Writer-director David S. Goyer is certainly no stranger to translating beloved, larger-than-life properties to life on screen, from the superheroic (including Marvel’s “Blade” franchise and DC’s “Dark Knight” trilogy) to science fiction (“Terminator: Dark Fate” and “FlashForward”) to supernaturally mythic tales (the forthcoming “Sandman” streaming series).
But Goyer had yet to face a task as challenging as unifying the epic, thousand-year vision embodying sci-fi novelist Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series, which spans across seven books collecting stories written over the course of five decades (as well as direct tie-ins to two of Asimov’s other beloved works, the “Empire” and “Robot” franchises). “Foundation” has long been considered a seminal example of 20th Century science fiction, quintessential in its allegorical approach — and, for decades in the view of always-IP-hungry Hollywood, next to impossible to adapt for film or television.
As a near-lifelong fan, Goyer remained undaunted, teaming with Apple TV Plus to build a story framework and character arcs that would unify Asimov’s far-flung saga (ultimately unresolved before the author’s passing in 1992) while staying true to its ambitious ideas and accessible to both the faithful and newcomers alike.
Here, he shares an inside view of his innovative approach to creating the foundations of his “Foundation” series with Variety.
How did you start circling the material and thinking about what you were going to do with it?
It was potentially a very daunting process. I came to “Foundation” when I was 13, so I read it first as a kid and then I read it again in my 20s and I read it again in my 40s as a fan, long before I ever contemplated writing for film or television. I had an appreciation for the source material in the same way that many diehard fans do.
Having adapted some other really important properties — like Batman and Superman and The Terminator — that people have an affinity for, I also know that “Foundation” has this unique place in people’s hearts: for a lot of them it was a gateway drug into science fiction, or it was the work that a science fiction fan would give to other people and say, “Science fiction can be taken seriously.”
It’s important to honor the source material, but also not be beholden to it. Even a casual reader of the books, I would hope, would understand that it would be impossible to do a line-for-line adaptation. Asimov was writing “Foundation” in a post-World War II environment: He was using science fiction as a way to allegorically talk about his contemporary world, about the realignment of Europe, about the empires that were falling then and, of course, reflecting back to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. And his whole point was that history and humanity is cyclical, that we can look to the past to solve our current situation.
So, when I first talked to the Asimov estate, I said, “The books are an allegorical snapshot of a world that is 70 years removed from the world that we exist in today. The empires that are falling now can’t be the same empires that were falling then. Allegorically, I’m going to be interrogating a post-9/11 world. I’m going to be interrogating Brexit, the Me Too movement, the rise of nationalism.” I didn’t imagine I would be interrogating a global pandemic, or the way that science can be politicized — all of that became retroactively even more topical in the year since I was adapting it.
Robyn Asimov, his daughter, said even within his lifetime, Asimov acknowledged that any adaptation of “Foundation” would have to take creative liberties. I had to approach it with reverence, but I also knew that if the show was going to succeed, it had to work for people that had never read the books, for people who don’t think they like science fiction.
Was there a memorable creative “Eureka!” moment when you realized, “This is how I can unify a lot of these things that, to me, define ‘Foundation.’ This is the way I can do it in a cinematic-for-television form”?
The first was the creation the Genetic Dynasty, which is not something that exists in the books. Hari Seldon predicts the fall of the Empire. The Empire is this very rigid power structure that is resistant to change, and that is trying to impose its will upon a galaxy. Initially this was just out of convenience because I didn’t want to tell a purely anthological story. I thought, “How do I have some of these characters continue from decade to decade and from season to season?” That’s how we arrived at the idea of the Genetic Dynasty, which is an extrapolation of being resistant to change. What if a single guy just keeps cloning himself over and over and over again, and imposing his ego upon trillions of people?
That seems like the purest expression of what Asimov was working with, something that came out of necessity, but then also allowed us a way into the characters. The emperors are initially presented as these monsters, but then you realize they’re all living in the shadow of Cleon the First; they’re all desperate to put their mark on the galaxy to individuate themselves. And strangely, that also allows us to empathize with them. And that ended up becoming a gift.
The other aha moment was on the Prime Radiant, which is the device that calculates psychohistory for Hari Seldon, sort of like this Magic 8-Ball. I think it’s described as a black cube in the books or something like that. I said, “How are we going to visualize this math?” I said to the art team and the visual effects team, “When Hari and Gaal are looking at the Prime Radiant, I want it to be as if they were communing with angels. I want math to feel like the language of angels.” And I know that sounds very artsy-fartsy, but I said, “I want our depiction of math to be beautiful. I don’t want to use Roman numerals. I want to come up with a visual language for the math that is almost mystical, almost like they’re communing like they’re seers.”
