FX spy drama “The Americans” was a show “Barry” co-creators Alec Berg and Bill Hader say they talked “a lot” about regarding how to keep the narrative of their HBO hitman comedy “propulsive” in its first season. So when Variety brought them together with “Americans” co-showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, it was a love fest. But it wasn’t a one-sided one.
The prolific producers gushed over the attention to detail in each other’s work and bonded over annoying their children by pointing out how television is made when they watch shows together. And of course, they had a lot of questions for each other.
Here, they discuss their show-specific processes, how they allow actors to inform their storytelling, and how ending “The Americans” set up expectations for future projects.
What do you feel is unique about the process for creating a first or final season?
Joe Weisberg: I want to say process-wise, I feel so bad for Bill and Alec. It’s such a relief to be at the end. Joel and I are just like, “Oh my god, we’re done!” We’re like walking on air. We finished, it worked out, it’s like the greatest thing ever. And we were so miserable season one. I don’t know about you guys, but we wanted to kill ourselves.
Joel Fields: Yeah, that was our process. Our process was thinking we were going to die. That’s the process season one. Maybe you guys had a different process?
Bill Hader: It was definitely hard [because] you’re creating the thing as you’re going along, so suddenly, especially tone-wise, you go, “OK can we get away with that? Is that the show? Or is that not the show? What’s the show?” It isn’t kind of until you get in the table reads and you get on set — it’s not really until editing where we tried a couple of things where we just said, “OK this is definitely not the show.” And now that we’re writing season two, that shorthand is so invaluable.
Alec Berg: It’s not just because we’re writing season two right now, but I feel like season twos are the hardest because season one you have a little bit of latitude … and in season two we know that’s not the show. So it just feels like things are more restricted. Whereas season one you’re just kind of throwing all kinds of stuff at the wall to see what sticks.
Hader: Yeah, did you guys ever feel like when you were doing your seasons you were burning stuff — things you knew starting out [when] you wanted to reveal?
Fields: I think at the end of the first season, beginning of the second, we still were creating this insane document [in which] we put all of the character and story moves in pretty much in chronological order by character, and we would turn to that as we were working on seasons and even writing individual episodes. And I don’t think we ever felt like we were burning stuff, but it was exciting to get to the big turns that we knew were coming.
Weisberg: I remember saying to Graham Yost, who we worked with on season two — Joel and I got a little cocky — “We’re never gonna run out of story! We have so much stuff!” And Graham’s just looking at me and being like, ‘Just wait.’ And then around season five, Joel and I were like, “Oh s—.”
Hader: That’s hilarious. I don’t know if Alec can relate to this, but it also comes from just comedy, the idea of burning things. You go, “Oh I have this joke that you kind of want to hold.” … I think we had at one point thought ‘Oh yeah Barry’s Marine friend showing up, that could happen down the road or whatever,” and then you get to episode four and you’re like, “Maybe the Marine should show up now because I don’t know where this should go.”
Weisberg: All the way back in season one, we thought, “Hey, maybe [Philip and Elizabeth] should get married” — like have a real wedding with each other — but we didn’t save it, it was more that it didn’t fit. Because in every season we were like, “Does it fit here? Does it fit here?” And it never fit. And then finally in like season five, suddenly it fit. We weren’t saving it so much as, it also might have never worked.
Hader: I want to know what your guys’ music budget was because when you busted out U2 in the last episode, I was so envious.
Fields: That was not representative of our music budget!
Weisberg: Joel, who always kept his eyes very carefully on all budget things … basically lost his mind on the last episode.
Fields: You know, last season, you’ve got to go for it.
How flexible can you be season over season with how much internal character struggle and growth you depict?
Berg: It’s sort of like you pick a landmark on a hill and you’re like, “All right we’re going to go towards that thing.” But you always have to kind of listen to where the stories want to go. … I feel like where you get into trouble is when you decide, “We are going there no matter what.” And then you start to force stuff.
