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SXSW: 'Halt and Catch Fire' Showrunner Jonathan Lisco on Why AMC's Latest Isn't a Replacement for 'Mad Men'

Photo of Ben Travers By Ben Travers | Indiewire March 13, 2014 at 8:08PM

Indiewire sat down with showrunner Jonathan Lisco after the premiere screening of "Halt and Catch Fire" at SXSW.
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'Halt and Catch Fire'
Tina Rowden/AMC 'Halt and Catch Fire'

It was a rainy day in downtown Austin when AMC's latest hour-long drama "Halt and Catch Fire" premiered at SXSW, but inside a cafe next to the Violet Crown theater showrunner Jonathan Lisco could not have held a cheerier disposition. The veteran TV producer and writer behind such quality shows as "Southland" and "NYPD Blue" seemed exhilarated after seeing his latest endeavor on the big screen for the first time and was eager to answer questions about it. Indiewire happily obliged, allowing Lisco the opportunity to expound on his own prowess with computers, the daunting comparisons to "Mad Men," and what premiering at SXSW means for the show.

Did you guys have to rush at all to get this episode ready for the festival?

Yes -- in fact, the main titles that you saw, the one with what we like to call "the sperm" going across the horizon? That's actually a work in progress. It's pretty close, but we're still fine tuning it. We're working on a few of the downbeats for the music so it can smash into it a little bit better. We're still refining the visuals. It's largely there, but there's some of the stuff we're still refining.

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Your background is primarily in cop shows. What attracted you to this project about computer engineers?

I was coming off running "Southland" in conjunction with Chris Cheyack, who's wonderful, and John Wells, although John was very busy because he was off doing "August: Osage County." So that show ended up having a great season finale, which I wrote, actually, not knowing whether or not the show was coming back. It ended up not coming back.

At that point, I'd done 30 episodes of it as an [executive producer] and felt "This business is so consuming and wonderful, but so consuming. I've got three kids. Maybe I should just take a beat and look at the landscape, see what comes to me." "Halt and Catch Fire" actually came to me as a pilot before it had been shot. I read it and thought it was pretty terrific, but i was not inherently drawn -- candidly -- to tech as the basis for a TV show. I just wasn't sure it was going to pop. Ultimately I sort of passed initially, saying, "I don't know."

Then I met the guys. The two Chris's could not be two more lovely, intelligent, inspiring guys. Extremely talented, and I just felt right away that these are my kind of guys I want to collaborate with, and as so often is the case, it's material and the people. If those two things come together, there's a really symbiotic relationship between them and I couldn't resist. I had to sign on. But I kept saying to them, "I get teased a lot for not being cutting edge using technology. Are you sure I'm the right guy to do this?" And they kept saying to their credit, "That's why you're the person to do this. Because we don't want the show to be about the bits and bytes."

"How can we use everything that you're talking about for the basis of a story that will grab people by the lapels?"

Did you feel like you brought something to the table from the perspective of someone who's a storyteller and not a techie?

Absolutely. I must say, I know how to use technology and I'm just as well versed in it as your above-average person who cares, and now I know even more about it. What I'm trying to say is I didn't fetishize the technology at that level. It wasn't my be-all, end-all like some of the guys I went to college with who would literally stay up all night hacking. It wasn't my thing. I'm an attorney by design. I've done a lot of other things in my life. So it was a little bit of a question mark for me whether or not I wanted to pursue something that would be so tech heavy.

To answer your question, we are in the writers' room and occasionally, just occasionally, the conversation between our very talented writers would devolve into something like this: "No, that was the 286. You're talking about the 186." And then somebody would say, "Well, actually, they can use a 186 if they're doing a hexadecimal." And then somebody else would say, "Well that's with a D2 ROM configuration..." And I would just let it flow for a while, you know, and then I would say, "Everybody stop. Reality check. This does not a good drama make. How can we use everything that you're talking about for the basis of a story that will grab people by the lapels and drag them to its conclusion?"

Everybody would then sort of back up, and we would look at the larger picture. So yes, I am one of those people who sort of sounds the alarm bell, saying we're going too far into the tech and not into the human drama of it all. 

You landed a plum release spot after the season finale of "Mad Men" June 1st. Do you feel any added pressure with the time slot, and knowing audiences will be looking for a new show once "Mad Men" wraps up this year?

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You never don't feel pressure making a show, at least not for the reasons you might expect. The pressure for making this show and all the other ones I've worked on frankly comes from wanting to be really good in the milieu and in the environment you created. If you're somebody who has high expectations and a high standard for yourself, then it can always be better. This is literally the plague for the writers and actors on our show: can it be better?

Then you have to put the template of TV deadlines over it, and the answer ultimately has to exist in this world. Can it be better within the timeframe that we have because we need pages to shoot? We need to play. So that's where the pressure comes from, wanting it to be absolutely great and compelling drama. Is there a little bit of overhang from "Mad Men"? Honestly, we don't think about it very much. We're a completely different show. "Mad Men" is a great show, but we're striving to be a great show in its own right.

So what I'm trying to say is you can't think that way. It will totally distract you. Our show is a completely different animal. We know the media may see it that way, but does that mean any time you have an ensemble show set in a period other than our own that somehow it's going to invite a comparison? I think it's totally reasonable that it would because it's on AMC, but no. We don't see ourselves as a "replacement for 'Mad Men'" or anything like that. We just truly exist in our own world.

This article is related to: SXSW, SXSW 2014, Halt and Catch Fire, AMC TV, Interviews, TV Interviews, Television