Recently, I had the chance to sit down for breakfast with Person of Interest star Michael Emerson (as Harold Finch) and series creator Jonathan Nolan (upcoming The Dark Knight Rises) on CBS new drama. The series features Finch as a scientist with a mysterious background who partners with ex-CIA hitman John Reese (Jim Caviezel).
In the rising landscape of TV spy and conspiracy series, Nolan had his work cut out for him creating something that would be unique and intriguing. He also went into the process with a solid idea of where the story would go.
Nolan said, “I felt the responsibility that if I’m going to ask billions of people to start engaging in and caring about these characters that I had to have a pretty good idea of where it was going. So, I know what the end is. The end, end. Along the way we have a number of waypoints, story moments that we have planned out.”
Most people know Nolan from the successful Batman movie franchise. However, many may wonder why he would choose to make the jump to TV at this point in his career. “One of the fun things about TV is that it is a massive collaboration. Several hundred people working in New York and fifty or so back in Los Angeles. We all built this story together. If Locations finds a cool location, then ‘oh we can do something fun here’ or if one of our actors finds a cool aspect to their personality or if someone who is intended as a day player comes on board and knocks it out of the park, then we think ‘we’re going to do something fun with that’. And, then you start to plan. That’s the fun of it. It’s one of the reasons I was drawn to TV. In TV that’s what you do. You have a wonderful problem in that you come up with too much story. For me, I had to know where it was going. But, then you get to have a little bit of fun. You get to figure out what works.”
As a New Yorker, it always upsets me when I see shows that are supposed to take place in New York, but very obviously take place on a studio set. Not only are the environments, accents and locations off, but also I immediately get knocked out of the moment. It’s hard to stay focused when a subway train doesn’t look like a subway train or when two street signs are off (I’m looking at you 24).
“One of the cool things about shooting in New York is that you don’t do it in a vacuum,” Emerson said. “I think most people are happy to have a TV show shoot on their block, but not everybody. And, there are people in New York who are characters that are larger than anything on TV or in fiction. We were shooting in Brighton Beach and we were making pedestrians go around. We had one block, blocked off as we were shooting on it. So the neighborhood people who are mainly older ladies who are doing their morning shopping were being asked to step off the curb and go between the orange cones. Some of them just weren’t having it.”
Emerson then treated us to a Russian accent, “Why I should walk in street. You come here with all this gear? Why I should?” Emerson laughed, “In some cases there was a lot of hand signaling going on.”
Nolan added, “We had a lady on the pilot [shoot] who wanted two dollars. It was amazing. She walked straight through fifty crewmembers and stood directly in front of the director. She stood behind his monitor. Shot lined up and she just appeared over the top of the monitor. She said, ‘You’re going to give me two dollars or I’m going to give you major attitude towards the director.’ The director who is [also] a standup comedian responded without missing a beat, ‘You don’t need two dollars, you already have major attitude.’ She then proceeded to ruin about half a dozen shots. But it was great.” He laughed. “Folks drive up with their radios turned up and you ask them to turn it down and they say ‘give me fifty bucks.’ One of beautiful things about shooting in New York is that you can set your camera up in any direction and it’s New York. It’s got a vibrancy and a depth and density to it that you won’t get anywhere else in the world.”
Nolan and Emerson shared thoughts on the unique characters of Reese, Finch and Detective Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson). The two also discussed the procedural elements of the show that would allow for several “waypoint” stories to come up depending on locations and guest actors.
Nolan said, “Carter herself is a fascinating character. We haven’t had the chance to explore that character and how she fits into [the story] beyond the ‘Fugitive’ model of she’s the Tommy Lee Jones to Jim’s Harrison Ford. I think that there’s a lot more to Carter. I’ve just been fascinated with characters who have layers and secrets and chasing people who have been chased themselves. There’s a sort of Russian nesting aspect to it. All of these people have a bit of an agenda, but they are also part of someone else’s agenda so we have this circle thing we’re working out.”
Emerson admitted to not knowing much about Finch’s back-story. “The scripts come just before you shoot. I have an idea of how Finch got to be in the position he is in, but I don’t know particulars. And, I don’t know what rate those back stories will be revealed.”
“One of the things I loved about Lost and one of the things I loved about Michael,” Nolan states, “was the slow burn approach and also the use of flashbacks that deepened your understanding of the character. You enjoy spending time with these characters, which fundamentally is the proposition of TV. You start taking these people into your extended family. You start spending time with them at a different moment in their lives. It’s endless fun.”
Michael added, “I’m happy not to know where things are going.”
Regarding guest stars, Nolan said, “The procedural aspect of it lets us look at New York City one person at a time. Some of these characters will orbit back into view.”
As an engineer and programmer, I always feel a certain kinship with computer programmers and hackers in TV and Film. However, it always upsets me when these characters are portrayed as slovenly, social nitwits who never get to go outside. Thankfully, Finch is more than the cookie-cutter scientist and from the moment the show starts you see that he uses his social skills almost immediately.
Nolan responded, “I understand the need for those characters, but I always, always thought of Finch and could see the character from the beginning as someone with a bit of that split personality [with] social engineering [skills]. I thought it was a much more interesting story with both of these characters out interacting with people. You don’t want an actor interacting solely with a green screen computer.”
Emerson added, “One of the dimensions of the character was that he had con man skills. And, I think its fun that I actually get to successfully realize that in this show.”
“You ain’t scene nothing yet,” laughed Nolan. “I’m drawn to characters with secrets and we have characters with magnificent secrets. The con man genre itself can be tricky. There is something a little depressing about those characters. Inevitably, you learn that there’s nothing in that person’s life. They can’t have anything. And, I think that’s the point of departure for us. Finch has real touch points. Real relationships.”
Regarding Finch’s disability, Emerson said, “I’m the authority on my own disability. When it came time to show those X-rays, they asked me ‘where do you think you’re really hurt.’ Some people thought he had a lower back problem.”
“It’s part of the fun of the endeavor, “Nolan said. “You work in a vacuum writing a pilot. Then you work in a team and you get pulled in very different directions. There are subtle transformations and paths that you take. “
Emerson adds, “As it goes along it becomes a coded conversation between the actors and writers. You send them a message with your performance and they send the message back with the next script as if to say we like this one thing that you do so we will honor it by including that or taking it further. It’s good that way.”
A major part of Person of Interest is the use and manipulations of information technology. Typically, viewers wonder when a show is crossing the line from reality into science fiction.
Nolan said, “The world tends to more closely resemble the world we present on the show. We actually have to do less work. Technology being a corner stone or a bedrock piece of it. It’s fun and exciting to take news stories as they come in and take on the latest example. [For example] The Murdock phone wire tapping case in the UK. Kind of a fascinating one for us. We had a phone call with the network shortly before that. Could you really spoof someone’s Caller ID calling? We do it in 1.02. It’s a tiny moment that flies by but it prompted a call with the network. It actually is helpful for us – a news story that validates our story.”
“We ask our writers to do a lot of their own research. We also have a couple of consultants we work with who are almost as secretive as Mr. Finch. They have code names. We’ve shown the script and materials to some very interesting people and frustratingly all they can tell us within their security clearance is that we’re closer to the mark than most people would imagine. We’ve also talked to some private sector people who work in information technology companies and talking to them is almost more frightening. Folks who work that do things like what we portray but for commercial reasons seem to suggest that there is. We are poised for this moment in human interaction with these information technologies we’ve embraced for efficiency and fun are about to start biting back in ways that people haven’t necessarily anticipated.
Person of Interest airs weekly on CBS.