‘American Gothic’ Showrunner on Why the Set Is Like a ‘Massive Game of Clue’

“The fun of shooting is that they can all kind of look at each other with suspicion,” Corinne Brinkerhoff tells TheWrap about keeping the mystery going even for the cast

Coming off of light-hearted dramedy “Jane The Virgin,” CBS’ serial killer drama “American Gothic” seemed like a swerve for writer/producer Corinne Brinkerhoff, but the first-time showrunner tells TheWrap that the two have more in common than you might think.

“Believe it or not there’s actually quite a bit of comedy in ‘American Gothic,'” she said. “I know it sounds illogical, but I think one of the ways people deal with traumatic situations is with gallows humor. It’s certainly what I do, and I love that.”

The CBS summer series is about a prominent Boston family that discovers its newly deceased patriarch (Jamey Sheridan) may have been a notorious serial killer, and that his widow (Virginia Madsen) or one of his four adult children may have been his longtime accomplice.

Below, Brinkerhoff describes her first outing as a showrunner, how she ended up being an executive producer on two shows at once, and how the mystery of “American Gothic” remains elusive, even for the cast.

TheWrap: This is your first time as a showrunner, what’s that been like?
Corinne Brinkerhoff: It’s a whole new ball game. It’s wonderful. It’s a steep learning curve but I feel confident I’ll do it much better next time! [laughs] It’s been fantastic. I’m surrounded by fantastic writers and cast and crew.

You’re also an executive producer on The CW’s “No Tomorrow.” How does that work, are you in both rooms at the same time?
No, I wish! Not yet. That writers’ room started last week and I was in Toronto to be on set for an episode of “American Gothic.” So they’re focused on that, and I try to catch up whenever I can. And when we wrap here, I’ll go over and see what I can do over there. Both machines have to be going simultaneously.

Both of these shows happened at the same time. Was that always the plan or was there a moment where you realized it was all happening at once?
No, it was definitely a happy accident. I was working on “Jane The Virgin” and I did “American Gothic,” I wrote the script back in January of 2015 and it seemed like it had a shot of getting picked up, but then we realized it would be a great fit for summer, since it’s an atypical show for CBS. Thankfully they were interested in doing something a little different. Meanwhile, I was still on “Jane” and was told to sit tight, so I sat tight and after six or seven months, and I thought, maybe we should have heard back by now. At that point, it was a new development cycle, so I met with Ben Silverman, who is one of the EPs on “Jane” and he had this really great format from Brazil. It was a comedy and the tone I really responded to … and that became “No Tomorrow.” So we pitched that to The CW and sold it on a Monday, and then that Friday got the call from CBS that they were going with “American Gothic” so it was just a very bizarre week. I still wanted to write the pilot [for “No Tomorrow”] but we had to get a room up and running for “American Gothic,” so I brought in co-writers — this comedy writing team — for “No Tomorrow” and we knocked it out in a week. It was a whirlwind, it was fantastic.

So after the light-heartedness of “Jane” and “No Tomorrow,” where did “American Gothic” come from?
I love comedy and character-driven light-heartedness, but believe it or not there’s actually quite a bit of comedy in “American Gothic.” I know it sounds illogical, but I think one of the ways people deal with traumatic situations is with gallows humor. It’s certainly what I do, and I love that. I’m interested in the different ways humans can deal with stress. For me, it’s almost always humor. So that is a big factor in the show. I never wanted it to be relentlessly grim and dark. I researched several cases of people who found out their family members — who appeared to be fully functional, normal people — turned out to secretly be serial killers. I was so much more interested in the psychological ramifications on the families and how you square who you thought they were and you they may actually be, and what would it take for you to believe that this family member would be capable of such heinous crimes? There were just all these different questions around it that were really interesting to me that I wanted to dive into. So it really became this character-based whodunit that we could have a really great time with.

When did you figure out who the killer was?
I had a plan when I pitched the show, and it stayed pretty close to that. But when we sat down in the writers’ room, we made a master plan of what would happen over the course of the first season. So we would be able to build towards the final answer and put in little hints and teases along the way.

How many of the actors know who it is?
Zero.

What sort of direction do they get to play certain scenes if they don’t know whether they’re guilty or not?
I have to sometimes slip certain information to certain actors if we thought it was necessary to play a certain scene. So some people have pieces of key information, but only where it’s necessary for them to make a choice as an actor. It’s a twisty tale, so there’s no simple answer, and that gives us a lot of leeway in terms of who knows what or remembers what, or contributed to what. So there’s no reason why one person needs to have the entire story. But I’m saying too much. The fun of shooting is that they can all kind of look at each other with suspicion and we get to play our massive game of Clue on set every day.

The show has been advertised as a “13-part murder mystery” so are we promised there will be resolution to this at the end of Season 1?
There will be resolution, yes. You’ll get all the answers. That was something we made sure of early on, this is kind of like your summer novel, in TV form. So you get an answer.  I wanted there to be one satisfying story, and then figure out how to pivot to Season 2. That’s the fun part.

Do you know what Season 2 is? Is it a whole new family?
Yeah, when I pitched it, it was that the first five or six seasons would be the same general idea, but each season would be a different family, different setting, different mystery. So it will explore similar themes and be very character-based. That’s the creative ideal for all of us … the same universe, same playground, but to completely reinvent the family and the story, which we can do over and over again.

“American Gothic” premieres Wednesday, June 22 at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.