Five Days at Memorial Co-Creator Carlton Cuse on Designing a Disaster for TV

Based on actual events and adapted from the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sheri Finkthe dramaseries Five Days at Memorialfrom co-creators Carlton Cuse and John Ridley, gives a glimpse into what happened in the local New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. After the terror of the storm came the rising floodwaters, the power failure, and the oppressive heat, forcing those whose job it was to save lives to make unspeakable decisions.

During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, executive producer/writer/director Cuse talked about how this series evolved, what made this story set in 2005, something that felt necessary to tell now, why Ridley was the perfect partner for this project, the structure of the storytelling over the eight episodes, the biggest challenges in designing a disaster for a TV show, and not being quite sure what his next project will be.


COLLIDER: Hurricane Katrina feels far enough away now and there have been enough other hurricanes and disasters that have happened since then, that it seems easy to forget the aftermath, at this point. What made you want to revisit all of that and tell this story now?

CARLTON CUSE: Well, I thought I knew about Hurricane Katrina, and then I read Sheri Fink’s book and I realized I really didn’t. It was so eye-opening. I realized there was so much more that happened in New Orleans, that I was not aware of. She spent six years working on this book. She interviewed over 500 people. It was this incredible story that focused on these 2,000 people who were trapped in this hospital, but it was really a metaphor and a way of explaining what happened to the city at large. I thought that was just an incredible story, and it was stuck in my brain. I outwaited a couple of other producers and finally was able to get the rights, and then immediately sent the material to John Ridley. I love working in collaboration, and I just couldn’t imagine anyone better. Fortunately, John said yes, and so that was how it all came about.

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You seem like someone who always has a fair amount of things going on, at any given point. When you come across something like this, where you feel compelled to tell the story, is it exciting to find another story to tell, or is it challenging to figure out how to juggle everything?

CUSE: The timing of this was very propitious because I’d done the first two seasons of Jack Ryan, and that was all-encompassing. I stepped back from that, so I had the time and the shelf space available, and I really threw myself into this. At the same time, I’ve also been working on Locke & Key, but I have an incredible co-showrunner in Meredith Averill. Being able to do that show with Meredith gave me the flexibility and the time to do this. I was also doing it with John Ridley, so I wasn’t shouldering the entire burden, creatively. In fact, I think the show is as wonderful as it is because of my collaboration with John, who’s just a brilliant writer and such an incisive, but also humanistic filmmaker. We wrote all the scripts together and we didn’t have a room. We then show ran it and each directed episodes. We also listed this wonderful director, Wendey Stanzler, to direct three episodes. It just was a great creative experience, but it was a very immersive one. I was so passionate about the story that I just gave it as much time and attention as it needed, to be as good as we could make it. That was just based on how much I loved the story.

Had you known John Ridley, or was it just something in his work that you knew really made him the right fit?

CUSE: I was a huge fan of american crime. I thought american crime was a great show and had this rigor to how it was told, but also was just deeply emotional and such a rich show, on a character level. He just felt like exactly the right guy. The other catalytic element was that we both had deals at Disney Television, so I knew that if I could get John involved, it would be easy and possible for us to put a deal together to do it. Fortunately, John responded to the material and said yes, but I didn’t know him before that. But we had an incredible collaboration. I just have the deepest respect for him. That was really the best part of the whole process.

He seems like the perfect person to get involved with something like this, so I’m always curious about how that process happens. You’ve previously talked about how you love cross-genre storytelling, and this is a disaster thriller, but there are so many layers and elements that make it not just that.

CUSE: I think it’s a cross-genre story. It’s a disaster thriller crossed with a medical ethics drama, and in the back half, it’s kind of a legal thriller. There are definitely cross-genre elements in this. For John and I, trying to get that balance right between the medical ethics drama and the disaster elements, was a big part of our discussions and conversation. It was an important thing to try to figure out how to balance those two elements.

How did you ultimately decide on making the first five episodes with each being one day, and then using the remaining episodes for the investigation? How did that all take shape?

CUSE: We had such an incredible resource in Sheri Fink’s book, and that was how, in large part, she laid it out. Her book de ella is this incredible factual account, and it’s rigorous in the way that she’s researched it. But just as we were trying to adapt it and dramatize it, we hit on this idea that the first five episodes should be the five days. This five days concept that’s embedded in the title was something that was really interesting to us. We wanted the audience to really feel what it was like to be in that hospital, and that’s something that cinema can do better than a book. As rich and as detailed as Sheri’s book is, when you’re putting something on the screen, you can show the flooding, you can show what it’s like to be in the dark in the hospital, you can try to feel the heat with the character’s sweat, and you can show the struggles to get things done under the most adverse conditions imaginable. We wanted the viewers to experience what it was like to be these characters. These characters, under those conditions, had to make really difficult and ultimately untenable decisions. So, that was the first part.

