Apple TV+'s <I>Extrapolations</I> — Showrunner Scott Z. Burns
Iain Blair
June 6, 2023

Apple TV+'s Extrapolations — Showrunner Scott Z. Burns

Writer/director Scott Z. Burns has a gift for seeing into the future. He wrote Contagion, the prescient and scary 2011 pandemic thriller, directed by Steven Soderbergh, which pretty much predicted the era of COVID. His new show, Extrapolations, is even scarier. Streaming on Apple TV+, the eight-part sci-fi drama explores the existential threat of climate change and features an all-star cast that includes Meryl Streep, Sienna Miller, Edward Norton and David Schwimmer.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, I spoke with Burns about making the show, dealing with post and the challenges of showrunning.

What sort of show did you set out to make? 

“It’s obviously a very ambitious project, and I wanted to create a show that looked at the future and created a future that was believable and relatable. I didn’t want to have it full of flying cars, and I didn’t want it to have the sense of today being completely eradicated. I think that sometimes when you watch shows that deal with the future, that future seems to have shown up one day everywhere, but that’s not really what happens. Look at cities like New York or London, where you have brand new buildings, but also ones that are hundreds of years old. So I wanted to create a world that could have pieces of today, but that could also begin to explore the future, and that of course meant a big commitment to visual effects. That’s where we began.”

You produced An Inconvenient Truth. Fair to say you’ve been interested in this issue for a long time?

“It has definitely been a passion project for me for quite a while.” 

You’re the writer, director, producer and showrunner on this. That’s a pretty heavy lift. 

“Yes, it’s a lot to do and very challenging when you’re writing and directing, as well as casting the next episode and starting to get into post on a previous episode. And when all those things start converging on your day, it’s pretty unreasonably stressful. But I’m also very grateful that I’m surrounded by a great team that help me get it all done.”

Do you like being a showrunner?

“I do like being a showrunner, but I’m a very reluctant one. I like the moments where I feel we’ve been able to create an environment that’s fair for people and where they can do their best work, and where’s there’s a good sense of collaboration.”

What are the big challenges of showrunning?

“It’s the kind of job where, if you’re really eager and excited about doing it, you may be disqualified from being allowed to do it. It’s such a collection of tasks that are very far away from the basic skill set of writing. It’s a little closer to directing. It’s obviously a massive undertaking to showrun this, and yet I’m not sure how you get your vision across unless you put yourself in the middle of the storm that is production.”

You assembled an all-star cast. Was it an easy sell?

“Yes, and people were pretty much on board right from the start. I think that some of it is that people are clearly like-minded about the issue of climate change, but I think more importantly, they’re all people who have choices and could be doing a lot of different shows. I think they showed up for us because they loved these characters and wanted to help tell the stories. The trick, from a production standpoint, was that it became clear to us pretty early on that we were basically making eight pilots, so unlike a situation where you have a cast and then it’s just boarding them out over the series, we had to recast and re-scout and reimagine for every episode, and that became an incredibly-demanding and complex undertaking. Again, if you’re writing an episode and directing an episode, and helping to cast the next episode, and talking to the next director about what the locations might be, it’s hugely demanding. Usually on a series, you tend to use the same sets and you don’t have to continue location scouting as you get deeper into the season. But for us, there was almost nothing we could re-use from one episode to the next.” 

You certainly didn’t make it easy for yourself.

“No, and again, I think I was very naïve about the amount of work that it would take to re-engineer the future every three weeks. Including all the preparation, the shoot ended up being about nine months, starting in April 2021. It became clear at some point that we’d need to double up production, so we had days where we ran two units to make it more affordable. We used the Alexa LF with Panaspeed lenses from Panavision, and we shot in 2.20 aspect ratio.”

Tell us about post. Did you start integrating it all from the beginning, or was it a more traditional TV post schedule?

“I’d hoped we’d be very involved in previs, and there were times when we were able to use it, but once the machine started running and it became more and more difficult to keep up, it also became more and more like traditional TV, where you’re shooting a blue screen and knowing that you’d have to deal with that later in post.”

Do you like the post process? 

