30 January 2012

Link of the day: Alex Gansa walkthrough of Homeland's first season

I was delighted to find that AV Club posted an extensive interview with Homeland's co-creator and co-showrunner Alex Gansa. In it, Gansa goes through all twelve episodes of the standout first season. This is part of AV Club's "Walkthrough" series. The site has conducted similar interviews with other showrunners. The Homeland walkthrough was an incredibly interesting read and I came away being even more impressed with the writers. I'll list a few of the particularly interesting remarks.
  • Gansa didn't think there was anything positive about doing network TV (as opposed to cable). What about reaching larger audiences??
  • Mandy Patinkin was specifically asked to grow a beard. A commenter on the article said that he grew a beard and his wife told him he was much harder to read. "With the beard, you have to read most of his emotions through his eyes and in my opinion it works so well..."
  • Gansa regretted killing off characters (e.g. Lynne Reed, Faisel, Tom Walker) too quickly before they had a chance to develop them.
  • Gansa said that the riveting scene where Saul puts together the colored timeline was actually shot after the episode had already been wrapped. They realized they needed that extra scene after the fact. Gansa remarks that it's a testament to Mandy Patinkin's skill as an actor that he made the sequence so interesting, the way he tears the paper, etc. I've noticed that about outstanding actors. They can make anything seem interesting, make any line of dialogue seem interesting.
  • The writers planned far in advance. They had decided that Dana would be the one to pull her dad back from terrorist activities. And that's why they carefully developed Dana's character and slowly gave Morgan Saylor (the actress who played Dana) more and more to do until she could play the pivotal phone scene in the finale.
  • An interesting remark about TV writing:
    One of the things you learn very early in writing for television, especially, is that compressing the story is always a good idea... And what we realized we had to do was, whenever we could, swing for the fences and not save story, but put the cards down.

    That was the part of the season where people were like, “Oh my God, what’s going to happen next? What are the writers going to do next? I’m worried. Can they sustain the show? Are they telling the story too fast? How are they going to keep this going?” And, interestingly enough, that’s what people are saying at the end of the first season, too: “Well, where can they go from here? How can they move on from here?” One of the things that I learned from Howard on 24 in terms of plotting out these thrillers is that if you sit in a room long enough with smart people, there is a way the story can be told compellingly.
  • More observations about TV writing. The scene discussed here is Carrie and Saul's interrogation of the Saudi diplomat.
    Here’s another example of a scene that everybody’s seen a thousand times, and the question was, “What spin do you put on it? How do you make it different? How do you make it interesting?” The way we chose to make this interesting was, the very thing Saul and Carrie think that they have over this guy [the fact he's gay], and that’s going to be the trump card, doesn’t work. That’s what turned the scene on its head all of a sudden...

    If you have more than one thing going on, a scene is always better, so what’s going on in this scene is that Saul has turned over the interrogation to Carrie and trusted her to do it... So the dynamics between Carrie and Saul are just as important as the dynamics between Carrie and the diplomat, and that’s what adds the richness and the complexity to the scene, and makes it feel different and unexpected.

    And always, whenever you’re writing a scene, whenever you can do something that comes purely from character but that is unexpected, that’s the gold. That’s when you’ve mined something that’s really worthwhile.
Frankly, I'm amazed by the amount of insider information we get nowadays about TV shows. I really enjoy this open dialogue between creator and audience. Apparently, there is a significant appetite for this kind of thing; otherwise, season walkthroughs, TV critic websites, and people like Alan Sepinwall wouldn't exist. Gansa must really respect AV Club to spend so much time granting this exclusive interview.

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