One of my favorite shows on any channel is AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire. Over the course of its first three seasons, the fictional drama has followed a dynamic group of characters as they navigate the business and creative decisions that helped mold the rise of the personal computer in the 1980s. With the series’ fourth and final season, the show has entered the 90s and confronted the reality of the World Wide Web.
While the ratings on Halt and Catch Fire have never matched the greatness of the show, creators and showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers have continued to produce an intricate and enveloping world with rich characters. Each year, the AMC series has offered consistently engaging storylines that center on men and women at the forefront of personal computing. They’ve also provided a more convincing and alluring vision of what it was like to live in the era. Indeed, alongside the perceptive writing, the show has always boasted a detailed production design and stylish direction. It’s one of those special shows that will only grow in stature over the course of time. I’m incredibly grateful AMC allowed this special series to run for four years and end on its own terms.
With the final season currently airing on Saturday nights on AMC, I was luckily able to land an exclusive interview with Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers. They talked about if they thought they’d get a fourth season at the end of season three, the amazing way they show the passage of time in the first episode of season four, how they originally pitched AMC on the series, what it’s like working with their great cast, the shows writing process, how they use time jumps to help tell the story, and so much more. If you’re a fan of this fantastic series I’m confident you’ll enjoy hearing what they have to say. If not, there’s never been a better time to start watching. Enjoy!
Collider: So first before we even get started in the interview, as a geek I just want to say I love your show. Super happy you guys got to do four seasons and thank you for giving me your time today.
CHRISTOPHER C. ROGERS: Thank you so much. Thanks for watching it.
Do you guys prefer clean-shaven Gordon, bearded Gordon, or mustache Gordon?
ROGERS: Oh, controversial out the gate!
CHRIS CANTWELL: I like that. I’m a big fan of mustache Gordon. Just because I feel like … I don’t know why. I just feel like he just had such a great angry dad look in season 3 with a mustache that I was a big fan.
ROGERS: Yeah. You know what? I would say mustache was the forbidden fruit of Gordon facial hair, too. Because we got him right off of Argo, and it was important to the actor to not look like that guy. It’s what we wanted all along, and the fact that we finally got him there, I think meant a lot to us.
When you guys were making Halt season three, did you guys feel like this is it, or that you actually had a chance for a fourth season?
CANTWELL: I would say, that I think we felt good about it, but I think we’ve always written every season just trying to keep it all on the table because we just never knew. We could never count on things continuing because the TV landscape is so much in flux, and we just kind of had to complete our story as much as we could, but then also leave things open in an interesting way in case we came back. I think we felt good after season three just because people were really starting to like the show, the network had been so supportive. We were hopeful, but by no means were we completely assured.
Is this finally the time that you can reveal that you had incriminating stuff on all the AMC executives, and that’s how you were able to make the four seasons?
ROGERS: Sadly no. It’s like a mutual blackmail thing, so we’re just gonna have to carry some of this to our grave.
Being serious. Does the show air around the world and did that factor into the show being able to get four seasons?
ROGERS: Yeah. I do think that was a huge piece of it. TV now is obviously pre-sold in a lot of different territories. I think AMC has been a very smart network about getting those properties figured out ahead of time, different distribution. I think the other day Chris Cantwell and I recorded a bunch of those little tags where we were like, “hello Turkey. You’re watching Halt and Catch Fire.” I think the kind of global presence of the show and the way it was distributed was a big part of what allowed Halt and Catch Fire to stay on, and AMC to their credit saw a way to keep a thing on the air that wasn’t necessarily getting traditional ratings in the US. We appreciate that because that led to us getting to tell the rest of this story.
When did AMC tell you guys you’re gonna do a fourth season, and you’d be able to get 10 episodes? Because obviously they could have come back and said, hey we’re cool with you wrapping it up, but you’re gonna do it in five?
CANTWELL: That never entered our minds, but you’re absolutely right that that could have happened. They’re the network, so they could have come back and said, hey we’re gonna do two 15 minute webisodes that conclude the series, and we would have been, cool. I mean I think that it was nice to get our normal order of ten. Then also know that that was how we would be able to end it. It was a really good call from the AMC team and we got that late last summer. We were very thankful for them that we could get a full ten, a full order for us.
