Can you talk about how you juggle all your responsibilities on DEEP STATE season two?
In terms of the showrunner side of things, the showrunner is someone who ultimately has the creative responsibility for the show. So, it’s his or her vision, ultimately, and that covers everything from re-writing scripts to approving costume, hair, make-up, locations and casting actors. You’ve got an entire overview of the show, of how you want the show to be, right from the big picture all the way down to the tiny little day-to-day details. A lot of showrunners write because part of the job as a showrunner is also to write and re-write scripts so that all the scripts have the same tone and the same feel throughout the episode.
On the writing side we also have a team of writers in a writer’s room but for me, as a writer/director, the writing is only the first half of the process. I don’t really think about the writing and directing as different, because when I write it, I’m also thinking about how I want it to be directed.
You know what you want from the scene, you don’t have to, as a director, say, “Well, I need to talk to the writer,” you can just make decisions there and then, because you know whether it’s in keeping with that character or the tone of the scene or what the scene is about instinctively because you’ve written it. So, yes, there are lots of different hats, it can be stressful but I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
Can you tell us, how has DEEP STATE moved on from season one to two?
DEEP STATE has moved on in the following way – there’s a new arena, there’s a new story, there’s a new world. The world is still partly in London and Washington, but there’s a new part of the story set in Mali in the capital of Bamako, and in the North in the Sahara desert in the land of the Tuareg people who traverse the Sahara. We have some of our same characters returning, we also have three or four major new characters. So, thematically it’s moved on, I always think of season one as an 8-hour movie or a novel, and season two is another 8 hour movie with some of the same characters and some different characters but with a different setting. The way it’s designed is so that you could watch season two without having seen season one, and become immersed in the story of season two.
Do you think it’s easier this way, to be the writer and director at the same time?
Definitely. I think it would be very hard for me to direct someone else’s material because I know my material in my heart.
What kind of research did you undertake for this season?
I read a lot of books and I consume a lot of news. The genesis of this season was that I heard the news about four US special forces who were ambushed and killed in Niger. Immediately, I started to think, ‘What were they doing in Niger?’ I started to think beyond the tragedy and ask myself ‘What’s really going on?’
For season one, it was the Iranian nuclear deal and that was my beginning point. There’s always a place in the headlines where it begins. I always try and base it in real events that are happening and it grows from there.
In terms of talking to experts, I’ve spoken to ex-MI6, ex-CIA, ex-FBI, ex-NYPD and LAPD. We’re not a documentary, it’s fiction, but I try to route it as much as possible in realness. Seeping yourself in real life events and then sort of building a narrative from there is, for me, is the most exciting way of working.
You have a crew that has stuck with you for season two. What have you asked them to do in terms of keeping it authentic?
It gets a lot easier if it’s the same actors and DP, costume, hair and make-up. When you’ve worked with people before, there’s a shorthand. Part of working with someone for the first time is in getting to know that person, getting on the same page with them, creatively. It takes a lot of energy. What I love, whether it’s Steve Summersgill on production design or Rachel Walsh on costume, Amy Stewart, our hair and make-up designer, what’s amazing about all of those three key creative positions is, I can say to them, “Look, this is what I want, this is what I’m after,” and I know they will go away and do research and make it happen.
What about the scale of the show and what is it like shooting everything on location?
I love shooting on location but it does mean it’s harder on the crew and it’s harder on the production machine because you’re moving all the time. When you shoot on a soundstage it’s nice and quiet, it’s a controllable environment, it’s not as stressful. When you’re out on location and it’s hot or there are noises going off or there are sewers backing up, then there’s real life issues to deal with, it gets more stressful.
The upside of it is, creatively, it’s much more real and I get ideas and inspirations from real life locations. I’ll see something and I’ll say, ‘I want to rewrite the scene and I want to change it to fit this building. I want to change it to fit that street.’ I love putting actors in real places and I think certainly the actors on this show respond to that. They’re in real places with real smells, real heat, real sounds.
Why is collaboration so important to you? How does that work for you?
Collaboration is important for me because it makes the show better, it’s as simple as that. My Director of Photographer may come to me and suggest a shot, that makes it better, the actor may say to me, ‘Can I try this?’ or ‘Can I say this?’ and that makes it better. When you start out as a director, you think you’ve got to have all the answers. Everyone is looking to you for all the answers and you’ve got to have control over everything, and actually, the better I’ve got as a director, the less I feel that way.
