After “Lost” ended, executive producer Carlton Cuse famously escaped to a remote part of Europe to decompress — where he still ran into fans. But even now, more than eight years after the series wrapped, he’s still constantly recognized on the street.
“I would say it happens once or twice a week,” Cuse said. “I was just in an airport, and a guy came up to me. It was really super touching. I really like it when people come up and say that they liked the show. He said that his dad had died, and he loved ‘Lost,’ and that whole kind of connection between Jack [Matthew Fox’s character] and his father was something that meant a lot to him because of his own personal circumstances. It was very emotional.”
But Cuse is now behind another “Jack” on the small screen: Amazon Prime Video’s “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.” It’s the biggest budgeted TV show yet for Cuse, who has been busy in the years since he left the “Lost” island, with shows such as A&E’s “Bates Motel,” USA’s “Colony” and FX’s “The Strain.”
While recording an interview for KCRW’s “The Business,” IndieWire recently caught up with Cuse to discuss his move into the streaming world with “Jack Ryan,” how he was able to benefit from Amazon’s big pockets to shoot the show all over the world, and some of the controversies that have arisen out of the show’s depictions. He also explained why he decided to sign a new overall deal with ABC Studios, instead of joining the legion of showrunners moving to digital platforms like Netflix. Plus: The status of his new series “Locke and Key” (which is at Netflix), whether he’ll ever partner again with his “Lost” pal Damon Lindelof, and their conditions for a “Lost” reboot.
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You’ve been very busy in the years since “Lost.” As a matter of fact, there was a period of time where you had three or four shows on the air at the same time.
This was not an intentional thing. I mean, every writer develops a bunch of different stuff because most things in Hollywood fail. And I just had this weird moment in time where the shows that I did all worked. So suddenly I found myself in the multiple show business. And kind of enjoyed it. It was really an adrenaline-fueled challenge to trying to be doing three shows at a time.
Did it seem easier at that point once you sort of had a well-oiled machine going? Was it easier to pitch?
The thing about a Hollywood career is there is it’s this Sisyphus-ian journey. Every time you do a project, you’re back at the bottom of the mountain trying to roll the boulder up the hill. Maybe it’s easier in some respects, but each one is hard. And every project is starting fresh and trying to figure out, “What is it? How does it work? What’s going to make it good?” So that part doesn’t get easier.
You were actually, early on, developing something at Amazon (the Civil War drama “Point of Order,” in 2015). That was during the time that they were uploading pilots for viewers to watch and vote on. What was it like to be a part of that open pilot process?
I think that their methodology has evolved for the better into not doing that. But yeah, it was Civil War show. And it just didn’t catch fire. But it was certainly fun after being in the network world to be in the streaming world without a lot of the constraints of network television. We had more money, more time. Didn’t have same kind of content restrictions. But I think even since that time, things have evolved a lot.
And so when Graham Roland and I started developing “Jack Ryan” and we pitched it around, Amazon was the most aggressive in wanting the show. And they really committed to this idea of making it like a film, making it big, making it cinematic, traveling around the world to film it. There’s a Middle Eastern village up in Santa Clarita. And some people might say, “Well, that’s where you can shoot your Middle Eastern stuff.” And we were like, “No. We really want to go to Morocco and it will lend a whole level of verisimilitude to this that you can’t get in Santa Clarita.” They were willing to spend the money and give us the resources and let us do that.
I hear Amazon has some money. What was the development process like? This was a project that you and Graham were working on for several years.
We have been working on “Jack Ryan” for about three and a half years. So talk about a seismic shift to go from making 22 or 24 episodes of television a year, to three years to make eight episodes. It’s an entirely different experience.
Does that amortize out? That sounds like very different economics.
I know. The economics are not as good, but it really was a labor of love and a story that I think both of us really wanted to tell. And what we did was we sold the show and then we wrote three really, really detailed outlines that ended up becoming the first four episodes of the show. We give those to Amazon. They greenlit the show. We then cast John Krasinski. And then we started figuring out how we were going to actually shoot it. The first thing we determined was we needed to write all eight episodes of the show ahead of time. And then we cross-boarded the entire show so it was like a movie. So we were shooting bits and pieces of all eight episodes across a six-month period of time. And that was something I’d never done before.
This project was also through Paramount TV and the involvement of the Tom Clancy estate. The character of Jack Ryan has been interpreted many times on the big screen. But what were the parameters in bringing it to television?
I think the feeling at Paramount was it had sort of run its course as a feature film franchise. And so the television group over there had it, and they pitched it. They were looking for someone to do it. And I had read maybe eight of the Clancy books just as a fan. And I was like, “Oh, I get this. I know what is good.” So then Graham Roland and I started working on it. We started originally trying to adapt “Clear and Present Danger.” And we were kind of spinning our wheels. After about a month we were like, “Ah, this isn’t working.”
We came to the realization it was just dated, that this was a book that had been written 30 years ago, and it didn’t feel topical or fresh. One of the core things that made Clancy’s books work is they were geopolitical thrillers of the moment. And so we needed to come up with our own story that was relevant. And three and a half years ago when we started writing it, we felt like telling a terrorist story was the right thing to do. There was probably no great existential crisis that the world was facing out there than terrorism, at that moment in time.
When did you settle on a almost Bin Laden-like figure as sort of the centerpiece of the story?
