'Intelligence' EPs on a Different Kind of Superhero and 'Chuck' Comparisons (Q&A)
In a chat with THR, Tripp Vinson and Michael Seitzman preview their new Josh Holloway vehicle.
Josh Holloway returns to television with CBS' tech-heavy drama Intelligence.
The hour-long procedural follows a highly valuable U.S. asset, intelligence operative Gabriel Vaughn (Lost's Holloway), who has a super-computer microchip implanted in his brain that enhances his abilities tenfold. As the first human being connected to the global information grid, Gabriel has unlimited access to vital information pivotal in the country's fight against its enemies.
The inspiration for Intelligence was spawned by an unpublished manuscript, The Dissident by John Dixon (the book, now titled Phoenix Island, will be published Jan. 21 via Simon & Schuster). The prison-set story featured a protagonist that had familiar hero traits -- one of them superhuman strength. As executive producers Tripp Vinson and Michael Seitzman developed the project, however, the premise organically evolved into something they felt was far more compelling for the small screen.
Vinson and Seitzman talk to The Hollywood Reporter, interviewed separately, about the genesis of the technology-based action procedural and address the comparisons to Chuck.
When did you first get the idea for Intelligence?
Tripp Vinson: The whole thing started with an unpublished manuscript, at the time called The Dissident, that was sent to me as a feature. There were way too many competing projects at the Hollywood studios to pursue it as a feature, but I had started to think about getting involved in television: "Why not take this?" I gave the manuscript to Michael Seitzman -- he and I were friends. He said, "I love it, but the series starts where this book ends." That got us going into developing the character, who we changed pretty significantly. The powers of Gabriel were something Michael and I cooked up; in the book, the hero has superstrength and superspeed. Those are traits you see in a lot of superhero movies and Michael was really trying to find something different to do. At the time, there was news about Google Glass and we stumbled upon a scientist, Kevin Warwick, who had done experiments with hooking up the human body to the Internet. We started looking into his research, which led us to other research and we started finding that the future we're exploring in this television show is really not that far away at all.
Michael Seitzman: There was a central idea in the book we thought was interesting: What happens when you start to augment human beings. When we talked about it, the further we moved away from it. The book was set in a prison and we didn't want to do a prison story. The book dealt with creating superstrength in prisoners by augmenting them in a certain way and the more I was reading the less interested I was in superstrength and more interested in what I thought was the next step in augmented humanity, which would be connecting you directly to the global information grid. The next logical phase is there's just no computer more. What happens when we cross that threshold? It would raise interesting questions. I also wanted to tell a fun story where every week you could tune in and there was action, a sense of humor, characters that you like, so the bigger questions of technology and humanity doesn't overwhelm the narrative and the viewer.
What was the biggest shifts you made in making this friendly for TV and not a book or a film?
Vinson: In the manuscript, the hero was much younger than the way we ultimately designed him to be. I would argue that the biggest shift was two-fold: defining what kind of superpowers our hero was going to have and to set the series in an agency-type setting so that there was a story engine of a case and that they would be going on a mission. Those were two fundamentals that we had to change.
Seitzman: Since we wanted to be five minutes into the future and we were dealing with technology, why don't we set it at the one agency no one has set a show before and that was U.S. Cyber Command. It also is the agency that wasn't around in the Cold War. Everything about it was modern and futuristic.
What was an idea that didn't stick in your development process?
Vinson: One of the initial questions we had was: Do you take a page out of the James Bond movies and create a fictional evil organization. That was something we toyed around with. Given how complicated the world is today and how important the international marketplace is, do you want to name bad guys in a show that deals with national security? We toyed around quite a bit with creating a main antagonist that's the head of an evil organization and that would provide somebody for our heroes to be going up against all the time. Ultimately it didn't stick and we moved off of it.
Was there a mandate from the network that they wanted specific things infused into the show?
Seitzman: Thematically [CBS] has always loved the idea of a human being merging with technology. What they pointed they did not want, which we also didn't want, was someone who was a synthetic -- a robot or an android. If they drive us in a certain direction, they tend to drive us toward character, which is startling in a great way. That's not usually what you get. Usually it's fireworks and only fireworks.
How much of each episode is procedural and how much is character/mythology development?
