Written by Denis Faye
Henry Bromell has a thing for eccentric ensembles. From the oddball small town of Northern Exposure to the hardboiled cast of Homicide: Life on the Streets to the freak show of Carnivale, if Bromell is involved, you’re going to get characters.
“It’s a deep need to create a group so that half of the show becomes that group,” explains the writer-producer. “You don’t start writing until you’ve got really great characters; strong, complicated characters. And then you keep trying to find it in the writing to go along with them.”
His latest show, the new AMC conspiracy thriller series Rubicon, is no exception. Created by Jason Horwitch, the show is set in a world of federal intelligence analysts and features a cast of savants, geniuses, wackos, and any combination thereof.
Bromell took some time to chat with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about how he puts together these ensembles and explain his take on conspiracy shows, as well as the proper way to grill a CIA agent, should the need ever arise.
How do you make your show stand out from all the other conspiracy shows out there?
The trick for us is that the nature of the conspiracy we’re telling stories about is very specific and very real. By the time you get to the end of the first season, I don’t think you’re going to be saying, “Oh, that’s high jinks fiction.”
The other thing is that the conspiracy is just part of the show. Not every scene is just running around chasing the conspiracy. It’s at least 50 percent about intelligence analysts and the world that they live in and what they do. We have stories that run through the whole season about who the characters are and what it’s like to be in a place like this, where you have to check your cell phone and your laptop when you go in, and you can’t really tell people what you do. I find it fascinating. The more research I did, the more fascinating it got.
It’s a show about that world and those people – and one of them, Will Travers, is dealing with his suspicion that something’s not quite right.
Photo: © 2010 AMC
James Badge Dale in Rubicon.
So in your research you talked to people in that world, including CIA people. If they live in a world they have to keep secret, how can they help you?
They can’t tell us much. But if I say, “Here’s how we’re presenting what the world looks like when you walk in the door. People are arranged in teams, they have a team leader, they’re assigned materials based on geography, there’s a little cafeteria where they eat bad food,” they can then say, “Yep, that’s pretty much it.” Or they can say, “No, no, no.”
Also, a lot of stuff is available in books people have written. And, finally, we are making it up. The funny thing is when I was first designing this, I made it all up, but I have read a lot about intelligence gathering, so it wasn’t that I was driving blind. Anyway, I tracked down an old classmate of mine who works in intelligence pretty high up. I gave him a one-page description of what I was doing, and I said, “Is this even close to real?” He said, “It is very close to real.” And that’s as detailed as we got. So I’m kind of making it up based on how I thought it would work and it turns out it’s pretty close to what it is.
That must have been pretty rewarding.
I saved the e-mail, yeah.
You specialize in shows featuring eccentric casts of characters. How do you balance them? If you have one character that has a specific personality, do you need to create an opposite character? Do you see those patterns?
Probably unconsciously. Consciously, I don’t. But you do need all the little differences to make it fun and workable.
Do you see yourself in any of these characters?
I borrow from myself with these characters, or things I’ve seen or experienced or people I know.
Assuming that you’re not a socially inept super genius yourself, how do you go about making the intelligence of the characters in Rubicon believable?
That’s a good question and equally a good question for the actor. It’s a deep conceit of the show, and so it’s important. I don’t know, really. We just do the best we can. I have known people in my life, especially scientifically or mathematically bent people, who were genius-like in a way.
For instance, Truxton Spangler, who is the boss upstairs, is based on two people I’ve known from a distance. One is William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker. I used to write fiction for The New Yorker and go there to edit it. Every day he’d be across the street at the Algonquin having his lunch of cornflakes. He fascinated me because he was a genius and his eccentricities were manifest and legion. And another is a guy named Angleton who worked in the CIA in the ‘50s and ‘60s who my father worked with. He was the head of counterintelligence and also a genius. Everyone knew he was the smartest one in the building, but they had to get rid of him finally because he was convinced that everybody was a mole. Those two guys are where I got [that character].
We do our homework. We think through what these guys are doing in their workplace and we put ourselves in their position and try to imagine what we’d do.
What about the more technical aspects, such as when they solve elaborate puzzles like when Will finds the secret message in the crossword? Do you work backward from that?
We just dream it up.
We also use Google searches a lot when we’re doing this stuff. Search engines are a huge asset. I’m sure that’s exactly what the intelligence guys are using too, by the way.
They probably have search engines we don’t have access to.
The ones I’ve talked to have all said you’d be shocked at how little more they do know. They said you’d probably be horrified.
It just seems like it’d be hard. There’s such a fine line between a super genius and Batman from the’60s solving the Riddler’s riddles.
I hope we don’t do that! I think it explains itself as the series goes along. Certainly by episode four or five, you have a feel for how these guys do what they do, and it’s pretty human. It’s problem solving.