After a few short years in the producing business, Joshua and Jonas Pate already have seen the gamut of their profession, or at least its extremes.
The 35-year-old twin brothers got their start in television in 1999 with USA Network's cult fave Good vs. Evil, an utterly bizarro occult dramedy about a shadowy organization of dead people who hunt down mortals who have strayed down a Faustian path. That show was a boot camp for the Pates in "run and gun, indie guerrilla-style filmmaking" Josh Pate says. "Every episode was seven days on location with a nonunion crew in Los Angeles."
Barely two years later, the brothers were recruited by Dick Wolf to help him shepherd L.A. Dragnet for ABC. Compared to Evil, working for the Wolf organization was like moving from a scooter to a Lincoln Town Car, with every aspect of the production well-organized, top-flight and run on time and on budget.
This season, the Pates find themselves somewhere in between the Wolf Films standard and a nonunion cable show as they tackle a very ambitious effort to endear America to the light-generating deep-sea creature that fuels the action on their new NBC drama, Surface.
The Monday 8 p.m. series is part of a wave of sci-fi and supernaturalish shows that landed on the fall schedule in the wake of ABC's success with Lost. The Pates say they hope to stand out by making Surface a true 8 o'clock show that isn't too gory or intense to scare off the family demo.
With their breakthrough 1996 feature The Grave (which became a Sundance hit that year and later ran on HBO), the multihyphenate brothers established a kind of off-kilter black-comedy approach to the action and suspense genre. But nowadays, both Pates have infants and toddlers at home, and the plunge into parenthood definitely has influenced their approach on Surface.
"There is just so much of a cult of death on TV right now, so much murder and mayhem," Jonas Pate says. "Every show is trying to outgristle each other," Josh adds.
Because of the production demands, the brothers have divided up the duties along bicoastal lines. Josh oversees the writing staff in Los Angeles, while Jonas temporarily has relocated to Wilmington, NC (which happens to be the brothers' home state), where the show is shot.
Surface, which the brothers kicked around as a feature script for a few years before pitching it to NBC, tracks three story lines involving people who have had bad run-ins with the underwater creature that fuels the action on the show. Of course, there's a government conspiracy to cover it all up, as the intrepid oceanographer played by Lake Bell realizes early on.
But the Pates insist there's no conspiracy on their part when it comes to their (misunderstood?) menace. The show has the courage of its prosthetic makeup artists' convictions, and the Pates promise that viewers will get increasingly close-up looks at Surface's buggery species (so long as NBC cooperates and keeps it on the air).
"We've been constantly debating, 'Are we showing too much? Are we pulling it off? Are we getting into Ray Harryhausen territory?'" Jonas says. "But I'd rather let them see something than be teased endlessly."