Sunday, July 14, 2024

The Next Best Picture Podcast – A Behind The Scenes Look At “Silo”

Premiering May of 2023, “Silo,” the new sci-fi Apple TV+ series that launched as the highest-rated drama debut on the platform, defies what you think it is. It is cerebral, bold science fiction, excitedly blending elements of murder mystery, western, and dystopian conspiracy with a post-apocalyptic world, and Rebecca Ferguson leads as a reluctant gearhead sheriff with an attitude problem. “Silo” recalls some of the greatest sci-fi shows of the century, with some comparing it (favorably) to “LOST” in knowing how to spin a character-centric sci-fi saga in a mysterious locale that blends, and subverts, genre archetypes in fun and exciting ways.

“Silo” takes place in an underground bunker in a far-off dystopian future, where 10,000 people find a safe haven far beneath the ground, taking shelter from a seemingly dangerous surface. Inevitably, concerns of governance, stability, regulation, and ultimately oppression emerge, and showrunner and screenwriter Graham Yost (“Speed” & “Justified”) expertly adapts (the first half of) Hugh Howey’s “Silo” novel “Wool.” It’s the rare streamer show to be pleasingly pulpy, credibly dramatic, and truly cinematic: it’s a gorgeous series; the budget is entirely on the screen.

I recently had the chance to do a deep-dive with many on the production team, talking with screenwriter Graham Yost, director Morten Tyldum, cinematographer Mark Patten, composer Atli Örvarsson, and production designer Gavin Bocquet on what went into making this beautiful, compelling sci-fi mystery-drama. Please take a listen or read highlights below and be sure to check out “Silo,” which is now available to stream on Apple TV+ and is up for your consideration in all eligible Emmy categories. Enjoy!

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Here are some highlights from those conversations…

*These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.*

Showrunner & Screenwriter Graham Yost

NBP: I’ve been rereading “The Lord of the Rings,” and it struck me how the changes Peter Jackson made when making the films is as crystal clear an example as it gets for what works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen. There has to be an adaptation process, right? So where did that adaptation process begin with you on “Silo,” especially how you settled on the idea of cutting the book in half for the first season?

I first have to stop you and say I went through “Lord of the Rings” again the year before, read all of them, listened to them with the version with uh, oh god… Gollum?

Oh, Andy Serkis.

With Serkis reading them. And then watched the movies. I was communicating with the guy who was the showrunner on “Slow Horses,” and he and I are Tolkien geeks. Like, he’s visited Tolkien’s grave, and we got into this whole thing about what never gets enough attention, which is what a brilliant adaptation those movies are. What was taken out was not just Tom Bombadill and the Scouring of the Shire, but other things. Just the way the elves are introduced all down the line, that’s a masterclass.

We’ve got a different thing here. We’ve got ten hours and hopefully multiple seasons, so we have to… when we decided early on, we’ll start to twitch the Holston and Allison story, even though they’ll be dead by early into the second episode with both of them gone, and flashback to other Holston stuff, we knew we wanted to end with Juliette going over the hill because there’s no greater cliffhanger than we could come up with. Okay, well then, that means that Hugh (Howey) hadn’t put in the books, or in that book of Juliette, her life, her backstory, getting into that, and the big thing is that he deals with George, her boyfriend, in a very quick way. She’s not sheriff for very long before she’s set out to clean, right? So we needed to make that a thing. And by the way, Hugh was in the writer’s room when we were doing a mini-room, basically breaking the first story. And getting an idea of what the season would be, and he was open with all that. To him, it’s like a box of Legos. “Try this, try this, what about this, what about that?” There were times going into production when I’d be calling him and saying, “Okay, in the Silo, would they have XYZ?” And he’d go, “I don’t know, make it up!”

I’d love to ask about something that you mentioned, which is the decision to kill off what appears to be your two leads very early on. And then you kind of backtrack. That’s kind of actually a risky decision, but it’s so directly pulled off that you almost don’t question it. But ending the first episode with (who is) really the protagonist of the show, we really only see Juliette, Rebecca Ferguson’s character, for a few seconds really. How did you decide on that? Because that’s kind of a bold move, even if it doesn’t seem like one as you’re watching it. 

