‘Halt and Catch Fire’ Creators Talk Final Season and How the Series Came Together
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.
At first we were scratching our heads going, “god we just spent four years getting to the web. How are we going to move the characters forward in time enough where things can actually be happening in their professional lives with the web.” And we came up with this idea. It just … being the lonely lighthouse on the world wide web for a few years and isolating him in that way, and that was really interesting to us from a character perspective. Then we also … We have a character in Gordon Clark who, he has a neurological condition stemming back several years, and we’ve actually seen him in the series lose sense of time at periods of stress.
We thought if we could see story and character development through Gordon’s eyes, and establish Joe going it alone and carrying the solo torch on the web, it would be a really fun visual device. When we scripted it that’s how we approached it. Then when Juan Campanella came in, who was the same director who did our pilot and is extremely essential in terms of how Halt looks and feels in the series, he was the one who came up with this idea of doing it as a kind of stitched-together one-er. He did the actual one-er in season two’s opener, moving through Mutiny. This was his attempt at doing a one-er that actually moves through three years of time in Gordon’s life.
Obviously we used visual effects in there, but I think it’s really fun and a really fun way into the story that gets us to where we need to be in order to engage the plot.
How long did it take to film that sequence?
ROGERS: I think it was the better part of two days. The trick with a one-er like that is just a lot of planning. You have to really precisely map things you’re doing, especially because we’re changing a set over, we’re making it from Mutiny into CalNet, Gordon’s company. We’re changing hairstyles and wardrobes. I think there was one day where Lee Pace had to put on like six different outfits for that one. It’s just a lot of keeping track of what year it’s supposed to be, what would be different in this year, and making sure the subtle things match up.
It wasn’t a ton of clock time, but it was a lot of peoples’ work time. I know it was a rough landing for our fantastic new costume designer, Jennifer Bryant was, hey we’re gonna need eight changes for Lee Pace on day one. We really think it paid out. We’re proud of that as a way to kick off the fourth and final season.
Totally. That’s just ballsy filmmaking. Especially on a TV schedule. My question is, when you do something like that and it’s an ambitious bit of filmmaking, how much does that impact the rest of the shoot, for like episode one or episode two? Because you’re spending so much time on that one moment, but you still gotta deliver. Do you guys typically film over six days or seven days?
CANTWELL: I will say that we just have to be very creative in terms of how we approach the scheduling. We get eight days to shoot and seven days to prep. Those are the days we get, no matter what kind of thing we’re trying. We have an incredible team in Atlanta, especially in Jeff Bryleck, our producer out there who really helps us break down the schedule and figure out a way to fit all of the crazy stuff we write into the scripts into an eight day shoot. In addition to our assistant directors and our UPM, we’re able to come up with creative solutions behind the scenes as well.
Miraculously, somehow we come up with insane stuff in the writers room and then work with our producers and production team in Atlanta, and are able to somehow logistically accomplish it. It’s always a challenge and it’s case by case per episode, but one that we are able to successfully meet every episode, which has been good.
ROGERS: I’ll just tack on to that because you alluded to it at the top. That it turns out that the sticking point on making anything like this work is always facial hair or wigs. You wanna change somebody’s facial hair or change somebody’s hair? Man, that is gonna be the thing that dictates the schedule. You always think there’s gonna be all these other huge obstacles, but it’s really about changing the way actors look that makes these things possible or not possible at the end of the day. Gordon Clark’s beard was the perfect opening question.
How many of the scripts did you typically get done each season before filming began? Did it ever change over the course of certain years where you had more done than others?
CANTWELL: Yes. In season one we were much closer to the timeline or the deadline. Obviously we had a pilot, but then we did research on the pilot, and that takes some time. So you need a script in the hands of the director by the first day of prep on an episode in order to avoid fines from the DGA. We would be getting them in days before that in season one. In season two we were able to expand that to a few weeks. I think that the first episode of season two we had in the actors’ hands five weeks before shooting began. In season three and four as Chris and I took over, we really endeavored to really stay ahead of the deadline.
I think by season three we had six scripts out by the time we were began filming. By season four I think we had at least rough drafts internally between Chris and I of seven episodes, before we started shooting. Which was really great to stay ahead of, and it makes everybody in Atlanta feel much calmer in terms of what work is coming down the pipeline, and allows the actors to prepare more. The only place then that can actually hitch us as the showrunners is that we write so much material, and we actually have no idea how it looks on the screen, so you don’t wanna get too far down the road with cementing script pages because things are malleable once you start filming them.
When you get into the edit room, you need to make sure you’re writing to what works. We were able to make some adjustments on the fly and lucky for us the team is such a well-oiled machine down there, both in front of the camera and off, that it was coming out really well and better than we’d hoped.
With your actors, how much do they wanna know about what’s coming up in the season, and which ones wanna read it script by script?
ROGERS: I would say that we’re very blessed in that all of our actors really, really care and are really invested. Which sounds like a platitude, but it’s actually not a given I think on most shows. To the point where our actors get together I think every Sunday night and host their own kind of internal table read of the material that’s actors only. They’ll invite any kind of guest stars that are in town over to one of their houses to rehearse this stuff. They take such a personal stake in these characters to the point where I think they’ll argue with each other about which character’s right and wrong, outside of the show, just because they take it so personally.
They’re so invested that Chris and I have made it our practice, since we took over as showrunners, to either meet with them individually or to bring them into the writers room to make sure they feel comfortable with and know all of the writers, give them a snapshot of what we know so far that we’re planning to do for the season. Maybe ask them some questions about, “what do you think your character thinks of this,” or “what would your character say to this?” To try to get their responses. But even then, they’re living in the skin of these people, so they have a ton of valuable information about who they are and who they’re becoming. It’d kind of be silly to not use it. We really try to keep them looped in, and we like to think it’s kind of a mutually beneficial cycle with them.
