High school isn’t the end of the world … until it is. Daybreak follows an eclectic group of teenagers in Glendale, California, who are fighting for survival in the wake of a nuclear blast. Leading the pack is 17-year-old Josh, a zero-turned-apocalyptic-hero desperate to locate his true love, Sam. Blending humor with high-stakes drama, Daybreak paints a Mad Max-style world populated by marauding gangs of jocks, gamers, 4-H Clubbers and other fearless tribes.
I got the chance to talk with Daybreak’s showrunner and executive producer Aron Eli Coleite. We talked about what about Brian Ralph’s graphic novel of the same name he thought would make a good television show, the casting process, the iconic water balloon/blood bath/fight scene from the pilot and so much more. Keep reading to see what he had to say!
Daybreak is adapted from a Brian Ralph graphic novel. First, how did you come across it? Second, what about it did you think would make a good television show?
So I was actually not the first person to come across it. Brad Peyton, my co-creator and the guy who directed the first two episodes, he was the first one to read it. He actually wrote a feature version of Daybreak initially. It was a great script and it had a lot more in common with Shaun of the Dead and Warm Bodies – which had just come out – and certainly Zombieland. It was a little bit less comedic, but it was certainly much more of a zombie film, true to the to the graphic novel. I was actually supposed to meet with Brad about another comic book adaptation and I had read his feature of Daybreak and I was like, “Hey, can we just talk about Daybreak? Because there’s something in here that I think is really amazing that we really should dive deeper into”. And that was the character of Josh, who looked at the apocalypse and thought it was the best thing that ever happened to him. I thought that that was something that was really, truly refreshing. It really keyed into something that I felt a lot in high school, to be bluntly honest, which was sitting around a class, being a little bit miserable because high school sucked and going, “Oh, man. If the world ended, it would be so amazing. I could reinvent myself. I could kind of do anything. I could be anything.” There was so much wish fulfillment in the end of the world and I love that this character had that at his core. Thinking about it from that perspective, thinking about a dystopia, an apocalyptic landscape that was actually the most amazing wish fulfillment universe for a teenage coming of age story just made so much sense to me.
The TV show that made me want to be a TV writer in the first place was Buffy the Vampire Slayer because a lot of different reasons. One was the way that Joss [Whedon] and company were able to tell stories, but really it was about the metaphor of the core of Buffy being so strong, that high school is hell. And the way it was able to blend horror and humor, but also heart and a coming of age story and kind of was able to wrap everything together in this wonderful blanket and deliver it on a weekly basis; I was like, “Where is that today? Where is there a show that is so entertaining and fun and a romp and compelling, but can also have some social commentary?” And I was like, “We can do that with this”. This is perfect for being able to capture that emotion because surviving high school is like surviving the apocalypse. And if we can get into all these various characters’ stories and really build what happened to Glendale, what happened to this group of kids after the apocalypse, we could really do something special and the metaphor will really carry through. So that’s our secret origin story.
That’s so interesting. Because you took the idea of Josh and kind of built the show into something different, how much was Brian Ralph involved in the series, if he was at all?
He was not that involved. He makes a wonderful appearance in episode 5. He was really delightful to work with, but he was totally game for us taking that as a launching pad and building something new out of it. I think he was nicely surprised by what we what we were able to achieve out of the pages and at how our imaginations were really able to take off.
Yeah. Kind of going off of that, when you’re working on a series like this that has blueprints from the comics already, how do you approach that as a writer? How do you decide when and where you’re going to make changes that are going to best suit the story you’re telling with the material that already exists?
I think this is something it’s just taking that inspiration from. It’s looking at that character at the core of Daybreak, at the core of Brian’s book, and going like, “How can we take this character and build a universe around them?” We’ve seen a lot of the zombie stuff, whether it’s Walking Dead or even Zombieland. We’ve witnessed that. So how do we take inspiration to really dig into something new and different that can serve the basis?
And I think that the book was able to do that for us as this kind of touch point of let’s talk about character; let’s not talk about it like a literal adaptation because you’ve seen it before. That’s kind of what happened with Brad’s initial feature; we’ve seen Warm Bodies, we’ve seen Shaun of the Dead. What we haven’t seen is something wherein we can tell a coming of age story that’s more Mad Max in tone and also marry that to this teenage coming of age story. That’s what we haven’t been able to extrapolate. And the emotion that I had read the book, the emotion that I had about the relevance of kids wanting to reinvent themselves and wanting to find their friends and their community, that’s what really kind of spoke to me out of the book and was able to serve as inspiration like, “Ok, well, we can use this as a launching point to create something bigger than itself”. I think there are some books that you adapt very faithfully and there are some books that you use as launching points to create something that is an extrapolation of the inspiration into something else.
Daybreak is one big mash up of all kinds of genres and homages, which I’ve really loved from the episodes I’ve gotten to see. But what is the challenge in making all of those different elements work and balancing it in such a way that it doesn’t skew too much in one direction or just overwhelm the viewers?
