Interview – Todd Katzberg and Jason Smilovic – Condor
While at the SXSW Film Festival which now includes an episodic category, I sat down with executive producers and writers Todd Katzberg and Jason Smilovic to talk about their new show, Condor. We spoke about this new adaptation, the constraints of building the first season, taking the film into the present, and politics and morality. Condor started airing on the AT&T Audience Network on June 6, 2018.
Sarah: How difficult was it to expand a well-loved film (Three Days of the Condor, 1975) into ten episodes?
Todd Katzberg: There’s a lot there. It wasn’t difficult at all because the movie has such a density to it, and all that density is packed into two hours. We got to unpack movie and to tell the story of what’s going on outside the border or frame of that film. So, we go to not only expand on some of the characters but also invent quite a few as well. We got to take some characters that the film doesn’t really have time to give too much dimension to and to deal a lot with and really got to go home with them and personalize them and find out the individual motivations were for people who were involved. In a movie, it’s just like a conspiracy, but in an hour show, it’s not just the conspiracy, and the people aren’t just conspirators. They are motivated by a whole set of discreet, personal motivations. Each of them has their own motivations and reasons for being part of this plot, and they all see themselves as being good guys and behaving in accord with their own true necessity.
Jason Smilovic: That’s actually what excited us so much about Condor. I think once we got over the initial terror of taking on this property that we loved so much is that the movie provided all kind of hints about where the story could go beyond its own frame, there were all these pieces of plot, pieces of character that could only be alluded to within a two-hour frame of the movie that became our road map for where to take the story. The opportunity to tell that story over ten hours is really what excited us.
Sarah: Is this a one-off, limited series?
Todd: This season will be resolved.
Sarah: No cliffhangers?
Both: No, we promise.
Todd: We were a little bit, I don’t want to say constrained, but the first season has to have the same kind of inciting incident as the movie. Joe Turner has to see his entire office get wiped out. We had to start there. That is the jumping off point. Moving forward in subsequent seasons, we get to live with these characters now, slow things down a little bit. Not slow in terms of less pace or less story, but we are not married to a story conceived. If it was absent from the first season, I think people would be really disappointed; the fans would be disappointed.
Sarah: What about modernizing this story, taking the 1970’s story into the present?
Todd: We feel just because of the huge impact that technology has had on our culture since that movie came out, that all stories are ripe with reexamination or re-adaptation. While it was really interesting at the time to…When you have a society where people still read books, that you would have a character whose job was to analyze books for plots and for coded messages and stuff like that, we knew that today that would seem like an anachronism. That’s a big part of the update is that Joe Turner no longer works for this literary society, that’s his cover. He now works for a tech firm. This is a CIA project that has attempted to reverse the brain drain in the CIA that has resulted in all the best minds in the 21st century that are going to work for Google, Facebook, tech startups, and they are trying to attract the best minds to come secure our country and to defend her. That was a big part of the update was just Joe’s job description changing.
Jason: I think the biggest challenge for us in terms of the update was one of the things we loved so much about the movie is it predicted the future. The big conspiracy at the root of the plot that seemed so wildly far-fetched and scary in 1975 was that we were going to invade the Middle East for its oil, and we certainly couldn’t tell that story. It had arguably been the whole plot of the Bush Administration. That would not be predicting anything. The challenge for us is what is the plot that is going to seem so scary today, and tomorrow it may seem kind of frighteningly realistic and possible. Obviously, it would be a spoiler to begin talking about what we came up with, but that really was for us the big challenge.
Todd: The movie doesn’t even really have time to say more than just that, to say more than Robert Redford confronting Cliff Robertson and saying, “Do we have plans to invade the Middle East for its oil?” And Cliff Robertson says, “We play games, and sometimes the games become real.” And that’s really the most that is ever really said about that and so not only is that conspiracy not expanded beyond that, but neither are its conspirators. So, we really wanted to tell the story about a group of conspirators who have a different set of personal motivations and who are very different from each other. We have one of our conspirators is motivated by greed, another one by religious fanaticism, another one by vengeance, another one by the fact that she is a sociopath, another one because he sees the writing on the wall and feels like if something is not done now its going to be the end of times, another one because he is just trying to get his father’s love and respect. We wanted to kind of look at the clocks of conspiracy and see the personal motivations that turn it.
Jason: We hope that the story is really a morality play and that each of these villains and heroes are in relatable situations where the audience will be forced to ask themselves, “What would I do a person of sincere, religious conviction who came to believe I was at the center of God’s plan, and God’s plan asked me to do something terrible?”
Todd: Or “what would I do if I were a liberal who worked for a CIA project who was able to have all of this moral identity in a vacuum and live in this ivory tower of thought experiments and to be disrupted from that, be shaken out of that?” And to find himself in a set of circumstances that require him to test those values and find out he is not the person who he thinks he is and none of us really are. We live in a society where we have a great many advantages, regardless of what our political beliefs are and a lot of people have political beliefs that are in direct opposition to the policies that build those advantages.
Sarah: Everyone thinks they are right.
Todd: I’m saying as a liberal who is against so much of America’s empire building, I can have those beliefs and simultaneously being a beneficiary.
Jason: Everything we have is built upon that empire building, so it’s very easy from a comfortable place to denigrate it.
Todd: If I were in a situation where I did not have food security or stability or any of these other factors, I might not be able to live in this abstract thought bubble. I might have to use a gun or resort to violence or brutality like humans always have.