Great shows about power players like Mad Men and The Sopranos aren’t about success so much as they’re about survival. Ditto shows like Succession and Billions, that flaunt immense luxury and the lengths people will go to maintain the lifestyle they’ve earned, grabbed, or, been born into. HBO’s Industry (premiering tonight on HBO) is following that same path, recalling some of the early fake it until you make it elements of Don Draper in the Billions‘y world of finance (swapping out New York for London and titans for first-year analysts). But if there’s a show that serves as a comp here, it might be ER with its gaggle of young, good looking doctors who threw their whole selves into their work while portraying a mix of cockiness, capability, and teeth chattering awkwardness. There’s just a lot more sex, drugs, and quarter-life crises here.
At the helm of this unique, captivating exploration of the work-party-repeat lifestyle and the effects of big ambition are Konrad Kay and Mickey Down, two former finance bros whose experience creates a dense world for series stars Myha’la Herrold, Marisa Abela, David Jonsson, Ken Leung (and others in this large ensemble) to play. Uproxx spoke with the two showrunners about that quest to be authentic, transactional relationships, and the collaboration between them and the cast to portray the diverse, nuanced corporate culture at the heart of the show.
You were both in finance. Where did the want to do that come from?
Mickey Down: For me, it was a mixture of peer pressure and trying to outsource my personality into a job, if that makes sense. We went to Oxford, so you had people constantly courting you for these jobs, and taking you out for dinner, taking you for drinks, and to events. [They were] trying to convince you to come and work for them. And then also there was a sort of competitive aspect. It was a very easy and quick way to basically become an adult. It was like, I can just put a suit on. I can pretend to be a big shot. I can go into work with my very nice tie and my shoes and my suit, and people look at me and think I’m an adult, when in fact I’m still a fresh, scared little boy who has no idea what he’s doing.
Does the reality of your experience with this world diverge from the reality of the show world that you guys have built?
Konrad Kay: We were always pushing as far as we could to kind of render the world as authentically as we could remember it. And that’s down to the cadences of the way people interact in those spaces, the way they talk to each other. We were just like, we need, even if it’s going to be quite opaque and a little bit of a black box, we need to sort of present it as we remember it. Because if we do it in a way, and we don’t talk down to the audience, and we treat them like they’re very smart (which maybe TV doesn’t do as much as it should these days) we thought, well, they’re going to be intrigued by what feels like an authentic depiction of these worlds.
There are shows that exist in the financial space like this — Succession, Billions — how do you compare your show to them?
Kay: All those shows you mentioned are all really, really good shows. And me and Mickey spoke quite a lot about the story pyro techniques of why isn’t there a criminal element of the story. What about if Eric (Leung), Harper’s (Herrold) boss, is actually being chased by the feds? Or all of these big ideas that you might see in other shows, and you might feel are slightly more expected. Our thing, our mantra when we were writing the show, and we told this to the directors as well, is like we kept talking about honoring small moments. There was a version of the show which me and Mickey had in our head for a long time which is pretty close to like Verite realism. Like it felt almost like if you sent a documentary crew onto a trading floor. The show’s obviously called Industry, but in the stuff that it examines around like mentor-mentee relationships in a career, the role a boss plays in a career, or the way hierarchy works in an institution… all of that stuff. We felt that there was a universality to it.
The focus on the work-party-repeat lifestyle, how does that diverge from your experience?
Down: I feel like, I know for a lot of young people and people of our generation as well, the first job that you have outside university feels like it’s all-encompassing. It feels like it’s the most important thing in the world.
Kay: We wanted the scenes outside the office to feel like a bit of a valve release because obviously there’s so much tension in the office. There’s so much noise. We wanted it to be like a real tempo shift. That’s why we wanted to show parties in people’s living rooms, and nightclubbing scenes. We wanted it to have that kind of energy that, I don’t know, especially in a pandemic feels slightly like vicarious living, and felt energetic, and you felt energized watching it. You so rarely see in workplace dramas about offices… you so rarely see proper club scenes, proper sex scenes. A show like this, I don’t think there’s ever been a standard workplace drama like this that has sex scenes quite like ours. And stuff like that, I think we were excited to kind of make sure we were capturing as well.
