‘The Americans’ producers on marriage, spycraft and the wigs of season 1

05.01.13 5 years ago 22 Comments


FX”s “The Americans” just concluded a superb debut season. I have a review of the finale here, and I interviewed executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields about the state of the Jennings marriage, the period, how production of the season was impacted by Hurricane Sandy and, of course, the wigs, all coming up just as soon as I ask if you like wallpaper…

What story did you set out to tell over the course of this first season?

Joe Weisberg: When we started out, I don’t know that we had a specific goal. Our goal was to tell a story about a marriage. It was less that we had a specific plot story we wanted to tell, and more that we wanted to tell a story about a couple that had a complex, crazy, real/not-real arranged marriage. We wanted that story to resonate with people. So even though this couple went through these crazy things in their day to day life – their lives were in danger of exposure, they spy for a foreign government, there are incredibly high stakes in their world all the time – at the end of the day they were also a married couple who, like any of us whoa re married, the audience would be able to relate to them and understand the dynamics and their concepts with each other, within those bigger stories, to be relatable and understandable, and people could feel the same things they felt. I think that is the story we wanted to tell.

Speaking of the marriage, one of the few major issues I had with this season was the way in which you guys kept flip flopping back and forth between which half of the couple wanted the relationship to be real and which was pushing the other away. Is that something you were aware of as it was happening, and what was the point of the frequent reversals between Philip and Elizabeth?

Joel Fields: I guess the best answer we can give is we hope it’s not too much of a window into our own marriages. We hope it wasn’t flip flopping too much.

Joe Weisberg: We knew where we were going as we were writing. We started out ahead on the scripts, but we did have some luxury at the beginning of being able to go back and retune scripts as we saw where the relationship was going later. Believe it or not, we originally thought we would need more twists and turns in the marriage, and we wound up slowing things down and opening things up between them, in a way that felt real and true to us. I guess the challenge is to leave room to continue to honestly explore that -in a deeper, richer and truer way as we go into next season.

As we were going through the season, the assumption among a lot of us was that one or both of Nina and Martha would be dead, and it was just a matter of when. But we get to the end of the season, and not only are both still alive, but are in more complicated, important positions than before. Did you figure that was what we would assume as well, or is that just how the stories played out?

Joel Fields: Part of the fun of this season is there were certain things that we really knew from the beginning, and other things we thought we knew but were wrong on. If we”d had a conversation around episode 3, we could have told you where we were going with Philip and Elizabeth, and we would have been wrong. That story unfolded and changed and grew as the episodes came together, and as they led us in different directions. But with Nina and Martha, we really knew where we were going. Although the way those stories played out was slightly different, they ended up as we originally broke them. Joe and I have really enjoyed reading the reviews, the critiques, the blogs, the emails and the Twitter feed during the episodes, and part of the fun has been watching everybody wait breathlessly for Nina or Martha to get it. We hadn’t really planned on making the audience expect that to happen. We didn’t think of that. There’s a certain fun in people expecting it to go differently.

Joe Weisberg: When you’re telling these long stories, there”s so many times the audience is ahead of you. And the more times they”re ahead of you, the more you get nervous. So it”s kind of a relief, too. We were glad people were making the wrong assumption.

Speaking of people making wrong assumptions, we spent a lot of this season with the Russians freaking out about SDI, when we know from history that it was all smoke and mirrors. The colonel tells Philip this in the finale, but in a circumstance where Philip might not be inclined to believe him. Given how history played out, how do you prevent the Soviet Union from dismissing SDI as a threat?

Joe Weisberg: That’s a very interesting question, and it goes to the heart of how intelligence agencies work. I once wrote an article about one of the fundamental problems in the real world of running agents at all is the difficulty in ever evaluating their intelligence, and ever knowing if you’re dealing with a double agent. Almost no intelligence you get from an agent is actually verifiable. There”s almost no way to ever know if this is the truth. So forget Philip; what is the KGB itself going to do with this information? How are they going to know if it”s true, if the colonel is a real agent or a double agent? If they do know that he’s a real agent, how are they going to know if he’s right or not, trying to mislead them for personal reasons or not? Just the fact that the audience knows it’s the truth is only one piece of the game. How we deal with that next season, I don”t think we”ve fully decided yet. I don’t think we’re going to necessarily make a meal out of that, in terms of a huge espionage arc, but Star Wars is something that”s going to go on for many years. It”s not something we want the KGB to be resolving for sure in December of 1981.

