'Homeland's' Secret Weapons: Inside the 30-Year Friendship That Stuck Together
THR is on set and in the writers room of TV's hottest drama as its co-creators -- Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon -- reveal a tale of reunited friends, ripped-from-the-headlines drama and, oh yeah, all of those shiny awards.
On a balmy day in mid-July, their star, Lewis, sits with his hands shackled to a wooden table as deafening music blasts through his windowless cell. An interrogator throws open the door: "Who is Issa?" he barks at Brody, referring to Abu Nazir's son, whom Brody had come to love as his own child before a drone strike ordered by the U.S. vice president had him killed in Iraq in season one. As the questions grow more accusatory, Brody stops providing answers. Incensed, the interrogator pulls out a switchblade and rams it into Brody's left hand. The ear-piercing shriek that follows reverberates through the Charlotte, N.C., soundstage, eliciting a pump of the fist from director Lesli Linka Glatter and confident smiles from the 10 or so who surround her at the bank of video monitors.
Eager for more angles of a pained Brody, who is now plotting the next Al Qaida attack on American soil from his perch as a U.S. congressman, Glatter sends a makeup artist scurrying back in to reapply a coat of deep red, alcohol-based syrup on Lewis' hand before another take is called. The actor, 41, will shoot this scene -- with and without a prosthetic hand -- 10 or so more times before the lunch bell rings at 4 p.m. At that time, he strips down to an undershirt and slacks and sits down with his newest castmate, fellow Brit Rupert Friend, without once dropping his American accent. ("I speak in an American accent from the moment I wake up until the moment they say wrap," says Lewis of an immersion technique that dates to his first American role on HBO's Band of Brothers.) Soon, he'll be back on his feet, heading to the dessert table to fill a bowl with chocolate ice cream and a coating of caramel sauce with the type of giddy excitement of a child. "They do this whole good-cop/bad-cop thing with us," he quips, flashing a warm smile that he rarely gets to display onscreen: "First, they stab you with a knife, and then they give you ice cream."
It's that ability to deliver palpable intensity, coupled with the series' ripped-from-the-headlines realism, that has earned Lewis -- along with co-stars Danes, Mandy Patinkin and Morena Baccarin -- the attention of D.C.'s elite (like Obama, Bill Clinton has requested DVDs). Lewis is fond of telling the story of his evening at the White House in March, during which President Obama told him that he watches Homeland on Saturday afternoons when Michelle has taken the kids to play tennis and he's supposed to be working. "I couldn't resist saying to him, 'Could you just please let us know if you're going into Iran because we really want season two to be as current as possible,' " recalls Lewis. "He looked me right in the eye, he didn't bat an eyelash, and said, 'I'll be sure to let you know' and shook my hand. He was great -- very, very cool, and then I just felt this Secret Service guy behind me."
Such hints would be helpful. As the premiere revealed, the second season takes a look at what happens after Israel has attacked Iran's nuclear facilities. "You have to ask what would happen if the whole situation [on the show] suddenly became past tense," says writer Johannessen of the dangers of employing a real-world backdrop as topical as the Middle East. (The first two episodes were filmed in part in Tel Aviv, substituting for Beirut.) "We ultimately decided that it was dramatically interesting enough that we would just go for it, and it would be interesting either way."
It's the type of debate that's had often in Homeland's windowless writers room on the 20th Century Fox lot in L.A. to work through -- and at times, agonize over -- plot points. The space is decorated with maps (of the D.C. area and the Middle East), story calendars and a collection of relevant books, including Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA and The Messages of the Quran. On an afternoon in early March, there were more questions posed than answers provided as the group attempted to keep the story arc simultaneously compelling and accurate: "Would someone in office be promoted that quickly?" "Is that how they'd do an appropriation bill?" "Why would he ask for Brody's help?" Each question spurred more conversation, with Gordon fond of interjecting with versions of: "Let me throw this out there," or "I'm going to pitch an alternative. Hear me out."
Gansa says exhausting every avenue is a critical part of the process, particularly on a series whose fervent fan base is likely to dissect and critique its every arc. Add to that a desire to be relevant, and you begin to understand why a marathon writing session can feel more like an episode of Meet the Press. "We're in this very strange situation where we're trying to anticipate events so that we're not behind current events when the show airs," he says. "We've got one eye on the newspaper every morning as we're in the story room just wondering if that's going to transpire; whether we're going to be prescient or whether we're going to be wrong."
