Kornhaber: Obviously the characters have some very allusive names—how much thought went into names like Abel and Homer?
Marling: Oh, interesting. Zal is particularly brilliant at coming up with names and titles. The OA as a title is from his mind. Sometimes [characters] have names right away that just appear. I remember when we were first talking, he was telling me this idea of a parent-teacher conference. And [the teacher’s] name just appeared: Betty Broderick-Allen. And then other times things don’t appear. Like Stephen Winchell had maybe four or five different names before we landed on that particular one.
I think Nina Azarov was slightly inspired by [Anton Chekov’s] The Seagull. Homer came of course because of the idea of the Odyssey. I guess it’s just part of the weird unconscious well—stuff just comes out.
Kornhaber: Were you looking to any particular spiritual traditions about the afterlife, reincarnation, or resurrection?
Marling: I don’t think we looked at anything specifically. One of the interesting things about Georgetown, where Zal and I went to school, is that one of their requirement classes is called “The Problem of God.” It’s a very broad overview of all the religious texts—the Bible, the Koran, Buddhist principles. I think that’s a beautiful requirement because I’m not sure that theology would have necessarily been something I gravitated towards—I was an economics major. Reading all those texts, it’s certainly there in the background.
In terms of this particular story, we tried to use what we’d read about all the different case studies about near-death experiences. You know: What is always described as a light at the end of the tunnel, or a sudden openness into a new expansive space and a different landscape. We picked those things and then gave ourselves the freedom to play inside of them.
So for Homer, for instance, the classic light at the end of the tunnel becomes, oddly, the space above what seems like an office. Or like Khatun’s space was a product of Alex DiGerlando, who’s the production designer, riffing about what that space could be like. It was Alex’s idea that it could start out in this open tundra, then there could be this little ice-fishing hut, but then when you went into that space it became infinity. That kind of playing with the laws of physics hopefully gives you the sense of wonderment that is the truth of that experience.
Kornhaber: You mentioned that NDE research is based on storytelling; that’s because in real life you can’t run experiments like Hap does in the show. How did you conceptualize his research?
Marling: A lot of that was inspired by an article in Harper’s called “The Quietest Place in the Universe,” which is about an astrophysicist who is looking to understand dark matter and decided that the best place to do that is deep beneath the earth where it’s most quiet. It’s an interesting flip of astrophysics, because normally we think about that as trying to put the biggest telescope on top of the highest mountain and capture the light of the night’s sky. Here’s this guy deep down in an abandoned mine in South Dakota basically listening for vibrations, trying to record and measure neutrinos.