Exec Producers Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman Talk PERSON OF INTEREST, Finch’s Backstory, and the Machine’s Growing Artificial Intelligence

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jonathan nolan greg plageman person of interest

On the hit CBS drama series Person of Interest, former-CIA agent John Reese (Jim Caviezel) and mysterious billionaire Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) prevent violent crimes by using their own brand of vigilante justice and the help of NYPD homicide detectives Carter (Taraji P. Henson) and Fusco (Kevin Chapman).  Using state-of-the-art surveillance technology, they work outside of the law to unravel the mystery of the person of interest and stop the crime before it happens, whether they turn out to be the victim or the perpetrator.

During this recent interview to discuss what’s to come for the remainder of Season 2, which returns with new episodes on January 3rd, executive producers Jonathan Nolan (who created the show) and Greg Plageman talked about how Reese’s current predicament will affect things now, how Reese and Finch’s partnership is changing them, how much Carter will wrestle with helping Reese versus helping the FBI, where Fusco is headed, why they decided to have such a small main cast filled out with guest stars and recurring characters, how Elias (Enrico Colantoni) fits into the puzzle, learning more about Finch’s backstory, dealing with the machine’s growing artificial intelligence, and the desire to have the characters change and grow throughout the length of the show’s run.  Check out what they had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.

Question: Is the fact that Reese has been captured even more serious than it appears?

greg plageman jonathan nolan person of interestJONATHAN NOLAN: The thing we’re trying to do with this show, as much as we can, is to keep it dangerous and alive, and keep the narrative unexpected.  We’re entering into a chapter of our story here, in which one of our heroes is in real jeopardy.  So many shows, especially when the show is working and has found its audience, just want to keep everything the same.  Part of the deal that Greg and I had, when we started making this show, was to always keep it dangerous and always keep surprising people.  We think there’s some real jeopardy here. 

With how the last episode ended, will the FBI not be able to figure out which one is Reese?

GREG PLAGEMAN: I definitely think there’s an interesting dilemma here, especially for Agent Donnelly (Brennan Brown) and the FBI, in terms of all four suspects being rounded up and all four of them being men in suits.  There’s a little bit of intrigue to be played with that, and it’s not easily resolved.  We’ve gotta play fair and honest with our audience, in terms of Reese’s apprehension and incarceration, and how long that plays out. 

Is it possible that Finch could create a false identity for Reese, now that he’s been detained by the FBI?

person of interest jim caviezelNOLAN: I think that’s a splendid idea!

PLAGEMAN: Do you mind if we rip that off?

You’ve reversed roles from the beginning of the season, when Reese was operating without Finch.  Will Finch try to find ways to supplant Reese, in his effort to track him down?

NOLAN: I think it’s very unlucky that Finch will not be trying at least as hard as Reese to rescue his friend and erstwhile partner.  But, you have a full team here.  You have Carter (Taraji P. Henson) and Fusco (Kevin Chapman), and other people who might be interested in helping. 

What are you going to continue to do with Reese’s character growth this season, and how much his partnership with Finch means to him?

NOLAN: I feel like what Greg and I were interested in, from the beginning, and what our writers and actors are interested in, are four very wounded, very broken characters who are rebuilding themselves, and Reese probably the most.  There’s also a lot of damage there with Finch.  So, watching him over the course of a season and a half, and collaborating with Jim [Caviezel] and Michael [Emerson] on these performances, every tiny little glimmer you get of connection between them means so much.  The ways in which we see Reese as this wounded animal who’s slowly rebuilding his trust and his connection to the world, we love to do right at the point where we smash all that to pieces.  That’s our favorite thing to do.  In our writers’ room, we are sadists.

How much will Carter now wrestle with helping Reese versus helping the FBI, moving forward?

person of interest michael emersonPLAGEMAN: Obviously, Carter being enlisted by Special Agent Donnelly in the pursuit of the man in the suit has been a common running theme on our show.  But, Donnelly is well aware of Carter’s history as an interrogator in Iraq and now that he has Reese in custody, it’s going to be very interesting to see how Carter is enlisted to play both sides of the fence.

When the show returns, how much time will have past? Will things pick up right where they left off, or will some time have gone by?

