How I'm Living Now: Alan Poul, 'Tokyo Vice' Producer

Alan Poul - Getty - H 2020
Dia Dipasupil/WireImage

With the novel coronavirus halting the HBO Max pilot, Poul is back from Japan and reflecting on his "excruciating" decision and what comes next — while still in self-isolation.

With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense for how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood's writers, actors, directors, executives and more are living and working in these challenging times.

Producer Alan Poul had been in Tokyo, shooting the pilot for HBO Max's Tokyo Vice, when the pandemic started to wreak havoc on Hollywood production. Though both the spread and response were quite a bit different where he was, Poul and his fellow producers, along with director Michael Mann, Endeavor Content and HBO Max, made the call to cease filming over the weekend of March 14, and he flew back to his husband (and cat) in Los Angeles a few days later. When Poul, who is also an executive producer on Netflix's upcoming The Eddy as he was on HBO's Six Feet Under and The Newsroom, spoke to THR on March 27, he was still self-isolating, even from his husband.

Let’s start easy: How are you? 

I’m holding up fine. I’m halfway through my quarantine, having only returned from Tokyo a week ago. I felt like I was being dropped into this insanity, coming from Tokyo, where, believe it or not, things are relatively normal. It was one of the first countries hit, but it appeared to be very contained. So, I was hearing from my husband, Ari Karpel, about the madness going on here, but just hearing about it doesn’t really prepare you. And I’d hear all of the horror stories when I was over there, and then I’d go out to dinner in crowded restaurants and get on the subway and go shopping in stores because that’s what everyone was doing there. So, I really wasn’t prepared for the culture shock.

Were there any changes to production or was it business as usual over there? 

No, we shot six days of the pilot for Tokyo Vice and we were doing scenes with over 100 extras. So, all of the extras were told to wear a mask and the crew was being told to wear masks and we put hand sanitizer wherever we could around the set. The extras would just take off their masks when the cameras rolled. Even so, I think there was a level of discomfort among our American crewmembers, much more than our Japanese crew, because the American crew was hearing from loved ones back home about their concern and the much higher level of disruption to daily life elsewhere. 

Did anyone pull out?

Yes. There were a few people, in particular crewmembers who were older or who maybe weren’t feeling great. Anyone who felt vulnerable was encouraged to leave —in fact, we encouraged anyone who didn’t feel comfortable to leave but only a few did. But it was getting to the point where we felt we couldn’t hold it and HBO Max was very concerned. Actually, when we shut down, it felt like a difficult decision because the Japanese crew was willing to keep going and all of the Japanese productions were still shooting and are still shooting. So, in Japan, we were the first to shut down, but from the point of view of overseas productions financed by U.S. networks, we were the last to shut down — that’s how big the disparity was. Our last day of shooting was Friday, March 13, and over that weekend we made the decision to shut down and people started leaving the next week.

What do your days look like now? 

Well, I’m now in quarantine because I was abroad. So, my husband and I are spending 14 days in the house together but trying to maintain a six-foot distance. So, we’ll watch TV in the same room but at opposite ends of an L-shaped couch. And that’s as close as we ever get. I’m waiting one more week until we can at least isolate together. So, it’s been very stressful. I’ve been so active for the past two years, so the idea of sitting at home and not going out and congregating with people — to have that rug pulled out from underneath you in one swoop was psychologically a very big adjustment. And yet here I am now, a week later, and I’ve got my bleach solution bottle and my paper towels and anything that gets touched gets wiped down. I’ve thrown all my energy into the routine of keeping everything as sterile as possible.
What’s been the easiest adjustment? And the hardest?

The easier adjustment is being under the same roof as my husband and our cat after two years of being a great tonic. The hard part is not having structure to the day because I've spent most of my life having a structure that’s very rigid and is imposed on me because I’m always in production where you wake up in the morning knowing exactly what it is you have to do. Now, I think a lot of us have fallen into this routine where you work, you take a break, you eat, you nap, you work some more and there’s no clear line between working and nonworking time. So, I’m trying to impose an arbitrary schedule but it’s been hard.