So how do you deal with not having their characters change history, and yet seem like effective agents? Like Chris tells them right before he dies, they”re going to lose this war.

Joel Fields: It’s been a fun challenge. I think back to when Joe and I were writing the Reagan assassination attempt episode. The question we had to ask there, as we were putting them right smack in the center in a prominent piece of history, is how would we tell what we were creating as a “secret story” for them without violating what’s known in terms of historical fact? What we decided was to keep the public story true and let the secret story be a what if? Obviously, there’s the famous Al Haig press conference moment, and we know it triggered some panic internationally, and we know what it triggered domestically. But there was also that tape Elizabeth found, where it was revealed that Al Haig got his hands on a copy of the nuclear football. We know from our research that there was a tape made in the White House where Haig was being criticized by people around the table, talking about the proximity of Russian subs, and the discussions of what Defcon the country should be at given the fact that the president was shot, and where the words “How the hell did Al Haig get a copy of the nuclear football?” were uttered. The what if question we asked was, what if a couple of deep cover Soviet illegals got their hands on this thing?

Joe Weisberg: THE KGB of course had a lot of successes and a lot of failures, and I don’t think it’s hard to create a couple of successful KGB officers, even if they”re going to lose the endgame. If you”re in Chicago, it”s never that hard to root for the Cubs, even if you know how it”s going to end.

How much attention should we be paying to the timeline? There were some people who pointed out in the episode where Philip goes to New York that you took a Reagan speech from much later in the year and applied it to this situation, for instance.

Joel Fields: In part, we’re stretching the narrative per what Mother Nature allows. We’re shooting in Manhattan in 2013. We stayed in 1981. The question of how far forward we have moved in 1981?

Joe Weisberg: I think that may have been a mistake about the speech. In that same episode, we used Polish red riots from the exact month we imagined that being in. If we’re getting more than a few months beyond what we think we are, then we”re probably tripping up a bit. But as Joel pointed out, we literally can’t keep the weather consistent.

Joel Fields: We are trying. It’s funny, we’ve had a few sports references in there, and it’s been a matter of debate. We wanted to be in spring for baseball at one point, but if you do that and go outside and it”s snowing, it”s going to feel wrong. So we struggled with that a bit on the production side. But we’ve also tried to keep the timeframe and the historical references as true as possible. Not to say that we haven”t tripped up from time to time. I”m sure we have.

Margo Martindale is doing a sitcom pilot for CBS, and my understanding is that they have first contractual position with her. The finale sets things up so it could go either way: the KGB recalls Claudia at Philip and Elizabeth”s request, or Philip and Elizabeth ask to keep her around after she races to save Philip. What are your expectations for next season regarding that character?

Joel Fields: It’s disturbing to think that Leslie Moonves may be in charge of the KGB in 1981. Boy, we love Margo. She’s so talented, and she’s so wonderful in that role. Sooner or later, we think Claudia should be in the show.

Most shows tend to get bigger and add more characters as a season moves along. You almost went the opposite way, in that you killed off or otherwise wrote out several characters like Chris and Gregory without replacing them. Was it an intentional thing to make the world seem smaller and more insular, or did you just not have time yet to, say, give Stan a new partner?

Joe Weisberg: I think there are different things at play. I think in the business they’re in, it’s a dangerous business. People die, and the agents and law enforcement officers are taking their life in their hands. We have to be willing to sacrifice and lose even characters we like and believe have the potential to have interesting stories ahead if we were to keep them, but we can’t keep everybody and tell this kind of story and have the story be both exciting and feel real. It gets very emotional in a way. We would’ve loved to have those characters have a bigger life. But on the other hand, you want to be able to tell very emotional, meaningful, dramatic stories right out of the gate. I think, though, that we have to expand the world at the same time, both to fill in the holes that those characters left and to make the world a little broader and bigger as we go forward, just so it isn”t too small.

I have to ask about the wigs. It”s seemingly everyone”s favorite topic about the show. What was the level of Soviet wig technology in 1981 that Philip could be marrying a woman, having vigorous sex with her, sleeping next to her, and the wig never reveals itself to be a wig?

