Friday, March 5, 2010

Interview with JERICHO and HUMAN TARGET's Robert Levine: Part V - Writing for Human Target

Part I - Climbing the ladder as a writer's assistant
Part II - Working on Jericho's first season
Part III - Writing Season Two of Jericho
Part IV - Writing the Jericho comic book and getting an agent

After a stint on staff of CBS’ Harper’s Island, Levine was hired as part of the writing staff for Fox’s Human Target, which is currently in its first season, airing Wednesday nights at 8/7c on Fox.

Let’s move on to Human Target. You did the second episode of the season which was the “trapped on a plane” story, and when I set this interview up with you, you hinted that episode had an interesting genesis, so can you take me through how that story was born?

It started with Jon Steinberg, the show-runner, saying “I want to do an episode on a plane. The whole episode is gonna take place on the plane.” And his vision from the beginning was “I want to tell the story out of chronological order so it builds as a mystery in terms of what you know at any given moment about anyone on this plane.” Because by definition, you’re limiting the number of people in the story, so how do you keep it interesting? Well, you keep it interesting by changing the audience’s perceptions.

Like we come in at the middle of the story and we meet the flight attendant and we spend half the show thinking she’s just a flight attendant and then by flashing back we learn she’s really one of the bad guys involved in the whole scheme.

We can play with who we think the good guys are, who we think the bad guys are, and who we think the person we’re supposed to be protecting is. In the final form… the twist about who we think the person we’re protecting ended up being very minimal. But that was the sort of thesis for the show.

So it’s to find as many things as you can introduce in the future time point that can be turned on its ear when we see the past time point.

It’s very difficult to find a story to fit that rigid of a format, but to Jon’s credit he felt it would work and we found it. It just took a while.

I have to say, I hate when shows start with a big action scene and then, BAM, a caption that says “18 Hours Earlier,” which J.J. Abrams did a lot on Alias. It’s used effectively sometimes, but I feel that done wrong it becomes a crutch. I think the way you went back-and-forth kept it interesting so there were multiple reveals throughout the episode and not just so you could have an exciting opening and then give the set-up.

It’s interesting that you say that because Jon said the exact same thing, “I don’t just want to do it once. I don’t want to do the J.J. thing. I want to really make it a device and go back-and-forth a couple of times." And at a certain point in the process, that format is so naturally complicated, it was suggested, “Why can’t you guys just show one scene from later at the beginning and then tell it linearly from that point forward? Wouldn’t that be better for everyone?” And to Jon’s credit [he said] “We’re gonna try it this way and we’re gonna make this work.”

Then it became a question of why are these people on this plane? Why is this plane in trouble? It would have to be a scenario that Chance (Mark Valley) wouldn’t know about because then he never would have put the person on the plane or gotten on the plane himself. So it has to arise out of the story.

Like turning the plane upside down. How did you come up with that one?

I think we pitched a whole story to the network that had none of that. I think at that point the story was that something was wrong with the plane and that everyone on the plane was not there by accident, that one person had manipulated all these people onto the plane and then sabotaged it to kill them all for some reason. It was a revenge motive or something. And the network to their credit was like “It’s okay. It’s not Human Target.”

Was this produced as the second episode?

It was produced as the fourth.

I had a feeling that they had moved it up to number two in the airing order from later in the production schedule because it seemed odd creatively that the “trapped on a plane” story immediately followed the “trapped on a runaway train” story in the pilot.

That’s one reason why you make a show that doesn’t have heavy serialization. The network wants the option of showing them in any order they want, [leading] with the ones they feel are the strongest.

This episode was directed by a guy named Steve Boyum. He’s an amazing action director. He shot the shit out of it and it doesn’t look like a TV show, it looks like a movie. So naturally they were like, “We want to show it second.” They didn’t really care about the planes/trains thing.

Plus you had such an odd airing schedule the first week that maybe you had people catch the second episode who didn’t see the first, and as you said, it doesn’t really matter because they’re not serialized.

Right. So we had a story that was action on a plane, but it wasn’t "Human Target” yet. We’re all sitting around in this moment of despair because we’ve been working so hard to make this work and the network’s saying it’s not enough and then Steve Scaia, one of the writers on the show – who’s really into planes – he goes, “Well we could flip the plane upside down.” And everyone’s like “What????” He says, “Yeah, it’s not impossible. Technically the plane should be able to do it. It probably wouldn’t stay in the air…” So it starts spinning out and [we realize] I’ve never seen that before, I’ve seen it with a boat in The Poseidon Adventure, it’s a crazy visual. And then you think about it in terms of the story we’re trying to tell… we’re telling it in two timelines, it’s like “What if in one timeline the plane’s [right side up] and in one timeline it’s [upside down?] You know immediately where you are in the story because when the plane is upside down, it’s later and when it’s right side up, it’s earlier. It clicked. So from there it became “Why do you turn the plane upside down?”

