Inside Fox's Prison Break revival
Creator Paul T. Scheuring and the trio of original stars share how they formulated their (escape) plan
Prison Break is back for, well, another prison break.
Eight years after Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) died — well, supposedly died — the tatted former inmate of Fox River returns in an Odyssey-inspired tale where he desperately plots another prison break, this time from a Yemeni jail, in order to reunite with his brother Lincoln (Dominic Purcell), former wife Sara (Sarah Wayne Callies), and the son he's never met. The question isn't whether he'll escape, but if the Prison Break reboot can recapture the magic of the original. Creator Paul T. Scheuring and the trio of original stars share how they formulated their (escape) plan. Read on for the details, and watch the first five minutes of Tuesday's premiere in the video above.
1. Hire the original cast:
Paul T. Scheuring: It was critical. You can be bold and think that you can do it without the originals, that maybe you can reset with a different lead, but they were integral to the whole thing. Using J.J. Abrams' approach — he brought Star Wars back, bringing back some of the old players like Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, and yet complimenting them with some new talent — that was really the model here and so we brought back most of the principles, but then also introduced some new characters.
Wentworth Miller: It's like a high school reunion. A lot of these individuals I had had no contact with since the show ended, but they remain a significant part of a significant chapter in my life. There's intimacy there and there's respect there and I think fans will be thrilled to see some of these old faces on screen.
Sarah Wayne Callies: Prison Break meant a tremendous amount to me personally, and I have a job [on Colony], so I only wanted to come back if we're doing something brave.
Dominic Purcell: It was exciting. All of the actors would say that it wasn't much of a stretch for us to get back into character.
Callies: I re-watched all of season 1 and 2, most of 4. I wasn't in 3, so who cares? Totally kidding. I just meant it wasn't useful for character research. I looked at my notes from old scripts. I dug out a few old journals. I did all the archival stuff and then realized that Sara's changed as much as I have.
Miller: I didn't [rewatch anything]. I made the choice not to, partly that was about time and scheduling. But I also more importantly trusted that Michael was still in me somewhere. I rode that bike for four years so I imagined, just like riding a bicycle, it would come back to me.
Purcell: It was just like putting on an old suit. I played the guy for four years and I understand him very well, so it wasn't difficult at all.
Miller: That first scene we shot I'm behind bars and Dominic is standing on the other side and it was just like old times. It was like a homecoming and I really relied on Dominic to ground me in the moment. I had a ton of extras, three cameras, there was a lot there to distract, but when I looked through the bars at this man's face, we'd been playing brothers for 10 years and that relationship is my through-line.
Purcell: The chemistry and the dynamic between us, it hadn't really changed.
Miller: It all came back to me, which is not to say that the character is the same as we last left him.
Purcell: Both of the guys have grown up. The weight of the world has been on both their shoulders since we last saw them, so it's turned them into hardened, tragic figures.
Miller: Michael's walked a dark road. He is tortured by some of the things that he's seen, that he's participated in, and the question of, "How do I make that right? How I wash my hands clean?" is front and center. His primary goal is getting back to his family, regaining what's he lost, what he was made to sacrifice.
Scheuring: The initial instinct for the show was Michael Scofield died in season 4, so we have to bring him back. If you just brought him back in a page and said, "Here's Michael Scofield, our lead again," and we lensed everything through him, the audience might feel ripped off. But if we kept him off-screen [in prison] and made him the object of the story rather than subject, and how he came to be alive again was a mystery, then I thought that that would be a creatively genuine way to approach it. That meant we had to go through Lincoln and experience his confusion, and experience the mystery through his eyes when he hears that his brother could still be alive.
Miller: I think we find Lincoln without a letter. Michael was a guiding force in his life, part of his moral conscience, which has been spinning in Michael's absence.
Purcell: Lincoln is much more aware of the consequences of his actions, and he's trying to become a better person, but the nature of Lincoln is that he manages to find trouble. That's one of his endearing qualities is that he's a badass, but you can tell that he's a badass with a heart; he's not a murderer or a bad human being. He's just one of these unfortunates that the cards are never quite dealt correctly for him.
Scheuring: The time that the show's been off the air has allowed us to ask the question, what has become of these characters in that time? Especially Michael who is the enigma of all of them. One, I thought he was dead, and if not, what has he been doing for eight years? Why has he apparently abandoned the woman that he loves and the child that he had with her? Filling in those blanks between what happens at the end of season 4 to now is really fun for all the characters because they're all different. They're all in totally new places than where we left them.
Callies: When we left Sara, she was a young woman devastated by losing the love of her life, and she was pregnant, and when we meet her again, she's seasoned. She's moved through her grief to the point where she realized that her grief was an extravagance her son couldn't afford, and so she decided to make him her life's work and honors the legacy of his dead father by giving him a good life. That includes giving him a stepfather, and she's changed hugely, just as I have. I don't think I could play a facsimile of Sara Tancredi from season 1, but playing Sara Scofield in season 5 is both different and I think honest.
2. Welcome old fans and new:
Scheuring: At the early stages, there was this constant network concern that new fans would not understand it. At the end of the day, shows like Prison Break or X-Files, they do have a legacy. I didn't make a concerted effort to reset so that the new fans could understand because one of the other things is everybody can catch up online or OnDemand.
Miller: I do think it's possible to watch the reboot not having seen the original and enjoy it for what it is, but the viewing pleasure will certainly be deepened if you're familiar with the original.
Scheuring: The critical thing was that the audience could recognize this show and say, "Prison Break is back!"
Purcell: It has the same spiritual tone as the first season of Prison Break. The first season of Prison Break, in my opinion, was just classic, beautiful storytelling.
