‘The Americans’ producers: ‘We’re thinking about a long story that we’re telling’

Senior Television Writer
01.27.15 17 Comments

From its first season to its second, FX”s “The Americans” went from being a very good drama to one of the very best things on television, a show I ultimately ranked #2 overall for 2014. I”ve seen the first four episodes of the third season, which debuts tomorrow night at 10, and while there hasn”t been a comparable huge leap in quality, the show also hasn”t backslid at all. The start of the new season feels very much of a piece with season 2, pushing forward the storyline about Philip and Elizabeth being ordered by the KGB to recruit their daughter Paige to be an asset, and finding creative new ways to portray the brutality of the spy trade in the early ’80s. (There”s a scene early in next week”s second episode that you may need to “watch” from behind the couch.)

On an unseasonably warm day early last month, I paid a visit to the Brooklyn soundstages that play home to the show, where controlled chaos was the order of the day. They were simultaneously filming scenes from four different episodes; when I spoke with Matthew Rhys, he wondered if they were perhaps setting a record for cable drama production. Over the course of the day, I got to interview Rhys, Keri Russell, Holly Taylor, the show”s hair and makeup people, and showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields. Look for the Taylor interview tomorrow and Rhys, Russell and the hair and makeup people in later weeks, as some of what we discussed involves spoilers for upcoming episodes.

I had a good stretch of time to speak with Weisberg and Fields about the logistics of production – including how the first two seasons were impacted by, respectively, Hurricane Sandy and the polar vortex(*) – how they try to incorporate real events (and real TV footage) from the period into the show, why they”re yet another cable family drama where the teen daughter has a lot to do and the teen son doesn”t, early thoughts on the series’ endgame, and a lot more.

(*) While the show had to that point dealt with a mild winter, it feels appropriate that this interview is publishing on the morning of Snowmageddon 2015, which forced the cancellation of last night’s red carpet season 3 premiere, and at least temporarily shut down production… again. Ah well; as Weisberg and Fields note below, it’ll probably lead to some gorgeous footage.

Enjoy, and look for a review of the premiere on Wednesday night, as usual.

So, you are shooting, if I have the math correctly, pieces of four episodes today with three directors and two crews.

Joe Weisberg: We used to joke about other shows that did, that we like laugh about.

Joel Fields: Can you note that I am openly weeping?

And you’re only midway through the season.

Joel Fields: It’s going great and today it’s 70 degrees and tomorrow it’s supposed to snow. So everything is pretty much status quo here at “The Americans.”

Well, you’ve avoided snow thus far in the season, which was not the case last year, right?

Joe Weisberg: No snow, no floods.

Joel Fields: No hurricanes.

Joe Weisberg: Has anything gone horribly wrong?

Joel Fields: We’re only shooting episode four; five and six start tomorrow. No nuclear holocaust. Fingers crossed knock on wood

Season 1 you could say, “All right, Sandy, act of God, whatever, it’s hitting everyone.” Season 2 comes along and it’s blizzard after blizzard after blizzard. At a certain point did the two of you look at each other wonder if you were jinxed?

Joel Fields: If it’s season 3, that’s going to be a pattern. One is unfortunate, two is an anomaly, three is a pattern, so we’re holding out hope

Joe Weisberg: Three would be like God is canceling the show. Anybody can get canceled by their network; it’s hard to get canceled by God.

Well, was there a point, especially last year where you couldn”t get out from under the snow, where you started saying, “Indoors, indoors, we don’t need to go outdoors ever again”?

Joel Fields: You know what’s funny, in a way it was the opposite. The hurricane was horrible on every level and in a way the worst part of the hurricane were the unseen results, because it was what it did to our post-production schedule and it just became months of all-nighters for me and Joe because we had to meet these deadlines. The thing about the polar vortex and that snow was it was brutally hard for everybody, and yet there was that scene with Arkady and Gaad where Arkady’s standing outside of his brownstone holding that umbrella. If we had written it with the world is blanketed in white, we would have never been able to shoot something so beautiful and so right. There was a lot of production value; it was challenging, but it also gave back.

So, going into this season, is there any way you can game plan for God logistically?

Joe Weisberg: I don’t think so. Funny what you said about inside, Sandy fucked up the inside too. Our stages were flooded and our production studio was flooded, so you can’t just go inside to avoid it. You could switch to shooting in the summer.

