From show creator Beau Willimon (House of Cards), the Hulu original drama series The First is set in the near-future and follows a crew of astronauts, led by former mission commander Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), who are attempting to become the first humans on Mars. Under the direction of aerospace magnate Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), while the crew prepares for such an incredible achievement in human history, they must also deal with the personal toll that such a far away mission will take on their family and loved ones.
At the L.A. press day to discuss the new series, Collider sat down with showrunner Beau Willimon and executive producer Jordan Tappis to talk about how often pulling off The First felt impossible, wanting to get all of the details right, why eight episodes was the right amount, how long they’ve been working on this series, how they came to work together, the bigger plan for the story they’re telling, collaborating with Sean Penn and the cast, why Agnieszka Holland was the right director to set up the series, picking the perfect music composer, and shifting perspective to expand the story. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.
Collider: This is just so stunning! It’s one of those TV shows where you watch it and wonder how anybody could have actually made this as a TV show because it seems like it would have been impossible.
BEAU WILLIMON: Near impossible, yeah.
Did you have moments where it felt impossible?
JORDAN TAPPIS: Yeah, I’m still recovering from those moments.
How did you get through them?
WILLIMON: We’re lucky to have each other as partners, and I also think we did a pretty good job at building a great team. Whenever anyone was really feeling under the gun and pushed to their limits, there was always someone to help come and pick up the slack. And then, our partners at Channel 4 were really understanding. All of us, including the networks, were tackling something that none of us had tackled before. There are plenty of stories out there that are science fiction related, or that are about space travel, but this particular one, and the way we were trying to do it, in the near future, can be more challenging than the far future because you have to somehow integrate the world that we’re filming in with our envisioning of the world, 13 years from now. That, alone, is a huge challenge. What do communications devices look like? What do cars look like? Just like there’s a car from 1993 somewhere on this street, you’re still gonna have the past there with your future. And then, there was the huge technical project of trying to get it right, in terms of, what does a Mars transit vehicle look like? We had to design every element, along the way, and we wanted to be as realistic as possible, so we were literally asking questions like, how many cubic meters of liquid oxygen do you need, so that we can design this particular fuel tank to the right proportions? And there are a thousand of those questions that need to be answered. Then, most importantly, it’s also about telling the human story of it all. What do the lives of the people that actually do this look like? The research, on that front, was just as exhaustive. We weren’t just talking to astronauts about the technical aspects of spending seven months in space. We were talking to them about the impact on their actual lives and their own experiences. It was monumental amounts of research, and you’re always fighting the clock and the budget. You’re trying to stretch every penny and every hour, and we faced a ton of challenges on that. When you’re doing certain types of visual effects, for the first time, you can speculate how long it’ll take you to film or how much time it will take in post, and sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong. When you’re wrong, you’ve gotta adjust. We learned a lot of lessons the hard way, but I think that’s a necessary part of the process.
How did you come to decide on eight episodes to tell this story? Is that what Hulu asked you to do it in, or is that just what you thought you needed to tell the story?
WILLIMON: It’s what we proposed, and our partners were on board with that. They agreed that was the right length. I’ve worked in the format of longer seasons, and that has its advantages, in terms of the number of tangents you can head down and still come back to the core story. We knew we were really gonna hold off the launch of the second crew until the end of the first season, so there was a sweet spot, in terms of being able to tell their stories fully so that we’re invested in them when they launch, but not overstaying our welcome, and making sure that every frame counted. Plus, we knew it would be technically challenging, so we wanted to do the best with less, as opposed to stretching ourselves too thin. For both practical and narrative reasons, eight felt right to us.
It seems like this is the kind of story that takes time, as far as planning, thinking about it, and deciding exactly what story you want to tell.
At what point, after leaving House of Cards, did you start to think about The First?
WILLIMON: I was already working on this before I left House of Cards. It went through many changes and evolutions, but it’s been well over three years, maybe almost four years of my life, just getting this first season done. You’re absolutely right, coming up with the scope of a television show and developing your characters, is time consuming, no matter what, and this is entirely original. It’s not based on any source material. Add to that the amount of research we had to do and consulting with tech advisors, and you can double that amount of work. We took our time, we were methodical, and we didn’t try to force this or rush it, but then you’re in production and suddenly everything is rushed, which is like space travel, actually. You spend years trying to get a project off the ground, and then suddenly NASA approves the funding and it’s gotta happen by the next launch window and everything is moving very fast.
When did you guys start working together?
TAPPIS: We formed our company many years prior to this project, so we’d been working together for several years before this project. The first project that we ever worked on together was The Walk Around the World, about a man walking around the world. His name is Karl Bushby, and he started on the southern tip of South America in 1998, and he’s still walking. He’s in China, at the moment. Beau and I both have a fascination with stories of adventure and journeys, and Karl exemplified that and brought us together, in many ways. Through the telling of that story, we decided that we liked working together and that it was fun. We compliment each other well, so we wanted to try another one.
WILLIMON: We have a few docs that are in various stages of completion right now. We both have a love for documentary. It’s a tough racket, but for those that love it, it’s like going to Mars. You have no choice. And then, we’re very proud to have helped get A Master Builder made, which is one of Jonathan Demme’s last films. But this is, by far, the largest project that we’ve done, as a company. Hopefully, there will be more to come.
Jordan, having been a professional surfer turned music executive turned director/producer, and making something that seems like a very different project for you, what was this whole experience like?
