Interview: 'Halt and Catch Fire' showrunner Jonathan Lisco on the TV tech zeitgeist and more
I like talking to the creative people who have jobs that folks outside of the industry bubble don't necessarily understand.
Last month, for example, I talked with Michael Spiller about what it means to be a directing producer on "The Mindy Project."
Jonathan Lisco has a more glamorous and identifiable job. He is, after all, the showrunner on AMC's new drama "Halt and Catch Fire" and we've all learned to revere the showrunner. However, Lisco didn't create "Halt and Catch Fire." The '80s-set computer drama was created by Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers, but The Chrises don't have a lengthy TV background, so Lisco was brought in as writer, executive producer and showrunner for the first season as part of an overall deal he signed with AMC.
Lisco has been a creator -- FOX's "K-Ville" was the first series to shoot in New Orleans after Katrina -- but his most recent credit was executive producing TNT's much-admired "Southland."
I sat down with Lisco last month to discuss the process that brought him to "Halt and Catch Fire" and the challenges of running a first-year show that you didn't create. We also discussed TV's high tech zeitgeist, the struggles of not fetishizing the '80s and the struggles to get computer minutia correct.
HitFix: People in your shoes I know don’t have time to actually watch TV, right?
Jonathan Lisco: That’s interesting, you know. I try and keep that a little bit under my hat sometimes, but that is the dirty secret of a lot of people who run TV shows. We’re so busy making it that we often don’t have time to absorb it like a viewer. And when we do, it’s not exactly what you might call the most relaxing enterprise. So yeah, it is true. I struggle to keep up. Let’s put it that way. I do struggle to keep up.
HitFix: This is why when I want to ask if you've had the chance to watch "Silicon Valley" and the current season of "Mad Men," I have absolutely no idea if you’ve actually had the time to do those things.
Jonathan Lisco: Well the answer to the former is that I’ve caught one episode of "Silicon Valley" and I liked it, actually. I thought it was kind of humorous and tongue-in-cheek and not at all what we were doing which was, to be perfectly frank, heartening. [He laughs.] And "Mad Men," no. I’m quite behind in my "Mad Men" actually interestingly enough.
HitFix: Because they’ve been doing a big birth-of-computer-tech arc this season.
Jonathan Lisco: Oh have they? You know it’s like when I was in high school and you didn’t want to read the book for your AP English class, but you read the Cliff Notes, you know. You can always find out what’s going on on those shows unfortunately.
HitFix: You can always know what’s happening on the shows ruined for you.
Jonathan Lisco: That’s right. That’s right. So I’ve head of that, yeah.
HitFix: It just feels like there's something in the water at the moment.
Jonathan Lisco: Oh, it’s the meteor phenomenon, you know? When they did three meteor movies basically. There’s something in the zeitgeist, something in the ether right now that is telling us to, I think, reflect on our origins when it comes to the tech story. As a people, as a culture, I agree.
HitFix: And why today? Why in 2014 do you think that’s what’s in the water?
Jonathan Lisco: That’s an excellent question. I think there’s possibly several responses to that. For my own part I believe that people are, for the first time, starting to question whether or not all this connectivity is actually net-positive. Because it used to be, mean I was even with some agents the other night and they said, "You know, I used to go home on Friday night and we used to actually go home and untether from the office." And there’s an assumption now, in all of our businesses -- I’m sure yours included -- that you’re constantly available. And I think people are starting to reflect on whether or not that’s net-positive. So there’s the connectivity issue. But there’s also the issue of social interaction and quality time and whether or not the time that we’re spending on social media sites and things like that is actually the kind of time that actually bonds human beings together, that is memorable, that is life defining or whether or not it’s literally just whittling away our hours as time’s arrow passes. So I think those questions for people with any kind of emotional IQ are starting to loom up and put themselves in stark relief.
HitFix: Its airplanes where it does it for me. The airplane used to be a thing where you could go up and you didn’t have to check your work email.
Jonathan Lisco: It’s true. And now you feel totally bereft if you’ve wasted those three hours.
HitFix: And if your plane doesn’t have Wi-Fi and you can’t work for those two hours it suddenly becomes a horrible, horrible thing.
