Tag Archives: 24

Homeland’s Chip Johannessen: Stories from the writers room

US writer-producer Chip Johannessen shares his approach to writing series television based on his spells on The X-Files spin-off Millennium, Fox hit 24 and Showtime’s Homeland.

Millennium/The X-Files
Johannessen wrote and produced for Fox series Millennium (pictured left below), which followed an ex-FBI agent who could see into the minds of criminals, between 1996 and 1999, before penning one episode of The X-Files – season seven’s Orison. Both shows were created by Chris Carter.

Millennium (left) and The X-Files

Point of view was a total obsession of Chris Carter, the showrunner on The X-Files and Millennium. Things like subjective camera moves helped you get into the characters’ heads.

By far the most important thing was tightening the sightlines to the point where the actor was almost speaking into the camera. This helped you get into the psychological unease of the characters.

But point of view is not just the shooting style, it gets baked into the script. Every scene has a point of view and every scene must take the past and drive it into the future. This is cause and effect – something happens, something else happens and because that happens, something else happens and so on.

Chip Johannessen
Chip Johannessen

Cause and effect is the glue that holds everything together. Without it, you have nothing – just a bunch of random crap happening. You would think you don’t have to say it, but the fact is cause and effect quickly goes out of the window if you’re not constantly reminded of it.

Stories are not robust, they’re fragile. If you have something that’s working, treasure it – because if you add one or two things that don’t belong, you go from having something that works to having something that doesn’t.

I do not believe in character scenes. When I’m told it’s a character scene, that’s a code for ‘nothing is going on here.’ In terms of driving the past into the future, that is not a good thing. When I hear that term, I get my scissors. This was the deal at The X-Files and Millennium: if a scene is not necessary, delete it; if a line is not necessary, delete it; and the scary part… if a word is not necessary, delete it.

Each scene was represented by a three-by-five card. At The X-Files and Millennium, if you did not believe in the alchemical properties of a perfectly lettered three-by-five card attached by push pin to a cork board, you would not survive in that shop. The stories were almost engineered and would appear to you from the board – you could see whether there were pieces not working well, if there was stuff you could get rid of. The cards can make non-writers into writers.


24
Johannessen was an executive producer of the action drama, which starred Kiefer Sutherland as CTU agent Jack Bauer, for season eight, which first aired on Fox in 2010. He was also a consulting producer for season seven (2009).

24-s8-ep1-1

The big innovation with 24 was, of course, the ‘real time’ element. Real time was in the air at that point. There had been a movie called Timecode that had split screens. We realised in The X-Files and Millennium there were advantages to it. A typical episode had four acts and by the top of act three you’d be breathless trying to get where you were going, and by four you’d be running in real time with a very tight timeline to the end.

What Joel Surnow did as writer of 24 was radical. He said: “Let’s take that energy and sustain it through every frame.” It means jump cuts and flashbacks are off the table. The only thing taking the past and driving it into the future is the life of the characters. If your sense of writing was two people come into a room to have a conversation, you were out in the cold; if your sense of writing was two people come into a room to talk about nothing, you were really out in the cold.

The other thing real time demands is that scenes start at the beginning and play out to the end. We have a sense of where the character is coming from, we have an entrance into the scene and then there’s usually an exit at the other side. In the middle, people have to deal with difficult situations in real time – they look very smart because they have a whole writers room behind them figuring out the smartest way to get through things.

This created an idea that a scene should only be about one thing, and that’s something we retained as we moved into Homeland.

We kept parts from The X-Files and Millennium and jettisoned others. The lighting was simplified and the horror story vocabulary was now gone, but we retained a strong sense of point of view. The producers and directors called it “human height” and everything was shot from there. We lost all the high and low angles unless it was actually somebody’s point of view, and that way we were very much in the action.

