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Publisher: Bluejack

January, 2009 : Interview:

Shadow Unit Revealed

After a several-months-long hiatus, the creators of last year's breakaway hit TV show, Shadow Unit, hit the scripts to bring hungry fans a second helping of the mystery-suspense-crime drama and a side of sci-fi. Although an official date has not yet been released, the show's creators have hinted that the first episode of Season Two will air on the WTF Network sometime in the first quarter of 2009.

Shadow Unit broke with traditional TV series format by offering great writing, stellar special effects, and fan access—all for a show that doesn't exist. The show's interactive quality struck a chord with fans as they were able to connect with the creators and even the characters via message boards and LiveJournals.

Shadow Unit is the product of a mind-meld with Executive Producer Emma Bull, Co-Executive Producer Elizabeth Bear, Producers Sarah Monette and Will Shetterly, and Art Director Amanda Downum. Bull, Bear, and Monette graciously shared some time with me in the ether to talk about the show and its upcoming sophomore season.

Jen West: Congratulations on such an amazing first season of Shadow Unit. You all must be bursting with pride. How has this hit show met or exceeded your expectations?

Emma Bull: We were alternately certain it would make the cover of TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly, and Locus Magazine, and positive it would disappear without anyone noticing. Anyone. With the show on the teeny tiny WTF Network, the second was more likely. And really, since people are just getting used to the idea of watching TV on the web, and aren't even slightly used to watching TV by reading it, we knew we were betting on the three-legged horse in the Kentucky Derby.

So when people found the site...and even found the parts of the site we hadn't announced to the public yet, and started posting on the bulletin board we hadn't told them was there, and figuring out where the links were buried and the agent bios were hidden—"gratifying" doesn't begin to cover it. "Scary" also doesn't cover it, since from the moment we launched Shadow Unit, we realized we had really smart, resourceful fans.



Elizabeth Bear: Truth, man. And then they read the LiveJournals, and started talking to the characters—and actually affecting the plot lines. And we realized we had something unusual on our hands. The active fan community is of course the key to the show's success. We had almost no advertising budget, so word of mouth carried everything. And of course the cast put it all out there to promote the show. Camryn [Kaufmann, who plays Daphne Worth] claims she's not sure when she last slept in her own bed—although, knowing her, that might be a slight exaggeration.

Bull: People were really excited when they found the LiveJournals—at that point, the characters had been talking to each other for a while, so the fans had an existing set of conversations to read and participate in. And the fans were on the board and on their own journals, saying, "My God, I commented and Chaz responded!" Now I think we'd all be surprised if he didn't, because, well, dude, he's real. Of course he answers comments.

West: How did you all come together as a writing team?

Bear: It's Emma's baby. She drafted Will and me, and I started hitting up my friends for help. Of course, Sarah and I have worked together in the past, and Amanda—who has just sold her first trilogy, by the way, to Orbit US—and I have been part of the same online writing group since two thousand and mumble.

Bull: Oh, see? I was going to blame it on Bear! Because she was encouraging her writer friends to write fanfiction, to reconnect with the sense of play that most of us had started writing for in the first place. She also got me hooked on Criminal Minds, which we think of as a sort of sister show, even if it is on a different network. Those two things made me realize that what I wanted was to write fanfiction for a show that didn't exist, a show that would combine elements of The X-Files, Criminal Minds, Mission: Impossible... A batch of other influences, really. So I had to create the show in order to write the fiction. Heh.

Since it was going to be a television show in prose form on the web, it needed a writing staff. Enlisting Bear was a no-brainer on my part; she was already on the same wavelength, and we'd been talking for a while via e-mail about what we liked and didn't like in stories. And she's just such a damned fine writer.

Oh, side note: this project is so New Media that, other than Will, I'd barely met the creators before we started it. I'd been face to face with Bear for about thirty seconds in front of Elise Matthesen's jewelry table at a convention. I'd been introduced to Sarah at a convention years before, which I barely remember, since I was on painkillers at the time. And I still haven't met Amanda in person. Now it can be told: we're all actually clouds of electrons. We hire stand-ins to make personal appearances.

