By Iain Blair
Three years ago, USA Network’s Golden Globe- and Emmy-nominated series The Sinner snuck up behind viewers, grabbed them by the throat and left them gasping for air while they watched a seemingly innocent man stabbed to death at the beach. The second season pulled no punches either, focusing on the murder of a couple by a young boy.
Now the anthology is back with a third installment, which once again centers around Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) as he begins a routine investigation of a tragic car accident on the outskirts of Dorchester, in upstate New York. Piece by piece, Ambrose gradually uncovers a hidden crime that pulls him into another dangerous and disturbing case focusing on Jamie Burns (Matt Bomer), a Dorchester resident, high school teacher and expectant father. The Season 3 finale airs at the end of the month on USA Network.
Also back is the show’s creator and showrunner Derek Simonds, whose credits include ABC’s limited series When We Rise, and ABC’s 2015 limited series The Astronaut Wives Club. He has developed television pilots, wrote, directed and composed the score for his feature film Seven and a Match, and has developed many independent film projects as a writer/producer, including the Oscar-Nominated Sony Pictures Classics release Call Me by Your Name.
I recently spoke with Simonds about making the show — which is executive-produced by Jessica Biel (who starred in Season 1) and Michelle Purple through their company Iron Ocean — the Emmys, and his love of post.
When you created this show, did you always envision it as a tortured human drama, a police procedural, or both?
(Laughs) Both, I guess. My previous writing and developing stuff for film and TV was never procedural-oriented. The opportunity with this show came with the book being developed and Jessica Biel being attached. I was one of many writers vying for the chance to adapt it, and they chose my pitch. The reason the book and the bones of the show appealed to me was the “whydunnit” aspect at the core of Season 1. That really sold me, as I wasn’t very interested in doing a typical procedural mystery or a serial killer drama that was really plot-oriented.
The focus on motive and what trauma could have led to such a rash act — Cora (in Season 1) stabbing the stranger on the beach — that is essentially the mystery, the psychological mystery. So I’ve always been character-oriented in my writing. I love a good story and watching a plot unfold, but really my main interest as a writer and why I came onto the show is because it delves so deeply into character.
Fair to say that Season 3 marks a bit of a shift in the show?
Yes, and I’d say this season is less of a mystery and more of a psychological thriller. It really concerns Detective Harry Ambrose, who’s been in the two earlier seasons, and he encounters this more mundane event — a fatal, tragic car crash — but a car crash, and something that happens all the time.
As he starts looking into it, he realizes that the survivor is not telling the whole story, and that some of the details just don’t add up. His intuition makes him look deeper, and he ends up getting into this relationship that is part suspect, part detective, part pursuer, part pursuee and part almost-friendship with this character played by Matt Bomer.
It also seems more philosophical in tone than the previous two seasons.
I think you’re right. The idea was born out of thinking about Dostoevsky and questions about “why do we kill?” Could it be for philosophical reasons, not just the result of trauma? Could it be that kind of decision? What is morality? Is it learned or is it invented? So there were all these questions and ideas, and I was also very excited to create a male character — not a helpless child or a woman, not someone so innocent — as the new character and have that character reflect Ambrose’s darker side and impulses back to him. So there was this doppelganger-y twinning going on.
Where do you shoot?
All out of New York City. We have stages in Brooklyn where we have our sets, and then we do a lot of location work all over the city and also just outside in Westchester and Rockland counties. They offer us great areas where we can cheat a more bucolic setting than we’re actually in.
It has more of a cinematic feel and look than most TV shows.
Thank you for noticing! As the creator, I’m biased about that, but I spend a lot of time and energy with my team and DP Radium Cheung and designers to really try and avoid the usual TV tropes and clichés and TV-style lighting and shooting every step of the way.
We try to think of every episode as a little film. In fact, every season is like a long film, as they’re stand-alone stories, and I embark on each season like, “OK, we’re making a 5½-hour movie,” and all the decisions we make are kind of holistic.
Do you like being a showrunner?
It’s a great privilege to be able to tell a story and make the decisions about what that story says, and to be able to make it on the scale that we do. It’s totally thrilling, and I love having a moment at the podium to talk about the culture and what’s on my mind through the characters. But I think it’s also one of the hardest jobs you could ever have. In fact, it’s really like having four or five jobs rolled into one, and it’s really, really exhausting, as you’re running between them at all times. So there’s this feeling that you never have enough time, or enough time to think as deeply in every area as you’d like. It takes its toll physically, but it’s so gratifying to get a new season done and out in the world.
Where do you post?
All in New York at Technicolor Postworks, and we do most of the editing there too, and all of our online work. We do all the sound work at Decibel 11, which is also in Manhattan. As for our VFX, we switch year to year, and this year we’re working with The Molecule.
Do you like the post process?
I love post. There’s so much relief once you finish production and that daily stress of worrying about whether you’ll get what you need is over. You can see what you have.
But you don’t have much time for post in TV as compared with film.
True. it’s an incredibly fast schedule, and as the EP I only have about four or five full days to sit down with the editor and re-cut an episode and consider what the best possible version of it is.
Let’s talk about editing. You have several editors, I assume because of the time factor. How does that work?
I really love the whole editing process, and I spend a lot of time cutting the episodes — 10 hours a day, or more, for those five days, fine-tuning all the cuts before we have to lock them. I’m not the type of showrunner who gives a few notes and goes off to the next room. I’m very hands-on, and we’ve had the same three editors except for one new guy this season.
Everyone comes back, so there’s a growing understanding of the tone and what the show is. So all three editors rotate on the eight episodes. The big editing challenges are refining performance as things become clearer from previous episodes, and running time. We’re a broadcast show, so we don’t have the leeway of a streaming show, and there’s a lot of hair-pulling over how to cut episodes down. That can be very stressful for me, as I feel we might be losing key content that brings a lot of nuance. There’s also keeping a consistent tone and rhythm, and I’m very specific about that.
You’re also a musician, so I assume you must spend a lot of time on sound and the music?
I do. I work in depth on the score with composer Ronit Kirchman, so that’s an aspect of post I really, really love, and where I spend far more time than a typical showrunner does. I understand it and can talk about it, and I have very specific ideas about what I want. But TV’s so different from movies. We do our final mix review in four hours per episode. With a movie you’d have four, five days. So there’s very little time for experimentation, and you have to have a very clear vision of what works.
How important are the Emmys to a show like this?
Very, and Jessica Biel was nominated for her role in Season 1, but we haven’t won yet. We have a lot of fans in the industry, but maybe we’re also a bit under the radar, a bit cultish.
The show could easily run for many more years. Will you do more seasons?
I hope so. The beauty of an anthology is that you can constantly refresh the story and introduce new characters, which is very appealing. If we keep going, I think it’ll pivot in a larger way to keep it really fresh. I just never want it to become predictable, where you sense a pattern.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.