MIPCOM: J.K. Simmons, Olivia Williams Talk New Starz Drama

Courtesy of Steve Eastell/Sony Pictures
Harry Lloyd, Olivia Williams, Keith Le Goy, J.K. Simmons and Justin Marks

"We didn't really want any ray guns," said writer Justin Marks of the genre-defying premise of his new show, 'Counterpart.'

Viewers will get double the dose of J.K. Simmons, Olivia Williams and Harry Lloyd on Sony and Starz's new parallel-worlds drama, Counterpart, but don't call the Berlin-set drama "sci-fi."

"Say 'sci-fi' and there are so many images that spring to life," said Simmons, adding that while the premise has elements of the genre, it draws heavily on Cold War and spy themes while working in a sci-fi world.

"We really didn't want ray guns," added writer and creator Justin Marks, who framed it as a metaphysical, existential, John LeCarre-inspired spy thriller.

So what's it about? "Regret or hope, depending on your worldview," said Simmons.

As much an existential examination as a thriller, the show was a hot property. Starz was bidding against "the usual suspects," said Simmons, and committed to two seasons based on just the first episode script and cast to squash the competition. "That was a way they could outbid the competition without having to overpay for one year."

Sony Pictures Entertainment head of distribution Keith Le Goy said Starz's aggressive move was "symptomatic of where we are in broadcast," unusual as it may be. It has not announced sales to any territories, and MIPCOM was the first time any outsider had seen the show. Buzz after the premiere was stellar.

But having a network committed to two seasons opened up the storytelling and writing process, said Marks. "You're not fighting for survival every single week. You can tell something that's patient and a lot of storytelling these days doesn't do that as well as it should."

Olivia called the current atmosphere in the entertainment industry at large "TV Darwinism." "But I'm in my late 40s as an actress, and I'm going to be dead meat by the end of it," she joked. "So to have something that is not based on 'survival of the fittest' at the end of every episode is nice."

"We've been able to really slow burn," noted Marks, who said the season has a three-act structure over its 10 episodes. "We're not trying to get as many eyeballs as we possibly can in the first episode and we don't have any story, we have story in every single every episode so that the drama can build. We don't have to short it in some way but can kindle these characters. It's been really fun and different than the feature writer experience where you're a little more of a mercenary."

The crew didn't start shooting until all 10 episode scripts were written, and Oscar-nominated director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) helmed the first episode.

The story, set and shot in Berlin to capture that Cold War vibe, is a "what if" story, both about the modern world and the people involved, that touches on contemporary themes of building walls and dividing people.

The governments of both sides try to cover it all up, while some of those in the know try to change their lives.

Added Lloyd: "The people who are most eager to cross are those that are missing something in their lives and think, 'I fucked this one up.' They know there is another life out there for anyone, and they want to have another one."