“Aquarius” is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Okay, that’s not entirely true. We’ve seen historical fiction on television before, as well as more cops and criminals than anyone can count. Even the stars of the new NBC drama are all TV veterans in one way or another, with series lead David Duchovny well-known from “The X-Files” and “Californication,” Gethin Anthony — who plays Charles Manson — a former “Game of Thrones” star, and a couple of “Friday Night Lights” stars handling supporting roles (Grey Damon and Gaius Charles). But what it all adds up to is truly unique. A serialized story with procedural elements, “Aquarius” is a bold take on its subject with an even bolder release strategy from NBC. You can watch all episodes of the drama right now on NBC.com, various VOD outlets and Hulu, despite the fact it only released its first two episodes last Thursday (and will air the rest one-by-one on Thursdays this summer). Indiewire spoke with series creator John McNamara and director and executive producer Jonas Pate at a release party in late April, and the excited duo discussed everything from releasing two cuts of the show to a few spoilers for Season 2 (and beyond).
Check out what they had to say below, and watch all of “Aquarius” however you damn well please.
John McNamara: Really the idea came up about three weeks ago. And Marty Adelstein called me and I had this visceral reaction of like, “I love it.”
Jonas Pate: But you’ve always had an outside-the-box digital strategy on this. Because there’s been a cut that we’ve aired on network, but then there’s also been a non-network cut that was also going to be released online.
JP: Yes, there’s basically like a cable version and a network version.
JM: It started with the fact that this was really developed at a cable company before NBC.
JM: And I could never shake that feeling of, “I want to do it this way,” right? Bob was great about saying, “Look, do whatever you want, but you can’t say ‘fuck’ and you can’t show cocks.”
JP: We tried anyway.
JM: I just remember my nature was to push back and say “Why? Why, why, why?” So Jonas called the head of post[-production] and he said “What would it cost to do two completely different versions, like shoot that and then shoot this and then cut them together?” And she said “$12,000 an episode,” and we were like, “Do it. Do it.” […] We ended up with $12,000 an episode [and] we have two versions of the series. We have the episode that you see on NBC.com and then there’s the version that you’ll see on iTunes and in Europe, and they’re different.
Was there any specific scene, that was really important to you, that you had to alter or significantly change?
JP: Not a scene.
JM: More moments than scenes.
JP: More sort of embroidery around scenes. It was sort of an experiment, and I think it’s something that, moving forward, we could experiment with more.
JM: I mean look, part of the thing was that nudity is part of the ’60s. And real sexuality is the ’60s. So yes, the version you’ll see on NBC is sexual. The version you’ll see on iTunes is NC-17.
Did you ever feel hampered by the language in particular? Do the other cuts have more cursing?
JM: No, because we did both.
JP: No, no, because we always did it. And honestly, there were times it was hotly debated. There were times we just said it and then tried to snuff it out, Standards and Practices didn’t like that. We literally just turned down the volume. We’d say it and just turn the volume down.
JM: [laughs] We actually hosted Standards and Practices at dinner. They were great.
JP: Yeah. You should see some of the emails John sent that was just basically like every single precedent of when that word had been used on NBC, when an ass-crack had been shown on NBC, like these—
JM: We’d sort of gone backwards from [Steven] Bochco and “NYPD Blue,” and I was sort of mad about that, you know? I thought when Bochco did “NYPD Blue” that was the end of the line, and somewhere in the early 2000s the line went like this [gestures down]. And the fact is one of the arguments that all the networks use is, “Well, but a lot of those ‘NYPD Blue’ moments resulted in lawsuits. The FCC sued Steven Bochco and ABC or whatever.” And I said, “Yeah, but Bochco won all those lawsuits in the Supreme Court.”
JP: And they said, “What did that cost?” and I said, “I don’t know. I’m sure a lot of money.”
JM: And I’m like yeah, they don’t want to spend that money, which I totally understand. So I understand not wanting to have to go down that road, so that was the whole part of the genesis of, “Fine, we’ll do two versions.”
JP: So releasing them all at once, it’s sort of a natural evolution of the spirit of the show, honestly. I think it’s great. I mean it’s all going that way anyway, so the sooner the better.
JM: The show makes even the most conservative television servant an anarchist, because the show’s about anarchy and it’s about the wonder of anarchy and the horror of anarchy. It’s really both. The show’s about both.
So assuming you guys get picked up for a second season, is this something you’re going to continue to do? You’re just going to try to keep pushing the boundaries and then if you ever cross the line you’ll have another cut?
JP: Yeah, I mean, sure. […] It’s not boundaries for boundaries sake, it’s just telling the story that it was, honestly.
The show is obviously historical fiction. Charles Manson is real, certain aspects of it are real. How did you decide where to draw the line for including what was real and what was inspired, and then just making something up to serve the story?
