Interview with Philip Levens and Brandon Bell of "Ascension" on Syfy - Primetime Article From The TV MegaSite

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By Sundi

Brandon Bell

Interview with Philip Levens and Brandon Bell of "Ascension" on Syfy 12/8/14

NBC Universal
Moderator: Steven Cox
December 8, 2014
1:00 p.m. ET

Operator: Good afternoon. My name is Dan, and I'll be your conference operator today. At this time, I'd like to welcome everyone to the "Ascension" conference call. All lines have been placed on mute to prevent any background noise. After the speakers' remarks, there will be a question-and-answer session. If you would like to ask a question at that time, press star, then the number one on your telephone keypad. If you would need to withdraw your question, simply press the pound key.

Thank you. I'll now the call over to Steven Cox from Syfy. Please go ahead.

Steven Cox: Hi, everyone. Thank you for joining us today. We're really excited to have executive producer and creator Philip Levens and star Brandon Bell from "Ascension" on the phone for you today. We will be discussing the three-night event of "Ascension" on this call, and please refrain from posting any spoilers regarding the end of night one for your stories. Those will be embargoed until after the first airing of night one, Monday, December 15th, premiers at 9:00 p.m. running until 10:30 p.m.

So without further ado, we'll hand it over to your questions.

Operator: Again, if you'd like to ask a question, simply press star, one on your telephone keypad. We'll pause for a few moments now to compile today's Q&A roster. Your first question comes from the line of Tony Tellado with "Sci-Fi Talk." Your line is now open.

Tony Tellado: Hi, gentlemen. I'm really looking forward to the miniseries, and it's something that Syfy has really been doing very well for the last 12 years or so. It takes -- the whole thing is about 1963 and that's when the ship was launched, so how did you -- in playing it and also in writing and creating it -- how do you kind of keep them in the dark as to our own kind of advances? And I would think they had some advances onboard the ship, as well, during all that time, if you both can comment on that.

Philip Levens: Can you hear me? Hello?

Tony Tellado: Yes, I can hear you.

Philip Levens: OK, well, first of all, they haven't received communication from Earth in decades.

Tony Tellado: Right.

Philip Levens: So that's the primary way of keeping, you know, news from Earth away from them. Second, in -- sorry, what was the second part of the question?

Tony Tellado: Well, so they -- so did they evolve their own technology on their own?

Philip Levens: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And that's a big -- that comes out in episode three, where you realize that there is sort of an idea incubator -- it's almost like inside the ship, in other words, like, they use the -- the stenotabs, which are kind of a precursor to laptops, that technology, a lot of MRI technology, and a lot of other ideas, actually, came from "Ascension" and were fed back into our society. You know, you took, you know, hundreds of the best and brightest scientists Earth had to offer and put them in basically a locked room, and they changed the world.

So, yeah, you will find that. That's one of the reveals that comes in the second night. And as far as keeping sort of cross-cultural currents from our present-day world, there's technological reasons that they haven't been able to receive radio communications or other communications from Earth in decades.

Tony Tellado: And, Brad, what was it kind of like to almost have your own history that you're kind of playing to?

Brandon Bell: It's Brandon. Can you repeat the question again?

Tony Tellado: Yeah, what was it like to kind of play this alternate history and kind of keep your -- keep kind of your subconscious in the dark about what really happened, and kind of play this timeline out?

Brandon Bell: Oh, it was an amazing opportunity. I think the fact that their only reference is from the '60s and before gives a lot of room to play as an actor. I feel like Oren has a timelessness to him. I think all of the characters do in that regard. I saw him almost as like children who have this opportunity to create from the one reference they have, which is essentially the '60s culture of the U.S., but also to be innovative and creative and operate within the means of this mission, which is to get to Proxima.

It was great. It was great. And with -- I found it -- that even though the reference, the cultural references were limiting in terms of music, politics, social revolution, there was a lot of creativity to kind of hone in on what we imagine these characters would be like. And Phil did a great job of making it a really interesting guy to play.

Tony Tellado: Well, thank you, gentlemen. I am so looking forward to this. This is what Syfy used to do so very well, and from what I've seen so far, it looks like they're back on track again.

Philip Levens: Thank you.

Brandon Bell: I appreciate it.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of (David Matron) in Dallas with Fort Worth Star. Your line is now open.

David Martindale: David Martindale is my name. Yeah, I saw the first night -- the screener the first night, and I really enjoyed it. It's wonderful. First of all, Philip, I liked how the show is both futuristic and retro at the same time, the world that you've created. Can you talk about how -- how -- what all y'all had to go through to create a world that accomplishes both of those things at the same time?

