Breaking Bloodlines

Published May 26, 2016

This interview contains Season One spoilers

Danny Rayburn is dead. At the hands of his brother John, he was drowned amidst the mangroves in the piercing blue water of Islamorada. Shortly thereafter, a young man named Nolan appeared at the Rayburns’ doorstep, claiming Danny was his father. Thus wrapped Season One of Bloodline, the Netflix powder keg family drama turned thriller. But Danny isn’t lost to the Atlantic just yet, nor are the concerns and complications that weighed on him. A ghost guiding the narrative, Danny plunges the show ahead at full force, with characters from his past life (played by John Leguizamo, Andrea Riseborough, and Owen Teague) keeping the wound of his murder fresh for the Rayburn family. “We’re not bad people, but we did a bad thing,” said John Rayburn of he and his siblings in Season One, and one thing is for certain in the aftermath: the collective bad deed in question will not be shed easily.

It should come as no surprise to those who watched the multigenerational family drama Damages that its creators, KZK Productions—a team consisting of Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler, and Daniel Zelman—helm Bloodline. The trio splits all of the roles involved in production, each taking their hand at writing, directing, and the day-to-day on set in the Florida Keys. They describe their process as “actor-centric” and as a result they embrace improvisation on set, allowing writing to shift as actors occupy their characters in unexpected ways. The outcome of this method is readily apparent in the striking performances KZK has elicited from their cast, which includes Kyle Chandler, Ben Mendelsohn, Sissy Spacek, Linda Cardellini, and Norbert Leo Butz.

“It isn’t so much that the lines need to be hit as written,” Glenn Kessler explains. “There’s a jazz element to it … Three months before the filming of an episode starts, we’re not out ahead that way in terms of making things concrete and inflexible. It’s always important to us to keep this thing living and breathing.”

We recently spoke over the phone with two thirds of KZK—Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman—about the Keys, their writing room, and finding oneself within a family.

HALEY WEISS: To start off, I’d like to talk about the end of Season One, particularly when John drowns Danny and the immediate aftermath of that. When and how did you decide Danny would die that way?

DANIEL ZELMAN: The first part is easy; we knew he was going to die from the very beginning, it was built into the concept of the show. … We knew how John killed him—it was a big decision and we talked about it a lot. What was important to us was that he did it with his hands and not a weapon, [that there] was an intimacy to the act, they were close, and it was brother to brother. That limited what the options were and I think we had an image of what that struggle might feel like first and foremost, and what John might be saying to Danny leading up to it, and that was how it wrote itself first. The drowning sort of became obvious at some point given the location and the whole presence and theme of water.

WEISS: You make frequent use of flashbacks in the show. Why do you feel it’s important to not just have characters talk about their family’s past, but actually show it?

GLENN KESSLER: One of the things that we thought about a lot—which is probably something of a cliché but we feel is true—is that the past is always with us, particularly when it comes to family. There are certain elements of one’s identity within a family that you’re locked into, and the events that helped shape those identities, no matter how long ago they may have happened in your family, that is who you are when you’re around that specific group of people. It seems like you’re stuck in that for your life. That is certainly true of the Rayburns and so in a way, to bring that past into the present by showing it is demonstrating that these people are not free of their past and that every decision they make and every action that they take has been informed by these events.

WEISS: Do you write differently for Netflix than you would for a network or cable show? Do you take into account that people may binge watch the show?

ZELMAN: We probably do but at the same time, thinking about that at this point is stitched into the way we think about storytelling in general. Even going back to Damages, which was our first show, we knew very early on—this was during the TiVo age—that we were one of the most DVRed shows on television. Then people discovered it on DVDs and eventually on iTunes so we started to think more and more that way, and television in general started to think more and more that way [on] a continuum; it evolved.

The Netflix model is so particular that we definitely talked about it from time to time while writing for both seasons of Bloodline, but it didn’t drastically change the way we thought about storytelling because our shows had been so serialized prior to that anyway. There were moments where we would say, “Oh, maybe it’s okay to end this a little sooner because the next episode is a click away, so we don’t have to show this event right now, we can hold it off until the beginning of the next episode.”

WEISS: Have the narrative arcs of Season Two been plotted since you began the show or is that something that happened later?

KESSLER: I would say there were elements. When we first went out to sell the show, we knew that it would be important to the people we were having conversations with—who might buy the show—to explain that the climax of the whole series does not take place in the first season. The sense that a brother kills a brother, in theory there would be shows where that’s what you’d build to over the course of the whole run of the series. We knew we were not only going to end the first season with that but we were going to tell you that in the pilot. It was important to demonstrate as we explained the world of the show that there would be events that would take us beyond that act, and that that act actually starts to inform their lives going however many seasons out that the show could go.

