When I found out that writer Marc Bernardin wrote next Monday’s episode (The Unusual Suspects [premiering September 19 at 10/9c]) of Syfy’s Alphas, I wanted to find out all I could from the writer himself. Lucky me, Bernardin was eager to discuss his work on the show. Below is a preview of the episode. Syfy described the episode as follows: “When a member of the team is suspected of being an agent for Red Flag, the group is held against their will until the traitor is revealed.”
My thanks to Bernardin for a fun interview during a busy and successful time in his life.
Tim O’Shea: How did you get involved with Syfy’s Alphas?
Marc Bernardin: Well, the long story is very long and involves decades of waiting, a boatload of luck, and a plane-load of an unnamed substance being airlifted into a classified location. The short story is, I wrote an original TV pilot for a show that’ll never get on the air — basically, I wrote a $30 million action movie, and that’s about $26 million more than they like to spend on pilots — my agents thought that, while it would never sell, it was strong enough to serve as a good sample. They sent it to the boys at Syfy who thought that my particular love for blowing stuff up, mated with my comic-book experience, would be a good fit for Alphas.
O’Shea: Not every writer gets to work on a show starring a respected actor like David Strathairn–how giddy were you when you realized you were going to get to write an episode?
Bernardin: Dude, you have no idea. Getting to write an episode was a glorious surprise in and of itself — one that I wasn’t guaranteed when I took the gig — but watching dailies and seeing that strong a cast speaking your lines? Not a bad day in the life, you know? It was freakish to realize that Strathairn would be leaving the Alphas set to go shoot Lincoln with Steven Spielberg. He makes it all better.
O’Shea: Your episode is titled The Unusual Suspects– did you get to name the episode or was that a choice by someone else on the show?
Bernardin: There were a host of working titles for my episode, and they all changed as either the nature of the episode shifted, or someone had too much time to look at it on the page. You know how it is, when you look at a word for just long enough that it no longer makes sense? Like “Cinnamon” doesn’t register as a word if you think about it for too long. But Ira Steven Behr and Robert Hewitt Wolfe, who ran the writers’ room like Nick Fury and Dum Dum Dugan, fell in love with “The Unusual Suspects” and it stuck. And it’s perfect for this episode, which is full of both suspects and the unusual.
O’Shea: Does the episode focus on certain members of the cast (as opposed to the whole ensemble)? When writing for certain characters, how do you go about making sure you get the right voice for them in the script–do you work off the series bible or what is your approach?
Bernardin: This one is very much an ensemble piece, with a bit of a focus on Dr. Rosen, Strathairn’s character. All those issues writing The Authority has paid off, when it comes to being able to write a team. And getting the voices right is sort of a byproduct of living and breathing the show as intensely as staff writers do. We read every version of every script, watch dailies and cuts of every episode. And, given that the cast is already in place, you get to a point where you can hear, say, Malik Yoba delivering Agent Harken’s dialogue when you’re writing.
O’Shea: Who directed the episode?
Bernardin: A guy named J. Miller Tobin, who shot a ton of episodes of shows like The Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I never got to meet him, as I didn’t travel up to the set in Toronto for the production. But he delivered a really solid episode.
O’Shea: What aspect of writing for TV did you find most challenging?
Bernardin: Honestly, it was — at the very beginning — paying attention. Coming from a journalistic background, when everything is always happening at the same time — this piece needs writing, this one needs editing, photos need to be selected for this article, coverlines need to be written for that one, and so on — it was a big adjustment to simply have to sit in a room and follow a conversation. Because that’s a huge part of being a TV writer: Being in the writers’ room and contributing to that free-flowing, ever-evolving exchange of ideas. If you lose focus, for even a second, to wonder about what you’ll have for lunch, or if the kids are having a good day in school, or if Natalie Portman is really that attractive, or if it’s a trick of the light…you’ll have missed how the conversation hopped from one branch to another. And it’s hell trying to play catch up. So after my first week, I worked really hard to be present and in the moment.
O’Shea: Other than your own episode, what have been some of your favorite episodes from this season of Alphas?
Bernardin: I really dug Rosetta, which introduced an unlikely Red Flag communications hub. Catch and Release, which costarred Summer Glau, was a lot of fun, and explored a bit of Rosen’s background. And Bill and Gary’s Excellent Adventure was an atypical episode, in that it didn’t feature an Alphas bad guy, but it really shined a light on two characters that needed to be more than the sum of their parts. Plus, it gave the fantastic Ryan Cartwright a bit of a showcase for his work as Gary. He takes portraying an autistic adult very seriously and is fully cognizant of the responsibilities that come with it. And he kills it, week in, week out.
O’Shea: Now that the show has been renewed for a second season, are you hoping to get to write another episode?
Bernardin: Oh, I hope so. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the world that Zak Penn and Michael Karnow created — and with the finale, the staff breaks it wide open.
O’Shea: Do you want to try your hand writing for other Syfy series, or is your focus on Alphas for now?
Bernardin: For the time being, it’s all Alphas, all the time. But I tell ya, if Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome gets picked up to a series, and someone dangled the possibility of writing a Viper-Raider battle, with young Adama at the stick…I’d be sorely tempted.
O’Shea: What else is on the creative horizon for you?
Bernardin: My frequent writing partner, Adam Freeman, and I have an illustrated Young Adult (YA) novel for Radical called Jake the Dreaming that’s coming out in the beginning of the year. And I’m putting the finishing touches on a graphic novel proposal that I’m going to take to Kickstarter later in the fall — it’s called Adora and the Distance, and it’s a book that’s very near and dear to my heart.