Philip Levens: Well, you know, it's interesting, because, David, I've always thought of it as like an alternate way of reality, you know? Looking at '63, I said, you know, this was a kind of idealized Camelot era that, you know, growing up in America, there's always -- the things used to be better, your grandparents, your parents will say, things will different, things -- that the golden age sensibility. And I thought, well, what if, you know, we really did stop there and -- before all the chaos and tumult of the late '60s in Vietnam and the assassination and all the other things since then? And would it have been idealized?

And while they -- all they kind of did was delay the inevitable, but this -- the murder is kind of the first pulling of the tapestry apart. And as far as the kind of retro and modern sensibility together, yeah, that was something I was, you know, very specifically kind of baked in the cake. We looked at the world of the '60s, but then we projected forward, too.

You know, what -- because nothing stays in a vacuum. There's always constant evolution. And so -- but they don't have, you know, the latest fashions from Paris or innovations from, you know, wherever, you know, some new thing coming out of Scandinavia or Asia.

David Martindale: Well, and there's tie-dye, you know (inaudible) '60s.

Philip Levens: Well, you know, in the third -- in the next night, someone says that, you know, someone says we're missing the civil rights, sexual equality, all these other things, and says something to the effect of they also missed 9/11, they missed, you know, Kennedy's assassination, they missed, you know, those earrings that are big like hockey pucks that, you know, go in your earlobes.

So there's -- you know, he's got this kind of different point of view. He's very much of (figure of the products) obviously, but, yeah, that's really -- when I was a kid, I used to love these "What If" comics that Marvel would do. And I think they were Marvel. And I've always been interested in alternate timelines, and that's one of the great things about speculative fiction, which science fiction really is, is that it is really a literature of ideas and it's really our great literature of ideas in America, that we don't really have (the need to play) that anywhere else, you know?

You know, Philip K. Dick is our homegrown Borges, as Ursula Le Guin said. And it's true. So all that stuff is just, you know, total -- total fun to play with.

David Martindale: Cool. Brandon, I'm in Dallas. You're from here, right?

Brandon Bell: Rah-rah, I am, and still a Cowboy fan, believe it or not.

David Martindale: Oh, it's a good season to be a Cowboy fan.

Brandon Bell: It is.

David Martindale: What appealed to you most about the premise in general and about your character in particular made you want to do this show?

Brandon Bell: I had never -- I had never read anything like this, for sure, so the originality for one. And when reading it, it had this thriller-slash -- it had an interesting kind of tone to it, as well. Again, I love the timeless aspect of all of these characters in this world, where your only reference is 1963 and before, which means they've missed out on so many different huge facets that make America what it is today, as Phil said, civil rights, women's movement, so many things within music.

And the fact that -- well, all the characters are kind of thrust into having their lives turned upside-down and questioning everything they ever thought was true with this murder, honestly, it was just fascinating to me. I thought it was really cool, original, and who doesn't want to go to space. I thought that was really exciting, as well, to know that these people were in space at the beginning.

David Martindale: Yeah, it's like being in a Star Trek episode, you know?

Brandon Bell: Exactly.

David Martindale: Anyway, well, thank you so much. I'll let some other people ask questions. It's been a pleasure.

Brandon Bell: Thank you, David.

Philip Levens: Thank you.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of Mary Powers with Your line is now open.

Mary Powers: Hello, and good afternoon. One thing I noticed in watching the previews, as well as watching the pilot and what really amazed me was just the set and saw how large and elaborate it was. Can you just talk a little bit about that, just how really -- how big is it really? How is it constructed? And is it all the set? Or how much of it is digital or CGI?

Philip Levens: Well, you know, one of the things that really sets this show apart is that a lot of other shows that really live in a green-screen environment, is this is a real world. It's pretty phenomenal what our production designer and crew built. The primary set is over four stories tall, which each deck being a working deck, with rooms off a bit. It's got a midline elevator in the center. And, you know, we shoot up at another digital 15 stories of set extensions above that, but the actual set is the largest set ever built in Montreal, bigger than -- you know, and they shoot the X-Men there, the 300. They've never built anything close to it. People who've seen it are just blown away.

We had over 100,000 square feet of stage space. In another facility, we had our bridge, which is all practical, all real, all built with, you know, vintage technology. All those things you see in the bridge, that's really tech from the period. And they scoured the country looking for that stuff, spent tens of thousands of dollars just on over -- actually over 100,000 just on, you know, antiquated tech gear for the bridge alone.

