Building on a “beloved international treasure” like The CW’s “Supernatural,” which ran for 15 years and amassed an envious number of devotees, is not an easy feat, but “The Winchesters” showrunner and executive producer Robbie Thompson finds the daunting task as thrilling as it is challenging. Thompson, who was involved as a producer on the “mothership” for five seasons, was deliberate in crafting a world that paid homage to yet stood apart from “Supernatural,” crediting the creative team behind Chaos Machine Productions (founded by Jensen Ackles and Danneel Ackles, who first originated the show’s pitch) for its 1970s take on the preexisting universe.
“How do we stay within the ‘Supernatural’ universe, yet carve out our own little corner for it?” Thompson related the storytelling process in an interview with TheWrap. “And one way of that was the center on this love story between John and Mary, which we know but don’t know all the details of.”
“The Winchesters,” which debuted Tuesday night, delves deep into — as the title suggests — the Winchester family origin story, tracing the romance between Mary Campbell (Meg Donnelly) and John Winchester (Drake Rodger) amid a backdrop of monster-hunting. Read on for TheWrap’s Q&A with Thompson, as he breaks down some of the show’s Easter eggs, parallels and the show’s upcoming narratives.
How did the prequel idea come about?
Jensen Ackles and Danneel Ackles have a production company called Chaos Machine, and they have a deal with Warner Bros. and in the process of talking about future projects, they had an idea about a ‘Supernatural’ prequel that would feature John and Mary Winchester. The studio was very interested because ‘Supernatural’ is a beloved international treasure, and when it came time to find a writer to help develop it, they reached out to me. I had worked on ‘Supernatural’ for five seasons. I was there from Season 7 through 11. And I absolutely adored my time on the show and when they pitched me the idea, it seemed like both very exciting and very challenging. And I’ll be honest with you, the 1972 of it all was extremely appealing to me. From a practical standpoint, getting rid of cell phones is always nice, but the music, the era and the parallels between 2022 and 1972 — a lot has changed, and a lot hasn’t changed. It was just too exciting to pass up.
Speaking of those parallels, like John and Mary’s search for their fathers, did you have to dive deep into the canon of Season 1? How challenging is it to craft a story where you already know the ending, that Mary and John are going to end up together?
That was the biggest challenge, and one of the things that we talked about very early on — myself, Jensen, Danneel and Renee Reiff, who’s their executive over at Chaos Machine — was, ‘How do we embrace that challenge while also not upending or undoing anything that ‘Supernatural’ did?’ I think we found a fun and creative way to do that. Going back in particular and watching the early seasons of ‘Supernatural,’ Seasons 1 through 4, was really fun to dig a little deep into what the DNA of the show was. One of the things we said early on is you can’t really recreate ‘Supernatural.’ I mean, the Eric Kripke of it, the Kim Manners of it all, the Jared [Padalecki] and Jensen of it all — there’s a lot of lightning in a bottle there. But what we wanted to do is try to find, ‘What were the things that really resonated, that we felt like we could draw parallels to in John and Mary’s story?’ Searching for Dad was a key component of the early seasons and that felt like an interesting fit for us to explore as well.
‘The Winchesters’ is much more of an ensemble piece. Could you talk about crafting those characters?
How do we stay within the ‘Supernatural’ universe, yet carve out our own little corner for it? And one way of that was the center on this love story between John and Mary, which we know but don’t know all the details of. And then the other part of it was to bring in this ensemble aspect, which we felt gave us an opportunity to be more inclusive and reflective of a broader base of storytelling. Sam and Dean had a cast of people that they could rely on but very often it was just the two brothers against the world. But it was something that we thought about from the beginning, from a design standpoint, and a way to differentiate ourselves from the mothership from jump.
The era obviously colors a lot of the story: John is dealing with shellshock, which we now know as PTSD, post-Vietnam. How does that backdrop factor into the monster-hunting and dad-finding storylines?
It was one of the things that was most exciting to me about both John and Mary was looking back at where they were, how they were both raised. John, from his point of view, was essentially abandoned by his dad at age 4, and then went off to Vietnam at a very young age. Mary was somebody who didn’t really sign up for any of this — she was just born into a family of hunters that have been hunting since crossing over on the Mayflower, so this was someone who didn’t really have a lot of choice in her life and the overlap there in terms of childhood trauma and trying to overcome generational trauma was just really, really appealing to me.
And then the specificity of John being a Vietnam vet — when we see John in the mothership after Mary dies, obviously something breaks inside of him, but we really wanted to pop the hood on that and figure out where that came from and where that trauma was really being manifested in his path. We got into the writers room, David H. Goodman, who’s an executive producer on it as well, he and I had some early talks about how we can really mine John’s past and the ’70s of it all to reflect on a story of a young man and his journey into a darker part of himself. We’ll be dealing with that pretty head on in the early episodes as John’s post-traumatic stress disorder starts to surface and affect his ability to hunt.
The pilot references some elements of ‘Supernatural’ lore, like the Men of Letters. What can fans of the flagship show expect from this new take on the universe?
I’m a very big fan of trying to find ways to connect us to the mothership, and sometimes that takes the form of an Easter egg. And then sometimes it takes the form of a larger piece of the iconography. John, in the mothership, never really knew that his dad didn’t just disappear or walk out on the family; he had actually been part of something that was connected to the world that John would eventually be pulled into. Getting to see a little bit more of the Men of Letters and the history was definitely appealing to us, but it also kind of presented an opportunity: We really want this to be designed for returning fans and new fans. Sort of a North Star for us creatively speaking was, ‘How can we get into the space that a show like ‘Better Call Saul’ has occupied for so long?’ They’re able to stand on their own and yet if you’ve seen ‘Breaking Bad,’ there’s a lot of touches and foreshadowing to things that obviously we know have already happened. And yet, I found it completely riveting, even though we know the outcome. Because we are ‘Supernatural,’ we can play around with things in ways that a straight drama like that can’t. How do we make this something that returning fans can consume and enjoy and feel like they’re back within the ‘Supernatural’ universe, while at the same time not alienating new viewers. And so it was just an opportunity to, I guess, a little bit of have our cake and eat it too.
The pilot is bookended with Dean’s narration. How did that vantage point for the series come about?
That was one of the parts of their initial pitch and I gotta be honest with you, it was a huge selling point for me. I had nothing but a great time writing for Jared and Jensen, and the notion of being able to write for Dean Winchester was just too tempting. It’s also my favorite part of the process is, I’ll be thinking about the voiceover and I’ll think, ‘Oh, what would Dean Winchester say?’ And then I text Dean Winchester and ask if I could talk to him. He has been amazing, there’s nobody that knows that character better than Jensen. It’s a light touch with the voiceover; we’re trying not to be wall-to-wall with it. Working on those with him, and seeing how he puts his spin on it, it was when it all became real to me: We were on the set, and we were shooting the first scene — it was a scene with Meg and Nida [Khurshid] in a van — and it was just this surreal moment of, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re finally making this pilot,’ and then Jensen texts me some temp voiceover, and so I put my headphones on and he’s suddenly doing the voice. It was definitely an out-of-body experience to hear it again.
“The Winchesters” airs Tuesdays on The CW.