JM: I mean, Jonas and I actually both read novels a lot, and in a novel — like a Gore Vidal novel, like say “Burr” — he just doesn’t care. He uses George Washington, he uses Alexander Hamilton, and then he uses this totally fictional family the Schuylar family, and it’s so interesting.
JP: And there’s something about the mere fact that you’re doing it means that you’re lying, inherently.
JP: So it’s already a lie even if you’re trying to be utterly faithful, so you might as well just lean into the drama.
Is there any worry, though, about viewers who come into this? That they just turn on their TV — or they go to NBC.com — and they see Charles Manson and just kind of cling to this as a reality?
JM: Well the Manson stuff is not wholly inaccurate.
JM: It’s not like we’re saying Manson really was a Nazi spy, or Manson was a CIA agent or whatever. The Manson stuff is like if you Wikipedia Manson, it’ll be close to what he really was. Where the series kind of takes off in its own direction is the Manson relationship with the fictional Karn family, but even that is based on stuff that’s real.
JP: Yeah, inspired by the truth, yeah.
JM: And I actually think— I’m doing a movie that’s a historical movie as well, [and] we have a lot of the same debates. Although the movie is about the Hollywood blacklist, so it’s much more historically accurate. It’s about only real people. But what we said at the press for that is that we want that movie to be a window for people to go read the real stuff, you know? I think it’s what takes the pressure off the artists. Look, there’s so much written about Manson that is really well written and really accurate, and we’re really not glamorizing it at all.
JP: No. And I think Gethin was pretty smart actually. Gethin, he did a cursory survey of Manson, but then he let it go and he became his own version of Manson, which I think was the right thing to do.
What was it about Hodiak that you really were drawn to?
JM: Seeing the ’60s through a guy my age, which would be destabilizing. It would be weird. I mean, I can’t imagine being 50 in 1967.
JP: The world’s changing, policing’s changing, everything is changing.
JM: And you don’t want to change, you know?
Can you talk a little about the female characters in the show, namely the daughter who finds Manson [Emma Dumont] and then the cop [Claire Holt]? Were they inspired by any real people, or were they something you came up with for the story?
JM: I kind of feel like Emma is in a way the amalgam of all the Manson girls. They all had Daddy issues, they were all kind of emotionally dropped by their families, and they were adrift. And Manson grabbed them and gave them a twisted kind of love that then turned them into an army. Certainly, Claire Holt’s character is based on several of the first female officers who were fighting for equality in the ’60s, and Claire’s character has a great arc coming up. She’s going to end up being the first undercover plainclothes officer, eventually.
One of the things that was very interesting to me about the first few episodes was how you brought in racial dynamics.
JM: That gets so good, and these guys did— the Black Panther stuff, yeah.
JP: That’s not over! That’s still happening!
JM: It’s so interesting. Well the Black Panthers are going to be a huge part of the whole six season [arc].
JP: But that was already written in, and then Ferguson happened and we were talking about it as that was going on.
JM: Ferguson happened while we were shooting Episode 5.
Is that something you wanted to address because of recent events? Was that something that you really felt needed to be there?
JM: I mean the writers were so excited to take on everything. Episode 5, the Black Panther episode, was written by Rafael Yglesias, who’s a really wonderful novelist and wrote the movie “Fearless” with Jeff Bridges. It was Raf who came in. Raf pitched this real guy, Bunchy Carter, who was a former Nation of Islam pacifist who became a Black Panther and later was murdered. That character’s going to be in the whole series and is going to end up dying in a terrible— […] I think what was amazing about that was when Raf had this idea of what if we historically fictionalize/invent Hodiak as the guy who radicalizes Bunchy? In Episode 2, Bunchy’s a pacifist. In Episode 5, he’s a Black Panther because of Hodiak. We all just were like “Oh my god, that’s a reshoot.”
I really enjoyed that aspect of it, because I like the parts of the show that connect all the way through. You’ve got a few aspects that are case-of-the-week, but the through stories are really exciting. When you see actors like Gaius Charles and other characters, and you’re like, “Oh, I want more of them,” and then he keeps coming back.
JP: Yeah, that’s definitely continued through the first season for sure. It’s less case-of-the-week than anything. There’s a couple but not many.
JM: Yeah, you’re going to sort of see the real “Aquarius” when you get to the end of Episode 7, which is a gay murder in a movie studio, and it doesn’t resolve ’til [Episode] 13. That’s really what we want to do. That’s the show.
JP: And tiny gingerbread crumbs along the way. […] It’s conducive to binge-watching.
That’s what I was going to say.
JP: It’s much better if you see them back-to-back, because then you don’t have to reset. Thank god we don’t have to do recaps, it’s like, just go. [laughs]
JM: [laughs] “Previously on ‘Aquarius'” is like 9 minutes.