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Interview: 'Halt And Catch Fire' Creators Embrace The '90s In Season Four
When it first premiered four years ago on AMC, Halt And Catch Fire seemed like it was destined to be a very stylish failed Mad Men imitator. It started off as a period drama about the personal computer boon of the early 1980's, a story told through the lens of a group of brilliant strivers trying to create a new computer... by cloning a more famous one.
But like its main characters, who are always pushing each other in their quest for the next big thing in tech ("the thing that gets you to the thing"), the show transformed every season and got better and better. Personal computers gave way to online gaming, which gave way to computer security and now, the World Wide Web and search functions. Locations would shift, jobs would change, alliances and companies would form then break, romances would evolve in unexpected ways. And it is now one of the best shows on TV—an emotionally exquisite examination of the price of innovation and the creative struggle.
We talked to creators and showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers about the final season, why they embraced time jumps, revisiting the Joe/Cameron relationship, and bringing the show into the '90s. "This has always been a show about people kind of creating the future, trying to bet it and see what it'll become, and what it'll look like when those people have to live in the future they created," Rogers says. "Is this the world they'd hoped for?"
Congratulations on season four. I want to start off by talking about how you ended season three with a four-year time jump before the last two episodes—it was a very bold, really exciting move. Then you start season four with another three-year time jump. Were you hoping to give the audience whiplash, or did you just have to get the story farther ahead? Was there a certain point in time you were always aiming to get to?
Chris Cantwell: I would say Rogers and I initially wanted to jump 25 years, but we figured that the VFX work would be too expensive and it wouldn't fit in our budget. I will say that, in Chris' and my research, it's weird—tech history timelines ebb and flow. In digging into the research for season four, we realized that the World Wide Web was created at the end of 1990 and launched, but then was very quiet and kind of in stasis for three years and there was not a lot of professional movement and innovation on the web just because it was so new. For us, we thought it would be interesting to not show the characters too changed after another time move, but almost in a rested stasis. That's how it became interesting—it felt like they were waiting. Because it feels like the technological world was really waiting between 1990 and 1993, when Mosaic came out, the first real browser that broke through into the public consciousness.
We played with this stasis. We have Joe waiting, carrying the torch on the World Wide Web. We have Gordon running his going concern that he launched at the end of season three, but it really is at a kind of easygoing plateau. We have Cameron kind of arrested in this place in her marriage with Tom. And Donna, after the painful severing from the group at Cameron's hand at the end of season three, is in this weird head space as a Senior Partner of the VC firm she's at. In a way, we knew we were going to have to jump some more time. We didn't want to give the audience whiplash, but at the same time we wanted to make it feel different from what we had done before. By doing that and doing it in the way we did it in the first episode of season four, we thought we were giving the audience something a little bit different and something easy to digest. Also, telling a new chapter of our story.
Was the World Wide Web and the exploration of the early days of the Internet always the end goal when you guys first started this show? Was this always the point that you wanted to get to?
Chris Rogers: I'll say there was an inevitability to it, but at the same time I think when we first started this show, the idea of ever getting that far through time was so abstract, it didn't seem real to us. I think there were times when we were saying the finish line of this series would be the dawn of the internet. We never really thought we would trip over into this story, because the initial opportunity of Halt and Catch Fire, we liked to say, was to tell people the story they didn't know about the dawn of the personal computer era. We kind of felt like once we got into the web and the Internet, well everyone knows that story. We're living that story.
I think that's why we were kind of delighted to get here and find that there were kind of unmined histories. I think the story we're telling this year, which in some ways is the story of search, is very different from what I think most people would assume it is. I think we love the feeling of how the audience thinks they see where it's going, thinks they see the moves ahead and then kind of have it telling a different story. If we didn't think we could do that with search and the internet, I think we might have chosen a different focus this year. But I think we were happy to arrive at this moment in time and realize there was some kind of unmined gold there.
