'Homeland's' Hot Streak
From one-time SAT tutors to creators of Showtime's Emmy-sweeping smash, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon open up their set, writer's room and the improbably touching story behind their 30-year friendship.
In the fall of 1984, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon packed up Gordon's Datsun B-210 and drove from New York to Los Angeles to "make it" as writing partners. Having met a year earlier at Princeton, the two men moved in together in Santa Monica, launched an SAT prep company to support themselves and caught their first break on ABC's detective series Spenser: For Hire.
But it was staff gigs on The X Files nearly a decade later that offered both men the kind of launchpad that catapults a little-known writer to A-list status. And while it did precisely that for Gordon, who thrived on that show and later as the showrunner on 24, Gansa left X Files -- and his partnership with Gordon -- after one season and then struggled to cut through with a series of other small-screen projects. So much so, in fact, that the tuxedo he had purchased for the awards circuit during their late-1980s run on CBS' Beauty and the Beast wasn't used for nearly two decades, as he never was invited back to the Emmys. That is, until this year.
"This is a f--ing fairy tale," says Gansa, his jaw hanging open. It's Sept. 23, Emmy night, and the writer-producer is motioning to the two awards -- one for writing, one for best drama series -- placed on his dinner table at the postshow Governors Ball. A parade of agents, executives and fellow writers stops by to congratulate him and Gordon. With champagne flowing, roast tenderloin being served and such TV royalty as Lorne Michaels and Jon Stewart milling about, Gansa utters variations on "I just can't believe these are mine" as he loosens the bow tie of his replacement tux (moths had eaten through the original) and attempts to make sense of the show's previous three-plus hours. His Showtime terrorism drama, Homeland, which he created as a reunion of sorts with old pal Gordon, scored a whopping four wins (plus two technical awards a week earlier). Says an equally celebratory Gordon, "It's hard not to be emotional."
Like the vast majority of prognosticators, Gansa, 52, and Gordon, 51, had gone into the evening expecting that star Claire Danes, who plays a bipolar former CIA officer, would be the first-year series' only winner. That co-star Damian Lewis would top three-time best actor winner Bryan Cranston (of Breaking Bad) and Homeland would seize the drama series crown -- as well as the writing award -- from four-time champ Mad Men has both men in a state of utter disbelief.
Two days later, Gansa's statuettes remain wrapped in boxes at home, with no decision made as to where they will live; Gordon's haven't left his kitchen counter. "This whole thing is richer and more complex than just winning awards," explains Gansa, the series showrunner. "It was all of the years that Howard and I had spent together as partners, the emotionally wrenching difficulty of breaking up and trying to make our own mark on the world, and then ultimately deciding to come back together and having this be the crowning achievement of our careers."
There are few true fairy tales in Hollywood; even rarer are stories of genuine, enduring friendship. The Gansa-Gordon one is replete with both. The friends, who are going on 30 years since they first met as seniors writing their theses, suddenly have found themselves the town's hottest writing duo. The Emmy wins capped a year of acclaim and ratings milestones for Homeland, including that famous endorsement from President Obama. The show, loosely adapted from Israel's Prisoners of War, has been transformative for Showtime, too: Its first 12-episode season, which likely contributed to the 1.1 million subscriber gain this year (to a total of 20.5 million), became the network's highest-rated freshman series ever, with more than 4.4 million viewers tuning in over the course of a week for its at once queasy and addictive post-9/11 adrenaline rush. Notes Leslie Moonves, CEO of Showtime parent CBS Corp., "I've never gotten as many requests for DVDs in my entire career in television as I have for this show."
Season two, which kicked off Sept. 30 to rave reviews ("One of the best high-wire acts put on the small screen," wrote THR's Tim Goodman) and a record night of viewership of 2.1 million viewers, will center on the "doomed love affair," as Gansa puts it, between Carrie Mathison (Danes) and former POW Nicholas Brody (Lewis). "Every time Claire and Damian are onscreen together, the whole show elevates," he says. "So our job this year in the story room is to try to put them in each others' company as often as possible in the most exigent circumstances."
To be sure, the writers already burned through a series of pivotal plot points during the first season, including Carrie's breakdown, Brody's attempted suicide and the pair's short-lived romance. Now, with expectations sky high and rival networks feverishly developing copycats, the proverbial ante has been upped, a point that isn't lost on Gansa and Gordon. "The higher you are propped up, the further you have to fall, so you have to detach as best you can," says Gordon.
The pair has been back in the writers room since late January plotting out the second season with what might be one of the most pedigreed ensembles of all time. "It's a murderers' row," says Bert Salke, chief of Homeland's studio Fox 21, of the show's six-member writing staff made up exclusively of former showrunners: Henry Bromell (Homicide), Meredith Stiehm (Cold Case), Chip Johannessen (Dexter), Alex Cary (Lie to Me), Gordon and Gansa. (It is unlikely all six will return for a third season given the heightened interest in their work.)
Those writers rely on a cadre of past and present CIA consultants as well as their own experience, both personal and professional. Cary, for instance, served in the British military before moving to Los Angeles, Stiehm has a bipolar sister, and Bromell's father once was a CIA station chief. Gordon, along with Gansa, whom he brought aboard 24 during the show's seventh season, has spent several years immersed in the world of political drama. When it comes to story, Gordon is better known for 24-style thriller components and Gansa tends to be more focused on character, but they push each other -- often bickering like brothers and finishing each other's sentences like a married couple -- on both.
