‘Halt and Catch Fire’ showrunner on writing dynamic female characters

05.29.15 2 years ago


AMC made “Halt and Catch Fire” sweat it out a little before giving the '80s-set computer drama a second season renewal last summer. The pick-up didn't come until several weeks after the first finale, far from standard operating procedure on cable, where renewals have been known to come after a big premiere, or sometimes even sooner.

“There's so much scripted material right now that to break through and find an audience that can frankly support of the metrics of a TV show is hard. So I was not sure. I thought it was 50-50,” “Halt and Catch Fire” showrunner Jonathan Lisco told me when we sat down in January.

It was a slightly strange time to talk about “Halt,” since the second season hadn't even begun production and at the TCA press tour panel earlier in the day, Lisco had teased a time jump taking the show from the uncertain events of the finale — Donna and Cameron plotting Mutiny, Joe heading out into the wilderness — to an even more nebulous place.

So while there are some teases for the new season — hints about a couple added characters make a lot more sense having subsequently seen the first four episodes, which are really good — we talked at least as much about aspects of the first season, including the evolution of Donna, introduced misleadingly as another disapproving cable wife, as one of the show's most loved characters.

“When we got what you might call 'critique' of the first couple of episodes, we all just said, 'Guys, do you need your whole dinner served up to you right now? We can't thwart your expectations unless we're going to mislead you a tiny bit at first,'” Lisco laughed. “So we were lulling people into that belief. But then the level of aggression came out and the path I think was influenced more by what people perceived to be the flaws in other shows than the flaws in our own, which is perfectly understandable and I don't begrudge anyone. But I'm glad that now people see how dynamic the female characters are.”

We also discussed the legal stickiness of featuring a Macintosh last season and the historical stickiness of wanting to depict their fictional characters as brilliant, without letting them be part of discoveries made by real people.

“Halt and Catch Fire” begins its second season on Sunday (May 31). Check out my full Q&A with Jonathan Lisco below…

HitFix: I guess my first question is sort of one of nuts-and-bolts. There was a longish gap of time between the end of the season and the renewal. How confident were you there was going to be a season two?

Jonathan Lisco: I wasn't confident at all, to be perfectly candid. I wasn't sure. We have great support from the network, meaning it was clear to me that they liked the show creatively and they thought we had done a very good job. But it's a new landscape out there. There's so much scripted material right now that to break through and find an audience that can frankly support of the metrics of a TV show is hard. So I was not sure. I thought it was 50-50.

HitFix:  What were the conversations from your end to sort of push and encourage them to make that happen?

Jonathan Lisco: You know what? To their credit, AMC wanted the show to get renewed, they just wanted to find a good business reason why it should be renewed. They ran the numbers I'm sure, I'm not in those backroom conversations, but I know that they were running the numbers with a great deal of enthusiasm and passion in their hearts for their show, which does not hurt. At the same time, we were in conversations with them all summer about what we wanted to do with the characters moving forward and trying to get them creatively pregnant with those ideas. And I hope we succeeded. And I'm sure that was part of the renewal.

HitFix: I mean clearly it must have succeeded.

Jonathan Lisco: Well, it must have been, but I think there are also, just to be crass, business realities, which they had to work through before they knew. And that includes getting money from international marketplaces and things like that, which we simply have no control over.

HitFix: It's just such sort of unfortunate timing that you guys appeared almost around the same time as “Turn,” but Turn had the older viewer tie-in to “Hell on Wheels” that allowed AMC to match them, whereas you guys didn't have that. So what were you saying in terms of what we could do to make people discover it after the fact?

Jonathan Lisco: Well again, I'm not a marketing guru but I do know this: I think some people's perception of the show, and the title undeniably may have fed into this, is that it's a show for sprocket heads. It's a show for people who like computers and it's going to look at the beginning of the information age, and I'm speaking nasal to be a stereotypical geek, right? But it's not. The A-story of our show is not the bits and the bytes. The A-story is our character's reactions to what's going on in the technology story. We're linking the spine of technology to people's hopes and dreams; they're baking their hopes and dreams and visions of the future into this stuff. And I think that something that everyone can understand. So what we were talking about is when you remarket the show, let's make sure people know that. Like I used to run a show called “Southland.” Some people don't like cop shows, but there were plenty of people who didn't like cop shows who liked “Southland.” Why is that? Because the A-story wasn't the cop story. And similarly in this show the A-story is not simply the technology story.

HitFix: So you really do go with the idea that the title was, at least to some degree, a barrier? Because I honestly never felt that way, but obviously some people do.

Jonathan Lisco: No. I'll always sort of be candid with you, I don't think so, but there's been a lot of criticism and a lot of discussion of whether or not it was a barrier. And so I'm just nodding to the fact that some people may have felt it that way, but I think I'm on record today at the panel saying I love it and I still love it.

