Imagine that you heard on the news that a potentially powerful solar flare had let off a cloud of charged particles strong enough to cause concern among scientists and even world leaders.
Imagine that when the particle cloud hit, that the effects were worse than anyone had predicted – that all power and all communications were terminated. No news from the outside world. No idea what’s going on.
What would you do?
A new TV series in development explores that scenario – a world that some might call pre-apocalyptic, while for others it might be considered post apocalyptic, since electronics and communications form the core of what most people consider a normal life.
The producer of this series-in-development is Rob Underhill, a young 30-something up-and-coming director. His past work includes the 2012 drama The Lynching of Emmett Till, and the 2009 drama Still Life.
He also directed 13 short films including Wolf Call, Empty Space, Homebound and The Deal, just to name a few.
The Carrington Event - A Solar Flare Like No Other
On september 1, 1859, astronomer Richard Carrington spotted two blinding white lights flash over sunspots that he was observing. By dawn of the following day, the skies lit up with brilliant auroras, and telegraph systems across the world started going haywire.
The induced electrical current throughout the telegraph system was so powerful that telegraph paper was set on fire. Telegraph operators tried disconnecting batteries, but the currents continued to flow.
In 1972 and in 1989, similar - not so powerful - events took place, destroying power transmission equipment and causing blackouts.
In this new production, producer Rob Underhill explores the possibility of another Carrington Event taking place in a world like ours, where everyone has become dependent upon the stability - and the very existence - of electronics and communications systems.
After reviewing the trailer for this series, I realized that I had to learn more - and Rob agreed to discuss the series with me over the phone.
Interview With Rob Underhill
I finally caught up with Rob over the weekend, as he managed to squeeze our phone call into his busy schedule. During our chat, we discussed the inspiration behind the film, and of course the premise behind the plot itself. Don't worry - there are no spoilers!
Ryan Dube (RD): So Rob, where in the production process are you at this point?
Rob Underhill (Rob): Well, what we did is got a small budget to get the ball rolling, and shot a proof of concept - about 45 minutes - that we'll be able to show interested parties. From that material, we've developed the trailer, the poster and the other cool stuff that's just part of the process. At this point we're just finishing up the script for the finale - the 13th episode - and we're getting ready to network around and get this in front of people.
RD: When did you start writing the script for this series?
Rob: Well, we filmed in June of last year, so it actually would have been after that that we started developing the scripts for the series. So from about August through now we've written the whole season.
RD: So what was your inspiration for producing The Carrington Event?
Rob: The idea started taking hold when my long time friend and colleague, Larry Gardner, turned me on to the subject. He’d been researching the Carrington Event and asking the sort of questions we all ask about it. Was it that bad? Would it be that bad today? He was the inspiration for me to create the series. And in recently months I partnered with Allen Gies, my long time colleague from Michigan, to lead writing the series.
RD: Was there any particular book or news story that sparked the idea?
Rob: Yes, that would be the Carrington Event - the namesake - that spurred this all off. That's the big one, you know, NASA did a report on that - I think back in 2005. So it was really that event itself, and then reading about that event was the main inspiration for the series, and then reading more about solar flares and their effects on us.
Power Outages and Survival
RD: The whole concept of a prolonged power outage from the trailer really struck home for me because of all the power outages we have here in the wintertime. Unless you've been through it, it's hard to understand how only after a few days people start to act differently. They start to panic a bit.
Rob: Yes, or course. In North Carolina we've got hurricanes. And, I grew up in Michigan so we've had plenty of snow and ice storms. But in different places that don't have so many storms, people start to go crazy and just don't know what to do with themselves. I mean, on the one hand being from Michigan I might say I could handle it, but on the other hand, I've never been through that kind of power outage (as in the series). I mean, there's just no communication and nothing, so panic is just part and parcel for something that you can't explain.
I mean if you have a news report saying, "Alright guys, we're going to have a power outage, stay tuned and we'll give you some updates." Well, that's one thing. But in this world - the whole first series is just 14 days after the event. At least half of the first series is just the first two days. It follows different groups of people, and they have no idea what's going on. They followed the news as long as they could until it struck - the mega-blast of charged particles that struck the Earth, and then the problems all happened.
So, pretty much right away, all power is out, communications are out, there's no radio.
RD: So leading up to the event, no one really knew what was going to happen?
Rob: No, they're just following it like it's just another cool event from the sun, but no one really expected the impact. Except for about half a day before it and then they start getting really scared from the sort of broadcasts that are occurring about half an hour before it happens. You start sensing the fear from the radio and TV announcers, and then of course it's just all a black-out. At that point, the characters can only know what's happening from their neighbors. But, they live next to a large town, so they start getting information from the town, and the towns start getting information from the cities - and that's kind of how the series goes.
And of course there's a lot of drama too...there are survivalists that have a little bit of glory there of course. And then you've got the opportunists who take advantage of the situation.
At What Point Does Society Break Down?
RD: So, one of the things that people often fear about prolonged outages is medical care - medicines and medical supplies. Do you portray that in this series?
Rob: Yes, we wanted to make sure we covered a lot of demographics and a lot of socio-economic backgrounds. One of the main characters actually has a medical condition that requires oxygen and medications. There are also other characters that have their own issues going on. But, one cool thing is that each character does seem to have something that they couldn't quite take advantage of before, but after the event they can. For instance the father is running an organic farm and totally out of touch with the world. I mean his this strong guy, people like him, but at the same time he's disconnected from the family and doing his own thing. But, once this happens, they have to rally around him. Suddenly what was kind of a quirky way to make a living becomes a real good investment. All of the characters have something to offer in a similar respect.