Scheuring: I went back and watched it, and really made sure that we were there with the tone and the dynamism of it, and also the heart ultimately.
Callies: Season 1 was the best season we had. It was smart, it was brave, it was direct, it wasn't coy.
Miller: There are Easter eggs in every episode and that's intentional — we've got a very dedicated fan base.
Callies: The challenge is to try and do them honestly, without contriving them too much, and that's hard, but I think Paul's done it in a pretty smart way.
Miller: It does set the bar high because you want to live up to expectations. My ultimate goal is to make sure to the best of my abilities what we're doing now hangs together with what came before.
Purcell: People are going to be blown away.
3. Find a compelling hook:
Scheuring: [The reboot is] ultimately a story about somebody coming back to life. I went back and read The Odyssey again and it's exactly that: Odysseus fell off the map for seven years after the Trojan War and was presumed dead. He resurfaced again under an assumed name, Outis, in a foreign land called Ogygia.
Miller: Ogygia [prison] makes Fox River look like the Four Seasons. It's down and dirty and there's danger around every corner.
Scheuring: The idea is that you're a stranger in a strange land where around every single corner in that country, you are paranoid. Here in Yemen, the jails are a little bit more hardcore.
Purcell: This looks like something out of Midnight Express. It's just caged animals, who are actually not in cages, but in these huge spaces, vast environments of just chaos and madness and there's no real protection. There's no real separation of inmates. They're just all these caged animals roaming around in this prison.
Scheuring: Breaking out of prison is only the start [for Michael], because then you're still in a war zone, you're still in a country run by ISIS. Part of the mystery of why Michael's in that prison is who he "got in bed with" that landed him there. This is a retelling of the Odyssey with Michael as Odysseus and you have to remember all of the varied villains that Odysseus encountered on that trip back to Ithaca.
Miller: It's essentially a western, bad guys versus good guys, who's wearing the white hat, who's wearing the dark hat, you want to make sure the guy wearing the dark hat is fascinating and terrifying and multi-dimensional so that your heroes, Michael and Lincoln, are pitted against the most dangerous foes imaginable. Everyone is multi-dimensional up to and including the villains, so while I just said they are kind of tasty and malevolent and dangerous, we also spend enough time with them that we see their human side too. So maybe that parallel to a western — white hat, dark hat — doesn't quite hold; maybe it's a sea of grey hats.
Purcell: [The story is] very, very poignant and timely, and it's just going to lend itself to a fascinating spectacle when it airs.
Miller: It speaks to what's happening in the world today, it taps into current events and feels relevant.
Callies: A huge part of wanting to come back was that Paul was the brain behind it. This was always Paul's baby, Paul kept saying, "I want to get back to what we tried to do that first season," and what I take that to mean, and what I see in the script, is trying to do something brave, trying to do something that maybe isn't being done. The show has a geopolitical awareness to it this season that it didn't before in terms of it being much more current.
Scheuring: I wasn't necessarily trying to be topical. At the end of the day, this is not a story about "We've got to stop ISIS," it just happens to be that Michael has gotten mixed up with the worst possible antagonist.
Miller: I love that the show is set in foreign locales, that it's not just the U.S., that we are telling a broader story and at the same time it remains intimate, essentially it's about family and sacrifice and brotherhood and loyalty, the very things that made us this international hit. We've got universal themes that anyone, anywhere can tap into, so the essential DNA of the show is the same even though the characters and the scope have changed dramatically.
4. Keep that heart rate up:
Purcell: This kind of genre is best told in limited episodes, because the flow is very fast and it doesn't drag out.
Miller: We move at a break neck speed, which feels right to me.
Callies: Paul was like, "You know that Homeric epic, The Odyssey? Yeah, we're just going to do that in nine hours of television." It's bonkers.
Scheuring: I really quite like this more abbreviated, limited run schedule because we basically had gleaned it to the bone. It's really just the essential aspects of the show without any extraneous fat that maybe would not have been rewarding to the audience.
Callies: I don't know that I've ever seen, of any show, a 22-episode season where there isn't an episode or two in the middle where you're like "Eh, come on, you just ran out of s— to do, so you filled it in a little bit." We don't have those episodes. I think we probably needed another episode or two.
Miller: If Prison Break was airing today for the first time, it probably would be a limited series on cable.
Purcell: It's just quicker resolutions to what we're doing and it just lends itself to heightened entertainment.
Miller: It feels right at nine episodes; it feels tight and satisfying.
5. Look to the show's future:
Purcell: We all know how successful Prison Break is and what a worldwide phenomenon it is, and these nine episodes are only going to enhance its reputation and appeal. I would love to do season 6.
Miller: I wouldn't rule it out. I feel like there's more story there.
Purcell: I'd do years of Prison Break. I love the show so much.
Callies: I am grateful to be here. I never thought we would be here. If this is all it is, this is enough. And if there's more, I will treat it like a joke until [it isn't].
Scheuring: I know there will be a desire perhaps from fans, perhaps from the network and some of the actors, I'm sure. At this stage, it's a closed-ended story for me. Part of the problem with the original show was that we had to keep flapping our wings and keep extending. I feel like the fans suffered for that, because as some point, you run out of narrative and you start making up stuff that's lesser quality.
Miller: I will say that I appreciated how the original series ended: it felt right to me that Michael had to atone, Michael had to make things right. He had a lot of blood on his hands and it did not feel satisfying or 100 percent appropriate to me that he got to ride off into the sunset with his bride and their unborn child after all the mayhem that he instigated. Is there a happy ending this time around? Happy as far as Prison Break would define happy ending [Laughs]. Where we find these characters at the end of these nine episodes is somewhere that feels right and earned and satisfying.
Check out an exclusive sneak peek from Prison Break‘s return:
Prison Break returns Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.