Writers and creators, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa talk 24, the process behind Homeland and ‘misunderstanding’ while shooting in Israel with Claire Danes.
When did you first become aware of Gideon Raff’s original Israeli television series Prisoners of War upon which Homeland is based, and what was the thinking surrounding the decision to adapt a U.S. version from the Israeli original? How is it similar/different to its predecessor?
Howard: I became aware of Prisoners of War when I got a call from my agent, Rick Rosen, who was stepping off a plane from Israel. He represents Keshet – the television company responsible for In Treatment, among other formats – and he said, pretty definitively, “I have your next show.” He described it briefly and it sounded good, and I suggested that it might be something Alex and I could do together (since Alex also happens to be a client of Rick’s). But the truth was, Alex and I were both so deep into the eighth season of 24 that when we agreed to do the project, we had no idea how different our final product would be from the original. So while the source material offered some compelling ideas for us to work with, making it work as a series for a U.S. and, really a global audience, required some wholesale reinvention from us.
What were some of the challenges in both story and character with translating Gideon Raff’s original vision? What are some of the factors involved in writing for an Israeli audience versus and American audience?
Howard: The imagined homecoming of two long-time POWs was really the dramatic engine of Gideon’s story. While this has a deep and immediate resonance with Israeli society (the capture of Gilad Shalit by Hamas for the last five years has been a national crisis) we have no analogous situation in the U.S. While Gideon’s was essentially a family drama, ours became a psychological thriller when we posited the possibility that the returning soldier had been turned into a terrorist and was being sent back here as the tip of the spear of a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
How did your experience on working on 24 influence your decision to do Homeland? Howard: It felt like an opportunity to explore some of the same themes which we are still grappling with ten years after 9/11 – national security versus civil liberties, the nature of real threats versus imagined threats which we create out of our fear – but in a more nuanced way than we would ever achieve in the relentless pedal-to-the-metal narrative that 24 required. And while 24 was born and came of age in the shadow of 9/11, so much has changed in the world since then, the complexities and tangled consequences of our military actions being one of them, and Homeland lives in this far more complex world we now find ourselves trying to navigate as a nation.
Homeland premiered in the US almost directly after the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Was that a conscious decision?
Howard: It was just a confluence of events, which in the end turned out to be quite fortuitous, as did a number of other things. Osama bin Laden was killed when we were on Episode 2, eerily like the scene of Damian’s rescue; the Arab Spring. So a lot of the issues, you know, that seem to be a conflation of war on terror and the two wars we find ourselves in. This is after Abu Ghraib, after Guantanamo, after the prosecution of two wars of questionable merit. So this looks at the price to this country of what happened to us ten years ago. So the timing of it, I think, is significant, accidental, and fortuitous.
Both 24 and Homeland share similar themes of national security, terrorism and politics. Can you talk about your interest in exploring these subjects and how the two shows differ in their approaches?
Howard: Although the real-time format of 24 gave it a certain energy and a seeming realism, the fact that it told a story inside the course of a single day inevitably made it embrace improbabilities. So the idea of exploring themes like national security, terrorism and politics was subverted to the rigorous requirements of an almost impossible format. Because Homeland isn’t bound by the real-time format, we’re able to dramatise relationships and story arcs that take place over a longer time period, which has given us an opportunity to explore some of the same themes in a deeper and more nuanced way.
Alex: We also wanted to address the experience of veterans. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are arguably the longest wars in U.S. history. Members of the armed forces are struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress and physical disabilities in record numbers. How will their experiences overseas find a context once these soldiers are back home? Brody’s journey is a way to ask that question in depth. What was he was fighting for? Just what are the values of his homeland? “24” existed in a real post9/11 world. And Jack was an action hero. In response to that, ten years later, things have become deeper and more complex. And the heart of this show is really psychological, how America is dealing with that tenyear period. And now it’s post Osama bin Laden.
Tell us about the cast. How did Claire Danes and Damian Lewis come to join the production? And can you describe the greatest attribute and flaws in the characters they play – Carrie Anderson and Sgt. Nick Brody?
Howard: Claire Danes was our first choice from the moment we sat down to write the pilot. She had just appeared in Temple Grandin and we were blown away by her performance. We even named the character Claire in our first draft. As much as Alex and I were fans of Damian’s from Band of Brothers, he became our first choice when we saw him in an independent movie called Keane.
Alex: Carrie has an extraordinary passion for life; her mental illness gives her an unparalleled intuition and appetite. But the highs give way to crippling lows, and that can be an intensely lonely experience. Brody trained as a sniper. He’s focused. He has incredible will. He’s survived an experience that would break most people. He’s also a soldier with a strong sense of duty and justice. As the season unfolds, we’ll learn how his eight years in captivity changed him, or just uncovered something he always carried inside him. Carrie and Brody are a great match in this season-long cat and mouse game. Each harbours secrets. And each understands the other in a way that no one else can. They have an intense connection-despite the fact that they might have radically opposing goals.
What can you tell us about the end of these 13 weeks? Will you solve the mysteries of Damian’s character?
Howard: This is a very, very interesting narrative experience. We’ve all discussed it. The first conversation we had with Damian and Claire was, how long can we keep the “is he or isn’t he” of it alive without feeling like we’re annoying the audience. And I think we have found a really satisfying way to tell that story where this uncertainty is actually compelling. And the answer is that we hope, that we answer those questions at the right time.
Are you working with any official consultants from the CIA or another government agency to advise on storylines? How do you make the plotlines authentic?
Howard: Alex and I have very different processes when it comes to this. Alex tends to do a lot of research, and I tend not to because I’m lazy and I prefer to keep my imagination unencumbered by the facts – and usually find myself able to retrofit reality to what I need the characters to do. I find that plotlines are authentic when the characters are authentic – which is to say, act like people you recognise.
Alex: At the writers’ office, we do a significant amount of research in order to get the details right – and given the subject matter, it wouldn’t be a surprise to find that we’d been flagged for the terrorist watch list. We’re very lucky to have a few official consultants, including a contact at the CIA and the representatives of Muslims On Screen & Television. We even have an imam on set to work with non-Muslim actors to perfect their salat prayer rituals. But, as Howard says, the authenticity of the characters comes first.
Where is production set? Did any of the filming be on location in the Middle East?
Howard: The production is set in Charlotte, North Carolina, which will double as Washington DC and Virginia. For the pilot, we were able to film in Israel, which doubled as Baghdad. There was a little misunderstanding with the location person, and so there was a little bit of an adventure while we were there.
What do you mean by “misunderstanding”?
Howard: Well, it wasn’t like shooting in L.A. where you lock down a street and, you know, get a license from the city. This was a little bit more ad hoc than that, and so let’s just say certain people didn’t get distributed their location fee. And then the rumour circulated that we were actually CIA plants, and then you can imagine what happened.
Alex: And the next thing –
Howard: The next thing, Claire was being rushed away in a van by security.
Alex: Claire was in the back of a car going a hundred miles an hour out of town. We got it on film
Howard: We hope we’ll have the chance in the future to do some more remote shooting in that part of the world.