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The Americans: Season 2 - Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields interview

The Americans: Season 2

Compiled by Jack Foley

INSIPIRED by a decade-long FBI operation designed to uncover a ring of Russian Foreign Intelligence Service operatives residing undercover in the US, The Americans is fast becoming one of TV’s most compelling spy series.

The critically acclaimed FX thriller is the brainchild of former CIA case officer Joseph Weisberg. Motivated by his fascination with espionage, Weisberg worked for four years in intelligence, before leaving to pursue a career in writing.

With fellow visionary and executive producer, Joel Fields, the two have brought to life a gripping story that has audiences worldwide sitting on the edge of their seats. We talked to the two creatives, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, on what it’s like to put together such an intense and complex series to life.

Q. This is not something you hear very often, but Season Two is even better than Season One, how on earth do you do that?
Joe Weisberg: That’s a very good question! It’s funny because at the end of the first season we sat down with the network and they said to us, “look, we love the show but really, we think it’s very important that it gets better for Season Two.” I think they were worried that we might feel a little bit insulted but we were like, “great! We were thinking the exact same thing. We’ve got to make it better on all levels and we had very long discussions with them about every area of the show and how to improve it, the storytelling; the visual look of the show; just everything, how we could improve it across the board. I think we’ll do it every season. You just sort of attack it creatively because there are always weak spots. You learn a lot in your first season too; you make your mistakes; you see what felt like you’d gone too far; and what worked and what didn’t then you try not to repeat those mistakes.

Joel Fields: We made some wig mistakes that we tried to correct in the second season.

Joe Weisberg: We got hammered by the American press for our wig mistakes.

Joel Fields: Rightfully so.

Joe Weisberg: They didn’t like Clark’s wig.

Joel Fields: They felt it was magic; it was too magic and it never came off.

Q. How do you identify your mistakes?
Joe Weisberg: Partly by listening to the feedback. We actually read everything that’s written about the show.

Q. You read the comments?
Joe Weisberg: Well, we read all the critics who write about it on the web.

Joel Fields: And we have a lively exchange with Twitter followers and we read blogs and discuss. It’s been an interesting progression because the first season we started so late that we were in the midst of making the show while we were getting feedback from critics and the audience. By the second season we were pretty much done with production when we were watching it and getting feedback.

Q. Is there one in particular from Season Two that stands out for you that you feel was very different or improved a lot more?
Joe Weisberg: Well I think we thought for one thing that the visual look of the show really transformed in a lot of ways. When producing director, Dan Sackheim came on board he came up with a whole plan for how to shoot the show in Season Two. He gave it a really consistent visual look so we really thought it got a lot more beautiful looking for one. And the other thing is, Joel and I talked about reworking the storytelling. Instead of having it be quite so episodic; instead of each episode having a story with a beginning, middle and end in every single episode, that we would focus less on that and try to sell the story more across all 13 episodes.

Joel Fields: I’ll just add. You know, “better” is a very unquantifiable thing and when Joe and I first met and started to work together we actually had a very, honest heart to heart about that very issue and about how so much fell on our shoulders to create a great show. We just decided you can’t set out to do a great show. You can’t even set out to do a good show. So we decided to set out to do a show that we were really proud of and that really interested us and that we were really passionate about. That was something we could gage: Are we excited? That’s what we’ve tried to follow and I think, in changing it up the second season, we learned a lot.

Q. Can you take us through the process of your writing? Do you read history first? Or is it your memory? Or your experiences? How do you combine all the stories in your head into the scenarios?
Joel Fields: First of all, the main process for us together is we walk and we talk. Sometimes we talk characters; sometimes we talk stories; sometimes we still talk politics. But generally from those walks, elements start to evolve and emerge.

Q. Do you have any fear dealing with communism and that you may be perceived by some as being un-American?
Joe Weisberg: It’s funny we’ve come such a long way since when we were first starting the show. At the beginning we thought that might torpedo the whole show. We thought, when we were talking about the show; and pitching the show to the network that possibly nobody would watch it, that they would absolutely refuse to be sympathetic towards or even be able to identify with KGB officers. We were worried that you could not have those as the heroes of your show. So that seemed like maybe 50% of a possibility that we were starting something that couldn’t succeed because of that. But we took a deep breath, held it, jumped in and probably somewhere in the middle of the first season figured, “okay, people are actually going to take that leap with us.” And now we’re like the opposite: now we say nice things about the KGB. It’s like we’re crazy; we’ve gone native.

Q. How long does it take for the CIA to approve the script?
Joe Weisberg: It depends. If I send them in and say there’s a specific word, which I am pretty sure came from them, which is if I say, can you please expedite this one because we’re going to start shooting it right away, then they’ll get it back to me in two or three days. And if I don’t say anything it can be anywhere from a week to three weeks but they’re very helpful and responsive so if we’re in a hurry they move fast, which is incredibly nice of them.

