Venturing one more time onto the Coaxial side of the site on behalf of one of my favorite shows in recent memory, AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire,” which is in the midst of its final run of episodes. I ran the previous two interviews I did—with actors Scoot McNairy and Lee Pace—just before the season premiere aired, even though I had, at that point, seen Season 4’s first three episodes. But I wanted to hold this third and final piece, with co-creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers, until those episodes had aired, since we do get a little more into specific plot points. The show is taking this week off but will resume next Saturday, Sept. 9, with an episode that introduces a new character played by “Veep’s” Anna Chlumsky, in “a crucial role in this season's Search business venture.”
As with AMC’s more popular, zombie-oriented series, the tech backdrop and ’80s-’90s time period of “Halt and Catch Fire” isn’t really what the show is about. Those things simple provide a context for some of the most interesting human drama on television. The show is not a soap opera disguised as something else, although there are certainly very deep, human emotions at play in every episode. And this season, the series emphasis on creating the perfect search engine turns into questions about what exactly each character is searching for in the lives. The series has been hugely satisfying, and while it was never a huge ratings machine, it was consistently solid, thought provoking drama across four seasons, and I’ll miss it. With that, please enjoy my talk with co-showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers…
Capone: Hi, guys. How are you?
Christopher Cantwell: Hello. How are you?
Capone: I’ll let you know right off the bat, I’ve been obsessed with this show since it started, and I dropped everything when they sent me the first three episodes of this season. And that was before I even knew we were doing these interviews, by the way. I just because I wanted to see the show again.
CC: Fuck, yeah. Thanks, man.
Capone: My initial interest in the show stemmed from who was in it, because to me, you had cast people that I loved in movies. When you were first putting this show together and putting your cast together, did you comb your favorite indie films for casting purposes? How did you come up with this group, because these aren’t typically TV people for the most part.
CC: It’s funny you say that. I would give a tremendous amount of credit to Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas and Gohar [Gazazyan], their latest partner—our casting directors are fantastic. They brought so many people that didn’t make it into “Halt and Catch Fire,” let alone the people that did. It was awesome to have such a great group of principals that we ended up with, and then to fill out that cast, including different walk on parts, with people we loved in so many other things.
It was really fun for me especially as a movie buff for so long to get some people in this show. To have Annette O’Toole show up, who was in wonderful things like SUPERMAN 3, and CAT PEOPLE. For Chris Mulkey to show up from “Twin Peaks.” It was just so fun for us, and everyone has been so great. To say nothing of the five major actors in the show. I think Lee was coming off of LINCOLN, he was coming off a Spielberg movie; Scoot and Kerry were coming off ARGO; it was quite a group, man.
Capone: When the third season ended, it felt like you ended it in a way that could have been the conclusion of the whole story, and I was pleasantly surprised that the fourth season was announced. It’s not often a show gets to wrap things up on its own terms. It’s a luxury to be able to say, “This is going to be our last season; we’re going to wrap all these things up.” Was it a foregone conclusion that you would get this last season?
Christopher Rogers: It was definitely not a foregone conclusion. We tried with every season to write it to conclusion, to write it in a way where it will be a satisfying finish with the great hope that we’ll get to come back. I will say, the third season just felt so good as it was coming together. The second season felt better than in the first in a way, just in terms of how it felt in our room, that maybe we were less nervous after the third season than we had been, but I think that also had a tremendous amount to do with AMC which has been very encouraging of the show. Even when it wasn’t a huge ratings hit, I think they loved it. I think they encouraged us to kind of do what we wanted with the show.
So at the end of the third season, we were really hopeful that there would be a fourth. It was a huge gift to get to write to conclusion, though. That is a thing a network doesn’t have to do. There are probably reason not to do it. But for us, it enabled us to open up the playbook. Everything was possible in the fourth season, knowing this was going to be the last ten episodes of the story. That’s a gift, and it’s a gift that very few people get in the stories they tell on TV. But 30 hours in, to know that we would have 10 more really gave us the ammo we needed to walk into our last season both confidently and somberly and execute what I think we did.