Hader: We knew that we wanted Barry to have a breakdown on stage, so we were kind of writing towards that, but then we were also like, “Oh Barry, will give Sally a laptop and she’ll love it. And they’ll be together and they’ll make their relationship better.” And then what happened was, all the women in the writers’ room went, that’s creepy. And Emily Heller said, “You know that’s a very Tony Soprano move,” which we put into the script. So then we went, to Alec’s point, “Oh that’s cool, so they’re on the outs, OK.” So they got together in episode three and by the end of episode four he f—ed it up. And that made it more exciting.
“Our process was thinking we were going to die.”
Weisberg: What about the turn of Barry having to kill his friend, which is such a pivotal thing? It’s so emotional and it was both inevitable and surprising to me as an audience member. Was that something you were building towards, or something that unfolded?
Hader: My memory of it was just talking it out and suddenly there was a silence, and Liz Sarnoff, one our writers, was like, “Well you’ve got to kill Chris.” And we were like, “Yeah he’s gonna have to kill Chris. Oh s—.” And I don’t know if you guys feel this, too — the likability of your characters. [Chris] has a wife and a kid, he’s a good guy. And we saw this parallel of Barry wants to be like Chris, and he’s afraid he’s going to turn into Taylor. So there’s this nice thing of because he doesn’t kill the guy he should have killed, now he has to kill the guy he wants to be. … [But] you guys had a thing with Keri Russell where she kills the woman in the factory. Did you guys have those moments with your characters, too, where you’re like, “OK is this pushing it too far? … Is [this] taking them into a direction that maybe people don’t want to see?”
Fields: We only really paused once, and that was in the first season when they poisoned this kid. … We had just launched the show, we were like, “Is that going to be irredeemable? Are we going to lose the whole audience and never be able to come back from it and get canceled and that’s the end of ‘The Americans’?” We really didn’t know the answer to that. It wasn’t just us deciding, it was the network and all of the producers and a lot of people — and nobody knew. We just took a giant breath and said to ourselves, “Look this is what we want to do, it feels right, it feels true to the story. … What the f—! You’ve got to just do what feels true.” That was very traumatic and scary, but it also worked out and basically nothing was scary after that. Once they literally injected a kid with poison, then killing old ladies was like a piece of cake.
Hader: The whole idea of writing quote-unquote genre stuff and making it emotionally resonant, you [have to] put emotions that you’ve felt [into it]. When you guys were in the writers’ room, was it more about the spy game of it all or “I know my relationship is X,” so this is something pulling from your real life?
Weisberg: I think it was always about trying to find the place where those things met. It wasn’t that the exact stories were autobiographical, but literally our favorite moments were when people would say, “You know, I watched ‘The Americans’ last night and they did this crazy thing and then they had this crazy fight about it and that fight that they had was the same fight that I had with my wife last night.” And that’s when we felt “The Americans” was really in its sweet spot … and we tried to write towards that. And it didn’t feel like the place to get there was necessarily pulling fights right out of ours or the other writers’ exact lives, but on the other hand, where else was it all coming from?
The actors are such an integral part to carrying the tone of your shows, and over time they know the characters as well as you do as writers. Do you allow them to inform story?
Hader: Well, I’m the only actor allowed to inform my stories. [Laughs]
Berg: The same way we were talking about the laptop thing, I just think it comes down to listening. Like when we cast Henry Winkler as Gene in our show, the character as written was much darker, angrier, more narcissistic. He was just too full of himself. And as soon as we saw Henry playing that role, it just utterly changed sort of the backstory of the character — because Henry is such a naturally warm, kind person, that it just was so much more interesting to see a guy who in acting class is this powerful figure, and then clearly in his life, he doesn’t have the same control and when he leaves that building, he’s just a smaller, lost guy. The joy of series television is that thing of, you cast talented people who put their spin on things, and then you watch what they do, you go “Oh my god, that’s not what we had intended, that’s better, and now we’re going to write back to them and they’re going to take that and put their spin on it.” It’s like this great tennis match where you know if you’re each listening to each other, you go back and forth and keep elevating the material.
