The ABC Family sci-fi procedural drama Stitchers follows a young woman named Kirsten (Emma Ishta), who is recruited into a covert government agency to be “stitched” into the minds of the recently deceased, using their memories to investigate murders and decipher mysteries that will help solve crimes. Making up the rest of the team, headed by skilled covert operations veteran Maggie (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), is Cameron (Kyle Harris), a brilliant neuro-scientist, a socially immature bio-electrical engineer and communications technician named Linus (Ritesh Rajan) and Kirsten’s roommate, Camille (Allison Scagliotti), a gifted computer science grad student.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, showrunner Jeffrey Alan Schechter talked about how the series evolved, what made ABC Family a good fit, exactly what “stitching” is, the process for deciding Kirsten’s medical condition, designing the look of the memories, putting together this team of actors, coming up with relatable cases, the skin-tight catsuit, fun guest stars, providing answers and new questions by the end of the season, and just how much they’ve plotted ahead.
Collider: How did Stitchers come about? Was there a seed of an idea that it all evolved from, or was there something specific you were looking to explore?
JEFFREY ALAN SCHECHTER: That’s a good question. A number of years ago, I was working on an idea. I was doing a lot of teen and tween shows, at that time, so I had my head in that world. Somebody brought me an idea about middle school kids going into a virtual reality world to solve crimes. They were computer nerd teenagers. It played into a lot of that nerdy stuff that I like, with computers and crime-solving, and stuff like that, but I felt like I’d seen that show before. So, I kept developing it. I wanted to age it up, get it out of the teen world and into the younger adult world of people in their 20s, and get it out of the virtual reality world. I was looking for the next cool thing, and then somebody said, “Well, hacking into the memories of the dead would be cool.” And I was like, “You know what? That would be cool!” So, it went from this solving crimes before dinnertime world into the world of computer geniuses in graduate school hacking into the memories of the dead to solve crimes. It was a very natural evolution on an idea. It started off as a cousin to what we have now.
This show is a bit outside of what ABC Family has become known for. What made the network a good fit?
SCHECHTER: Not to speak for the network, but our marching orders have always been that ABC Family has an incredibly loyal fan base, and as their fan base gets older, outside of the high school years, they wanted to have a show that will age with them. They wanted a show for the older version of their fans, so our mission was to create a show that felt like it could be an ABC Family show. So, it has the banter, it has the relationships, and it has the mythology of a show like Pretty Little Liars, but it’s aged up a little bit. We have adults that are done with school and in that next phase of their life, and Stitchers puts that next phase of their life in this really exciting, intriguing context.
What exactly is “stitching,” and what makes Kirsten the ideal candidate for the Stitchers program?
SCHECHTER: We wanted to create a program that felt like, in and of itself, it was really compelling. It’s a program that anybody could join, but if you become accepted as a “stitcher,” your consciousness is put into the memories of the dead and you get to solve crimes. It’s giving voice to the victims and the dead of the world, and helping correct injustices for people who died tragically or too young. So, it has got this noble purpose, but then we also find out that being a stitcher creates a whole bunch of challenges for people, emotionally. I have a hard time dealing with my own emotional memories. I can’t imagine if I had mine and the emotional memories of everybody I got stitched into. It would take a very special kind of person to have that ability. So, the Stitchers program has been tracking Kirsten Clark for all these years because she has this condition that leaves her not as emotionally affected as other people. That makes her the perfect stitcher because she can move through these worlds of other people’s memories and not be overwhelmed by them. And then, playing into that deeper mythology, there’s a reason why she’s like that. That leads to the bigger story of how she became the way she is and whether that ties into the history of the Stitchers program. We try to have a bunch of different layers.
Was there a process for deciding on this particular medical condition for Kirsten?
SCHECHTER: I knew I wanted an interesting character, and I wanted a reason why she was good at what she does. It couldn’t be that she was just a girl off the street with computer abilities. There’s a reason for it. So, we were looking at how you go through somebody’s memories and not be affected by it. She’s emotionally a little bit removed. We didn’t want her to be nasty. We didn’t want her to just be a not nice person. So, she had this undeserved misfortunate from her past that left her like this, but enabled her to take on this noble role in her life and do really well. I looked through the catalog of conditions out there that would leave somebody a little bit emotionally reserved. I didn’t want to pin it to an actual condition because that seemed unfair to people who might actually have it. I didn’t want to use a real-life condition that people struggle with for my dramatic gains. So, we said, “What’s something that we could use?” And I came up with this idea of temporal dysplasia that leaves you unaffected by the passage of time. That’s where our emotional energy comes from. You can be really sad that somebody has left because you remember the time before they left and after they left, and time creates that emotional power. So, somebody outside of being affected by time means that their emotions are not as affected. It was an intriguing thing to give her that was based a little bit in the real world, but not so much. And then, we had to figure out how she got that condition, which played in to our bigger story.
Was there also a process for figuring out how it would look when Kirsten was stitched into people’s memories?
SCHECHTER: Yeah. We wanted to have as much fun as possible with the look of the memories. In one episode, she went into the memory of a girl who OD’ed at a rave, so those memories are really distorted by the drugs she took. And then, she goes into the memory of somebody who was running a very high fever, so the memories have a feverish feel to them. When she goes into the memories of a psychic who died, it turns out that the memories aren’t even memories, but they’re premonitions.