And out of that comes the fire, and that probably leads to having them crawl up into the crawlspace area…

The wheel well, yeah. That was the work I did at that point. We had talked about who this person was that Chance was protecting and we landed on the idea that they were a hacker, which is actually semi-based on a real story. Two years ago, this computer expert Dan Kaminsky is fucking around one morning and he discovers what’s called a DNS flaw in the internet. It was something that always existed and if anyone actually knew about it and recognized it you could create all kinds of problems with it. It’s basically something that would allow you to, if I’m you and I type in Bank of America on my computer, a website pops up that looks like Bank of America, but it’s not. And I’d give them my information and then it would be stolen. That’s what DNS is, it’s the protocol by which when you ask for a website, it’s delivered to you by the internet.

So he had discovered this flaw that would allow all kinds of crazy exploitation of that. It didn’t seem like anyone was aware of it and he pointed it out to his girlfriend and she was like, “That’s insane.” He called all his buddies that were expert programmers and they formed this sort of secret meeting… he got on a plane without telling anyone, met these guys and they just worked through the night to create a patch for it before anybody realizes what’s wrong. So that was the inspiration.

In the effort to make it concise and understandable to the layman, it becomes something [in our show] that’s completely implausible which is “the skeleton key to the internet.” But the point is it allowed us to create a story where Chance would get on the plane. If Chance knew who the protectee was he wouldn’t let them get on the plane. But if he doesn’t know who the person is and getting on the plane is the only way to figure out who the person is, then it makes sense.

Making a computer hacker the protectee allowed them to be important, but also anonymous. So I knew I had a character who was a hacker with the skeleton key to the internet, and you want that character to be an agent in their own survival. So if the plane is upside down and stuck that way, and you have someone who can access the internet and get whatever they want… What if you have them essentially create a new flight computer that Chance then has to go plug in, and conveniently the only place you can plug it in is the most dangerous place on the plane… the wheel well And that’s perfect because Chance now has to go into the wheel well, it’ll be open to the sky, but then as soon as he fixes the plane, the ceiling becomes the floor and suddenly he’s falling out of the plane. So it all made sense for me.

One domino knocked over the other and suddenly you have a cool set-piece.

Exactly. Now I have my big action for the show. And from there we talked about her [the flight attendant], and the story for Chance and that stuff ended up linking in to what we’re eventually going to reveal about him – which I won’t talk about.

Well, I did have a reader want me to ask you if we’ll ever learn the backstories of how the leads first met?

Yeah. Very soon actually. I think we’re gonna do it in episode 12. That’s all I’ll say.

Alright, well that’s a bit down the line, so no need to spoil that. My last question about your episode is, did you end up doing a lot of technical research about airplanes in order to work everything out?

Well, we have a tech advisor on the show who’s a guy with a heavy military background. He hooked me up with a lot of people. My questions were primarily about fire safety on planes, and what kind of systems are in place to deal with fires on planes – which is scary. The reality of it is scary. He’s telling me about how if the fire’s anywhere but in the luggage compartment they have to take axes and literally cut up the ceiling or the floor to access the fuselage of the plane to put the fire out. At one point I had a scene like that in the show… I talked to two pilots… the director is a big pilot guy, so he knew a lot of stuff too.

So definitely a lot of people who knew the reality, and then I’m sure there are moments where you make a conscious decision, “Reality’s going to be boring – we can stretch plausibility a bit.”

It’s definitely that. It’s also that you can’t get a consensus. One guy tells you one thing, one guy says something different. There’s a lot of different planes out there, a lot of different models. The big question obviously was, “Can a plane fly upside down?” So the first thing we did was, Scaia – who pitched it – has a friend who has a flight simulator in his home. So we called that guy and asked “Can you run this scenario?” Two hours later he sends us a link and we go to YouTube…the simulator will spit out like a cartoon of the plane actually doing what you tell it to do and it shows you what the instruments are doing… so the plane goes upside down… and right when [it’s almost flipped 180 degrees] you look at the instrument panel and… it just completely dies. It doesn’t even know how to process anything.

So if the flight simulator can’t tell you what will happen…

Guys have flipped those kinds of planes before. There’s video of it. They haven’t kept them in that position obviously. The basic sense was “No, it would fall out of the sky” but…

It’s a TV show.

Yeah. What’s more fun?

And that's where we'll leave it, with thanks once more to Rob for generously talking with us for this in-depth interview.


  1. Thanks BSR for a wonderful interview. I really enjoyed all five parts and I loved the in depth look at Jericho!


  2. Gwen, thanks for the praise and thank you for posting links to the interview like mad! Seriously, every time I went to a Jericho site to post a link to the interview, I'd already been beaten there by you! It definately was appreciated.

    I hope everyone enjoyed this interview and found it useful, even those readers who don't watch JERICHO and HUMAN TARGET. I think there's a lot of great stuff about TV writing in all five parts. If you'd like to see more interviews like this, let me know!

  3. Fantastic interview, Bitter! Would love to see more like this. You are a hard-hitting journalist and got to all the right questions that us writer's were looking to be answered.