“I love it, and we did all the post in LA on the Warner Bros. lot, and in New York. This was a very rewarding one for me, especially as we had quite a few episodes that really relied on blue screens, so to see those episodes come to life with Ashley Bernes, who was our post VFX supervisor, was really gratifying and a lot of fun. I loved getting into the nuances of creating larger landscapes and how they might look, and adding delivery drones to the scenes of Mumbai in the future, or what advertising might look like in San Francisco in the future. So doing these big cityscapes where we’d augment the plates was so interesting and creative. Then there was the normal editorial process, which I love.’

Talk about the editing. I noticed that there were a few editors, so how did that work?

“Our lead editor was Greg O’Bryant, who cut my last movie, The Report, and Tim Streeto also worked on it. Our post producer, Dave Kirchner, master-minded it all, and Greg was so great in giving me confidence that the VFX shots we were relying on were going to deliver. We cut Episode 2, ‘Whale Fall,’ which has a lot of the humpback whale in it, but we went for months on end without seeing the whale, so it became an act of faith that the VFX whale would show up and also deliver emotionally. It was definitely quite a trick for Sienna Miller to act in front of a blue screen and have these incredibly emotional moments with Meryl Streep, who voices the whale. But there is no whale yet, just the blue screen. So those are big challenges, both for the actor and the director, to try and make it come alive. But as the whale began to appear to me, it was really wonderful, as we’d worked with real whale footage initially and then we got the VFX whale, and I couldn’t tell the difference between them.”

What were the main editing challenges?

“Steven Soderbergh, who directed Contagion, taught me that creating an editorial grammar was critical for the cohesion of any piece, and yet we wanted to do the right thing for each episode. The pilot was inspired by Contagion and the handheld work, and DP Matt Jensen shot it. Then, Episode 2 had a far more controlled, composed look, which Matt also shot. Greg edited both episodes and did a pass on all the others, and we have a very similar aesthetic, so I feel we were able to take whatever visual approach we’d used on a given episode and then marry it to fairly broad film grammar we’d created that would work across all eight episodes. We didn’t shoot any episodes in such an extreme way that’d it be a problem in the edit.”

There are quite a lot of VFX. Was that a steep learning curve for you?

“Yes, and it was very, very steep. On The Report, I think there was just one VFX shot, so dealing with tons of VFX wasn’t my forte, but I was very eager to learn as much as I could. It really helped that Ashley Bernes, our VFX super, was always on-set with me for the three episodes that I directed, which were all at the start of our shooting schedule. My brief to her was, ‘Teach me everything, because then I can be useful to the other directors.’ So when Ellen Kuras came on to direct, I was able to talk to her about how our show used VFX, and she did Episode 4, which has this plane we had to create. It’s a weird exercise for a director if you’re not used to working with massive blue screens on-set. It’s a real act of faith that they’ll provide all the landscapes and so on that you and the actors need for their performances. And Ashley was really engaged with all of our directors, and then I just pushed hard on all the VFX notes in post. My view was, if the VFX looked like VFX and not as photoreal as possible, I wasn’t going to be happy with them.”

It must have been fun creating the soundscape and music set in the future.

“Yes, it was a really great experience. We mixed mainly in New York, but also a bit at Warner Bros. in LA, and when you’re creating something like this, you have the chance to come up with new soundscapes for these imaginary world. Blake Leyh, our supervising sound editor and mixer, did a lot of that work with his team in New York. We also had three composers – Jason Hills, David Wingo and Dan Romer — who were really instrumental to the whole shape of the show. They all scored different episodes, which made sense, as the episodes are so different from one another and we wanted them to each feel musically unique. So if an episode was a thriller, we leaned into David Wingo, who scored The Report for me. Dan Romer scored HBO’s Station Eleven, which I thought was a spectacular score, and he did the pilot and the finale, which became these two great bookends.”

What about the DI?

“We did it all at Company 3, and the amazing Stefan Sonnenfeld, whom I’ve known for a very long time, was our colorist. They also helped us out with a few VFX shots that were problem children, and Stefan was so helpful to me and the other directors, and all our DPs when it came down to taking all the different visual approaches and finding enough common ground so that it all hangs together. I love the DI, thanks to my background in directing commercials, and I’m there for every session, and I’m very happy with the look and the way it all turned out.”