Rubicon executive producer Henry Bromell
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Novelist and screenwriter Henry Bromell stepped into an impossible situation when he joined AMC’s latest drama series, Rubicon. Creator Jason Horwitch was struggling to make the show, which revolved around a think tank named the American Policy Institute (or API) and a shadowy conspiracy, coalesce. Bromell was brought in to play showrunner to the fledgling creator, but shortly after Bromell came on, Horwitch departed the show, leaving it completely in Bromell’s hands. From there, Bromell changed the show from an epic conspiracy thriller into a workplace drama about people who work in the mundane, day-to-day business of espionage and the havoc that work plays on their personal lives. Bromell, who previously wrote for Homicide: Life On The Street and Brotherhood, is no stranger to shows about how grueling work can grind people to dust, and he soon marked the show with his own personal stamp. He talked with The A.V. Club in mid-September about the situations surrounding his coming to the show, the changes he’s made from Horwitch’s vision, and what filming on the East Coast adds to a TV series.
The A.V. Club: How did you end up working on Rubicon?
Henry Bromell: Well, about a year ago, AMC called me up and asked if I’d be interested in running the show and helping a guy named Jason Horwitch, who had written the original pilot, make the show. They had filmed the pilot, directed ably by Allen Coulter, and I watched it and thought it was really cool, and potentially even cooler. I knew what they were referencing in terms of story and filmmaking style, which was early ’70s American filmmaking, especially people like [Alan] Pakula, and I love all that. And so I said, “Sure.”
AVC: Has the show changed at all from Jason Horwitch’s original outline?
HB: It’s changed a fair amount. It used to be, originally, that API was a think tank, more like RAND, so I just thought that wasn’t very interesting. It’s hard enough to tell good stories about people who analyze information for a living. It’s even harder to do a good show about people who think for a living. So that changed. And then sort of the whole nature of the conspiracy changed. Somewhat. And then all the characters—they’re either a bunch of new characters that weren’t in there in the beginning, like Truxton Spangler and people like that, or some of the other characters who were in there, like Kale Ingram, got changed considerably.
AVC: How did you decide to make those shifts?
HB: Just instinct. When they asked me to take over alone and run it, I said I would do it if I could make the changes I thought were necessary. I then took a couple of weeks and just walked around with my little note cards in my pocket, and I tried to focus on the things I certainly didn’t feel satisfied by yet.
AVC: Did you consciously shift away from focusing on the conspiracy aspect? That seemed more important to the pilot than some of the later episodes of the show.
HB: Yeah, I would agree with you. I felt strongly—still do—that for this show to work you could not have it be even 80 percent about the conspiracy. And the reason is, if you do that, then you’re gonna be chasing that story all the time and it will lead you. You will have to start blowing stuff up by episode seven. Episode four was the one that I thought was a crucial test, and I thought we passed it. In that one, there was only one scene even involving the conspiracy, which takes place, as a nod to Pakula, in an underground parking garage. The rest had to do with these people and what they do, and it worked terrifically, I thought. You need to be able to put the brakes on the conspiracy story. If you can’t put the brakes on the conspiracy story it will lead you and it will lead you badly. For a TV show. Now for a movie, of course, it’s something else. You’ve got an hour and a half. That’s a different story.
AVC: How much resolution are we going to see to these storylines within this season?
HB: A fair amount. I was thinking about that yesterday. I’m just finishing the last episode, and I think, if I’ve tabulated this right, in terms of all the character stuff you’ll pretty much reach the conclusion of something or the beginning of something newish. In terms of the spy story stuff—that is to say the work they’ve been doing inside API trying to figure out what these foreigners are up to, or not so foreign, as it turns out—you get total resolution on that. In terms of the conspiracy, you get about 90 percent.
AVC: Probably the big complaint about the show is that it’s slow. How would you respond to that?
