One of the strongest and most compelling new dramas on television is Showtime’s Homeland, about Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), who returns home to a hero’s welcome after eight years in enemy confinement. While his wife (Morena Baccarin) and children are celebrating his return, CIA Agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) isn’t buying his story, instead believing that Brody has been turned and is now working for Al Qaeda.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, executive producer Howard Gordon (24) talked about the development and appeal of Homeland, how they assembled such a talented cast of actors, and the attraction of a strong central character to base a story around. He also talked about the mid-season NBC series Awake (starring Jason Isaacs), which he is also executive producing, and how he will juggle both shows, if both are picked up for a second season. Additionally, he said he’s bringing back the central character of his debut novel, for a follow-up called Hard Target (due out in January 2012), that he’s collaborating with Alloy Entertainment and writer/director James Wong for a film and book idea called 2084, and the likelihood of a 24 movie ever happening, now that he’s focused on two television series, and Kiefer Sutherland has one he’s working on as well (called Touch, for Fox). Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: How did Homeland come about for you? Were you approached with the idea?
HOWARD GORDON: My agent at Endeavor represents [the Israeli network] Keshet, who had this format called Prisoners of War. So, he called me and said, “I’ve got the next show!” I was in the middle of 24, and I said yes on spec because I love my agent and I trust him. I said, “Maybe Alex Gansa and I could do this together.” Alex was my old writing partner and then we broke up for 14 years, and then he came onto 24. We were having a good time, and I thought we’d do this together. And then, we realized, in very short order, it wasn’t like changing the names. It was a much deeper re-engineering.
We started talking about what was interesting and how you do a show in the wake of these other movies and TV shows failing famously, one after the other. We really benefitted from the ashes of those shows and asked ourselves, “What’s interesting and what’s compelling about this?” There are these issues of, “What is the threat? What is the nature of fear? What is the price we’ve paid for our response to 9/11?” Those were questions that were so interesting to us, and I think we found characters that could ask those questions and could be affected by that circumstance, both in a returning veteran who’d been presumed dad, and who is more qualified than anybody to ask those questions, and a CIA agent who has her own set of motivations, some pathological and some ideological. In a way, the show lives in the fault line of the questions of, “Who’s a terrorist? Who’s a traitor? Who’s a soldier? Who’s a hero? Who, ultimately, is the patriot?”
How did you go about determining the storylines for Season 1?
GORDON: There is a good, old-fashioned soap opera, at the heart of it, that we explore in detail, in subsequent episodes, which is this family. In many ways, it is a domestic drama. You have this woman who has no life and doesn’t share any of the human connections that make people, people. She is now spying on a family that is trying to get back on their feet, but a family in which some good, old-fashioned soap opera, Helen of Troy stuff is happening, where the guy’s best friend is sleeping with his wife. That’s heavy, on one hand, it’s sexy, on another, and it’s compelling, more than anything. This isn’t a comedy. It’s a psychological thriller, so the tone is pretty clear. Our assumption and our hope is that, because there is nothing on TV or in the movies that’s like it, the people who like this kind of story will have a place to go.
What does Showtime allow for, in making it the right home for you to explore this story?
GORDON: First of all, you can’t underestimate the order of 12 or 13 episodes versus a full broadcast order. This is a very serialized, fairly dense mosaic. Showtime has been one of the greatest creative experiences. These guys are so smart, and they’re really partners. They know that the metrics for success aren’t this box office hook. It’s about, “I want to tell a really good story with really good characters, and we’ll give you the time and latitude to do it, and to find the show.” Right away, they got it. It was one of David Nevins’ first purchases. Alex and I wrote this pilot on spec, not having a home for it and hoping it would wind up on Showtime. That’s what was ironic about it. It was this great bunch of accidents. We even called the character of Carrie, Claire originally, because we wanted Claire Danes to play that part, after seeing Temple Grandin. This show has had a lot of luck behind it.
These characters are so layered, complex and complicated. What was the process of developing who these people were going to be?
GORDON: A lot of it was reverse engineered. You create a character, piece by piece and layer by layer, and then it suddenly becomes a three-dimensional person. Brody (Damian Lewis) is much more of a cipher. You don’t know with him. You know he was a soldier who was taken, but a big question is creating this box that you have to fill in with flashbacks and pieces, and stitch it together from Carrie’s point of view. It’s about, “Who is this guy, really? And, whoever he is, how did he get to be that?” Those are questions that you want to answer, in the course of the series. Carrie does this out of a hero compulsion. What makes anybody a hero? It really goes to that deepest level. We are tested. Our character isn’t this thing that lives in this flat space. It’s something that comes into relief and defines itself in urgent situations. That’s when you know whether you’re a hero, a coward, or a villain. Carrie is someone who sacrificed everything for a compulsion, as penance for something she missed 10 years ago. She doesn’t want to connect to other people, and this is a very convenient excuse to have, not to do that. All those things define Carrie.
