Zak Penn And Warren Christie On The Science Of Syfy’s Alphas
Beginning tonight, five people with extraordinary mental and physical abilities will fight to bring super-powered criminals to justice. That doesn’t necessarily make them heroes, though.
“He’s definitely nobody’s hero!” actor Warren Christie said about Cameron Hicks, his character on the new Syfy drama Alphas.
Created by X-Men: The Last Stand writer Zak Penn and television writer Michael Karnow, Alphas centers on a team of five people with extreme abilities: Hicks, who has enhanced motor skills and flawless aim; autistic Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright), who can see TV and radio wavelengths; Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell), who can control people through suggestion; Bill Harken (Malik Yoba), who can use the fight-or-flight response to endow himself with super-strength; and Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada), whose synesthesia gives her the ability to sharpen her five senses to unprecedented heights. Known as Alphas, they work for the U.S. government tracking down rogue superhumans and fighting a mysterious organization called Red Flag.
While the drama’s premise may sound similar to previous superhero-inspired TV series, Christie and co-creator Penn emphasized to reporters during a conference call that, unlike other shows, the Alpha superpowers come with a twist: They’re rooted in real, scientifically feasible human abilities.
“Michael Karnow, who is a bit of a history buff, came to me and said he had been reading all about these programs the CIA and the KGB ran in the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s where they tried to recruit people who were psychic or people who had incredible abilities — and most of those programs ended almost hilariously in disasters,” Penn said. “He brought me this idea and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if it actually worked?’”
Intrigued by the notion, Penn and Karnow produced a short proof-of concept video about a man named Christian Hicks who’s able to control his motor skills enough to bounce 10 coins into 10 shot glasses at one time.
“We shot in my house for a few hundred dollars this video of a guy playing quarters,” Penn said. “We released it onto the Internet, we doctored it up — we got some special-effects guys I knew for very cheap, and they doctored it up so it looked like he threw 10 quarters in 10 glasses at the same time.” The video went viral, quickly garnering a million views. In fact, the video was so successful that no one would believe the two when they said it was a fake.
“By the time we went in to pitch the show nobody believed us! We were like, ‘No we created that for the show, it’s not real!’” Penn laughed. “From the beginning that has been the sales pitch of the show: This could be real.”
Once Syfy picked up Alphas, Penn and the writers began researching actual neurological conditions that could be stretched to make super powers. Deeply influenced by the work of British neurologist Oliver Sacks, author of the popular science books The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, Penn looked to real-life accounts for Alpha powers.
“There’s this one woman, for example, who has very similar type of synesthesia [to Rachel] which allows her to perceive things with her senses that other people can’t,” Penn said. Her synesthesia, a real condition in which experiencing one sense involuntarily calls up another (in her case, seeing colors every time she heard sounds) came with its own drawbacks, a big theme of the show.
“That woman doesn’t have the same downside [as Rachel], although there was a very touching thing where she talked about her inability to go to certain public places because sound is color to her,” Penn said. “It would overwhelm her and she could not deal in big public situations.”
Christie said the downside to his character’s power is more psychological.
“Cameron is a guy who we meet in the pilot, he’s had a bit of a run of bad luck: He’s divorced, his son doesn’t want to spend too much time with him, he’s a recovering alcoholic,” he said. “He doesn’t want to be anybody’s hero, and he’s painted himself into a corner with his life. He’s had so many ups and downs — and recently so many more downs than anything else — that he isolated himself.”
Like showrunner Ira Steven Behr, who spoke with members of the press last week, Christie and Penn highlighted the series’ sense of humor, and stated that many of the funniest lines came from the actors improving, something Penn encouraged.
“When I set out to do this show I said I want actors who are able to improvise, who are able to ad-lib,” Penn said. “Quite often we let them come up with stuff on their own and say, ‘That’s better than what we wrote, let’s put that in there!’”
Comedy was not confined to set, however, as evident from the ribbing the two gave each other when asked about their favorite props used on the show.
“Warren’s, I’m sure, is the giant sniper rifle,” Penn joked.
“I’ve been stealing things since day one, so that’s such a broad question!” Christie said.
Penn then admitted to coveting the notebook of the villain from the pilot episode, painstakingly hand drawn by the art team. However, the coolest prop he actually got to keep was a framed album of his old rock band, specially made for the show.
“I was in a band in high school and kind of as a joke they took the picture of my band and created an album,” Penn said. In a scene in which Alpha team leader Dr. Leigh Rosen (David Strathairn) is looking through albums in a vintage record store, “One of them is my crappy band from high school’s album!” Penn laughed.
“What were they called?” Christie asked. “Oedipus and the Mama’s Boys,” Penn replied, causing the actor to crack up.
Christie and Penn also declared themselves huge fans of the X-Men and comic books, with the writer Penn going as far as labeling comics America’s “modern mythology.”
“I believe it was Neil Gaiman who astutely said, and he may have said it to me, that the Marvel universe is the single largest work of contiguous, continuous fiction in civilization’s history,” Penn said. “More than Greek mythology, more than the Bible, it’s an enormous mythology — and obviously DC is close. There’s a reason people want to keep watching this stuff: It’s not because they are dumb or there is nothing else to do, it’s because it touches into something really profound that appeals to us.”
Getting back to Alphas, Penn addressed comparisons to Heroes, The 4400 and the X-Men movies by saying they carefully avoided characters too close to existing superheroes.
“They kind of get sick of me in the writers room because I’ll say, ‘We can not do that, that is an X-Men!’” Penn laughed.
Christie and Penn also said attention they paid to the details of daily life differentiated Alphas from other genre media.
“It’s a pet peeve of mine in every TV show and movie … if people are pulling up to a crime scene they park! I’m from New York City and I can tell you, that does not happen!” Penn said. Thus, while in superhero movies and TV shows the good guys show up to save the day in the nick of time, “The difference is, our guys would be driving a minivan and they don’t get there and Gary has to be home by 9:30 and Hicks misses his shot and Harken has a heart attack.”
“Any time you have a show of this nature people want to compare it to this and compare it to that,” Christie said. “We’re putting our twist on it, we’re really delving into these people, and their abilities — which are exciting and, yes, there are action-packed sequences, but really there’s drawbacks to it, whether it be physical, whether it be psychological, they’re all dealing with things.”
True to form, the characters on Alphas weren’t the only ones who suffered, as the show itself went though an equally tumultuous pitching and development period. Although originally sold to ABC, after the writers’ strike the show was dropped and bought again by Syfy, a process that took five years. Despite that, Penn said the final product remained relatively unchanged from initial idea — something he acknowledged was rare, especially in light of his movie history.
“The first script I ever wrote was Last Action Hero, so I was fired the day they bought it,” Penn said, citing sweeping changes studios made to that and his other scripts as “a fairly painful part of … the early part of my career.”
Over all, Penn and Christie are confident that Alphas’ emphasis on reality and detail would appeal to viewers and put a unique spin on the show. But although the Alpha abilities may be rooted in science, they are still undoubtedly superhuman as a thrilled Christie reminded reporters when describing his favorite stunt from the pilot.
“A car was coming up, hit the brakes and skid, and as it was still coming up I ran across the hood, jumped down [as] another car was coming the other way, and I just kind of jumped and used my arm to push off of that,” said Christie. He took a deep breath and laughed. “And that was exhilarating!”
Alphas premieres tonight at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Syfy.