Show Creator Monica Owusu-Breen Talks NBC’s “Midnight Texas”
Show Creator Monica Owusu-Breen Arrives At “Midnight Texas”
by Brad Balfour
April 4, 2017
As both a woman and person of color, American television producer and screenwriter Monica Owusu-Breen has accomplished the near-impossible in Hollywood, helming a major network show with her as writer, show runner and executive producer. Of mixed Ghanaian background, she not only achieved academic success — graduating from Brown University in 1990 — but worked her way up to write or produce for quite a list of top-flight television series. Since she started in 2001, that list includes “Alias,” “Brothers & Sisters,” “Lost,” “Fringe,” “Revolution” and Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
In 2003, when Breen joined “Alias” as an executive story editor and writer, the espionage actioneer was in its third season. By the beginning of season four, she moved up to producer, and by its final season, she was its supervising producer. During those three seasons, she had co-written 11 episodes.
As part of “Lost’s” writing staff, she welcomed their 2007 nomination for the Writers Guild of America (WGA) Best Dramatic Series Award for work on the second and third seasons. But her most auspicious and ambitious move has been to take on “True Blood’s” Charlaine Harris’ elaborate supernatural series which she’s executive producing with David Janollari (“Six Feet Under”) of David Janollari Entertainment and the production arm of Universal Television. The pilot episode was directed by Niels Arden Oplev who handled “Mr. Robot” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
The town of Midnight, Texas, sits between the living and hell. In this place, being normal is strange and only outsiders fit in; Midnight is a mysterious safe haven for those who are markedly different in ways few ever encounter. And, it’s a perfect place for anyone hiding from the outside world. As town members fight off outside pressures from ever-suspicious cops, deadly biker gangs, and their own dangerous pasts, they band together and form an unlikely but strong family.
The community of “Midnight, Texas” includes charming, powerful psychic Manfred (François Arnaud from “The Borgias”), who communicates with spirits and finds safety in the town surrounded by both human and supernatural allies. It’s also home to Bobo, proprietor of Midnight’s local pawn shop (Dylan Bruce from “Orphan Black”); Fiji, a witch who owns the local wiccan shop (Parisa Fitz-Henley who is in “Luke Cage”); Olivia, a mysterious assassin with a weapon for every occasion (Arielle Kebbel formerly of “Vampire Diaries”); Joe, an angel who knows all of Midnight’s secrets having been around for millennia (Jason Lewis from “Sex and the City”); Lemuel, a wise vampire with a long history in Midnight (Peter Mensah who was in “True Blood”); Creek, an aspiring writer with big dreams who learns her family is harboring a deep secret (Sarah Ramos — once in “Parenthood”); and Rev. Emilio Sheehan, who can’t resist the pull of a full moon (Yul Vazquez, who was in the film “Captain Phillips”).
Recently, a passel of journalists joined the cast, crew and creative team on the “Midnight, Texas” set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to get an advance peek into the creation of the upcoming NBC series — due to debut in July 2017. Here is an exclusive interview with Owusu-Breen — conducted in mysterious netherland of Midnight, Texas.
It’s hard enough being in this industry as a woman, let alone a woman of color. Do people have certain expectations of you or have you just been around so long that they look past it?
Monica Owusu-Breen: Both, I would say. It really depends on the room. It depends on the job. I didn’t use my maiden name initially because I didn’t want people to make assumptions. I wanted [my work to be thought of] as Monica’s writing — [not defined by my last name]. Mostly I’ve been one of a few, if not the only, black person on a staff.
It’s also, frankly, benefited me in certain ways. I lucked out early on in my career to have two successful shows under my belt. Diversity is something people strive for in writer’s rooms, and that goes for studios trying to get diverse writers, and especially action shows where it’s very rare to have a woman, let alone a woman of color, in the room. Sometimes It made the job easier and sometimes it made it tough. It’s really dependent on the show.
Were there ever times when you winced?
MO-B: There were times where I said I’m out. And there are times when — I won’t name names —but there are people I won’t work with. There are times when my feelings have been hurt terribly and there have been times I walked out of room and said I’m not coming back. It depends. Sometimes writer’s room can be a little bit [like a locker room].
Every show has its DNA and some DNA are darker than others and you have to spend 10 hours in a room with the same people and if there’s not a certain level of respect it can get harsh, and those are the times I’ve walked away and I’ve been fortunate that I can walk away. Early on in my career I would suck it all up, and at this point I don’t. But I don’t have to either. I’m lucky that way.
Did you ever see yourself becoming a brand like J.J. Abrams or is that not in your character?
MO-B: I love what I write and I love writing.
So writing is at the heart of your work?
MO-B: Writing is at the heart and I’m never happier than when I’m behind the computer screen. Would I like multiple shows on the air? Sure, but to give my heart and soul, I can’t imagine doing something other than [this] right now. It’s everything. I fell in love with these characters and I hate when they go away and I mourn them when they die. So there’s a very emotional connection. I don’t know about the brand part, but I love making up worlds, so if I get the chance to do that again that’d be awesome.
Since the world of Midnight, Texas, is modeled on archetypes, the world at large and characters not in the books, the changes here make things look very interesting.
MO-B: The thing is, even in the books there’s this one moment where Fiji, who in the books is a white character, looks at the town and says, “Isn’t this beautiful that we have gay people and straight people and black people and latino people and we’re all here and cool with each other?”
