Listening To Logic
Everything clicked for AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire , its creators say, when they listened to where their cyberstory wanted to go.
When people talk about the dawn of the internet and the personal computer revolution, they typically talk about the men — well, nerds — who dreamed up these world-changing ideas.
Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Paul Allen and others became very famous and very, very rich, thanks to work they started doing in garages 30-plus years ago. Tech is a man’s world, but it wouldn’t have been nothing (apologies to James Brown) without a woman or a girl.
So if you’ve been watching AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire — and awaiting the start of season three on August 23 — you know that the first ladies of ‘80s tech are finally having a moment. Yet when this show premiered in June 2014, it looked like another example of testosterone-driven tech folklore.
Set in 1983 Dallas — in booming Prairie Valley, Texas’s answer to Silicon Valley — the series opens on smooth-talking Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace). He’s just left IBM and is looking to join the PC gold rush at fictional Cardiff Electric.
An anti-hero visionary who’s equal parts Don Draper, Steve Jobs and Gordon Gekko, Joe recruits Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a brilliant but disgraced computer whiz, to help him reverse-engineer an IBM PC and maybe even start a computer revolution. The two are a compelling mismatch, inspired by the Steve Jobs–Steve Wozniak yin-yang. Yet about halfway into the first season, Halt struggled to hit its stride.
“They knew they needed a fresh approach,” recalls Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development at AMC and SundanceTV. “We mentioned it internally, but they really picked up that ball and ran with it.”
The show’s braintrust — former showrunner Jonathan Lisco (who left Catch Fire after two seasons), plus series co-creators and current showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers (who executive-produce with Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein) — decided on a fresh new approach: to beef up the storylines of the two female leads. No longer would the women’s actions be largely in service of their male costars.
That put a brighter spotlight on Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a programming prodigy with authority issues who sleeps with Joe in episode one and is soon writing code for him in the basement at Cardiff Electric. There, she develops a close friendship with a sales executive, John Bosworth (Toby Huss), but by the end of the first season, she’s quit to start her own online gaming company.
Meanwhile, Gordon’s wife, Donna (Kerry Bishé), evolves from a one-note buzzkill into a bright, complex character and sharp programmer in her own right. By the end of season one, she’s quit her safe job at Texas Instruments and gone to work for Mutiny, Cameron’s startup.
“The cardinal rule between the two of us was, Keep an open mind,” Cantwell recalls. Like his writing partner, he had never been in a TV writers’ room before starting work on Catch Fire.
“Every single person around us had more experience in every aspect of what we were doing,” Cantwell recalls. “From the network, to the other writers in the room, to the department heads, to the directors that were coming in, to our wonderful producers at [production company] Gran Via.
"We learned to trust people and be open with the thing we created. And ultimately, that got us to a place of really finding what was great about the story and letting the story tell us where it wanted to go.”
Cantwell and Rogers — “the Chrises,” as they’re known around the Atlanta set — could certainly be forgiven for not having had rock-solid storylines from day one. The Halt and Catch Fire pilot was only the second script they’d written together.
They met while working at Disney, where Cantwell hired Rogers, a former researcher at Architectural Digest, for a social-media job. They only wrote the Catch Fire script because their agent insisted they needed another writing sample. That’s right. The Halt and Catch Fire pilot script was initially sent to AMC as a sample.
“But we thought it was a great idea for a series,” Stillerman says. “That’s the only time I can remember that happening.”
That this great idea came from a Bruin (Rogers went to grad school for film at UCLA) and a Trojan (Cantwell was an undergrad film student at USC) makes this story even more unlikely. But their great idea was grounded in curiosity and life experience.
Cantwell grew up in Dallas, where his father was in the computer world for nearly 30 years. He rose from a computer punch-card operator in the ‘70s to doing sales, hawking everything from mainframes to system software to anti-virus programs.
