Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg are typically inseparable, at least when it comes to “The Americans.” But the day I was lucky enough to sit down with them, Mr. Weisberg had been called away, leaving Mr. Fields to discuss their series at the Winter TCAs … all day… in front of a literal ballroom full of press. Was he nervous? Intimidated? Excited to take center stage? None of the above. Instead, Mr. Fields was simply ready; ready to give credit to everyone involved in the hit series and ready to discuss a unique collaborative process all while flying solo.
The writing duo and co-showrunners behind FX’s most critically revered drama series have been producing addictive, insightful and immensely entertaining television for four years now — not a lifetime. (Weisberg was the original creator of the show, and Fields joined later.) The Coen Brothers and Duplassi might get the most attention for their collaborative processes, but they’ve had four lifetimes between them all to get to know their partner in art. Weisberg and Fields were thrown into what the latter describes as an “arranged marriage,” the start of a process Fields is happy to break down below. The conversation also covers the Paige problem, how reviews affect future seasons and the heartbreaking and dangerous breakup that could ruin the Jennings lives — between Phillip and Stan. But first, we launch right into how Fields and Weisberg work together.
You guys are so on the same page that it doesn’t matter [that Weisberg isn’t here].
Well, that’s nice. You know what it is? It’s a great dialectic between us. I had a chance to see a dear friend of mine this morning for breakfast who I haven’t seen in a while, and I was talking about my friendship and partnership with Joe. It’s a rare thing. We are creatively very in synch. We will often debate and discuss and spend a long time drilling down into fine points of character or story. But it’s never really about conflict, because I feel like until we get on the same page it just means we haven’t found it yet. Part of what’s exciting is you know you’re on the same page. There doesn’t have to be anything defensive or conflicted about it because you both know you’re on the same page and, until then, it’s a discovery process.
When did that happen for you? When did you realize that that process was working?
Well, it’s interesting because as Philip and Elizabeth were put into an arranged marriage, so were we. We were put into an arranged marriage — as they were — under very extreme circumstances. We were up against a production deadline, a hurricane hit and the stakes were the creative success of the series. I remember he and I had a couple pretty pivotal talks. One of them was a very overt candid conversation about what our relationship would be and a decision that we would talk everything through. At the beginning sometimes, we had these ad nauseum discussions of the intricacies of what we were feeling about process. But it led us to a place where we felt safe and comfortable and trusting with one another.
And we also started writing together very early on. I think it was the third episode of Season 1, the Ronald Reagan episode, where we just sat in a room and wrote together, and we found that process went very well. And then we were writing and rewriting a lot together over the course of that first season. And then, because of that production schedule, because of the hurricane, there were more nights than not that we saw the sun come up, the two of us in the office there writing together just because we had no other choice. So we were stuck in the editing room and stuck writing together, and if it doesn’t break you it brings you closer together.
The other thing I might add is very early on we had a talk about what our aspirations were creatively. We talked about our mutual desire to make something great together, but we also talked about the fact that setting out to make something great was a fool’s errand. Because “great” was not really anything definable. So we decided what we would do was make something that we both were proud of and enthusiastic about and if we could make something that was really interesting to us that we really felt passionate about then that would be the goal. As soon as we did that, there was something that, for as hard as we were working, became fun. Because we could get our arms around that. That’s a question we could answer. Are we excited and passionate about this? That we could know.
What would you tell people is the important thing to figure out in a writers’ arranged marriage?
First of all, in success, there is enough credit and accolades and money to go around for everybody. In failure, nobody cares. So first of all, set as much ego aside as possible because none of it matters. Secondly, I would say there is so much work getting a show off the ground, the more you can build collaborations with your partners, with your creative talents, the more you can empower them to pursue a mutual vision. To me, the stronger the whole process will be.
There are a lot of writers out there who are just getting into this, or all they’ve done is write by themselves. So then it becomes a whole other level of writing when you’re thrown into a situation and need to collaborate.
One of the great things about the television process is its collaborative nature. I wrote plays and still write plays and I love that process. Even that, once you finish writing a play, the exciting part is once you get into a workshop and you are collaborating. There is just so much growth that comes out of that. And for us, the collaboration between me and Joe, but even then we have a brilliant team of directors that come in and help out. We have a brilliant costume designer and production designer. The people who mix the show for us and do the sound design bring a level of genius. We sit there through all of it, and we talk about what works for us and we want to have a singular vision, but also to make that singular vision great. You want to empower all those people to do their best work.
Steering the conversation to the new season, the last few times I talked to you and Mr. Weisberg, it was clear you both take feedback very seriously. Did anything you took from Season 3 have any influence on what you decided to do in Season 4 and how you decided to construct it?
