Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Interview with JERICHO and HUMAN TARGET's Robert Levine: Part III - Writing Season Two of Jericho

Part I - Climbing the ladder as a writer's assistant
Part II - Working on Jericho's first season

Unsatisfied with the ratings, CBS canceled Jericho after it’s first season, but passionate fans refused to let the show die. Organizing via fan sites and fan message boards, they began a campaign to revive the show. Playing off of a line in the finale where Skeet Ulrich’s character quotes General McAuliffe’s defiant “Nuts!” in the face of superior German forces demanding his surrender, they sent over 20 tons of nuts to the CBS offices as a show of support. The effort paid off, and CBS, intrigued by the passionate response, began arranging Jericho’s return.

What was it like in the offices when you’re hearing about this massive fan response, by the way?

Well, we weren’t in the office. I was sitting at home. It was crazy.

Are you surfing the internet, seeing the reactions and all of that?

You’re mourning the show, you’re mourning this thing that you worked your ass off on and you love everyone involved. You’re hoping so much that it would come back – and then all of a sudden you’re hearing these rumblings of what’s happening at CBS with the peanuts, and they’re reconsidering. And especially for me, it was my first show, my first staff job. It was very hard to get. It was a long journey. It’s like, “Am I gonna have to start all over again or what?”

Then three weeks later I’m back at work. It’s insane.

So they told you straight out “It’s seven episodes and we’ll see…”

Yeah, which was great because we could just conceive it as a movie. Three acts. We knew where we wanted to go. We knew the milestones. We broke that thing very quickly.

And that was an effort in the room? It wasn’t like [executive producer] Carol [Barbee] comes in and says “Here’s the master plan. You guys conform to it.” How is a master plan for a season developed?

For season two Carol’s first question was “how do we resolve this cliffhanger and then where do we want to go from there?” And I think by then we all had a pretty good idea what our mythology for the show was. Jon Steinberg was a big source for a lot of vision for that story in particular. Jon was one of the original creators of the show. I think it was always in his mind that the show was a show about civil war. That it would eventually get there once it got through that stage of being a mystery show. For Jon I think it was almost as interesting a story once you knew what was happening [outside of Jericho]. What happens next? The government is gone, the country is split in half. Jericho is deep within one half of the country and they are not the good guys. And [dealing with] what happens.

I think we knew that we were telling a French Resistance story. We were telling a story about an occupied city and we knew that at a certain point, our people would rise up. [The question was] at the beginning of the season, they’re given everything back, so why rebel?

They get everything they were missing in season one, so what do they have to complain about?

Suddenly you’re back within the warm embrace of Uncle Sam, or in this case the ASA, so why would you rise up? Why would you fight that? We knew it would have to be big and would have to be something that would be really terrible and sad. That’s where the conversation started. We talked a lot about the character of Stanley (Brad Beyer). He owns a farm and at the beginning of the first season he was going to lose the farm to the IRS and in the second season he gets the farm back. His debt is wiped clean. And by then he’s got this woman Mimi he’s in love with, he’s got his sister Bonnie with him and everything’s working out for him. That was where the gravity started circling that “this might be where…”

Might be where “The Bad Thing” has to happen.

I think it was Jon Steinberg who said “What if we killed Bonnie [Stanley’s younger sister?]” It was one of those ideas where – these ideas happen a lot in a writers room. An idea is spoken outloud and there’s a very visceral reaction to them. And a lot of times that reaction is “No! That’s horrible! That’s awful!” Then you realize the strength of the reaction you’re having is in many ways advocating for that story point.

Because you’re not playing it safe…

And it’s doing everything that you’re demanding of the story, where you need something horrible. Very quickly I was like “Well she’s gotta go down fighting. She has to go down defending her home” and then we start talking about that family. We have this character Mimi (Alicia Coppola) who Bonnie (Shoshannah Stern) hated at first, who was the outsider, and now they’ve come together. So it would be wonderful if Bonnie died defending Mimi, who she had essentially welcomed into their family. So it all started to make a lot of sense very quickly. Then the whole season mapped out from there.