NOLAN: We’re back on the air on January 3rd, so we’re not gone too long.  We’re right back into it and hopefully the story will pick with the same kind of velocity or connectedness.  But, there’s a fun wrinkle to that, which is that because Reese is locked up, it’s a huge focus for Finch.  As we said in the pilot, the numbers never stop coming.  Watching Finch try to spin the plates, in terms of rescuing his friends while also having a backlog of people who may be in serious jeopardy, becomes the focus, as it was for Reese, in the beginning of the season.  We love the random access nature of the machine.  I would characterize the next three episodes of our show as completely bananas.  I think that’s the technical term.

PLAGEMAN: And they pretty much pick up in real time, almost from one to the next.  We feel like we’ve gotta play these stakes for real.  When Reese is incarcerated and the FBI is breathing down Carter’s neck for any information that she has, we want to show the audience that Donnelly is a very formidable character, in his endeavor to take down Reese.  We have a lot of fun with that, and we have some big serialized content coming into play, in the next couple of episodes, with some cast of yore. 

person of interest taraji p hensonNOLAN: Some friendly folks will be returning to create fresh chaos, which we love.  Our show has periods in which we get to concentrate on the story-of-the-week, and things are nice and developing.  We lull the audience into a false sense of safety and security, and then we just smash things to pieces.  I think that’s where we’re heading into. 

Will Finch try to handle numbers from the machine on his own now?

NOLAN: Yeah, that’s what our first episode of the new year is about.  While plans are being put together and our heroes scheme about what the hell they’re going to do with Reese locked up, because it impacts all of them, Finch is going into very unusual circumstances, in order to protect a very special person. 

With as twitchy as he’s getting, what’s going on with Fusco, at this point?

NOLAN: Kevin’s checks haven’t been clearing, so we just keep punishing his character. 

PLAGEMAN: That’s an excellent question, and I think that’s one that’s going to be answered in the next couple of episodes, as we resume in the new year.  Obviously, some of Fusco’s predicament is Reese’s doing, as well.  But, the original sin of Detective Fusco’s predicament is actually of his own doing and it’s something that Reese will remind him of.  These things come home to roost.  In terms of when he decided to reach out to Reese in Episode 209, the particular issue, at the moment, was that Reese was preoccupied with another case and Fusco wasn’t quite sure how he was going to be able to squirm his way out of this one.  Officer Simmons (Robert John Burke) will be back, as well as Quinn (Clarke Peters), who is revealed as our head of HR.  But perhaps the bigger issue with Fusco is that we can’t figure out how he’s become such the ladies’ man on our show, including being tasked with the number of Karolina Kurkova, when she comes up in Episode 212. 

person of interest kevin chapmanNOLAN: It’s a team effort to cover the numbers, with Reese out of commission. 

PLAGEMAN: He’s got a lot of plates spinning. 

NOLAN: Finch is up first, and Fusco second.  Stay tuned for the third one.

Was it a deliberate decision to go with such a small cast of regular characters, or did the story just go that way naturally? Do you think having such a small core group is an advantage when it comes to the types of storylines you have to tell?

NOLAN: Well, I think that the missing character there is the POI.  Every week, there is a world that we enter.  Greg and I talked a lot about shows that we grew up watching and that we loved, like Magnum and The Equalizer, but also Quantum Leap.  Whether they were coming at it from a hard-boiled, conventional P.I. direction, or coming at it from a more heightened, high-concept idea like Quantum Leap, one of the great things about all of those shows was that, each week, you had the opportunity to enter into a different world, which was the world defined by, like in our show, the person of interest.  It’s about whose life Finch, Reese, Carter and Fusco are all intruding themselves into and trying to figure out and unravel, before everything goes sideways.  I think those shows have always been smaller casts, not ensemble casts.  But, one of the great pleasures of creating a show, and in its success, is getting to continue to write it and work with all of these phenomenal actors.  The list just goes on and on and on.  Greg and I have had the chance, with this show, to work with so many actors that we’ve wanted to work with.  It’s an extreme wealth of actors, especially shooting in New York.  The actors you get to work with are phenomenal.  The goal with this show, from the beginning, was to take four characters, and then, over the course of the coming seasons, continue to grow that universe.  The advantage of having a smaller cast, and I think we have the best cast on TV, is to really get to explore each of those characters.  It’s not a thing where everybody has two lines an episode.  This show’s attention shifts focus.  Some episodes are more about one characters and some are more about another character.  Our next episode, for instance, focuses a little more on Finch’s character. 