Seitzman: That's a really good question. I don't know how to break it down. Just about every episode is a close-ended story for us. We present a problem and our characters try to solve that problem. They all have to rise to a certain level of national security. We start off with the premise of having the country's most valuable weapon so all of our problems of the week have to justify using that very expensive weapon. Already we end up with these really big stories and because of the nature of that, those stories have a certain urgency. If they're national security they're a big urgent problem that has to be solved that week. Within those stories, we try to thread these other ideas into the season. There's some mythology but I really do think if anybody tuned in, they most likely would not have needed to see the previous week, but it will be satisfying for those who did.
Is the 13-episode limited run something you prefer as a writer/producer?
Vinson: There's definitely advantages to 13, especially someone like myself who has never worked in television before. I think it's less challenging to make 13 good episodes rather than 22 or 24; that's a big, big job. I'm very glad that this initial run was just 13 because over the course of this, we learned a tremendous amount. Producing a television series is significantly more challenging than producing a feature, in my opinion.
Tripp and Michael, this is your first TV series. What was most surprising about TV that you didn't know beforehand?
Vinson: I knew it was going to be a challenge. I heard the stories about having to be in development, production and postproduction at the same time on multiple episodes. I was aware of it but being aware of it and actually having to do it are two completely different things. I have a lot of respect for people who can run multiple shows. I'm kind of in awe of it, to be honest with you. There's a part of me that looks back and ahead at a feature and (Laughs.) it's like a cakewalk to me. But it's the schedule and the amount of things going on that make it a unique challenge.
Intelligence has been touted as Josh Holloway's return to television and also has CSI's Marg Helgenberger. Were their characters written with them in mind?
Vinson: Josh was someone I knew and to be honest with you, very early on, when I mentioned we were in the very early stages developing this and thinking about who would be a great guy for the role, Josh was literally the first and only one we discussed. The show was developed for him; the character was completely designed for him. You look at the things he does well and those things were exactly what we needed. The charm that he has, the humanity that he has, his sense of humor, he's got a little cockiness. Those things are very human characteristics and that was something we were very conscious of, trying to find someone who could exhibit that type of humanity for this particular character. We never wanted the show to be about a robot, we wanted it to be about a man -- who happens to be augmented with technology.
The show's premise has been compared to another similarly-themed show, Chuck (airing on NBC from 2007-12), whose main character has an Intersect downloaded to his brain. Were you guys familiar with that show?
Vinson: I got asked about this earlier and to be perfectly frank, I've never seen Chuck. I'm not really familiar with the show. I've heard through reporters and other people that the lead character had a chip in his head as well on that show, but I'm embarrassed to say I've never seen the show. Here's the thing about that though, this stuff gets out there in the zeitgeist. It was really about Google Glass and some of the other things that are coming down the pike that inspired us in this case.
Seitzman: No, I've never seen it. I know of it. One of the writers that we hired, Matt Lau, worked on it. (Lau was writer on Chuck from 2008-09.) ... At some point after we made the pilot we started to hear people say in interviews and I never asked anyone until just now. They'd sort of say, "There's similarities to Chuck," and I just didn't understand. A couple of people would tell me, "Well, it's a comedy," so already, I didn't think we were the same. He didn't have a microchip and he had a double life. I don't know what the similarities are but if there are, it's purely accidental. And certainly there wouldn't be a similarity in tone.
Why do you think there is still a rich appeal for shows set in the very near future or revolving around technology?
Vinson: Because I think in some ways television and movies and art reflect our lives and technology has become embedded in everything we do. You're constantly surrounded by computers. It's everywhere. That's going to seep into your subconscious and when you're trying to do something creative, it's going to be reflected in that creative endeavor.
How are you feeling about having a strong NCIS lead-in?
Seitzman: We're hoping if people sample the show they'll watch it. If they tune in it'll be something they'll like. We're incredibly lucky that CBS decided to premiere it there. They couldn't pick a better slot for it to premiere in and we're hopeful people stick with the show when we move to our regular slot Mondays at 10.
What are you planning to do for premiere night?
Vinson: We'll be in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. The only other thing I have planned is having a stiff drink.
Intelligence premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m., before launching in its regular time slot Jan. 13 at 10 p.m. at CBS.
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