Sarah Monette: On the internet, nobody knows you're imaginary.

Bull: Except I met you again at Fourth Street Fantasy Convention. So now you're only imaginary on the internet.

Monette: Which is a good place to practice being imaginary, if you need one. As Chaz can attest.

Bull: I asked Bear if she wanted in on this project. She said, "Sure! And we'll need Sarah. And a web designer and spinner, who just happens to also be an amazing writer, which description fits my friend Amanda. And I bet Stephen Shipman will host the site." See? Bear did it. *g*

West: Do each of you have particular characters that you especially like writing? Or do all of you work on all the characters?


Solomon Todd

Bear: I will say that Todd and Gates will walk away with any scene you give them. Some of that is actor charisma, of course. But in general, we all write everybody. Since it's a bullpen atmosphere, we can spitball dialogue and go with what sounds right.

Bull: It's true. We come up with lines or bits of business for one character or another, and kick 'em out there. Someone else will say, "Hey, that's tied in thematically with what I'm doing in my episode; can I use it?" Sometimes the characters involved in the bit will change, of necessity, but not very often; they have such distinctive voices that, if it's a Brady line, for instance, it's unmistakably a Brady line.

Bear: And if it's snarky, it's probably a Brady line.

Bull: Heeee—it's true! He's the one who looks as if he's there for the pretty, and he's actually wicked smart. Emphasis on wicked.

Esther Falkner

Esther Falkner

I confess to having a little extra fondness for writing Falkner. She's fascinating to me, because she's got what is stereotypically a guy code of honor and toughness, because of her background and how she had to perform to get where she is. But she's also got tremendous sensitivity to the emotional health of the people she works with and talks to, which is one of the things that make her good at her job. She's a caretaker without being "girly" about it. And Daphne—I identify with a lot of things about Daphne, the way she worries about doing it right, her distrust of her own emotions.

And Chaz? He kind of writes himself. I'm pretty sure he exists, somewhere out there, and we're sort of channeling him. Or maybe it's because Roberto Aguilera is so damned convincing as Chaz that we just channel Beto.

And yeah, Hafidha's entrance into a scene could stop an atomic clock. She's a character who does things her way, dammit, because she's tried fitting in and going by the book and being a good soldier, and none of it kept her life from falling apart. So she's rebuilt herself and her world through a lot of pain and effort, and she's not going to sell out or toe any lines without a better reason than she's seen so far. It makes her a force of nature.


Hafidha Gates

Bear: Remember the character on Golden Girls? The one who had had a stroke, and always said what was on her mind, completely uncensored? That's Hafidha Gates.

Bull: Hah! Yes. Except fully aware of the effect on other people.

West: Was that Estelle Getty's character or Betty White's?

Bear: Estelle Getty. Though really, now that you mention her, I wonder if we can get Betty White for something...

Monette: I particularly like writing Frost, because she breaks all the rules. Her priorities aren't the same as other people's, and she won't pretend that they are. And at the same time, she's perfectly self-aware. And she has a sense of humor. So she never reacts quite the way you expect.

West: Can each of you recall a scene or episode that you really loved, and why it worked for you?

Monette: I think the climax of "Refining Fire," aside from being gruesome and utterly like the worst kind of nightmare—the kind where you dream you wake up, but the nightmare is STILL THERE—is just utterly stunning. The imagery is so beautiful, and so beautifully handled, and then so HORRIBLE... I love it.

Bear: I really loved the GammaPOV in "Ballistic." It's creepy and sad and lyrical and I think it really gets across the character. Also, chock full of hints!

Bull: Yes, seconding that! And it's really hard to do antagonist POV. There's so much you don't want to reveal, but you have to hide it realistically. I mean, the character doesn't care if the audience knows those things. So the character has to seem to be completely open... while the writer is busy saying, "Hey, look, Haley's Comet! Look over there!" and distracting the audience from the available clues.

Really, there's so much stage magic inherent in writing...

Another scene I love is the one at the end of "Knock on Coffins," when Hafidha has come back and Chaz is trying to figure out how to ask the things he can't quite ask. There's so much delicate reveal of character and relationship in that scene. It hurts a little to read it, but it's a good hurt.

