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September 23, 2015

Divine Inspiration: Ben Watkins on Amazon's Hand of God

Questions of faith, profit, and grief provide a through line in Hand of God on Amazon.

David M. Gutiérrez
  • Ben Watkins

Ben Watkins rattles the pearly gates with questions of morality and justice in Hand of God, the latest original dramatic series for Amazon.com.

After receiving a spiritual awakening in the fallout of his son’s attempted suicide and his daughter-in-law’s rape, Judge Pernell Harris (Ron Perlman) believes he receives divine visions that drive him to execute outlaw justice at any cost. Surrounding Harris is a cast of ethically ambiguous figures, including his wife, Crystal (Dana Delany), business partner and friend, Robert 'Bobo' Boston (Andre Royo), and Harris’ hand of vengeance, the devout ex-con, KD (Gareth Dillahunt).

Harris’ family, friends, and enemies struggle to adjust to his new spiritual outlook while trying to preserve and pursue their own agendas. The judge’s new path brings in him into allegiances with showman preachers, corrupt city officials, and uncovering a conspiracy that leads up to his son’s attempted suicide.

Watkins, an actor and former writer for Burn Notice, experienced some uncertainty of his own when, as a teenager, he and his family endured a period of homelessness and forced to live in their car. He was able to draw upon this period when writing the show and addressing the crossroads of conflicted morality, spirituality, and profit.

“During the few months when we were homeless,” explains Watkins, “I had some very positive experiences with churches and church groups. People who went out of their way to help, no questions asked. I went to church a lot growing up, and I still go to church, so I’ve definitely had encounters here and there with preachers who seemed to be focused on using religion to generate revenue.

"But it’s a perfect example of the conundrums that surround us, which we in turn try to avoid. If a church is really helping people, but also really trying to profit, how do we label them? I think our tendency is to take the easy way out. We choose one or the other, good or bad, and then ignore anything that contradicts that perspective.”

Along with questions of justice, the majority of the series grew out of Watkins’ curiosity about the culture of zealotry.

“When you look at people who became zealots,” Watkins adds,” and I’m not just talking about religious zealots, I’m talking about political, artistic, and scientific as well — you see many of them seem to gain a certain power and charisma when they become obsessed. We could be talking about John Brown or we could be talking about John Coltrane. They gain intense followings, and they are able to accomplish amazing things. But there are also consequences — sometimes, terrible consequences.”

Companies like Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix have changed the delivery and production of television series. Hand of God was among a small number of shows whose pilots were available for viewing on Amazon. A viewer could then vote and send their feedback to influence which shows would receive a full season order.

Watkins provided some background on creating a show with Amazon. “The process of getting a show off the ground with Amazon starts the same as most places, but once that pilot is shot, it’s a lot different. I loved it. I liked knowing that regardless of whether or not our show went to series, the pilot was going to have its day.

"You hear these stories about people who pour their heart and soul into a project and if the pilot doesn’t get picked up, the only people to see it are you and the handful of executives who decided not to make it for whatever reason. That’s gotta hurt. When you set out to express yourself artistically, you don’t just want to make it, you also want to share it. And for a provocative show like ours, getting such a tremendous audience response probably mattered even more.

"If we had made the show for an outlet with a more traditional process, we would have been at the mercy of executives trying to guess if audiences are ready for this kind of show. Amazon puts their projects out there for the audience, and gets all the proof they need.”

Amazon made the entire season available at once to allow for binge viewing. Watkins admitted to this having some influence on how the series was written.

“It changed the way we wrote the series a bit. First, it frees you up because you don’t worry as much about explaining what happened in previous episodes. You don’t need those recap scenes as much. The other thing is when you envision someone watching episodes back-to-back you can have fun figuring out ways to tie them together. In most cases, we tried to find ways to surprise the audience by changing pace or tone, or tinkering with the timeline.

"But there are a couple of episodes where we picked up right where the last one left off, and it was great being able to use that momentum, knowing a lot of people would watch it that way.”

Watkins used his experiences on Burn Notice , a stunt-filled, upbeat spy show, to shape how he ran the writers’ room, broke stories and  in his approach to Hand of God’s production. In spite of their completely different tones, Watkins affirms the similarities.

He says, “The tones of the two shows are so drastically different, I couldn’t really apply any of the storytelling methods to Hand of God. Yet, I think if you go back and watch Burn Notice, you’ll see Matt Nix created some very layered characters. We couldn’t spend a whole season in a conflicted place, but we often took side trips that had some really complex character stories.

"So, I definitely wanted to concern myself with ambiguities and contradictions of character in Hand of God. I also wanted to cuss, and I’m satisfying that itch. I have to admit, I miss blowing things up.”