I’ve spoken to a lot of showrunners, and they talk about how when the season ends the network debates if they wanna bring it back. If they’re debating if they wanna bring it back, the showrunners go in and lay our their arc for the upcoming season/seasons. Did AMC have you do that after each season, come in and sort of lay out where you envisioned the show going? Did you have to do that after season three?
ROGERS: No. After the first couple seasons we did. There would be a meeting where we’d come in. It wasn’t necessarily like a pitch out per se, but I think we would talk about what we though we might get into, some things we were excited about, we’d lay out some big ideas. It was always a little bit more of a conversation. To AMC’s credit, I think they always really liked the show, so it was a thing they wanted to keep on and find a way to keep supporting.
That was much more a part of the process in the early days. Going into season four, I think knowing we were gonna write the show to conclusion, they didn’t necessarily ask us to reveal the creative choices we were gonna make ahead of time. At a certain point once we got the writers room up for a while, we’d always bring the network in to do a big pitch out of things as what we think the season will be, and at the time where they can give us input of if they think we’re headed in the wrong direction. They’ve had a lot of faith in us and really let us finish the story the way we wanted to.
How does the writing over the course of the seasons get impacted by what sets you have access to, what you’ve already built, and how much of it is, we’re gonna write what we’re gonna write, and then we’re gonna figure it out?
CANTWELL: Chris and I always have a discussion at the top of the season in terms of what sets we wanna keep, what sets we wanna lose. We did something kind of crazy at the end of season one by striking all of our set except for the Clark house. That became our signature to reinvent the show visually and physically every season. We knew that we would wanna do something like that every season. Obviously we let the story dictate the form, but at the same time we didn’t feel constrained like we needed to be having the same scenes between the same people and the same costumes. The same physical sets five seasons in. It just felt a little constraining.
Especially a story about technology, where everyone is constantly reinventing and innovating, it was something we wanted to do with the production design in the sets and in the show. For us, Mutiny was a big staple. It was, what incarnation is it going to be of Mutiny? In season three we got the wonderful warehouse space, and that’s a huge set. We loved it so much that we ended up keeping it around in season four, but its use and purpose is completely reinvented yet again. It’s always taking what we have and seeing how we can turn it on its head and change it, change its purpose, change its dynamics, change its relationship to the characters.
When you guys went in to AMC originally to pitch the show. Did they ask you for an arc of, hey do you guys envision three, four, five, seasons? What was your original idea when you sat down and said the arc of ultimately how many seasons you thought the show could go for?
ROGERS: Oh man. I mean when you sell a pilot. When we optioned it, it was kind of our first ever sale in this medium. You think you know and you promise the world, and they ask you, do you see this going six seasons? You say, of course. You’ve got all these big ideas for those, but man we couldn’t have known less at that time I think. Just because of naiveté more than we were misleading the network. That said, I think we generated a bible at that time. I think we pitched out some ideas for where it might go. Some of which survived all the way to the very end. Some of those things made it through, but other of those things are just like funny inside jokes for Chris and I now. To be like, “what about this?”
I think the beauty of the show is that it’s been allowed to kind of become something else along the way. I think we had a vision that was maybe the charm of something that kicked off this great process, which involved a lot of other writers and another showrunner for a while, and the actors and a lot of people who get input on it. Thank god it became more than what we thought it might be on that first day we pitched it to AMC. I think that made it a much more rich kind of tapestry.
Jumping into season four. I absolutely love the beginning of episode one, the way you guys do the passage of time. Talk about who came up with the way to do that and how you guys filmed it? Because I would imagine that was not easy to do.
CANTWELL: I would say that the concept of that I think originated with Chris and I … we always get together before every season begins in earnest and talk about high level what we wanna cover and where we wanna cover it in terms of time. Story time and also historical time. As Chris and I dug into the research for season four, we were realizing that after the world wide web was initially built and launched in December 1990, early ‘91, things really grew slowly and quietly for about three years, and there wasn’t a lot of major business investments and huge development in the web.