'Halt and Catch Fire' Creators Pledge Tale of 'Combustive' Egos and the Anti-Skyler White
Co-creators Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers, along with showrunner Jonathan Lisco, talk to THR about the challenge of making computing sexy and not becoming a 1980s Top 40 soundtrack.
Will AMC’s bet on Halt and Catch Fire pay off?
Set in 1983, on the cusp of the personal computing boom, Halt revolves around former IBMer Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), who is forced to enlist the help of engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and coding prodigy Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) in an attempt to confront the corporate giants of the time to boost his own stock and that of the fictional Cardiff Electric.
Inspired by co-creator Chris Cantwell’s father -- Cantwell's family moved to Dallas in 1982, when he was six years old, so his dad “could work at a company similar to Cardiff” -- and written as a staffing sample by Cantwell and co-creator Chris Rogers, Halt is one of several tech-centric projects permeating the culture. There’s HBO’s comedic nod in Silicon Valley; CBS’ forthcoming genius drama Scorpion and cyberwarfare CSI: Cyber; and various Steve Jobs tales (Jobs, and Aaron Sorkin’s upcoming biopic). Halt borrows from reality, or at least one version of it, dramatized to raise the stakes. “My father didn’t violently change the computing model from inside out -- that’s where we deviate. But the stories he brought home from work and his livelihood and how he watched the industry change from year to year was interesting to me,” Cantwell says. Case in point: The off-kilter dynamic between Joe, a charming hustler, and Gordon, inherently awkward, was based on his father’s experiences on sales runs with an engineer.
Initial discussions were had about “Glengarry Glen Ross and men under pressure,” says Rogers, but he and Cantwell admittedly weren’t interested in making another cop or doctor show. A reverse engineering story, coupled with Cantwell’s father’s anecdotes, suddenly made computing an appealing foundation for a show -- “Maybe it would be new to the broader audience,” says Rogers.
Halt’s debut comes just one week after Mad Men wrapped the first half of its prolonged swan song, and the pressure of living up to the label of being an “AMC drama” isn’t lost on Cantwell, Rogers and showrunner/executive producer Jonathan Lisco (Southland) as they have a candid talk with THR about the challenges of making computing sexy, insecure egos and learning from Breaking Bad and The West Wing.
How did you come to create these particular characters? Are they composites of real people? Who is most inspired by a real-life tech person?
Chris Cantwell: The characters are created from a whole cloth, but there are elements of Joe MacMillan that you can see in Steve Jobs. My dad actually did yell at someone in a parking lot -- when Joe yells at Gordon [in the pilot], that’s the one moment from my father’s life that he’s very proud of that was in the show. (Laughs) I waited for that guy to see the episode in the show and be really upset. Gordon, to us, is interesting because everyone knows the American-dream story of Steve Jobs and Steve [Wozniak] barefoot in a garage building a computer and becoming billionaires overnight. We thought, let’s take that story all the way up to where they’re building something together, and what if it failed? What kind of person does that create? That kind of character with a chip on his shoulder was interesting for us.
Chris Rogers: If the story started with Joe MacMillan, the guy who comes in hijacking this company, we elevated it by making it a two-hander about Joe and Gordon. It really crystallized when we added Cameron. It became this triangulation of people with different agendas and world views. So much of the show isn’t about battling the external forces -- it is about these three working together and creating something special, and in the process exorcizing their own demons and realizing their own visions. The three of them together is so much the engine that makes this thing run.
Is Joe, Gordon and Cameron’s attempt at working in partnership the driving force for the 10 episodes?
Cantwell: They all have this idea for what this machine should be, and they all are 100 percent convinced that they’re right, whether it be out of experience or ego or actual vision. That’s going to bring them into direct conflict with each other, because they’re not going to give in to each other easily. It’s all a second chance for them. Joe is coming out of IBM, Gordon’s fallen out of Silicon Valley, and for Cameron, this is her only chance, because she’s putting everything on the table for this. They’re not going to let go and compromise lightly.
Are they all egomaniacs?
Jonathan Lisco: There’s certainly a lot of ego, but complementing that is also a lot of insecurity. With any type of prodigy, you toggle back and forth between arrogance and insecurity. I don’t think they’re all megalomaniacal; I think their insecurity is also an engine for the combustive nature of their relationship.