Joel Fields: It’s funny, we had a lunch with (studio executive) David Madden in the middle of last season and we were saying, “We’re trying so hard to get our arms around the production challenges of this show.” And he said, “I think you’re doing well really well.” I said, “I know, but what is it we can do better?” And he looked at us and he said, “Well, you could not shoot a period spy show in New York in the winter time.”

Joe Weisberg: And we’re like, “Was that our idea? I don’t recall it being out idea exactly.”

How did it land that that was the original production window?

Joe Weisberg: I think because the network wanted to put it on that part in their schedule.

Joel Fields: But also in fairness, as hard as it is, it contributes to a look for the show. You wouldn’t get that look if we shot in the summer

Joe Weisberg: So raise your hand if you had it to do over again if that’s worth it and you would do it again at the same time. I’m going to close my eyes, you close your eyes and we’ll both raise our hands if you would do it again. Close your eyes?

Joel Fields: Yup. Ready? Okay. Eyes open.

Let the record reflect, both raised their hands.

Joel Fields: No way. We disagree on so much.

Joe Weisberg: I didn’t know if you would raise your hand.

Joel Fields: Really? You didn’t know that?

Joe Weisberg: I didn’t know for sure because…

Joel Fields: I didn’t hesitate, did I hesitate?

I don’t think so.

Joel Fields: No, it’s worth it. I’ll say you can’t plan for the weather but we do plan out our schedule, as you can see behind you, and so we knew we were starting in November of 1982. And part of that was because he wanted to start with the death of Brezhnev and the the rise of Andropov, but part of that was us also keeping in mind, “Well, we’ll be able to get through November/December in our story without the real snow hitting, and then we’ll be a little deeper in by the time it’s white, if it’s white.”

Joe Weisberg: We also have to now really hope the cast and crew don’t read HitFix, because they’re the ones out in the cold. We’re like, “We love the beautiful snow.” They’re like, “You’re in the warm office.”

You’ve got that whole wall outside your office with the different events in politics and popular culture. How do you approach that? How often does that drive the story versus here’s something funny that could be on the TV in the background? Brezhnev”s death would be something driving the story, right?

Joe Weisberg: Well, that one”s an interesting example because it can’t totally be driving the story. We had to come back probably four to eight months after what happened and then fortunately that event was in that window so it could drive the story to a degree.

Joel Fields: But different things impact in different ways. It’s funny, at Comic-Con we were asked the question of how we do our research of the ’80s culture and technology and Joe had a great answer. He said, “I wish we could call it research instead of memory.” I think some of it is just us remembering what it was like then, but there are other pieces, like there was a tragic plane crash where a bunch of FBI agents were taking a suspect, I think, for interrogation somewhere and the plane went down and the FBI agents were killed. And it turned out they were in the bank robbery division in the Midwest where Stan might have worked, and our script coordinator found it as she was putting our dates together, and that became a story element and a character element. And that drove some story for us.

I imagine finding news footage of something and clearing that is much easier than saying, “All right, Henry is going to be watching ‘The A-Team.””

Joel Fields: Well, here’s how it works for television references. We’ll start by writing that Henry is watching television. And then our script coordinator comes to the calendar and says, “Okay, here is when he was watching, around what time is he watching?” And we’ll tell her, and then she’ll bring us the TV Guide for that date and say, “Here’s what it could be.” And we’ll say, “We think he would have been watching this.” And then post-production reaches out and they’ll say, “It cost $200 million for that.” We’ll say, “Okay, we don’t think Henry is that interested in that, what else?” And then we find somewhere between what our budget can withstand and what we feel is right.

Joe Weisberg: And our best wild goose chase this season was we wanted footage of Ronald Ragan inside the Soviet embassy signing the condolence book for Brezhnev. That footage exists, but of course who took the film footage? Only Soviet television. Soviet television does not exist anymore; it’s transformed into Russian television. Does Russian television still have the footage? They do. Did they own it legally, or since that country ceased to exist and they’re not the same country, they don’t known it? Nobody knows. This is confounding to the lawyers. Our networks and studio spoke to a Russian lawyer who was like, “Even I don’t know.”

Joel Fields: “But you can hire me. You can hire me.”

Joe Weisberg: “You hire me and I’ll start digging into these issues.” But he told us, this is my favorite answer of all, for him to get an answer out of the Russian television bureaucracy about whether they think they own it – and it’s perfect, just what we want – It would take him two months to get an answer about if they think they own it and want to sell to us and that would be too late for us.

So then how did you incorporate it? Is it on radio?

