Ray Richmond is a Deadline contributor
This is a very good time to be Howard Gordon. At the same time he published his second novel in as many years — the acclaimed Hard Target, released in January — he’s the toast of television … again. Less than two years after serving as an executive producer on 24, he’s co-creator and exec producer of the first-year Showtime drama Homeland. The series just took home two Golden Globes — for top drama and lead drama series actress Claire Danes — as well as a pair of WGA Awards and the AFI honor for TV Program of the Year. All of that, plus Gordon is helping to ramp up the coming 24 feature and has another series premiering tonight at 10 on NBC: the midseason drama Awake starring Jason Isaacs. Gordon took time out from his insane schedule to speak with Deadline Hollywood about the insta-classic that is Homeland, how writing novels is different from crafting TV, and why he’s often mistaken for being a hardcore political conservative (blame his friend Joel Surnow).
DEADLINE: How is writing books different than writing for TV?
GORDON: When you’re writing a novel, you’re still telling a story. But you’re telling it very differently. It’s a craft like anything else. I’m still probably on the early part of the learning curve. I have a ways to go as a novelist. But what’s great is, well, I frankly enjoyed the solitude. And I enjoyed being able to tell characters what to say and do without negotiating with an actor. In a novel, the only budgetary limitations are that of your imagination. In a novel, the relationship between writer and reader is such a pure one.
DEADLINE: Can you go into The Forbidden Zone and manipulate characters in a book in a way that you can’t in television?
GORDON: I think you can. In some ways a book is a lot more forgiving. It isn’t a lazier medium, but you can digress more. You can get deeper into the mind and interior life of the characters you’re depicting. In some ways, a novel isn’t as structurally rigorous as a screenplay or a TV show, which have finite real estate. In a novel, you can more deeply illuminate a character’s interior and get away with digressions.
DEADLINE: By contrast, what can you do in a TV show that you can’t in a novel?
GORDON: When you do a TV show, the cumulative intimacy you develop with the audience through your characters is pretty profound. It may be the most profound storytelling there is, because the character gets to live and roll around in the audience’s mind week after week. The relationship that’s developed through the storytelling week after week and year after year turns into a very powerful thing.
DEADLINE: Why did you decide to do your book Hard Target as a novel instead of a screenplay or TV show? Is there still a chance you’ll adapt it?
GORDON: I’m not averse to it. But with both Hard Target and my novel that preceded it, Gideon’s War, a series or movie was never the point — and still is not. Some people may kick the tires on that. But it’s not the reason I wrote it. It’s simply about the pleasure and privilege of doing a book, not to have a thousand notes and options on the story. The novel remains a very special form for me. I started Gideon’s War during the writers strike. But I guess I’ve always been an aspiring novelist. I went to Princeton and wrote a novel for my thesis. That’s where Alex (Gansa, co-producer and showrunner on Homeland) and I met. We were both aspiring novelists. Then we decided to try our luck in Hollywood back in 1984, and we’ve never stopped working. The WGA strike was the first time I’d had a chance to consider doing anything else. I sold Gideon’s War based on 150 pages and wound up with a two-book deal.”
DEADLINE: So are you a novelist first or a TV writer-producer first now?
GORDON: Oh please. I think I’m done with novels now. I’m just too busy. It was so hard struggling to fit this in within the margins of my day job. If I’m going to try it again, I should probably see a therapist first.
DEADLINE: What is your involvement with the 24 movie?
GORDON: I’m involved intimately with all of the drafts and with all of the people, including Mark Bomback on the rewrites and with Kiefer (Sutherland). There are a lot of people involved from Imagine and 20th. I’ve kind of been enlisted as the keeper of the flame from the TV show and representing it in its next iteration. I’m not sure what kind of credit I’ll be having on it yet.
DEADLINE: How worried are you about the box office slump and how it could impact the 24 movie, particularly given how few TV shows wind up making the successful transition to the big screen — Mission: Impossible being a notable exception?
GORDON: You know, Tom Rothman is a very smart guy. He wouldn’t do a 24 movie just to do it but only if he honestly believed it could stand on its own. So I’ll leave that part of it in his capable hands.
DEADLINE: So how did this Homeland phenomenon happen?
GORDON: I’ll be honest, it caught me completely off-guard. I’ve never experienced anything close to this in my career. I mean, trust me, I really, really like the show. But I never could have imagined the kind of response it’s gotten. Did you see? It’s one of (President) Obama’s two favorite shows on TV right now, along with Boardwalk Empire. That’s just astounding. I just keep waiting for the other show to drop, as I perpetually do. We’ll just have further for the shoe to fall next season. But basically I’m kicking myself every day. What’s particularly gratifying about it is, I’ve been bracing for the inevitable 24 comparisons and they really haven’t come. It’s a deal-with-the-devil thing, and I still have eight fingers left with him. I have to say, a lot of the credit for this has to go to my longtime writing and producing partner Alex Gansa, who also happens to be my best friend. He has impeccable taste and is just a phenomenal showrunner.
DEADLINE: OK, so if you won’t, let us make the comparisons to 24. It seems that 24 was a lot more violent than is Homeland. Did you make a conscious effort to tone it down? Why didn’t you go farther?