RD: I would imagine if they aren't hearing much news from the outside, there has to be some form of social breakdown at some point.
Rob: Oh yeah. I mean, right away there are issues. In just a few days the jails are full. The town police -the sheriff - he has to start deputizing people to keep up, and that causes problems of course. And they have their own problems at the jail, because you know they stop getting outside communications, the water's not running and so that becomes an issue. Then of course, people only have about a couple of days worth of food in their house, so everyone wants to raid the store to stock up as much as they can. So there are a few times that we visit the major store in town where there are people causing problems from the very outset and also later on. Then, we also have some gang factions that start to get opportunistic as well. So, yeah, there are a lot of interesting opportunities for drama that we take advantage of, but at the same time we're trying to do it within the context of the problem.
Preparing For Long-Term Survival
RD: I really like the fact that the series seems to expose the idea that so few people really keep more than just a few days of food and supplies on hand at any given time.
Rob: Yeah. I've got a good friend who bought this big bucket, and it's full of powder. It's basically six months of food. Just add water. But yeah, I've gone through different phases where I've wanted to just get everything, but I got away from it because you'd really need more than you could possibly put in a house.
RD: Yes, and it takes a lot of work to do that as well.
Rob: That's right, and if you have a really nice island, and everyone else is stranded, everyone is going to just come to your island and take what they need. That's some of what we explore. Some of these guys are able to survive, but some of their neighbors are not so lucky. So, there are conflicts that'll happen no matter what just from that.
RD: So how much time after the event does this first season cover?
Rob: A couple of weeks, that's as far as we go. We've developed a synopsis of where this could go up through a sixth season as a TV show. So the second season would cover a couple of months after and then keep going from there. One objective is to keep up the real schedule. So when you come back, instead of starting on day 15, you actually come back to how long people had to wait [for the second season]. So, six months later, what's happened?
RD: Did you bring in any scientists or sociologists as consultants to help with production?
Rob: I've definitely been able to reach out and get enthusiastic feedback from all different sectors. When I did an interview with Empact Radio, I was contacted by this guy - he's been on science channels, and helped organize extended blackouts for safety exercises in cases where communities lose power for extended periods. He's been instrumental in that planning process. He also has contacts with leading scientists, and has offered to be a liaison for us to ask questions and verify information as needed.
RD: So you're fairly confident that you got the science of the event as close to reality as possible?
Rob: Yes, we based a lot of it off of the NASA reports and other expert opinions on how things would transpire. And then he had to decide how to take some of that and just turn up the dial from the actual Carrington Event. We basically used that Event as our baseline to basically disrupt the world and then see what happens.
So the extent that we took it, basically satellites are gone and even the dark side of the Earth is heavily affected. On the bright side of the Earth, anything that was part of the grid is no more.
RD: Did you have it affect car electronics systems and things like that as well?
Rob: No, we didn't make it like an EMP blast, so I guess in that respect it's been scaled back a bit. For example there are still some CBs available, so there's still some communications, which will last as long as there's power in batteries. And then some people are ingenious with pieces of equipment that were never plugged in. Those can be used as long as they can come up with some source of electricity. This is useful for the future, when some things start recovering, but also some people are ingenious and put together one of those setups where you have a bike that you can pedal to generate some electricity.
How Long is Too Long Without Power?
RD: So it sounds like they're somewhat creative and come up with ways to survive?
Rob: Yeah, but at the same time, you've got way too many people with far too few supplies. So, even if people are on the ball, there's going to be a lot of trouble. But inevitably you're going to have some people just laying around just waiting for someone to save them. So no matter what, you're going to have disaster, and it could be really, really ugly in a lot of places. This place has a slight advantage - they won't go completely nuts like in the big cities where riots are immediately starting to happen.
RD: It's an interesting concept to think about - I mean, at what point is that limit. When you run out of supplies at some point, people start to really panic and it turns into survival.
Rob: Yeah, and the first step might be, you know, the Joneses are out of town, so maybe I can take what they have because they won't need it and I can pay them back. But then when you get real desperate, your stomach is going to do your talking for you.
RD: Have you starting pitching the series to the networks yet?
Rob: We have some good folks that are indirectly connected to some big networks, so we're starting to work our way in that direction. The networks are very sensitive, for good reason, because they'll have every single production house out there sending in their scripts in hopes that they'll read it, and if it's something they see turn up later they can sue them. So, you either have to go through an agent, or through sort of the back door of hiring a writer, which is a possibility for the future. But at this point we're definitely at the point where we can talk about the series with anyone.
RD: Do you feel pretty confident about a network picking it up and running with it? Sounds like it would make for a brilliant prime time series.
Rob: I do. I mean a network like HBO does not have this show. They have a lot of cool shows, I love em, but they just don't have this kind of show. Other stations have their disaster genre TV show, whether it's zombies or aliens, but HBO doesn't have that. So, they could really take advantage. And then there's FX that has a strong fan base and we could offer them a really high-quality show where they could galvanize their viewers and get even more. I mean if anything is going to be done, it's definitely going to be right now.
When I was on Empact Radio, one of the coolest things that was said was at the ending, where he said, "Well I really hope your show gets picked up, because you could have a panel of the top scientists telling you that the doom and gloom is coming, but no one is going to care. But, if you do a popular TV show on the event, everyone is going to pay attention, and something might actually happen."
RD: Well, I know I'm pretty excited about the show, and I'm sure our readers are excited to see it on TV at some point soon as well, hopefully. Thanks a lot for your time Rob, we'll be following along and good luck!
Rob: Definitely, thank you!
Editor's Note: If you're interested in checking out the trailer for this series, check out The Carrington Event website, where you can check out the cast, view a gallery of stills, and watch the trailer for yourself.