The ads for Sundance Channel’s new drama Rectify have been selling it (understandably) as “from the producers of Breaking Bad,” and when they use that phrase, one of the two people they’re talking about is Mark Johnson. An Oscar-winning producer with a long and impressive list of credits (including Diner, Donnie Brasco, Galaxy Quest, The Notebook, and Rain Man), he’d done two films — Bugsy and A Perfect World — with a young actor named Ray McKinnon. Recently, he says, “on a whim, I realized I hadn’t talked to him in a while and I thought I should just give him a call. I reached him in Arkansas, and what a great coincidence, he had just finished a TV pilot. And he was aware of our show Breaking Bad at that point and he said, ‘I’d love for you to take a look at it.’ And he sent it to me, and it’s one of those things, one of those good moments, as a producer where you just instinctively know that something’s special there.”
The script that McKinnon sent Johnson concerned Daniel Holden (Aden Young), accused of a brutal rape and murder, just released from Death Row after 19 years thanks to DNA evidence. But after all that time behind bars, he’s a shell of a man — confused by the slightest kindness, rigid and halting, and made a bit unnerving in his refusal to open himself up (understandable though it might be). Rectify concerns his attempts to reintegrate himself into his small town and his family; it also focuses on those who put him away, and are unconvinced of his innocence.
Rectify shares much with Breaking Bad: an ingrained sense of time and place, a capability to shock us (the pilot ends with gut-punch reminiscent of the best Bad episodes), and most of all, a complexity of characterization and a willingness to engage with unsympathetic protagonists — though this show, in which a cold central character will (presumably) become more approachable, takes something of a flipped approach to Bad’s increasingly chilling Walter White. “In the old days,” Johnson says, “people used to say that for a lead character, you needed someone sympathetic. But that’s not necessarily the case. Listen, right now, the Walter White character in Breaking Bad is probably not the most sympathetic character — but he’s certainly fascinating.
“I like compromised characters,” Johnson confesses, “because all of us are compromised in some way, no matter how successful or not we are — there are mitigating circumstances and relationships.”
Characters of that type — complicated, compromised, nuanced, complex — are increasingly the domain of television rather than feature films, where Johnson made his name. Though his filmography is refreshingly free of dumb action movies and superhero franchises, I ask if he thinks the “tentpoling” of the film industry, and the way that thinking tends to de-emphasize strong writing, has led to so much good stuff on television these days.
“I did a movie that David Chase wrote and directed last year called Not Fade Away,” he tells me, “and to his generation, movie writers, actors, directors somewhat looked down on television. But then as movies became a little bit safer and they started making less of them, there needed to be an outlet for this, I think, original storytelling. And luckily, with so many cable stations you don’t need 20 million viewers; you can be a success with two or three million viewers. So now there are people doing very strange and unorthodox stories on all these cable networks that I think represent the best of storytelling right now — and you know, there’s still obviously some very good features, but I’m most impressed with television. And all of my feature friends, if they’re not already involved in television, they want to be.”
You can’t blame them — any given episode of Breaking Bad bests most of this year’s feature films. I ask Johnson about the upcoming final season, and what he and the rest of the creative staff hoped to achieve in these closing episodes. Creator Vince Gilligan, Johnson says, “wanted more than anything just to know when it was going to end so that he could write to that ending and not just have it peter out. I think he was aware of several shows that had long outlived their relevance and treaded water for a while, and so he just wanted to know, you know, how much life we do have and then write to it. And without revealing anything, I think he’s found a really brilliant way of finishing all of the characters, all of the stories, and all of the arcs. You can see how Breaking Bad has built from season to season, and in fact it’s sort of become a different show than the show it started.”
With that major project coming to an end, I couldn’t help but ask Johnson about returning to one of my favorites among his films. There’s been chatter for years about a Galaxy Quest sequel — a prospect that the producer finds both exciting and upsetting.
“I wish,” he says. “It’s complicated. I can’t get into it because it only gets me angry, because I’m so proud of that movie… For a while there, and someday we may actually get there, we actually talked about doing a television show which would be sort of fun because it would be a TV show looking at a movie that’s looking at a TV show, something like that. So I wish I could answer you and I wish we did have a sequel or certainly a half hour comedy based on it. So we’ll see, it’s not over.”
Rectify premieres Monday on the Sundance Channel. The final season of Breaking Bad premieres August 11.