I’d say the answer is I’m sure it did, but I can’t give you specifics. It’s more of a question of a totality of a discussion that goes on for– It’s a curious thing because on the one hand, as I said, we pursue what’s passionate and exciting for us, but, on the other hand, we want to keep an open mind and hear what smart people have to say. I feel very lucky to live in this world where not one, not two, but dozens of people are writing what are called “recaps,” but are by any measure analyses. They go beyond reviews, some of them, into rich psychological analyses of the work we do. That’s great feedback. It’s not feedback we are turning to to read for the purpose of following, but it will provoke discussions for us. We will say, “Wow, so and so got this!” [laughs]. “We thought we were being so subtle.” Or, “I can’t believe so many people missed this thing that we thought was there. Were we just being too subtle there?” They’re just all fair questions for what is ultimately a subjective artistic pursuit.
Coming at it from my side, we are very thankful to have the stuff you guys are putting out there because that’s exactly how we want to approach television. That’s why we want to talk about it. We don’t just want to write to write something. We want to have the discussion.
I will say this year will be an interesting year for us because, that first season when Joe and I were in it so intensely, critiques were coming out as we were airing and episodes were going out really wet and we were reading those in the midst of it. This year we’ll wrap before or right around the premiere. So it’s gonna be a different process for us. [laughs]
How did you define Elizabeth and Phillip’s relationship in Season 4? Where do they see themselves right now, in the crux of it?
What’s exciting is now you have a marriage that’s weathered it’s ups and downs — become a real marriage. They have to deal with the great challenge of being parents together. I was gonna say not being on the same page, which is a problem we run into the writers’ room all the time.
No pun intended.
Well, that’s the problem. [laughs] But not necessarily agreeing and again the sweet spot for us in the show is that’s such a universal crisis. Two parents that love one another, that love their child, but see things differently. How do you navigate that as people who want their marriage to work and want the best for their child? And the difference is in this case the circumstances are heightened and the stakes are life and death.
That’s what really helps it hit home from a moment to moment basis, but allows you to address it when you are thinking about it.
It also allows me to say, “Honey, it could be worse. We could be deep cover soviet spies.” [laughs]
Specifically to Paige and specifically what happened at the end of Season 3: How did you wait until the second episode to address that?
It’s funny because another critic said, “I can’t believe you got to it so fast in the second episode.” [laughs] It’s funny. That’s one of the things we didn’t really discuss. Often we don’t discuss where these things fall. That’s why I think the revelation of telling Paige fell where it fell — because we really try to follow the story and characters. I knew we were coming out of last season into this season with a lot of propulsion and a lot of story urgency. Really, for us, it was that exciting process of not asking ourselves what happens next, but rather saying what part of the story are we telling next? Because there’s so much that’s inevitably happening that’s so exciting. It was just a matter of following that story rocket.
I think you were talking to one of my colleagues once about how binge-viewing has affected production — the idea that people are gonna watch it all in a row. That they will know if you try to cheat this location for that one. I was wondering if it made you more patient at all when you were writing the episodes? Knowing a large group of people were going to be watching this at their own speed. You’ve got their trust. They are gonna keep going.
That’s a very good way of putting it. I think it has. I would say what it does is it liberates us as storytellers to focus on character and not having to worry about having easily digestible episodes that are nice in the moment but ultimately really disposable. Now we feel as if we are writing chapters in a novel. We basically count on a viewer who is going to commit to the show or not. I don’t think one can just pick and choose and say, “‘The Americans’ is on tonight. I think I’m gonna watch that. It looks like they’re doing this.” I don’t think that would be a pleasurable viewing experience. That’s different. It’s great to be able to tune into some of the comedies I watch. I can say “Hey, ‘Blackish’ is on tonight. I love ‘Blackish’! It’s great!” That’s fantastic, but this is a different kind of storytelling.
It felt very timely that Phillip and Stan’s relationship suddenly hit that wall and fractured. It was so fun to watch them as friends for so long and now it hurts all the more that they’ve had this falling out. I was curious as to why now is a good time to do that and what motivated the writers decision for this to happen when it did?
I’ll say Phillip and Elizabeth are pretty smart about these things. So you’ll see how that unfolds, and I don’t think they are unaware of the repercussions. One would think they would be smart enough to handle that. On the other hand, they’re human beings and Phillip’s become a real friend to Stan, and he’s not a guy with a lot of friends, so you can imagine what it would feel like to him for his ex-wife — ex-wife to be, or whatever you want to call her — is having private conversations with one of his few friends. Add to that, Stan is a very smart and experienced investigator, so when he confronts Phillip and he sees that everything isn’t right in Phillip’s response on some deep, cellular level there is a reason why that bell would ring. It’s just not the reason that Stan could ever imagine.