Ahead of the Channel Premiere of sci-fi drama EXTANT on Horror Channel, series creator & writer Mickey Fisher reflects on being plucked from relative obscurity, working with Steven Spielberg and hoping for life on Mars…
Did you know from a young age that you wanted to be a writer?
From the time I was maybe five or six years old I wanted to be an actor. Going to see STAR WARS is one of my earliest memories, but I didn’t quite understand what I was really watching. At a certain point, someone explained to me that Fonzie wasn’t a real guy, he was an actor pretending to a character on HAPPY DAYS, and I thought that sounded like the coolest job in the world. I went to The College Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati to study Musical Theatre, and it wasn’t until I was there that I really started writing. A lifetime of loving movies and television started pouring out into plays and screenplays, and by the time I left college, I wanted to be a writer just as much as I wanted to be an actor.
When did you first have the idea for Extant?
The idea for EXTANT started out as a play. I had this realization that was, “Nobody does sci-fi plays. Why not? It can be inexpensive, small cast, cool set, maybe some projections.” And I started thinking about an astronaut who was in deep space on a solo mission who started to hallucinate people from her past. Then I saw a movie called MOON, which I loved, and there were similar elements, so I kind of put it away for a bit. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2011, I started thinking about what kind of original pilot I wanted to write and I followed one of the key pieces of advice that you get as a writer, which is, “Write the show you would really want to watch.” When I thought about it, the show I really wanted to watch was about that astronaut.
It’s an amazing story of how it got produced, could you tell us all about it?
I had moved to Los Angeles after a number of years in New York and didn’t know many people who were working in the industry. So after I wrote the pilot I didn’t have a lot of options for what to do with it. I decided to enter it into a contest called The Tracking B TV Pilot Contest, and I actually came in second place. But the main prize of the contest is that they try to put your script into the hands of agents and managers.
Within two weeks, I had a manager and had signed with WME, one of the biggest agencies in the world. They represent Amblin Television, the TV side of Steven Spielberg’s business, and their first suggestion was, “We think we should send this story about aliens and robots to the guy who does it best.” I was freaking out that this guy I’d been a fan of for nearly my entire life would even read my name on the cover a script, let alone want to make the show. But, then he wanted to make the show! They partnered me with a showrunner, we took the pitch and the script out to nine different places, and CBS ordered it straight to series, on my 40th birthday. I was the proverbial 20 year overnight success story.
What’s it like to work on a series where Steven Spielberg is attached to it?
I’m an Amblin kid. I grew up exactly in the sweet spot for all of his movies. I saw E.T. over and over the summer it came out, my dad and I watched RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK in back to back screenings opening weekend. I have pictures of my wearing JURASSIC PARK t-shirts the summer it landed. So, it was surreal and terrifying and super cool and so much fun all in one. He was very hands on throughout the process of launching the show, from overseeing the design and casting to weighing in on all the scripts. The first day he came to set, we were shooting at Culver Studios. We were all standing around talking to him and he just casually mentioned, “We shot part of E.T. on this stage. The ship was right over there.” I’ll remember that moment until I die. That will be my “Rosebud” from Citizen Kane moment, where I’m on my death bed, pointing, “The ship was over there.”
Did you write it with a cast in mind?
I didn’t really have a cast in mind when I wrote it. I knew the qualities I wanted in the actors, and I knew that for Molly we needed someone who was smart, soulful, somebody not afraid of going over the edge, but also somebody that you rooted for right away. Basically, I was describing Halle Berry.
What did you think when you heard that Halle Berry had been cast in the series?
My first thought was, “Please don’t let us screw that up.” From the moment I heard her name I couldn’t picture anybody else in the role. Another dream come true. Creatively, it was a great choice but it also brought a lot of attention to the show because it was her first time coming back to television in many years.”
What was it like when you stepped onto the set for the first and saw the cast and crew bringing your words to life?
If we were in person and I was describing this moment to you I would inevitably start to cry. There’s nothing like the feeling of sitting down with a blank piece of paper, dreaming up a house and a space station, and then seeing hundreds of talented artists and craftsman bringing it to life in a three-dimensional space.
The only way to describe it is that it’s like having the ability to walk around inside of your imagination. One of my favorite things to do when I had a break was to take my laptop, lay on the floor of Ethan’s bedroom, and write my next episode. I called it “method writing.”
It has a grand, cinematic feel to it, how involved were you with the look and feel of Extant?
I was very involved with the first season showrunner, Greg Walker, but so much of the credit for that has to go to our pilot director, Allen Coulter, our first season DP M. David Mullen, first season production designer Cabot McMullen, and the rest of the team. And, of course, the insight and the direction from Steven.One of the cool things about season two is that there’s an evolution to the look of the show that is rooted organically in what’s happening with the characters. The second season team was all new, from the showrunners to the designers and cinematographer, and we set out to capture a new look and style that went along with the more earthbound, pulpy, propulsive direction the story was taking. It feels like two distinct chapters in a longer story, each with their own look and feel.
The show retains a very strong following across the globe, does this surprise you?
YES! I’m thrilled that it’s still alive out there in the world. This is a crazy business in that you spend so much energy and time making these things and then you have to move on. I have so many great memories from the show and it gave me the chance to have a career that is still going on eight years later. To know that there’s still a chance that it could spark someone else’s imagination halfway around the world means so much.
What advice would you give to budding writers?
As a new writer, you tend to get two pieces of advice. “Write what you know,” and “Write the show you want to watch.” My voice as a writer clicked into place when I put those two pieces together. EXTANT was about “what I know” in that it dealt with questions about what it means to be human, about empathy, love, loyalty, mystery vs certainty, but I was putting all of that into exactly the kind of show I would binge in a day. I would say take all of your dreams, desires, fears, passions, and funnel them into whatever show you’d watch or movie you’d stand in line for.
Do you believe that there’s intelligent life outside of our solar system?
One hundred per cent yes. I’m hopeful that in my lifetime we’ll at least learn there is evidence that life once existed on Mars, maybe in the form of microbes in the ice. I don’t know that we’ll get evidence of intelligent life, but I think it would be pretty arrogant to think we’re the only ones who made it this far.
So, what are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m co-writing a pilot script for Netflix, based on a novel called FIREKEEPER’S DAUGHTER that came out recently and have a couple of other pitches for new things in the near future.