Joel Fields: No, in that case, our brilliant post production department took the news report that was owned by an American network, and then we took existing stills of Reagan in the Soviet embassy, and we created very close to what the actual report was using actual stills of him inside of the embassy instead of the moving footage. So it’s not a huge change, but it was not exact.

In terms of coming back, you said before that it had to be four to six months later, is that just because of the bomb that got dropped in terms of Paige? Or is it about dealing with the kid actors” age as well? Could you go to 1985 if you wanted to?

Joel Fields: I don’t think you can do that with the actors. But given the bomb that got dropped, the question was do you come straight back or how much do you jump? And if you’ve jumped, what’s been happening in the dynamics since those big questions were asked at the end of the season? And this seemed most right and it is what we landed on. There wasn’t really a lot of debate or discussion between us; it just felt right.

Joe Weisberg: Story-wise, you obviously could come right back; that would work. But because we hoped to eventually get a little further in history, we want to take a little jump if we can.

When you came up with the idea of them having to now recruit their own daughter, how much did you think of it beyond the fact that this is a really great way to twist the knife? Did you have any thoughts in your head about how this would actually work in season 3, or did you come back later to figure that out?

Joe Weisberg: Well, I think a little bit of both. We certainly thought that that was a long rich story to tell that would have a lot of twists and turns, and we talked through some of what those twists and turns would be. But I don’t think we knew necessarily exactly what chunks of that would fall where. And when we did start thinking through what chunks would fall into season 3, that’s already been changing as we broke in the actual season.

Joel Fields: I think that idea really percolated toward the end of last season. There were things about last season that we knew from the very beginning, but that was an idea that came late as I recall. And then once it came in we started talking a lot about where it would lead. And I think it was those discussions that were the beginning of breaking the fourth season that we started having at the end of the third season before we broke for the holiday.

So when we come back for season 3, I take it Paige is not already a KGB sleeper agent?

Joe Weisberg: I think we feel safe saying that that is accurate.

Joel Fields: I don’t thinks that’s a spoiler. She is not already a KGB sleeper agent.

Joe Weisberg: Or else we would be fired.

Joel Fields: Or if she is, we can’t tell you.

This is a question I get all the time, not just about your show but about all the shows, there are so many cable drama right now where it’s the family and there’s two kids and there’s a teenage daughter and a son, and it’s always the daughter with the drama and the son is going to karate or trying to get Intellivision or whatever. As two people running a show that is an example of this phenomenon, what’s going on there?

Joe Weisberg: Can you plead the Fifth in interviews with you? Do you recognize the Fifth Amendment?

No. I’m not a court of law.

Joe Weisberg: It’s funny because we really specifically had in mind avoiding that and yet here we sit.

Joel Fields: And yet here we sit. Although I will say our hope is that the story we’re exploring for Philip and Elizabeth and their children, Paige in particular, is unique to this show and other shows couldn’t do it. Not just the recruitment story but also the religious side of the story. That their Soviet point of view on what that means culturally is just different.

Joe Weisberg: I also think for us a lot it’s almost entirely age. I don’t think it’s gender for us, I think it was going to be the older kid was going to end up in this storyline and the fact that the daughter was older and not the son is almost a coincidence. I mean that’s just how the pilot got written. The older kid is more mature and therefore more likely to get pulled into adult drama, which is what these shows are is adult drama. And I think as the younger kid gets older hopefully that will start to make more sense too. That’s about the best I can think of.

Joel Fields: I thought that was pretty good.

Now, this is not a superhero show but it has one parallel to it in that on any show with a superhero character, inevitably certain people get brought in on the secret and they become more vital. And then any character by season 3 or 4 who doesn’t know is very, very marginalized, and you can tell the creative team are having a problem knowing what to do with them. As the one member of the Jennings family who is not either a spy or being recruited to be a spy, what do you do with Henry at this point?

Joe Weisberg: Did he find a sneaky way to ask the same question because we didn’t get a good enough answer the first time?

No.

Joel Fields: Look, one thing any of these shows struggles with is simple real estate, how much time do you have. And one thing that you find happens is the show expands out. So as other characters come in and get more interesting you keep wanting to follow them. And I think it has been a challenge to figure out what to do with Henry. We’d like to spend more time with him but it’s been challenging this season, not because – I don’t think because he’s necessarily outside of the secret because Paige starts the season anyway outside the secret; you’ll see how that goes. But I think being outside the secret is not as undramatic as it is on a superhero show. I think it’s the opposite, actually. The secret has enormous power and enormous psychological impact and I think a lot of what the show is about is the effect of secrets on those we love and those we have relationships with. So I actually think there’s a lot of drama to be gained from being outside the secret.

