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Inside Homeland

The epic TV show has already won awards, and promises to keep everyone on the edge of their seats in the second season this fall
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
The Brains Behind Homeland, May/June 2012

(continued from page 1)

The game-changer? A 2004 independent film, Keane, in which Lewis had played a man battling mental illness: “I’m massively proud of Keane, but I think it was seen by one man and a dog,” Lewis says. “Fortunately, Michael Cuesta had seen it and took it to Alex and Howard.”

“Alex called me up and told me to watch the movie,” Gordon recalls. “And when you watch it, he’s clearly that guy with the same intensity that the Brody character has. Once we showed Keane to people, they folded in.”

Patinkin had his own reputation for battling with producers before departing such series as “Chicago Hope” and “Criminal Minds”: “He had left a couple of shows, which never wins you friends,” Gansa says. “But he was so perfect for this part. He’s somebody I’ve loved since I saw him in Sunday in the Park with George on stage when I was 21. I enjoy writing his character because I love John le Carré novels and that character is so influenced by George Smiley and those old Cold Warriors of le Carré.”

When Gordon and Gansa crafted the show’s “bible” (the storyline for the entire season), they initially thought they had enough plot for the first two seasons; the first season would end with the reveal that Brody’s late partner and fellow POW, Tom Walker (Chris Chalk)—who Brody believed he’d been forced to beat to death by their al-Qaeda captors—was, in fact, alive and in the U.S., as the terrorist sleeper with a suicide mission. Instead, as they worked, they found themselves compressing plot points.

“The basic idea when we started the season was that we eventually would have these two broken people come together and find solace in each other,” says Michael Cuesta, executive producer who also directed four episodes. “I don’t think we knew when it was going to happen. But we knew the relationship would be the crux of the show, the main draw. It was a sleeping-with-the-enemy thing.”

Johannessen adds, “A lot of the specifics didn’t come until we were writing the episodes, a lot of the big moments. But there were certain themes that were things we were going to get to—the question was how to get there. And we were trying to find a balance between the story of Brody’s (post-traumatic stress disorder) and the one about his plot against America.”

The question of Brody’s loyalty was up in the air until the end of the eighth episode—and the seventh episode (“The Weekend”) created a seismic plot shift, with Carrie and Brody going away for an initially intimate, eventually tense weekend, in which he figures out that she suspects him. But that episode—one of the season’s most compelling because it offered such a change of pace—was originally imagined as something very different.

“We always envisioned ‘The Weekend’ as more of an interrogation, with Carrie interrogating Brody in a safe house,” Gansa says. “Instead, it became a strange, romantic idyll in the woods.”

“I didn’t know they’d take the character to such extremes in the first season,” Danes says. “They just went balls-out. They pushed it to the very edge. They don’t play it safe and I’m in awe of that.”

Lewis knew that the central idea—that a U.S. Marine could be changed in the way that Brody is—was a crucial one to bring off.

“That a man can choose something that is so radically different from his own experience is a scary thought,” Lewis says. “Particularly a U.S. Marine—they represent everything that most of us in the West believe in. He undergoes an ideological change but it is an active choice, rather than simply being ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ who is brainwashed. It feels more dangerous that he actively would choose something like this.”

Even as they worked, the “Homeland” producers had no sense of how the show would be received. They were in the middle of shooting the fifth episode of the season when “Homeland” made its debut on Showtime, to blazingly positive reviews.

Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “It’s the first telling of a post-9/11 story that is all the things it should be: politically resonant, emotionally wrenching and plain old thrilling to watch…‘Homeland’s lead performances are so good it’s almost unearthly, like a sky with two suns.”

The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley called the show “well-made and gripping,” saying “it was almost impossible to resist.”

“The best new show of the fall debuts tonight,” Matt Zoller Seitz wrote on Salon.com. “It’s hard to oversell the excellence of this cast.”

“Saying we were surprised by the response is an understatement,” Gordon says.

Adds Gansa, “We were stunned. We didn’t know how people would respond. When the first episode aired, we still existed in this wonderful place of anonymity, working under the radar. There was something nice about that. When you spend so much time just trying to fashion something that works, it’s hard to maintain your distance. When all these fresh eyes came to it, it was amazing.”

The show rapidly became both a critical and popular hit, a watercooler topic that kept viewers debating for two months whether or not Nicholas Brody was a sleeper agent bent on attacking the United States. By the eighth episode, when the point was settled, the audience was hooked. Asked on “The View” in December which TV shows he regularly watched, President Barack Obama mentioned only two—and one of them was “Homeland.”

