Amazon’s “Hand of God” has a lot to recommend it: a stellar cast including Ron Perlman, Dana Delany, Garrett Dillahunt and Andre Royo, artful direction in the first two episodes by award-nominated director Marc Forster and a story you can’t say you’ve seen anywhere else. Is reckless Judge Pernell Harris (Perlman) touched by a higher power or losing his mind? That’s the question the show wants you to answer for yourself.
This weekend, viewers have the opportunity to sample the whole series at once, but if you binge, pay attention to some key details — like the show’s deliberately retro style, and the fact that no one talks to each other on their cell phones. Indiewire spoke with Forster and creator Ben Watkins about the opportunity to create a new story completely from scratch, what we can expect from future seasons, and what they did and didn’t discuss while building the world of the show.
What I find really fascinating about the show that this is a completely original concept, to the best of my knowledge.
Watkins: Yes, it is. It is a completely original concept. I don’t bring that up too often, but that is one of the things that has gotten a little tiresome about the business. And it pisses me off when you talk to studios or agents or executives and they say stuff like, “Is there any [intellectual property] behind it?” or “Is this an adaptation of something?” as if that’s more valuable when I think that there’s something to be said for something that’s completely original.
When you started kicking around this idea, where did that original inspiration come from?
Watkins: The original inspiration came from this fascination I have with zealotry. From characters throughout history that were zealots, like John Brown or Matt Turner or Mahatma Gandhi or even John Coltrane, or I would even say people like Albert Einstein. These people who are operating on another level, and part of that reason I think– The thing they have in common is they are singularly obsessed with something. They are so focused on something. But it wasn’t just that character. The other part that I think is crucial is how people around them — society and loved ones — react. And so I always wanted to tell a story because they get this power that comes with plusses and minuses, but they are so singularly focused that it is something that is uncomfortable for other people. Other people have to respond by categorizing them so they have to either be crazy or that have to be inspired — insane or inspired. And I decided I wanted to write a story with that at the root.
But leaving the question up to us.
Watkins: Yes. The crucial part is to leave the question up to us, because I think that the answer — and this is something that the entire series is about, when you have this question of insane or inspired, or good or bad, truth or lie — I think for us, the answer has to be both, because we think two things can be true at the same time and we’re fascinated with how the audience will respond. If we give you the fodder for both sides of the argument, then your conclusion has to be based on your own agenda.
For you, Marc, what brought you into the project?
Forster: I’ve wanted to do TV for a while, but I felt like I needed to collaborate with someone and to make sure that the vision stayed where I wanted it. I wanted to keep being involved as the journey went on. So, when I read the script and I fell in love with it. I said, “Okay, I really love the writing. I love how he’s such a well balanced character. He’s got very dramatic moments.” And I thought that was very hard to do and I was interested, as the director, in doing something like that. So we met and really connected and it’s one of those rare things where I felt why we really got into this business and why we’re doing this, is because this experience was a joy on so many levels. The actors, the studio and everybody involved, there were no creative differences. We all were making the same thing and everybody was just trying to elevate the show to make the best show possible, and Ben and I were just in sync about everything. That’s something very rare, and everybody was trying in the first episodes. The whole team behind the scenes was always trying to keep that vision I set in those first episodes for the season. We just had a great coloration and it’s just been a lot of fun, so it could not have been a better experience.
I’m curious: When you’re creating something completely original, based on ideas but an original story, were there specific films or TV shows or books that you guys both pointed to and were like,”This is something that represents our combined vision for the project.”
Forster: Actually, we never did that. We never spoke about that. I read it, but I thought it was so different than anything I’d seen out there and I felt like the point was not to play it safe. Take the risks in regard to where the show goes, and the characters, and always push buttons to make people uncomfortable and I felt like there wasn’t really anything out there. There are a lot of shows we both love, but we never actually discussed any references, visually and tonally. I always loved how “LA Confidential” for instance, in regard to the design, even though it was a period piece, it felt very modern. And I think here, in regard to architecture and tone and everything that you feel, it’s present day and very modern but it has sort of a timelessness to it.
Watkins: Yeah, and as far as me, we definitely actually stayed away from trying to find contemporary examples that might have something in common with us. I have always loved storytelling that’s complicated, and has complicated and compelling human characters across the board. My favorite books were always noir, like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and John D. MacDonald. So I think that had some influence on the way that I wrote the story. But, once we started to talk about what it would look like, we really just stayed in our own zone with that.
It’s interesting talking about noir because that is such a style born of a very specific time period. But, then you bring it into a new environment, a new time period essentially, that brings a timeless feel to it.
Watkins: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Forster: That was the intent, you just paraphrased it for us.
Watkins: And one little tidbit that we haven’t told anyone. One of the things that I set as a goal — I mean, I have some very aspirational goals, and I won’t go into all of them — but one of the biggest ones was I wanted to do a show where there was not one successful cell phone conversation. So, if you look at the first season of “Hand of God” — I have no idea how long this is going to last — but the first season of “Hand of God,” you will see cell phones, but you will never see two characters able to talk to each other via cell phone.
