Frank Spotnitz has been the man up front for the first two Cinemax original drama series. He wrote the first four episodes of the Cinemax incarnation of "Strike Back," and is the creator and executive producer of "Hunted," a new thriller starring Melissa George as British private spy Sam Hunter, who is betrayed, left for dead, and returns to work a year later looking for revenge on whoever it was that set her up. (You can watch an exclusive clip from the premiere at the top of this post.)
I interviewed Spotnitz about his design for the series (which I reviewed yesterday), why he wanted a female spy at the center, and the legacy of his work on "The X-Files," where he was one of the top writer/producers for years.
What did you learn doing those four episodes of "Strike Back," within that budget and that format that then informed you in terms of, “This is what I can do with a Cinemax show"?
Frank Spotnitz: Well, it was weird because I’d written "Hunted" already before I did "Strike Back." So I already had that in the back of my head. I honestly don’t know if I can tell you what I learned. "Strike Back" was like going to the ice cream shop for me. I could just go and have fun. It was male fantasy, testosterone, just go engage your inner-teenage fantasy self. And it was a blast. It was just really fun. This show, to me, is so different in every way. So I don’t know.
I think what I’m asking more is not so much creatively, because I agree with you they’re very different. But just in terms of what you can pull off in terms of budget and scheduling.
Frank Spotnitz: Well, to be honest, the "Strike Back," it says I’m an executive producer, but I didn’t really. With this show I learned a lot doing this because I had never worked in Europe before. I didn’t really know how budgets correlated to versus what I’m used to. And I kind of learned as we went. And I think the crews in Europe are much smaller and faster, and it’s actually a good value. You actually get a lot for what you spend. And this was a really generous budget, so that’s what I learned by doing it.
I want to talk about structure, first in the pilot and then moving forward. The pilot is stream of consciousness at times. It’s slipping in and out of past and present. You’re watching Sam as she’s recovering and going back and forth. How did you decide that you wanted to structure the introduction to the character in this world in that way?
Frank Spotnitz: At the heart of this, it’s about Sam and her character. And I wanted to begin with Sam at the top of her game. She’s great. She’s the best operative Byzantium has, and I wanted the thrill of that, the adrenaline of that. Wow, you’re amazing. You pulled this off, incredible. You sleep with men and then you betray them. And then I wanted to show her love with this man, and then I wanted to take it all away. Because I thought that’s the story. It’s this woman who is a great spy and then this crack, this betrayal, that café. And as long as this TV series goes, it’s about that crack getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Because I’m fascinated by this woman who had erected these walls, these emotional walls, she’s tough; she’s hard to get at. How did she get that way? And those flashbacks to her childhood, that’s how she got that way. Terrible things happened to her as a little girl. And now because of this attack on her life, she’s going to have to go back and look at these events.
So you have A: Sam trying to re-assimilate herself into this place, B: Sam hunting for the people who betrayed her. And then C: There’s this mission, a very involved mission. We’re spending a lot of time in Jack’s imposing house with all the things going on in there. That’s a lot of layers to be throwing at people all at once.
Frank Spotnitz: It is.
Why did you do it that way?
Frank Spotnitz: Well, it was always my intention that you're going to have that first narrative, who’s trying to kill her and why? That’s a narrative that goes on and on. And you’re going to get a lot of answers in the first eight episodes, a lot. But it’s like "The X-Files" strategy. We’ve answered one thing, now there’s three more questions.
And then there is a story each with a beginning, middle, and an end. Every week there’s a story, like episode two. Hassan is captured, he’s in the basement. He’s going to get out or he’s not. There’s just always. And then I’d never done this before, there’s a story that takes place over the course of these eight hours that’s going to end. So the Turner assignment is going to end. And I thought I liked as a form. I hadn’t seen that before. So I thought that’s really interesting to me, the opportunity to have complete closure. It’s like a short story. The Turner story’s going to be done. It will never come back. But there was a side switch, there was no way to have her come back without doing that. She’s going to come back, but she’s going to be given an assignment. So it just sort of suggested itself as a form. And I felt my way forward, because I’ve never tried to do anything like this before.
In terms of the mysteries, you invoked "X-Files," and I think you and I have had this conversation in the past. Initially there was some sort of plan in place for what had happened to Mulder’s sister and all of that, and then success basically ruined that.
Frank Spotnitz: That’s correct, yes.
From the way that played out, what did you learn that you can then apply to this show?
Frank Spotnitz: I’ve thought about that a lot. What I’ve learned is you can come up with whatever answer you want about what the island means, or why the aliens are here, or whatever and it doesn’t really matter. I mean, it matters but the audience will have thought of that answer and a thousand others that they may like better. You can’t outsmart or outguess the audience in terms of what the narrative answer is. And if that’s what you’re aiming for it’s going to be disappointing.
The one thing you can do that the audience can’t do — all those smart people online in the chat rooms can’t do — is deliver a satisfying emotional journey for a human being, for a character. And so character, character, character. Create a really interesting, complex person that you want to know more about, and take her on a journey that is rich and fulfilling and that has an end that is perfectly fulfilling, and that has an end that is perfect for that character, and the audience will love it. And so whatever the mythology is, it better be serving that journey. That’s the primary purpose.
It's a very different world from when you were doing "X-Files," just in terms of social media. If someone guesses that Edward James Olmos on "Dexter" is a ghost, and they tweet that, suddenly everyone watching "Dexter" knows that that’s what’s happening. Whereas if they guessed that even on Usenet, I was on Usenet, but not a lot of people were on Usenet back then, so how does that affect what you're doing?