West: Have you tried to keep the show mostly episodic? Or is there a larger, multi-season story arc at work here?


Stephen Reyes

Bear: The network doesn't like us to talk about it—they think it'll scare off viewers, considering how badly these things often work out—but we do have a bit of a long-term plan. For character growth and big! science! and some very interesting long-term developments involving the team and the world. And the Anomaly, of course. Always the Anomaly. It can't keep its secrets from Gates, Villette, Todd, and Reyes forever. (Even the Nixon Administration would quail at the prospect of that bunch getting up in the paperwork.)

Bull: Oh, yeah. We got your eighteen-and-a-half minutes right here, Dick, baby. Heh.

One of the things we decided right away was that we needed to know what was going on, what the Anomaly is and how it works, even if the characters didn't yet. As viewers, we'd been driven crazy by shows (ahem, naming no names) that had put all their energy into crafting the mysterious aspect of the plots, and pretty clearly didn't have a payoff in mind. Viewers catch on if you're jerking them around, changing the clues and withholding information.

So this season fans will see some hints about how the Anomaly works. And there will be more in season three. We love it when the fans guess where we're going—okay, ideally, just before we get there, because too far in advance and it's yeah, yeah, come on, SU writers, we know that already. But if the fans guess something just before we reveal it, it means we set it up right. That makes us bounce with glee, and in my case, I don't mean that purely figuratively.

That said, we do try to keep the episodes fairly stand-alone. I think you can get a feel for the characters, what kind of show it is, what's at stake, starting with almost any episode. You don't need the characters' LiveJournals to follow the story, or the DVD extras. But viewing the show in order and adding in the extras gives you a view of a larger world.

Bear: I think this is exactly right. The LiveJournals make it three-dimensional. And interactive!

Bull: The LiveJournals are a real treat for us. Chaz's, Daphne's, Hafidha's, and Todd's journals let us tell the parts of the characters' stories you never see in fiction, and how they feel about those less-dramatic parts of their lives. They go out dancing, they make each other dinner, they have spy movie-watching parties and make fun of the inauthentic parts.

I'd love these characters if all I knew about them was what's contained in the episodes. Knowing the bits of them revealed in the LiveJournals made them feel like my friends. They do things I would never have thought of them doing if we were only concentrating on the cases they work.

Bear: It's the difference between somebody you know at work, and somebody you have two a.m. conversations with. I still remember the flurry of OMG on the message boards when the fans finally got the context for Chaz's late-night post-concert drunken emo post. It made my week. Month.

West: With the different outlets, like the LiveJournals, available for us to get to know the characters, is there ever any concern that a character will do or say something out-of-character or contradictory to the show's plotline?

Bear: We try to handle that by having a very detailed series bible. And if we goof, well, these things happen.

Bull: What Bear said. And you know, I think we have goofed a couple times already, but we covered it up like, whoa. Storytelling without a net, man. Scary stuff.

West: Are there any interpersonal-relationship story arcs we can look forward to in the show? Any workplace romances or tension between the characters?

Monette: Oh lots of tension. Lots and lots and lots of tension.

Bear: Yes. Lots of interpersonal drama.

Bull: Lots.

West: Would you be willing to give us any teasers? Sneak Peeks?

Bull: Let's see. Somebody almost dies, somebody has sex, several somebodies have moments of personal revelation... I bet that wasn't as satisfying as you thought it would be, was it? Heh.

Bear: Somebody does die. Several somebodies have sex. Somebody gets held at gunpoint by somebody else. Oh, and Duke backstory.

Largely contradictory, that last, and probably at odds with recorded history.

Bull: Bear gives much better teasers. *g*

The showrunner on Criminal Minds, Edward Bernero, is notorious among fans for leaking totally misleading evil teasers. As in, "Nope, we'd never do a thing like X," then doing exactly that and then some three weeks later. He has magical powers, though, in that nobody wants to kill him for doing it. I don't think we've tapped into that mojo.

Bear: Or the ever-popular "We're going to do Y" and then doing X after the fans freak right-the-heck out over Y. It's an awesome thing to behold.