Jonathan Lisco: Right. Now to bring it down to the level of "Halt and Catch Fire" for a second, I believe that those kinds of themes are the kinds of themes you can start to explore and tease out as the series progresses. Obviously we didn’t want to do it in the first season because that would give our characters this amazing prescience, where they knew what was going to happen and they knew the end of the Info Age story. And I know we’re still in it, but we kind of now know the end of the story, right? We become connected. We have all these social media platforms. But truthfully, we wanted to create characters who weren’t that prescience and that was hard because we all know where we’ve come. So we labored in the writer’s room on many levels but one was to give them that authenticity where they were operating without the knowledge that we currently have. So the questions about connectivity, the questions about "Is technology a net benefit to society and things like that or to ourselves, really"" is something that I think would be great to explore in season three, you know, et cetera, of the show.
HitFix: Let's talk more about that in the writer’s room, sort of the dramatic irony of the process and sort of, you know, these people have to be brilliant but there’s a limit to how brilliant you want them to be. They can’t really know things that are gonna happen in 2005 for example.
Jonathan Lisco: That’s right.
HitFix: So how smart are these people? How like ahead of the curve are these people?
Jonathan Lisco: That’s a tension, that’s the narrative drive of the series at some level. In other words we want to continually thwart viewers’ expectations along those lines, right? One of the key questions in the series for me is, "Am I a visionary or am I a fraud?" Okay. So we want to toggle back and forth and we don’t necessarily want to answer that question right away, because the people who are populing the series don’t know the answer themselves, right? The whole point is that they’re grasping at Something Bigger, you know, capital S, capital B. They feel something in the ether. They know there’s something more meaningful out there. They feel like their skill sets may be able to sort of, like a maestro, tie those different elements together into something meaningful on a technological level. But they also don’t know whether or not what they’re doing is gonna wind up to change the world or be swept into the trash bin of history or wind up junk at a yard sale. And so it’s that tension that we want to play with.
HitFix: Could the identity of who the actual visionary is, could it surprise us? If we make an assumption on who it is in the first episode? Might it be someone else?
Jonathan Lisco: Absolutely. And one of the things that I’ve often said in the writer’s room is... Let me back up for a second. You look at stories through different lenses and through different templates, right. And so you can often, when you’re stuck in the writer’s room, you can derive value from changing that lens. Sometimes we’ll look at it like a spy thriller story. Other times we’ll look at it like an origin story. So to answer your question, I’d say, "All right, all right. What if we’re looking at this no longer as the concrete plot but what if we’re looking at it as an origin story and what if we want to play with the audiences perception of who’s gonna be the quote-unquote 'Steve Jobs' in 2012 and who’s gonna be the footnote." Like who’s gonna be the Wikipedia entry and who’s gonna be the footnote to that Wikipedia entry? And I think it may surprise you.
HitFix: Okay. I watched the pilot and your initial reaction when you see Kerry’s character, for example, is you go, "OK. It's the nagging wife who's gonna be the wet blanket to the brilliant people." And very clearly and very quickly, you realize she’s not.
Jonathan Lisco: Well I’ll take some credit for that -- With, of course, my colleagues -- because I wrote the episode in which I believe she starts to really pop as a formidable part of the team, from a technological point of view. And I set out to write that episode because I did not want her to be an accessory to Gordon Clark’s storylines. I said deliberately, "We have got to figure out a way to make Donna just as integral to this show on a concrete plot level, not just an emotional level. And she can’t just service Gordon’s neuroses, service his narcissism. We’ve got to give her a few of her own and some formidable skills to match his." And hopefully we’ve achieved that and she’ll wind up being, I think, a very surprising and dynamic character in her own right.
HitFix: Well even servicing his neuroses or servicing whatever would almost be progress as opposed to simply just being a wet blanket in there to...
Jonathan Lisco: You’re right. I know other shows, to be unnamed, have received some criticism in that regard. And all I’ll say is just to express empathy to those writers who are trying to figure it all out and pack all that story into 42 minutes of show. Because often, things will need to drop out and people will have to be secondary to the major storyline. But we consciously proceeded to try and make that not happen on this show. Our entire ensemble, I hope you’ll find once you watch the show, you’ll want to know what’s gonna happen with every single one of them by the time you finish watching season one.
HitFix: Every single one as sorta a four-hander?
Jonathan Lisco: I would say even a five-hander...
HitFix: So Toby Huss included?