The one writerly conceit we did retain was cliffhangers. This is clearly a big thing in the binge-watching world. But we discovered early on that a good cliffhanger is not an action cliffhanger; it’s not putting a gun to somebody’s head where they’re going to die or get blown up. A good cliffhanger is something that upends your entire story, that changes everything. Something like: “The president is going to be assassinated.”

“Yes, Jack, that’s true – and you’re the one who’s going to do it.”


Homeland
Having worked with co-creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa on 24, Johannessen has executive produced all five seasons of Homeland. Season six is due to air later this year.

Homeland-s3-4

With Homeland, we had a much more naturalistic way of doing things. Instead of everything feeling staged, we wanted a feeling that the action was just captured, almost documentary style.

The language was more simple and natural. You could already see that happening in 24 because the language was simple and direct – Jack Bauer was an action hero and his language was often reduced to things like, “do it, do it now.” In Homeland we wanted to bring everything back down to earth.

To get the writer out of the script, we used reality as a trump card. We put a big emphasis on research. We did none, ever, at 24; we just made that shit up – it was a point of honour. We researched Homeland meticulously – ahead of every season, we take a trip to the CIA for three days and talk to a parade of spooks about what’s going on in the world. Ahead of the most recent season, they were all talking about Syria and Europe, so that’s where we ended up landing. We have technical consultants for everything – we try very hard to get it all right.

Even though the number of episodes is reduced compared with 24, where we felt like we were stumbling through and trying to survive, it still really exceeds one person’s ability to write that much material – particularly when you’re producing as well, which we all do at Homeland. This means we have multiple people in a serialised story, so we all have to be in the room together. If I’m writing episode three I have to know what happened in one and two, and have to know what to hand off to four and five.

We cling to the card system we inherited from The X-Files like a life preserver. The good thing is once we have the cards on the board we can hand those to anybody and they can go out and write a script. It’s not quite like a monkey could do it – that would depend on the monkey – but anybody who was there for the process is capable of writing the script.

So we’re asking writers to give up a lot. But if you serve the story, get rid of the noise, never do anything just because it’s cool and try to get rid of all the bad things we inherited from 40 years of bad broadcast TV, you get something very significant in return. You get a writing process generating pages that is so simple it is almost terrifying. All you do is close your eyes and you’re there with your characters and you let them speak.

But don’t let your actors drink coffee in scenes. They’ve already had enough.

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Hostage to fortune

Having presided over eight seasons of 24, Howard Gordon moved to Homeland and then Tyrant as war blazed across the Middle East. As the second season of the latter is prepped, Gordon talks to DQ about the pressure of creating ‘real world’ drama.

When Jack Bauer disappeared at the end of 24’s eighth series back in 2010, it was as limp an anti-climax as TV history has delivered. Barely a handful of viewers watched him go, which would have seemed staggering a couple of years before.

After debuting in 2001 as an aesthetically daring, beautifully constructed and genre redefining instant classic, the show gradually shifted from mere TV series to an avatar for an entire political belief system. There are few TV characters as profoundly controversial as Jack Bauer – perhaps Alf Garnet, although Bauer was better dressed… maybe Ali G or Borat… but even these would struggle to have their resurrection greeted with headlines as furious as: “Why We Don’t Need More 24 – The Torture Happy Jack Bauer Should Stay Retired.”

Howard Gordon
Howard Gordon

Howard Gordon – although not the show’s creator – was effectively showrunner for most of Jack’s life. Once the CTU closed down, his colleague Joel Surnow stepped back a little, pushing out The Kennedys and working on the 24 movie. Gordon – not so much. His next project was Homeland, if possible a little more timely, a little more controversial and a little more unsettling than 24. Based on Israeli series Hatufim – by Gideon Raft – the first two series toyed with extreme versions of Stockholm
Syndrome as former US hostage Nicholas Brody – played by Damian Lewis – came home from captivity.