Speaking of real estate, you got through all of season 2 without given Stan a new partner to replace Amador, and when we talked at the end of the season, you said you weren’t sure yet whether that would change in season 3. What did you ultimately decide?

Joel Fields: I’d say so far no new partner.

Joe Weisberg: We got a new kind of, I don’t know if I’d quite call him a foil, but we do have a new character in the FBI that will end up having an interesting relationship with Stan. And I would say in a sense that instead of a partner, it’s sort of a different…

Joel Fields: We’re trying to expand the world in the FBI.

Does it feel like Stan just functions better going off on his own?

Joel Fields: Well interesting, what did our research tell us about partners? They didn’t exactly quite go off in dual partnerships?

Joe Weisberg: I can’t quite remember exactly in counter intelligence. But I think we strived so hard to stay away from every cliché we can. And so it’s hard to do cop partners without falling into that. And I think we find it easier to avoid that when he doesn’t have a partner. It’s easier to have more original stories there. And so for example, taking this new FBI guy and having them not in a car together going to do that kind of work but have them still in a relationship, it just seems easier to do original stuff in a way.

About a week and a half ago, relativity surprising TV news: CBS pulls the plug on “The Millers,” four episodes into season 2. How many seconds after you heard that news did the two of you started discussing whether it was feasible to bring Claudia back at this stage of the season?

Joel Fields: A day before

Joe Weisberg: 15 seconds. A day before! That’s right, a day before.

Joel Fields: The day before, we were on the phone with Margo (Martindale). We love Margo personally. We love her as an actress and we loved the character. And so we just stay in touch with her and we just talk to her sometimes because we like to. So we were talking to her the day before and then she called us the day after and said, “You must have been psychic.” So we were talking about it right away. That said, we’re pretty deep into this season and we had been talking about how Claudia would come back. So we’ll see how that impacts our (plans).

So you don’t know yet whether that’s going to be a feasible thing.

Joel Fields: Don’t know yet.

Joe, I have to ask about your cameo on “The Good Wife.” Given how “The Good Wife” has used that show-within-the-show to mock the kind of work that you guys and so many other people on cable are doing, did you have any ambivalence about going on to do that, or do you just think it was all in fun?

Joe Weisberg: I had zero ambivalence. I love being mocked. I don’t really like mocking others, but I love to be mocked. What that says about me, I don’t know. But I went to see clips of that show-within-a-show before doing it, and I just thought it was the funniest satire. It was just extremely well done, so I would not pass up a chance to be a part of that.

It does though feel as if sometimes they use the “Darkness After Noon” gag as a way of dealing with their resentment of all the cable shows that are muscling them out of the Emmys.

Joel Fields: But not us.

Joe Weisberg: But why not? That’s a good way to deal with any feelings is to have a really funny thing. And I just thought it was hysterical and loved doing it too. It was a real fun and interesting day to see what it feels like a little bit on the other side of the camera.

In season 1, Elizabeth kills more than Philip does, while in season 2, she is taking a backseat because she was wounded. How would you say the violence is balanced this season between the two of them? Have you figured that out yet?

Joel Fields: We should ask (script coordinator) Molly (Nussbaum). I was just thinking this morning that we”re not so bad this year (about violence), and then I watched the first episode again and I thought, “We’re doing okay.”

Joe Weisberg: Honey traps are a little bit down.

You can”t take out of the honey traps.

Joel Fields: Listen, we just go where the work takes us.

Joe Weisberg: We just follow the story. Could skyrocket up at any time.

So what you’re saying is “”Americans” season 3: less sex, less violence, more Paige.”

Joe Weisberg: What did somebody say complimenting the show that made it sound so boring that we thought it would be a good thing to put on the side of the buses?

Joel Fields: What was it? “It’s quietly nuanced.” (FX chief) John Langraf said it’s a slow burn. It’s quietly nuanced. There it is. There’s the campaign. Why don’t we have more viewers?

So let’s talk about it. Your audience is a certain size, a certain age and all of that. It hasn’t grown. You hopefully would”ve broken through with the Emmys, that didn’t happen.

Joe Weisberg: You know, we always say by the way, whenever we’re talking with anybody about the audience being small we always say seven wall links [ph]. That’s our answer.

Joel Fields: Also the nice thing about a small audience is your percentage increase can always be proportionally bigger.