Bull: When I grow up, I want to be able to mess with people's heads that well.

West: How did the casting process go? Did you know right away when you found a match between actor and character?


Charles "Chaz" Villette

Bear: Chaz was hardest, I think. Because he's so unusual looking. We were afraid we were going to have to compromise, or go with heavy makeup, which is never any fun for an actor in an ongoing series.

Bull: Totally. Gah. For all sorts of reasons, we wanted Chaz to be racially ambiguous—a walking composite of available North American phenotypes. And given what we had in mind for him, he had to also be a terrific actor with a lot of range; we needed somebody who could do more than sulk and smolder attractively.

Bear: And completely devoid of catlike personal dignity. Don't forget that part.

Bull: Oh, yeah. "Honey, we're going to ask you to do some stuff that will affect your self-esteem for decades." Heh.

So, audition, audition, and we're talking behind their backs saying, "Well, maybe we could go a little more European. Okay, maybe we could go African-American and stress the mixed-heritage thing in the storylines." None of which made us happy.


Madeline Frost

Bear: Really. I think we hauled some kids in five times. We also wanted somebody who wasn't well-known, because there's always the problem there with audiences responding to the actor rather than the character. Which is fine with Todd and Reyes—we wanted familiar people in those roles. Todd in particular should be kind of comforting most of the time. Until he's not. And Frost [played by alternate reality Dame Judi Dench], well—that's stunt casting, and we were incredibly lucky to get who we got. And she's amazing. Like a kindergarten teacher soaked in weapons-grade sociopathy. She's gonna get you with the left-handed bluntie scissors!

So we're sending it back for a third round of calls, and it's like, no, who have you got who's stuck playing Third Gang Member because he's a little too scruffy and ethnic? Who's the guy who really needs a break, because he's better than the roles? That's the one we want.

Bull: Casting hated us sooooo much. No one in Casting will ever work with us again after this.

I was surprised when Ford said yes to playing Todd, too.

Bear: Nobody says no to Solomon Todd. Not once he has a chance to dig up the paperwork.

Bull: And who knew Ford was a Mission: Impossible and John LeCarre novel fan?

Bear: Vivian [Cartwright], Patricia [Zhou], and Danielle [Saint-Jean] were all naturals. We knew we needed a veteran character actor for Falkner, and Danielle had been looking to move to prime time for a while, and was willing to move to America. And she's already demonstrated the ability to carry a series. Vivian Cartwright just has that tremendous force of personality, archness, and air of blazing intellect. Also, I don't know if you saw her as the corrupt Secret Service agent in Pennsylvania Avenue, but we took one look and knew we had our girl.


Nicolette Lau

And of course we'd seen Patricia Zhou on Delta. She was only under contract there for one season, so we swiped her for a featured role first chance we got. I think the showrunners are still deleting our email.

Bull: Casting Daphne was fun. Camryn had a great rep around town as a funny woman; she does standup, and has had lots of guest spots on sitcoms and small parts in big-screen comedies. So when her agent got her in, we were expecting something completely different... except we liked her, as her, so much that we really wanted to work with her. Hmm, we're thinking, okay, maybe Daphne could be funny... And Camryn gave us this wonderful, vulnerable, smart, cautious, subtly fierce Daphne that was just what we wanted. It was like Christmas morning, only better.

One of the things we knew we had to get in casting was that these people had to register as terrifically smart. Not flawless (though you can't really get away with anything but Unrealistically Sexy FBI Agents in popular media). But whip-smart. And given the weird cross-genre nature of the show—a little bit science-fiction, a little bit procedural, a little bit horror, a little bit character drama—the actors themselves had to be freakin' brilliant, because they have to understand the undercurrents of the story and get them across to the audience. We lucked out with every one of these guys. Amazing.


Daniel Brady

Bear: One place the luck was seriously with us was in casting Brady. [Gregory] Collier walked in, and I reached over and nudged Emma and said, "When we said 'young Robert Redford,' that was just kind of a wishlist thing. I didn't think anybody was actually going to go back with a time machine and get him."