These days, of course, US hostage executions fill primetime news as the forces of the Islamic State sweep back and forth across Iraq and Syria. With an eye that’s becoming literally uncanny, Howard Gordon is there again – his new show Tyrant deals with the death of a middle eastern dictator so closely modeled on Saddam or Assad that his national flag in the pilot looks a lot like the Iraqi flag.

“Well it’s not literally the Iraqi flag, it’s a variation,” Howard explains carefully. “In fact you’ll see between the pilot and the subsequent episodes that we revised the flag, to underscore the difference. People were trying to second guess, is this Syria? Is this Iraq? Setting a show in the real Middle East but in a fictional country is a unique challenge because now, for better or worse, we’re all fairly familiar with the map. So doing that without making it something like Moon over Parador or something limply satirical is difficult. A fictional country is almost by definition a comic creation.”

And Tyrant is definitely not a comedy. The show follows Bassam Al-Fayeed, the youngest son of a brutal dictator. Bassam has been living in the US and working as a doctor for almost 20 years – an echo of colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s son Safi who studied at the LSE in London. Bassam heads home for a family wedding and stumbles into a terrifying political crisis when his father is killed in the middle of an Arab Spring revolution. Bassam is tempted to flee – but fears his brutal and unstable older brother Jamal will unleash a bloody conflict so stays to help soothe him into a peaceful transition of power. Which, needless to say, goes badly.

“It’s really the hubris of American Colonialism,” Gordon explains. “And Barry is the personification of that world. Let’s just say The Godfather is probably the most obvious influence here. Barry stays behind to help his brother run the family business and then comes to realise that his brother’s not capable of doing that. Betraying his brother is the only possible next step, so that becomes the trajectory of the show.”

Homeland
Hit drama Homeland

It’s the second collaboration between Howard and Homeland creator Raff. Gordon was filming the second series of Homeland in Israel when Raff approached him with the idea. “It was intriguing because I’m obviously fascinated by this part of the world,” he explains. “History is being made in the Middle East, and its changing by the day. So it felt like a way to open a door on that side of the world that wasn’t a terrorist based thriller but more of a family saga and a political drama.”

Given that point – that history is being written – it seems surprising so few scriptwriters are following him in to the region. “I guess it’s for the same reason the US government wants so desperately to stay away,” he gives a short laugh. “Ask President Obama right now – it’s a hornets nest. The ground is completely unstable. It is a thicket of competing tribal and religious and cultural rules standing between modernity and antiquity so it’s very challenging narratively to take such a complicated landscape. People certainly wouldn’t put a Muslim in the lead unless they were fighting terrorists.”

There may, of course, be other reasons. During one interview, Damian Lewis recalled how hair raising it could be shooting Homeland on the ground in Palestinian towns. Gordon laughs when that’s mentioned. “Take the challenges of shooting what’s halfway around the world with the time differences, language differences and the cultural differences then add things you can’t prepare for,” he grins. “We were in a Palestinian town called Bartar filming on this very long street that we hadn’t locked down. We thought the shops and street vendors had been paid to make up for whatever lost income the shooting had caused, but apparently they weren’t. So fights broke out in the street and then it swelled and turned toward the crew and we did a quick retreat, with Clare Danes jumping into a van as we left. I think somebody may have started the rumour that we were with the CIA…”

And yet he’s back – shooting Tyrant initially in Israel before the current conflict forced them over to Istanbul. “It’s hard to get the colours and the architecture and the faces anywhere else, and that’s what makes it feel real,” he explains. “We don’t want to make it feel like a back lot. But yes just when you think it couldn’t get any more difficult it finds a way to get more difficult.”

This interest in current affairs linked drama hasn’t always defined him. His CV shows a career swerve so sharp there are practically tyre marks on the paper – born in Queens, New York, he moved to LA to write for television and cut his teeth on private eye drama Spenser: For Hire.