What does work entail now?

I’m managing two projects, Tokyo Vice and The Eddy, which we shot last year in Paris and is going to premiere in 190 countries on Netflix on May 8. While I was in Tokyo, I was putting the final touches on [The Eddy] because I directed the last two episodes, so I was doing the final tweaks to my color timing and sound mixes from Tokyo at the same time that the French were racing against the deadline because they were being shut in and they were no longer able to go to the cutting room or the mixing studio or VFX house. Everything was being done long distance and we barely got done under the wire. We were all set to have our giant Paris premiere on April 24, but of course that’s been canceled. But the Netflix publicity machine is in full force, and I’m trying to do everything I can.

At the same time, with Tokyo Vice, we know we’ll go back and complete it, but you have to make a variety of plans: the what if we can go back in mid-May plan, the what if we can’t go back till mid-June plan, the what if we can’t go back till July plan. Another small silver lining coming out of this is that we were going to have to be shooting during the Olympics, which was going to be a huge strain, and now that’s not the case. But obviously everyone wants to wait until it’s entirely safe to go back and work again and so all over Hollywood everyone is having to build multiple scenarios because nobody has any idea when it will be OK.

In the peak TV era, a lot of people had had the next few projects lined up already. What happens to those jammed schedules now?

It’s a really interesting time in that a lot of people are out of work or are on hold for work and nobody knows exactly what the landscape is going to look like if this goes on for another month, which it’s likely to do. Another strange benefit for some is that they have time on their hands now. So, whereas I’ve been knee-deep in all of these productions for the past two years, I now have time to focus on development and an awful lot of writers who I’ve been talking to about various projects for years and who always had their plates full are suddenly in a place where they’re like, “Yeah, I have time to think now, let’s talk about this project or that project.” So, I think underneath the surface, this could be a boom time for development. I don’t think the pipeline will dry up because there’s just so much being made but I hope that there will be a renaissance a year from now of great projects being made because they had the time to gestate properly during this hiatus. 

What about crews and soundstages, which are scheduled several projects out?

Everything is pushing more or less at the same time, which means that everybody is now available but they don’t have other offers because nothing is happening. There will be some kind of a dog whistle that will happen and everybody will rush to go back to work. And I think that there will be a big scramble at the beginning in terms of locking down crews and locations and equipment and camera packages, but I feel like everybody’s cautiously spending as little money as possible but enough money to hold on to the essentials so it isn’t completely the Wild West when we get the signal.  

The longer this goes on, the more expensive holding on gets... 

I have that conference call at 6 p.m. to talk about that. It’s something that every week, every day almost, you’re reassessing how much are you willing to spend in order to hold on to something that will pay off in the future. But the interesting thing is that we are all on the same schedule, so in essence the whole world will just push however many months it takes and then hopefully resume without too much damage.

It’ll be interesting to see how the content conceived during this period will be impacted. Any guesses?

Yeah, everybody says, “Why don’t you work on a show about the coronavirus?” But it’s like, no, because everybody knows that all good stories need a third act and we’re maybe midway through act two, if that. So, it’s way too soon. I actually think that it’s been a very dystopia-friendly landscape — there’s been a huge pull toward dystopian projects, partly because of where we are politically right now. But now that dystopia has landed fully on us, there’s a great hunger for more positive stories, more optimistic stories, more stories that dwell on the richness of life. And so I think, or I hope, that you’ll see a big sense of uplift in our national storytelling coming out of this.

Do you already see some of that in what you’re choosing to watch right now?

Yes. We’ve found that things that are of the current moment in terms of being dark or dystopian are not as interesting to watch. Like, we’re struggling with The Plot Against America because it’s like do we want to watch this right now? On the other hand, we just discovered a show called Mae Martin's Feel Good, which has six, half-hour episodes on Netflix. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen in years because it’s cynical in a hilarious way, and almost misanthropic in a hilarious way, and it has a lot of the tonal elements of Fleabag. So, that’s been the bright light for us. 

