Member Profile: Alex Gansa
Homeland showrunner Alex Gansa grappled with when and how to end the landmark drama series
From the very beginning, as Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon were adapting the Israeli series Hatufim for American television, they knew they wanted Claire Danes to star as the bipolar CIA operative at the center of Homeland.
The network and studio, Showtime and Fox 21, were pushing for Halle Berry, Robin Wright or Maria Bello, but Gansa knew after seeing Danes in HBO's 2010 telefilm Temple Grandin that she could ably execute the role as Carrie Mathison.
The rest is history. Homeland premiered in 2011 on Showtime and became a sensation, garnering high-level fans including President Obama, Hillary Clinton and Steven Spielberg and racking up just about every prestigious award in the book following its first season.
Among them, Primetime Emmy Awards for outstanding drama series, writing, editing, casting and lead acting trophies for Danes and co-star Damian Lewis.
Now in its eighth and final season, which finds Carrie returning to Afghanistan to assist with treacherous peace negotiations with the Taliban, Gansa says he never imagined at the outset the show would go this far, ride through all of its ups and downs and conclude on its own terms. The series finale is set for April 26.
Being a master storyteller in the spy thriller genre didn't appear to be a likely outcome for Gansa, a longtime Television Academy member whose early work was in comedy, satire and lighter fare.
But perhaps the die was cast in college, when he met Gordon during their senior year at Princeton. The original plan was for Gansa to take a fellowship at Stanford and Gordon to go on to NYU, but the two decided to pack it up for Los Angeles and make their fortunes writing for television and film.
After pitching a film on Lord Byron and getting turned down all over town, the two started an SAT preparation school, whose instructors included Conan O'Brien and Greg Daniels.
A spec script they wrote for St. Elsewhere landed them work on Spenser: For Hire in the mid-80s. After a stint producing and writing on Beauty and the Beast, Gansa landed at The X-Files, where Gordon was also part of the writers room.
Then came the first show Gansa created, (with Barry Sonnenfeld) the short-lived Maximum Bob, an irreverent comedy he calls ahead of its time, but one he looks back upon fondly.
Cut to Fox's ground-breaking drama series 24, which premiered after September 11 and struck a huge chord with audiences hungry for a hero to take on terrorism, whatever the cost, as the clock ticked down towards another probable attack.
In its second season, Gordon took over as showrunner and tried to bring Gansa aboard. For various reasons, that wouldn't happen for another four years.
Although 24 undeniably paved the way for Homeland, Gansa went to great lengths to make sure it was not seen as a clone, although both center on a counter-intelligence agent willing to go to extreme lengths to keep America safe.
Let's rewind to the beginning of Homeland. How did you and Howard find and adapt the Israeli format for American audiences?
We were just finishing 24. We share an agent, Rick Rosen, who was looking for a next project for Howard and found this piece of material. Howard didn't have time to read it and he passed it to me. I read it and said there's something here. He took a read and agreed and Rick Rosen arranged a deal with Keshet.
Hatufim was about three POWs captured 17 years ago, and two of them come back home. It was an investigation of how POWs re-integrate into their lives. In Israel, those who returned are national heroes, but we knew it didn't happen that way in the US. Returning soldiers aren't afforded that kind of celebrity.
We had to figure out another way to tell the story. Ten years after 9/11 there was nothing on TV that dramatizes soldiers' experiences there, and we thought the subject matter for the audience was ripe. We made it one returning prisoner, tracing what his life would be returning home.
Alex Gansa: Homeland occupied a very unusual place for David Nevins and Bert Salke. Nevins had just been named president of Showtime and Salke of Fox 21, so to say there was a lot of anxiety would be an understatement.
You got a lot of support from David Nevins at Showtime, but talk about your casting battles.
Homeland occupied a very unusual place for David Nevins and Bert Salke. Nevins had just been named president of Showtime and Salke of Fox 21, so to say there was a lot of anxiety would be an understatement. Everybody had strong and differing opinions, and there was obviously a lot riding on whether the show would be successful.
There was a lot of discussion about casting Carrie and Nick Brody. We wanted Carrie to be in her early 30s. They were pushing for Halle Berry, Robin Wright or Maria Bello. No comment on age, but we felt a bipolar person in her 40s was very different than one in her late 20s or early 30s, who is not married and did not have kids, would be a fresher relationship with the illness.
We got so lucky that Claire read and signed on. Howard and I thought of who would be great while we were writing. Both of us had seen Temple Grandin, and there were similarities to Carrie and we knew she could play that.
What was it like to have such acclaim right out of the gate, including the Emmy nominations and wins and fandom from the Obamas and the Clintons?
It was incredibly heady but it didn't start until midway through the show. We were working in a vacuum, and suddenly there was a firestorm of attention. We got a call from Obama's chief of staff, and from Steven Spielberg, among others. We were the toast of the town.
It was fun but it created anxiety, because after the first year ended we wondered if we would be able to do that again. So it was incredibly rewarding yet caused a certain amount of terror.
You must have felt similarly about what to do with Brody.
There was a lot of discussion and opinions. One of the real arguments among all the creative partners was how long you could keep it open on whether he'd been turned in captivity. Many thought that in the pilot we should know if he's guilty. Yet keeping it open as long as possible would jack up interest in what Carrie was doing, watching Brody, wondering was he or wasn't he.