Joel Fields: I’m going to give you two words and a phrase: “clips,” “glue” and “a suspension of disbelief.” And you can arrange those three however you like. All joking aside about the wigs, part of the “fun,” and I use that word very nervously, about the relationship with Martha, because it’s fun on the surface but also dark and disturbing. Part of the disturbing fun of that relationship is the power of denial in our personal relationships. There are women who marry serial killers. They’ll start with, ‘Oh, he’s innocent. He was wrongly convicted.’ And then it’s, ‘Well, he’s misunderstood.’ And the story about this bizarre marriage between Clark and Martha grew on the one hand out of a desire to explore marriage in all its crazy facets, but in another way out of history. This is something that deep cover Soviet agents did. They had an operation at one point which was called “the secretary’s offensive,” where they had undercover illegals marrying secretaries of defense officials and diplomats, mostly across Europe. I”ll let Joe tell you how the women reacted after arrests were made.

Joe Weisberg: They denied it. They refused to believe that as it was put in front of them. I don”t think all women reacted exactly the same way, but I think there was a range of denial and saying the police were wrong. And when they couldn’t deny the evidence any longer, then they still insisted that the men still loved them. And who”s to say, really? Maybe in a few cases, it was true? Maybe after a few decades of marriage, these KGB officers did love these women. But in the real cases, the KGB officers who did this job, that was all they did. They were sent from Moscow, and their entire assignment was to be married with these women. So they didn”t have to wear disguises. But I also don”t know if they could have had television shows based on them. Maybe on the BBC.

Were you surprised by how big of a deal the wigs became? And is there any way in which you think you ought to dial it back next year, because people are spending too much time looking at and talking about the wigs? Or is it just a necessary piece of spycraft?

Joel Fields: We’re just so busy making sure the audience didn”t become obsessed with the ’80s jeans that we missed the wigs!

Joe Weisberg: I think it was a little bit of a surprise. I don’t think we knew necessarily at the beginning that we’d be using disguise this much. I We knew we could use it, but it became used more, and there was more of a reaction. I think we’re entertaining all possibilities. We may pull it back. Or we may do what some people suggested where we have scenes where he puts the Clark wigs on and you see exactly why it stays on. There are a lot of ways to go. I”m not sure what the answer is.

One of the challenges, for as long as Stan is going to be a character on the show and not realize who his neighbors are, is to make both sides seem credible and smart and good at what they do without making it seem ridiculous that he hasn”t figured out who the Jenningses are by now. How do you deal with that?

Joe Weisberg: I think it’s in a way, that’s within our control. We can dole out the information to Stan that really points to Philip and Elizabeth at our discretion. When we dole out pieces that start to point to them, then Stan has to get onto them or he doesn’t look so smart. And when the story requires those to be doled out, I’m not so sure. The thing that”s really compelling to me and interesting and rich and exciting for the story, is the relationship between Philip and Stan. That’s what I’m looking forward to exploring and telling stories about. And that has this cross current of the underlying danger, but that’s not the only cross-current. There’s also a cross-current of Philip potentially defecting to this guy, or trying to recruit this guy. I think there’s a lot of fertile ground before you have to get to Stan necessarily being able to arrest this guy.

Joel Fields: And as a practical matter, one thing we’ve talked about is this season is very focused on Stan and Gaad’s desire to get the illegals. FBI counter-intelligence did other things. It may be that Stan is going to have some successes in other areas of counter-intelligence as well.

We”ve seen flashbacks to Philip and Elizabeth”s life in the Soviet Union. Will we be getting the same for Stan”s undercover assignment with the white supremacists? Or is that something that just has to live in our imaginations.

Joel Fields: Fair to say we hope to at some point. Whether we see it or it comes back in some other form, present-day, we’re not sure. We actually broke an entire story this season that we wound up setting aside that went to that. It felt a little too soon to us ultimately. But it”s an exciting story to us. I think it’s something that we want to explore, whether through flashback or rearing its head today. It”s clearly something that forged him, and he”s not done with it.

What stage were you at when Sandy hit, and how much did that affect both the logistics of production and even the writing of the remaining episodes?

Joel Fields: We were a week before shooting when Sandy hit. In a way, it was the very worst time. Had we actually been in production, it might have been easier, because we would have just shut down and wouldn’t have been able to start up again until we could start up again. But prep before production is a little more amorphous and harder to quantify. There we were after Sandy, and our production offices had been decimated. There was water up to the desktops, and we were out of those production offices and moved into temporary production offices in Queens until maybe February. So for a while, we were writing the show in Soho, posting it in Soho, shooting it in Brooklyn and had production offices in Queens. If you”ve ever tried at mid-day to get between those three places, you can imagine how fun it was. And then our sets, also, took a pretty big hit, and a lot had to be reconstructed. There we were in the midst of all of that, trying to figure out scheduling, trying to protect our airdates. With prep, a lot of it’s amorphous, so you’re going on location scouts, and the question becomes do you really put everyone in a van when it’s not even known if the roads are passable, and it’s doubtful whether anyone will let you in when you get there. You don”t know that you”re going to have gas to get you back, because police have yellow tape around gas stations and are handing out gas in cans to people in a line. You’re trying to cast the show in a world where lower Manhattan just didn’t exist, you couldn’t get people on the phone, let alone to come in to audition. It was a tough few weeks of figuring it out.

