From writer/director/executive producer Joe Carnahan, the new NBC drama series State of Affairs follows top CIA analyst Charleston Tucker (Katherine Heigl), as she prioritizes the biggest international crises facing the country to present them in the President’s Daily Briefing (PDB). Along with that, Charlie has a close personal relationship with President Constance Payton (Alfre Woodard), having once been engaged to her son before a tragic terrorist attack took his life. And as she delves into who’s responsible for her fiancé’s murder, the answers will reveal themselves as a shocking mystery.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, Joe Carnahan talked about why he wanted to get into television, why The Blacklist (for which he is an executive producer) and State of Affairs were so appealing to him, how exciting it is to have the pairing of pairing of Katherine Heigl and Alfre Woodard, that they’re looking to get some cool guest stars, the balance between great action and interesting characters, why he likes the constraints of a TV budget that force you to get more creative, and telling a story with close-ended episodes that also have an over-arcing incident. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: Had you been thinking for awhile about getting into TV, or was it just finding projects that compelled you to do so?
JOE CARNAHAN: I did a pilot for Fox, years ago, called Faceless, with Sean Bean. I always thought it was such a cool show because it was really raw. I thought we were pushing it. This was back at a time before there was the “cable standard.” So, I had always had a real interest in it, but the agency I was with, at the time, just couldn’t get me a foot-hold in television. It wasn’t until I got to CAA that they just hacked through all that crap with a machete. Suddenly, I found myself in a position where I’d done The Blacklist and Those Who Kill, and that was such a bummer because I had such a great experience on it, but I didn’t stay with it like I stayed with The Blacklist. The Blacklist was really right place, right time. I read the script and met with Jon Bokenkamp, John Eisendrath, John Fox and John Davis, and we just hit it off. They understood that I was not so much trying to adapt to television, but adapt a cinematic style to the things that we were gonna do. With both The Blacklist and State of Affairs, I think it worked out beautifully, but I’ve also enjoyed myself, and I haven’t had fun like that, in a long time. Movies became a really elephantine process, where I just felt I was slogging. The stuff I wanted to do was not superheroes or monsters or robots. I don’t knock those. I still love going to the movies and seeing big summer flicks, but I just don’t want that to be all that we do. So, TV has been really wonderful, in that way.
How exciting is it to have this pairing of Katherine Heigl and Alfre Woodard, at the head of this TV series?
CARNAHAN: They’re great. You’ve got two world-class actresses who are really talented women. Purely through having to have an international component, you’re looking at a day and age now where, if a film doesn’t make $100 million in a weekend, we consider that a failure. We’ve constructed this thing. What’s going to be the next bar? Is it going to be $200 million? If it doesn’t make $200 million in a week, is it a failure? That makes for the streamlining of everything. What you’re getting is this mono-dimensionality to movies that TV doesn’t have. TV is winning back these huge audiences because people are tired of just seeing the same thing repackaged, and that’s what we’re doing. In terms of big spectacle, I thought Captain America 2 was phenomenal. I really loved that movie, and it was a great movie, as a stand-alone. You have those exceptions. You have those movies that come out that still do it really well and still do it with great imagination, but it still feels restrictive. I think television just gives you the opportunity to slow everything down and invest in the characters and in those characterizations. That’s why you get people like Alfre Woodard and Katie Heigl, and James Spader.
Are you looking to get some cool guest stars for this show?
CARNAHAN: On State of Affairs, we’re going after some names that you wouldn’t think would traditionally do TV. A show that shoots in Los Angeles is such a rare bird in hand that I think we’re gonna have the pick of the litter. I think we broke such an interesting and intriguing first season of this show, and being able to do it in 12 to 15, and not 22, gave us that cable mentality. It’s like chapters in a novel. It doesn’t feel like you’re over-extending. With 22 episodes, you’re going to get a couple where you’re like, “Eh.” It’s not like the budget is any less. You’re just getting more bang for your buck. For as much as we bemoan how dumb everybody is, I think television viewers are incredibly astute, clever, very smart, and know exactly what they want. Oftentimes, in television, you’re given the full spectrum and can present a lot of things. It’s not just this one-note thing. When you’re spending $200 million on a movie, you need to make $400 million to break even. It’s a spectacle.