“Watching my dad’s job change from year to year, seeing the culture that he worked in, was a huge influence on me,” Cantwell says. “The dynamic of the salesman who had to go with the engineer to explain the nuts and bolts really informs the Joe-Gordon dynamic early on.”
Rogers’s father was a salesman, too — he sold Rubbermaid products. Rogers got his undergrad degree in history, which came in handy when he was developing script ideas.
“The story for me was much more of a historical one,” he says. “This, to me, was the story people thought they knew about computers. When I found out there was a little more to it, that really felt like the pay dirt.”
Rogers and Cantwell discovered there were “a hundred other places” that contributed to early tech innovation, including Texas’s own Compaq Computer Corporation (now part of Hewlett-Packard). In 1982, Compaq was the first company to legally reverse-engineer an IBM PC, a year before Apple released its first Macintosh PC.
It wasn’t until Rogers and Cantwell were halfway into their first season as TV staff writers that they realized there was another historical path in the original story they had envisioned.
“In the beginning,” Rogers recalls, “I think we were emulating the shows that we loved and aping what we thought a TV show should be. The Wire was a show that I loved. Certainly Mad Men, Breaking Bad.”
Eventually, he says, “We became a show that tried to listen to itself. We asked ourselves, ‘What’s fun? What are we enjoying writing?’ And there was this irreverent thing that came out of the idea of Cameron starting her own company that had something to do with video games at the end of the first season that was just fun.
"And I think Chris and I have a very fun tone when we’re in the vein of what we do well. So we really listened to where the story wanted to go.”
While researching tech history to prepare for her role as Donna Clark, Kerry Bishé unearthed some unsettling information. “In 1984, 37 percent of computer science degrees were going to women. By 2012, it was 18 percent. It’s really shocking to me, and I don’t know why that happened.”
Since hearing these numbers, Bishé has been inspired to action. She’s been talking to people at Google about doing media outreach “to help change the math.” And while she may call herself a Luddite (“I collect typewriters and play records”), she showed up at the White House Science Fair in April to promote women in technology.
She didn’t just read about history to get ready for the role. She had her biochemist brother take her to a scientist friend’s garage in Pasadena, where they took machines apart and put them back together. They found some Speak & Spells on eBay; these handheld kids’ computers were first sold in 1978.
“I [had] to be insanely good at this,” she says of her Speak & Spell repair abilities, because Donna fixes one in an early episode. “You have to know immediately that this is one of my skills.”
The rarity of women’s stories from the early tech days really bothers Bishé, which is why she’s grateful to be playing a strong, multi-layered role model who makes things happen in the chaos of the pre-internet tech frenzy. (She makes things happen in real life, too; Bishé built a canoe last summer.) She also loves that her character has evolved since the show’s early episodes.
“I think it’s a bummer to reiterate the stereotype of women and wives who are nagging, uncooperative, inattentive, with husbands who get to be creative and we get to root for them to succeed and be heroes. Meanwhile the women in their lives tear them down and take them down a peg. It was that dynamic that I really objected to.”
Now Bishé gets to play the hero of a feminist story that’s long overdue. She couldn’t be happier. Well, a lot more women working in the tech world would make her even happier. “One of the most effective ways to change the demographics in a field is to show people on TV doing it,” Bishé says. “So I feel like we have a real opportunity to show people [it’s possible.]”
When Mackenzie Davis landed the role of Cameron Howe, it was her biggest job yet. Like Bishé, she dove into her research, auditing online courses and studying Python and other programming languages to grasp what she’d be talking about when she delivered her lines.
“I was really interested in the experience of being in school again,” recalls the Vancouver native, “and understanding the world that Cameron was coming out of and going into.”
The actress labored over getting each keystroke perfect and understanding every concept within the show. Eventually she realized that the tech elements were simply a device — like any other story device — “to reveal human beings being ambitious and generous, in love and in hate.” Now, at the end of filming season three, she has a different attitude.
“I feel like we research the time and place for each season,” Davis says. “But I no longer feel the panic and need to know every single moment in history for every single episode.”
