Spies, Lies and Intuition: A Conversation With 'The Americans' Writer-Producer Stephen Schiff (Q&A)

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Stephen Schiff

The executive producer of the critically acclaimed FX show discusses Russian politics, the discoveries of writing and the genius of his "intuitionist" wife.

Halfway through its penultimate fifth season, FX's The Americans is enjoying a popular and, for many, long-delayed critical acclaim. Nominated for 57 acting, writing and directing awards since it debuted in 2013, the show snagged a WGA award for best dramatic series in 2016. Stephen Schiff, an executive producer and a co-writer on the show since its second season, has had a hand in its success. A former staff writer at The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, Schiff has written screenplays for Lolita (1997), True Crime (1999) and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010). In addition to his work on The Americans, Schiff wrote the screenplay for the upcoming American Assassin, the first leg of what he and director Michael Cuesta hope will be the next big franchise in the world of high-octane spy thrillers. It hits theaters Sept. 15. Schiff and documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney also are partnering to produce a one-hour scripted drama about cyber-espionage, based on Gibney's most recent documentary, Zero Days, which centers on the Stuxnet computer virus that was used to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program. 

Schiff was in Los Angeles recently and sat down with THR in his sixth-floor suite at The London in West Hollywood to discuss writing The Americans, Russians, and Schiff’s wife, the author and self-described "intuitive," Laura Day. 

You've got American Assassin coming out in September.  

It's the first movie in what we hope will be a thriving franchise based on books by Vince Flynn, and American Assassin is kind of the origin story. It was not the first book he wrote, but it's the first piece of the story of an operative named Mitch Rapp, who's played by Dylan O'Brien in the movie. I've been contracted to work on the sequel.

Michael Keaton is his teacher?

His somewhat irascible mentor, yeah.

Is it in the vein of the Bourne franchise?

I hope it's sort of not necessarily comparable to anything, but it is in that vein of assassins and offshoots of the CIA and that kind of thing. It's pretty grounded and even emotional in a way, and it does ask questions about the kind of violence that is maybe harbored in all of us and how you respond.

The Americans are extremely duplicitous as KGB spies, but strive to be virtuous and honest as parents. How do you play with that idea on the show?

We are all spies in our own lives. We cannot present all that we are, and so what do we choose not to present? And can you do that and be a good person? We all lie, and we all feel at times that we have to lie. No one out there is probably a KGB illegal living in Falls Church, Virginia, but everyone, I think, feels what those KGB illegals feel from time to time, that tension between deception and truth.

Has your understanding of how that dynamic plays out in our world deepened?

I don't think I've at any point thought, 'Wow, this is a good way to lie.' Because Philip and Elizabeth [Jennings] are very, very, very good liars. There is that episode that I wrote in season three about a certain search for what's real between Kimmy and Philip. It was sort of becoming a Lolita question. Philip is trying desperately hard not to have to sleep with this young girl his daughter's age to get the job done, and he starts thinking about the sex training they went through. He and Elizabeth talk about it in their way because they're not therapized people who talk in that language. Philip talks about how in some way you have to make it real, right, and then they are in their intimate coupling mode, and she says something like, "Do you have to make it real with me," and he says, "Sometimes. Not now." It just seemed to me that was a hard truth about marriage. There's got to be something real there, but in some way it can't be something real all the time. I guess that's the dark truth behind The Americans in a certain way.

Are they unique in their detachment?

Some part of them has to be turned off in order to do their jobs, but they believe in their jobs, and that belief is being tested all the time. They don't do this for fun. Some part of them might question, but you can't question too much or else you'll be paralyzed. There is psychological blowback for them in that, and that's a lot of what we're seeing as the series goes on.

Can you talk about the Americans' sense of place?

Their sense of place may be grounded in an almost mythical re-understanding or reimagining of Mother Russia. They haven't been there in a long time. They have this feeling that that's home, and they keep having to digest the fact that it's not for Paige and Henry.  

It seems like Philip is falling apart at the seams sometimes when wrestling with who he is, and it's amazing to watch.

Elizabeth is a believer and Philip is a searcher. Philip is in a situation where it might be better for him if he were a believer and not a searcher. Easier, certainly, but the search is really active in him. He's gone to EST for God's sake.  

Tell me about the politics in all of this. Do you have any insight into the Russians of our current political climate?

You might imagine that we've been asked this question a lot lately, and I always say the Russians never went away. The Russians are ever with us. I'll sometimes joke with [creator Joseph Weisberg] because he's like — he's pro-KGB.  He's like, these are our heroes, and we have to find that feeling as we write these characters. Our characters are fighting for what they think is good, and this season, you’re seeing them sort of aghast at what they think the Americans are capable of doing to them. How low, how terrible, and indeed, if you were around during the '80s, you know, Reagan scared the shit out of the Russians. They thought he was out of his mind and going to launch World War III. Is there a continuity between the Soviet Russians and now? Sure, of course there is. You take a country that really isn't getting moved forward with a kind of huge peasant culture, and with a background of religion and the background of tradition and history, and then you bring a revolution there that overturns all that and wipes out as much of it as can possibly be wiped out. It replaces the religion with this ideology and replaces all the things that Orwell depicts so well. Replaces X with minus X and this new set of truths. And then you pull that rug out after all the generation that could remember the Czarist times are gone, and you bring in capitalism and a kind of chaos, then you just have a country that is in a sort of constant head-spinning state of disorientation. People will be out for No. 1 because every cause and every higher belief is stripped away. That place has been in a kind of chaos for a very, very long time.