Something that Gordon stresses in the season three finale is about the fact that these characters have often had bad timing. They've had the right ideas, but they haven't gotten there at the right time. Are these characters closer to getting there at the right time now, at the start of the web? Or are they still a little bit before everything?
Chris Cantwell: I will say that's definitely something that we specifically talked about in the writers room: having it feel like they're finally at the right place at the right time. We've never gotten to do that. They've either been too little too late, or too early. This season is one where they are the closest to the mark. Where they are within weeks and months of big things happening and trying to ride that wave. It's really a story this season about them trying to surf that. I think that we're seeing them struggle with that and seeing them try to stay upright. But again, because the timeline moves so fast and jumps and starts and accelerates and slows down, I think we're going to see characters have difficulty staying in it and keeping their bearings.
Last season also started with this question, "Are You Safe?" The season went on to explore a lot of the concepts around this, both with Joe's computer security business as well as the shifting personal relationships. I was wondering what the equivalent for this season is? Is it something like "Are You Connected"?
Chris Rogers: Oh man. I don't know if we nailed it as pithily this year, but I will say the two big things I think we really were thinking about going into this year were that this has always been a show about people kind of creating the future, trying to bet it and see what it'll become, and what it'll look like when those people have to live in the future they created. Living in what they wrought. Is this the world they'd hoped for? Beyond that, I think it's also been a show about people on a wheel who keep jumping into new projects, new relationships, new loves and kind of hoping that this is the one that's going to finally make them complete. This is the one that's going to finally shape them, only to realize that's kind of a never-ending cycle.
It was kind of about seeing if these people would stay on the wheel or if they could find happiness there. There are kind of different answers to the cyclical nature of the show. Doesn't have quite the ring of "Are You Safe?" But we also kind of felt like those were season four themes. We felt like these are kind of concluding series themes, because a unique opportunity with a fourth season is obviously a look back to say, "What has this been about?" I think when we did that, those were the questions that we really wanted to answer.
All the main characters have been through the emotional ringer with each other at this point in the show. We start this season with yet another disappointment with Gordon's company going down, Joe's frustration over the last three years boiling over, and Cameron experiencing both professional and personal failure. Where are the dynamics between the central four starting this season?
Chris Cantwell: The characters all feel inveterate at a certain point, like they've been through this process before. I think they have some grounding underneath them, especially Gordon. I think Gordon is in a place where he's able to have perspective. Joe is getting closer. Joe went through a hell of a time in season three and I think that we're seeing this guy in season four really try to hold onto the humanity that he's achieved and the connections he has with people even as they're tested.
I think Cameron is finally growing up. That, for us, is a tenet for that character, to see someone who started the series as a 22-year-old college dropout with this hard, punk exterior finally become an adult. What does that mean, and what last few pieces of the gauntlet does she need to go through in order to reach full maturity and full adulthood?
I think we're seeing Donna pursue the highest level of success that she's pursued yet, but at the same time maybe struggling to reclaim some of the things that made her Donna from the beginning of our story, that she may have lost along the way due to damage and injury she's endured because of her interactions with the other characters, namely Cameron and Gordon. We see these people, I think, seeking to reconnect. I think reconnection is a big one for all of them this season. Reconnecting in a different way, not just professionally, and what does that mean for them.
Speaking of reconnection, I thought that episode two was the most romantic episode of the show ever, and considering everything that's gone on between them, I was really swept up by everything that happens with Cameron and Joe. Is this a connection that can be sustained? In the past, when Joe has gotten excited and ambitious about a new project, it's often gotten in the way of his personal relationships. Is this something that we are staring at again as he gets excited about the search idea?
Chris Rogers: That is a great question. I think before we talk about episode two, we should also just say that it was written by Mark Lafferty, who is just a fantastic talent, and we're very proud of that episode. I think a lot of the romance and the connection you feel there, Mark deserves a lot of credit for.
What else is cool about the fourth season is that these are relationships, and pairings, we've kind of seen before. I think the danger you sometimes get into with a show is that they can be binary, right? The Clarks are together, the Clarks are mad at each other. Joe and Cameron are together, they're mad at each other. Same thing with Joe and Gordon. Same thing with Donna and Cameron. You don't want those dynamics to grow stale. You want to have something new to say, and so you start to do new pairings. What are Gordon and Cameron like together, etc?