So there were two things. That’s the way Hugh started the books. It started as just a short story and then took off. Then he had to come up with the books –– he was like, I killed off my character, now what am I going to do? So he came up with Juliette and mechanical and all that stuff, and it turned into a trilogy. He had no idea that that’s what was going to happen. So we felt that there was a certain fan service saying, “Let’s start it the way.” Let’s get back to “Lord of the Rings.” It’s Bilbo’s one hundred and seventieth birthday, right? And it’s the big party, and that’s the way the book starts. And you’ve got to start it that way, and by the way, the whole thing ends with Sam coming home and (he says) “I’m back,” he said,” right? You have to do these things for the fans, and this is the thing: Peter Jackson is a fan of those books; it’s not just a job for him. I’m a fan of the “Silo” series; I’m doing it because I want to do it. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to change a shitton of things to make it a TV series, so that was one thing.

Then the other thing was that the Holston and Allison story is a great way to introduce the audience to the world. But it’s got its own beginning, middle, and end, so you’re getting pulled into it through them, and through them, you meet other characters. You meet the mayor, you meet the deputy, and you’re starting to build out who the other people will be. So that was the basic decision, and then the reason it happened is because Jamie Erlicht (Apple Executive) is giving people as much of the books as you can. He was a big fan of the books and a big fan of my getting on the project, so when I said that, he didn’t hesitate for a second. He said, “Good.”

And, an additional-additional-additional, we knew they would drop the first two episodes together. And so we knew that if the first episode hooked people… and in the writing, the first episode went all the way through to Holston dying. And it was Morten… (who said)  what if we ended on a little bit of a cliffhanger with him going “I need to know the truth,” and then a “get out” and save his story for the teaser in the second episode. It’s a brilliant idea because it kept people in it, and once they’ve watched that teaser, and then they get into Juliette, and they go. That was the thought process; we knew it was a risk, but we thought it was worth it.

Director Morten Tyldum

NBP: One of my favorite shots early on is when the mayor is talking to the town, and the shot begins behind her and cranes up over into the “Silo,” blending at least one set with the environment. It gives you that sense of verisimilitude and scale. How did you go about developing the visual vocabulary (of “Silo”) as a filmmaker?  

One of the main things we did is I didn’t want any long lenses… any, any on the camera, so we didn’t want the background to be blurry and out of focus. You wanted the close-up; move the camera closer because that keeps the background sharp. So the camera was here (motions close to his face) for close-ups, you know? The Silo is such an important character that the Silo should always be there. You should always feel the presence of the Silo. And a lot of the time, when the camera moves, it doesn’t necessarily follow the characters. (We) let the characters walk in and out of the shots.

(Our methodology) was to follow the Silo and shoot the Silo. The Silo is sort of like a presence there; it’s the thing that endures. It’s the thing that’s always there. That was one of the big ideas we had when we shot this. We wanted, and it’s also something that Apple wanted, that they said, please don’t make this too claustrophobic and too dark. And I agree with them –– it should feel like a rich world because it is. To them, the people who live there, this is what it is, this is everything. So, to always be reminded, we have big crane shots, we have big drone shots in this giant world. It was great fun to experience that and create a very specific unique look for the Silo.

I heard that you helped create the generator set-piece in episode 3, and that speaks to a lot of what you’re referring to right now. It’s really claustrophobic and high-stakes at the same time, but it also feels massive. How did you visualize that sequence and put it together? 

Oh, okay, I appreciate it, thank you. Uh, yeah, we wanted to play with a couple of ideas, and that one actually happened after we shot almost half the scene. We came up with the idea we wanted Rebecca (Ferguson) into that tank of water because she’s afraid of water. That’s something we played on –– that she can’t swim, she’s holding on the rope, so you have a character that’s afraid of water, and let’s put her in a dark hole and fill it with water. That’s the most terrifying thing, so you have that claustrophobic thing (with) the red light and everything, and at the same time, you want to feel this giant structure that’s falling apart.