I think it’s a real hard tightrope, but it is something that we wanted to do and we were game for. I truly believe that everybody is the star of their own movie and everybody’s movie is different. And I think what we wanted to do was emulate individuality and how individuals can come together to form a community. There’s a tonal consistency in the apocalypse, in the look, in keeping the serialized storytelling together, and I think what we were able to really dive into is point of view. When you dive into point of view, even though we get different tones and textures, whether it’s Angelica’s Good Fellas story or you haven’t seen it yet, but Wesley’s story in episode five does a nice deep dive into both samurai and kung fu styles of storytelling, my perspective is you’re not going to get whiplash because we’re telling it from a character point of view; the show’s not completely reinventing itself. But I think it stays true to the characters that we are creating, and when you get to be able to be in their POV, we get to be really playful with all forms of storytelling.
I’ve been doing this long enough and to get the opportunity to be the showrunner, to tell this story, I wanted to just do everything that was in my crazy little head. I wanted to tell a Good Fellas story with Angelica. I wanted to tell a samurai story with Wesley. Storytelling has changed so much and streaming has changed what we can do and what’s acceptable. The gloves are off. Netflix was game for like, “Yeah, lets be as crazy as kids can be.” And they totally embraced that. They weren’t like, “No, Josh needs to be the narrator for every single episode and that’s the consistency. Like, what are you doing, Aron?” They were all game for what we were trying to accomplish, which was we want to tell these genuinely strange, weird, coming-of-age stories and do it in all the levels of homage that we want to reference, all the fun that we want to have of keeping the audience guessing. All I want to do is make the audience have a great time watching it. I want them to experience what I experienced watching Buffy, which was I want to laugh out loud, I want to be able to hopefully get some tears on occasion and get some genuine emotion on occasion and get them scared. If we can be able to do that over the course of 10 episodes, make people feel all that range of emotions, that’s a great accomplishment.
Kind of going off the topic of individuality, can you tell me a little bit about what the casting process was like for this? Because I feel like everyone was just so well cast. And how long did it take you guys to find the right actors for this?
First off, thank you. Second, our casting director is amazing. From the very first meeting that we had with her, she talked about how the writing of these characters was so specific and she said, “Look, you’re going to have one person walk in and they are going to be it”. And that’s kind of exactly what happened. We saw 50 people for Angelica and 50 people for Wesley, but Austin [Crute] and Alyvia [Alyn Lind] were the only choices. We saw their tapes, we had some callbacks with them, and we’re like, “No, they’re it”. And when we presented to Netflix, we only presented those characters. Historically, when I’ve done this in the past, you submit two or three people for this role and we’d have a conversation about this with Netflix about who we think is best out of these people. But [this time] we were like, “No, here’s Angelica. You’re welcome”, because Alyvia was so perfect.
That was really the case mostly across the board; it was like they presented themselves. Since we knew who the actors were, the writing started to change based on that. Because Austin really is Wesley. I mean, he doesn’t know a lot of the references that I make for Wesley and after some conversations he understood them, but Austin’s energy really started to mold who Wesley was.
That’s awesome. I was going to say I couldn’t envision anyone else playing those roles but them. It just seemed like it was written for those actors. It was just so well cast. I thought it was great.
They’re amazing. I cannot say enough good things about the cast. They were game for anything. [laughs] They would read scripts and be like, “I’m doing what?” And I’m like, “Yeah. It’s gonna be fucking awesome”. And they’re like, “Let’s do it. Let’s go”.
Going off of that and to wrap things up, something I’m sure the cast read and were like, “what the heck is going on?” is the water balloon/blood bath/fight scene from the pilot, which is my favorite thing out of everything I’ve seen. I’m just curious: is that something that’s in the graphic novel, or is that something that you guys came up with in the writers room? And if so, where the heck did that idea come from?[laughs] It was a little bit pre-writer’s room. It was something that I came up with as a way to escape from Turbo. It was the perfect thing that encapsulated what the show was for me. And I’m so glad you liked it. It’s mixing humor and gore and horror all in one, so you have your wish fulfillment, it’s disgusting. It’s also smart that Josh is using that to get away from Turbo. It shows like, “Oh, he is capable of being a hero”. I mean, he’s a little bit of an idiot, and doesn’t know how to use a sword, but he has moments. So when we went into even breaking the room and breaking the rest of the season, I would often point to the blood battle as like, “This is the show. These are the solutions”. It’s not about like being hyper violent and in really awful ways. It is about using gore and violence to celebrate youth, because it’s like nothing’s better than a water-balloon fight when you’re a kid. And I think it turned out better than I could have ever imagined.
It was also like the hardest thing to shoot and one of the very first things that we ever shot. So that we were able to accomplish that is in no small part based on how great Brad is as a director is, because he really understood how to capture that on a really difficult shoot experience and doing that really first up, it’s really amazing.
Daybreak is now available to stream on Netflix.