How does the relationship between Brody and Carrie work?
GORDON: It’s fascinating. It’s really interesting. They are perpetually wary of each other, but also inevitably drawn to each other because they’re both broken. Their chemistry is that they are remarkably similar. They both have suffered and have lost, and are broken in ways, and have been discarded by society. So, they actually share a lot, and yet one is hunting the other, and one may be planning something.
Since he’s certainly not the obvious choice for the role of Nicholas Brody, what was it about Damian Lewis?
GORDON: I don’t know how to say this without sounding sexist, but he is a man. There aren’t that many men. Aside from being this phenomenal actor, he has an everyman quality, but he really is also immensely likable. What was important about this character was that he had to be someone who the political powers that be grabbed onto, not just because of his circumstances, but because this guy is a hero and they want to promote him as that to the public. Rather than just having this obviously model-handsome guy, there’s a ruggedness, an everyman-ness and a manliness to Damian that really hit us, in terms of our casting process. And, in everything I’ve ever seen him in, he has been spectacular. With one movie in particular, Keane, which is an independent movie he did, the camera is on him, almost silently, for 30 minutes and you can’t stop watching him. We knew that this had to be a guy who could grab a camera and is simply compelling to watch, even when he was doing nothing.
Did you have you spend time figuring out how you wanted the wife to be, with the emotional levels and how strong you wanted her to be?
GORDON: Yes, absolutely. It’s so interesting that you say that because we actually recast the part. We only discovered that by trail and error, because you don’t know what it’s going to be until you see it. We didn’t realize it, but we needed a much stronger woman. In some ways, Brody’s return is a joyful thing, but it’s also an intrusion. It’s like, “This is fucking me up!” There was only room for one damaged person. You don’t want two damaged people, competing for who’s more damaged. You want Brody’s damage to be brought into relief and platformed, and Morena [Baccarin] has this natural strength and sexuality. She’s not a weak woman. She’s tough and composed, and that really seemed to work.
What does Mandy Patinkin bring to the show?
GORDON: Oh, my god, he’s so amazing! He brings a fierce intelligence and an irony. He plays this guy who is powerful and rose to a certain level inside the agency, but there’s a suggestion that he was passed over and that he never quite fit there. He does share some of that outsider-ness with Carrie, which is probably one of the reasons he gravitated to her. They have a relationship that we realized, only in hindsight, is a little bit like the Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist relationship. It’s a mentor-apprentice relationship.
How are you going to juggle things with this show and Awake, the drama you’re executive producing for NBC?
GORDON: Fortunately, Alex Gansa is really running Homeland, on a day-to-day basis. I’m there every day, but he’s running things. The other way to do it was that we had a head start. So, before Awake starts, I pushed it as far as I could. It was the mid-season aspect. If both shows get picked up for a second season, that will be a trick. It’s been very challenging. They’re both very complicated.
Both shows have really strong central character that you’ve based the show around. Is that something you’re normally attracted to?
GORDON: Yes, I am. I was really attracted to Jack Bauer (on 24), as a man. He was a guy who was trying to do what he could for his family, and trying to do the best he could, and inevitably getting knocked in the teeth by the world. I just liked that character. It was a very earnest character. So, I really was attracted to that guy and wanted to write him. In the case of Jason Isaacs character in Awake, as I’ve gotten older, bad things have happened and loss is something that is always present. I’ve had friends who have gotten sick and I’ve had friends who have died now. I’m at the point where this is real. And, I have children, so I fear that. A very, very close friend of mine lost their child last year. So, to me, it was a way to talk about being a husband, being a father, and being a man. That’s what I relate to, in that character. I find the same themes that speak to me, both with Carrie and with Brody.
Are you worried at all that people won’t tune into shows that are so serialized and complex?
GORDON: Well, we’re actually de-serializing Awake. It’s a complex show, but we’re simplifying it and willfully trying to embrace the procedural, stand-alone aspect of it, and slow down the personal stuff. We want to have it resonate, but make sure that, when you watch the show, you will hopefully understand the premise. The pilot, which I thought (executive producer/writer) Kyle Killen did very beautifully and very deftly kept the balance between the worlds, but we’re not going to be as slavish to the symmetry of that.
Was that because you wanted to make sure audiences could easily follow along?
GORDON: Yeah, you have to. You want to keep it compelling. It’s about educating the audience and telling the story with this unique premise. How do you solve a crime with this cool, Sherlock Holmes-like premise?
What inspired you to write Gideon’s War? Had you always wanted to write a novel?
GORDON: I’ve always wanted to write a novel. It’s overwhelming and daunting, and it’s one of those things that every writer fantasizes about doing. I started it during the writers strike, like an idiot. Once I got a contract to finish it, I had to finish it, which was what helped immensely, but it was challenging. I had to find the time to finish it, in the margins of running a TV show.