We spent a bunch of time talking to a bunch of people who had worked in the CIA. And one of them had worked in the terrorist, arms, and finance division. And he himself was recently out of the agency and kind of like a Jack Ryan character. He had been in the military, and then had worked in Wall Street, and had come to work as an analyst in the CIA. There was this idea of, “What if there was a guy that you were following, and he had amassed a bunch of money. 9/11 had cost a half a million dollars — what if had this mysterious terrorist character that had amassed 20 times that amount of money? What could he do?” That seemed like a really compelling premise.
You also rebooted the character. This is a new origins story of Jack Ryan.
In the Clancy books, he goes from being an analyst in “Hunt for Red October” to becoming the president of the United States. And it felt like the sweet spot was in that moment where he goes from being an analyst to being an operative in the field for the first time. That was the part that seemed the most traumatic and compelling. In our version, it’s kind of a prequel to everything that’s gone on. He’s only worked in the CIA for four years, which is less than in the books. Kathy Mueller is his wife in the books. They’re just meeting and dating in our story. James Greer, played beautifully and augustly by James Earl Jones in the films, is sitting in a fancy corner office at the top floor of the CIA. And in our story, [as played by Wendell Pierce], he’s just one rung above Jack Ryan in hierarchy. We wanted to be able to put those guys together and let them team up.
John Krasinski plays Jack Ryan. He’s having quite a year, right? What an amazing sort of confluence of events for this to come out so soon after his film “A Quiet Place.”
And it was funny because the movie was made between the time when we finished shooting him and before our show aired. I think he’s very interested in being a filmmaker and not just being an actor. And that was sort of the next logical step. And he killed it. He did a great job.
Were there many barriers to convincing everyone to get Krasinski on board, and not just think of him as Jim from “The Office”?
For people who hadn’t seen “13 Hours,” I think yeah. They had to reimagine who this guy was. And then, it also just seemed like kind of the perfect confluence. In our story, our guy was going from being a desk jockey to being in the field. And it starts with him sitting in a cubicle in an office. So what a perfect thing to have John Krasinski in a familiar environment, and then take him out of that into a very different environment. We were very convinced that he would be very convincing as that guy. And it turns out, we were right. I think has very effectively made the transition from being a guy who was in a sitcom to being a real movie star.
Reportedly the budget on “Jack Ryan” is as much as $10 million an episode. That’s some scratch to play with.
When I was doing “Lost,” at the time, that was the biggest, most complicated show in the world. And it’s now, of course, been superseded by “Game of Thrones” and maybe “Westworld.” But not many other shows are bigger than “Jack Ryan.” Amazon made the commitment when we pitched this thing that we were going to do it on a big, international filming kind of scale. They committed to shooting the show in Montreal, Washington D.C. We spent four months in Morocco, and then we went to Paris and Chamonix in France. That made a huge difference.
Jan Thijs / Amazon
Every season you’re tackling a different challenge that’s facing the CIA. This season, it’s Middle East terrorism. Some shows have struggled at times to depict the Middle East, and have been criticized for their portrayal of the region. How did you handle it?
It was something that we were very concerned about getting right. We had a female Islamic writer on staff on the show. We had several Islamic consultants who read the scripts and gave their feedback. We also wanted to show a broad array of Islamic characters. There was an Islamic guy who works with Jack Ryan. We made Greer a Muslim, which is not a part of the Clancy lore. We have a very elaborate storyline with Hanin, the wife of the terrorist character. We wanted to be sure that we were telling a story about a bad guy, not about a bad culture.
Another issue you tackle is the plight of minorities in France. But that has gotten you some criticism from the people of France.
Our goal was to make the bad guy layered and understandable. And I feel like we wanted to give this guy a very specific journey, one that started with a kind of factual incident, which is the bombing of the Beqaa Valley in the early ’80s, which was in retaliation for some other activities that had taken place in the Middle East, and show this journey of these two boys who were dislocated, end up as orphans. They ended up in France, and through a set of circumstances, ended up choosing the wrong path. It was really just trying to give their story some specificity. And we’re not trying to take a knock on the French people or culture, but having these characters be complicated and understandable was something that was important to us.
So Season 2, you’re in Colombia. Where are some of the other places that you’re hitting?
We’re now moving to Cartagena in Colombia. And then from there, we’re going to London, and then Moscow, and then New York.
Have you mapped out several more chapters in the story of Jack Ryan? How far do you see this going?
I think the franchise has enormous legs. There will be a lot of other chapters to “Jack Ryan.” I think that it’s hard to get too far in front of Jack Ryan because I think the essence of the show is to tell these geopolitical thrillers of the moment. It’s not super productive, I think, to be too anticipatory. I think we were nervous as it was. We were writing this terrorist story three and a half years ago, and the world has changed substantially since then. So it’s good to wait until that season is imminent before figuring out what the best story is.
Andrew H. Walker/Variety/REX/Shutterstock
Your partner in this, Graham, is a veteran. And one of the big storylines about Jack Ryan is also that he’s a veteran and suffers from PTSD, which you touch on. How important was that to also include that as a story?
The backstory is canon, from the Jack Ryan’s lore. He was in a helicopter crash, and that’s part of what Clancy wrote, but we changed up the circumstances of that. That was informed a lot by Graham. He is a wonderful writer and a very kind of quiet, understated guy who doesn’t talk much about the fact that he was a combat veteran in the Marines. But, certainly, in the writing of the show, details of his experience very much inform the storytelling.
NEXT: The status of Cuse’s “Locke and Key,” which will finally be made at Netflix; why he sealed an overall deal with Disney/ABC, instead of a streaming service; why he won’t reboot any of his old shows, including “Lost”; and whether a Carlton/Damon reunion may happen.