And Bonnie’s death is your episode! So everything in that conversation is everything you have to service in your episode.

Once I knew I was writing episode four I knew that I was killing Bonnie.

So you’re probably like “Well, at least I’ve got a great ending.” Is it harder or easier to write an episode when you have so much predetermined for you by where it falls in the through-line?


It doesn’t kill spontaneity or anything?

I think it’s better. There’s still plenty to figure out. There always is. The challenge of that episode was the other story.

Because this is where Jake (Skeet Ulrich) and Hawkins (Lennie James) bring Heather (Sprague Grayden) into their alliance. You’ve got Heather betraying Beck (Esai Morales), and a lot of other plot threads… Was there a point where you looked at your To-Do list and thought “How am I gonna fit all of this in?”

The first hurdle of that episode was talking about the town – what was the rest of the town doing, knowing that the Bonnie thing was going to sneak up on the story and the audience… what is happening at the beginning of the episode that’s keeping people interested? That took a lot of conversation… and we always go back to “What comes into town that like a stone thrown into a pond, starts all the ripples?” And it became – money. They reintroduce money to Jericho. We were always trying to do this – taking something that’s very familiar and tweaking it a little so that it’s weird. [For example] we take a flag that looks like the American flag, but we flip the stars and stripes. So if you looked at it from a distance it would look normal but then the closer you get to it the more disturbing it is. In this case we did it with the dollar bills. They look like our dollar bills but they’re a different color and they say “Allied States of America” instead of “United States of America” and so that got everyone very excited.

[Then] we came up with this thing where [the government] would loan you a lot of money and then turn around and want to collect on it and suddenly you’re in debt to them. That turned into… a scene where [our characters] are arguing about if this was the right way to go or not and Stanley could be a big voice in that scene saying “Guys, everything’s fine. What’s the big deal?”

Because you knew in the next episode that would flip.

Yeah, “Why are we talking about rebellion? It’s over.” On the other side of that we have Dale being the black market engineer saying “This is bad. They’re cutting us off. They’re making us dependant on them.”

And then there’s the Jake story where Jake has to bring Heather into the secret and she has to steal some information from a binder in Beck’s office that would lead Beck to finding that Hawkins has been hiding a nuke. Meanwhile, Hawkins has sent Beck on a wild goose chase, and I do want to talk a little about Beck. He turns into an antagonist, but he’s a sympathetic antagonist. You’re with his point of view the whole time. How did you guys land on developing Beck in that way?

We had a character at the end of season one played by Titus Welliver, who we were all fans of. He was a leader in the ASA and we had plans for him. He was gonna become the steward of the town…. It became a question of “How will Jericho remain an important town once the story gets bigger and bigger and bigger?” It’s important at the beginning of the show merely because it exists. It’s a place where people survived, where they’re far enough away from the chaos that they can continue to live. That’s a central question in any story: Why this character? Why this place?

As we got into talking about the second season [and why Jericho was important] it became a conversation about Beck. Beck was someone that we created to replace Titus’ character because we couldn’t get Titus back. And the idea was that he’d be in charge of Jericho. He would be someone that was principled, who thinks he’s doing the right thing, who is a tough character who initially presents as an adversary and then over the course of the seven episodes, has his eyes opened by Robert Hawkins to the reality of what’s happening in his own backyard, and ultimately turns.

And the idea was that he’d turn at the end of the show and if we every came back, Jericho becomes important because it is the one island among all the ASA where even the military commanders are in active revolt. It would become the epicenter of the resistance in a very real way – not just the townspeople but the military people.

I think that whole story was really well-built, by the way. You didn’t have anyone have to step out of character. There was never a moment where it felt like something was being done specifically to service the plot.

Yeah, because he’s a man of principle. and as soon as you can reveal to someone like that that he’s not working for the right people, he will make the right decision.

