“Surviving high school is like surviving the apocalypse,” Aron Eli Coleite, the co-creator and executive producer of Daybreak, says over the phone from his Los Angeles home. Sometimes high school does feel like the end of the world. It’s essentially the elevator pitch for the new Netflix series, which follows a group of teens in a post-apocalyptic Glendale, California. After a nuclear holocaust wipes out mostly everyone over the age of 18 — and the adults who survived are turned into bumbling zombies — it’s up to a group of high school students to carry on civilization. Of course, this is all just one elaborate, blood-soaked metaphor for a harsh truth: Adults have broken society, and now it’s up to the young people to fix it.
And in order to do that, they have to work together. But that’s a whole lot easier said than done, especially when you’re on the run from the juiced-up jocks who have seen Mad Max one too many times. (Because even after the end of the world, lunch room politics still apply.)
At the center of Daybreak are three teens who find one another at the right time: Josh, your relatively average, somewhat charming white man on a quest to find his missing girlfriend; Angelica, the smart-mouthed young girl who also happens to be a certifiable genius; and Wesley, a reformed bully who abandons the jocks to become a pacifist samurai. While Daybreak appears to be Josh’s story at the beginning, it actually smartly subverts the Chosen One trope for something much deeper and more compelling.
MTV News chatted with Coleite about the narrative twists of the show, why teens are going to save us all, and that incredible Japanese cover of a Backstreet Boys classic.
MTV News: You start with Josh’s POV, but as the season progresses we get inside the heads of a lot of different characters. Who is the hero of this story?
Aron Eli Coleite: I really believe we’re all the hero of our own story. And so from everybody’s different point of view, they’re all the hero of this show. They’re all central to it, they’re all the hero. We started with Josh partially because that’s how the book starts. The book is really from this typical white guy narrator perspective, and we embrace that. We were like, “Let’s use that and then let’s start to flip it on its head.” Because the other characters are just as interesting if not more interesting to me then Josh is, and Josh is this Trojan horse for us. He’s this typical, white, young kid pining for the girl, and it was a way of always averting expectations.
MTV News: When he cuts off his own finger… that’s how I knew he wasn’t the hero of this story.
Coleite: It’s not that I like punishing Josh, but he has so much to learn. He thinks he is the hero of his own movie, but he stabs his sword through that Ghoulie and lets it run away with his sword. In his mind, he’s this swash-buckling, amazing warrior. But in reality, not so much. He’s in the process of learning and he has so much to go through.
MTV News: Is there a character that you identify with the most, or do you think they’re all kind of injected with a part of you?
Coleite: They’re all injected with a part of me. But I think I gravitate a little bit more to Wesley than anybody else. There’s just a nerdy, kung fu samurai LA film nerd in Wesley. That was just an opportunity for me to talk about Ninja III: The Domination. And he gets to be everything that Josh is not, but he’s also just on a very, very interesting journey. But there are parts of Turbo that are me, there’s parts of Angelica that are me. We also have an incredibly diverse and amazing writing staff. And we wrote things all together. I give them full credit for really embracing the story.
MTV News: So it was a really collaborative writers’ room?
Coleite: We write things all together. It’s a really big, collaborative community and our staff has an incredibly diverse and very strong POV. I know what my limits are as a showrunner. I’m very good at writing the “cis white male from Encino,” Jewish point of view. I’m pretty good at that. But telling a young girl’s coming-of-age story, telling Wesley’s coming-of-age story as a young Black gay man. I rely on the stories of all the writers to give this true authenticity.
MTV News: I really loved Wesley’s episode. Episode 5. That Backstreet Boys cover at the end was perfect.
Coleite: We made it for the show. The fight [sequence] wasn’t coming together as well as we had hoped. And I was like, “OK. I know what we’re going to do. We’re going to black and white, and we’re going to do an awesome Japanese cover.” We looked through a bunch of songs and when we landed the Backstreet boys song [“I Want It That Way”], I knew it was going to be amazing. So we had it specially recorded because it was just so perfect for that moment between Turbo and Wesley. It brings a deep joy that we were actually able to pull it off.
