Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to showrunner Rebecca Cutter of STARZ’s Hightown, your new summer TV obsession.
Because of COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders and social distancing, many people around the world won’t be going on vacation anytime soon. STARZ’s Hightown serves as a reminder that vacation spots are not always what they seem. There’s rampant addiction problems, hangovers spent in prison cells, and bodies washing up on the shore.
Hightown stars Monica Raymund as Jackie Quiñones, a coke-addicted, womanizing fishery service agent who stumbles upon a murder in the form of a woman’s body on the beach. Can she stay sober enough to solve the case? The show also stars James Badge Dale, as detective agent Ray Abruzzo, who’s also trying to find the killer.
I interviewed showrunner Rebecca Cutter about the spark behind this project, why she wanted to create the female Don Draper, and how she hopes Cape Cod recovers in the wake of COVID-19.
AD: Your last big TV project was FOX’s Gotham. How did Hightown come about?
Rebecca Cutter: Well, it was my baby. (Laughs) Honestly, I started to think, I need a sample for my next job. I’d never really written a pilot. And I wanted to write something for myself that I thought was unique, my voice. And I really didn’t think it would ever get on the air. It was really just for myself to have a sample. But then when I gave it to my agents, they were like, “Oh, I think we can sell this!” So it ended up going that way, but really, I just wanted to do something that was very uniquely me and show what I could do.
AD: That’s great. I was wondering the backstory about this show. How did you come up with this? Why set it in Cape Cod? Where was the spark that started the idea?
RC: I would say lots of different areas of my life are in there. I grew up going to Provincetown in the summers. And then I ended up marrying a man from Brewster, which is a town in the Cape, and that was the first time that I started going to Cape Cod in the winters and really seeing that there’s a dichotomy there. In the summer, there’s an extra 100,000 people, the restaurants are packed, there’s tourism and money coming in, wealthy tourists, and it’s fun. And then in the winter, all the people go away, the jobs go away, there’s a lot of unemployment, a lot of alcoholism. It’s sort of always been like that, but I started seeing it that way and realized that it had a real dichotomy to it. And then having family there, I started hearing about the opioid epidemic. I’m sure it wasn’t happening there any earlier than it was happening anywhere else, but that was really where I started to hear about it, the idea that people from my husband’s high school were dying. I was hearing about the culture changing, and I’m sure it was happening in many towns across America.
The spark for this script was that I had an image of the character of Jackie Quiñones, and I just knew that that would be a character we hadn’t seen before. I loved the idea of this woman, running around P-Town, kind of the mayor of P-Town in her mind. My father-in-law was a fishery service agent in Cape Cod, so I knew that world. There’s something about her as Don Draper as a woman that was cool.
AD: I love that! Yes, Jackie Quiñones is so interesting. We’ve seen this character before, a gristly cop with demons, and yet we haven’t. What did you do to make this project feel a bit fresher than other cop dramas? Was that something you were cognizant of?
RC: I try when I’m writing just to make an honest character, and I don’t try to think about other shows. She’s this very unapologetically sexual woman who doesn’t give a shit about being attractive to men. There’s something very freeing about that. Even a character on TV that’s not supposed to be trying to be attractive to men, the way casting works and the way our town works, it becomes an element of it. Will she/won’t she? With Jackie, there’s never any worry about that. And also because she’s terrified of intimacy, her closest relationships end up being with straight men. At least in Season 1. I think that’s a really interesting dynamic that we don’t see on TV much.
AD: You also do a great job with the sex scenes. They don’t feel sensationalized like some lesbian love scenes do.
RC: We tried very hard to be very intentional about the sex scenes. Rachel Morrison and Monica did a lot of talking about what they were portraying.
AD: Speaking of which, Academy Award nominee Rachel Morrison directs two episodes. How did her eye for cinematography help with showing Cape Cod in a less than touristy way?
RC: Luckily we grew up in the same town in Massachusetts and went to Cape Cod in the summers, so we both understood what we were going for. She was attracted to that idea of the dark and the light, high tide/low tide, the dichotomy. She really brought an amazing eye and really pressed us to make sure we were always reminding the audience that we were in this specific physical location. There’s water everywhere and we’re always surrounded. She really pressed us to have that.
We also had a very similar tonal vision. We didn’t want to be [voice becomes softer and dramatic] this precious, slow, plotting cable drama, that I think is the style now, everything bleached out and green. We both instinctively were like, let’s make it fast and funny and sexy and colorful and rich. Have the black colors be really black and reds be really red.
AD: This is sort of random, but I love the theme song. It’s “Vacation” by The Go-Go’s, only it’s the original Kathy Valentine/Textones stripped-down version. How did you choose it?
RC: It was really a long, long, long process. (Laughs) We went through a lot making those main titles. And we tried a lot of different songs. And it turns out that everybody has a very different opinion about what is the correct sound. Ultimately, we always felt that it had to be a song that spoke in some way to the idea of escape and vacation and going somewhere to get out of yourself. That’s what Cape Cod offers. That’s what’s iconic about Cape Cod. You go somewhere for the summer and then you come back. This is the story of the people who don’t get to come back. We did a lot of searches for songs about sunshine, beach, going somewhere, vacation, travel. We spent hours and then we tried different things to match them up. We had been playing with The Go-Go’s version of the song, which was a little too poppy, but then somebody found that original version, and we were like, “Oh, yeah!”
AD: I kept thinking, “This sounds familiar. How do I know this song?”
RC: It takes a minute. I didn’t want it to be too recognizable. But I love that it’s this huge pop song, but one off from it.
AD: Which goes with the tone of the show. Although people probably won’t be going on vacation much this summer. Do you hope that maybe shows like yours remind people that vacation spots are not always what they seem?
RC: I really feel for Cape Cod and tourism. It’s going to be a blow for them. I hope this show introduces people to the idea of Cape Cod and makes them want to go there again when this is over. Meanwhile, I hope that people who are stuck at home can at least experience some sense of escape or see something new. Hopefully that will distract us for a little while and provide some comfort.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.