I thought it would be a really strong narrative edge. Others thought that you want a villain, and feeling the ambiguity would grow old. We were wondering how long we could string it along. One of our writers, Alex Cary, thought that once you answer the question, there would be another: will he or won't he go through with his act of terrorism? That really carried us through.
It was fraught every season. The original conception was that Brody was a one-season character. The network was adamant there was enough raw material to tell the story for another season between two of them. Damian and Claire on screen were electric. You were leaning forward, and we didn't resolve their relationship in the first season.
The second season was to understand how they would deal with the emotions between them.
Tell us about the infamous "spy camp" you conduct each season with members of the intelligence community and how you formulate storylines. You talked about Russian interference in our elections before any else did.
Spy camp started after Brody died in Season 3. Before that I traveled to DC and we had to reinvent the show and tell stories about Carrie as a trained officer in a foreign capital. Spy camp developed from the consultants I met informally over the previous three years.
We all, including Claire, Mandy Patinkin and Lesli Linka Glatter and many others met with a parade of CIA, private investigators, KGB officers who had defected, journalists – a very colorful group – and former ambassadors. We went every year not knowing what would result. There would be an intense five days from 8 a.m. until midnight.
It was such a crucial stage of the story development process. We just had a big dinner in DC to thank everyone.
Gansa: That's the mission statement, the big question we are exploring. How has the war on terrorism changed the US and how has the rise of the counterterrorism industry changed our lives?
How do you see the real-world political parallels and how the show addresses the price we have paid in fighting the war on terror after 9/11?
That's the mission statement, the big question we are exploring. How has the war on terrorism changed the US and how has the rise of the counterterrorism industry changed our lives? What have we sacrificed to achieve safety? Two wars have fractured society. Where could resources have been allocated in a different place? What is the toll exacted on soldiers, politicians, journalists?
That's the big mission statement we tried to address. Sadly, things are not that different from 10 years ago. We are still struggling with these issues. They are still a potent force and we are divided as a country. The picture is fairly grim. We are turning into a surveillance state, with facial recognition tracking us, and god knows what the NSA is up to.
Describe some of the challenges you've faced in shooting overseas in places like Morocco, Berlin and Cape Town.
Each place was challenging and incredibly rewarding. The main challenge all of our actors and production people had was to uproot themselves and transplant for seven or eight months. It's hard on families and relationships. The sacrifices people made in service, I'm so grateful.
South Africa was a dream, and the same with Berlin, we didn't have real production problems. Morocco was a little different as they are not used to sustaining the long-term needs of TV shows, so we had to finish in the US, and that sent us over budget and over schedule. Yet shooting on location brought the verisimilitude to be able to really capture Homeland. Now you see it everywhere, it brings a different look.
When did the Homeland brain trust decide how the series would end?
We decided at the end of Season 5, me and Claire and Mandy and the network and studio involved. The studio understood the economic value, if we could see our way to a big financial award and profit participation. The main decision was determining if it had legs to find a way to the end. We ultimately decided on a three-season pickup.
It was arbitrary, as we could have seen it end at 7 with the scene on the bridge [with Carrie walking right past Patinkin's Saul Berenson]. It was a creative decision. Were they willing to keep it going? Claire and Mandy said let's come home, so we did 6 and 7 in the US and Morocco standing in for Afghanistan in Season 8
What was it like joining 24 for the last two seasons?
When Howard took over 24 in Season 2, he asked me to come then. I hadn't seen it, and I had never written a thriller. I'd just had a son, and didn't want to work that hard. But then they win an Emmy, and by Season 7, I needed a job and contacted Howard. I binge-watched the first six seasons. This is unbelievable, but I was really nervous, walking into the story room.
It was incredibly high-powered, and everyone was sharp and competitive, so it was intimidating. But it turned out to be a blast, and the best job EVER. Sometimes running a show sucks, as I'm not temperamentally suited to it, but if you're working for a really great showrunner…I wrote on that show for two years, learning so much about that genre.
When they announced it was going to end at 8, I was more upset than anyone, but it was aging out. Then luckily Homeland came around.
Tell us about Maximum Bob, based on Elmore Leonard's novel and notably cast by current AMPAS president David Rubin.
Maximum Bob was created with Barry Sonnenfeld and was on ABC for seven or eight episodes beginning in August 1998. It was an hour-long comedy set in South Florida about an out of control judge [Beau Bridges]. It was so much fun, lighthearted and irreverent, but way ahead of its time--and on the wrong network.
If it was on FX or HBO or Showtime, it would have been completely different. Sadly, although we got great reviews, it didn't catch fire, the regime changed, and we didn't get an order. It was a real heartbreak. Because of it, I was offered a bunch of shows and ran Dawson's Creek for awhile.
Then I became the guy CBS would go to, and helped resurrect Numb3rs, another show way ahead of its time. Wolf Lake was a precursor to True Blood, and really fun, but CBS was not the place to be.
What all these taught me is to stick to your guns and be careful where you wind up. With Homeland, the studio wanted Fox [as the network], and others passed, so we were lucky to be at Showtime.
How do you feel about your membership in the TV Academy and the role it's played?
I've been a member for at least 25 years. The Academy is incredible. They've been so supportive and have been vital, not only in educational opportunities but in promoting television as a key part of pop culture. The Academy is front and center in that idea, and I really love my membership.
So the band is still together, with 35 years of history, and pushing forward into the future, post-Homeland.
Howard and I are at Sony Pictures Television, with Glenn Geller. We're developing a bunch of things and hopefully will have a bunch of stuff coming out soon.
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