HB: Part of it is intentional, and that is to say, the filmmaking that I really admire and that we’re sort of nodding to in our TV show here is measured and has a pace that I think is very different for a lot of people today than what they’re used to. But you go back and look at those [’70s] movies, they have the same kind of pace. Now it gets into sort of esoteric things, but part of it has got to do with the way it’s filmed. In other words, a lot happens in wide shots, in master shots, in medium-wide shots. There’s not a whole lot of cutting. The artfulness is to be found in the camera composition within a single shot. Stuff like that. And I think what people are used to now is the highly edited, very quick cutting pace of commercials and MTV and network television. We’re setting out not to do that. So that’s one thing.
The other thing though, obviously, is I don’t want to bore everybody. And so that’s what I’m trying to figure out: What part of the pacing issue is something that I think is fair and legitimate for the show. And I would like people to just hang with it and get used to it, because I think once you’re in the rhythm, it all works. And how much is just too slow, I mean literally too boring? It’s interesting. When you say pacing, what are you thinking? What do you mean exactly?
AVC: I guess I would say how swiftly the story is moving forward.
HB: See, that’s a separate issue, and I agree with you. I think that’s really what it is. What I told the network the other day is that it’s the storytelling pacing. And that is something that I can change up a little bit in the second season.
AVC: You mostly filmed this in one building, right?
HB: Yeah, all the stuff that takes place inside API is in a building, and Will’s apartment is also inside that building. Everything else we film is out in the world somewhere in New York City.
AVC: What are the benefits and drawbacks of having everything in an old office building?
HB: The only drawbacks—and we’ve kind of figured our way through them better than we thought we would—the drawbacks are, it is not a soundstage. So practically speaking, you’ve got issues like, the walls don’t move and you can’t put lights up high above the ceiling and elevators aren’t designed to carry lots of guys with heavy equipment up and down, that kind of stuff. But we’ve kind of figured that out. We’re doing okay. I did another show called Homicide, years ago, where we had a very similar set-up. We had a building, and it was the same thing. It worked great. One of the advantages is the look and the reality of it, so I really liked it. It’s right there on the East River. You see the river, and you see the cars going by outside the windows. That’s pretty odd and strange and beautiful.
AVC: What are some other influences you drew from in making this show, other than the ’70s political and conspiracy thrillers?
HB: There was that. A little bit John Le Carré, Graham Greene, a little bit of the BBC, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—which, if you think we’re slow, you can go back and look at that. [Laugh.] Which I did. And even I, who loves slow, thought it was a little much. But I would say that kind of stuff.
AVC: The show has a healthy skepticism of all facets of the American political system. What would you say the show’s politics are?
HB: I think just what you said: deep skepticism. Which probably is not all that odd right now. I think the extreme version... Well, I don’t know what the Tea Party thing is, really, but it’s certainly some kind of reaction to the institutions in place. That was similar to back in the early ’70s after Watergate, after Vietnam, after the Pentagon Papers, when it was clear to everybody that they’d been lied to consistently by the best and the brightest. I don’t have as good a take on what’s going on now as I think I did then. Partly I understood it better, partly I was part of it more, I think. What’s going on now, frankly, is sort of odd to me. I think what’s going on now represents some deeper divide in our collective political consciousness that we’re going to have to deal with down the road. It probably goes back to the Civil War.
AVC: Did you have any say in casting? It would seem like you wouldn’t, since the pilot was filmed before you came on.
HB: Some of the characters had been cast, and I, thank God, liked them all a lot. Others were created by me after I came on and we filmed. The pilot is about a third, maybe more, new stuff. So I cast Michael Cristofer, for instance, and people liked that. But to answer your question, of the people that had already been cast that we kept, I think they’re all terrific.
AVC: How did you end up working with Michael Cristofer, who was apparently a writer before?
HB: And a good writer too! My casting director, who is brilliant, Mele Nagler, said, “I have one guy I want you to read for this part because I have a feeling you’re going to want him.” And he came over. He was in a play on Broadway, and he walked across the street after his matinee and read a scene with me and I said, “Yup, you’re right. He’s the guy.” So I never even read anyone else for that. He’s really incredible at this. And I love that people don’t really know who he is. He’s on stage in New York all the time, and as a writer, he’s done stuff that people know, he’s won a Pulitzer Prize for God’s sake [for the play The Shadow Box]. My joke is, I should be working for him. But he just grabbed this character and ran with it. It’s been great.