From there, he focused on fantasy – Beauty and the Beast, The X Files and the Buffy spin-off Angel. So why did he switch from the surreal to the very real? “Sometimes the turns aren’t necessarily by design, but by circumstance,” he says wryly. “I had written a pilot for Fox called Ball and Chain, a husband-and-wife superhero show based on a comic book. Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran created 24 and that wound up getting on the air instead of my comic book. I was asked to go on the show with Joe and Bob… and this was all before 9/11 so we were shooting a show which, I suspect, would have been a good show but which suddenly became so culturally resonant because of 9/11. Certainly 9/11 influenced what we did creatively with the show from that moment.”

24
Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in 24

For the next decade, effectively, he channelled the evolving story of US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan into touchstones for the series – and they also became the lens through which the series was viewed. Gordon is more or less a liberal and his co-writer Joel Surnow is a noted Republican. As 24 became a cultural totem it was fought over as fiercely as the notion of what America should be. Storylines that seemed to condone torture came in for heavy criticism and Gordon’s liberal shoulders had to carry much of that weight.

“People presumed things that weren’t necessarily true,” he insists. “Joel’s politics and my politics really seldom became narrative markers. There might be a scene or two Joel wrote where someone from the American Civil Liberators Union might have felt they were treated unkindly. Yes, we’d argue behind the scenes. On the writing staff there were people to the right of Joel and people to the left of me and we’d spend hours arguing politics but I can’t say the show ever descended to some kind of propaganda.”

All the same, the accusations almost sent him packing. Jack Bauer came to represent something unsavoury and he found it exhausting to keep pouring creative love into the show. After Homeland he thought he was at the end of his rope on that sort of material and briefly returned to fantasy with Awake, a brutally short-lived, high-concept cop show for NBC about an LAPD officer existing in two parallel realities after a car crash. In one, his wife survives; in the other, his son lives, and he uses details from each to solve crimes in both. The show was cancelled in May 2012 after 11 episodes.

“Awake was my own personal hubris,” he admits. “I knew that it was a very challenging concept. In hindsight it may have been better served as a cable show. I think it was a gimmick that rendered both worlds inert rather than made both worlds feel more engaged.”

You also get the sense that he’s passed through the looking glass and would struggle to immerse himself as thoroughly in an entirely unreal fictional world. Right now he’s considering season two of Tyrant – which hasn’t been picked up yet, after a mixed reception in the US over the summer – but he’s doodling some ideas and how can he not look at ISIS?

“It’s an incredible sequence of events and if we do go back we can’t ignore them,” he explains. “The trick is of course to find a way to take these real world events and weave them into your story and in a way it’s not reckless I would say. That’s the challenge.”

That it’s tricky doesn’t need underlining. At the height of 24’s popularity, Joel Surnow tried to capitalise on his reputation for current events TV by launching a right-wing version of the Daily Show, the ½ Hour News Hour, for Fox News. When it failed – and failed quickly – there was talk of Hollywood’s liberal bias.

“I think Hollywood is a more liberally inclined culture,” Gordon says carefully. “Which isn’t hard when you look at where people come from. But I think artists everywhere – in all countries – tend to be liberal. They’re the ones who question authority, are probably temperamentally slightly outcast themselves and attach themselves to the underdogs and the underclass. You could say the same thing about people on Wall Street being conservative and wanting to conserve all the money that they’ve made.”

All the same, he’s still friends with Joel. He executive produced Jack Bauer’s recent resurrection in 24: Live Another Day although he wasn’t in the writers room. “Now that the dust has settled on 24 both of us recognise how much we learned from each other. It’s the most fun I’ve had in my career,” he gives a quiet smile. Which begs the question – if liberals and republicans can work together in the steam cooker of serial TV drama is there anything we can learn that would help the embattled US Congress collaborate somehow?

He pauses, thoughtfully. “Well, I don’t know about that,” he says in the end. “Things are getting so nasty in Washington. But I guess the stakes are real. At the end of the day we’re still just running a television show…”

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