The Blacklist and State of Affairs both have great action in them, mixed with great character development. Is that a balance that just inherently appeals to you?
CARNAHAN: Yes, that inherently appeals to me. I read these scripts, all the time, where I feel like they back-burn anything that’s even remotely relatable about a character, in favor of some sort of pyro-technics or something nonsensical, and I’m just so tired of that. I didn’t like that when I was 25, and I sure don’t like it at 45. Some filmmakers feel they have to go above and beyond, but you don’t. Look how well [Quentin] Tarantino does it with a conversation. What television allows for is that time for you to really get into it and pace it out and do it in a way that optimizes, dramatically, what you’re doing. As opposed to trying to cram it into 90 minutes, you’re allowed to let it breathe.
Do you find it challenging to do action on a TV budget, or do you like having those constraints that force you to get creative?
CARNAHAN: I like having those constraints. With the opening sequence of State of Affairs, I wanted to do something that I hadn’t seen in a movie, let alone on television. It’s this pure POV of an incredible assault, with all the cacophony of sound, and all of the confusion and dropped frames. You’re seeing this very fragmented thing that’s almost been pulled together with Scotch tape. It’s this neurological stew. What’s great about that is that it allows you to return to that and fill in the blanks. Suddenly, these omissions become additions. I love that. The fragmentary nature of that is a lot of fun, but it started with a thesis. We thought about who’s point of view it was about and what the most shattering part of it was. It’s the lead character, so you don’t really owe anybody else’s point of view. It was the same thing with The Grey. Every plane crash I had seen always had this objective out. When you’re in a plane crash, you’re not going to be down below, watching it sheer off the side of a cliff. You’re going to be in there experience the horror of not knowing what the hell is going on. That’s so much more effective than showing all of these different angles of a plane coming apart. And that was specifically because we didn’t have the money to do it. I took my cue from Peter Weir in Fearless, rather than the typical disaster film, involving a plane wreck. Lack of money always means a surplus of creativity, in the best case.
The Blacklist has done a great job of telling a continuing story with week-to-week episodes. Are you looking to do that with State of Affairs?
CARNAHAN: What the goal really is, is to show the audience, up front, the event itself. Then the audience, rather than being a voyeur, is actually at the table with them because the audience has information that none of the other briefers do, since they’ve seen it. It allows them to go, “Wait a minute, you have that wrong. That’s not what happened. This happened.” The dissemination of intelligence is often filled with holes. That dissemination has to coalesce into something where you can sit down with the President and go, “This is what’s happening. These are our suggestions. This is what we think.” It’s a very slippery slope. So, we want it to be somewhat close-ended, but the over-arcing inciting incident with Charleston and the President will play out over the season.
Will we continue to see everybody leveraging Charleston’s personal relationship with the President?
CARNAHAN: Yeah. It’s constantly shifting terrain. As the President, you’re put in a very difficult spot. Oftentimes, there are politically expedient things and there are personally expedient things, and they cross swords. To watch that play out, where someone has made promises and said, “This is what’s going to happen,” only to go back and say, “That can’t happen yet,” is at the very core of politics. But we’re having someone like Alfre do it, who’s so smart and so learned. Alfre presented me with a backstory for her character, so early on. She said, “Here are topics for discussion. What do you think of these things?” I thought it was fascinating, and it completely helped us round out and make this three-dimensional characterization of this woman that we all felt very strongly about, going into it. Both Alfre and Katie have thought about these things. Every week, I get the PDB, so we can actually see what the President is being presented with by the CIA, and it’s fascinating. Truth is stranger than fiction, so oftentimes, we don’t have to make up anything. It’s right there, and it’s essentially been declassified.
State of Affairs airs on Monday nights on NBC.