There was a lot of development that went into what the math would look like — a lot of concept art, a lot of visual effects tests — but that was a real aha experience when we had the first prototype of what the math looks like, what unfolds, because I think it’s stunning visually and beautiful.
What did the fan in you want to make sure you fit into the TV version, no matter what? Or was there something that tortured you because you loved it, but it just didn’t fit a television vision?
I was excited to take Gaal Dornick, who was a point-of-view character in the first story and make Gaal the point-of-view character for the entire season. That was a real aha experience for me because through Gaal you don’t have to have read the books, you don’t have to know anything about psychohistory or the state of the galaxy or the Empire, so Gaal can be a proxy for the audience at large.
I think everyone who’s a fan of the books who was contemplating an adaptation prior to this is excited to get to The Mule who is one of the [most] famous villains, I think, in modern literature. The first thing I said to Apple when we met is I said, “You’re not going to get The Mule in Season 1.” I said, “If we do this right, The Mule is what the Red Wedding was in ‘Game of Thrones.’ We have to earn The Mule.”
So, we talk about The Mule in the first few moments of the show, but we’re not going to get to The Mule in Season 1. Asimov himself didn’t get to The Mule until the second half of the second book, and one of the reasons why The Mule is so effective is because Asimov laid that groundwork leading up to The Mule. And I hope to do the same thing with the show.
You also got to flip the script on what characters looked like — their race, gender, et cetera. It doesn’t feel at all like you did it just to fit contemporary moment; it feels like there was a lot of intention behind who these characters ended up being.
In the first book, there’re virtually no female characters in it. It’s something that Asimov amended when he got to the second book. It’s important also to recognize that when Asimov was writing “Foundation” most of the audience was male. I didn’t really feel like any of the characters’ gender was intrinsic to them as characters [in the books]. I knew that with Apple, they were trying to reach a real global audience. And it was important to me, especially because we were depicting a distant future, that the characters in the show reflected that global audience.
The only primary character that I really consciously thought about gender-flipping was Gaal, and it’s something that I approached the Asimov estate about before I even started. And fortunately Robyn Asimov was very supportive of that. She felt that her father would’ve [been] as well. All the other characters were written genderless; they were written without regard to race. It was just, “Best actor wins.”
If you were able to, what would you have loved to have been able to ask Isaac Asimov himself?
There’s an obvious one, which is Asimov never got to the end of the story. He never got to the end of the thousand years. I have an inkling, based on speaking to his daughter, of where he might have gone, but that’s a blessing and a curse.
The other thing that would’ve been interesting to have asked Asimov today [is] when he was writing, gene editing didn’t exist; nanotechnology didn’t exist. How might that have informed what he was doing with “Foundation”? Cloning didn’t exist, and he relied on science fiction tropes of the time, but how might he have changed the story?
Artificial Intelligence didn’t exist. In the books, a version of Hari Seldon exists as sort of a “message in the bottle” recordings that he leaves for future generations. But I’d like to believe that Asimov would’ve woven artificial intelligence into the “Foundation” stories — he certainly wove them later on into the “Robot” stories.
One of the hallmarks of “Foundation” is the epic sprawl of its universe, and it sprawls into other Asimov universes too. How did that influence the way you zeroed in on your story for the first season, but also kept things in the back of your mind that play for, presumably, future seasons?
I’ve referred to this version of “Foundation” as a “remix.” Later on in his life, Asimov wrote some prequels and some sequels, and I pulled some elements and some characters from the prequels into the story and I mixed them up. When Asimov started writing the “Foundation” stories, he was writing paycheck to paycheck, he didn’t necessarily envision that he would be writing multiple stories or multiple books, but we have that foreknowledge.
This season was such a monumental undertaking, I had to at least show to Apple that I had some inclination of where we were going, something we were writing towards. I think the task for me in Season 1 was trying to lay some groundwork for future stories, but also make sure that Season 1 felt like a complete meal and felt like there was a certain amount of closure. So, I had to keep both of those ideas in balance as I was going.
There were certainly some Easter eggs in Season 1. We’ll answer many of the questions that the audience might have at the end of Season 1, but there are definitely some questions we’re not going to answer, and if we didn’t answer them, there’s a reason why we didn’t answer them — and it’s not because we forgot about them.
“Foundation” premieres Sept. 24 on Apple TV Plus.