I’ve seen really good scripts and really good shows with really talented people not work. Most of the time it’s because people are not making the same show, they’re on different pages, creatively. If everyone is on the same page, life gets a lot easier.
Can you talk about the major difference between telling a story that is based in the Middle East versus this season, which is based in Africa?
There aren’t any differences in the way I approach the script. It’s all about making the story work and making it relevant and surprising. I think one of the keys to DEEP STATE is the emotion and the emotional storylines that run through it. We are primarily an espionage thriller, we are a political show, but what makes it worth it for me are all the emotional storylines running through it. Whether it’s Harry or Leyla or Nathan or Aicha.
The differences come in the design, where you’re shooting it, the locations, but how I approach the story, whether I’m setting a story in Mali or whether I’m setting a story in Russia or America, it’s always about the story and the characters.
What’s the number one goal for you for season two, regarding the storytelling?
I think the number one goal for me is to create what David Simon (creator of ‘The Wire’) called ‘lean-in television.’ You’re not sitting back as the viewer, you’re leaning in, hopefully on the edge of your seat. My goal is to create a show that you cannot turn away from, you’ve got to pay attention. My goal is to create a great thriller that has a powerful emotional heart to it.
How is this espionage thriller different from others in the genre?
One of the things this show does that is different from a lot of espionage shows is we follow our characters to their homes. We look at the emotional consequences of their actions.
Can you summarise where we left off last season and where we’re going to be picking up from?
The first thing I would say is, you don’t have to have watched last season to watch this season. It’s like an eight-hour movie and last year’s eight-hour movie told a lot of stories, This year’s eight-hour movie picks up certain threads from characters like Harry and Leyla, and it takes them and puts them in a new world, which, this season, is the world of Mali.
This season we’ve split the narrative into a past and a present storyline. The present storyline takes place now, the past storyline takes place two years ago. What that allows us to do is let the past storyline inform the present and the present inform the past. Part of what this show is about, for the audience, is putting together all these jigsaw pieces until they complete the puzzle.
Going into the past also allows you to look at when Harry and Leyla first met, how did they get to know each other. George White’s character, who is dead in the present, but in the past, how did he go from a man who was serving Queen and Country to a man who was serving the powers of the deep state? I love things not being completely linear, I love jumping around in time. I think audiences are super-smart these days, there’s so much great TV around, that they want to be challenged and they want to become part of a more challenging and bigger experience.
How do you keep the two storylines straight in your head while you are directing?
It’s easier for me keeping things straight in my head because I created it! It’s there, it’s always there, I always know and part of my job is to help the others keep it straight.
Why are strong female characters so important to you?
The strong female characters are super important to me and they have been ever since my daughter was born. When my daughter was born, I became acutely aware of how women and girls end up getting a not-so-great deal in life a lot of the time, so I try and create female characters who are strong, who are powerful, who have their own storylines and aren’t just like the girlfriend or the wife or the mother. They are those things too, we have characters who are mothers and characters who are wives, but they have their own powerful storylines and it’s incredibly important to me the way we treat them visually. We have a lot of beautiful women on our show, but we’re not a show that puts them in figure-hugging clothes or tight dresses, we don’t sexualise them, they’re not there to be eye-candy for somebody else. That goes for the makeup as well because if I can see it, it’s not real, unless that character has made a particular decision to do that. For example, Sullivan’s character is a senator and she’s on the Intelligence Committee and there are times she will put on make-up. But Leyla’s character or Aicha, they’re on the run for their lives, when are they going to go and find time to put on some make-up?
You have the American actor Walton Goggins joining the team this season. How has that been?
It’s an amazing relationship with Walton. I count myself very lucky. He’s a phenomenal actor and there are times, as a director, I just sit back and enjoy watching him work. He has such truth and pain and charm and he just lights up the screen. I love the way he works, but he’s also an incredibly lovely human being to be around.
With every episode and every script we talk and come up with ideas. He will say ‘What about this? What about that? What if I did this? What if I said that?’ It comes from such a place of generosity and he’ll challenge me where I need to be challenged and he’ll offer ideas where I want ideas and it’s a lovely sort of collaborative experience, it really is. It’s been one of my best working experiences working with him and I hope we carry on and do lots and lots more things together.
