tell you a lot just with their expression or with their attitude toward something.
I had a theater company in New York with a company of actors and I would write for them. I knew them and their work personally, and when we were working on a play it was very collaborative. I would see what they responded to and would push further in that direction and cut out things that they weren’t responding to or weren’t doing particularly well in rehearsals.
Working on a TV show, you don’t have rehearsals, I mean we do, but they’re minimal. You’re shooting all the time, for six months, so that process was very much the same. As I began to see where the actors were taking their characters, [writer/EP] Peter Tolan and I started writing to those choices.
Plus I’m there with the actors; we’re all living in Pittsburgh in this little bubble. So I’d meet with them, they would talk to me about their characters and what they were doing. It was very collaborative in exactly the same way as a theater production.
I came upon an interview you did where you reference an established screenwriter was having trouble selling a sci-fi script until he found a similar graphic novel in the stores and bought the rights and sold it almost immediately. What do you think this says about the industry?
In the film business, I’d say it’s more like that than ever before. If you make a movie based on something that somebody has heard of before, like a Colonel Sanders movie about Kentucky Fried Chicken, or whatever, like something based on Lego’s, or based on a ride—everybody in America has heard of those things. Nobody needs to explain what a Lego is to anybody. To create a whole new world from scratch, you have to do a lot of work to explain to people what the hell it is.
Which is why I’m really happy to be working in television because this is the “golden age.” There’s so much good stuff out there. I think a network like WGN wanted to take a big swing and try something really different. So they were able to take a chance on this weird world that I created, which was not based on any prior material at all.
You were a staff writer on Clarissa Explains It All—
—a “seminal” show for millennials. What were your experiences working on that show?
Everybody brings that up because it’s the only thing that’s on IMDB. When people ask if I’ve ever worked on staff on TV, I say no. I don’t really remember doing that.
A friend of mine was the head writer and she needed some help so I went down to Orlando. Our third writer on the show was Suzanne Collins, who wrote Hunger Games. It was just three of us, and I was only there for a few weeks and I wrote one episode. It was not a seminal experience in my life.
What’s your favorite dinosaur?
I don’t even know who or what that is…
They’re a “seminal” band from the 90’s.
Tune in Tuesday, January 26 at 9 PM ET/PT on WGN America for the series premiere of Outsiders.