Was it a story you had always been thinking about for a novel?
GORDON: I was more interested in telling a story that I knew I could finish. It was a thriller. I really didn’t set out to write The Great American Novel. I set out to write a story that I had an intuitive understanding that I could tell. I don’t want to sound like it was a commercial exercise because it wasn’t. I’ve always been interested in brothers. I’m one of three brothers. I always look for relationships that I want to explore, and it doesn’t matter whether the story is a quiet story about two brothers going fishing, or in this case, a story about two brothers who have been estranged, and one might be a terrorist. It was the relationships that attracted me. It’s a character that I’m bringing back for a second novel (Hard Target, due out in January 2012). He’s a pacifist. He’s a negotiator who has sworn off violence, so it’s testing the edges of that character. Sometimes you need to pick up a stick and actually kick some ass. I knew that was an interesting journey to tell. That’s what that story traced. It was about, “How long can you cling to these beliefs? How do you test them?”
Were there things that whole process taught you about writing that has now strengthened the work that you do for film and television?
GORDON: It’s really made me admire people who are novelists. It taught me that TV and film are very different media with different requirements. In a TV show, you have actors and fellow writers and directors, who are interpreting your work. With a novel, you only have ink, words and your reader. Everyone is casting this thing for themselves, and everyone is scoring it for themselves. It’s a much more interactive experience with your audience. In some ways, I would say Homeland is interactive, in the way that we’re experiencing something that we’re not sure of, if that makes sense.
What is it like to develop 2084 as a film and a book, at the same time?
GORDON: I’ve been aware of Alloy Entertainment for a long time, and (writer/director) Jim [Wong] and I are old friends, and we hatched this idea together. It’s one of those things where one of us had lunch with Bob Levy, who is at Alloy, and we mentioned this idea, which we had been considering taking out as a TV pitch. And he said, “Let’s develop it as a book, first. We’ll hire a writer.” We had done a treatment for the pitch, and they liked it at Alloy and really developed it. We’re shopping it and seeing if it will turn into a movie.
Is it fun to be able to explore one story in multiple mediums?
GORDON: Yes. It seems to be happening a lot now. Traditionally, people have been adapting novels and short stories forever. Now, they’re doing it simultaneously, with an eye towards writing the movie before the novel has even come out or been finished. It’s a function of this hyper-accelerated society we live in, where everyone is trying to short circuit the process. It’s like giving cows hormones and having them produce milk in half the time they used to.
What can you say about what the story is about?
GORDON: Jim [Wong] and I liked the story of empowering a family of three children. Both of us have young kids, and we thought it would be an adventure story that our kids would like. It was that simple. We just thought that would be a neat story. I had been doing 24, and my little one is not going to see that for 10 years. It was as simple as telling a fun story that, hopefully, they would get to enjoy.
Do you think a 24 movie will ever actually happen?
GORDON: If the movie happens, I’ll certainly be a part of it. Kiefer [Sutherland] also has his own show now (Touch on Fox) and there are a lot of things that would have to fall into place. But, those things are definitely moving forward. Imagine and Fox are talking, and there is a script that we’re re-approaching right now.
With each of the projects you do, you seem to establish really strong collaborations for developing them. How difficult is it for you to find people that you work well with and what do you look for in a collaborator?
GORDON: That’s a great question. With Kyle Killen, I’d been aware of him. I read his script and I thought, “Wow, this is really smart. This is a new voice.” He had done a couple of things. With Jim [Wong] or with Alex [Gansa], that goes back to friendships and collaborations that are so old and so deep, that worked. I use the metaphor of a band. It’s similar. You just want to play and make music and write songs with those people. It really is like that. You create these collaborations and it’s fun. For me, being of a certain age, I tend to gravitate toward people like (24 executive producer) Chip [Johannessen] and Alex, who I just relate to as people. In the case of Kyle, who is a bit younger than me, I loved being a guy who was a little more griseled and more of a veteran, and giving him the benefit of my experience, but being part of breaking a new voice. They are strong collaborations, and they are mutual. I’m very humbled by the process of writing, perpetually. You never master it. It’s like golf. Every time you sit down, you’ve learn a few things, and you have your instincts and your intuitions and your tastes, but all you can ask of yourself is, “Who are these characters? What are they doing? Why am I telling this story?” I ask those same questions now. It’s a little bit easier because the experience has helped, but it’s still insanely overwhelming and humbling.
Did you just always know that you wanted to be a storyteller?
GORDON: Yeah, since I was a kid. In sixth grade, I wrote stories and sent them to Reader’s Digest. I knew I wanted to be a writer. Where I came from, no one was a writer. I came from Long Island, and everyone became a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer or a teacher or a businessman. I didn’t know any writers. My mother said, “You can be a doctor first, and then you can be a writer.” She still thinks I’m going to go to medical school. I always tell people, “If there’s anything else you can do, you should do it.”