The seeds of Gordon and Gansa's partnership date to their first venture, Testtakers, an SAT business that offered a stable of Ivy League-educated tutors to a client base that quickly surpassed 250. "We composed this letter -- which I still contend is the best piece of writing we've ever done -- that just struck the perfect note between the paranoia that parents have about their kids getting into college and our sort of inflated qualifications to teach their kids," recalls Gansa, who with Gordon hired then-unknown director-producers Greg Daniels (The Office), Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3) and Alek Keshishian (Truth or Dare) as tutors for L.A.'s moneyed set. Adds Gordon: "These checks for $495 started coming into our mailbox, and when you started to do the math, it was crazy. We actually built this very successful business."
As luck would have it, one of those clients was the daughter of John Wilder, who was launching Spenser: For Hire and was in search of writers. The producer read a St. Elsewhere spec script that Gansa and Gordon had written upon graduation and gave them their first break, which the duo acknowledged Sept. 23 with "a monumental thank you" from the Emmy stage. (Wilder joined several dozen, including Breaking Bad creator and fellow nominee Vince Gilligan, who sent them congratulatory notes the following day.) But it was a later Gordon-Gansa project, a Twin Peaks-style network pilot titled Country Estates, which caught the attention of Chris Carter, who invited the pair to join the X Files writing staff.
Gordon remained involved with the series for several seasons, parlaying that gig into others on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and, ultimately, 24. In the process, he became one of the most successful -- and most well-liked -- showrunners in television. Gansa considered himself a poor fit and exited, only to spend the decade or so that followed dabbling on such shows as Numb3rs, Entourage and his short-lived Maximum Bob as he attempted to create a hit of his own. "Alex had always been extremely well-respected by other writers and by studios and networks, but he never quite caught some of the breaks along the way that other writers have," says 20th Century Fox TV chairman Gary Newman, who, like many, makes mention of his dedication and his raw intellect. (Gordon and Gansa remained close, at times talking several times a week and frequently reading each others' projects during their 15 years or so apart.)
"X Files had a very, very competitive atmosphere, and you had Chris Carter, who was completely and utterly immersed in this whole conspiracy theory and alien stuff, and the other writers, who just lived and breathed it. I'm a guy who's reading Saul Bellow and Philip Roth on the weekends," says Gansa of his decision to move on. "I was trying to convince Howard to go get our own show on the air, but that didn't work. So I put my tail between my legs and disappeared into the hinterland never to be heard from again for about 10 years. I was pretty much flat broke when Howard, thank God, asked me to come work on 24." (Gordon suggests he had been trying to persuade his friend to join him on the Fox drama for some time, but Gansa initially was resistant because of the genre.)
Then, in summer 2009, WME agent Rick Rosen returned from a visit with client Avi Nir, CEO of Israeli broadcaster Keshet, with the concept for Prisoners, which the company was set to produce with Israeli creator Gideon Raff. (Raff would go on to single-handedly write and direct every episode of Prisoners, now in its second season.) "The first thing I did when I got back to Los Angeles was call Howard and literally say, 'I have your next show.' If 24 was the immediate reaction to 9/11, Homeland would be the 10-years-later look at the post-9/11 world," says Rosen, who urged Gordon to take a look at a script during his final season of 24. Gordon's one request: to bring Gansa on board.
"Howard always jokes that we thought we could just change the names 'Haim' and 'Nimrod' to 'Nick' and 'Betsy.' It proved to be much more difficult than that, but I think we saw something that was just very good," says Gansa of their initial reaction to the material. During regular walks around their Pacific Palisades neighborhood, he and Gordon decided to jettison one of the two returning soldiers featured in the Israeli version. In his place, the pair inserted Danes' Carrie, a psychologically damaged CIA officer, to play the cat to Brody's mouse. Twentieth TV, where Gordon had had a deal for years, agreed to acquire U.S. format rights. (Its cable unit, Fox 21, produces the show, believed to cost about $3 million an episode.)
Because of that deal, the first stop in shopping their Homeland spec was sister network Fox. "It was immediately clear that this was a serialized show and not a show where people take out guns and start shooting each other, and so thank God Fox Broadcasting chairman Kevin Reilly passed," recalls Gansa, who acknowledges he had little interest in returning to a grueling 24-episode broadcast season. FX passed as well (explanations range from too female-focused to too serialized); and then, as a crumbling regime at NBC was considering the project, Showtime's newly installed entertainment chief David Nevins -- who previously ran 24 producer Imagine TV -- swooped in and made a significant commitment. "I gave David the script on a Friday," says Rosen, "and by Saturday afternoon, he was calling me on my cell phone saying, 'Give this to me, and it's ordered to pilot.' "