Capone: So with that in mind, you realized you have these 10 last episodes, what is the game plan for creating the arc for the last season? What were the possibilities, what did you want to sort of deal with specifically, and where did you wanna leave it off?
CC: It’s daunting when you look at finishing a story like this. We had never had that opportunity, and all of a sudden, we knew that we had 10 episodes to close up shop. Chris and I always go off before the season begins in earnest and before we open up the writers room, and we discuss what we could possibly do. We spent a couple of days actually in the Joshua Tree Desert and think about what we could do, and we bring that back to the writers when they all start and we say, “Look, here’s some ideas we have; we’re excited about these. What’s better?” And we go from there.
Chris and I couldn’t even stare at the possibility of it ending when we began, just because it was such a big, intimidating task. I think we had to enter it trying to tell another great season of “Halt and Catch Fire,” and the writers approached it the same way, and we didn’t really have a strong idea of where we specifically wanted it to end. We wanted to find that as we went and trust the process. It gets a little scary when you’re deep into the season, and you’re like, “I don’t know what the last one is.”
We always call the last episode of our seasons the “Pumpkin,” and that comes from a great writer that we worked with on the first two seasons of the show, a guy named Jason Cahill, who talked about how the finale of a show, even just for a season finale, is so daunting, that it could just take place inside a fucking pumpkin, so that just stuck. We always called [episode] 10 the pumpkin. I think sometimes we put up a card on the board for 10 that just says “Pumpkin.” We had no idea what our series Pumpkin was, and it scares you, but at the same time you trust the process, you trust the writers, you trust yourself, and it emerged. Sure enough, by the time we got there, it was really just staring back at us, and all we could do was really write it to the best of our abilities.
Capone: If you thought you were under the microscope at any point during the run of this show, the finale of any show becomes the place where a showrunner is judged the most harshly, almost unfairly so. But it sounds like you feel like you’ve got something that will make the people who have watched the show from the beginning happy, yes?
CR: What a time to have this call, because we’re doing edit notes on the finale right now. I think the answer to that, unsurprisingly, is you have to not let that in. I think very early in this process, by dint of the fact that the show didn’t take off immediately, we learned to play our own music. I think in the second season especially, we were like “If this is the last season of this show, what do we want to say? Let’s just do what we want. Let’s go all out with our voice,” and we did and were rewarded for that, and I think we just tried to make that our modus operandi ever since.
So with the finale this year, like Chris said, we tired to write ourselves into a corner almost immediately on this show. We use all the good story we have as fast as we can use it, so we feel like in season 3, episode 7, episode 8, episode 9, those all could have ended the season. But they didn’t. And we’ve taken that same approach this year. At a certain point, it comes down to trust, and I think we’ve said some goodbyes. Whether or not it’s satisfying for the audience, or it just clips off like the end of “The Sopranos,” we think we’re somewhere in the middle, but we like it. At the end of the day, it’s what you can control.
Capone: That opening sequence of the first episode of this season where they’re building up the new office is really beautiful. Talk about mapping out how you wanted to get back into the season and the building of this new business in this interesting way.
CC: It was fun to do that. I think Chris and I looked at the history of the web and saw that, for three years, it was pretty quiet. From the moment it launched in December 1990 to the time that Mosaic came out, historically it was very, very small, in a little petri dish where there was a few dozen pages a year. And then all of a sudden, it started to explode all at once, and that was undeniably interesting to us to get to that one place. We thought it would be fun to have the characters really wait around in a way that they didn’t in the first time jump. Other than Joe, who is very much in an existential funk in the time jump at the end of season 3, that seems consistent. The characters had all moved on with their lives in the finale of season 3, but in this season, they haven’t; they’re arrested.