One of the themes we’re seeing is that it’s never as simple as the good guys versus the bad guy. The lines get blurry.
We are not a good guys versus bad guys show. What I find fascinating with our characters are the moral grey areas they stray into, all the time. The closest character we have to a noble character is probably Sullivan (played by Victoria Hamilton), but even Sullivan does things that affect her marriage because she is in pursuit of the truth and sometimes people who dedicate themselves to something better or something higher do it at the expense of their families. Even truly beautiful, lovely people are capable of meanness and selfishness, so I just find those characters more fascinating to explore.
Can you talk about the economy of war?
In researching the show last year, one of the things that startled me and stunned me was that the war machine isn’t just about bullets and missiles, it’s about socks and towels and fatigues. I read an incredibly startling thing which was it costs several hundred dollars to deliver a gallon of fuel to the battlefield in Afghanistan. Think of the mark-up on that, right? The war machine isn’t just about the guns and the bullets and the missiles, the money is made all the way down the line. It’s a lot of industry.
Are you shooting two different styles for the two different time periods?
No, the shooting style is the same but the grade will be slightly different. In the present, it’s a much richer contrast, in the past, we will drain the colour out of the images a little bit. In the first episode, you’ll have these titles that will say ‘Present day. Two years ago’, but the idea is, visually, the audience, very quickly, will know what time period they’re in due to the grade of the show. Hopefully, within the first episode, the audience will say, ‘Oh, I’m in the past. I’m in the present. I’m in the past.’ just from the visual.
Are you surprised about the parallels to the stories you’re telling and what we are hearing on the news today?
I’m not surprised when we find that we are shooting something that is so current it’s in the news that day. Walton came in one day with an article from the New York Times that said that the CIA have spent six months building drone bases in Mali and Algeria, in secret, which is part of what our story is. I’m not freaked out because I know it’s happening through what I’ve been reading in the books I use for research. If you do your research properly you don’t need to make these stories up. It makes my job very easy.
Do you have a favourite scene that you’ve shot or looking forward to shooting?
The funny thing about that is, they keep getting replaced. I go to work and I think I’m really looking forward to a certain scene. We shoot quite fast and I’ll finish the day and I can’t even remember what I shot that morning. What I love is when a scene surprises me. When two actors take a scene and there’s a sudden warmth there that I didn’t expect or there’s a heartache there or pain there that I didn’t expect.
Can you tell us about Harry and Leyla in season two?
They’ve got much bigger, meatier stories this year which I’m very happy about. In the past storyline, we show how they came together and how their relationship started. In the present, we start eight months after the end of season one and we start in a place where their relationship was broken and so it’s kind of interesting because, in the past, you see them together and in the present, you’re seeing them dealing with the broken relationship.
We see Alistair Petrie back as George White in season two even though he died at the end of season one. Can you explain that storyline?
The biggest mistake I made last year was killing George White off. The way this show works, I’ve got all the story worked out before we start shooting. I know which character is going to live and die before we start shooting. What you don’t know is who you’re going to cast, so someone like Alistair Petrie comes along and just kills that role of George White, and for me and a lot of people, it’s become one of their favourite characters.
I’m sitting there like an idiot saying, ‘Why did I kill that character?’. One of the remedies to that is, if I tell a story in the past, I can bring him back without doing the twin brother storyline or the ‘he’s not really dead’ storyline, which I didn’t want to do, because he’s dead! So, telling that storyline in the past was a way to get to work with Petrie again and get to work on that amazing character again. As he said to me yesterday, the biggest problem is, if we do a season three, how am I going to bring him back again?
If DEEP STATE three happens, can you give us any hints?
DEEP STATE season three! What I do, is I think of a world. A lot of people were asking if I was thinking of setting the show in Russia this year. I did, but the reason why I didn’t do it is because I think there’s going to be a lot of shows set in Russia coming in the next few years. I’m trying to find something that is hopefully different, like setting a show in Mali. I’ll be looking for some sort of idea or story that gets me excited, and makes me go ‘What’s that about?’ and ‘What if this happened?, and then it’s about finding a new setting.
DEEP STATE 2 will broadcast on FOX Africa on Wednesdays at 20:45 CAT, from 15 May.