We have, you know, the beach is in there, which is -- you know, the idea of a beach came about because, you know, everybody's always seen the same story of, you know, garden where they make oxygen. We see those on Generational ships. And it just was -- it was just an idea that popped up based on working with the production designer and said, you know -- and this is water reclamation. I'm like, well, what if they swam here? And before you know it, it became a beach, and I thought that is so cool, no one's ever done a beach in space.

And air locks are real. I mean, everything you see is real. The only thing CG or digital is maybe extensions into the far distance, but we spent, you know, millions of dollars' worth spent building those, those sets. And I don't think everything's ever been built like that. And people have seen it -- you know, like Jason Blum, who's done many, many, many, many movies, is just blown away by it, as well, as was the network and studio execs and everybody else. People were just stopping in Montreal just to look at it.

Mary Powers: Wow. How long did it take to build it? I mean, how far back was the project started?

Philip Levens: Well, this project's been going, you know, for over a year before -- you know, we worked on it, you know, most of 2013, as well, so -- but we started building in early 2014 when -- you know, we had people working sometimes, you know, seven days a week for months on end, and, you know, all in overtime and just crazy how -- what an endeavor it was. I remember walking out there, one of the -- and one of the early stages and going, oh, my god, what have I done? You can't put the genie back in the bottle. But I was like, oh, oh, this is gigantic.

And it was really cool. And, you know, we had -- the (inaudible) build a thing that'll last a century. We built super-redundant.

Mary Powers: Right.

Philip Levens: And, you know, with the thickness of a battleship, at the same time, some of the luxuries of a cruise liner and try and make life, you know, bearable for these of people, so -- all of that stuff was engineered into it. Every single thing is thought out.

Mary Powers: Well, yeah, I was just completely amazed. I loved the pilot, and I'm really looking forward to the series. Thank you so much.

Philip Levens: Thank you.

Brandon Bell: Thank you.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of (Courtney Bodoy) with ( Your line is now open.

Courtney Bodoy: Good morning. Can you hear me OK?

Philip Levens: Yes.

Brandon Bell: Yes.

Courtney Bodoy: OK, wonderful. So I think the big question that probably you're getting a lot in these calls is, you know, you've put all this work into the miniseries. And, you know, this format is familiar with Syfy as a launching ground for actually a longer series. Is that something where the door is being left over for "Ascension"?

Philip Levens: Yes. It is. In fact, "Ascension" has always been designed as a multi-year series. We have everything planned out pretty much until season six. I know the last shot of the show. And it just depends, I think, on the response and the numbers and the viewership. Yeah, that's -- it was always intended to be more than a miniseries.

Courtney Bodoy: And when you say multi-year, you're not saying, though, that we would have to wait until next December, are you?

Philip Levens: No. No.

Courtney Bodoy: Good.

Philip Levens: Multi-season is a better description, just like "Lost" or anything else.

Courtney Bodoy: Wonderful. And, Brandon, can you talk a little bit about the casting process and your involvement?

Brandon Bell: Sure. Pretty typical. Went in, fell in love with the entire concept. And it also had a lot of questions, too. And I want to say, Phil, you were there on my very first audition.

Philip Levens: I was.

Brandon Bell: With Stephen, the director of the pilot, and a bunch of other -- quite a few people in the room at the time. And for me as an actor, that's -- I prefer those auditions. I like when there's more people to -- I guess there's a natural assumption that -- the more people, the more decision-makers are in the room, as well. And I just -- I felt Oren Gault was just a great character that I was fortunate enough to audition for. And I remember really wanting it, and the audition felt like any other normal audition. They asked me back when I walked out, I finished, I got asked to come read another scene, so I knew that was a -- well, I was hoping that that was a good sign. And the rest was history.

But I had a lot of fun. I think I even spoke to Phil maybe for a few seconds and talked to Stephen, as well. So it became conversational at one point. They asked me about myself. And, yeah, I was fortunate enough to land the part.

Courtney Bodoy: Well, hopefully all goes well and we see you at an "Ascension" convention someday.

Brandon Bell: That sounds great.

Courtney Bodoy: Thank you both.

Brandon Bell: Thank you.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of Sundi Rose Holt with The TV MegaSite. Your line is now open.

Sundi Rose Holt: Hi. I know we've been talking a lot about the miniseries, and I -- I just sometimes prefer to consume my shows that way. I just kind of wanted to see what were like the best things about working within that format and also what were the worst, the biggest challenges about working within that format?

Philip Levens: Well, the only real difference is that, in particular, the first -- the first two hours and the last two hours were always designed to be -- to be basically a two-hour movie. They both had cliffhangers, so to speak. And the middle episode was designed to be two standalones, but we put them together, because we were originally thinking it would be over four nights, and then we put those together, too.

