'Hostages' Boss Promises to 'Deliver' the Goods With Season's Mystery (Q&A)

Hostages Premiere Episodic - H 2013

Hostages Premiere Episodic - H 2013

Hostages has all the makings of an intriguing drama.

Based on an Israeli TV format, CBS' latest effort -- continuing its interest in shorter-run series -- is led by seasoned vets Dylan McDermott and Toni Collette, hails from a feature writer-director familiar with the genre and counts Jerry Bruckheimer among its producers. But will it stick?

Ellen Sanders (Collette), a gifted surgeon assigned to operate on the president of the United States, is taken hostage by rogue FBI Special Agent Duncan Carlisle (McDermott). She faces a life-or-death dilemma when her kidnappers demand that she assassinate the president in order to save her family.

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Executive producer Jeffrey Nachmanoff is firmly aware of the challenges that await a heavily serialized drama, especially on a network widely known for its stable of crime procedurals. "I think it's good that viewers are sophisticated, and if they are then I'd like to think that’s to our benefit," Nachmanoff tells The Hollywood Reporter. "There are plenty of shows on television where you can see a body in act 1 and [there's] a resolution at the end, and there’s nothing wrong with that."

THR spoke to Nachmanoff ahead of the series debut about laying out the framework for the first season, the worry over viewer fatigue and why Hostages wouldn't be drastically different if it landed on cable.

A lot of networks -- including broadcast -- are interested in doing shorter-run series. Why do you think that is?

I can't pretend to know what’s going to happen in the future; all I can say is that the way I watch TV, the way a lot of people I know watch TV, is more in the way of binge viewing. I watch things on Netflix and I watch things as a series, and there’s something satisfying about being able to put in the next episode of one of these great serialized dramas, whether it's Breaking Bad or Downton Abbey or Homeland or House of Cards, to be able to see what happens next when you want to see [it]. What we're trying to do with this show, which CBS has already proven with Under the Dome, is -- in the network model -- make that kind of compelling entertainment that people want to watch back to back and on broadcast week to week, and have a commodity that we can then let people consume as they want in binge fashion. That’s the sort of brass ring we're reaching for.

CBS has gotten behind Hostages with the amount of marketing it's pushed out for the show. How much thought do you give in regard to ratings in relation to the show's promotion? 

I think that’s the job of CBS marketing, to get people to come to the show, and it's our job to get them to come back. What we have to do is create existing, suspenseful, compelling episodes week to week and really keep that bar as high as we’ve set for ourselves. As far as getting the people to come and tune in, I really can't pretend like that’s my responsibility or anything I can control one way or the other. But I think that if they get them to show up, our goal is to get them to come back every week.

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Have you thought about what the ideal marketing push would be for Hostages?

I hope that people engage with these characters and the situation and that they come back every week, not just to see literally what happens -- whether or not the heroine tied to the train tracks gets rescued, so to speak, although that's certainly part of a cliffhanger ending -- but also to see how the characters' relationships are going to change and evolve. To get them to invest in Ellen Sanders, to get them to invest in the family and the hostage takers. Frankly that’s what makes me interested in working on the show every week: What are these people going to do? What would I do in this impossible situation? That’s a question we’d like people to ask, and that’s what I think will make them engage with our characters.

Viewers are also a lot more savvy now and can sometimes foresee how a mystery may be solved weeks in advance. Does that worry you?

I think it's good that viewers are sophisticated, and if they are then I'd like to think that’s to our benefit. There are plenty of shows on television where you can see a body in act 1 and [there's] a resolution at the end, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There are very successful procedurals that have been the meat and potatoes of most of CBS’ programming. [CBS] were the ones who said, "We’re embracing what you’re selling. We’re embracing the fact that you're doing something different." The fact that they picked me to write and direct the pilot is a completely unusual scenario; it's not the norm in network television. That’s the norm in cable television, because it signals that they want a very specific voice and vision for it, and that’s something I was offering to [CBS].

What changed the most from pitch to pilot?