She does, however, welcome input from the women who actually lived these stories 30 years ago.
For example, Davis recently spoke with Mozilla developer Mitchell Baker, one of the female mavericks responsible for the first internet browser. Baker helped her get “the tone of the time and the period that they were living in when all this innovation was going down. It’s so helpful.”
She relishes the chance to meet the players of the tech world and have those “more rarefied experiences” of talking to people who helped change the culture decades ago.
“This was my first really big job,” Davis says, “so I didn’t know that I could just go and ask questions and get billionaires to talk to me.”
Three seasons in, Davis says her biggest challenge now is calibrating the authenticity of her alter ego, who’s become a bit of a feminist cyberpunk icon.
“Cameron’s interesting, because we met her at 21, and she’s grown so much over the course of three seasons,” she says. The challenge is “making sure the growth is true — that I’m being honest about that growth and that she continually interests me, and she’s maturing and challenging herself, not stagnating in familiar behaviors.”
One of the themes that Halt and Catch Fire explores so deftly is that technology, while it’s supposed to be bringing us together, is simultaneously driving us further apart.
Ironically, the characters who are pushing for this new era of connection are also unable to connect emotionally in their personal lives. They lie, deceive and struggle to trust, love and connect — which is completely at odds with how the actors get along off screen. Their connections are obvious.
“There’s a real sense of family on this show, and that’s not always the case,” says McNairy, who was pushing for the cast to live together before shooting commenced on season one. Two years later, he got his wish. While shooting season three, McNairy lived in a big southern home with Pace and Davis (plus her boyfriend).
“You really get to know somebody,” McNairy adds, “and you get some chemistry going that you couldn’t get without living together.”
Bishé points to the many “actor rehearsals” as a big factor in bringing the cast closer and helping them understand their characters. “We’d talk about what’s going on, what’s this scene about? We’d do it on weekends or after work, when we could all get together. It’s been one of the more fruitful and satisfying parts about being down here.”
“I feel like we’ve all grown together — we learned what the show was together over three years,” Pace says. “The show looks very different now than what it looked like in the pilot. And that’s life. People change. Circumstances change. Technology changes very, very quickly. And it’s reflected in these people’s lives.”
Season one was about building a computer. Season two was about building a software company. Season three is about building community, thanks to Cameron and Donna’s success at Mutiny. With Joe trying to reinvent himself once again, this time with an early anti-virus program, and Gordon desperate to save his marriage, the men are ripe for a reboot.
So, after two seasons of Texas outsider tales, the whole gang’s relocating to Silicon Valley, a move that has the creative team excited. “We are now in the lion’s den of Silicon Valley, competing with the big dogs,” McNairy says. “So it feels like there’s a little more motivation for the stakes and the stress.”
“Season three has been another huge leap,” Bishé says. “The scripts are phenomenal, the best we’ve had. They’re a joy to read. I think everybody’s relaxed into the show a little bit. I feel like we’ve finally found it.”
And lest anyone think the show has evolved into a story primarily about a pair of driven women, AMC’s Stillerman points out, “It’s an ensemble piece — that’s one of the things that makes this a great show. The Joe MacMillan character — and obviously Gordon’s character, too — remain really fascinating.”
Pace sees the rise of the female characters as an opportunity to explore new dimensions for Joe and Gordon. “As these two women were moving forward and having success, these two men felt the need to involve themselves in it and take control of it — but [the women] don’t need it. That dynamic made the story richer and more true to life.”
And true to life is what the Halt and Catch Fire team is after, whether it’s showing the role women played in the development of the PC and the internet, or exploring the evolution of the technologies and their ramifications. “We’ve always seen this as a contemporary period show,” Cantwell says. “It’s a show that asks, How did we get to where we are now? And who were the people who got us here?”
Thanks to Halt and Catch Fire, we’re reminded that we’ve got many unsung women to thank. Or blame.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2016