Oh, that’s hilarious.
Watkins: That’s my way of paying homage to the days of noir and those stories where if you wanted to say something, you had to go find them and say it to their face.
Forster: And I actually do love that, what Ben said, because it gives the sort of throwback to a different time period, but at the same time you’re dealing with the modern day and that’s sort of how I envisioned the show visually, in regard to location, costumes, everything else.
The cell phone thing is such an interesting issue, because I feel like you hear writers say all the time “Yeah, cell phones kill drama.”
Watkins: Yeah. It’s hard because cell phones are so ubiquitous. How can you do a show realistically without having them? But at the same time, they did kill drama and now they’re used as such a short cut. You watch movies, and you watch TV shows where the most dramatic thing is someone walking out of their office, getting a call that’s urgent. “The bomb’s going to detonate.” I like to hearken where you weren’t able to do that. If you had something to say that was worth saying, you had to go and find that person, and you had to go say it. So, I had no idea it was going to work, but I set that as a mandate with the writers room when we came in, I said there’s going to be no voiceovers, there’s going to be no cell phone conversation, and they looked at me like I was crazy, but we were able to pull it off.
What I’m curious about is how much of your audience is going to pick up on that.
Forster: You know, the interesting thing is, I don’t think they will, because you still have the cell phones in the episodes. So, the cell phones are around, they play a part in it. And you use modern devices, like obviously when they play back certain things. But they never actually use [phones] to talk to each other, and I thought what Ben did with that was really very smart.
Watkins: But one of the interesting things that came out of that was we had times where we put a lot of pressure on production, because there were a number of times when we ended up doing scenes that nowadays would have been done via cell phone. I think the scenes were much better, but that meant having that location, having those actors in one place, having that whole set put together — which I think is great for the production quality of the show. But it definitely made some challenges that people weren’t as used to.
I imagine the cast also really appreciates it.
Watkins: Yeah, I mean the thing is I didn’t tell anyone. Marc and I knew, and my writing staff knew. I did not tell anyone, and no one brought it up, which was to me a sign that it was working. No one ever felt like we were doing something just to force the issue.
Forster: No one ever questioned, “Why are they not calling them? Why are they not picking up the phone?” That’s an interesting thing, too. I think we, in our nature, actually like being unable to pick up the phone.
Because you don’t have intellectual property you’re working with — because you’re telling a story from start to end — what’s been the most surprising thing about the way Season 1 has unfolded for you?
Watkins: Well, I mean in terms of the story, I had worked out a lot of it before I even wrote the script. And part of that reason was because it was so ambitious: I really felt like it was going to be a high bar to jump in order to sell the show, and it wasn’t going to happen at all unless I had a really good idea of where it could end up. And the story really did hold up.
But one of the things that’s been very gratifying about all this, and Marc touched on it before, is how charmed the whole experience has been. Seeing these characters come to life the way these actors, from the top, from Ron Perlman all the way down, the way they’ve elevated these characters, and how that changed some of the storytelling, to see that happen is so… You always want to have a cast that’s strong. But, you don’t know for sure how it’s going to work out. But to be put in the position where you literally get ready to write your next script, and you want it to be about all of the characters because they’re all so compelling… That was I have to say, a surprise — a pleasant problem to have.
Awesome. How about for you, Marc? What about the way Season 1 unfolded surprised you?
Forster: For me, it ultimately all starts with the characters. Obviously, the numerous characters but I must say, every time the twists unfold and everything, and the motivations of all the characters, there were always surprises, and for me it was never on the nose. And I think sometimes – and I spoke to Ben about this – the use of flashback can be very expositional in a series, and I think it wasn’t used for that. It was very organically used in a subjective way, that it was part of the storytelling without being like, “Oh look at this, that’s why XYZ happened.” And I’m really happy with this first season and how it ends up. I’m happy with the directors we hired. It just connected, and the characters connect, and the storytelling is connected. I’m really excited to share it with the rest of the world, and I can’t wait to see their reactions.
To wrap things up, clearly Season 1 is going to end in the place it ends, but are you right now also thinking about Season 2?
Watkins: Yes, absolutely. Again, with this type of character, that Pernell is, that could be insane or could be inspired, and wanting that conversation to be complex, not wanting to fill in the blanks for the audience, I really did put a lot of work into what the whole journey would be. And part of it was, when I realized that I was going to use grief for his cause, because I was thinking I can’t necessarily justify his behavior and keep him relatable to people watching if I say he’s doing this in the name of global warming. And so, we went with grief, which is so personal, and started looking into the journey of grief, and it actually made for a good sort of framework for what his story would be and what we’ll do for the series. So it starts with denial, and Season 1 loosely has that as a theme. But the next is anger, and then bargaining, and then depression and then acceptance. So I basically have an idea for five seasons and using those as sort of the loose themes. And Season 2 has a story, continues the mystery, continues his journey, and starts to build on the other characters’ journeys, but anger will be the theme.