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Serial Murder by Committee: Planning a Season of Dexter

Dexter-Cast.gifPhoto: Jim Fiscus/Showtime

VF Daily’s Q&A series features interviews with the top talent from television’s best shows. The Showtime drama Dexter, now done with its third season, is about a Miami Metro Police Department blood-spatter specialist who is also a serial killer. It airs Sundays at nine p.m. E.S.T.

Clyde Phillips is the showrunner of Dexter and an executive producer of the series. A veteran of the business, Phillips has created such shows as Suddenly Susan, Get Real, and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose.

VF Daily: Can you talk a bit about how you develop each season’s storyline?

Clyde Phillips: We start off the year thinking about various themes—good versus evil for example, or family values, which was the theme for this year. Once we agree on the themes, I sit down with the writers and we use them as the prism through which we look at character and story, and then arc out what a year might look like. Once we get to that point, we run it by my partners, John Goldwyn and Sara Colleton, and they give us notes that we work on. Then we run it by Michael Hall [who plays Dexter]. He’s very involved in this process—he’s got to live this and present this and believe it, and it has to be authentic for him. He’s very smart and very helpful, and we accommodate his notes and input and then fill in a lot of the mortar between the bricks. Then we bring it to the network and pitch it to them and get their input. After that, we go back and start really fine-tuning it. We have a big white board with twelve vertical spaces labeled 1 through 12 (for the episodes) across the top and all of the characters down the left side, and just start telling stories based on character.

How much do you deviate from the original story arc over the course of the season?

Once we get going, we sometimes realize that it's too slow and that we need to take everything from 8, 9 and 10 and push it into episodes 4, 5 and 6, which leaves a slump that needs to be filled. It’s always best to keep bringing things forward because we never want the audience to sit back and say, ‘I know what’s going to happen.’ That’s our obligation to a very intelligent audience.

Where does the writing staff get its fodder for the show now that Jeff Lindsay’s book [on which the series is based] isn’t available to provide a plotline?

I’m blessed with a great writing staff and we sit around and talk all day long. We get all the various newspapers and say ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if…’ And we just pitch around ideas. It's what we call bad-pitch theater—when even really bad ideas are said out-loud because it just might take us somewhere. The only really bad pitch is the one you don’t make. In a show like this, with characters as complex as these and given our custodial obligation to protect Dexter, everything has to be left on the table until it isn’t. I know that the writers all feel a great sense of freedom and creativity when we walk into that room. That’s the really hard work. That’s why I always fight the hardest for my writers as we’re renegotiating deals, which we’re doing now, because ultimately the best money you spend is on good writers and good storytellers.

Do the supporting characters primarily serve Dexter and his storyline?

Sara has a phrase for it called ‘Dexter-centric.’ If you think about the police station, the way we designed it was so that Dexter can see everybody at all times from where he’s sitting—either in his inner lab or his outer lab—because we need to watch the show through him. Don’t forget, it’s a voiceover show. Here is a character who is hungry for connections and who has so many secrets, and he invites the audience in as his confidants. The audience members are the only people that he can really talk to. So everything in the show is born of character—What moves Dexter forward? We always think about how to integrate his personal storyline into his professional storyline and then weave it with the other characters. Often what happens is, we’ll write and shoot a storyline for the supporting cast and realize that it’s taking away the laser focus that we want for Dexter, and we end up not using it in the final cut, which is always disappointing to have to tell the actor.

Dexter's love interest, Rita, becomes pregnant this season and Dexter decides to marry her. When you wrote these elements of the storyline into the script, were you thinking ahead to how they would ultimately play out?

We certainly thought it through for the year. Anything could happen next season—we haven’t sat down and talked about it yet. But when we wrote it, we were thinking about how it would affect Dexter psychologically and emotionally to create a life when he has spent most of his adult life taking lives. It’s quite obvious that, if the baby is born and it is a son, the whole issue of fathers and sons will come up. Again, we have no idea if that’s going to be the case because we won’t start the writing process until February, but it's something that I contemplate and jot down during my hiatus. We don’t know where his relationship with Rita is going. We actually go round and round about this. Does he have real feelings for her? Is he marrying her because of the baby? Does he want this camouflaged life where he can pretend to be normal? We’re always debating exactly where Dexter is and who Dexter is. And I think the tension of that debate makes for more dynamic storytelling.

You’ve created and worked on many television series. Is this one particularly difficult?

It is really exhausting and it’s a lot of work. We think of it as doing a little movie every week as opposed to a television show, but because the stories are so interconnected, it’s really like doing one twelve-hour movie. And we take on a psychic burden writing and doing this all day long. But imagine having to absorb it, live it, be it, translate it, and present it like Michael Hall does. That’s why he’s nominated for everything and why he should win this year.

How has it been to work with Michael C. Hall?

Michael is enormously respectful of the process. When I get notes from him, they are always presented in the spirit of, I know how hard you worked on this, I have a question, can I just try doing something else here? etc. I really haven’t encountered that much in my career and the way he respects the process certainly increases my admiration for what he does day in and day out. He’s a very, very generous actor and I can’t imagine anyone else playing this role.

Do you ever think about how you will leave Dexter when the series comes to an end?

We whisper about it. Part of it depends on how much longer we go for because that will determine how much Dexter evolves. I have a particular scene in my mind that I would love to do and others don’t like it, and others have ideas that I’m not crazy about. We really don’t know yet.

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