So we storyboard everything; you have to because that whole sequence was probably shot over four months. We shot two days here, a few days here, and then we had the control room, which is a separate part. People yelling and running all about, that’s a separate part. And then you have her in the tank, which is a separate part. Then you have the two of them up top, which is a separate part in another studio. Then you have the main part, the bottom part, of the generator, and that’s a different part. And some shots, without editing, go between them. So it was incredibly… you really had to choreograph and plan it really rigorously. Because it should feel very random, there’s lots of handheld, and it should feel very hectic, but it needed to be precise. Because that room doesn’t exist, it exists in small pieces here and there because it’s so big you could never build it. So when it all comes together, it feels like, “Ah yeah, now we can see it,” but the generator doesn’t exist.

Production Designer Gavin Bocquet

NBP: I’m glad you brought up this idea of conceptualizing a whole world because one thing that really stood out to me is that within the brutalist architecture, it would be so easy for (Silo) to feel alienating and cold to the viewer. Yet, it’s full of warm tones. Oranges and reds and browns, (where) the drapes, chairs, furniture, and even throw pillows are those colors. How did that come about? 

I think the set decorator Amanda Bernstein was a set decorator we worked with before, and I think just understanding that world at all levels even reduces it to the simplistic upper, middle, and lower levels. In a sort of class structure, I mean not really class structure, but you certainly want to make it… it had to feel as though people enjoyed living there, even though you’re in a rather cold and damp world sometimes, and certainly more damp at the bottom of the Silo than at the top; there was quite a clever use of textures and fabrics and materials with myself and Amanda and Morten and Graham, about how we would grade that as you moved down through the Silo. Everything was a little more bespoke in the top end, and everything as you move down became a little bit recycled and remade, handmade, and reused. There was quite a nice synchronicity there because of Amanda and Johnny (the prop master)..we had a long shoot, so we couldn’t afford to hire all this furniture and dress it; we either had to buy it on eBay or antique fairs or junk markets and have our own store of furniture, and Amanda and Johnny are really good at reconstituting that to work in different environments. So they were almost following the recycling world of the Silo.

The look of Silo is almost retrofuturistic, with technology from different eras. We have computers that look like they’re from the ’70s or the ’80s, and some scenes almost look like something out of Alien (1979). I know how the computers work and everything like that, so I wanted to ask how it was decided what would be included and what wouldn’t. What technology and anachronistic things would be brought in? 

Obviously, when you start to see the relics, we don’t know what the relics really were in the first scripts. They were things that came up with ideas with Graham, Morten, and the other writers. But I think we always felt the basis of our furnishings and dressing and technology, apart from the computers, would be anything non-specific in the 50s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. It was going to be a mixture of all those things. The Silos, in theory, was built 50 years ahead of now, and we’re 300 years old, so anything that came along could’ve been something that could have existed from the 40s, the 30s, 50s, or 60s. We didn’t mind where the furniture came from as long as it felt like it was sort of right for that period. A lot of the furnishings were recycled and meant to be from other bits. The computer technology was obviously meant to be from the founders, but as you’ll see in the next season, it goes to another level.

Cinematographer Mark Patten

NBP: I imagine you read the script, you’re going scene by scene, and at some point, you realize that almost all the locations are cramped, claustrophobic rooms, and, you know, it takes place underground. Where do you begin with that as the cinematographer? 

In a kind of a dark place (laughs). Uhm, you know it was interesting. Once the concept of the Silo landed on the shoulders of visually how you had to embrace that, the cogs really started whirling in terms of how, as a cinematographer how, they are going to move on a vertical axis regarding camera movement. For those who don’t understand, this is a vertical chamber almost a mile underneath the earth. You transition from the proletariat at the top to the mechanical workers at the bottom, and it was quite a difficult concept to understand how we were going to move vertically down that space.

Snowpiercer” did it on a train but on the x-axis, where the workers at the back of the train had to move to the front. But we inverted the train as a giant spaceship; we were sailing through this long period of time on a Y-Axis, where light didn’t come from the top because it was underground, because there wasn’t any dome that filtered light (that) was generated within the Silo. Conceptually, how do you do that? I worked very closely with the production designer and visual effects to understand how light could filter that deep down.

I had read about areas in Switzerland where, in the winter, the cantons that existed on the East side of the valley would not get light, and the administration put these objects called heliotropes, which could gather light on the west side and filter and reflect the light into the east side. Those are known as heliotropes. I took that idea, and I wondered what if the Silo could generate these powerful lights which were pushed into a giant heliotrope, it gathered the light and it disseminated the light through the vessel. So, it took quite a long time to think about that process, but once that came, we knew that was our template, and there was almost no hard light. It was a softer reflected light that would infuse not only the actual architecture of the Silo but also infuse the psychology of the people.

