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And what his favorite life potential card is
Are you ready for the next stage? In the Season 1 finale of Apple TV+'s The Big Door Prize, the Morpho, the mysterious box that upended the town of Deerfield with promises of foretelling their lives' potentials, posed that question to the many Deerfield residents as they crowded around Johnson's general store and stood in the blue glow of the machine in some eerie mix of awe and fear.
Over the course of the season, the Morpho completely changed Deerfield, and not always for the better. Sure, sales of motorcycles and archery equipment were up. But some relationships had been put to the test once individuals saw who they had become — Dusty (Chris O'Dowd) and Cass (Gabrielle Dennis) were barely hanging on by a thread — while others appeared to get stronger — Jacob (Sammy Fourlas) and Trina (Djouliet Amara) went public after Trina's confession. Some people were holding on for dear life (pull through, Mr. Johnson!), while others were rethinking theirs (Izzy).
The Big Door Prize deftly tackled questions of who we are, who we think we are, and how people see us through a light sci-fi premise that highlighted human relationships both personally and interpersonally. We got creator David West Read on the line to talk about how he developed the show, his favorite life potential cards, and what to expect in Season 2.
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Potential is kind of a triggering word for me. It has multiple meanings and context. It could be a compliment, it could be a backhanded compliment. Potential can give hope, but it can also give anxiety. How does this idea of potential help you put your characters on that kind of journey?
David West Read: I mean, that's something that comes from the source material from the book, The Big Door Prize by M.O. Walsh. This question of like, "What does it mean to discover your potential, what is potential?" Because it is, as the characters in the show say, it's different from destiny. It's the idea of something that could have been something you could achieve if everything went right with your body and brain. But I think what's really intriguing to me and to the other writers is if you need to achieve your potential in order to be happy. And also, if you do achieve your potential, does that necessarily mean happiness? I love the ambiguousness of the word and I love exactly what you're saying, that it's both something to strive for and an indication that you're not already there.
That's such a rich way to explore characters. How closely did you follow the book, and is the end of the Season 1 also in the book?
Read: We've really off-roaded, yeah. But the book has this amazing premise. And for me, it's the perfect source material to adapt because there are so many different directions you can go with it. And the book is great and preserved forever as its own thing, but the book has a definitive ending and an explanation for the machine and where it came from and who made it and all of that, which I don't want to give away for anyone who might read the book, but we obviously had to open that up for a series to have legs and to see how far we could go with these characters.
So we changed what the machine is. It's a very different machine in the book. It's called the DNA Mix, and it's a little more like medical, more like a photo booth. We built this idea of the Morpho, which takes its inspiration more from an '80s arcade console, and the image of the butterfly was something we came up with. [It's] obviously also loaded with different media, the Butterfly Effect and you know, a bringer of wishes and good fortune. But also the Blue Morpho butterfly itself is this incredibly vibrant, almost like bluer-than-blue blue. But it's an illusion because it's only about how the butterfly's wings are catching the light; it doesn't actually have that color. And so that helps us kind of tie the image of the machine to the idea of potential itself, like is the idea of potential and happiness itself an illusion? So the machine is new. We added characters, we changed character dynamics and relationships. And then we also took it from the geographically specific place in Deerfield, Louisiana, which is where the book is set, and put it in more of this bubble of Any Place, USA, so that it feels like it could be any small town.
Yeah, not only does it feel like it could be any small town, but it kind of feels like it could be at any time.
Read: Yeah, it is our modern world, but it's a very deliberate choice to try and make it feel a little more amorphous in terms of the time. The writers and I all rewatched Edward Scissorhands, which is such a weird mashup of like, is it postwar suburbia? Is it the 1980s? Is it a fairy tale world somewhere? I love stories where you feel like there's a bit of a bubble around this town so that everything that happens within this town is loaded with significance. And the stakes are so much higher because we don't really care about the outside world. People don't really leave or come in. We're really focused on this one specific place, so I kind of set a rule for us in terms of writing and design to have as little screen interaction as possible — like, text messages popping up on the screen all the time. And for music choices we have Tina Turner and George Michael. It's very classic, kind of '80s-'90s pop through a lot of it to help with that timeless feel. But I think that gives it a kind of mythological quality. It is almost like a fable that we're telling.
Season 1 ends on a bit of an ominous note, with the Morpho asking, "Are you ready for the next stage?" Will Season 2 dig into the origins of the Morpho and the sci-fi elements more? Because in Season 1, the hook is the machine. It brings you in, but the series is really about the characters. What's the tone of Season 2?
Read: I don't want to give any of the specifics away, but I will say that we're expanding the mystery and expanding the mythology of this machine and what it's capable of doing in the second season. To me, it's all about character, [and the Morpho] is a sci-fi way into this world. But I'm interested much more in what people do as a result of the machine than exactly where it came from. So I think in a second season, we want to go deeper with our characters and more complicated with their emotional arcs. And so the machine itself is getting a little more complicated in terms of what it's giving people.
It appears Hana (Ally Maki) has had some previous experience with this machine. She's an outsider from the town. In Season 2 are we going to stay in Deerfield? Is the outside world going to have more of an effect?