Gordon is, of course, building up his growing concerns, but it’s something he have had since the end of season 3, and he’s just been going about it. Cameron’s been going about her marriage in Tokyo and making Space Bike I, II, II, IV. Donna has been the partner at the VC firm and having win after win after win after win, and never really dealing with the emotional damage underneath that. Joe is sitting in a basement with Post-It notes. He is the lone torch carrier on the web. We thought that was interesting to us. And then the visual device of Gordon’s POV. Here’s a guy that in our story in the past has actually become somewhat lost in time do to some neurological problems he has, and we thought that would be a fun way to tell this passage of time.
Then Juan José Campanella came in, the director of that episode, and also our pilot. He’s the guy who is very responsible for a lot of the “Halt and Catch Fire” look and feel; he did the actual one-er in season 2, where we moved through all of the Mutiny space in one shot and established Donna and Cameron’s whole world in one take. He wanted to do something similar, which was to cover three years in one take, and obviously we used visual effects in that, but we do it through Gordon’s foggy mental state. We’re actually in Gordon’s POV for quite some time, and he’s the one that carries us through these three years of growth but also malaise and emotional tableau, and deposits us to that moment when Joe sees Mosaic and freaks the fuck out.
Capone: I will admit, I had to rewind it to watch it again just because I’m thought “Damn, that’s impressive.”
CC: I’m glad you think so. That’s awesome.
Capone: One of the things that’s interesting about this season is as much as it’s about people coming out of that malaise, as you said, it’s about bringing people together. I felt like a lot of last season was about blowing up relationships. In these first few episodes at least, everyone is starting to talk to each other again in a civil way. There are certainly hints that that’s maybe not going to last long. Was that an important thing to get people back in rooms together and function in each other’s presence again?
CR: Yeah, 100 percent. That was some of the reason for the time jump, to earn those people back in the same room. Some of the emotional violence done would make it impossible for like a month on for Donna and Cameron to plausibly end up in the same room, and the first episode of this season, we have to trick them back in there anyway. But I think this season in a lot of ways is about these characters that we’ve known for ten years now who are weathered and matured and changed by time and all that’s happened to them. Whether it be the tragedy of loss, like what happened to Ryan last year, or growing up, like what’s going on with Cameron from that college dropout, coder punk we met to this person who’s now been through a divorce and these many different lives. We wanted to revisit some of the original dynamics of these guys, but through the lens of this new maturity.
The idea of timing is a big thing, as it always is with this show. There’s a lot of times that people have the right idea at the wrong time, and we also think that’s true of their emotional stories. So Cameron and Joe was the wrong time in season 1. Gordon and Joe maybe it was the wrong time in season 1. So we were interested in getting back to that with these people. Gordon, who’s changed and found some wisdom and peace in his life, and Joe who’s been tempered and even isolated a little bit down in that basement, they see if time has taught them to be a little better to each other, and I think time, as it does to us all, makes us a little more talky, a little more communicative, use more “I” statements. We realize things aren’t as huge of a deal as they seem sometimes. I think that maturity has made its way into the interactions between the characters, but that’s not to say that our hallmark emotional violence won’t be there.
Capone: I noticed on the poster the tag line is “What are you searching for?” Tell me just how that idea is going to factor into the lives of these people in this season.
CC: I think that question is really important, and obviously there is a strong metaphor at play there, and that’s what we love about the technology of the show, it functions as a metaphor for these character’s emotional lives. Ten years on, they’re all still somewhat in this cycle of, “I’m unfulfilled. Something’s missing. What is it? I don’t know. I need to fill that hole. Is it this person? Is it this new idea? Is it something new? How can I reinvent?” The hope is placed on some sort of future, and the future in season 4 has caught up with these characters.
Ten years in, I think the question of “What are you searching for?” when posed to the characters could easily be posed as “What the fuck are you searching for?” And I think that’s really what they’re reflecting on is “Jesus, it is the answer ahead of me in the form of a carrot dangling in front of my eyes, or has it been with me all along?” It’s a tough one and an existential one and one that they’re all going to struggle with over the course of this final chapter of this story.
Capone: I can’t wait to see how you get us to the end; it’s been a hell of a ride; and congratulations. And I can’t wait to see what you guys do next. Best of luck.