And it turns out he can act! Um. Redford too, but I was talking about Greg there. We're still steadfastly avoiding talking about how Beto got the job. So, anyway.

West: Do I sense a scandalous story here?

Bull: Not really—just a little embarrassing for us, because we missed what was going on at first.

Which, now that I think of it, is one of the ways the casting process is analogous to the writing process. Your subconscious will hand you things that you don't immediately notice, when you're writing; you'll follow that little prompt and put in a bit of business, a quirk of speech, a thought, a line of dialogue. It's not until the end of the story that you realize, Hah, yes! That sets up the action or motivation I need to make this other part work! I wish I could send chocolate to my subconscious.

Anyway, back to Beto and his first call. He was so nervous. At first we thought it was just Roberto X. Aguilera being nervous. (And part of it was, of course, but...) I forget which scene he was reading—it was something with Daphne, and the casting director was giving him Daphne's lines. He's got a backpack with him, hung over the back of his chair. And as he's reading his first line back to her he reaches around behind the chair without looking, pulls an energy bar out of the pack, unwraps it—all the time without looking, as if he's on autopilot—and starts to eat it. Talking with his mouth full.

And we realize that his nervous glancing-at-the-casting-director, looking-away thing isn't Beto; it's Chaz.

Bear: Chaz worrying about how a new person—specifically a female person—is going to react to him being, well, Chaz. It was a very smart bit of acting, when all he had to work with was the callsheet and the sides. He was good. We did the taser scene on his callback, and he sold us. (That would be the lack of personal dignity part.) And he was the right type—we dress him and shoot him to make him look thinner than he is, of course, because he's a skinny kid, but nobody's that skinny. The end of "Refining Fire" blew the budget on CGI.

Bull: And fake blood. The fake-blood line item got bigger and bigger as the season progressed.

Bear: Little known fact: all the bits in "Overkill" were real bits. Pig and cattle bits. You would not believe how the set smelled. Thank God it was a cold day, and thank God we're on cable.

Bull: Unlike Casting, Special Effects love us. Half the time we have no idea what they're talking about when they propose how to do an effect, so we say, "Uh, yeah, sure." And we get pig intestines. We have the happiest Effects department in the business.

Unless those weren't from pigs.


There are so many cop shows out there, so many procedural shows, that people wonder why we set out to do this one. And of course, part of the answer is that it's really not a procedural. The other thing people ask, though (and they especially ask me this) is, do we need another show in which the FBI, the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security, are the heroes? The FBI are in the news once a week, it seems, with something coming to light that they shouldn't have done.

But I write a lot in the world as it ought to be, rather than the world that is. The percentage of women field agents in the FBI is nothing like as high as it would have to be if the Anomalous Crimes Task Force reflected the gender distribution in the Agency as a whole. The Wire and The Shield are terrific shows, about badly flawed people doing their jobs and sometimes using them to do horrible things. With Shadow Unit, we're telling stories about flawed people trying to rise above their flaws, making a world that's ultimately better than ours, but a world ours could be. Which is one of the reasons why the opening credits music is Issa's "Half Angel, Half Eagle." That's what these characters are.

Other writers' mileage will definitely vary. But I'm an annoyingly glass-half-full sort.

West: How much do current world and/or national events influence the content in the show?

Monette: Sometimes art imitates life. Sometimes, and even more disturbingly, life imitates art.

Bull: Seriously. We keep seeing things in the news that make us think, "We are just making this up. Right?"

Monette: The thing with the feet in Canada. CREEPY.

Bull: Yes. Because WE'RE NOT CAUSING THAT. Seriously.

A lot of what influences us is current discoveries in neuroscience. We can't keep up with them; it seems as if every week there's an announcement of something we can use about neuroplasticity, mirror neurons, you name it.

Second season has some amazing episodes lined up. I think "Smoke and Mirrors" may be my favorite episode of the series so far; a lot of the things we've been setting up and hinting at come together all at once in that episode, and it's gorgeous. And we have two new writers doing episodes for us! Leah Bobet is writing "Sugar", and Holly Black is writing "Not Alone", the season two finale. Sophomore season is always a little scary, but I think we're going to make our reader-viewers happy.