Very little, to be honest. I went back and looked at my original pitch documents [to] get the bigger-picture view, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how little it's changed. I think that is because I was wearing both hats, as the writer and the director. This is my fifth pilot I've directed, [and] this is the first time I've done my own pilot that I wrote. You're able to maintain and execute the vision that you have in your head from the beginning. That doesn’t mean you don’t get great ideas from your actors, from your producers, and you put that into the mix, but there was never concept confusion. Because I'd had help and advice from other people, I think it got better, but I didn’t change what the initial goal was: to make a true Hitchcock-style suspense thriller for network television.

In May, advertisers were shown footage from Hostages that teased out key events that were going to take place beyond the pilot. Why include those benchmarks?

It's all the same type of job when you're doing storytelling, which is to say: What are the dramatic things that are going to unfold? What’s fun to look at? What are some suspenseful ideas? We had the benefit of making those extra little scenes that were a fake preview of a season that doesn’t exist yet. [We] imagined what would be the fun things that you can see unfolding during the season, and the guy would be having the full mental heavy lifting of figuring out how exactly you’re going to get there, and then those were the beats that we filmed. To be honest, part of it was where could I grab little moments within the production of the pilot that would be useful to make it feel like it’s bigger than it is.

Are you going to use those pre-shot scenes in the appropriate episodes?

Likely we will reshoot [them]. You have to write the episode. Obviously if there’s a scene that we think might happen in episode eight or nine and we shot a little piece of it, that’s great. It gives us the idea, but we don’t know where [those scenes] will happen, who will say what; the actual specifics. The goal was to create the impression of, Oh wow, this is what parts of the season would look like.

Do you find that to be a challenge, knowing that you've shown key plot points for the season to a group of people even before the show debuts? Do you foresee issues that may arise as you plot the episodes and feel the need to meet certain beats?

I think that’s a fair question, but I do believe that people want to see a good show, and nobody but a fool would return your ticket because you showed up to see a Bruce Springsteen concert and the Stones showed up. In other words, as long as we deliver good entertainment every week and strong scripts and strong performances, I can't imagine why anyone is going to complain about something that they might or might have not [have] thought in their head.

Do you have any premiere-night superstitions or traditions?

I don’t. This is the first time I've gone through this process.

Are you going to start one?

Just sit back and put my feet up and maybe open a bottle of wine and try to enjoy the moment, because when it comes out there’s nothing you can do about it once the ball has left your hands.

You’ve had experience with in the feature world with Traitor and The Day After Tomorrow. How did your experience help shape Hostages?

There are a lot of similarities in the sense that everything depends on opening weekend for a movie and [premiere night for a] television show. But in terms of creative process it's storytelling, and the nice thing about television, for me, as someone who’s worked as a feature writer and a feature director, is that in television you really do get to maintain your vision in a way that’s unusual in features.

You previously directed Homeland. Did that experience help prepare you for Hostages?

I directed two [episodes] of the first season of Homeland. I guess I've had a long, abiding interest in suspense thrillers, and working on that show was another great chance to hone that craft of how to do suspense.

What’s the last thing you’ll tell your writing staff, producers and actors before the series premieres?

We just always remind ourselves that we want to be daring, we want to be different and we want to be unafraid to take chances and not do the predictable thing. When we're on the fence about whether we should do A or B, we try and look at which [option] is unpredictable and which is the normal [route]. Let's do the unpredictable thing if we can.

If your show were on cable, what would be the first change you would make?

I don’t think it would change so much, because we were blessed with these terrific actors who are really cable-worthy actors. I think the only difference would be that we would be able to go maybe further in some of the things, like language and nudity and things that are not restrictive. But to be honest, it's not like we’re being held back every week by those things. This isn’t Sons of Anarchy, where we need huge amounts of violence for it to work, or bad language, or anything like that.

If we were to sneak into your writers’ room, what would be the most surprising thing we would find?

Our writers’ room involves a lot of chocolate-covered almonds.

Are there character names with special significance?

No, the only thing that’s personal in that regard is the show is set in Arlington, Virginia, right outside of Washington, D.C., which is where I grew up. So I know that area really well.     

Hostages debuts Monday at 10 p.m. on CBS.

E-mail: Philiana.Ng@THR.com
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