Our world now seems filled with themes that could be pulled from The Americans. What do you make of propaganda in our current politics?

We've found there are connections with fake news, right? And I think the reason fake news is something we're all buzzing about now is that some people feel that it affected the election. One of the big revelations of our moment is that you can put something out there, and it may seem outlandish enough to be Andy Borowitz or The Onion, and it's actually couched in something that someone thinks is news. It may say something about the world we live in that extremely outlandish things are believable. We've gotten to a point in our history and in this country's history where it's hard to discern what's real because it so resembles what would, in ordinary times, be fairly unreal. Which softens us up for all kinds of propaganda.

How do you come up with the storylines on The Americans?

We do research it, and of course, we have consultants. We have this wonderful consultant who is on the board of directors at the Spy Museum in Washington and has had these touring exhibits that go around with spy stuff. All the spy craft is pretty researched and true, and if it's not true, we fix it and make it true.

We do check very carefully for accuracy, go to outside consultants from time to time. One of the storylines in the current season is about the KGB in Moscow getting to the bottom of corruption. We got the expert who wrote a book about it. I've been in touch with him extensively, getting the story right. We also have a consultant, Sergei Kostin, who lives in Moscow and was around during the Soviet Union and who knows everything about this stuff. He wrote a book about the "Farewell Dossier," which was this extraordinary dossier [former French president] Francois Mitterand handed to Ronald Reagan, full of information about the KGB. We go to him a lot for things like what would these guys wear. At one point, I'd written a scene at the KGB Rezidentura in Washington, when Oleg is trying to get info from Tatiana, and he brings in drinks, and I thought he'd bring in vodka, and Sergei said, nope, the KGB drinks whiskey. That's the kind of detail that we're checking on.

Have you gained insights into your own psychology as a result of writing these really intense probing episodes?

Absolutely. I'm certain that I have, and as often happens with writing, you find yourself saying something you didn’t know you could say or that you had in you to say. You're discovering yourself, but it has this peculiar flavor, which is the flavor of something discovered, uncovered, revealed rather than something invented or found. It has the quality of there-ness, the quality of already being there and you have come upon it. But it wasn't not there before, you know?   

You've said when you decide to write something, the world will give you what you need.

I think it's an observable phenomenon. When you have in mind the thing that you intend to write, you magnetize something to you; you create an attractive force field. Is it so different from when you first learn a vocabulary word and suddenly seem to be reading it in every third thing you read? It was always there, but now it's coming to you because you have made a place for it, and your attention is seeking it, and so is it more mystical than that? Possibly, you know, but not necessarily.

The show gets at that desire to make monsters sympathetic. Even if you condemn their actions, you still want to somehow make them whole.

I am drawn to that because I really feel that saying, that nothing human is alien to me. I go back to another quote from Jean Renoir and his film, The Rules of the Game. The character Octave says something like: There's something that is terrible, which is that everyone has his reasons. That, to me, is such a central principle. No one's doing something bad thinking, "a-ha, I’m doing something bad!" They're saying, "I have a really good reason for doing this." So if a work of art can make that person larger and expand that person's humanity, that's a great thing.

How has your wife (the self-described "intuitive" Laura Day) affected your career?

Well, my wife believes that we all are capable of getting in touch with our intuition, and my feeling has always been, yeah, but I'm not as capable as you are, baby. I mean she really is a gifted person. I met her six years ago this week, and we've been married three years. I didn't believe in what she was presenting, but then I saw what she did, and I just was like, OK, the world is a bigger place than I knew, and more mysterious.  She's a fashionable, put-together, New York girl, you know, a no nonsense, skeptic — and here's what’s gonna happen to you next May and, you know, it's oh, OK. And I have seen her do it.  

Can you give me an example?

For instance, I'll be going through a deal, working on a contract or something, and I'll say, "Well, they're at this number, and I don't know what's gonna happen" — and she’ll say, "It's gonna be this number," and then we get very close to that number, and I go, "Oh, we're getting close to that number, so that must be what you meant," and she’ll say, "No, no, 'cause I said 375, not 370." I’ll say, "OK, but they're stuck at — you know, I'm just making up these numbers," and then sure enough, I'll get a call, and they'll say, "Oh, you know, we've made a mistake. The lawyer came back and said 375," you know?

So it's very specific?

Very specific. She's very specific, and she demands of herself that she be very specific. It has to be perfect because otherwise it's, you know, something that she predicts is either true or not true, so it has to be true.

When you said she opened up your eyes that the world is bigger and different, can you talk about that?

She's a very brilliant person. She's a very intelligent person. She thought everybody could do it, and she was studied by Stanford University. She kind of understands it from a quantum mechanical point of view. In the post-Einstein world, in which we understand space time as this continuum, and we understand time as being relative, she doesn't have to go beyond what science has already proven to say, that which we perceive as impossible because of time and distance is not. It's just a matter of finding it and knowing how to find it.