The new Netflix sci-fi original “Altered Carbon” is a show that features an awful lot to process, thanks to its high concept premise and dense world-building. Based on the novel by Richard K. Morgan and created by Laeta Kalogridis, the drama takes place in the year 2384, where humans have developed the ability to transfer their consciousnesses to new bodies — a technology that has completely upended society.
Dumped into the middle of this crazy world is Takeshi Kovacs (played by a few different actors, including “The Killing’s” Joel Kinnaman), a former revolutionary tasked with solving a murder mystery, a task that proves complicated in a world where death isn’t a permanent state of being.
IndieWire spoke with Kalogridis as well as cast members Kinnaman, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Dichen Lachman, and Renée Elise Goldsberry about a few key questions triggered by the show’s 10 episodes — specifically, how it came to be, why it was important for the show to have a female showrunner as well as a female director on key episodes (especially the one with the naked clone battle), and where things stand when it comes to a theoretical Season 2. Warning: spoilers follow for all 10 episodes.
“It’s Just Not a PG-13 Kind of Story”
Kalogridis picked up the novel “Altered Carbon” at a bookstore after its publication in 2002: “In those days when you could still just walk around a bookstore and pick up things that look interesting,” she said. She immediately looked into acquiring the rights, which Warner Bros. had already nabbed, “so I waited until they dropped out. Because I had heard that Warner was trying to sort of re-think the content of the book to make it more family-friendly, more PG-13. And I didn’t feel that that was within the DNA of the material. It’s just not a PG-13 kind of story.”
After the option expired, Kalogridis approached Morgan. “He agreed to option it to me for a very low amount of money compared to what he’s had before, in exchange for my assuring him that I wasn’t really interested in doing anything but the book. And I could tell him pretty clearly where I wanted to expand it, where I wanted contract it, the characters that I wanted to add, the things that I thought we were gonna have to consolidate,” she said.
That led to years of trying to make the concept work as a feature film, and failing. “It was too complex,” she said. “You’re drowning in exposition in the first 40 pages. And if you’ve only got two hours to tell the story, it just doesn’t give you enough time for people to relax into what’s different about the world.”
This process began in approximately 2009-2010, by Kalogridis’s estimation, which happened to coincide with the rise of what we now call Peak TV — a movement in part fueled by Netflix, which was the only place Kalogridis (with Skydance Television) pitched the series.
“Netflix was able to look at the blueprint provided by the book and see, really clearly, what kind of story they would be getting into. And they were intrigued by it,” she said.
“A Female Perspective”
There are no official budget numbers for “Altered Carbon,” but in the realm of science fiction television, there aren’t a lot of shows run by female showrunners, making Kalogridis a unique presence. It’s a difference that Kinnaman said he noticed.
“You could definitely feel like there’s a female perspective in the show,” he said. “Particularly in terms of both how Ortega and Quell are portrayed and expanded from the book, but also very much in the Lizzie storyline, how much that takes place. You can really feel you know this woman getting empowered and taking revenge on her oppressors. That’s very central.”
Purefoy agreed. “It’s going to be about perspective and context. People have talked to us about some of the violence and violence against women in [the show]. And yes there is, but it’s still the same world we have now, in 350 years. Violence against women has not ceased just because 350 years have passed. With that, it’s always going to be about what you show. What does it add to the story, what is it about the narrative. What is your take on that. And with Laeta you know you’re seeing it through a feminist perspective so that’s absolutely intrinsic.”
Added Higareda, “She wanted to make sure that every single one of the female characters was strong. And determined. Not only that way, a strong female character, but very well-rounded. Like in the case of Ortega, she speaks her mind and she’s all about justice, but she’s also very vulnerable when it comes to her family.”
Goldsberry didn’t think she’d have even been a part of the show, if a man had been adapting the original novel. “I don’t know that a male bringing that story to life would have thought we need Quell in this world, or that we need to develop Reileen in this world,” she said. “Absolutely, [Kalogridis’s] presence, her influence, her positivity, her genius, her detailed attention was everywhere, pervasive.”
Goldsberry’s casting came after Kalogridis saw the actress in the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” “I didn’t know what her face looked like until I saw ‘Hamilton,’ twice, with the original cast,” she said. “And then I was like, ‘Oh, that’s Quell.’ That’s exactly what Quell looks like. That’s the fierceness. That’s the tenderness. That’s the razor-sharp wit and intelligence. That’s the strategic mind along with this really interesting sense of approachability. And the charisma, that makes you believe that people would follow her anywhere.”
Seeing Goldsberry perform triggered Kalogridis’s choice to move Quell forward in the established narrative (the character is a historical figure until Morgan’s third book), because “I didn’t know if we were getting more than one season. I couldn’t possibly wait that long.”
Plus, she said, “I really wanted to create a role for a woman of color, where you would see this side of this great scientist and inventor who was the Leonardo da Vinci of her time. In a way that I hoped would be inspiring. As well as a little bit tragic.”