And I thought that’s the heart. So as long I kept the heart of that, the specific casting didn’t [have to] — not that it doesn’t matter — but it’s still true to the book. That said, Len, who in the book, was a white guy, old, decrepit and bent over, Peter is the exact antithesis of this. But we also keep true to his heart, true to the fact that Olivia loves him, and true to that he’s an old Texan. With the history of a man who looks like Peter in Texas in the 17-1800s, he is very different from the realities of a rancher.
So that adds a new dimension.
MO-B: Yes. Though we try to be true to history when we can, and that’s fun. Frankly, my father’s from Ghana, my mother’s from Spain, I was born in London, and then I moved to Coney Island, Brooklyn when I was seven. I’ver got to be honest, this world reflects my reality more than other shows I’ve worked on.
Have you ever been to Ghana?
MO-B: Not yet. My father lives there now, but we’re kind of estranged. I do want to go at some point, it’s just work, and life, and kids, and everything.
How old are your kids?
MO-B: My son is 19. He’s autistic though, so we have… We want to go to Ghana but we can’t take him places where it’s so foreign that he will fight. It changes your life.
It’s amazing how you insinuate it into this world.
MO-B: I really did change when my son was diagnosed, and one thing that became very clear to me is that we’re all wired differently, our brains are all the different.
In this business, everyone’s a little autistic.
MO-B: I could diagnose a lot of people, including myself.
So you’ve gotten attached to this fantasy aspect and how African Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, they all gravitate towards fantasy and science fiction.
MO-B: Because they’re outsiders and they’re different.
It was Jews who made the comics [like Stan Lee]!
MO-B: Even being a kid and always feeling on the outside, you gravitate towards the X-Men.
It makes for more interesting stories when your heroes are outsiders. When your heroes are insiders everything seems fine, there’s no struggle there and there’s nothing to write about.
You understand the audience in so many ways.
MO-B: I feel like I am the audience, to be honest. I’m a fangirl who just happened to get into writing.
What were you reading as a kid — comic books?
MO-B: No, not comic books. Science fiction was always fascinating to me.
Who was the YA of the day?
MO-B: I was really into V.C. Andrew which is more gothic, dark. [I was] very into vampires. The very first movie I saw was when I was in kindergarten, I snuck out of bed and saw “Night of the Living Dead,” and that changed everything. [I] loved it. My mother, who passed away two years ago, she would tell me “Rosemary’s Baby” as a bedtime story, like Hansel and Gretel. We weren’t allowed to see “The Exorcist” because my mother was Roman Catholic and “Oh, God!” with George Burns. It was very funny. I watched them both as an adult and “Oh, God!” is not as subversive as you’d think.
“The Exorcist” is.
MO-B: But the Priest saves the day and kills himself at the end. I loved horror as a kid. Until I was seven, I lived in Fascist Spain in a little town.
What was it like being dark skinned in Fascist Spain?
MO-B: It helped me a little bit in this career. Every time my dad walked around town he had to show his papers. It was this tiny little town in the middle of nowhere, much like Midnight Texas. I think it had 1,500 people when I lived there and now it’s 700. I still go back but everyone knew my grandfather because I was the only person with dark skin. I knew what it was like to be an outsider, but also an insider.
Did they think you were from North Africa?
MO-B: No, because everyone knew everyone, so everyone knew my mom went to England and got pregnant by a man that looked like Nat King Cole. I don’t think he looked like Nat King Cole, but he was a young black man.
How did you transition to the TV world?
MO-B: I was a production coordinator on music videos for a short time and hated it. So I went back to grad school to teach communication and film theory and I was going to write my dissertation on Oprah Winfrey and the political economy of Harpo Productions in race and gender.
And where were you based at the time?
MO-B: I was based in San Diego, but I didn’t like it and told my husband so we had to move. I came up to LA and my friend from grad school said, “Do you want to write some scripts?” And I had always been a writer in my head. I’ve written a lot and I minored in creative writing, but I was a stay-at-home mom with a baby. [My husband] was not very receptive and I needed an outlet, so my writing partner and I stayed up at night writing specs and we lucked out. We got a manager and an agent really fast and in one year I was staffed on “Charmed” and was there for three years. If I knew how hard it would be to break in, I might not have ever done it, but ignorance is bliss.
It’s the critical right of passage.
MO-B: It was a great learning experience for me. I had the luckiest career of all time. I didn’t know anyone, so my writing partner and I sat in Barnes & Noble.
Are you still working together?
MO-B: No. We split up and it was really hard. We’re still best friends, she works on “Scandal.”
What happened to your Oprah dissertation?
MO-B: It’s still waiting. I’m all but dissertation on the PHD.
Did you talk to Oprah?
MO-B: I did this weird thing that made me want to be a writer because I couldn’t go to Chicago to study or talk to her. But she had that book club at the time, so I wrote her a letter saying how much Wally Lamb’s “I Know This Much Is True” affected me and I got on the book club and observe it surreptitiously. It’s a good book, but I wrote a letter and knew how to hit the emotional high points. When I got back I said I should be a writer. I didn’t want to write the dissertation because that letter got me flown to Chicago, and that’s telling me another sign. I’ve been lucky.
You don’t think the world needs your dissertation?
MO-B: It’s not as much fun as writing vampires.
Have you met Oprah?
MO-B: I met her and had dinner with her during the Book Club.
Will this series be an iconic show with action figures like some of the other ones you have worked on?
MO-B: Sometimes I walk down the set and look at the cast and say you guys will be Halloween costumes for sure. I’m just happy I like it.
If you get one of those costumes for yourself which character would it be?
MO-B: I could be Fiji.