The new Showtime series “Homeland” brings viewers to Washington, where they meet a CIA agent who’s trying to figure out whether a recently freed American prisoner of war was turned to work for the terrorist organization that held him in captivity for eight years.
The show’s co-creators and executive producers, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, spoke with The Hill about how they’re making the plot authentic to Washington and where they get their ideas.
Alex Gansa: There was an Israeli series called “Abducted,” and it was a show about two prisoners of war who are returned to Israel after 17 years in captivity, and they reintegrate into their lives after all that time. We tried to take that idea and say, “How we can make that pertinent to America?” And to do that, we felt that we had to bring an intelligence/thriller aspect to the story. And the way we did that, we said we had to add to the plotline: Was the POW turned by his captors to work for them?
Q: How much of the show’s plotline is based on real life? As I’m sure you know, the threat of terrorism is still very real in Washington, which was the subject of two recently thwarted plots.
Howard Gordon: We pay a lot of attention to [current events], but when we started the project, I think we were at kind of a low-awareness mode, particularly for Alex and I, when we were coming at the end of [the Fox television series] “24,” when we feared there might not be much interest in this subject matter.
It turns out that it’s a lot more relevant than I imagined.
AG: We’d written a pilot when Osama bin Laden was killed, and we had a come-to-Jesus moment — is this terrorism stuff going to ebb even further? But as it turns out, the opposite has happened. It’s in the zeitgeist now.
One thing we are trying to do is mirror what we understand to be the internal debates in the intelligence community.
Q: How do you make the show authentic? Are you talking to any Washington-based experts? You definitely get into the weeds by dropping insider-y terms like “FISA warrant” and calling CIA headquarters “Langley.”
AG: We have consultants inside the intelligence community — certainly at the agency itself. We try to read as much as we can. And then we just make a bunch of [stuff] up.
HG: And then you find out that the stuff you make up has real analogues, almost to the detail. I think we were expecting our CIA consultant to say our draft was horse[crap], but she was surprised by how authentic it was.
Q: What has been your level of interest in Washington and national politics prior to this show?
AG: We both worked on “The X-Files.” There was a little bit of that going on.
HG: I’m a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. I’ve had more of a hobbyist interest in those issues.
AG: Truthfully, we spend most of our time talking about this stuff. That’s the first thing you go to in the newspaper, and not because of the show. The world’s a fascinating place right now.
Q: What are the challenges of making this show?
HG: Writing it.
AG: I think telling a compelling story with a protagonist who has to appear both extremely competent and unbalanced at the same time. And to be true to the story of a returning veteran from these wars and at the same time to integrate something else that’s going on. We’re very sensitive to all the things going on here, and we’re trying to be as genuine here as possible.
And just to give the people who are making the actual show in [Charlotte, North Carolina] their due, turning these stories into episodes … is a Herculean task [for] our producer.
Q: Are you doing any filming in Washington?
AG: We were able to shoot in D.C. for the pilot, and we were able to pick up a lot of stock footage and B-roll. But unfortunately it’s prohibitively difficult to shoot in D.C. You can’t get permits, or all of the sudden the president will come through. So we’re shooting in Charlotte. You also get great tax breaks in North Carolina.
Q: Who do you think is the show’s ideal viewer?
AG: That’s the great thing about being on pay cable — we’re not in the business of having to explain things. We want to be as true to the vernacular as we can be. I will say one of the nicest reviews we got was in The Washington Post. [The reviewer] felt it was great to have a show based in that town that dealt with those issues.
Q: Are there any current national political figures or plotlines that you think would make for good television subject matter?
AG: We borrowed a lot already. We borrowed already from [former Rep.] Anthony Weiner [D-N.Y.]. We borrowed from [the death of Anwar] al-Awlaki just in terms of the whole issue [of] these drone strikes.