Do you guys have a theory on why at this stage the show has perhaps not broken through on a bigger level?

Joel Fields: I could kick around theories about that, but I don’t really think about it much. And we don’t really talk about it much. We just feel lucky to do the show and we just figure that the show has to be what it wants to be. There’s nothing we can do to change it. If we tried to change it externally to try to somehow generate more audience interest, I think that would undermine what’s good about it. So you just kind of do it and I hope that people will find it.

Joe Weisberg: I only think about that when I can’t sleep Mondays through Fridays. But no, I don’t know. Every possible explanation. Maybe people want something more fast-paced; maybe there’s so many shows on that it’s harder to break through.

But we’re not going to be all in pastels and cigarette boats and shootouts every five minutes?

Joe Weisberg: Well, the problem is if you did try to change it to get a bigger audience, undoubtedly you would ruin it. And then you’d both not get the audience and make it bad. So that seems like a fool’s errand.

At least so far, Landgraf has been patient. You’ve got a third season; he’s talked about doing five seasons. Do you feel reasonably secure in your position?

Joe Weisberg: We do. We feel very supported and very appreciated over there. We really don’t sit around worrying about being canceled. No.

Joel Fields: No. And we’re thinking about – deluded or not, we’re thinking about a long story that we’re telling.

That leads me to my next question then. How much have you guys talked about the ultimate arc of the series and what the end point is? What have those discussions been like?

Joe Weisberg: We probably talk less about what would happen in seasons 4 and 5 exactly, but we’ve had quite a few discussions about how it would end rather than filling in how to get there yet. And I would say that we’d probably come up with three to five different possible endings that we like with not necessarily a strong preference between them, but they also are not that different from each other. They’re sort of all moving in the same more or less direction.

Joel Fields: Yeah. In fact I wouldn’t even call them different endings, I’d call them variations on an ending that we have in mind.

Joe Weisberg: I wouldn’t be surprised if it changes totally though, the way we work. We could end up with a completely different ending.

Has there been a moment yet since you guys have come up with those variations where you’ve been working on a story and realized that something about that story would interfere with those endings?

Joe Weisberg: No. And that’s probably because we haven’t filled out that middle ground yet but that’s one of the things that could totally change it.

Joel Fields: I think that’s part of it, but I think also part of it is the ending that we’re talking about, it’s really about where the characters wind up, it’s not about where the plot lines up, per se. So it’s not as if there’s a singular plot that if we change something in its trajectory, the whole ending would change.

But if someone comes into the room and pitches “Elizabeth gets a peg leg” and that’s going to mess with the finale, no peg leg for Elizabeth?

Joel Fields: Unless it’s a really great pitch, in which case clump. Slide. Clump. Slide. It’s the same finale – she’s just walking different.

Joe Weisberg: Or if they come into the room and pitch a great ending for the series that we’re like, “Wow, that’s ten times better than what we thought of.” That could easily happen.

Joel Fields: We hope it happens. We love our ending, so ten times better would be really good.

Beyond the slow recruitment of Paige, what else are you comfortable saying about what’s going to be happening this year?

Joe Weisberg: I’m always pitching this and waiting for somebody to be excited about it. There’s a lot of cool stuff with Afghanistan. It’s a really big year in the Soviet war in Afghanistan. You can just look at that great picture of Reagan sitting with the Mujahideen, things are starting to turn bad for the Soviets and they need Philip and Elizabeth to really help them out. And a lot of the missions and spy work of the season are going to revolve around Philip and Elizabeth trying to help out in America, and of course it’s not hard to help out in America, because that’s where the CIA is, and the CIA is obviously central to fighting that war.

Joel Fields: There’s also the return of Gabriel, who was their longtime handler, played by the incredible Frank Langella. Having been through the ringer with Claudia, having struggled with the inexperienced Kate, now they get their old, loyal, faithful friend back to help them, but he’s helping them with the hardest thing they’ve ever had to face and the Centre isn’t backing down.

Having killed off Kate, how did you decide this is where you were going to take the handler character next?

Joe Weisberg: It was really character-based, like anything else. Because the Centre was going to be pushing them to recruit Paige, would you bring in? They struggled so much with Claudia, understandably, who do you want to bring in? You want to bring in a totally different type. Somebody who’s going to be empathetic and caring and be able to push them in a way that Philip and Elizabeth might respond to. So not a hard-nosed tough person they’re going to butt up against. Well, that would be the guy they worked with for ten years who they had a good relationship with.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

Around The Web