person of interest castPLAGEMAN: I also think the advantage it gives us is that you never know who’s going to come and who’s going to go.  We all know where we were when Stringer Bell got shot (on The Wire).  It’s shows like that where you never know what’s going to happen.  If you have recurring actors, some of whom are phenomenal, it breaks your heart when they have to go, but it also keeps the show on a nice edge. 

NOLAN: We’ve had to make those phone calls, but they’re always sad ones. 

PLAGEMAN: It’s tough because when they pop on our show, all of a sudden, they start getting offers on all these other shows and we can’t get them anymore.

Do you ever come up with a storyline and then think, “No we can’t go that far”?

NOLAN: Every day.  Our writers come up with incredibly bold and great and sometimes subversive and odd pitches.  There’s a heightened aspect to the show.  I talked a lot about The X-Files, in developing the pilot, and Greg and I have referred back to it frequently, because it had a great balance between the case-of-the-week and a serialized, larger mythology that they were telling.  But, what they also had was this great dove-tailing connectiveness between the case of the week and that mythology, in the way they interacted with each other.  So, we always want the show to reach out as far as it can, as far as jumping from one unexpected world to the next, but with a common thread that emerges from that and giving the sense of a larger, corrupt, weirder universe around them.  I was a huge fan of James Ellroy’s books, American Tabloid being one of them.  There’s a sense that you get from Ellroy’s universe that there are weird machinations at play underneath everything, with his dark gaze on the CIA, on the events of the 1960′s, and on the connection with heroin out of Vietnam.  The darker lens that our show takes, looking towards government surveillance and all those sorts of things, is not all that different from The X-Files. The X-Files universe was a very dark one, in the direction of alien conspiracies.  Ours is really about surveillance technologies and the pending odd moment when a number of different entities know more about your life than you do, and I think we’re kind of there.  We keep being interested in the larger universe of that, and what impact that has upon our relationship to our government. 

michael emerson person of interestPLAGEMAN: A perfect case in point is that one of our writers saw an article about the massive new surveillance program uncovered by the Wall Street Journal, in terms of predictive pattern matching.  It’s a constant steady drumbeat of these types of stories. 

Are you going to be returning to the issues with the machine’s growing artificial intelligence?

NOLAN: One of the problems we have with the show is that our incredible writers have come up with so many compelling storylines and villains, at least to me.  From the beginning, one of the ideas with the show was compelling villains.  I love writing villains, and we’ve embraced that.  It was one of the first questions J.J. [Abrams] had about the show because he wanted to have that tapestry of villains.  They’re so fun, in the way that they drive the plot forward.  We have an absolute wealth of them, at this point, with some amazing actors, like Enrico Colantoni, Robert John Burke, Clarke Peters and Amy Acker.  I want to keep exploring, and I know our writers want to keep exploring, all of those different storylines, to the degree that we can and to the degree that the audience is willing to go along for the ride.  We tend to tell our stories in chapters.  Not explicitly because we don’t draw attention to it, but the story keeps a steady simmer going, on some elements.  At this point, the A.I. of it all is poised to erupt back into view.  But, when you have fantastic actors playing great characters, you want to go back and service those storylines again.  None of our villains are ever too far from surfacing, but we like to keep the audience guessing, as to how all these storylines connect together. 

For the first time, the characters were following their own divergent interests, even if it was to their own detriment.  Is that something that will continue to happen, in the second half of the season?

jim caviezel person of interestNOLAN: It’s all falling apart. 

PLAGEMAN: I think it’s fantastic that we have two characters who are largely cognizant of the machine and its capabilities, but more so Finch than Reese, obviously.  Carter and Fusco are a little bit on a need-to-know basis, and the collision that they have encountered, up to this point, has been more on a municipal level, with HR, Quinn and Simmons.  And then, there is the larger nemesis of Root (Amy Acker), who is interested in freeing the machine.  When we last saw her, she got away, but we will hear from her again.  The great part of all these characters is that they come and they coalesce in interesting ways, on our show, and bump up against each other, all in the fine city of New York.  It gives each of our characters their own dilemmas, but they often bump up against each other and need each other’s help. 