MTV News: What was it about Brian Ralph’s Daybreak graphic novel that pulled you in?
Aron Coleite: Brad [Peyton, co-creator] had initially written a feature version of Brian’s graphic novel, which was my first introduction to Brad. I just read the script. Now, I’m a fan of zombie horror. And zombie comedy and horror comedy. But what I saw in it was, here’s a kid who looked at the end of the world as the best thing that ever happened to him. And that was the key to creating the series. Because that’s how I felt in high school, and I feel like a lot of people feel like that in high school. Man, if the world ended, it would be great. I don’t have to go to high school anymore, and I have an opportunity to reinvent myself and be anyone I want to be.
There was a movie that I watched a lot in the ’80s called Night of the Comet, which was a funky horror film and lot of wish fulfillment. Halley’s comet basically passes over and wipes out all the adults, and the kids have a blast because they can have any car they want, they can dress how they want, there’s no rules. I remember loving that movie. This felt like an opportunity to combine this coming-of-age story with a post-apocalyptic landscape. It had more in common with Mad Max than it did with Walking Dead in terms of creating tribes and who you fit in with and where do you belong and how do you fight for survival.
Surviving high school is like surviving the apocalypse. It is the best time of your life and it’s the worst time of your life all combined together. And how we survive the apocalypse is the same way that we survive high school, which is with our group of friends. I have teenage girls, and I delude myself into believing I’m one of the most important things in their life. And that is utterly not true. I know it’s not true because I remember being in high school and feeling like my parents are idiots and it’s my friends who are the most important people in my life. They’re the people who really help you every day get through the struggles of growing up.
MTV News: At the end of Angelica’s episode there’s this really great scene where The Witch essentially tells her to “be the monster.” Embrace the things that make you different. All of these characters are outsiders in that way, and they all feel different.
Coleite: I feel like even people who we perceive to be on the inside also feel like they are on the outside. I know I was an outsider. This show is a lot of me and the whole writing staff and even everybody in production kind of dealing with our high school trauma. We all feel like outsiders. And high school continues for us even as we grow into adults. We never really get over the fact of, man, it’d be cool to be on the inside. We just want to be cool, and we all feel like we are outsiders and still no one understands us and we’re looking for our communities. But one of the best things about right now is it’s so okay to be an outsider because you can find your communities in so many different places. There’s so many different wonderful niche communities of people where you can really find where you belong. As crazy as everything is getting, there is a level of empowerment that I haven’t seen in a long time.
MTV News: That goes back to every character feeling like the hero of this story. The teens are the heroes; the adults are the monsters.
Coleite: It’s not an accident that the adults are Ghoulies and that the adults say the last stupid thing on their mind. Because I think that’s what adults do. That’s why we ruined everything. I think that there are some very good adults, but I feel like in general we think the stupidest thoughts. And not to be overly optimistic about it, but it’s on this generation to fix it. And I think they can. It’s hopefully [this show] sends a positive message that this group of kids can do it better than we did it.
MTV News: As someone who grew up watching a lot of film and television, it must’ve been quite a dream come true to have Matthew Broderick cast as the principal of this high school.
Coleite: It was unbelievable. I mean we wrote it for him, and I’ve been doing this long enough to know you’ll never get your first choice. It doesn’t happen. And we were told he doesn’t do television, that it was too referential to Ferris Bueller, which is not necessarily his favorite thing. But because the role was so different is why he engaged with it. I think he really enjoyed the idea of getting to play against type and being able to play the bad guy. And he really responded to being able to really do something that would speak to a different generation. He was game for anything. He was a little concerned with the language [laughs]. One sticking point he had was, “You talk about female anatomy really disgustingly in the show.” And, I was like, “If we talk about male anatomy equally as disgustingly, would that be OK with you?” And he’s like, “Yeah, that’s fine, as long as there’s equal representation.” And that’s what we did.