Q. Other than your experience, do you have current or retired CIA/FBI who consult on the show?
Joe Weisberg: We have one consultant who spent about, I think, half his career working at the FBI and about half at the CIA, but we really only use his expertise on the FBI so we think of him as the FBI consultant. And then we have another guy; his name is Chris Lynch. We have another guy named Keith Melton, who although he never worked inside US intelligence he’s probably the world’s foremost expert, both on espionage trade craft in general and also on KGB illegals. He’s a historian and expert on those areas. In addition to that, he has this museum-like collection of gear. If you want a recorder of some kind or listening device that the KGB actually used, don’t ask me how, but he has the actual one.

Joel Fields: In the first episode of Season Two, Phillip goes and looks in a briefcase and finds the concealment, that’s an actual KGB briefcase with an actual KGB concealment from the era.

Q. Are there any scenes that you really liked, which didn’t actually make the final cut?
Joel Fields: We used a lot of scenes. There are scenes we loved and didn’t shoot. Among the great things about FX is, they don’t care how long we deliver an episode, so they don’t make us take out scenes that we love just to get to a certain length so, if we love a scene it’s in the show.

Q. Can you talk a little bit about writing Elizabeth? Because she’s the most pro Russia; she’s the coldest; she’s the most brutal, but we all still love her. What do you consciously do to soften her?
Joe Weisberg: It’s a very interesting question. We don’t see her as cold or brutal. We see her as someone who passionately believes and is devoted. I actually think this season is a season of even more personal opening for her and exploration of who she is inside. I think that’s going to come out through these cultural conflicts and through the family dynamic.

Q. Where does the inspiration for her character come from?
Joe Weisberg: It’s my mother. No I’m just kidding. My father’s family came from a town that sort of went back-and-forth between Russia and Poland but the existence of that in my family culture was zero.

Q. Where does her loyalty for Russia come from? Is it based on research of spies that just continued their devotion to Russia even when they were in America?
Joe Weisberg: I would say a couple different things. I think during the Cold War in America at least, there was a division; there was the Soviet government and there were the oppressed people, who were not represented by this government. That was a massive oversimplification of what the true situation was there. There were certainly many people who were completely and fully alienated from the government. There were also people who were really, more accurately the government’s party. There were many people though who were fully invested and there were many people with a million complicated race faces that they lived in between where they were. In many ways they were connected to the party and in many ways confused and not part of it.

So, in trying to capture one really interesting aspect of that, a character who was idealistic, who believed in the cause and stayed passionate and devoted to it, was just a really interesting character and a character who would be most surprising and challenging to American audiences. One other part of it that appealed to me was that, I’d always been told since I was little that I was stubborn and it hurt my feelings. And so I decided to sort of twist that into a positive trait for Elizabeth. That was something that was very appealing for me because I see that side of Elizabeth as positive, rather than negative. As Joel was saying if you turn it around and flip it to see if we had our own people in Moscow, the person who stays true despite all the pressures to the contrary is the biggest hero of all.

Q. What is the pool of Russian actors like in New York? Are there a lot? Tell us about the casting…
Joel Fields: Well we have a phenomenal casting director Rori Bergman, she’s really an artist. It’s easy to not think of some of the other people who participate in making a television show what it is. But the fact that it comes to life so seamlessly is in large part thanks to this group effort by all these artists: production designers; casting directors; cinematographer; all down the line. Rori has just been a gift and somehow she has made it seem easy to find incredibly talented, Russian speaking actors. We have made it difficult because we’ve been uncompromising on region and accent and said — you can’t have a Polish person playing someone from Moscow; it needs to be true, so she’s managed to really deliver some great actors.

Q. What would you like to say culturally, politically or socially? What would you want to convey most?
Joe Weisberg: For me it would be to rethink the whole idea of enemy. Your enemies are people too, and maybe they don’t have to be enemies if they’re that much like you.

Joel Fields: And for me it would be to rethink the idea of secrets and honesty between nations, states and individuals.

Q. Can you sum up your message on family through The Americans?
Joe Weisberg: Well, one of the things that we set out to do from the beginning was take this strange vehicle of espionage and create a very real marriage inside of it. So that’s what we’re trying to do, is have a show that everybody can relate to the marriage and find true moments where they think, “I had that in my marriage or I had that in my parenting.” So that’s when we’re happiest: when we get a call or a note where somebody says, “last week, when Elizabeth and Phillip were killing that guy, I had the same problem with my wife!” And you’re like, “oh, really.” But then they explain it and they’re right; they were struggling with the same thing so that is it for us, the sweet spot of the whole show.

Joel Fields: Marriage is a war!

Joe Weisberg: Well life is diplomacy.

The Americans Season 2 is out on DVD on January 26, 2015, from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.