Read: Something that I had to pitch from the beginning and plan from the beginning is this character who is seemingly the bartender in the pilot, and looks like a tertiary kind of supporting character. She's played by Ally Maki, who's wonderful. We had to cast a really good actor because I knew that this character would eventually, at the end of the season, literally have every other character staring at her looking for answers. And she does know more about the machine than anyone else, and we'll find out how much she knows in Season 2, but that felt like such an exciting, kind of sneaky arc for us. And I had to talk to her in the audition stage to be like, "OK, it doesn't look like much, but wait till you hear where we're going. If you stay with us, if you're willing to just be the bartender with a few lines in the first episode, there's some really juicy stuff coming through your character." I don't really want to give anything away. But we're going to learn more about these people's pasts and their futures, and we are going to gain more context for the machine.
I have one more question about the machine. It's so purposely vague. It seems like it's a novelty machine, but it also asks for your social security number and your fingerprints, so it seems like it could be an instrument of surveillance. But it also has this divine presence. Can you talk about constructing the machine and having it hit all these tones, so that A) we're still left guessing about its origins but B) it also feels real?
Read: I took a lot of inspiration from the Zoltar machine in Big, where it's this primitive carnival machine, and yet it's imbued with such magical significance. And so that was really important in working with our production designer, Diane Lederman. In designing this machine we wanted it to feel like a grounded, real world arcade console, but that it has this aura around it that's mystical and that it draws people towards it, this beacon of blue light. And something that I really got excited about in the design was that this color of blue really doesn't exist in Deerfield before the Morpho arrives. So that was another rule is that like, none of the sets, none of the costumes, props, nothing could be blue. And so the blue of the Morpho feels like this new element has arrived in this town. The presence of magic that wasn't there before. And then over the course of this season, we start to see blue in people who are pursuing their potentials and opening a new door within themselves. So I think that helps to build the feeling of power that this machine has. But I also liked adding in these requests for fingerprints and social security, which loosely hints at how willing we are to sacrifice our sense of security and privacy in the modern world in order to get something that we think we need to be happy. And so it has that mix of, is it just scrubbing our data? Is it bullsh--, is it just a scam? Or is it omniscient and all powerful somehow, and how willing people are to embrace something if it tells them something they want to hear about themselves. It's lightly talking about issues of faith in our society as well.
At the end of the season, there are some relationships that are solidified. Giorgio (Josh Segarra) finds Nat (Mary Holland), and other people are getting together, but Dusty and Cass feel like they're on the outs. I'm worried about their future.
Read: Sorry! [Laughs.] I think what I love is, because it's hard to tell the story of everyone in a town, I liked locating the central conflict of the first season within a couple so that they almost stand in for the whole. What if one person gets an amazing potential and one person gets a nightmarish potential, and those two people are in a relationship? What kind of friction does that cause within them as they begin to explore new sides of themselves or not? And I had this feeling that the machine and what it offers people should only be information that is already contained within them. So it's not that there were never problems in Dusty and Cass's relationship. It's not that they were perfectly happy, but that it kind of takes this machine to draw it out of them, to uncover what's bubbling underneath the surface so you feel a slight friction in that first episode, a slight unsettling discomfort between them. And then as the season progresses, and the potentials are pursued, the divide between them is exacerbated. So we do leave them in this really tenuous spot, you know, sitting on top of a Ferris wheel in a lightning storm. It does represent where they are in the relationship — suspended in the air. How do we move forward together, and is it even possible to move forward together? That's going to become a big part of the second season.
When writing these potentials on the card, there are some that are specific ["Meteorologist"] and some that are very vague ["Royalty']. What was it like writing these cards, and which card were you most proud of?
Read: The short answer is it was very fun to basically spend an entire day in the writers room, brainstorming just potentials. I think it's maybe a reflection of making the show in America, a lot of them are career focused, and job focused. Because it does feel like for so many of us, our sense of identity is so closely tied to what we do for a living. But then we tried to get into more potentials that speak to a person's character, like "Dreamer," and then getting even more ambiguous with things like "Gum." Like, what does "Gum" mean? There's no way to know exactly what the machine means by that. But then Gum kind of develops his own understanding, like maybe it means I used gum to fix the machine. Because I love playing with the the power of suggestion. And if I'm told something about myself, and then that happens, does that mean that that was always going to happen? Or did I chase it because I was told I could? And all of these cards, we wanted them to be open to interpretation, whether it's "Father" or "Whistler." There's always kind of a second level to it. I think a favorite for me, which is not hugely significant, is "Undertaker," because the idea of a doctor getting it just really made me laugh.
How many seasons do you have planned out? Where's your ideal endpoint?
Read: In this age of television, having multiple seasons feels like such a victory in a way that it didn't used to be. Even having a few seasons seems great now. I have a few in my head. And I think that based on where we're going with these characters, and the machine, there is an exciting, expanding world to explore. It feels like it's only opening up as we go along. I don't feel limited by the premise. I feel like the premise is just becoming richer and richer as we go. So I hope we'll have a few more seasons.
Season 1 of The Big Door Prize is streaming on Apple TV+. It has been renewed for a second season.