The series shared the creative freedoms of a cable network, but that did not remove the inclination to make the characters more palatable or relatable for a wider audience.

“There was definitely a temptation,” shares Watkins, “because it’s what I’m used to doing and what people are used to watching. Any time you break the rules, you’re taking a risk. But I made the decision early on to do a show that doesn’t direct the audience on who to root for. Instead of artificially sweetening the characters, I focused on giving each of them obstacles and desires the audience could relate to. And hopefully they get portrayed in a way that surprises. “

One clear case of divine intervention is in the casting of the series. Powerhouses like Dana Delaney, Garret Dillahunt, Andre Roy, and Emayatzy Corinealdi stand strong alongside Perlman. On casting, Watkins had not considered who would be cast in the show when he was writing the pilot. He says, “When it came time to cast, I was starting with a blank slate. It was a stroke of luck that Ron Perlman came on board before we even went out with the project so we had a leading man right off the bat.”

Perlman fits the role of Pernell Harris perfectly, as Watkins saw the conflicted judge as a rich and powerful character that initiates the majority of the drama and conflict in the series.  “I wanted the people around him to have a difficult decision to make when he went off the rails,” says Watkins. ““Do they take him out of circulation immediately and risk losing everything, or do they try to ‘manage’ the situation?

"Here is a man who decides other people’s fates and never has to carry out the sentence or deal with the fall out. It’s very convenient and easy for him to rule, but people’s lives can be ruined and even ended.

"So now, because he loses control in his life, he tries to find another way to exercise power. Only this time, he has to get his hands dirty. Dick Gregory had a great quote: ‘If everybody had to butcher their own meat, there’d be a lot more vegetarians in this country.’ For me, Judge Pernell Harris, pre-breakdown, epitomizes the cult of ambivalence that most of us are in right now”

Harris’ divine mission morphs into a divine obsession as the series progresses, and causes some conflict with his personal instrument of retribution, KD. Watkins cleverly plays with an audience siding with Harris’ cause, yet questioning his methods and decisions.

“There are some eerie similarities that echo across stories about people who get a singular focus to the point where it dictates everything they do,” says Watkins. “One of them is the way others react to them. Society tends to either celebrate them or vilify them. Often times, the reaction is both, depending on who you ask. Either way, the reaction is usually extreme. I find the reaction just as fascinating as the fanatics.

"So I tried to find a way to tell a story with a character like Pernell Harris at the center of it. I wanted to explore how someone can find a purpose that becomes an obsession, and then why the rest of us either become enchanted or appalled by them. The formula for that kind of character started out simple: Give the character a ‘cause’ we can all relate to — in this case grief and the desire to atone — and then make him do things we can’t agree with — in this case murder and a bunch of other crazy shit."

Those are the kind of contradictions I love. They make you question where you stand.”

Garret Dillahunt’s character of KD, a born-again ex-con unafraid to kill for his faith, saw some of his origins in Watkins’ past. “The one character from the show that I ran across when I was homeless, and just from growing up in poor, neglected neighborhoods, was KD,” explains Watkins.

”I met and often spent time with these really violent people, with very sordid backgrounds, who were desperately trying to change their ways. They tended to take their faith to the extreme, compensating. Trying to make up for whom they ‘used to be.’ It didn’t always work out. But that desperate attempt to change inspired me, and also broke my heart. A lot of times, who they ‘used to be’ wasn’t all their fault. Or any of their fault.”

Viewers will be treated to ten emotionally –charged hours of television in Hand of God’s first season. However, the season finale closes a few of the season’s major plot threads while opening up new ones.

A second season promises to not lose sight of the show’s original goal – the exploration of faith and zealotry and possible solutions to divine mysteries. Treading cautiously to avoid spoiling any surprises, Watkins promises a second season “would definitely include those elements but with a different flavor, especially when it comes to Pernell. He was very confused about what was happening to him in Season One. He wavered as to what was causing the voices and visions -- insanity or divine inspiration.

"In Season Two, he would go all in with the belief that he’s anointed and he will embrace the vigilante path, with KD right by his side. In the meantime, we’ve set the table for many of the other characters to explore what they believe. Beyond the question of spirituality and faith, there is the question of how we deal with the unknown. I think it is a basic human instinct to want--sometimes need--to fill in the blanks for things we can’t explain.

"Put another way, we have an urge to unravel mystery. Religion is only one of our methods for that.”

Mirroring his show, Watkins’ answers only inspire more questions. On the future of the series, Watkins shared his grand plan. “I’ve sketched out a five season plan for the characters on the show,” teased Watkins. “I take that back. They don’t all make it to the fifth season.”

Season one of Hand of God is currently available for streaming on Amazon.com.

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