“Homeland” is part of the renaissance in TV drama, one led by cable television. Indeed, since 1999 (when “The Sopranos” debuted on HBO), both pay- and basic cable have created series that are not only better than what the networks are dishing out, but better written and more creative than the bulk of the movies that reach theaters. Shows such as “Mad Men,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Breaking Bad,” “Big Love,” “Six Feet Under,” “Rescue Me,” “Dexter,” “The Shield” and now “Homeland” have their roots in a handful of network shows that rewrote the rules—shows like “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Northern Exposure,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Twin Peaks” and “NYPD Blue,” which used the multi-episode format of TV to craft stories that didn’t need to be contained in a single show.

“You can tell a different kind of story over 10 or 12 episodes,” Gansa says.

Gordon says, “It’s closer to a novel. I think that’s the right literary analogy. Shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘Homeland’ are like novels, where you can take your time developing the characters and the storylines.”

“There’s very little room in most Hollywood movies for any kind of real writing,” Bromell says. “But the opportunities in TV have gotten a lot more interesting. There were a few shows on the networks, like ‘thirtysomething’ and ‘Homicide: Life on the Street,’ that tried something new. Then cable took those same writers and allowed them to grow, without commercial breaks or standards-and-practices guys breathing down your necks. It’s a weird confluence of a slightly newer medium and writers with an eye set on the goal of creating good drama.”

Says Johannessen, “At this point, Hollywood is run by brand managers, not movie makers.” Cuesta, who has made a handful of independent films and directed the pilot of “Dexter,” says, “It took TV that worked without sponsors—like HBO and Showtime—to get that kind of good writing out there. On cable, you can do anything as long as people watch. And Hollywood film versus premium cable? It’s no contest. Writers decide, ‘I can be an auteur in TV,’ where TV used to be something that writers kind of shunned.”

Gordon and Gansa got their start in TV together, as writers and eventually producers on such cult-inspiring shows as “Beauty and the Beast” and “The X-Files.” Gordon went on to work on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” then the full run of “24,” while Gansa produced such shows as “Dawson’s Creek,” “Numb3ers” and “Entourage,” before the pair was reunited for the final season of “24.”

The production offices for “24” included a cigar room, though both Gordon and Gansa had been cigar lovers previously: “Wandering into ‘24’ took it to a whole new level,” Gansa recalls.

His own cigar education began while working on a series, “Maximum Bob,” with producer-director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black): “Barry was directing the pilot of the show in Miami and he got me started,” Gansa says. “My first cigar was a Partagas Serie D No. 4. I remember sitting in this old hotel in Coral Gables, the Biltmore, drinking mojitos and smoking cigars. It became a thing with us: Every time Barry came to Miami, he and I would have a cigar. My dad smoked cigars and we started sharing them. That 45 minutes together rejuvenated our relationship.”

Gordon, who owns two humidors, started smoking cigars while working on “The X-Files”: “I was part of a wine club and some of the guys in the club were cigar collectors,” he recalls. “I was excommunicated from the wine group because I didn’t pay close enough attention and didn’t retain enough knowledge. I guess it’s the same with cigars; I pretty much stick with one that I like and smoke it for a while. I like the Fuente Work of Art, but you don’t always have time to indulge like that. I like a Montecristo No. 2, too.”

He holds up a prized souvenir of his years on “24,” a lethal-looking cigar cutter, saying, “This was a prop on the show. It belonged to a Russian ambassador whose finger found its way into the cutter.”

As noted, Gordon and Gansa turn to the cigars when confronted with knotty writing problems—and they acknowledge that the challenges are big for “Homeland” and its second season.

“We’re at a point where the rubber has not hit the road yet, so there are a bunch of possibilities,” Gansa says. “We’re trying to figure out a way to tell a story with the same energy as the first season, and that’s a bit challenging.”

“It will very much be a continuation of the first year,” Gordon adds. “We’re very excited about ways to bring Carrie back. And the story of Nicholas Brody is only beginning.”

The second season will begin six to 12 months after the end of the first season. While Gansa and Gordon won’t give away particulars, they are hoping to shoot for a couple of weeks in the Middle East. And they mention introducing a major new character.

“The first season was very crystallized in the premise, which had this great hook,” Gordon says.

Says Gansa, “The second year will be different—different rhythm, different narrative, different energy.”

They’ll draw upon the current headlines for inspiration: “There have been so many fantastic world events, from the Arab Spring to Israel threatening to bomb Iran. That’s fascinating for the intelligence community to deal with,” Gansa says. “I was just in Washington, D.C., meeting with some active and retired intelligence officers. And they said that there are discussions at the highest level of government about the same issues we’re dealing with. There is concern in the intelligence community about things like whether we can, in an extrajudicial way, blow people up from long distance, while we’re prevented from interrogating people in a harsh way on the ground. We’re dealing with that moral quandary of how to project American power overseas.”


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