How did you put together this team of characters and actors? Did you know exactly the type of people you were looking for, or were you open to seeing how everyone fit with each other?
SCHECHTER: The process always works best when you have a sense of who you want because it makes sense on the page, and then, as people come in and they bring their own abilities and their own special take, you go, “That’s cool. I didn’t know that about that character. I didn’t know that character had a wry sense of humor. I didn’t know that character had this emotional baggage that’s coming through in the performance.” It’s always best to have a sense of what you’re looking for, but be prepared for what you didn’t see coming. We were very open to that, and everybody in the cast brought special quirks to their characters that really played well together.
How challenging was it to find the right actress for Kirsten, who could be compelling, likeable and sympathetic, even though she’s playing a character who is a bit emotionally closed off?
SCHECHTER: If there was anything that was keeping us up at night, it was, “Will we ever find somebody who could portray this damaged quality that’s vulnerable yet fun, and is emotionally reserved, but can also grow. We spent a lot of time going, “Oh, my gosh, if we don’t find this person, we’re really in trouble.” Incredibly, the first go-around of auditions, this tape came in on the first day and we were like, “Wow, that’s a pretty good benchmark.” [Emma Ishta] had it, from day one. Kyle [Harris] was also in that first batch, and I was like, “Well, I think that’s our Cameron.” That’s always a big relief. We went through hundreds of people, but Emma was it, and Kyle was it. We turned over every rock we could find, but these guys were the benchmarks, from day one.
Were you aware of the sci-fi credibility that having Allison Scagliotti and Salli Richardson-Whitfield would bring to the show?
SCHECHTER: No, that was a nice bonus. I loved Salli in Eureka and I Am Legend. I’m such a nerd fanboy that I got all excited that she was coming in. And Allison is just amazing. People love her from her Warehouse 13 days.
How challenging is it to come up with cases for this team, that are interesting cases, but that also really show character growth in them, in some way?
SCHECHTER: We want our cases to feel relatable to the audience. There’s a bit of a challenge there, in making sure that our audience can find relevance in and relate to. The cases also have to somehow show our characters something about themselves. They also have to play into the bigger mythology. One of the characters told Kirsten, “Look, you think you’re just solving crimes, but these cases are test runs for something bigger.” Out of all the murders that happen, why does this team get a particular one? There is this bigger puzzle out there, as far as where these cases come from, why they’re chosen, and whether they’re supposed to teach our team a set of skills they didn’t have before and didn’t know they needed. There’s a much deeper, bigger mystery, and people who stick with the show will feel very rewarded for it, as we pull the curtain back, more and more.\
How did the conversation go when you told your lead actress that she would have to wear a skin-tight catsuit and get into a water tank, where she’d have to stay much of the day?
SCHECHTER: Emma was great. For the original pilot that we shot, the initial concept was that she was supposed to be naked in the tank, and that created its own production problems. We’d be forever shooting around it because you could never really show her in it. Eventually, we settled on the catsuit. But Emma is a model, so she’s very comfortable with her body and her body image, and being around people. It was never really an issue for her. She wasn’t too concerned about it. It was just an issue for us, from a production standpoint. There was also concern about making it a little bit more tame. There’s a funny inside line in Episode 1 where Kirsten comes out and says, “I’m supposed to be dressed like this?,” and Linus says, “Well, originally, you were supposed to be naked, but there was some push-back.” That was a very inside line for all of us, with the initial concept.
What was it like to get folks like Oded Fehr, C. Thomas Howell and Henry Rollins for guest appearances?
SCHECHTER: Oh, it’s amazing! I’m the biggest nerd fanboy in the entire world, so I was like, “We got C. Thomas Howell?! Great! And Henry Rollins?! Awesome!” Each one of them brings something special, and a heightened awareness to playing these characters. It’s a real get, to get people like that. They show up and they buy into the fun and the mythology of what we’re doing, and they put their own unique spin on the universe that we’re creating. It’s fun to have that creative contribution from them, playing into what we’re doing already.
From the beginning, you’ve really established that Kirsten doesn’t know much about her family or where she comes from, and she even loses a chance to get some answers. Will we have answers about her family, by the end of the season, or is that something you’ll keep the door open on, throughout the series?
SCHECHTER: By the end of Episode 10, we’ll have the answers viewers have been waiting for, but we’ll also have a lot more questions come up. Episode 10 is a roller coaster ride, both emotionally and in terms of action and story. We definitely give a lot of answers in Episode 10, and set the stage for the next batch of episodes.
How far ahead have you plotted out this show?
SCHECHTER: We have, to varying degrees, broad notions and some micro-notions planned out. We know there are certain things we have to do, and then there are the things we want to do, and then there are the things we’re set up to do. I don’t want to make it seem like there’s a secret chart somewhere with the entire progression to every story. We want to be free to explore and understand this world we’re in. But we know where we’re going to end up, ultimately, after however many seasons we’re fortunate enough to engage our audience with. We know where we want to get to, but we want to have as much time on the journey as possible, so we’re leaving ourselves open to all of the twists and turns that we may not have anticipated.
Stitchers airs on Tuesday nights on ABC Family.