COUNTERPART Key Art Season 1 | ©2017 Starz

COUNTERPART Key Art Season 1 | ©2017 Starz

Starz’s new science-fiction spy drama COUNTERPART is launching its first season Sunday, January 21, but the series has already been picked up for Season 2. Created by Justin Marks (writer of the 2016 remake of THE JUNGLE BOOK), COUNTERPART introduces us to Howard Silk, played by J.K. Simmons. Howard has spent the last thirty years working for a multinational company in Berlin without ever knowing exactly what he, or it, is doing. One day, Howard is summoned to meet his Other – and is shocked to find himself sitting across from an identical “Other” Howard Silk. It turns out that thirty years ago, there was a split in reality, which developed in separate directions on each side of the tunnel under the building where Howard is employed. The Other Howard, who has the same background as but is very different from “our” Howard, explains that an assassin has come across the divide.

That’s just the start of COUNTERPART’s intriguing premise. Creator Marks and his fellow executive producers Gary Gilbert and Jordan Horowitz (LA LA LAND) sit down for a discussion of their unconventional new show.

Marks indicates a Radio Shack cassette tape recorder.

JUSTIN MARKS: This is in the very style of our show. I kid you not, we have this analogue aesthetic to the show that’s like, this is it, right here. The office, which you can see has different technology to it, is frozen, locked in a certain place that relates to when the Crossing was created, as if we want to not show the other side our technological progressions over the last thirty years as they’ve unfolded, and they will do the same.

ASSIGNMENT X: What was the very first thought that led to COUNTERPART? Like, “What if there are two realities,” or was there a spy thriller concept and then you went, “Aha, what if …?”

MARKS: The origin of the show – this was actually eight years ago – I was sitting around one day, and I began to wonder in that true kind of SLIDING DOORS way, what would it be like if my life had turned out differently, if I had made a different set of choices, if I had found myself in a different situation? Would I be happier, would I be more fulfilled, less fulfilled, what would I be doing, who would that person be? We’ve all had those questions, we’ve all wondered about it. But then what I began to wonder was, what if I could meet that other person? Would I like that person? Would that person like me? Would we get along? Would we want to compete for each other’s lives? Would we covet that life, and how would that start to play out? And then to sort of build a spy game out of that, where what if I’m competing with that other person in this espionage world? Espionage is about secrets. Well, this other person knows all of my deepest, darkest secrets, so we could work against each other in that way, and that was the original premise that we started to bounce around as we started to write the show, and then everything else built around that.

AX: Are we meant to know, and is it important that we know, which reality is “ours”?

MARKS: Yeah. We never try to shine a light on it, because I don’t want to give importance to one versus the other, but the answer is simple. The reality where we begin in the first episode is ours. It is our world. But it is our world. It’s our Berlin and it shares our history, at least in terms of how we see it.

AX: Was Berlin your initial concept for where COUNTERPART should be set, or was that a suggestion of Starz?

MARKS: No. We played around with a lot of places, because it always had to feel like Europe. I definitely wanted it to be set in Europe, but I believe initially, one of the cities we tried out was Bucharest, Romania, just because we figured, “Oh, it’ll be easier to do it there.” And when J.K. and [director] Morten Tyldum came on board, and we had a meeting with them, everyone started talking about, “Well, look, it’s a Cold War thriller, what better city to set it in than the actual place?” I thought, “Well, is it too close to do it like that?” And I thought, “No, this will be really interesting, and Berlin is such a wonderful city to spend time in, it’s an international city, it’s a city where you have a great diversity of architecture, whether that is Old World architecture that could stand in for our side, or high contemporary architecture, that could stand in for the other side.” So it just began to be the right place to do it. And the German crew was so fantastic in the first season that, for the second season, we’re doubling our days in Berlin to shoot there even more.

AX: How did the three of you come together on this project? Gary Gilbert and Jordan Horowitz, you’ve been producing partners for awhile …

JORDAN HOROWITZ: Yeah, I can speak to this. Justin and I went to high school, Gary and I worked together for about eleven years, and so we knew each other for a very long time, and then I guess we lost touch in college, but then the first time I was in L.A., you [Gilbert] brought me to L.A., very first trip. So Gary moves to L.A., and I was in a rental car in Beverly Hills driving somewhere, I don’t remember where, and suddenly, someone ran out in front of my car, Justin will say I almost ran him over, but someone ran out in front of my car literally, and turns to my windshield, and it was Justin. We hadn’t seen each other in four or five, maybe six years or so, since we graduated high school. And then he was running late to a dentist appointment, so he hopped in my car and I gave him a ride, we reconnected, and then we were looking to get into television, because we’d been feature producers, and we started looking at television, and Justin came in and we all started talking, and eventually came up with the concept, and set it up at MRC, and it went from there.

MARKS: That was actually over a decade – ’07, ’08. But then 2009, 2010 was when we started talking about it, yeah.

GARY GILBERT: ’13.

HOROWITZ: The deal, yeah.