HitFix: In your mind what have you thought of as the joke title that you really would have liked to go with?

Jonathan Lisco: There was so many out there but they were sort of writing their own review like “Control Alt Delete.” You don't want that as the title because that like writes its own bad review. And also I think that those terms weren't even really in vogue at the time that we were writing, so they're anachronistic to begin with. So I didn't really have an alternative. I don't think anybody at the network did and I don't think anybody who was really looking at the problem did and I think that's one of the many reasons why we went with it.

HitFix: Well, “Turn” has gone with a new subtitle.

Jonathan Lisco: What is it? I know Craig really well. He used to work with me.

HitFix: It's like something specifically about spies so it actually is “Turn from the something something spy ring” or something. [“Turn: Washington's Spies.”] I think it's the book's subtitle but it actually is going to be in the formal title. So do you have a fun subtitle that you would love to put in for Season two? “Halt and Catch Fire:”?

Jonathan Lisco: “It's not just about the technology.”

HitFix: You've got the four characters who are locked in at this point. What are the thoughts on Season 2 about expanding the universe?

Jonathan Lisco: Oh, we're definitely going to expand the universe. There's going to be no fewer than three new characters who I think are going to pop in Season 2. And it's hard for me to tell you more without spoiling it but there will definitely be characters coming.

HitFix: Without saying what are the characters are, from a dramatic and functional point of view, what can you tell me about them and what they're going to sort of bring to the world?

Jonathan Lisco: Well, one of them will definitely be a new relationship for Joe MacMillan and we'll be testing the thesis that Joe is actually capable of redemption. And Joe's storyline, just to stay on that for a second, is going to be largely about redemption and whether or not a guy who has committed those kinds of wrongs and treating people badly and burnt his own creation to the ground can come back and can we see a new authenticity in Joe or is that just going to be another mask that he's wearing? That will be a question. And this character that I'm talking about will be a linchpin in determining that question. Then there'll be another character who I think will be, similarly, a new relationship for Cameron who's really going to test whether or not she's grown any wiser and test who she is now and whether or not off the baggage of the relationship with Joe she can actually have a true authentic relationship with another person, or whether or not she's going to bring all that baggage to bare.

HitFix: And how much thought should I be putting into the fact that you just made those descriptions without gender pronouns?

Jonathan Lisco: I think anything is possible. Anything is possible. And while we're not abandoning certainly the idea of what many people are calling Joe's bisexuality or we may call his sexual fluidity and the architecture of Joe, I think you're going to find him in a circumstance that will surprise you.

HitFix: I was just talking with Lee and Mackenzie, they both said that they felt like the Joe/Cameron relationship was a relationship that had love in it. And I was surprised to hear how certain they both were that there was love there. Do you feel that way?

Jonathan Lisco: Yes. I've had that same conversation with them certainly while working on the scenes. And I think certain moments pop for me and stay in my consciousness. And one of them is the end of Episode 6 last season when really he comes over in the rain during the hurricane. And he says, “Do you have anybody? Because I don't.” And she says, “Come on in.” And he says, “Show me what you're working on.” They go to the computer. They sit down and they kiss. And afterwards he says, “This is really good.” And they look at each other. And it's, I think, one of his first truly vulnerable wanting moments. And I think they both loved each other, but unfortunately it's sort of like the antigen enzyme complex, they weren't able to fit together, they simply weren't. And then, of course, he made the right business decision, but the worst decision for his relationship by taking out her daughterboard from the Cardiff Giant.

HitFix: Talk a bit about the phrasing of the tech guide review in the finale for the Cardiff Giant, because I just liked the wording of it so much because it's a B+ review. So if I'm writing that review for a show I swear I'm meaning it as a positive. But if you get that review for a show I suspect you probably view it as a negative probably.

Jonathan Lisco: We do. It's all in the ear of the beholder. That's absolutely true. And I think this is one of the reasons why, even though it was a solid computer, do you put all your hopes and dreams into something hoping that people are going to think it's solid and used for a municipal water table review and that it's a good addition to the field of TV? Is that what you want? And that's kind of what the review said. It's a good addition to the workhorse field of personal computing. And that's why Gordon looks like he's death warmed-over in that low shot at the table when he says, “What's next?” He almost looks green in that shot; he's wearing a green shirt. But he genuinely is sickened by the idea that he's put everything on the line for something that wound up to be just okay.

HitFix: And I swear if I write that review for something and I sit down with the person I'm like, “But I said it was solid. Can't you see all the things where I say they're rock solid?”

Jonathan Lisco: Well it's funny, you only hear what you want to hear. And I guess that's true. But we're all looking to knock it out of the park. We want to mushroom in your consciousness at night while you're going to bed and have you not be able to forget about us and not think about any of our competitors. It's human nature.