So that's really, from a storytelling point, the biggest difference. Obviously, you've got to wrap up a lot of stuff and you've got to satisfy an audience and give big turns and -- but the show by its very nature does that, you know, intrinsically. So other than that, I didn't really think of it different than telling a movie or writing a typical TV show.

Just want to -- the story -- the story has a life of its own, and you just follow that. You follow the characters. You follow the actions.

Sundi Rose Holt: Well, with that being said, so the last installment, did you have trouble to imagining an organic end, especially if, you know, you're kind of trying to leave the door open for it to parlay into maybe a longer series? So how do you sort of, like, honor the idea of this is the end, but also leave the door open for maybe possibly we can go forward?

Philip Levens: Well, there is a -- because there's very, very big changes that happened at the end of the series. And (inaudible) we'd sort of encapsulate the first six hours, and you could say, OK, well, this narrative, we see where it's going one way or the other. Or you could say, wow, there's so many twists and turns that came up, I want to see what happens next. Yeah, a lot of questions have been answered, but a lot more have been raised, and that's the way you do that, when you feel there's satisfaction, yet at the same time there's intrigue.

Sundi Rose Holt: Right. Well, I am really excited to see how it pans out and how you guys do that.

Philip Levens: Thank you.

Brandon Bell: Sounds good. Thank you.

Operator: Again, if you'd like to ask a question, simply press star, one on your telephone keypad. Your next question comes from the line of Jamie Ruby with Your line is now open.

Jamie Ruby: Hi, guys. Thanks for talking to us today.

Philip Levens: Thank you.

Brandon Bell: No problem. Thank you.

Jamie Ruby: I apologize if these have been asked. I had to disconnect for a second. I was curious, first, for Philip, obviously, there's -- this show is going to be something much different than what, you know, people are expecting, without giving that away. But can you kind of talk to what you maybe expect -- how you expect the fans to react when they see the end of the first night and kind of, you know, what you're looking for and all that?

Philip Levens: I'm looking for an "Oh, my god." You know, I'm looking for, "Wow, this show constantly subverts expectations." And that's what I think it does in the plotting throughout. This is not paint-by-numbers storytelling. This is not what we expected. This is a ride. These people have really, you know, worked hard on this and put thought into viewing something that's going to entertain and intrigue and hopefully amaze people.

Jamie Ruby: OK.

Brandon Bell: Yeah, I'd say jaw-dropping and I hope there's a lot of jaw drops. And like a social media conversation, I think it's one of those endings that, I mean, you can't help but just have questions and wonder what's going on and want to discuss with other people, so I really hope the Twittersphere blows up after we have the pilot.

Jamie Ruby: I'm sure it will be. And then also, Brandon, I know -- I talked to (inaudible) and he was saying about how he found out, you know, about the ending. How early on did you know? And what did you think when you found out?

Brandon Bell: I found out early in the process, but the script was still going through like small revisions here and there, small tweaks, and so I found out -- I want to say -- a couple nights before I actually flew out to Montreal. And, I mean, my brain exploded. I remember talking to Brian Van Holt, and I actually saw him on the plane. And so when we got into customs in Montreal, the first thing we said to each other was, "Did you read the new script?" Like, "Yeah, I can't believe. Oh, my gosh. What do you think? I don't know!" Because, obviously, with an ending like that, it changes everything.

Jamie Ruby: Yeah.

Brandon Bell: But we were really excited, and we felt that to do that, to make such a bold statement at the end of the pilot, there's got to be a certain level of confidence and trust about this project. So it was really exciting (inaudible)

Philip Levens: By the way, that ending was always there, but I didn't give scripts with that ending to people. So they would read -- I cut off like the last five or six pages on purpose, and so I -- and it was a surprise to a lot of people, I think, that even after that hadn't seen it before.

Jamie Ruby: Yeah, well, quite a surprise.

Brandon Bell: I was (inaudible) things are shrouded in secrecy and mystery, it makes it that much more fun. You really have to just focus on what you have and go from there, so it was exciting. It really was.

Jamie Ruby: OK. Well, thank you so much, both of you.

Philip Levens: Thank you.

Brandon Bell: Thank you.

Operator: And there are no further questions on the line at this time. I'll turn the call back over to the presenters.

Steven Cox: Thank you all for joining us today. We really do appreciate your questions and, Brandon and Philip, your time. Again, "Ascension" premiers Monday, December 15th, at 9:00 p.m. with limited commercial interruption. Feel free to post stories in advance, but please hold any portions of your stories regarding the first episode twist until after the premiere.

Thank you all very much, and have a great day.

Philip Levens: Thank you.

Brandon Bell: Thank you.

Operator: This concludes today's conference call. You may now disconnect.

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