AVC: I also really like Arliss Howard as Kale Ingram. You said that part has shifted some. In what direction?
HB: Oh, for instance, the character wasn’t gay originally. I don’t know where that came from, but it did. It’s worked, I think. It’s been really interesting. He was sort of a cipher at the beginning, intentionally, I think, on their part. But when I started asking questions, there hadn’t been much thought to him beyond the cipher, so I had to sort of invent stuff, which was fun, to fill it out. And then there’s Roger Robinson as Ed Bancroft, who was not in the original pilot. It was strange, there was a version of the character, played by another actor, another good actor, who died in the interim, and Roger was a friend of his, a close friend. Because you know, in the New York theater world, they’re all kind of buddies. It was very odd, he sort of took over his friend’s role and we kind of reinvented who the character was together, and it was all very strange and interesting.
AVC: James Badge Dale, at the center of the show, spends a lot of time staring at things and thinking intently. How do you write to a performance like that?
HB: [Laughs.] This is what I’ve been talking about all day. What I’m hoping is that he won’t have to be doing as much staring and thinking next season. Part of it was… It’s built into this damn material. If you’re trying to figure out some kind of conspiracy in which the only clues you’ve got are basically things, or written things—even worse, like a code—by definition, you’re kind of snooping around, looking through drawers and then reading. [Laughs.] So that’s why you end up with Badge Dale staring at things all the time. We just worked on his character, and he took it from there. I think he does it pretty well, actually.
AVC: So you’ve been in New York for quite a while, instead of Los Angeles.
HB: Well, I’ve been in and out of New York. I did a show called Brotherhood for Showtime for five years in Providence, Rhode Island, and we cast a lot out of New York, and then Homicide was down in Baltimore, and we did the same. And now I’m actually here here, and I love it. I’ve always loved it. All those shows benefitted immensely. You couldn’t have done them if you’d tried to shoot them in L.A.
AVC: What is it about those East Coast locations that make them better for shows like this?
HB: There’s a specific reality to them. So for Baltimore and Homicide, which was about homicide detectives, real ones, based on a terrific book by David Simon, just plopping them down in that beat-to-shit city added half a story. Same with Brotherhood, about working class Irishmen, basically, that dwindling, vanishing tribe. Providence is all about half of what’s vanished: all those closed factories and the streets, the working-class houses. You can’t make that stuff. Here in New York, it’s the specificity of New York urban existence. We try to avoid all of the known icons. We’re not ever going to show the Statue Of Liberty. We shoot mostly in the south half of the island. People really like that. I’ve gotten lots of letters and comments saying how much they like seeing all these different parts of New York. It just gives it a very specific feel.
AVC: How involved has AMC been in the thrust of the show?
HB: It’s the same with all the networks. They listen to what you want to do, and they tell you what they like and they tell you what they don’t like. Adamantly. [Laughs.] And then sometimes you get into huge fights, and sometimes you lose them and sometimes you win them. They’ve been good, though, overall. They’re very supportive of the whole enterprise. We’ll see. I’m waiting now to see if they’re going to take the leap and give us a second season.
AVC: Do you think the odds are good? Or not?
HB: I don’t know. I really don’t know. The numbers have been good. For AMC, very good in a lot of ways. Much better than the first season of either Breaking Bad or Mad Men. That’s really positive. The reviews and critical reception and the buzz has been really good so they like that, of course. It skews a little old demographically, which is a puzzlement for them. I’m not sure what it means either, so that might be an issue because of advertising. But that’s it. There’s been no big problem. It’s just them figuring out what to do. They’ve developed three new shows, pilots, at least one of which is guaranteed to go on the air. So I’m sure they’re sitting around trying to balance everything they can afford and can’t afford to do.
AVC: Where are we headed in these last few episodes?
HB: The momentum picks up, as you’ll be glad to hear. The strands of the personal stories that we’ve been following and then the spy story that the team has been working on and, in fact, without giving away too much, the conspiracy that Will has been pursuing start to intertwine.