Cantwell: In casting the three of them, they all bring a dimensionality to their characters. In the way Lee portrays Joe -- yeah, he’s ironclad and he’s opaque and a cipher and in ways, you can see a humanity and a vulnerability. Gordon’s a family man, but he’s failed before, so you see where he’s coming from. Cameron’s the same way. We didn’t want Cameron to be the sassy “I know better than you,” who has no respect for the elders and what came before. There’s some of that, but there’s something brewing underneath the surface.
Lisco: We’ve invested a lot of time in the relationship of [Gordon and] Donna [his wife, played by Kerry Bishe] and making her a formidable character in the engineering and in the intellectual IQ level. We don’t want her to be an accessory to Gordon’s egomania.
Rogers: Donna’s concerns are well founded. Unfairly, a lot of people objected to the character of Skyler White [on Breaking Bad] because she’s ruining Walt[er White]’s fun -- she’s an obstacle to his meth empire. We didn’t want to do that with Donna, so Donna is integral in every part of the story. Her concern at the beginning is that Joe’s crazy and maybe it’s not a good thing for Gordon to be doing this. We didn’t want her to be the shrew or the rag on this thing that’s taking off.
Computing can sometimes be dry in a medium such as TV. How did you go about portraying that part of the story so it was visually dramatic?
Cantwell: We tried to ground the story in human drama and make the story about the characters and the relationships and the tensions. The computing part of it all is really a backdrop to all of that, that enriches and sometimes drives the story forward. At the end of the day we wanted the characters to be asking universal questions, where they look at the mirror: Am I a fraud? Do I have the goods? Am I a failure for a reason? Do I deserve a second chance? You look at a show like The West Wing, where these people are experts in their fields and we believe without a doubt that they know what they’re talking about, and we want our characters to be the same thing. Even if we’re not on board with everything they’re talking about, we trust that they are.
Rogers: The computer in this show is a reflection of the people who are building it. Our contention is that people build their personalities into their products. We believe it should be an extension of these characters, their problems and neuroses, and a way to check in to how they’re doing and where they’re at in this machine they’re building together instead of presenting it as a cold piece of hardware.
Lisco: The A story is not what is happening with the computer story, but [how it’s] affecting the characters. We often in the writers’ room reminded ourselves of that when we were getting too much into the rabbit hole of bits and bytes.
Why this time period?
Cantwell: We asked ourselves the question of how did we get here? How did we get to this place where our lives are so in line with technology and there’s no going back? The switch is permanently in the on position, whether you want it or not. With personal computers around this time, that’s when it went from being a specialized tool in the basement of a corporation to something that was in every home. That to us was the watershed milestone that we wanted to focus on.
Rogers: You’re seeing a lot of shows -- Silicon Valley keeps coming up -- and we’re all subconsciously interested in whether this connectivity is pushing us farther apart, or the role technology plays.
Which character was the toughest to cast?
Cantwell: Cameron, because of the way we crafted the character. When Mackenzie Davis walked in the room -- we saw her on tape for the first time, even on tape we knew.
Rogers: Because you either got Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or really oversexualized. You need intelligence to do that character.
Cantwell: Ben Davis at AMC called us minutes after the tape went live and said, “Hey, we need to make sure [we get her]. She’s really good.”
Were there advisors to help you get the terminology right and help paint a picture of the industry back then?
Rogers: We clung to them like life rafts.
Lisco: Chris and Chris are more technically knowledgeable than I am, but if we wanted to write an episode where something goes wrong with the hard drive, I think even you guys would say we might want to talk to somebody before we know exactly what that is, to keep it technically accurate but [also] period accurate. We had several that we worked with.
Talk about how you approached the music for the show, because it’s easy to veer into the obvious hits.
Cantwell: We didn’t want to just needle-drop every ‘80s Top 40 hit that you can hear on Jack FM right now -- that was important to us, that the music didn’t usurp what was going on. Anything that was sourced was part of that world, just like the costumes and the hair. It was music that might have been on the radio at the time, so we’ve had our share of recognizable songs, but we also have our share of local Dallas punk bands to really add the flavor.
The trailers have featured Eurythmics’ "Sweet Dreams,” which gives off a certain vibe for the show. Any chance that song will be heard at some point?
Rogers: An inspired marketing choice.
Cantwell: “Sweet Dreams”? I don’t think it’s in the first season.
Rogers: Spoiler alert!
Cantwell: But there are other songs you’ll recognize where you’re like, “Oh yeah!” Hopefully we use and wield them in the correct way, where it doesn’t take you out of the story.
Halt and Catch Fire premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC.