Ex-CIA, Military Officers Turn Hollywood

'Homeland,' 'The Americans' scribes lived the lives they write about

homeland Alex Cary

Many series use experts and consultants to make sure their action, whether it’s in a courtroom or outer space, is portrayed accurately — though writers take plenty of creative license.

But on some skeins, including “The Americans,” “Homeland” and “The Newsroom,” a consultant isn’t enough.

Their staffs include writers who’ve actually worked in the fields they now write about.

Joseph Weisberg is a one-time CIA officer who turned to writing fiction. He became the creator, executive producer and writer for FX’s “The Americans.”

His second novel, “An Ordinary Spy,” was optioned for movie development. Then his new agents at CAA asked if he was interested in television. Graham Yost approached him about developing a drama series about CIA agents stationed in Bulgaria; that concept later became “The Americans.”

“Writing a novel is very organic because I have the leisure to rewrite anything two or three times. TV is pretty much the opposite of that,” Weisberg points out.

Alex Cary, writer and executive producer for Homeland, served in an American Special Forces unit during the Gulf War. He was always interested in film, began writing television to break into the business and rose to showrunner on Fox’s Lie to Me.

He was drawn to the pilot script for “Homeland” as soon as he read it. “I wanted to focus less on the mechanical realities of being in the military and focus on the psychology of being a veteran, something I personally dealt with,” he says.

For Cary, TV writing presented a new kind of challenge: “The hardest thing for a writer to do is ask for help,” he says, “but in television you never write completely on your own, which can be limiting but also liberating.”

The writing staff for “The Newsroom,” about a cable news operation, includes former MTV news correspondent Gideon Yago who drew from his frustrations when co-writing the series’ third episode of The Newsroom.

“I was bugged by how few broadcasters and pundits ever got held accountable for mistakes that seemed counter to what I thought the job of journalism entailed,” Yago says.

Despite being an experienced reporter, Yago describes the differences in writing for entertainment.

“Good journalism is all fact. Good entertainment is all emotion: It deeply engages what people can feel. There’s the truth and there’s a good story. In entertainment, the good story is always going to win out. It’s not like that in reporting. I mean, ideally …”