What was the most challenging decision you’ve had to make since this whole thing started?

The most challenging decision was whether to shut down the show or not because there were definitely two camps. And when you’re in the midst of shooting something, all of your instincts are just, "Don’t stop at any cost." There are always obstacles, so you’re very geared up to the move-forward-at-any-cost mentality. So, making the decision to actually pull our own plug was excruciating. I think it was really hard for the crew, for the cast, for Michael Mann, our director, because momentum is everything. And it’s the first time that we ever had to collectively, voluntarily decide to pull our own plug. 
What have you learned about yourself in this period?

I think what I’ve learned is that having been in the middle of an extremely productive period, maybe more productive than I’ve ever been, you realize that the work is fulfilling and I love it and it does nurture me but that you’re about 80 percent reacting to things. I was in the middle of a long corridor where, from waking up to going to bed, I was being asked to make a judgement about or react to 15 things every minute. So, when that’s been taken away from you, you really are forced to think about priorities. It’s like the seven stages of coronavirus, I went through a brief period of depression because suddenly there weren’t a hundred things being put in front of me to make decisions about. And what’s come out of it now is a great sense of the wonder of having everything in front of you be your choice. Even under these very difficult circumstance and in the midst of an excruciating pandemic, the idea that you have to create your own world every day within these limitations is something that I’m only now in the process of learning to find freeing. 

What’s the best advice you’ve given or received about staying sane right now?

The best advice I’ve been given is don’t look at the news all day long and I wish I could say I’ve been better at taking that advice. This has been going on for three years in this country, but the idea of when do you tune in and out has never seemed quite so critical because it impacts your quality of life and your mental state in an enormous way. I will wake up and check all the news sources first thing because I feel a great need to be current and even though it will depress me I then know that, well, OK, nothing huge is going to happen in the next four hours, so I can go about my day. Whereas my husband [a teacher] is the opposite. It just puts him off on the wrong foot first thing in the morning, so he tries to avoid it, get started on his day and once he’s gotten through his classes — there’s a Google Meet classroom going on right upstairs from me right now — he’ll check in and allow himself to be upset about the news. 
What or who have become your go-to news sources during this period?

It hasn’t changed that much. I always check The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR in the morning. It’s interesting, when you’re living in Tokyo, which I was doing for two months while this was happening, the only international news source is CNN International, which is intensely repetitive and annoying and has way too much Richard Quest — any is too much, but this was way too much. So, coming home and being able to have MSNBC is a great tonic because it has much more substance, analysis and thought. Since I got back, I guess I’ve been a little bit clingy with Rachel Maddow because she analyzes. It’s actually helped me to not just have the response of knee-jerk anger but to try to think on a more complex plane.

Are you dusting off any old hobbies or finding new ones?

We’re getting the garden ready, which has been neglected for a while because I’ve been away. And we’re trying to get things fixed up around the house but I’ll tell you something, on Wednesday, we had three repair men here because of things that weren’t functioning and it ended up being a traumatic experience. Everybody wore masks and gloves but still to watch these guys come from the outside into your house and be digging into your equipment, I found myself hovering and making a mental note about every surface that they touch so that I could go around with bleach afterward. Just having three very well-intentioned guys trying to help us live better was exhausting. It’s such a dramatic shift in everybody’s daily life that happened virtually overnight, in my life I can’t compare it to anything else.  

What’s atop your to-do list once this is all over?

Well, it’s to go back to shooting. I’m a workaholic and so I think about all of the work I’ll be doing once it’s all over. But I do think that as this goes on, for a lot of us, you start looking at a different horizon, apart from work. You start thinking about what the next five years are going to look like and I think I will take the opportunity to try to focus on quality of life issues that are not about work and not about material quality of life, but a much deeper emotional and spiritual quality of life that will be able to sustain us through whatever is coming next — because one thing that we’ve become aware of is that this isn’t the last time something is going to happen. We live in a new landscape, and there will be a next time, in some way shape or form, so we’re fundamentally altering the way we live and the way we think about the future.