But for Joe and Cameron, specifically, we really thought this was an opportunity to do it right this time. We talk about the right idea at the right time—I think that's applicable as well to Joe and Cameron. It has never been the right time for both of them. It has rarely been the right idea for both of them, but now maybe they're both in a place and they've learned enough and matured enough through lots of heartbreak to give this the chance it deserves. I think in the fourth season, we're going to see them try to give this the chance it deserves. Of course, the biggest obstacle remains, as it always has, their work. Does the work come between them? Have they learned to contextualize that inside their relationship they're hoping to have? I think for fans of that relationship, and I count myself as one, I think this season is really satisfying that we get to see them give it the chance they couldn't give it in so many seasons before.
Chris Cantwell: One other person I want to mention with episode two, just because we were really happy with it, was Meera Menon who directed the episode. What was nice about Meera was that she's a complete newcomer to the Halt director roster and yet she was able to come in and handle that relationship and Mark's wonderful script so well, and it's such an important part of our series that it was great to have her. We can't speak highly enough of her.
On that point, there seems like there's a little more of a soft haze over the nineties scenes. How thematic was that supposed to be?
Chris Cantwell: Yes, absolutely. We always talk to Evans Brown, our genius and DP guru who is just incredible in terms of what he brings to the show visually. We talk about how to differentiate each season and really make it feel like its own. He, along with our production designer, Ola Maslik, and even Jennifer Brian, our new costume designer, they were able to approach us with pallets from the nineties of the textures, how the light felt in San Francisco and northern California at that time. What people were wearing, what kind of colors that you would see represented in architecture in both the home and professionally. I think that when you have a team like that, it's great to just listen to them and follow. It was great to see the drowsy, sleepy nineties of Chris' and my youth wake up on screen in such a fun and realistic way. It was a great trip down memory lane for us.
Similarly, there are already some really fun '90s references and uses of cultural touchstones that have come up—including the Hole song, "Doll Parts" and the Blue Man Group.
Chris Rogers: Oh god, yes. You have to remember that we're both children of the '80s. I was born in '83 and Chris is only a year older than me. This is what we lived. This is, I think, what our deep nostalgia is for. To finally reach grunge, to finally kind of high five our teenage selves and be like, "Yeah, we're putting a Hole song in the show!" That's delightful. It has been delightful to make eighties references for many years, don't get me wrong, but there was something of particular glee about reaching the 1990s and being able to reach in. I don't want to spoil anything that's coming, but man the music supervision, which is handled by SuperMusicVision, Thomas Golbulic's team is fantastic this year just because of that. There's probably too many other small video game references and little cultural references to mention...
Chris Cantwell: It's actually fun how it breaks down this year for Chris and I in that I feel like Rogers is really represented well by Joanie Clark and I am represented really well by Haley Clark. I feel like they're cultural tastes were exactly where Chris and I were as young teenagers in the nineties.
Based on the first episodes, they have much more prominent roles this season, it seems, to play.
Chris Cantwell: Yes, absolutely. We were really excited when we cast Kathryn Newton at the end of last season. That was a kind of fun, bold move to see teenage Joanie, meet her, establish her relationship with Gordon and build off the wonderful work that Morgan Hinkleman had done throughout the first few seasons as the young Joanie. To see the little rebellious streaks grow and blossom into this really difficult teenager. We were really excited to dive in and write her as a little bit older, then also to do the same with Haley. I feel like the idea for Haley's character this season kind of came off a tiny line that was thrown away in episode nine of last season.
We knew that we were going to meet Joanie and that she was going to have this tough exterior, very influenced by Cameron. We wanted to reference Haley, even though we weren't going to see her on screen, and Gordon says that she's away as space camp. I think Donna comes over looking for her retainer. So we had those two details to go off of and it was really fun to build the character off of that into season four. Once we cast Susanna Skaggs, we were just so excited to write for her and bring them deeply into the story and see how they've grown up in this crazy, dysfunctional family of Halt and Catch Fire and have them become a big part of it.
