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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 8:8PM

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

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?

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.

Ben Travers/Indiewire Jonathan Lisco sits on the far left with the creators and cast of "Halt and Catch Fire."

It sounds like a healthy outlook. Trying to replicate an existing show with a whole new show would just be impossible.

Making good TV -- and we hope we are -- there's too much to worry about just trying to get it done, and if you worry about and add in to that pressure cooker how we're going to be perceived and all that, then you're really going to be off your game. You've got to sort of exist in this very, very organic way and create it from the ground up. True it up in your own mind and hearts and decide whether or not it's working. Period.

How do you feel the premiere went here at SXSW?

I flew in late last night -- not so late we weren't able to enjoy a great meal. Then we went to hear some live music, my wife and I. So in that little time, I thought, "Wow. I haven't been to Austin in 20 years." I came here, and I thought, "This is a fabulous place. What a hotbed of artists. This is amazing."

Then I went to the screening, and it lived up to my expectations, really. I feel the energy. I feel like there's an openness here. I feel like the people here are allowing themselves to take in the new work without predisposed biases. That I very much appreciate. I think sometimes when you're in LA or New York and you premiere these things, people come in with certain types of preconceived notions, and here it's really just about the work and you're trying to show it to your colleagues in some ways and sort of put it on display for people to talk about in a critical or dramaturgical way and not just to criticize or have a particular angle on. So it was really refreshing.

"We don't see ourselves as a 'replacement for 'Mad Men'' or anything like that."

Do you feel like premiering the episode in early March at SXSW is beneficial or detrimental in any way? 

My immediate feeling was, "What a lovely thing that we can put this on display at SXSW" because I'd heard so many great things about it. It is fairly attenuated from our premiere date so there is some air, but that's in many ways something I'll leave for the network to decide. I mean, they've been nothing but supportive and encouraging, so I think they must think it's a great way to build buzz for the show, and it's hard for me to disagree.

Do you feel like this is something we're going to see more of? Do you think TV is going to become a bigger part of festivals? 

I think SXSW would be really well-advised to start increasing this aspect of the festival. Why is that? Because people who are really credible in our business, you know the people who are making episodic television and movies, are realizing a long-form feature for grown ups is the cable television show. If you want to make 13 little movies and have the whole thing written down to one long movie, which "artist," what talent doesn't want to do that, especially when a lot of the movies that are made are basically for 14 year olds?

So if you can find a venue to tell that kind of story it's going to -- well, obviously it's already attracting a lot of A-list talent to the table to try to do that. So if all those people are flocking to it, I would think that SXSW would want to preview it even more.

One of your actors, Scoot McNairy, in the Q&A said he really wanted to work with AMC. He was in "Argo," "Killing Them Softly" -- he's been working with a lot of big filmmakers, and he still wanted to be on TV. 

Do you know that he and Kerry Bishé played the man and wife in "Argo?" 

Yes, and that had to be a coincidence. That casting happened well before "Argo" hit it big.

Oh, yeah. It had nothing to do with it. I think they showed up and said, "Oh, you again." 

People are going to post reviews and reactions to this premiere. Do you think one episode is enough for people to fairly judge the show?

Of course not. You know we would love to deliver full bore, entire 10-episode order and see everybody so they can judge the arc of the entire season and see how it evolves. In fact, I'm in conversations right now with AMC about possibly bundling this pilot with three subsequent episodes and trying to deliver that to critics as soon as possible. I think that would allow people to see the many flavors of "Halt and Catch Fire," because there are lots of movies that I think will be very surprising to some people coming up.

So, of course, I think it's not enough, but that's because in my head I have the entire season. I have the entire arc, the way these characters evolve; the way they deepen. It's easy to watch just one episode and be like, "Eh, I wonder what that will be?" But I think if we bundle four -- if we can, I don't know the timeline, we're still exploring it -- that would be a great way to give people more insight into what we're attempting to achieve. We actually believe the show is pretty great now, but that we've done some excellent work drilling down with these characters -- work that is by no means easy.

We're making a show that, on its face, is about the cloning of the PC. Well, that doesn't immediately light your hair on fire. So we had to drill really deep and figure out what the moves of these characters were going to be, what made them unique, and what made them credible. 

Some of AMC's shows have gained momentum from people catching up via Netflix ("Breaking Bad," "The Walking Dead"). When you're writing a show today, do you factor in that people could end up watching all the episodes in a row via some streaming service or on Blu-ray?

You know, it's funny. I don't think that I do it consciously. But unconsciously there is this understanding that people could binge watch this over two days, and will it be satisfying under those circumstances. A lot of that has to do with, dramatically speaking, whether or not you jump time and how much time jumping you wish to do. Whether people have a stomach to watch the first 10 that cover two years, or would they would prefer it to be -- not a "24"-like show -- but, "Oh, I'm going to watch six months of these people's lives over 10 episodes."

So to that extent, yes, we consider it. But look, if the story's not working and the scripts aren't good, it doesn't matter. As long as each episode is credible and stands up and the next one flows, then we're happy. What can be done is you can use that time in between episodes to have it mushroom in people's consciousness that it can't if they're going to watch it right away. That's the element that sometimes is problematic. We'd love for them to sit with it a couple days. Dream about it. Let them make their own conclusions and let it live inside them a little bit before moving on to episodes two through 10. So we have to run that balance, and I think we're doing it in a natural, organic, instinctive way instead of being deliberate about it.

I love the last line of the pilot when Gordon asks Joe, "What are you trying to prove with all this?" Put yourself in Joe's shoes for a second. What are you trying to prove with this show? What do you want to say?

People might analyze the show and say, "Oh, this is just a show about the genesis of the computer business in the '80s." Or, "This is a show, more broadly speaking, about people being cutthroat to gain a competitive advantage." Not really. To me as a dramatist, if you want to use that highfalutin' term, or as just your normal old workaday writer, what interests me are the bizarre incongruities of our otherwise unremarkable existence and how seemingly normal people can strive for extraordinary things and what sacrifices they're willing to make for these things they can't quite grasp.

I love this idea of invention and gestation, and that our characters know that they're onto something, cannot articulate it, don't know whether it will be worth it, and we don't know what they're going to wind up making is going to redefine our world or be swept into the trash bin of history. I think that's a fascinating thing to explore and something we can all relate to as well. 

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