Howard Gordon is a very busy executive producer. This year alone, his projects include 24: LIVE ANOTHER DAY, which just wrapped up a successful twelve-episode run on Fox, LEGENDS, starring Sean Bean as a deep-cover FBI agent, which debuts on TNT August 13 and the multi-award-winning HOMELAND, the series Gordon developed with Alex Gansa, returns to Showtime for its fourth season in the fall.
However, the series Gordon shows up to discuss at the Television Critics Association summer press tour is FX’s TYRANT, which airs Tuesdays at 10 PM. Created by Gordon and Gideon Raff (who originated the Israeli series HATUFIM, the inspiration for HOMELAND), TYRANT tells the story of Bassan “Barry” Al Fayeed (Adam Rayner), who left his Middle East home as a teenager to make a life for himself as a successful pediatrician in Pasadena, California. Barry has strenuously avoided his country of origin ever since, but when a family wedding dictates he must bring his wife and children with him, Barry goes for what is meant to be a short stay. Then Barry’s father dies, his unstable brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom) takes over the reins of power, and Barry feels obligated to stay for the good of the land – and is immediately drawn into a web of compromises, paranoia and violence.
Normally, panels for the Television Critics Association consist of a show’s cast and creative staff. TYRANT had such a panel in January. As most of the cast are in Turkey filming, this panel is something different. Gordon is on stage with a number of the show’s consultants: architect and Iraqi national Aseel Albanna, deputy director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle Eastern Policy Ramy Yaacoub, Muslims on Screen and Television (MOST) co-directors Michael Wolfe and Ambassador Cynthia P. Schneider. They are here to discuss how they and Gordon worked together to create a balanced portrait of Muslims within TYRANT, albeit the series takes place in a fictional nation.
When the panel ends, Gordon remains for follow-up discussion.
AX: Is the primary goal of getting input from the people who were with you on the panel to avoid offending Muslim viewers or is to avoid presenting negative stereotypes to non-Muslim viewers?
HOWARD GORDON: I think both. No one wanted to offend anybody willfully or willingly. That’s not smart and that’s not good. I think that the primary goal is to tell a good story and to honor the characters and honor the story that’s being told, and to do so without offending potential constituencies and potential audience. It’s just bad business to offend people who we hope would be interested in watching this show in the Arab world abroad, in our domestic audience. We just want to tell a good story.
AX: Also, in terms of not playing into the views of people who spout anti-Muslim hate speech –
GORDON: I really have a very strong feeling about fueling that. My feeling is that people will see what they want to see, that this show may be a Rorschach test for some people who choose to read into it their own pre-existing beliefs. So that’s an unfortunate byproduct of telling this kind of story. I would hope that the greater byproduct of it will be humanizing a part of the world and putting faces and stories on a part of the world that other people would not otherwise have access to.
AX: You actually had to move countries mid-production – you started in Israel and moved to Turkey. What was that like?
GORDON: It has been like a Werner Herzog movie. Remember AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD? Fortunately, our Israeli producer is a commercial producer who had a production company, an office in Turkey, so we had a crew. It was a bit of a turnkey thing – we raced over there, we changed locations, we just did this guerilla scout, really fast – we’re there now, actually, completing the rest of the season, and the fact that we’re doing it is actually a miracle.
AX: Can you clarify why filming had to relocate to Turkey?
GORDON: Tel Aviv was under missile fire and people were running into bomb shelters and I don’t think people felt physically threatened, but it wasn’t conducive to shooting the balance of the series, and we didn’t know how [the Israeli/Hamas conflict] would evolve, and in hindsight, I think it was good that we left before the ground incursion started.
AX: You shot a lot of scenes in the presidential palace before the location move. Is the palace going to look significantly different?
GORDON: Somebody either really wants this show to not happen or to happen. I can’t tell which it is. But we found a stage that actually looks close enough like these are other rooms in the same palace. We’re dressing it and painting it accordingly.
AX: What kind of impact has the move had on the cast and the crew?
GORDON: Everyone’s really been great sports about it. Look, everyone is pretty traumatized by the events that are going on nearby, but everyone really is very proud of being part of the project and everyone is game. They’re actors and we’re all in the circus – it’s a bit of a circus.
AX: Which episodes have the initial footage from Turkey?
GORDON: Turkey starts [with] a piece of Seven [which airs Tuesday, August 5], a bigger piece of Eight, and all of Nine.
AX: Do you think, if you get a second season, production will remain in Turkey?
GORDON: Strangely enough, a lot of this is economic, a lot of this is practical. In Turkey, this would be a test case of, is that on the table, if Turkey works out well? What does it look like, would it be nice to expand the palette of the show – maybe it’s a hybrid between the two.
AX: Do you go to Turkey or are you working from Los Angeles?
GORDON: I’ve been back and forth. But we always have a writer there – we have a writer in Turkey now, in Istanbul.
AX: Do you find it ironic that HOMELAND was being shot in Turkey and moved to South Africa?
GORDON: The ironies strike me on a daily basis.
AX: With the success of 24: LIVE ANOTHER DAY, would you want to do another limited season of 24?
GORDON: I think everyone would be up for it if there’s a good story to be told. That’s cart before the horse. We would not even think about it until, if one of us had a great idea, we’d pitch it to the other person, we’d pitch it to Kiefer [Sutherland], and then we’d go to Fox. We had a great time. It was great. Very much so. The ratings are the ratings. I can’t even tell the new normal any more. I don’t know what the new normal is. But I think they were pretty solid. We feel very, very positive. We got a lot of anecdotal positive feedback. And even the cynical people at the beginning of the exercise who said, “Oh, this looks old,” actually, I saw a lot of people turn around and go, “Okay, this is pretty good.”
AX: Back to TYRANT, do you see the story as a classic tragedy?
GORDON: I think there’s a baked-in tragedy to the story of power and an intractable situation where there are no good answers. It inevitably leads to behavior that seems like it’s sliding in a tragic way. But hopefully not without hope.
AX: How Shakespearean is this going to get? Is fratricide on the table?
GORDON: Let’s put it this way – nothing’s off the table. And I’d love this to be as Shakespearean as it can be. I will steal, beg and borrow from every one of his plays.
AX: Obviously, it must be challenging just working on so many different productions at once. You’ve said TYRANT is extremely challenging. Were you looking to do something quite so challenging when you took it on?
GORDON: I must be a little bit of a masochist. That’s become increasingly clear to me.
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