As you guys have been talking about, so many of the major dynamics on the show are about partnerships, both professional and personal. About the excitement of the initial joining together and connecting, and then the combustion when things don't work out or something goes wrong. I can't help but think of you guys with your own creative partnership—does this reflect some deeper anxiety about the creative process on your behalf?
Chris Rogers: Oh sweet yes. Yes. I think the show is about people who create things and how they put themselves into the things they create. It's always been just so right for us and the other writers to put our own creative fears and anxieties into these stories even though we don't really know our zeroes and ones. I think for Cantwell and I, it's also been an exploration of a creative partnership, which has both made us tremendously better and has been the most fulfilling of my life, but it's also been incredibly challenging to me and my own talents. I think if you can put some of that honesty into the portrayals, I think that's some of what we have to say that's unique. Some of it's a love letter to each other. I think some of it's us trying to sort out what it is to make something, if that's ever going to make you happy. When we talk about that theme, I think it's one that all writers are struggling with. Is this the project? Then it ends. So, what next? So, absolutely, it couldn't be more personal, but I would say that our partnership is much healthier than I think pretty much any partnership on the show.
Have you guys discussed any future projects or what you might want to do next after Halt and Catch Fire ends?
Chris Cantwell: Yes. To some extent only at a very high level when we're not both tremendously exhausted, which is few and far between these days. We've lived with this story for six years, it's been such a major part of our lives. We both were in our twenties when we started writing this and now I'm in my mid-thirties. We're both married, we both have kids. It's been a hell of a ride, and so we know that whatever we do next will not have the same kind of amazing magic and feeling as Halt did because it really was a literal dream come true. It was a script we wrote as a staff example before we were professional writers and here we are 40 episodes later looking back on an entire series of television that we created. That is quite a gift and one that we can't replicate.
I think Chris and I have talked about not trying to replicate that in whatever we do next, because we know we can't. I think that whatever we do next, we want the process to be as lovely as it's been on this show. We want the people we work with to be as incredibly talented and warmly human as they've been on this show. We've been spoiled. I just don't think we're going to settle for anything less. We're going to take our time, we're going to spend some time with our new babies and hang out. When the idea comes, it'll come. Then we'll jump back into something. I think Chris and I are looking forward to spending at least a few months in a lower gear after so much craziness.
I can imagine. The one person we haven't had a chance to talk about yet is the fifth lead of the show, Bos, who this season seems even more like a man out of time, or perhaps a man out of place. We've heard a lot about his beloved boat, but we don't know the name—is it the Live-4-Ever?
Chris Rogers: Toby Huss is such a special actor. In many ways, the whole journey of Bos has just begun and ended with him. I think we wrote a guy in the pilot who was a little more one dimensional, was kind of just this Texas hard ass. Then Toby brought this warmth, this humanity, this humor and this life force to that character. Even inside the first three episodes of this show, that kind of made us really think about how to reevaluate this guy.
I think when we set out, his story was destined to be one of a guy who realizes he's obsolete alongside these young mavericks. Instead, each year this has been a guy who's managed to kind of change with the times and to have second acts, third acts. Last season was a love story for Bos. I think he, in many ways, is kind of our unicorn.
He's not immune to the ravages of time, but man, we just love writing for him because he's ... I don't know. He's special and I think really complimentary to our other characters. The relationship he has with Cameron, the relationship he develops with Donna and obviously his love for Diane are all things that have just kind of been among the most heartwarming things we were able to get into in the last couple seasons, and the fourth is no exception. We think fans of Bos will be well served this time around. Bos ends up with a great beard to come full circle. We couldn't be happier about Toby Huss this season and the story of Bosworth and the fact that he made us make him, essentially just with how good he was and has been since day one.
"Halt and Catch Fire" season four premiered Saturday night on AMC.