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When prolific producer Dick Wolf first ventured to the FBI’s New York office, it was supposed to be a simple meet and greet. The TV veteran behind the Law & Order and Chicago franchises was looking to do a new scripted drama about the government agency, when FBI director James Comey suggested he and Wolf Films’ unscripted head, Tom Thayer, meet the real federal agents who would serve as the inspiration for the show’s central characters. However, it didn’t take long for Wolf to see the potential for more.
“He said, ‘I want to do a six-hour docuseries before I do the scripted [series]. Are you interested?'” recalls filmmaker and executive producer Marc Levin. “I jumped at the opportunity.”
The Emmy-winning documentarian had previously examined topics such as the Iran-Contra hearings as well as the CIA, so a docuseries about the FBI seemed like a natural next step. Then the 2016 presidential election happened, and the FBI found itself in the thick of it, investigating Hillary Clinton’s private emails and possible Russian interference in the election. As Levin says, we were in “the eye of the storm.”
The result is Inside the FBI: New York, a six-part docuseries that follows the agency and its various units (counterterrorism, cyber crimes and human trafficking, among others) as they deal with the attacks on Paris, San Bernardino and Chelsea, the first such in New York since 9/11.
Ahead of Thursday’s series premiere, Levin spoke with THR about just how he and his team gained access to the normally secretive bureau and its tight-lipped agents, how much the show will dive into the investigations involving Clinton and Donald Trump and the early talks about a potential second season in the Trump era.
Why the FBI? Why did you want to dive deep into this particular government agency?
All you have to do is look at the newspaper or watch the news or watch cable. It’s in the headlines every day in the middle of obviously all the political controversy. And at the same time, the unseen and the unsung professionals who go to work every day kind of are ignored and forgotten, or unknown. So the opportunity to kind of put a human face on the people who really are on the front lines of trying to keep us safe, and chase criminals and prevent terrorism was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.
What specific headline or incident made you want to shine a brighter light on the FBI?
I knew Dick Wolf from having directed some Law & Orders. He came to me and said he had met with Director Comey and they had really hit it off and had come to an understanding. Comey had suggested, “Before you start on the scripted series, come up to the flagship in New York and just meet some of the real people.” Dick and his partner, Tom Thayer, did that, and then they came over to my studio.
Dick said something like, “Marc, if I’d told my casting agent to bring me some talent for the head of organized crime of the New York FBI office and they brought in a four-foot-seven Chinese-American actress, I would have fired the casting director. And then I met Belle Chin, who’s the supervisor for organized crime. It’s so much more diverse and different.” And he went on about how everybody he met was different from the stereotypes that he had in mind. He said, “I want to do a six-hour docuseries before I do the scripted [series] and are you interested? So I jumped at the opportunity because first of all, I am a New Yorker. Second of all, 9/11 changed everything.
Where it really started was with the pope’s visit here in September 2015, which was at the same time as the United Nations and the president was here and Putin was here. It was the largest national security event in the history of New York City. So to get access, to get inside that, to be inside the Joint Terrorism Task Force — that was unprecedented. That was something I had always thought about.
And then tragically, what really kicked it off was only two weeks later, the Paris attacks happened. Just by fate, we were shooting — this is actually the opening scene in the first episode — in an airport in Westchester with a character we were interested in following, Chris Forbes, who was crisis management and was in the SWAT team. He was actually flying a fugitive caught outside the country and was wanted for murder. They were flying him back in. They landed, they took the fugitive off and as they did that, the news of the Paris attack happened. And we were there taping. And we just kept rolling with him that whole weekend, and then we had a crew in Paris. That really kicked off the whole thing and in a way that we could have never planned.
The Thanksgiving Day Parade was right after that, and there was tremendous apprehension then. And then tragically San Bernardino happened, then Brussels happened, then Orlando happened, then Nice happened, then the first successful attack in New York since 9/11, Chelsea happened — thank God no one was killed. That was a total paradigm shift in the war on terror from these people who would go to training camps [for] al-Qaida and then come to Europe or come to the United States. Now you had these people inspired by ISIS through Facebook, through Twitter — people that had mental health issues, people just going off and claiming they were affiliated. We saw and happened to be inside the FBI as this real historic change happened. I would say that’s one of the main themes of the whole series, and the title of the opening episode tomorrow night is “The New Normal” — that’s the new normal.
I can’t imagine the FBI said yes right away to have documentary crews invade their office and film their employees during times of crises. What were those conversations like of trying to convince the FBI to let you have as much access as you did?