AX: You have a number of scenes where both Howards are together in the same shot, with J.K. Simmons playing both of them. Did you use any of the ORPHAN BLACK technology that series used to shoot the scenes with Tatiana Maslany playing multiple characters?

HOROWITZ: Yeah. What’s interesting is, at the very beginning of the show, we tried a lot of methods to figure it out. It was like feeling around in the dark, methods called motion control, split screen, repeatable head, body doubles, over the shoulders, any of these kinds of things. And it was hard. We were really trying to find the right language to execute these scenes, and feeling around, not just as producers, but Morten [Tyldum] as director of the first episode, J.K. playing the role, how we could get this the right way, and one day, we said, “You know what? Someone else has got to have done this in a better way, and certainly ORPHAN BLACK, who has to deal with many versions of [Maslany], and very often, many versions of her on screen together, had to have figured it out, and they must have the easy system, and we have to talk to them.” So I remember, it was about a month-and-a-half into filming, we got on the phone with the producers and the visual effects producers of ORPHAN BLACK, and we said, “How do you do it? How do you do it fast? How does it work? How do you make it? Tell us the secret, so we can make our lives easier.”

GILBERT: There are, like, ten of her.

HOROWITZ: What they said to us is, “We have no idea. We are still figuring it out every day.” That was a real moment, because that was like us looking into the future of, “Oh, God. This is going to never get easier.” But it actually has, because once we found the versions that we liked creatively, that J.K. liked in terms of performance, which were actually the same, then it began to be a lot simpler. Most of the times because we just eliminated motion control, which is where the camera really moves around the characters. It’s too much to do, it takes too much time and honestly, I find it to be distracting to the show in general, because I don’t think that we should ever be calling attention to the fact that this is the same person on screen with each other. I think we should forget about the fact that they’re the same person. And once we began to say, “So how would you just shoot any two people?” Then it just became a lot simpler.

GILBERT: Split-screen just becomes an easier thing, and then [Simmons] plays against his stand-in/an actor, John Funk, that he works with that plays all the scenes with him, and then gets erased, and then they flip parts.

HOROWITZ: But to your point, yeah, [we do] one master shot where he does one side, changes, showers – he always has to shower between characters, because he wants to get to us like the character, it’s part of the process, he probably doesn’t want me telling people, but I think it’s amazing – and he then comes back as the other character, shoots the other half where the other actor, John Funk, has switched – he looks like J.K. and he’s a good actor, and so they have a good dynamic together and they can play against each other. And so he’ll do that, and then we’ll go into the coverage for that version of the character, and then he’ll change back into the first one, and we’ll go into the coverage for that character.

GILBERT: And another shower.

HOROWITZ: Yes, and another shower in between. Yeah. But it’s a re-light, so it always takes forty-five minutes to do it anyway, so he has the time.

GILBERT: Even when they’re playing each other in different worlds, you can just tell by vibing, mannerisms, he’s dressed as the other Howard, you can tell which Howard it is.

MARKS: As soon as he walks on set, you know which Howard it is.

AX: Once you had J.K. Simmons on board, was he one of the selling points in getting everybody else?

MARKS: Oh, yeah. Everyone wants to work with J.K. and most of the actors got a chance to in the first season, and the rest of them are all getting a chance to in the second season, and they deeply resented us for not getting a chance to work with him in the first season [laughs].

GILBERT: Actors love him.

MARKS: Yeah. He’s really fun to get to be there on the day, because he just brings such a level of professionalism. And honestly, he’s so unpredictable in the scenes, because he has that inside-out way about him, he knows how to find the character, and then he can surprise you on the day with a choice that is amazing.

AX: It seems that at some point in the set-up, one Howard is going to start impersonating the other …

MARKS: Yes. It does happen within the first six episodes. And that’s the fun of the show.

AX: Do other characters start impersonating their “Other” selves, or is that too spoilery?

MARKS: There will be definitely some interactions with their Others, and one of the things that we did is make sure that every single member of our cast knows who they are on the Other Side, or vice-versa, so that they can have that in their head, and prepare their own characters vis-à-vis what their other self might be.

AX: Besides the premise itself, are there other science-fiction elements in COUNTERPART?

MARKS: Yeah, in the sense of everything is derived, certainly, from the two worlds and the split. But we began to really take it down the rabbit hole of, just technologically, what that would mean if they had had a different timeline, a different history. Their cell phones look, if you noticed in the first episode, a little different, subtly different, and there are other things like that. Health care is different. There is a different kind of government infrastructure on the Other Side, and it all comes from certain very specific reasons we wanted to explore.

AX: What would you most like people to know about COUNTERPART?

MARKS: I just think that COUNTERPART is a show for people who love shows that you’ve never seen before. This is a strange, offbeat show. It’s an action show, it’s a science-fiction show, it’s a spy thriller, and it’s a metaphysical drama. And to be able to do all of those at once, I think, speaks to a kind of ambition that we don’t always get to see.

This interview was conducted during Starz’s portion of the Winter 2018 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.

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Article: Exclusive Interview: The COUNTERPART creator and executive producers Justin Marks, Gary Gilbert and Jordan Horowitz chat Season 1 

 

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