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McKinnon found a responsive audience for "Rectify" in television producers Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein. The Emmy-nominated partners have helped shape the landscape of basic-cable dramas with "Breaking Bad," the beloved, brutally intense AMC crime show about chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin Walter White. McKinnon and the producers successfully pitched "Rectify" as the first original series for the Sundance Channel, which AMC has owned since 2008. "It's a wonderful fit for Sundance. It's like an indie film made for television," Bernstein says.
On set, Bernstein contrasted the creative styles of McKinnon and "Breaking Bad" showrunner Vince Gilligan: "Ray comes from independent film, and Vince comes from network TV. They're both wonderfully talented writers. Ray's an actor, so he's very improvisational. Vince writes for act breaks — he drops some kind of bomb before every commercial. There's less blowing up on 'Rectify,' for sure."
She added that McKinnon's background as a struggling filmmaker prepared him for the cable production. "Ray comes from independent film, making movies on a shoestring. Poor Vince — he worked on 'The X-Files' with millions of dollars per episode and weeks to shoot, but for 'Breaking Bad,' Vince was dropped into the budget and schedule of basic cable."
McKinnon makes "Rectify's" route to cable TV sound like a happy accident. "I'm not sure how that happened!" he says. "I started becoming more inspired by shows: 'The Sopranos,' 'Six Feet Under,' and especially 'Mad Men.' I thought that tonally, this fit in that same world. People don't have to change in an hour and 45 minutes. The changes can be much smaller over time."
Even by the standards of cable dramas with slow-burning, season-spanning narrative arcs, "Rectify" downplays the central murder mystery of who killed Daniel's girlfriend (assuming he's innocent). The first four episodes introduce a likely suspect and circle the details of the murder investigation, but mostly explore the ripple effects of Daniel's release on his family and the town of Paulie, Ga. It's more like one of Robert Altman's ensemble films than the usual plot-driven cable cliffhanger.
McKinnon is particularly motivated by the chance to dig into so many characters. "The other thing that's so interesting is this family marked by this event, and 20 years of the deepening of those marks. Daniel's return brings all of it into flux," he says. "It's one thing for his sister to say, 'When my brother gets out, everything will be wonderful.' But when he gets out, everything isn't wonderful."
"Rectify's" second episode, titled "Sexual Peeling," uses sexuality to touch base with its multiple subplots. Daniel's crusading sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) questions her affair with Daniel's lawyer (Luke Kirby) amid prying small-town eyes. Daniel's careerist stepbrother (Clayne Crawford) pressures his devoutly religious wife (Adelaide Clemens) for sex. Daniel's former prosecutor turned state senator (Michael O'Neill) renews his affair with a waitress who has the inside scoop on the whole town. The episode touches on masturbation and prison rape, and generally reveals how desire can short-circuit better judgment. In contrast to the overheated clichés of Southern melodramas, "Rectify's" uncomfortable sex scenes feel more akin to those on Lena Dunham's "Girls."
McKinnon likens making a TV series to running a marathon, as opposed to the relatively sprint-like pace of producing a film. "With a movie, the period of intensity is shorter. This has been pretty intense since January," he said on set in August. "Once the production starts, it's seven days a week, day or night. [But] you have more of a support system after the fact, and hopefully more people will see it over time." He enjoys sharing the burden with "Rectify's" creative team. The show's episode directors include Keith Gordon, a respected indie filmmaker in his own right with A Midnight Clear.
McKinnon developed "Rectify" without his Ginny Mule partners. Blount passed away in 2010 at the untimely age of 53 from complications with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, an autoimmune disorder that prevents blood from clotting. Meanwhile, Goggins' acting career has taken off. He recently appeared in both Lincoln and Django Unchained and plays one of the regulars on "Justified," the title of which irks McKinnon slightly for its similarity to "Rectify." "'Rectify' came first," he says. "The other show was going to be called 'The Lawman,' but Steven Seagal took that name for his show. Then they picked 'Justified' and I said, 'Are you serious?'"
During the 37th Atlanta Film Festival this March, McKinnon brought "Rectify's" first two episodes to the Plaza Theatre, along with much of the show's cast, for a Q&A that turned into a mutual love-in. The theater was filled with McKinnon's colleagues, admirers, and family — he even made jokes about his mom being in attendance. Over the years, he's found that his local film productions feel like family reunions. "When you get older, you get to come back to Georgia and see people who are still working in the film business. You see sons and daughters following in the trade. It gives a little purpose to life," he says.
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