Well, it started with Dick Wolf and Director Comey. The FBI had always basically responded: no comment, no access, no comment. But [Comey] decided that it was important that the agency be more transparent, that the American public get to know who our real special agents and analysts are. So it started there, but it’s one thing to get a directive from the head of the FBI to the New York office, which is also always been fiercely independent. It’s another to get everybody onboard, and it took time to develop trust. We shot the pope’s trip without really a coherent or defined [set of limits] — what can you do, can’t you do. It was like a trial, and thank goodness nothing horrible happened, and we put together a three- or four-minute sizzle reel to show the FBI and the New York office: This is what we’re talking about, this is how we work, this is what it looks like. When they saw that short thing, they were very excited, and they were like, “Whoa, this isn’t what we thought it would be. This is different.”
That was the first step, but I’ll be honest, there was resistance. There was individual resistance of special agents who were like, “Hey, the director might have said yes, but I’m not interested. Keep that camera out of my face.” Especially when you get into touchy areas like counterterrorism, which obviously deals with national security and the greatest threats, and that now is the overriding mission of the FBI post-9/11. … But it was moving into the criminal world, organized crime, gangs, crimes against children, cyber crime, white-collar crime — that’s where all the meetings with the lawyers came in.
We basically said, “Look, how can we do this in a way that doesn’t jeopardize ongoing investigations and prosecutions and national security and sources. If we’re going to have people understand who the real people are, you can’t have them just telling war stories. That’s good but we need to see them in action now, and we need to see some takedowns. So that’s where the lawyers from Washington, from New York and from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Southern district and the Eastern district came in, and that’s where it got a lot trickier. But luckily, we were able to negotiate, and the more people saw that it is a collaboration, the more confidence and trust we gained and the more they became advocates. It was a process, and it really depended a lot on personalities and building trust.
The FBI has definitely been in the headlines for the past year, especially for the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and the election as a whole. How much will we see of that on the show?
That’s not in the show. I mean, Comey is in the show and obviously he’s the center of [it]. It’s not just Hillary’s emails — it’s the Russian hacking, it’s the Trump campaign, it’s alleged collusion, it’s the Clinton foundation. It’s massive what the FBI is now involved in, and he went public with it last month at the congressional hearing.
I think the ultimate resolution is still to come for us to see. But obviously this was all swirling around as we were working in the New York office in the eye of the storm in many ways. I think what almost worked in our favor is that I was in the office in July, when Comey made his first press conference, watching it with special agents.
Look, obviously this is important and historic, but these are political decisions. This is the political leadership. These aren’t the pros who say, “We don’t work for President Obama or President Trump or President Clinton or President Bush. We work for the American people, and we are getting lost in this.” All of a sudden people are accusing the FBI of this and that, and they seem to forget who are the real people who do this work. So I think in a certain way it almost worked in our favor in that there was more support, with, “Hey, you guys are interested in the people who are on the front lines.” All of that is lost when we open the paper and turn on the news every night.
Why did you decide not to cover that more? It was such a big thing going on last summer in the FBI. What was your perspective?
It was emanating out of Washington, but the focus was on New York and the New York office. Comey’s press conference and then the release of the letter in October — these were all political decisions out of Washington. That wasn’t really the New York office. So that was the No. 1 thing. The No. 2 thing was that story is incomplete in terms of what is going to happen. You know the FBI is presently involved in at least three major investigations: the Russian hacking, the possible counterintelligence and possible collusion with the Trump campaign, the money laundering. That was part of the controversy, and the criticism of the director was that he made these comments and that there are Department of Justice guidelines on ongoing investigations.
This thing was so politically sensitive, and we don’t really want to focus on any of the actual people who are leading these investigations. We would rather you look at some of the other things you’re looking at. Quite frankly, with the attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, Brussels, Orlando, Nice, Chelsea this sequence of events really set the counterterrorism [track]. Since some of the characters in the New York office started their careers when the first World Trade Center bombing happened in ’93, that became the overriding theme that runs through the series.
Obviously this is huge, but who the hell knows where it’s going and how it’s going to resolve itself. There’s obviously a sensitivity in Washington. Our focus is in New York, so let’s just plow ahead. We’ve got enough to handle.
Have you thought about any sort of follow-up once these investigations are closed?
Absolutely. (Laughs.) That kind of came up in the dialogue with the director. I have spoken to Dick Wolf about that, and obviously that is something very much of interest and under discussion.
Maybe Inside the FBI: Washington for season two? Especially with the new administration and seeing how that’s impacted the bureau?
There are a lot of people that have kind of thrown that idea out there, and we’re definitely interested ourselves. That’s a story we’ll have to wait a little to fill you in on.
Inside the FBI: New York premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. on USA Network.
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