Bear: Me, I'm looking forward to "Sugar". And "Getaway". Because so much previously set up comes together in those episodes, and it's niiiiice. Season two is in some ways really about starting the payoff. I'm bouncing in MY chair.

Bull: The character voices in "Sugar" and "Not Alone" are beautiful. Wait 'til you see!

West: So with some new writers should we also expect some new recurring characters to show up on the scene?

Bear: Well, there are an awful lot of recurring characters already. But some familiar folks who are not main cast members will be getting a little screen time.

West: When can we look forward to the season premiere of Shadow Unit: Season Two?

Bull: Well, Season One was written backwards, almost literally—"Dexterity" was the first completed script, but "Refining Fire" was already half-finished by then, and we completed it soon after. This season we want to get all the scripts in and tied together before we air the premiere, if we can. Another luxury the WTF Network allows. So we expect to announce the premiere date for sometime in the first quarter of 2009, but we're being intentionally vague.

Of course, as the fans have noticed, narrative is being committed even as we speak! The Season Two timeline starts in—June, I think?—of 2008, so some of the cases you'll see in the new season episodes have already happened, and the LiveJournals reflect the resulting weirdnesses.

West: It's been great talking with you all. If there was anything else that I didn't think to ask, or that you'd really like to share, the floor is yours.

Bull: I just want to say that the fans make me happy. They're smart as hell, they're totally involved, they're creating wonderful things... We wouldn't have had nearly as much fun if we hadn't known that amazing audience was out there watching and reacting. They're an essential part of our experience in making Shadow Unit.

Emma Bull's latest novel, Territory, was a Los Angeles Times bestseller and a finalist for the 2008 World Fantasy Award. She's at work on the sequel, Claim, which, like its predecessor, is a historical fantasy set in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband Will Shetterly and her cats Toby and Barn Cat. If she could pick one famous person she'd most like to meet, it would probably be someone fictional. View her web site at

Hugo-winner Elizabeth Bear says on her web site that she was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. This, coupled with a childhood tendency to read the dictionary for fun, led her inevitably to penury, intransigence, the mispronunciation of common English words, and the writing of speculative fiction. Her latest novel, All The Windwracked Stars (Tor Books), was released in October 2008. View her web site at

Sarah Monette writes novels and short-stories primarily in the genres of fantasy, horror and occasionally science fiction. Her latest novel, Corambis (Ace Hardcover), releases in April 2009. Her stories have also appeared in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Alchemy, Weird Tales, and Strange Horizons. View her web site at

Copyright © 2009, Jennifer Scholes. All Rights Reserved.

About Jen Scholes

By day, Jen West runs the corporate rat race working in women’s wear design and merchandising for an upscale clothing manufacturer. By night she’s a mild-mannered freelance writer in constant search for the next interesting character or story.

Her interviews have appeared in such venues as Shimmer, the Nebula Awards web site and Fairwood Press’s interview collection, Human Visions. She has degrees in Journalism and French from the University of Oregon, and remembers fondly the pressure of meeting deadlines at the Oregon Daily Emerald as a staff writer. She currently resides with her writer husband, Ken Scholes, two pudgy cats and a box garden in St. Helens, OR.


Jan 7, 06:55 by IROSF
Talk about this hit show.

Article is here.
Jan 8, 05:47 by Caryn Cameron
Great article; thanks!

(Love Shadow Unit; bought the t-shirt.)
Jan 8, 15:44 by Janine Stinson
Drat! Jen West beat me to it; I'm glad someone actually wrote this article anyway. :) Having the characters' "head shots" in the article helped remind me of them, as I'm still quite new to this series. Great interview, thanks to IROSF for buying it, and please, everyone go read some SU eps and pass the word on.

Oh, and watch some "NCIS" eps too. (No, I don't work for that show or CBS, just a fan). Smartsmart characters on that show, too. Which is what drew me to SU.
Jan 11, 19:29 by Marti McKenna
Once again, catch the show (and get the t-shirt!) at
Feb 3, 03:27 by
Nice blog. Found this while searching through
Feb 3, 03:27 by

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