Hader: Sarah Goldberg who plays Sally, she did that, too. We had episode seven where Barry has a breakdown on stage [and originally] we had her berating Barry and saying, “You’re not a good actor and you’re not this, you’re not that.” We did a table read and Sarah kind of, sheepishly looked, “I have a note, is it OK?” And we were like, “Yeah what is it?” She goes, “I don’t think she’s thinking about Barry at all.” Because of that, we thought, “So what is she worried about?” So we came up with, “OK there’s an agent there, Emma Stone’s ex-agent is in the audience.” That’s better — she has a want now and she has a thing that she’s freaking out about and it has nothing to do with him, and it just made it more realistic, and that totally came from her.
Weisberg: Six years into this, I don’t have even any sense any more of what these characters or what they were supposed to be on the page before the parts were cast. You know, the actors have created these characters and become these characters completely. The characters are now what Matthew [Rhys] and Keri and Noah [Emmerich] and others have put into them. They breathed life into them and made them their own. … Joel and I would talk about this all the time, that we put these scripts out and it was a less a process of the actors coming to us and saying, “Well, what about this, what about that?” but what we experienced constantly was, we put the scripts out and then we would see the [dailies] and they would have just constantly done something that was you know very different from what we had in our imaginations when we wrote it. And it was just invariably so much better and so much more interesting and had so much more depth to it.
Fields: It’s a small thing, but there’s a scene at the beginning of the final episode where Elizabeth has grabbed their go bag and meets at the emergency meeting spot with Philip and it’s figuring out how they’re going to pick up the kids while they get out of the country, and Philip has to tell her that he’s decided not to take Henry. There’s a moment in that scene that’s this involuntary yelp or involuntary cry — I don’t even know how to describe it — that emerged from Keri’s throat. We certainly didn’t write in the script, “She yelps involuntarily.” That was just all her being Elizabeth Jennings, but there was something so genuine and painful about it. It was beyond anything we could have written.
Weisberg: By the way this goes for directors, too. One of my favorite moments in the series finale is when Philip is in the McDonald’s, and as he’s walking out he sees this happy family — a mirror of the Jennings family — sitting there eating their McDonald’s, and he looks over at them, and that’s not in the script. Chris Long staged that and put that in. So you can imagine us, we’re watching the director’s cut, and we see that, and it was such an incredible [moment].
What has been your experience with network involvement at the creative level?
Hader: The only network note from HBO is usually, “Can Bill keep his shirt on? We don’t need any shirtless scenes with Bill.”
Berg: I spent a lot of time with the broadcast network business, and when I got to HBO, I had to really fight my instinct to make sure everything you sent to the network was incredibly bulletproof, because if you let them in, they’re gonna wiggle their way in and they’re going to wreck something. Now I’ve gotten to the point where our HBO executives are so good and so helpful that Bill and I will literally sometimes go, “I think this makes sense, why don’t we send it to them and see what they think?” Because we genuinely want to know what they have to say.
Fields: Honestly for us, Joe and I took a lot of long walks over the course of the show, and I remember season one we were talking about our expectations of ourselves and our expectations of the show and our desire for the show to be great, and I remember we actually started talking about how neurotically difficult it was to try to do something great, and we decided not to do it. We decided that one thing we could measure is whether it was exciting for us, whether it was satisfying to us. And if that was something we could know: we couldn’t know if it was great [but] we could know whether it turned us on and satisfied us. And that, that was a very liberating moment for us.
Joe and Joel, how does your experience with “The Americans” set a personal bar or expectation for your next show?
Weisberg: It’s so impossible to judge your own work. I mean, people seem to be very happy with the finale and the final season, but we didn’t know if they would be. I mean, we liked it, but you don’t know what other people are going to think. I particularly thought the finale might be very divisive [so] I was pretty caught off guard by the fact that is got a pretty solid positive response from most people. When I say caught off guard, I mean extremely happy about it.