Traverse City People: QA With Chip Johannessen, 1st Host in 2013 NWS

Traverse City People: Homeland recently swept the television awards at the Golden Globes on January 13, 2013, winning “Best Television Drama,” and “Best Actor” and “Best Actress” for Damian Lewis and Claire Danes. On February 7, 2013, the National Writers Series and Doug Stanton will host Chip Johannessen, an executive producer and writer of the show, onstage at the City Opera House in Traverse City, Michigan. NWS founder Doug Stanton recently spoke with Johannessen as they prepared their conversation for the coming event. 

Johannessen, who grew up in Rochester, Michigan, attended Harvard, worked on the editorial staff of “The Harvard Lampoon,” and after graduation moved to New York to play in a rock band. The group found some success playing sought-after gigs at places like CBGB and The Mudd Club. Close to signing a record deal, Johannessen and his band mates were shocked when the lead singer suddenly announced that “pop music was evil,” and abruptly moved back to Ireland. The band broke apart. Rock music’s loss, however, eventually would be television’s gain: With “Homeland,” Johannessen and the writing and producing staff have created one of the most compelling and engrossing portraits of modern America to be found in any media—print, broadcast, or film. 

Johannessen, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter, is looking forward to returning to northern Michigan; he was last here as a high school ski racer on the slopes at Nub’s Nob, near Harbor Springs. He and Stanton will screen some of Johannessen’s favorite moments from “Homeland,” and, with the audience, look at script pages from the show and discuss the drama’s journey from the written word to screen. The evening will also include an audience Q&A and a post-event reception.

Doug Stanton: 

What do awards like the Golden Globes mean? Do they allow you to do other things in the show? 

Chip Johannessen:

Normally I’d say that awards give you more leverage with the network and studio.   But in this case, Showtime and Fox have been great from the word go. There have been creative battles, or skirmishes anyway, but when it comes to supporting the show financially they’ve always come through.  When the last episode [of Season Two] was clearly going to cost a lot of extra money, Showtime and Fox ponied up for that, and it looks great. 

Doug Stanton:

Homeland dramatizes topics much in the news today and its characters inhabit a world of ambiguity: “Who is a hero?’ and, “What are we supposed to believe about what we read and hear?’” For instance, “Nicholas Brody,” a war hero played by actor Damian Lewis, may or may not be a hero, while “Carrie Mathison,” an intelligence officer portrayed by Claire Danes, may or may not be a credible witness to events.  What’s your take on the popularity of the show?

Chip Johannessen:

I think you’re right, it has everything to do with that ambiguity.

There are two kinds of examples of that. One is “Carrie,” where you kind of don’t understand what her motivations are.  When she’s with “Brody,” we have a sense that her feelings for him are authentic and real, but then we’re reminded that she’s got some kind of operational agenda, that she’s trying to work him in some way.  So we don’t know if she’s the intelligence officer doing what it takes, or if she’s actually head over heels for Brody and is damaging her life.  

And the other example is Brody, [where] the truth is very, very slippery; in fact, there seems to be no truth, and so reality seems a little hazy. And that part, to me, seems very modern in the United States. That everything is so ambiguous and unknowable and the actual facts don’t even matter in any kind of simple-to-understand way. We know Brody’s lying, and the mendacity of it all—it’s all so very modern American. 

Doug Stanton: 

Whose idea was it to make Claire Dane’s character, “Carrie,” bipolar?

Chip Johannessen:

That was actually prompted by David Nevins, the head of Showtime. Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon originally wrote the pilot on spec, thinking it might land on a broadcast network like ABC or NBC.  But then Fox passed on it, and FX, and then David came along; but for Showtime he wanted somebody who was edgier, somebody who was more clearly damaged by the work she did. I think that’s part of what’s appealing about this. It seems truthful, that these people who are doing all this work on our behalf are damaged by it. That they pay a price.  Brody has, certainly. Carrie as well. For her, it gets expressed in this bipolar thing, which is separate from the work she does, but it’s triggered by it, so it seems related. In a weird way, that bipolar trait makes her so good at what she does. 

Doug Stanton: 

Who on the writing staff knows the intelligence world and tradecraft? Where does that information come from?

Chip Johannessen:

A fair amount of that comes from [fellow writer and producer] Henry Bromell, who grew up in this world in the Middle East. His father was a CIA station chief. Henry’s a novelist—he wrote a book called “Little America” about this world, which is great.

Doug Stanton: 

Is the intelligence world a fan of the show?

Chip Johannessen:

Oh, I think hugely. The military is not …They’re not so interested in a story about a Marine who comes back a terrorist. 

Doug Stanton:

Any interesting stories from filming Season Two, during which Claire Danes was pregnant?

Chip Johannessen:

It was interesting to watch Claire as the season progressed. She watched her stunt double do a fight with “Abu Nazir” in Episode 11 and shook her head and said, ‘No. I’m going to do it.’ So this very pregnant woman was doing this fighting and running around. We had a stunt double, because the idea was that as she got more pregnant, there would be more things that she wouldn’t want to do or shouldn’t do. We also had a “belly double” [for digital replacement on profile shots]. Plus her stand in.  We would have four people who looked basically like Claire on the set at anytime, all dressed identically.

The shoots in Israel were always interesting.  In the pilot, a riot broke out because the location manager had not gotten the money to the right people. Shops were basically being closed down by our shoot and they had not been compensated. So this turned into a big riot where all of our equipment was taken and held for ransom. 

In Episode One of Season Two, we had another dust up. There’s a demonstration outside what’s supposed to be the American Embassy in Beirut, and we staged it at what is one of the most famous buildings in Tel Aviv– I think it was the old city hall. Now it’s an art museum. It’s on this little cul-de-sac, and we put barbed wire up and there were little fires and there were all these protesters shaking signs. I think some flags were burned, and some guy who’d just gotten out of the Israeli Army saw this, and somehow missed the fact that it was being patrolled by actors dressed as Lebanese Police. He just became incensed and threw himself into this and really beat up on one of our extras. So, shooting in Israel is very “on edge.”

Doug Stanton: 

How long does it take to shoot a Homeland episode? 

Chip Johannessen:

Our pattern was eight days, and it crept up to nine days, and then, every once in awhile, it would be ten. But we’re budgeted for an eight or nine-day pattern.

Doug Stanton: 

That’s fast. What do you like best about television writing? 

Chip Johannessen:

The thing to me is the joy of writing your first draft—that, to me, is a really fun process. I know to a lot of people it’s horrible, but I can’t imagine how you could do it [if that was true]. You’re facing the empty page, but it’s not really empty, right? You have an outline and the benefit of all the ideas from your fellow writers because you’ve pitched out these scenes together — you have the whole thing. So you could almost channel it, and you just have to imagine it physically, and put it down, and I find that really a lovely process. We were very behind at the end of Season One, so I had to do a whole big chunk of the season closer on short notice, what’s called “Day Two.”  And that was like channeling… just seeing it in your head and letting it flow out. That’s a really nice feeling.

Tickets to “An Evening With Chip Johannessen,” 7 PM, February 7, 2013 are now on sale. The evening will include an audience Q&A and a post-event reception. For tickets and more information, call the City Opera House box office at (231) 941-8082 and visit NationalWritersSeries.org.

Find more Traverse City events on our events calendar!

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