That was a really dark time for the entire region. It”s a grim show to begin with, but tonally, did that wind up affecting what you were writing at all? Or was it purely about the practicalities?

Joe Weisberg: People point out that the pilot had a little more humor than the series. Maybe that’s where it went.

Joel Fields: That”s a question for our sub-conscious. But at the time that the storm hit, we had six scripts written already. They didn’t radically change. They didn’t get more grim. And the other thing that’s hard to notice from the outside, but from the punch of Sandy, none of our airdates changed; we wound up taking the one-week hiatus between episode 8 and 9, so we gained a week that enabled us to deliver those last episodes, and there’s normally more time to do post. So we lost all of our evenings and weekends and some of the time we might do other stuff, such as sleeping. It disappeared into the vortex of getting the show finished.

The music is such a big part of the show, and you”ve gone a great job of picking songs that are familiar from the period without being K-tel”s Top Hits of 1981. How do you go about picking the songs that feel right, and in certain cases incorporating them into the action, like “Tusk” in the pilot or “Rough Boys” a couple of weeks ago?

Joel Fields: Before I answer that, I want to say we’re so thrilled by our composer Nathan Barr, who does all of this phenomenal acoustic stuff and somehow manages to capture for us, anyway, both a deep American soul and a deep Russian soul, and there are times when we find ourselves crying in the editing room. We also have a fantastic music supervisor, P.J. Bloom, who provides us with great selections to choose from. He has such a depth of knowledge. We did say to him, “We don’t want to do the top 40 hits of the period.” Both Joe and I grew up during that time, and we want those things we remember, but that pull us back – that feel like nostalgia in the right way. And there were also times where we sat down and listened to a dozen songs, and different people pitched until we found the one that felt right. Sometimes, it was the first one and you just knew, and other times, you listened and listened and then we had to come in tomorrow and listen some more.

You have Richard Thomas in a prominent role as Agent Gaad, and Richard Kline has been in the last few episodes as Martha”s dad. They”re both actors who were prominent in the period, albeit more in the ’70s than the early ’80s. Was this a kind of deliberate nod to the era?

Joe Weisberg: Richard Kline may have been a little deliberate.

Joel Fields: We can’t deny that one. But as for Richard Thomas, totally different. He’s been a friend of mine for many years. I’ve done a movie with him many years ago, and then he ran a couple of plays of mine at different readings, and I”ve seen him in many plays. I just came to know him as the incredible theater actor he’s become. He’s just a brilliant actor in the pool of New York actors; he”s a heavy hitter. When I found out that I was going to be doing the show, I emailed him to say I”d be working in New York and we should hang out. Then the next email was, “Who am I kidding? I’m not going to be able to hang out, ever, until we wrap.” And then the next one was, “How would you like to take a look at something?”

Joe Weisberg: If you know some of these guys from the FBI or CIA, there’s a substantial majority of them who do not conform to the stereotypes – who don’t look like the square-jawed, super-macho guys. Not that those guys don”t exist there, too, but the majority aren”t. So when you get a guy like Richard Thomas, or even Noah (Emmerich) to a certain degree, or Max Hernandez, you start filling out your FBI so it looks more like the FBI. It looks and feels more real, doesn”t conform to a stereotype, and that’s one of the things I love about him as Agent Gaad. Whether people are processing it that way consciously or not, I just think he feels like a real Special Agent in Charge.

Joel Fields: As a character, he’s got this fun quality. He’s an asymmetrical thinker, he keeps people off balance with the humor.

Do you even know when next season is going to be set yet, and if you do, are you comfortable in saying?

Joel Fields: I don’t know if it requires us to do anything, but we’re strongly inclined to pick up shortly after the finale so we can see how this story picks up. We left off at a critical juncture where she was shot and left in the safe house. It”s clear she”s going to live and be okay, but I think that story would feel odd if you picked up much later. I think we”re going to return in that same timeframe.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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