As I’m sure everyone who talks about television says, you can only know so much. You have to have ideas and then as you cast it and start to work on the stories, characters take on a life of their own and certain things that you were exploring start to evolve into other things. One of the things we always knew we wanted to explore in a second season were elements of Danny’s past coming out of the woodwork, that after his death the family was going to come into contact with people from his past. The nature of who those people were sort of evolved, their relationship to Danny evolved, but we always thought it would be interesting to have people follow him down now that he’s dead and start to become antagonists in the lives of his family … Obviously once in the first season we decided that he has a teenage son, we knew that we wanted to use that as a catalyst to learn more about Danny. We always also knew that we wanted Ben Mendelsohn involved beyond the first season even though he died; his contract was for multiple seasons because we knew if this character works and the show works the way we’d like it to, we absolutely want the opportunity to continue to explore him and have this person as a presence in the show.

WEISS: When you populate your writing room, what are you looking for?

ZELMAN: One of the most important things is a willingness on the writer’s part to talk about very personal things. Someone has to be able to feel very free and open sharing their own life and their own experiences because ultimately, especially on a show about family, we’re trying to mine people’s stories about their families. We ourselves are talking about very intimate things about our own family lives and so when you’re in a room, there has to be a give and take. There’s that feeling of openness and trust, too, that if you say something about your own personal life that they aren’t necessarily going to go tell a bunch of people; in that room is an understanding that these things can be shared in a safe environment. That’s hugely important and then other than that it’s just a sensibility to the writing and to the way that they think about stories that feels in line with our sensibility, which is a hard thing to define—you just kind of know it when you see it.

WEISS: I’d like to talk a bit about choosing the Keys as your setting. I’d imagine that to people who haven’t been there it must seem a bit surreal; it’s a destination for tourists but they’re also small, intertwined communities. What attracted you to that area?

KESSLER: Small town life, as you said, that is the feel of that area. There were a handful of things that were important to us in choosing that location. One was that first and foremost, we felt like one of the things going on emotionally, internally with this family is a sense of claustrophobia, that nobody is able to individuate and go out into the world and assume their own identity outside the family. We felt that a small town environment would be the way to tell that story, because there is a physical as well as an emotional claustrophobia to it. Another thing that was important to us was choosing a world that had not been explored much, if at all, in television. There were great stories told in Albuquerque as we know, in New York City, and the Pacific Northwest, but we knew our story was going to be dark and we wanted to tell it in a setting that hasn’t really been used for a dark story on television. To take what literally looks like paradise and tell the story that we’re telling felt like it was an interesting juxtaposition and hadn’t necessarily been seen in quite that way before.

One of the other interesting elements about the Keys is that it is kind of iconic, the way that New York City or Las Vegas have a feel around them, even if you’ve never been there. The Keys are like that because of the people who seem to go down there and populate the place, and its history as a haven for drug running and human smuggling. Beneath this beautiful, picturesque postcard exterior, there’s an underbelly that’s very seedy and very dark, which also felt like it was ripe for the story that we were interested in telling.

The last thing is the weather there; when you wake up every single day dealing with that heat and humidity it is brutal and it starts to inform behavior. Even a person who may be patient and even-keeled, and trying to manage themselves and their emotions and their life a certain way, I imagine that the weather day after day after day for a lifetime starts to inform who you are as a person. That may have something to do with Kyle Chandler’s character [John] as well. There are times when you leave set at two in the morning and you’re driving home, you get to your apartment or hotel room, you turn on the TV and it’s still 100 degrees out. It’s really a unique way of living.

WEISS: The show explores family, guilt, trauma, and how these people are tied together, but when you began the show, did you have a core question in mind that you wanted to investigate?

ZELMAN: We were focused on family in general and every issue that you could think of when you think of family was something that was of interest to us. The thing that we talked mostly about was the identity that you’re assigned in your family. It’s described by the whole idea of the black sheep, in a sense; most families have that one sibling who’s difficult, and then there’s the golden child. Whatever label you might be—you’re the fuck up, you’re the independent one, you’re the diplomat of the family—those things get assigned at a very young age and they become very hard to break out of. The question is: are they true? Just because in the context of your family you are told you’re a certain way, is that really true about who you are? Which comes first: does the family have the need to assign you that role and then you fulfill that role, or are you really that person? We were very interested in the idea that a black sheep might carry the negativity for a family without knowing that it’s unfair; all families have their demons and it’s convenient and easy to put that onto one family member but it seems unlikely that that family member is the problem—usually the problems are a lot more widespread. There’s a tyranny to these identity assignments and even the golden child is put in a position where they’re not allowed to fail. [With] Kyle’s character [John], for example, once the family said, “You’re the golden child. You’re the one that everyone looks up to, who can be trusted, who never does anything wrong,” that’s not fair to that person because they’re never given a chance to fuck up. In many ways, Danny, people gave up on him so early that he could fuck up as much as he wanted … It liberates him. Is it really a good thing to be the golden child, or is it its own burden? John is probably a lot darker and messier than he was ever allowed to be.

SEASON TWO OF BLOODLINE COMES OUT ON NETFLIX TOMORROW, MAY 27.