Frank Spotnitz: That’s exactly it. It’s like if my whole game depends on whether you can guess the ending or not, I’m done, forget it. Somebody’s going to guess it. So to me it’s like, yes I have a mystery, and yes there are answers. I mean, good luck guessing all. It’s so layered, good luck guessing all the answers. So I think I’m going to surprise you still with some of them. But it’s the emotional journey, it’s this character.
And I do think that’s the primary reason people watch television. You want to see the world through somebody else’s eyes, and learn what that’s like. You can only live one life, and so you get to see other lives through these characters. And that’s very satisfying. So the challenge is creating a character that’s that rich and interesting to warrant following for a number of years.
Was it always in your mind that it was going to be a female spy who was betrayed?
Frank Spotnitz: Yes.
Frank Spotnitz: A bunch of answers, but I think first of all just more interesting to have a female spy. Kind of like "The X-Files" averted gender stereotypes, gender expectations. You would expect Scully to be the character of faith and Mulder to be the rationalist. That’s your gender bias. And to flip that is more interesting, and so to have a female spy it’s just more interesting to me. And she’s also sort of automatically an underdog because she’s surrounded by men. And in fights she’s automatically the underdog because she’s a woman.
And not a large woman at that.
Frank Spotnitz: And not a large woman. And so I think it just creates an identification that you don’t necessarily have, and it makes it more interesting than all of the many, many excellent male spy shows that there have been and spy stories. So that’s the first answer. And then there’s just a shortage of great parts for women. I mean, I can’t tell you how many actresses I met with who are amazing, and there’s nothing for them to do, and it’s wrong. So I thought it made sense for my show, and it was smart as a producer.
Alright, so you have Melissa who is Australian playing a British woman who spends much of the season doing an American accent. Adewale is playing American. So given that it’s sort of an international team, how did you decide he is from here, she is from here?
Frank Spotnitz: Well it was always written that way. I honestly, it would have been a lot easier just to find an English actress, but she was the best person for the role. So that became her challenge, and it is very difficult, let me tell you. I mean, I’ve learned how difficult it is to get that English accent correct, because it’s so nuanced in the way that American ears would recognize. So she worked very, very hard at that. So she just got it. I didn’t mean to cast an Australian, it just happened that way.
And Adewale he’s an awesome actor. I mean, he’s an amazing actor. So it was like, “What, we can have you?” I knew the part was written for a black American. And he shows up and he’s British, and he’s like, “I haven’t worked in London in 18 years.” So he was happy to do something at home for once. And then the rest was all British. I mean, and Adewale’s British.
While "Strike Back" in its guest roles did employ a lot of actors you knew from "Game of Thrones," the main guys were not incredibly famous. And here, every part is someone I’ve seen before.
Frank Spotnitz: You’re a sophisticated viewer.
Well that’s true too I suppose, but budgetarily you weren’t limited in terms of who you could get.
Frank Spotnitz: Yeah we were. We had a budget, but the good thing is they wanted to do it. They really responded to the material. And that’s a thing you find culturally. It’s a business there but it’s also people, actors, it’s like they’re doing it not to get rich or famous, but because they really want to do good work. So a lot of them it was like, “I just really want to do this.”
So eight episodes, this particular mission closes by the end of that, but other things will continue.
Frank Spotnitz: Correct.
This is a "men plan, God laughs" kind of question, but have you thought in your head, if this works, how much mileage there is in it?
Frank Spotnitz: Yeah, absolutely. I’m imagining five years. And if I’m crazy I think you could tell these stories in another medium after those five years. But that’s what I’m imagining. I think Sam Hunter as a character could exist indefinitely, but I’m imagining a story that goes on for five years.
Shifting back to "X-Files," that was a show that was sort of the canary in the coal mine for both the idea of mythology and the idea that mythology can disappoint people. What impact do you think that had on later shows that tried to do that? Do you think audiences became more skeptical as a result or not?
Frank Spotnitz: No, I think first you have to talk about what happened to "The X-Files." And I think what happened was I think Robert Patrick did an amazing job, and Annabeth Gish, but there was no way to give the show a novelistic coherence once David (Duchovny) left. There was no way to end that show in an emotionally satisfying way once David had left. Even if you bring him back, it was just not the same. And I think that’s the lesson I draw from it. And that connects to me saying earlier, “Invest in the character, follow the character’s emotional journey. That’s what you have.” I think because of that his leaving and coming back, he became tilted toward the plot and the conspiracy. And I think we did a perfectly good job of wrapping it up, but it was not emotionally satisfying because it wasn’t the character’s emotional journey.
So that’s the lesson I learned, but I think what happened is any other show then that did a mythology thought, “Uh oh. We don’t want a backlash from the fans. We better watch ourselves.” But you see how hard it is. I mean, I didn’t follow "Lost" religiously. What I saw I thought was excellent. But I think they were trying very, very hard to honor their fans and make it satisfying for them at the end. But you realize how difficult it is, especially if you’re on for a long time.
And if you talk to (the "Lost" producers), they will also argue that the show was about the characters, and yet what gets people angry is, “You didn’t explain this properly. You didn’t explain this properly. You didn’t explain this properly.”
Frank Spotnitz: Well the thing is, and I do sense from what I know about the finale that’s exactly what the strategy was and I think that was the right strategy. But what happens is as you’re doing a show, you go, “Well I need this story so I can introduce this thread.” But it’s impossible to tile those threads up. And what I found in "The X-Files," though, was actually if you tie up the really important threads, even the hardcore fans are happy. But if you do too many threads, you’ve got yourself in a problem you can’t solve. But you don’t know until you do it. Nobody knows until they do it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com