GORDON: You’re right. The violence is more implied in Homeland. Even I’m surprised with how restrained we were in terms of death and violence in Season 1. We were cognizant about not wanting to overdo it. When a lot of people die, that can work or work against you. We decided to let the story tell itself and not try to retrofit it with any kind of aesthetic. In that sense, Homeland is kind of a psychological thriller rather than the action thriller that 24 was. Of course, 24 also never received the full credit, I don’t think, for having as much going on as it did. It had other elements too. But what’s different about Homeland is we don’t have to turn up the heat to the level that’s a requirement of network television. We don’t have to write in artificial breaks in the story to carry in five minutes of commercials. We’re on Showtime now, so we can take our time and breathe. The comparative freedom we have now is just tremendous. But it isn’t just because we’re on pay cable. It’s also because (Showtime programming chief) David Nevins gets it. That’s already made this one of the best collaborative experiences I’ve ever had.
DEADLINE: Whenever you heard the producers talk about making 24, it always included a heavy sigh. Often two or three heavy sighs. Why is that?
GORDON: I’m still twitching from doing 24. We all are. It was traumatic. I’m still experiencing some TV PTSD. There was so much energy that needed to be expended in order to tell that story in terms of format. We felt obligated to tell it until its end. I think I’ll always carry that pressure around. But it also took 24 much longer to become what it became. It’s seemed to happen much more quickly and steeply for Homeland, which is particularly surprising since the show isn’t on a broadcast network.
DEADLINE: What are your expectations now with Awake? Is another phenomenon afoot?
GORDON: You just never know with these things. This show came about out of a spec pilot written by (creator and showrunner) Kyle Killen which struck me as ingenious and an incredibly original voice. I was shown a copy of it fairly early on. When NBC was considering picking up the pilot, they attached me to it as well. I was really intrigued by that pilot. It really spoke to me, dealing with a man doing his best and coping with loss in a very unique way. Here we are now almost a year later. It’s been a challenge getting the show to where it is now, but at the same time incredibly gratifying.
DEADLINE: Awake seems like a particularly high concept for broadcast TV, telling the story of a man struggling to reconcile two dueling realities following a tragic car accident involving his wife and teenage son. How did you manage to land a show like this in network primetime?
GORDON: I think it’s illustrative of what networks are being forced to do these days in order to stay in the game. They are having to compete not only with other distractions like video games and DVDs and Internet streaming; they’re also needing to draw attention from cable networks putting on more compelling fare. Broadcasters are finding themselves in a post-ER world. I’m not sure those fastballs down the middle work like they used to work.
DEADLINE: What’s wrong with television?
GORDON: Well for starters, there are too many time slots and not enough good shows to fill them. It isn’t that every show has to be good enough to win an Emmy. But there is a lot of waste. And good TV is generally a very Darwinian enterprise. I think most good shows find their audience. But the process is messed up. The way TV is created, that system needs fixing. I’m talking about the piloting of all of the shows, and the sort of musical chairs game they make the talent play every year. It’s an imperfect process that people keep saying needs to be changed, but no one has managed to do it in the 25 years I’ve been involved with TV.
DEADLINE: You seem to be talking more about the process for broadcast network primetime. How is it different for cable, having worked in both over the past couple of years?
GORDON: It’s all about the freedom. You can’t underestimate it. That, and not having to worry about commercials. And the fact that the audience you’re required to get is so much smaller. Plus the standards-and-practices latitude with content, with language. There’s a misconception that doing 12 or 13 episodes as you do in cable is far easier than the 22 or 24 in broadcast during a season. It’s really not easier at all. But you can do it better by concentrating on fewer episodes. On 24, we constantly were forced to sprint a marathon. We would barely be catching our breath from the end of one season and we already were starting the next one. With 12 episodes, you can see a beginning, middle and end of an arc.
DEADLINE: Your friend and 24 colleague Joel Surnow is a very public conservative, which makes him something of a pariah in Hollywood. Yet he continues to be very successful. What about you? Where do your politics fall?
GORDON: I’m a registered Democrat. But it happens that one of my strengths as a writer is one of my weaknesses as a person. I’m not very political or polemic. I tend to see all sides of an issue a bit too readily. My greatest fear is that my headstone will read, He Had a Way With Words But No Point of View. I’m equally disappointed with both of the main political parties right now. If there were a Republican Presidential candidate who captured my imagination and inspired me, I’d vote for him in half a second. The same goes for the Democrats. For me, it’s really about the person rather than the party. And I have to say I’m disappointed with where we are with our leadership.”
DEADLINE: So you’re a registered Democrat but you don’t necessarily vote that way?
GORDON: I’d have to call myself an Independent at this point. I’m not really for joining any club. I think the fact that 24 became such a lightening rod regarding torture and Islamophobia, combined with Joel’s politics, perhaps caused people to draw some conclusions about me and the show staff as a whole. But that show and our writers spanned the political spectrum. There were a lot of fights in the writers room that weren’t reflected in the pages and the stories.
DEADLINE: Do you believe that conservatives have been blacklisted in Hollywood lately?
GORDON: “I have bona fide dyed-in-the-wool conservative friends, like Joel. And I’ve seen that it can absolutely be hard being one. I have many liberal friends who don’t give that point of view a fair shake, that’s for sure. But in my opinion that’s nothing like a formal blacklist. It’s just that there are obviously far more people who lean left than right in Hollywood, and people are parochial and feel more comfortable being with people like them. I’ve personally never heard anyone say, “I won’t hire this guy because he’s a conservative”.