And Hawkins accomplishes that through a set-up where he sends Beck on a wild goose chase after a dead terrorist and lets him “find” evidence that Hawkins has had in his possession all along.

Yeah, the kabuki theatre, as we called it. That wasn’t in the story for a long time. I have a very specific memory of that too because we were deep into outlining the episode, I was being told to go to script, and I knew I did not have a Hawkins story yet. I knew enough, I’d been doing it long enough that I could tell [we were missing something.]

When you’re the writer of the episode – a lot of people will write words that end up in the episode, a lot of people will contribute – but there is always one person whose responsibility it is to shepherd the episode. And in that case that’s what I was doing and my sense was that we didn’t have a story there. We knew that Hawkins would get a mysterious phone call, that he’d be talking to this character who’d be telling him he was in danger, but the thing that we were neglecting to service was at the end of the previous episode, Hawkins had said to Beck, “I’m going to help you find this terrorist.” The audience knows that he has no intention of doing that because he is the person that Beck is looking for and that the person Beck’s been tricked into looking for is dead.

We didn’t consider it [when we wrote the previous episode] but the reality of the situation is that Beck is going to come in the next morning and expect Hawkins to provide things. There’s a lie that has to be serviced. And actually I was on the train down to Comic-Con that year for Jericho, with Steve Scaia and Matt Federman, some of my fellow writers, and I was saying “Hawkins has to follow up or he’s a fraud.” So that created a conversation of, “What if he walks into Beck’s office and says, “I saw Sarah Mason [the terrorist.]” He’s doing what he promised he would do, which is help Beck find his terrorist. Why would he do that? What is his ultimate goal with Beck? And we had to remind ourselves that the larger story is about Beck’s turning, Beck’s awareness.

So how do we get this evidence that Hawkins has into Beck’s hands?

Right. The trick is how does Hawkins put the evidence into Beck’s hands that he wants him to see, but do it in a way that Beck doesn’t suspect Hawkins of any foul play. So that’s the tension of the story, and then it all rolled out very quickly. The idea was “well, Beck’s not stupid so at a certain point we want to make it seem like he’s seen through the ruse that Hawkins has played out. And confront him about it, and play that scene out.” What does Hawkins do if Beck says “You’re lying to me?” Does he run for his life? [And] what the scene ended up being was that Hawkins calls Beck’s bluff and it turns out Beck was bluffing, that he didn’t know what to believe and he was hoping that Hawkins would give him an out. And the ironic thing is that everything Hawkins was telling him was true – except for his role in it, which was very cool I thought, the way it worked out.

The other thing I thought was cool was that everything Hawkins shows Beck about Sarah Mason, Valente, etc. was all stuff that we had played in the show. We’d seen that evidence be collected, and we were able to pay off something that maybe we didn’t originally plan to, but the story organically creates a place for that stuff to come back into play. So that was cool.

If anything, I would have guessed that story was part of the master plan because it seemed so pivotal so it’s funny to hear it came in so late in the process.

I think when I left the writer’s room, the story was that [Hawkins’ source] calls and says that they’re going to find the bomb [that Hawkins has been hiding], [Jake and Hawkins] recruit Heather, she tears the page out of the binder [that would lead to the bomb] and almost gets caught, and that’s the end of it. And I’m was looking at it [and realized] “Robert Hawkins is doing nothing in this story. He’s sending Heather in to do the difficult thing. This will never work.” I knew enough that you don’t sideline Robert Hawkins in an episode of Jericho. That’s probably the thing I’m most proud of in that episode is that we figured that thing out. Then the easy part was the Bonnie stuff.

Because that dictated so much of the rest of the season.

We always knew we had that, and that by the end of the episode no one was going to care about the rest of it.

Part IV - Writing the Jericho comic book and getting an agent
Part V - Writing for Human Target

1 comment:

  1. Wow!!!

    This is so amazing to hear the creative process. Jericho's writers are extremely talented.