Jonathan Lisco: With Toby included, yeah. We thought long and hard about his character. We turned out to love his character equally as well as, you know, dislike his character. I mean the whole point is we just want people to lean forward with all these characters and say to themselves, "Sometimes I love them, sometimes I hate them and sometimes I want to love them but I don’t in this moment, thus I want them to be a better version of themselves."
HitFix: So you coming in on this from the outside, what was it that drew you to the Chrises script and made you say, "Okay, I can be a valuable member of this team"?
Jonathan Lisco: Initially I didn’t want to do it. I read the script. AMC brought me the script. I read it. I thought it was excellent. The writing is excellent, these guys are extremely talented and it turns out to be wonderful comrades-in-arms and brothers. But at first I wasn’t a 100 percent sure that technology would make, you know the cloning of an IBM PC doesn’t mean you can blow your hair back as a compelling dramatic storyline. And so I thought I might not be the person to do this, because while I’m interested in tech probably more than the average person, I’m not the guy in college, like my roommates who would sit up all night and take the Commodore and they'd take it apart and reassemble it 19 times and hack their way deep into the night and miss class. I was not that guy.
HitFix: But roomed with those guys? You actually knew *those* people?
Jonathan Lisco: Oh yeah, yeah. I absolutely knew those people. I knew those people. They were brilliant techs, you know. It was like Harvard College, '86-'90. I mean these were people who were really like at the forefront of all that and flunking out of school a lot of times because they were so into this kind of like crushing stuff. So I wasn’t that guy and I thought, "If the show is just gonna live or die based on the unraveling of the technology and the cloning of the PC, then on an emotional level I’m not sure I’m gonna be drawn in. I’m not sure that’s gonna grab me by the lapels and drag me through the story." So I initially said, "I think I’m probably gonna pass." Then I met the guys and, as is often the case in this business, it’s really not the money, I hate to say, that draws me to things. Amost never. It’s the material and the people. So I liked the material already, then I met the guys and I felt that they had a real vision for the show in the sense that they understood, even being fairly green in the TV business, that the show was not gonna be about the bits and bytes. It had to be about the stuff that hangs off that scaffold, you know, an investigation of narcissism, the fallout from our own ambitions, whether or not we’re visionary or fraud, the insecurities of trying to strive for something greater and not knowing if you’re gonna succeed. Once I was pretty clear on the fact that they got that and once AMC and said, "Yeah, we want the show to be about that, too." Then it was like "I’m all in."
HitFix: Your job though is a sort of complicated job because you’ve obviously done shows before where you’ve been the creator. And here you are coming in and you’re not creator. What is the tiptoeing process that has to be done? And when do you learn to stop doing the tiptoeing process because the show isn't going to get made if you tiptoe?
Jonathan Lisco: Yeah, understood, understood. You know, I’ve not done this 50 times like some mercenary shows out there. I’ve done this a handful of times and I would never take a job, or would try hard not to, if I felt that I was gonna have to impose 100 percent my vision over the vision of the creators. I would immediately identify that situation as toxic. I would see the writing on the wall and I wouldn’t do it. And so I had numerous meetings with the Chrises before I decided to do this. And I felt like I would be able to shepherd their vision and be strongly opinionated and veto stuff if necessary, but largely I wanted to support them and I felt that their vision was already in line with mine. So there wasn’t a huge amount of tiptoeing that had to be done. There were creative sparks all the time, but it was always sort of in the spirit of -- I know this sounds like of too good to be true -- but it was always in the spirit of like the crucible of collaboration. And then, unfortunately or fortunately, sometimes hard decisions need to be made just because the train has left the station and this is an amazing process. You must tumble forward and make many, many decisions a day. And so sometimes strong decisions have to be made. But in general I tried to manage it via consensus, not dictatorially.
HitFix: I know that this is part of a deal that you signed with AMC. So when you come in to something like that is your goal to sort of put in a year stewarding so that the Chrises can run things next year while you create your own AMC show or what?
