Octavia Butler's 'Dawn' Being Developed for TV, Producer Talks Adaptation and Diversity Behind the Scenes
By Jai Tiggett | Shadow and Act September 3, 2015 at 12:56PM
In Octavia Butler's 1987 novel Dawn, a human race in danger of extinction is given a final chance to survive by mating with an alien species to create a new hybrid race. The first book in Butler's Lilith's Brood series (formerly Xenogenesis), adaptation rights were recently acquired by producer Allen Bain ("Revenge of the Green Dragons").
"Dawn" is the first television series to be developed under his new Bainframe sci-fi banner. Gary Pearl, Thomas Carter and Teddy Smith are set to executive produce along with Bain.
As the project is in development and putting together its production team, Bain made time to talk with S&A about his plans for the series.
JAI TIGGETT: Can you talk about your background and what led you this project?
ALLEN BAIN: My career started with a very small movie called "Manito." It was a story about two Latino brothers in Washington Heights on the eve of the younger brother's graduation. We played at Sundance and we won an award there. We had no known cast, we made the movie for less than the cost of a car at the time. It was my first film, and that's what launched my career in filmmaking. Going from there to where I am now, I feel like I'm still sticking to a common thread of telling stories that you might not normally see in the media in a mainstream way, and stories that interest me as well on a human level.
I'm a first generation American from a family of immigrants. I have a connection to this country that my parents don't, and so the makeup of this country is something I'm internally fascinated with. I think it's an endemic theme in Lilith's Brood, that you have all these people of different backgrounds coming together and they have to make a decision – are we going to stay together and be part of our own clan, or will we breed with these aliens and create an entirely new race?
Have you always been interested in Butler's work?
I didn't always know about it. I've always liked science fiction since I was a child and when I decided to start this company I started diving back into some of the books I read growing up and also started to expand my horizons. I came across Lilith's Brood knowing nothing about it and after reading it, I have to say that Octavia Butler is one of the best authors I've ever read, sci-fi or otherwise. I fell in love with Lilith's Brood and her writing and decided that this was going to be my first project.
We've heard that it's really difficult to get the rights to her material. What's your secret?
I don't know why I've succeeded where others have possibly failed, but I think that I'm very persistent and my passion for this book is out of this world. I think it's one of the best sci-fi books ever written and I know that's saying a lot, but it's true. But it took a lot of persistence and it wasn't easy.
You've said that one of your goals is to make optimistic science fiction. What do you mean by that?
I think a lot of the sci-fi we have now dwells on the idea that the world is coming to an end, one person is saving that world, and everything is grim and depressing. The projects that I'm looking at are a little more complex than that. I don't think that "Dawn" is a dystopian novel by any means. I think it's more of a utopian novel because humans are getting a chance to restart society. I know it sounds a little cliché but I want people to dream of a better tomorrow.
The sci-fi I read or watched growing up was about going to the next level as a society. Sort of the linchpin of that is the original "Star Trek" TV show. It was about a future society where things weren't perfect, you had human problems, but society had advanced from where it was. And I think a lot of the things that were portrayed on that show have come to pass, whether it be from a racial perspective or a technological perspective.
Because of Dawn's subject matter and because people of color are underrepresented in sci-fi in general, people will likely be looking for diversity with this project.
That's hugely important to me, and I also want to stay true to Octavia Butler's text. I don't want to muddle it in any way. The lead of this book is an African-American female and the lead of the TV show should be the same. And I think it's important to bring together a team behind the scenes that represents the multicultural aspects of the book, because that's what the book is about.
Sometimes with an ensemble or multi-ethnic cast, the show will depend on a white character as a way into the story, to get a mainstream audience interested. Is that a consideration for you?
I think that perception in Hollywood that we have to enter from a white male perspective has been proven wrong, especially recently. With "Empire" on Fox, there is no white male leading you into that world, and it's fantastic. [The same with] "Straight Outta Compton," which surprised everybody.
And I've personally come across this with one of the more recent features that I produced, "Revenge of the Green Dragon," which was based on a New Yorker article on Asian youth gangs in Chinatown, Queens. The guy who wrote the article was the crime beat reporter for Vanity Fair and the New Yorker for 10 years and when I reached out to him he said, 'I can't tell you how many people have tried to option this article, but the number one thing I've always held onto is that I will not option it to anybody to have Brad Pitt play the white cop who goes undercover in the Asian gang.' So I made a promise to him that that would never happen, and the movie came out last year and we stuck true to that. And I think that's part of my mentality for producing, which is that we should tell the story in the right way or it shouldn't be told.
In Lilith's Brood, Lilith is the center of it and she's surrounded by an ensemble. The way that I see the show would be an international and multicultural cast. I'm not saying that there wouldn't be white characters on the show, but I don't think making them leads for the sake of demographics and perceived notions of success makes any sense at all.
How closely do you plan to stick to the original material with the adaptation?
I definitely want to stay true to the material and honor the legacy of Octavia Butler, because I think that's important and I do think that's possible in 2015. I think my predecessors have broken a lot of ground in television and the distribution channels have changed, so you can actually make TV now that you couldn't 15 years ago. Back then a show had to be episodic in the sense that you could tune in any day, it didn't matter if you knew the backstory, and you could watch it from beginning to end and be satisfied. That's changed tremendously in the last 15 years or so.
I also think the types of characters you can show on TV now and not have them appeal to the lowest common denominator is appealing to me. If you look at "Lost" a while back, they had an international cast. There was a Korean couple that actually spoke in Korean, it was subtitled and we went back to Korea and it just kind of opened up a whole new world in terms of television for the masses that I don't think we were accustomed to. And so I feel like with that sort of breakthrough and many others like it, the types of stories that you can tell on TV now are completely different.
The themes of the book are timely considering all that's happening in society now. What do you hope that people will relate to from the story?
The genius of the book is that by introducing an alien race into the equation, it redefines the differences among humans and changes the context of everything. It begs the question of what race really is by introducing an entirely new race into the fictional universe that she created. I think that by doing that, you can look at society differently than when you're in the throes of it. She gives you another lens to look at it, and I think that's something everyone can relate to.
"Dawn" is in early development stages. We'll keep you posted on updates as we hear more.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.