HitFix: And was the “What's next” a nod to “The Candidate”?

Jonathan Lisco: I think that even came up in the writer's room. I think that even came up in the writer's room. So much does. But yes, I don't think it was an homage but I think it was an accidental reference.

HitFix: What is the thought process behind the time jump and its necessity? Because you did leave the characters in very specific places. How much filling in the gaps are you going to be doing and how are you going to be doing it that?

Jonathan Lisco: We're going to be doing some of filling in the gaps, but again, we don't want to talk about the past. We want to just jettison forward. We wanted to be true to what technology is and it all moves very quickly. And we wanted to be able to get to a place where we could tell a different tech story. We don't want to talk about the personal computer anymore, so much as we'd like to this season focus, at least with Mutiny and Cameron and Donna on online gaming and the inception of the chat room. And obviously that's all about conductivity deep down and thus harkens to the proto-Internet. That's where we're really at. And be able to do that, we just wanted to jump a little time so we could put viewers in their own headspace. Plus, Joe goes up on that mountain, so to speak, up to that observatory, and we needed him to take some time up there so he could come down potentially a different person.

HitFix: Well okay, literally how much time is he going to spend at that observatory?

Jonathan Lisco: You'll have to hear about it. Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.

HitFix: With the issue of sort of being forward-looking, it's always complicated. Last time we talked, you mentioned how little TV you're able to watch. Did you watch “Manhattan”?

Jonathan Lisco: It's funny, I try to. Trust me with three kids and a show it's hard, but that's absolutely true. I strive to and actually I saw some episodes of TV the other night and I felt like a kid in a candy store. It was fantastic. And then I thought, “Oh they're doing that pretty well” and I hated that part of it. I'm teasing. You know that old joke like when somebody does something well a little part of you dies. No. No. It was really good and it was a friend of mine and they were doing a really good job on the show, but – tell me the question again.

HitFix: The question was about “Manhattan,” a show in which it's real things that happened but everyone of the folk or characters they're all fake people or composites or whatever, so you can't have them making any of the major discoveries. How do you handle people who are supposed to be sort of forward-thinking but they can't literally be visionaries or else… they would have been visionaries?

Jonathan Lisco: That's an excellent question and I haven't seen “Manhattan” but that's an absolute hazard that we're wrestling with all the time on this show. And one of the ways in which we do it is we try and not answer the question. You know? And I don't mean that as an invasion, I mean that as a dramatic engine. Because the tension between “Will this person be a visionary or is he a fraud?” “Is this person going to be Steven Jobs or a Steve Jobs like equivalent in 2015 or is he going to be a footnote in that Wikipedia entry?” To me it's an origin story and I feel like you can keep that going for quite a long time without making one of them into Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. And I would argue that once you do, once you start focusing let's say we made Joe MacMillan into a guy like Steve Jobs in Season 2 who created a cultural paradigm-shifting device and had hundreds of millions of dollars and we told stories about the problems facing that guy, I would argue that's going to be tepid drama by comparison.

HitFix: You made the decision to include the Macintosh by name as a product, but you also still held it. So you at least let the ambiguity for a while.

Jonathan Lisco: Yes. Because that was genuinely a game changer. But again, it's all contextualized to like what is organic to our people's point of view? Joe felt like what they were doing was cutting edge, that's why he took the daughterboard out of the giant. Now it's going to be a product. But he's all focused over here with the blinders on not even seeing that this thing speaks, not even seeing that this is the thing that people who are really in the know in tech are holding a vigil over in this closed room at Comdex in 1983. So for us, it all functions as a way to kick out of the stool from underneath Joe MacMillan. We're not just including it because it's fun to show the Macintosh, we're only doing it if it functions to sort of deflate or take down our characters or buoy them up. So again, it's all about point of view.

HitFix: And I saw Internet comments after the Comdex stuff up about how it was 100 percent accurate and zero percent accurate. Which of those do you read and which of those do you take to heart?

Jonathan Lisco: Oh man! I try not to read any of them. I wind up reading them all. I wind up taking all of them to heart and I wind up not knowing. All I can tell you is that we are doing so much work and our darndest to try and render things credibly and authentically. I think what I take solace in as a storyteller is that ultimately I always feel like I'm succeeding even if I get criticism about the literal letter of the truth if I'm using that to illuminate the deeper truth because that's what we do as a storytellers. So honestly it's not 1983 anymore. It's hard to get people who have pictures of their own little booth. We have big pictures of Vegas show room floors, but that's not about the tone, right? That's not about what it was actually like to be there. We had this Wall Street Journal reporter telling us all about the parties. We took copious notes. We tried to render it with the spirit of authenticity. And I think we largely succeeded, but I've heard otherwise.

HitFix: When we first talked about the show, I was already on-board Team Donna. What did you think of sort of the speed at which people picked up on that? Because there were people after the pilot really going “Oh, it's just another whiney wife?” And I responded to several of them on Twitter going, “No she isn't.”