Jonathan Lisco: You know, it’s funny. I went in with my eyes open wanting to consume as much as AMC could throw at me, because I’m really interested in working with them. They’re one of the places out there that still wants to do sophisticated drama and have sort of the high hanging fruit. And so for me, I’ve always been a believer that if you set the bar high, you know, if you set the preferences high people will go there and sort of meet you there. But if you set them low, of course they’ll eat. So I feel like AMC is a place that still sets the bar high. So in answer to your question, I wanted to run "Halt" but I do want to develop my own thing for them, absolutely. And I’m probably gonna start doing that now. Unfortunately, when you’re running a show, you barely have time to do anything but run the show. It’s a really incredible job and so I’ll have to do it between seasons. And originally I thought, "Yeah, maybe I will steward it and just do it for one season and hand it over to them." And I would still do that if that’s their wish. But we formed such a strong bond that I feel like if the show’s even remotely successful AMC may not want to mess with the formula.
HitFix: You talked about it earlier about Kerry’s character, in that an episode that you wanted to make sure that you expanded on that. What else do you sort of see as being the clear fingerprints that are yours in this show?
Jonathan Lisco: Oh well, put it this way. I wound up hiring a fantastic group of writers so I’m not at all gonna take credit for everything that went on this season. I’m sort of somebody who tries to shepherd the conversation without commandeering it, right? However, sometimes in the room inevitably with a bunch of very smart, geek people, the conversation devolves into something along these lines: "Well, I think that was the 280, wait was that the 186? Did they have the 80-86 processor back then?" "Are we talking about hexadecimal code or was this on..." "Wait do we have an extra memory in the daughter board?" And I would let that continue for a while, as that stuff would spill forth, and then I would say, "Okay, everybody has to now back up for a second. Just back the hell up. What are we doing here and who cares? So let’s get over ourselves and make sure that we’re telling a story that meets us on a visceral level." And so I would always remind us to stray away from kind of things that were merely intellectual, and thus hollow, and strive for emotional honesty.
HitFix: In the room, who was the master of the intellectual truth who made sure that you didn’t get things wrong?
Jonathan Lisco: I would say that definitely goes to Chris and Chris. I mean they are very, very fine writers, but they are also equally interested in getting the technology right. So they are really great and sometimes also we had Jason Cahill in there, who used to write on "The Sopranos" and is a lovely writer, Dahvi Waller, they were all great at sort of calling bulls*** on stuff. But also they didn’t want to move forward unless this was period accurate and felt real, because we don’t want to be taking out of the story because we make a mistake about the technology. Is it inevitable that we will? I hate to say "Yes," but the answer’s, "Probably." We worked with, you know, all these tech consultants. We were assiduous in the way we vetted everything but, you know, it’s not 1983 anymore and inevitably we may have made a mistake. But rest assured we were hyper-concerned about not doing so.
HitFix: And how about hyper-concerned about fetishizing the '80s because there's always the chance of that and so I noticed at least on the pilot that the soundtrack choices, for example, they aren’t on-the-nose. You know, it’s not the Best of 1983 soundtrack. And I liked that.
Jonathan Lisco: Well, also in terms of my/our contributions to the show... And again anybody who knows anything about showrunning, sometimes show runners are put on this pedestal as auteurs, and I’m sure that can be true, but in my case it takes a village and so I like to delegate and I like people to tell me no. I’m not looking for an echo chamber. And I create, I think, also a very safe environment where people feel like they can pitch their really bad idea. You ask the writers and they can go on a total redonkulous spacewalk because I feel like out of that crucible comes the better idea. And so I will allow that to happen. But your question was again?
HitFix: About the '80s.
Jonathan Lisco: Oh yeah, so similarly I would say, "Let’s not make the '80s the punchline." Because the '80s can easily become a punchline. I lived through it – big hair, leg warmers, every track that you recognize. And so we definitely tried to lean away from that. What we tried to do is evoke the '80s without hitting you over the head with it both in production design, in sound design as well as in attitude. So hopefully you’ll think we succeeded.
HitFix: In the pilot I did, but I also know how hard that is to sustain.
Jonathan Lisco: It’s really hard because sometimes you don’t want to be subtle, because you’re worried people won’t get it. You’re trying to find universal themes that span 30 years and it’s pretty easy to do, but sometimes you’ll want to lean in that direction or you’ll find out that that thing happened in the '80s -- Remember that thing? -- and you’ll want to do a story about it. But it’s so much better to just glance it, to just brush it and graze it and not hit it head-on generally speaking.
"Halt and Catch Fire" airs Sunday nights on AMC.