"They're this kind of odd couple," says Cary of the duo, both married now with four children between them. "If you put it in the parlance of our show, Alex is more like the CIA officer and Howard is more the politician or the State Department. Howard is the one who makes a lot of noise -- and it's good noise -- and Alex is the one who cuts it into some kind of decision."
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.' "
In a bid to make it more premium cable-friendly, Nevins' team, which included longtime programming exec Gary Levine, made some major tweaks to the script, including replacing original actress Laura Fraser, who played a more vulnerable version of Jessica Brody in their first crack at the pilot, with V's Baccarin. Among the others: making Carrie a more deeply troubled character (she didn't have a mental illness in the first iteration). "The original conception was, 'Brody's the bad guy, and it's a one-season story for this tough chick in the CIA,' " says Nevins, acknowledging that Brody wasn't intended to survive the first season. "We slowed it all down, making it a long evolution of an interesting relationship. We wanted to be sure that she was much more complicated and unreliable than just your traditional good guy; and that he was much more nuanced and reasoned and thoughtful than your usual bad guy."
Danes, 33, had been Gordon and Gansa's first choice to play Carrie, so much so that the character's name in early scripts was Claire. And while there was some external concern that she would be too young to be believable as an intelligence officer, she was offered the role. "I didn't know how risky it would be to tell a story that was so relevant to what we're experiencing now socially and politically," says Danes of her reservations about her first regular series role since the mid-'90s drama My So-Called Life. "But the quality of the writing was so exciting, and this character was just so specific and compelling."
Lewis was a tougher sell at the network and studio, which had circled such names as Kyle Chandler and Ryan Phillippe for the part. "Given the material and the platform, we just thought we could get anybody in the world," acknowledges Salke of a scenario that didn't play out as planned. Several involved note that the red-headed Lewis lacked the traditional leading-man look -- and more specifically, one of an American hero -- that they initially had envisioned for the part. Similarly discouraging: his previous series, NBC's well-received 2007 drama Life, was a flop with viewers. But the execs' minds were changed when they watched his compelling performance in Keane, an independent film in which he plays a mentally disturbed man trying to come to terms with the abduction of his daughter. "It was just so deep and moving, and it really gave a sense of the layers Damian can play," adds Salke. "From that point on, we never looked back."
Spend time with Lewis on the Charlotte set, and it's clear he's been able to replicate those layers with this role -- as have his co-stars, who have gone to great lengths to prepare for these parts. Patinkin, whose Saul Berenson is named after Saul Bellow and CIA thriller writer Alex Berenson, spent time at the CIA, while Danes was paired with both a CIA officer and a bipolar woman who has authored several books on the subject. Lewis took his preparation a step further: reading the Quran, befriending folks at the Central London Mosque, watching a series of war documentaries and spending time with soldiers and victims of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Between scenes, the actors can be found rehearsing lines in their trailers or pacing about the set with a script in hand. The writer of the episode being shot traditionally flies to North Carolina to be on hand during long days of filming, with director/executive producer Michael Cuesta -- who is credited with creating Homeland's cinematic feel -- the constant on set. Off camera, the cast has grown close, with many living in the same apartment complex and getting together often. Being removed from the showbiz-centric scenes of New York and Los Angeles has proved an advantage, says Danes, whose pregnancy will not be written into the show: "All of the noise is really very nice when it's on the periphery. By being here, we get to just focus on putting the show together."
Today, Gordon and Gansa are back on the Fox lot, grabbing lunch at the commissary during a break from the writers room. It's immediately clear that Gordon is the more extroverted and effusive of the two -- and yet, there is a kindness, an enviable work ethic and an intellectual curiosity that bonds the men. "Our partnership has always been informed by a very intense -- and sometimes very emotional -- dialect of testing and poking and a 'this isn't good enough' process that, bizarrely enough, has remained the same all these years later," says Gordon, who still is struck by how quickly the duo fell back into step after so many years apart.
Gansa will tell anyone who asks that Gordon provided him with the best working experience he had ever had on 24 and that he has tried to model the Homeland writers room after the collaborative one Gordon ran on that show for four of its eight seasons. With Homeland, Gordon has had to take a back seat to Gansa because of a long-running and sizable deal with 20th TV that requires him to spend a portion of his time running or developing other series, including NBC's short-lived drama Awake. The arrangement might have bruised the ego of someone else, but Gordon is too busy being genuinely thrilled for his best friend's success.
"That's who Howard is: He's a cheerleader for other people's work," says 20th TV chairman Dana Walden. "Running a show is exhausting and demanding, so when he finds someone else's work that he admires, he's the number-one fan. Almost to the point that you would think that he couldn't do it himself."
That mutual adoration was on display for the 13.2 million viewers who tuned in for the Emmy telecast Sept. 23. As Hayden Panettiere read their names for the outstanding writing in a drama category -- the first of the pair's wins that evening -- the men stood up and threw their arms around each other. "They said only one of us could talk," said Gansa, seconds later from the podium. "But writing partners don't do that," noted Gordon, completing the thought. Added Gansa: "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for Howard." And Gordon replied: "And I wouldn't be here if not for Alex."