One thing I wanted to ask about, which follows that directly, is how one thing that stands out about Silo is the lack of natural light and how many diegetic light sources are built into the sets. So often, no matter where you put the camera, you have all these opportunities for interesting frames. All these opportunities for interesting things happening out of focus, interesting ways to rack focus, or things like that because there’s so much lighting built into the sets. I wanted to ask about the collaboration between the production designer (Gavin Bocquet) and the director (Morten Tyldum) to find that kind of strategy, so the show could look beautiful no matter where you put the camera.

Yeah, I mean it was a world build right from the start; Gavin Bocquet worked very closely with Morten Tyldum, the director, and we sat in rooms and discussed how… how those in-built light sources could also delineate society and structure,e because as you get further down towards the very basement of the structure I hope that the viewer sees that it becomes a little more dirty, that everything has been repurposed, so what society in this first season –– and it’s quite complex in what the viewer is led to understand – everything has been salvaged, or has it been managed? You know, without giving away season 2 when that comes up, you’ve got to understand for 400 years, this society has lived underground, and so that gave the designer a language to use in terms of a repurpose, a rejuvenation of materials that become uniquely important to make that light work for 400 years. You know, it’s not questioned why those lights are there; we all know that analog filament light bulbs, which we don’t use anymore, break down, so how do we…what are we saying those light bulbs are? Everything becomes super precious, and I think that was a really interesting concept to work into the design of the Silo.

Composer Atli Örvarsson

NBP: Silo is a murder mystery. It’s also this sci-fi epic that spans all these novels. I wanted to talk about that because these are genres known to have a lot of expositional dialogue. There’s a lot of world-building. There’s a lot of catching up with who’s who in the suspect list and things like that. While not every episode, there are episodes that are wall-to-wall score. And yet, because of the (density) of dialogue, you don’t want those two things to be in opposition, right? So, what was your process in scoring the show so that it would further that journey and that experience without necessarily undercutting the dialogue? 

Yeah, it’s a really good question and a good observation, to be honest. But that said, I think it sorted itself out in the sense that… Because there are actually episodes in the middle of the season that don’t have that much music. Because they’re more… Yeah, they’re quieter. They’re more about the mystery, the journey, what’s going on, etc. And then there are episodes that are very action-driven. And somehow, It’s okay to put music under dialogue when there’s a lot of action in the background or when it’s propelling the story in that sense. So it actually was a very… I don’t know. It wasn’t hard to figure out where to put music and where not to put music because it was just laid out in a very logical way in the sense that the dialogue didn’t need any help. But this dialog really is part of a bigger and actiony plot that makes sense to keep the music going. And there were even episodes, again, somewhere in the middle of the season that I would just go through and think, Wow, I can’t believe that there isn’t more music in this episode.

What was your intention with the main theme?

If I’m honest about the main theme…


It was one of those things that looked on paper like I had quite a bit of time to do the show, but then all of a sudden, I just got an email; we need music in three days. And I was just like, Uh oh. And so it was… Thankfully, I’d had some time to think about it, but I just had to come up with something. And it was actually, they wanted music for the beginning of episode one because they were using some temp score for editing, but it wasn’t working out. And Morten was like, “Can you please write something bespoke for this?” And so, as I said, I started with the drones. I started playing some stuff on the piano because I’m actually sitting at the piano right now, which is why I wrote this. And it just started coming to me. And I kept playing with this since I was here (I started playing the main theme). So, I realized later that that tune was trying to go up. It’s like an even the… Like the arpeggios that come in later, everything seems to be wanting to move up to the surface. And I wasn’t thinking about that when I wrote it, but after the fact (of writing), I’m like, that’s cool, that maybe subconsciously, it’s like you’re in the Silo, and what you really want is just to get out.

“Silo” is now available to stream on Apple TV+

You can follow Brendan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter @metaplexmovies

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Brendan Hodges
Brendan Hodges
Culture writer. Bylines at Roger Ebert, Vague Visages and The Metaplex. Lover of the B movie and prone to ramble about aspect ratios at parties.

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