Spying on The Americans With Series Creators Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg
Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields
Hands down my favorite part of reading interviews with famous folks is right at the outset, when the interviewer describes the meal that each party is having as they sit down to talk. Something like, "The menus come to a soft close, and the waiter appears in a puff of attentiveness. I order the lamb vindaloo, she goes for the garlic chicken." Everyone relates to eating food, the reader gets to take a mind vacation to a five-star mental restaurant, and who doesn't like making all sorts of snap character judgements based on what a person chooses to put in her body (a.k.a. "garlic chicken = kleptomaniac" —Life Sciences). While it was my dream to interview Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, the creative forces behind FX’s brilliant spy series The Americans, at an ice cream truck ("I order the Bomb Pop, Joe and Joel split a Choco Taco"), we had to settle for breaking sumptuous conversational bread via telephone. In the absence of delicious snacks, we discussed Season 2 themes, how to avoid silliness in disguises, and what's truly at the heart of the Jennings' emotional struggles. Our chat got off to a fun start, right after I announced to the duo that I'd be pressing a button allowing me to record the phone call...
Joel Fields: Now we’re going to press a button to scramble your recording. Hold on—
Joe Weisberg: In the spy world Ryan, you’re not supposed to announce that sort of thing.
Ryan Sandoval: Oh no I forgot. You guys aren’t just writers, you’re spy experts too.
RS: But as far as the writing part goes, what's been your favorite part about working on a second season?
JW: Well, the first season was pretty tough. Getting the whole thing off the ground. Putting the pieces and really figuring out what the show was going to be. That’s awfully hard and awfully complicated. Figuring out as you go, and then refiguring it out. Going into the second season felt very different. It felt like we had a pretty good sense of what the show was when we started out. And when Joel and I started doing what we do—which is taking long walks at the beginning of the season to plot out the stories and figure out where the characters were going—we were fortunate to get into a nice creative zone right away so things just had a flow this season that they didn’t have the first season. It just has felt good all season long.
JF: Our writers' office is right across the street from the Jennings' house set and the FBI set. I’ll tell you a funny story: Early in the season, Joe and I were taking one of these walks breaking one of the first episodes, trying to figure it out and we heard a shout from across the street—
JF: ...and we looked up and it was Joe’s wife and daughter. And Joe’s wife said "you look so serious!" And I said, "We’re working, actually." When he says we’re in a "zone," we’re lucky to not have been struck by any vehicles.
RS: Goodness gracious yes. Thankfully you have not been run over by cars. What would you say Season 2 is about?
JF: Season 1 asked, "Can this fake marriage work?" and "Can a fake marriage become a real marriage?" Season 2 is asking, "Can this fake family work?" and "At what point can a fake family become a real family?" I think that’s the extension of the question. We’re exploring the marriage more through the prism of parenting and family. And the challenges of being on the same page. Of being a couple. Because you know being married and parenting together, that has its own set of challenges.
RS: Sure. Marriage certainly isn’t an endgame, and a family itself can constantly change. Speaking of which, one thing your show is very good at is finding relatable family moments, as well as using iconic American symbols to constantly remind viewers of the overall suburban espionage theme. For instance, in the scene where Beeman shot Vlad while Vlad was eating a cheeseburger—a very American meal—did you always know you wanted a Russian to be executed while eating something so culturally recognizable?
JF: Those moments really come up very naturally when we’re breaking the story. In our experience, when we try to come up with stuff ahead of time 'cause it’s thematically good or something, that more often won’t work. I mean, once and a while it will. But more often if you’re breaking the story and suddenly someone just goes, "Hey! He should be eating a cheeseburger!" That’s when it’s more likely to work because it feels sort of natural and because they’re in America, and they’re doing their thing, and somebody’s got to eat, it’s easy for those things to come up a lot. Which is why we have a fair number of them that work.
RS: I see.
JW: The one thing we have done is, in our writers' office there’s a HUGE wall, the largest wall we had covered with a cork board and painted red. And it’s just plastered with stories and images and pieces of the year this season takes place. We call it our "'80s wall." This is our 1982 wall this year, it’s something that we walk by every day and our writers walk by every day. We hope that that seeps into the collective unconscious of the writing team.
RS: That sounds like so much fun.
JF: Well Ryan, most of us were alive back then during that era and we remember. We have a few younger writers who ask questions like, "Who was Alexander Haig?"
JF: But the majority of us remember all of it. We like to joke about how we’ve had to struggle to accept the fact that this is a period show, even though this was our time in the '80s.
RS: Well at least you can lord it over the heads of the younger writers.
JF: Yeah, we give them a hard time.
RS: My next question pertains to the costuming. The world you’ve built is so full of suspense and tension, that the disguises can sometimes feel like a fun, almost humorous relief. How do you avoid going too comical?
JF: Noah Emmerich (who plays Agent Stan Beeman) sent us this amazing thing he found which was a book being published of disguises of the Stasi—the actual disguises, they got photographs of all of them—
JW: The East German Intelligence Service—
JF: And we’re here to tell you, THOSE were some comedic disguises. The actual ones they used. These disguises are a real part of spycraft, they really work, and believe it or not, what we try to do is err on what would be real and then dial back anything that might be too silly.
RS: That sounds like a good coffee table book to have.
JF: It’s really good, we were shocked when we saw it because so many of the disguises looked like our disguises.
RS: So you maintain a pretty collaborative set?
JF: Oh we’re all like that. We’re all talking about spies and spycraft and showing each other stuff all the time.
[At this point the publicist on the call urged me to finish with one last question, under penalty of death, I assumed]
RS: True emotional relationships seem very valuable to spies who spend so much of their time living in a fake world. How do you decide that internal balance of selfless duty and selfish human need within each character?
JW: The question itself is very well put, because it cuts to the heart of the struggle that each of these characters lives with. I don’t think there’s really an answer to the question. I think that balance is the life of these characters. I think part of this show is watching that balance shift. And watching how they’re not aware of it in any conscious way, but it is what animates them as people.
The Americans Season 2 premieres on Wednesday February 26 at 10pm on FX. If you're still working through the Great Midseason TV Cram and need to catch up, Season 1 is now available on Blu-ray and DVD—see an exclusive clip from the special features here.
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