One of the things about the show is it obviously exists in this alt universe. You’ve seen Apple. In season four you’re dealing with the World Wide Web. I don’t want to get into too many spoilers about what’s coming, but when you’re dealing with the web and search engines and everything, you can’t help but talk about Google. How much does that play into what we’re gonna be seeing?
ROGERS: I would say we’ve always endeavored to have this not be an alternate reality, and that we want to acknowledge at the existence of these other companies, but we always wanna play fair with things that might have gone on. I think in approaching “search” because it is a story we all think we know, and that we all do think the punchline of which is Google. We actually just saw another opportunity to tell people the story they didn’t know. Which is about the dawn of search engines. In the dawn of search engines, it was really about algorithmic search. Which is the forerunner of keyword search like Google versus this directory-based search which is what Yahoo ends up winning.
There was kind of this wild-west moment where we felt like our company could possibly exist alongside Lycos, Excite, and, of course, Yahoo. I think all of those companies are coming down the pike and are gonna be real complications for our characters. I think that is always a point of pride for us, that we feel like we never … The challenge on the show is always making sure that our characters don’t invent every significant technology that comes along in a 10 year period. I’d like to think we thread the needle of having it not be an alternate history so much as a parallel story that spaces nicely in with what actually happened.
I should have said parallel. The way I said it was bad. I know exactly what you mean. I’m not sure if you’ve ever thought about this. If you could go back in time and adjust any of the storylines or characters that you’ve done in the first three years, is there anything that you’d like to tweak if you could do it?
CANTWELL: I mean would say as writers and artist there’s always things you wanna go back and change and you wanna adjust. That you’ve gotta ultimately abandon the work as opposed to finish it because it never will be finished. I’m sure Chris and I in our dark nights of the soul look at things and go, ah I wish we could have changed this or this line or this setting. I think that what was nice about starting the show the way we did was we were able to let it evolve into what it became. I think that was a really nice metamorphosis for the audience to enjoy, and not just for us to enjoy.
It was cool to have it start as one thing and have it become something else. That’s been really wonderful in terms of the journey, and I think it was unplanned. That said, Chris and I are six years older now than when we started writing this. We’ve been through a lot. I think there’s different things on our minds as evidenced by what we’re discussing in season one versus what we’re discussing in season four. We had to get to where we are. We had to earn this season story wise. I will say for me personally, I’m still obsessed with the building of computers and the people that get into the guts of those things.
I think that there are … I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody comes out and nails the story of building a tiny machine and make something so micro and so mundane and so quiet, super exciting. I think we had our moments with the reverse engineering montage of the pilot and other things like that. I just love that kind of filmmaking. It just feels very George Lucas, very THX. I love revisiting worlds like that. At the same time I love what we’re doing now, which is we’re fully in the humanity of the characters and what a gift that is.
One of the things I think that’s also very effective about the time jump is the way you end season three. You never want a show to have the characters where it feels forced that these actors are sort of having to be together because of contracts. You’ve got these actors and you have to put them in scenes together. You organically have ways of these people interacting because of the passage of time. It feels more organic that after three years, Cameron and Gordon and all these people would be talking again.
ROGERS: Yeah. I think that’s the great challenge and thrill of what we get to do as people who make seasons of television. Is, that I think Breaking Bad is one of the shows that deserve credit for creating this model, but every season I think you’ve gotta write yourself into a corner and you’ve gotta really splinter the characters apart in a way that’s so pyrotechnic you’re, how will they ever get back together. You gotta spend all your story and then try to find a way out of that corner. Often, I think in the later seasons especially, the passage of time has just been so necessary to earn these people even speaking to each other again. You wanna play fair with what happened and not feel like convenience is getting the band back together.
Time has been a great tool of ours in that effort, in letting people grow up and change and have things happen in their lives that maybe make it possible for them to step into the same camera frame again, but that’s important to us. Because I think if the audience feels the artificiality of these pairings, of these people deciding to see each other again, then that takes away some of the magic. Then that’s less fun for us too. It’s far less fun for us if it feels like a forced confrontation versus one that would be earned by the individual characters we’ve created.
I’m curious about Easter eggs. Did you guys ever plant anything on the show that people have yet to notice? Because I’ve always thought it would be funny to see some Easter eggs from other AMC shows in the background to sort of tease that it’s all connected.
ROGERS: The AMC universe, that would be pretty amazing.
I was gonna make a bad joke, but the 90’s won’t work.
CANTWELL: We were able to line up the series. It’s like the AMC series where it was, the first one would be Turn. You could say they’re all in the same universe because the first one would be Turn, followed by Hell on Wheels, followed by Mad Men, followed by us, followed by Breaking Bad. Then you get into Preacher, and The Killing, and all the contemporary shows. Then the world just eventually ends with The Walking Dead. Like nobody… It’s a null story where everything that happened before it doesn’t matter because there were zombies and everyone died.
I will say that the Easter egg people should look for this season is … and in every season is, the famed Clark orange afghan, which has survived three decades of story in Halt and Catch Fire.
CANTWELL: Yes. There’s an orange afghan that is every season of the show and actually will appear in season four in very different time frames, and in various different uses that I think is, well…
As I said at the beginning, thank you so much for giving me extra time and I love the show. I’ve seen the first three, I cannot wait to see the next seven.
ROGERS: Thanks very much Steven, I appreciate it man.