Will the characters be ripped apart and have to follow their own paths permanently?

NOLAN: Greg and I wanted the characters to be able to change and grow.  We don’t want them locked.  There are many, many great TV shows, in which you’re not invested in the personal lives of your characters.  Law & Order is a great example.  You’re more invested in what they’re doing than who they are.  But, with our show, we very much wanted our characters to evolve, change and grow, from season to season, even if that threatened relationships that have become comfortable and happy for all.  I think the one relationship that Greg and I would add to the mix is the silent partner in all of this, which is the machine.  Just because those relationships are where they’ve been for the last dozen episodes, it doesn’t mean they’ll stay there.  What these guys are doing is highly illegal, dangerous and, in many ways, unethical or ethically dubious.  Those questions continue to drive our heroes, and drive them apart.  We want to keep the stakes as high as possible, as we keep the burner going on the season, while it goes forward, with that question of the relationships with each other and their trust with each other.  These are broken people and we want to continue to challenge them. 

Will Elias (Enrico Colantoni) ever become more of an ally with Reese and Finch?

person-of-interest enrico colantoni jim caviezelPLAGEMAN: I think Reese is going to be incarcerated, and we know who runs that.  I would lay bets that you might see the tentacles of our friend again. 

NOLAN: Yes, Reese is in a bit of a pickle. 

PLAGEMAN: We love Enrico Colantoni.  He’s a phenomenal actor.  It’s amazing when I see him playing a good guy on another show because I think he’s just devoured this role in a way that’s just fun and that he relishes.  We definitely want to revisit the relationship with him, which is also a complicated one.  What we are seeing, from what you witnessed in the last episode, is that HR is down, but not out.  The tensions between HR and Elias are very much at the forefront of what’s coming. 

NOLAN: Yeah, I think there’s a war looming there.  No question about it.  Elias is still running the town, but he’s running it from prison.  That’s something of a dangerous proposition. 

With Finch investigating the numbers on his own for awhile, will viewers see more of whether he’s ever had a partner before and how he got injured, in the first place?

NOLAN: If we don’t continue to tell some of that story in flashbacks, with his partner, Nathan Ingram (Brett Cullen), and how Finch became Finch, Michael [Emerson] will probably kill us, if his fans don’t. 

PLAGEMAN: We really enjoyed having Michael’s wife, Carrie Preston, on the show.  That was a phenomenal episode, with 208.  We fully intend to tell that story, before the season is done.

In the pilot, when viewers first see Reese on the subway, he’s in a yellow square and it’s become apparent that anyone who’s in a yellow square has knowledge of the machine.  Is there more to that story, about how Reese knew about the machine before he even met Finch, that you’re going to eventually spool out?

NOLAN: That’s a really good question, and it’s a delight when you’re talking to folks who are watching the show really closely and looking for the little details.  But, these storylines do all connect to each other and we hope to continue exploring how they connect to each other, for as many seasons as we’ve got. 

Person of Interest airs on Thursday nights on CBS, returning with new episodes on January 3, 2013.




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  • Lance

    Cool interview! I really like the show, it’s one of the more innovative ones on the air right now.

  • João Paulo (@JPaulo645)

    My favorite show on TV today.

  • marshfield

    i really love the understated intensity of this show. very few network dramas hole my interest in the slightest yet this one feels both rooted ( ! ) and unruly. truly, a rare combination.

  • kemo517

    Nolan and Plageman chaneled the Dark Knight well

  • Abby

    Thanks for the transcript! I love the show and am really looking forward to seeing how they develop the story of the machine. And also to the reappearance of Elias, Root and Stanton.

  • mrgordo

    The only “non-cable” show I watch.
    really like to see them bring Ken Leung (as Leon Tang) as a regular

  • lll

    Great interview.

  • Jamie

    This is far and away the best thing on television at the moment and having just watched a very crucial season 2 episode I really sincerely hope there is going to be at least another 2 seasons.

    Mr Nolan and Mr Plageman I salute you.

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