Jonathan Lisco: By the way, I am very gratified that we're sitting here again because I'm not infallible nor are my writers. We make lots of mistakes in our process like anyone else. But when we say we are dedicated to making these female characters pop and being non-archetypal and not just be accessories to the male storylines, we really meant it because we were doing a lot of work to make it happen and frankly it ain't easy. And I don't mean because women don't pop, I mean because storytelling of the era was very male-centric so we were trying to do it in an organic way. When we got what you might call “critique” of the first couple of episodes, we all just said, “Guys, do you need your whole dinner served up to you right now? We can't thwart your expectations unless we're going to mislead you a tiny bit at first.” So we were lulling people into that belief. But then the level of aggression came out and the path I think was influenced more by what people perceived to be the flaws in other shows than the flaws in our own, which is perfectly understandable and I don't begrudge anyone. But I'm glad that now people see how dynamic the female characters are.

HitFix: I felt like people definitely got there by the end. Now the Cameron/Donna friendship/relationship/partnership you guys got to use it a couple times at the end. It was really good. Is there going to be more of that? Do you realize how fertile that is?

Jonathan Lisco: Thank you for saying that. That's validating. Not only do I appreciate it personally, and on behalf of the staff and everybody “Yes” is the answer. In fact one of the key foci, if you will, of this season is going to be their relationship. Like one of the batons is going to get past from the making of a Cardiff Giant-like computer, from the making of a PC to their company Mutiny. We're going to play fair with the audience. At the end of season one Cameron came to Donna and said, “I have this fantastic idea. The idea is online gaming. I'm going to send you a modem and some software in the mail. You're going to be able to play against another human being unlike just the cartridges games on Atari or a Commodore. You have to be a part of that.” At first Donna said “No.” Later she accepted. At the end of Episode 10 they walked into that house full of young coders, pizza boxes, wires. We're going to make good on that promise to the audience. That's going to be a main focus of this season. The Mutiny house is going to take front and center as an incubator/DIY style firm, which is going to be kind of one of the predecessors to ideas moving from the board room into the garage.

HitFix: Are you going to have to create a game?

Jonathan Lisco: Yeah. Sure. We're going to have to create several probably.

HitFix: Okay. And where are you in that process and how are you feeling about the experience of creating your own '80s game?

Jonathan Lisco: We have a lot of problems in that and I'll be very honest with you as always, like sometimes we can't license things we want to put on screen because they're too close to actual games that were made, Hazard No.1. Hazard No.2, we have a great idea for a game but it's actually extremely difficult to put on screen when our actors are actually in front of the screen because the screen doesn't photograph very well. That's a problem. So now they're reacting to something that hasn't actually been made yet. So we have to make it in post and burn it in later. So it's difficult to write dialogue and marry yourself to dialogue like, “Oh look at the tank coming,” because it's not really coming when we're shooting the scene, and you're not sure it ever will, or if in the background we'll change the idea of the video game. So it becomes a little bit problematic. I don't really think the game itself and the visuals of the game are going to be front and center. Again, it's going to be about our character's reaction to the game that's going to be more important. Also, when you look at the graphics from our point of view in 2015, they're so rudimentary you cannot believe. You remember probably. It was crazy.

HitFix: Speaking of clearances, what were the conversations with Apple to actually get the Macintosh onscreen?

Jonathan Lisco: As an ex-lawyer myself, some of that is confidential vis-à-vis the network. But it all comes down to fair use basically and whether or not we can show it in a light that is not going to be problematic or litigious for them.

HitFix: You showed it like Jesus, essentially, in computer form.

Jonathan Lisco: Absolutely right. And so what it really falls to is the lawyers for AMC. Because unfortunately they are not bright-line rules on this and you actually have to litigate the question to figure out whether or not they're going to go after you. And even though you might render something in a positive light, “Hey it's my thing. I didn't give you permission to put my thing in your thing.” So they may have problems with it. And so the AMC lawyers have been really great in taking risks and saying, “Okay we think you can do that and we think that there's a low probability that anybody is going to come after us.” And so far they've been absolutely right.

HitFix: Okay. Does that mean – I assume you haven't heard anything from Apple?

Jonathan Lisco: No. Only positive things. Yeah, only positive things I'm happy to say.

HitFix: It's sort of funny because you couldn't have had it in a more positive light. 

Jonathan Lisco: But that's why, again, I put on my legal hat and I say, “Oh we might have a problem with this.” But when I'm in the writer's room all the writers who are't lawyers are like, “No! How could they get mad at us?” It's like, “Well, you know, some dollars went into the making of that machine and then may want to commodify it moving forward.”

“Halt and Catch Fire” returns to AMC on Sunday, May 31.

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