TAPPIS: I’ve always taken on things that I didn’t fully understand. I started a record company when I was 22. I’d never had a job in my life, other than surfing. I spent most of my days with a book called Everything You Need to Know About the Music Business on my lap while doing conference calls with bands and managers and record company executives. I’m pretty familiar with walking into the unknown. In fact, this is the perfect project for that type of an experience. I’ve been surrounded by and working in film and television for most of my adult life, but this is, by far, the largest project, and strangely, it felt totally normal, from the beginning, as if I’ve done it a million times, as I was learning everything for the first time. I don’t know what that’s all about.
WILLIMON: We certainly made tons of mistakes along the way and learned a lot of things the hard way, which I think is natural. My dad always said to me, “Any job you know how to do is not a job worth doing.” We were constantly confronted with challenges that we didn’t necessarily know the answers to, and that we had to figure out. Jordan did something extraordinary, which is that he essentially created an a la carte studio overnight. We fully produced this, and that’s a whole layer of responsibility added to just the creative element, which you could say is active masochism, in a way. It also allows you to have a certain amount of freedom and control over what you’re doing, that cuts away a lot of the bullshit and lets you focus on the work itself, even though you’re also dealing with a lot of the business side of things.
TAPPIS: I think a key element, in this particular project, was the partnership that we had with Hulu and Channel 4. Our partnerships around this project and the support that they gave us, from the beginning, really enabled us to act as our own studio for this project. Every step of the way, they were involved, in terms of both business and creative, and really did play a key role in our ability to do this.
WILLIMON: There was a lot of trust, and they understood what we were trying to do, from the get-go. There was risks involved, not just in the size and scale of this thing, but even in narrative choices, like spending most of the first season on Earth, which is a big narrative choice. We could have lept right into going to Mars, in Episode 1. In a way, we do, but then we see it go poorly. The fact that they were willing to get on board with investing that much time with our characters, and they saw that we had a larger vision that extended over years of how we’re gonna tell the story, with all of its facets, takes a lot of guts. They’re the right partners for this project, and we really had a great experience with them.
Do you have a bigger plan for this series? Have you thought about how many seasons you would need and want to tell this story?
WILLIMON: I have. We do have a vision for where the story is going, seasons into the future. I’m not gonna name a number or give you too much information, in terms of what I envision for it, other than to say it’s going somewhere, and where it’s going is Mars. It’s not unreasonable to have the expectation, coming out of Season 1, that we’re gonna now see this crew on their way to Mars. Will they get to Mars in Season 2 or not? Well, tune in to see. But because we’ve spent so much time with the characters on Earth – with their loved ones and also the ground team – we’ll also be able to tell that parallel story. To be able to go back and forth, between the crew and what’s happening on Earth, will lend itself to an interesting juxtaposition that you might not have, if you were just with the crew from the get-go. I think it’s important, as we’re taking humans farther than they’ve ever been in the history of humanity, to remind us of that very Earth from which they’ve left.
The two shows that I’ve watched most recently were Kidding, which brings Jim Carey back to TV, doing some of the best work I’ve ever seen him do, and The Fist, which I think is also some of Sean Penn’s best work. At what point, along the way, did Sean Penn get involved? Had you always thought of him?
WILLIMON: In the very earliest iterations of the drafts and outlines for the show, I wasn’t necessarily trying to place certain actors in my mind because I wanted to just focus on the world building and the characters, outside of all of that. But as soon as we really knew what we wanted to do and it was time to think about who was going to play this very important role, we both leapt at the idea of Sean. We weren’t particularly hopeful, at the beginning, that he’d say yes because he had never done television before, but we had just enough hope to have the guts to ask. That’s really the only way to find out. At first, we were actually told that he was unavailable, and we said, “Okay, well, let’s push and see if maybe something will change. Who knows, but let’s try. He’d be perfect for this.” Luckily, he read the scripts and really responded to them, and that lead to a lot of conversations and meetings, talking about the story and the character and where we were going. There was nothing particularly juicy or dramatic about that process, other than he responded well to the material and we talked at length about it. Eventually, he placed his trust in us and got on board, and then it was a really in-depth and fruitful collaboration, moving forward, and not just with Sean, but with all the actors. I’m interested in their input, their insight, and writing to them. Not every showrunner is that way, but I find that it leads to more interesting material and moments, if you’re really working with your actors, as opposed to saying, “Here’s the script. Now go do your best.”
Beau, you said that you have a bigger plan for the series. Are you someone that likes to stick to the plan, or do you also try to stay open to the possibilities that come up, along the way?
WILLIMON: Both. I like to have an overall plan, so that I have a direction, and I know what I’m trying to say and what I’m writing toward. And it’s not just me. I’m working with my writers, and asking Jordan’s input. And in the second season and beyond, you’re also talking to the actors and directors that you’re working with. It’s good to have a sense of what you’re trying to accomplish, but you always have to have the willingness to completely toss out major decisions that you’ve made, or rethink them, if what you’re seeing on camera, or just over time with your material, leads to new ideas that are superior to what you had before. That’s the hardest thing to do because you can become really invested in certain choices that you’ve made and be precious about them. There’s a lot at stake, a lot of people who spend months doing prep, and a lot of money on the line. To take big risks, where you make big changes later in the game, can prove extremely challenging, even from a practical standpoint, but you have to be willing to do so. There were a few of those cases, in this first season of this, either because of input from others or just sitting on the story longer and saying, “Actually, I think I can improve upon this.” It’s scary and thrilling, and when it works out, you’re really glad you did it.