And then, we thought it would be really cool to shift gears and have a part two with a separate director. Wendey directed those last three episodes. And the investigation introduces these two brand-new characters that can reexamine the story from the comfort of hindsight. Actually, that perspective of the comfort of hindsight was something that we talked about a lot because one of the questions that we hope viewers are going to ask themselves is, “Can we pass judgment on these characters from the comfort of hindsight? Can we really understand what they experienced?” There’s a certain lens that you look at something through, from a year out, that’s different than what those characters were experiencing and the conditions under which they had to make those decisions at the time. We hope the show is going to provoke a lot of conversation.

What are the biggest challenges in designing a disaster for a TV show, that the actors can work in? How challenging was that to figure out, and to figure out how to have the audience experience that, when you’re not outside in it the entire time?

CUSE: It was super challenging. The hardest part was just figuring out how to technically execute. How do we show New Orleans when 80% of the city was under 10 feet of water and this hospital was flooded? How do we dramatize that? We ended up building a four million gallon water tank that was big enough to crane boats into it, and drive boats up and down the street, leading in and out of the hospital. That verisimilitude really was important to the actors and made them feel like they were in it. That bridge that connects the two wings of the hospital, that’s at the end of the pilot, wasn’t really done through visual effects. That was on a gimbal, and that thing was shaking, and there were fans blowing and rain blowing. As Vera [Farmiga] is walking that nurse across that bridge, she was literally experiencing what it was like to be on that bridge that might collapse at any minute.

I think the actors appreciated the opportunity to feel immersed in the environment that shaped their decision-making. To the degree we could do that, we did that. And then, we had to do a lot of really complicated technical things to execute things like the helipad and make it feel perilous. Obviously, we couldn’t go to New Orleans and shoot in the real helipad. What’s wonderful about filmmaking is that you have these narrative challenges, when you’re working on the scripts, to try to figure out the best way to dramatize these events. And then, you get on set and, as a director, you’re like, “Okay, how do we technically accomplish this, so that it really feels authentic?”

With Locke & Key coming to an end and this being a complete story that you’ve told, what does this transition period feel like, as far as figuring out what’s next? Are you already focused on the next show? Do you know what you’re doing?

CUSE: It’s a very perceptive question. This is the first time since Bates Motel, which was in the early ‘teens where I don’t know what the next project is after this. I’ve really put my heart and soul into both shows. I’m sad Locke & Key is ending, after the third season, although I think that having a 28-episode complete story will be a good binge, and I feel like Meredith and I figured out a way to tell the story well, across 28 episodes. This show is eight episodes, and that’s what it is. Maybe the reason Scott Rudin didn’t get it made as a feature was that it didn’t really fit as a two-hour feature. That ended up being my good luck because eventually the book became available and I was able to do it as a miniseries. We’re developing a bunch of things, but what’s next? I’m not quite sure, It’ll come from that same place of just finding a story that’s just stuck in my brain, that I’ve gotta get on the screen.

Does it come from you reading something that just sticks with you, or are there things in a drawer or on a file somewhere, that you always go back to, to try to find some new way to work on whatever it is?

CUSE: I don’t have too many drawer projects. I’ve had the good fortune of getting a lot of stuff made that I really wanted to get made. I work with a woman, named Emma Foreman, and we have a bunch of projects that we’re developing, that are just stories that I’ve gotten excited about, for one reason or another. Those are percolating and hopefully, those will get made. There’s a handful of things. They’re in various stages of development and I’m excited about them, but there’s nothing ready for me to tell you about. Like anything, my decision about what to do next is really just an emotionally-driven thing. I get something caught in my head, and then it’s really about trying to get it executed at the level that someone will want to make it and convincing someone to make it. All these things require somebody to give you lots of money and their trust. That’s just the process of getting stuff made in Hollywood.

It seems like a lot of the projects you do, and even with this, are big stories told in a very small, intimate, and personal way. It feels like a lot of your stories come from a bigger idea, but there’s also a real human connection to it.

CUSE: I think that ultimately people watch television because of the characters, and every show is about a family of characters. Whether that family is a literal family, like in Locke & Keyor the kind of family that’s thrown together, of medical professionals trying to survive a crisis in Five Days at Memorial, that’s what audiences connect to. Ultimately, you have to burrow down to the staff. The intensely personal well-told is innately universal, and that’s where I always try to land as a storyteller.

Five Days at Memorial is available to stream on Apple TV+.

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