Down: I think we wanted to capture some excitement of starting the job as well, because as Konrad said, the first version we wrote was very pared back and self-serious, and not very fun at all. Because we thought, “God, we’re writing an HBO drama. We’ve done nothing before, so we have to write this really serious TV show.” And the notes that we were getting back from HBO were like “do you not have any fun when you’re doing this job?” But they gave a really good note, which is “you’re writing characters in the third act of their story rather than the first act.” And that’s just because we were writing from the perspective of two people who had lived it, basically got spat out by it, and we were writing almost from a place of bitterness rather than a place of joy.
The younger characters interaction with each other, obviously yes, they’re having fun, but it does feel like there is a detachment or a distance between the characters. Could you talk a little bit about their… I don’t want to say fear of intimacy so much as it feels like an aversion to legitimate emotional intimacy at this stage of their life? Why was it important to showcase that?
Kay: I think that’s really a smart reading of it, because that’s definitely what we were trying to go for a little bit. It’s interesting, for us one of the central relationships of the show is obviously between Harper and Yasmin (Abela). And it’s only in the third episode, really, or towards the back end of the second where they start to spend onscreen time together. It’s something that the show is exploring the whole time… I found this all the time when I was working in these institutions is the line between colleague and friend, it’s just sometimes really hard to know where you stand. And episode three is really an examination of that, really, because on some level their relationship’s quite tender, they’re quite open. But then there’s a transactional element to it as well. And I think there’s this thing, and that’s the nature of a lot of relationships in those places. Like what are you going to get me? What do you have that I don’t have?
Obviously, the main character is Harper, and Yasmin plays a huge role. The ideas that it’s a meritocracy and that where people come from doesn’t necessarily matter are expressed, which obviously proves itself to be somewhat false in moments from the show. I’m curious how you, as two men, found your way to tell a story that does speak to the differences in that world. One where male characters get more of a pass and female characters have to work a little bit harder. Can you tell me a little about the process and who else was involved in the creative shaping?
Kay: From a writing point of view, me and Mickey only ever get excited by stuff when we feel like we haven’t seen it before, or what is the most interesting lens to tell this story. What would it look like through sort of a girl from privilege and a girl who doesn’t come from privilege? When Yasmin and Harper clicked into focus for us, the potential for the whole world really opened up. It would have been negligent to make a show set in 2020 in a workplace and not address some of the things that have been in the culture, and specifically in corporate culture in the last five, six years. And then in terms of just the DNA of the characters, mine and Mickey’s experiences, regardless of gender, our DNA’s sort of in Harper and Yasmin, and Robert (Harry Lawtey) and Gus (Jonsson), and we’re sort of across all of them. And then in terms of, I know you’re asking about shaping the female voice. Firstly, we drew on a lot of experiences of our ex female colleagues in those situations. We had strong female voices in the writer’s room at all points. The whole editorial team was basically made up of women who are like sense checking our work.
When it came to shooting it, the reason that Myha’la and Marisa come across so, I think, strongly in the show and naturalistically and believably… The reason is, I think firstly, they’re very talented, that goes without saying. But also, me and Mickey really had a very intense day-to-day dialogue with them on set. And I think what makes Myha’la’s character so compelling is that so much of her is built into the character of Harper. Even as banal a thing as she came over from New York to Wales, and it was the first time she’d ever been on a plane. And for Harper, she’s come over from New York to London. There was just so much shared experience there. And so to your point about the female voice of it, we were constantly in a very active conversation talking about character with them. And they were coming to us and saying, “How does this feel? What is the intention of this? Have you thought about doing it slightly more like this, because I actually had this experience that’s actually very close to this.” And we would write towards them, so it felt like a super collaborative thing. And any kind of red flags about that sort of stuff, we were always very quick to address. It was a hugely collaborative process.
‘Industry’ premieres on HBO Monday, November 9 at 10 PM ET