“[It’s] Not About the Male Gaze”
“Altered Carbon” has gotten a lot of attention for the ways in which it approaches its female characters, especially given sequences like the massive fight between Ortega (Higareda) and Reileen’s (Lachman) many clones, at the end of Episode 8, “Clash by Night” — a sequence some have critiqued as exploitative, given that the many iterations of Reileen are all very naked.
According to Lachman, it wasn’t a scene she was expecting, but she did speak with Kalogridis and others prior to even receiving the script. “I did have a conversation with them, them saying, ‘Just so you know, this is happening. How do you feel about it? This is why,'” she said. “Then I read the scene, and yes, of course I was nervous. Of course I was. But it worked so beautifully in terms of the story, and it fit in so perfectly that I saw it as a huge opportunity.”
It helped that the episode was directed by Uta Briesewitz, a woman whose recent TV work has included helming episodes of “Jessica Jones,” “This Is Us,” and “Orange is the New Black.” According to Kalogridis, hiring a female director for “Clash by Night” was a deliberate choice.
For one thing, Kalogridis felt Briesewitz, based on her previous experience, would be able to handle the episode’s emotional complexity, especially when it came to the character of Reileen. “Eight is where we pivoted into understanding how she’s been corrupted by living this long, and the moment where I hope we sell that no one, no matter how good their intentions are, no one survives what this technology does to you over time. It is infinitely corrupting. There’s nobody who can overcome it,” she said.
And when it came to the clone fight, a female director was deemed necessary in order to craft the right aesthetic. “We wanted to create this sequence that was at once kind of a mythic, warrior goddess moment, as well as sort of terrifying — she gets back up, and she gets back up, and she gets back up,” Kalogridis said. “She’s Kali the Destroyer. She is an embodiment of a certain kind of unstoppable, and yet completely understandable, will to survive. And she owns herself completely. Her nudity is not about anyone else. It’s who she is. It’s what she is.”
Also, Kalogridis added, “we also wanted to create something that isn’t usually done with female bodies, which is to see them as belonging to the woman totally. That whole sequence is not about the male gaze. There’s not a dude in the scene. So, it didn’t feel like that was ever going to be something that would be understood in the same way by a male director as it would be by a female director. And that’s why Uta was the perfect person for that episode… which, I think, is one of the hardest episodes in all. All of them had unique challenges, but that one was certainly very difficult.”
For Lachman, the actual shoot “was challenging, but I had so much support with my fellow cast and the crew, and with the producers, that by the end of it, I felt so strong, like I could do anything. Not to say that it wasn’t logistically extremely difficult and challenging to shoot, for a number of reasons.”
The nudity, it turns out, wasn’t really one of those reasons. “The nudity became nothing at all,” she said. “It was the glass on the floor that was turning into sand because it was silicone, and the bodies lying around. There were so many other brave women who chose to be there with me, and that also made it easier… If you think about the standing with the sword, and being a woman, there’s a lot of spread legs and bending over. It’s so complicated, that having a female director was a great blessing.”
So, What About Season 2?
As IndieWire has written previously, the first season ends with something resembling closure, a rarity for narrative television these days. When it comes to a second season, Kalogridis isn’t sure what the future holds. “The answer to Season 2 is that we don’t have a greenlight for Season 2. We don’t know if we’re doing one or not,” she said.
In addition, there’s the question of what that second season would be: While Morgan has written two sequels to the original novel, Kalogridis isn’t sure the second book, “Broken Angels,” would work as a basis for a new cycle of episodes. “As I’ve mentioned to Richard, the second book is a little expensive. It’s a giant interstellar war with a huge ship full of aliens. He wrote the second book like it was a $300 million, two-hour feature.”
So, as Kalogridis noted, “that also creates some challenges, just from purely from a perspective of how in the world do we accomplish the spirit of what’s in that story? Which I’m very interested in, an examination of this technology in relation to war. Because it’s very much an examination of class, in the first season, and I think war would be very interesting to examine and that’s what the book does. But exactly how we would do it and who we would do it with? I know it wouldn’t be as huge as the book, because it couldn’t be. And how Quell would play into it would be changed, because of moving her in the narrative from where she is in the books.”
Ultimately, Kalogridis acknowledges that “Richard and I have discussed that we’re now varying the story in a different direction. As he says, ‘We’ve gone full-on po-mo.’ Which we have, we’re totally post-modern. So, anything we do is gonna be a little bit of a necessary departure.”
Would all the cast return? Maybe, maybe not. When IndieWire broached the question, Goldsberry at least seemed enthusiastic about the idea. “That’s good. Speak it. Speak it,” she said when the concept came up.
But Kinnaman said he wasn’t planning to reprise his role. “One of the drawing points, one of the arguments for me to do it,” he said, “was that it was a one-year thing. If they do a second season, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Kovacs appears in a different [body].”
That said, he does still root for the love story. “I hope Kovacs finds Quell. You know that’s the big thing, finding Quell. Finding out she’s alive. That’s everything,” he said.
“Altered Carbon” is streaming now on Netflix.