YOUR HONOR, which premieres the first of its ten episodes on Showtime on Sunday, December 6, has been developed for American television by Peter Moffat.
Based on the Israeli series KVODO, created by Ron Ninio and Shlomo Mashiach, YOUR HONOR is set in New Orleans. Bryan Cranston stars in the title role, Judge Michael Desiato, who is still grieving the loss of his wife a year ago. We see that he is compassionate and fair on the bench.
Michael’s college student son Adam (Hunter Doohan) likewise mourns the loss of his mother. When he goes to commemorate the anniversary of her death, Adam accidentally hits a teenaged boy on a motorcycle. Adam panics and flees the scene, leaving the other youth to die alone.
When Adam tells his father what happened, Michael is all for going to the police and using every privilege he has to make things as easy as they can be for his son. But before a confession can be made, Michael discovers that the dead youth is the youngest child of vicious mobster Jimmy Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg).
Fearing for Adam’s life and his own, Michael resolves that they will cover up what happened, setting in motion an increasingly catastrophic series of events.
Moffat has created a number of miniseries and telefilms. His British drama about the court system, CRIMINAL JUSTICE, was adapted as the HBO miniseries THE NIGHT OF. His other work includes EINSTEIN AND EDDINGTON, HAWKING, CAMBRIDGE SPIES, SILK, and THE LAST POST.
Speaking via Zoom from his office in England, Moffat talks about working on the complexities of YOUR HONOR.
PETER MOFFAT: You should watch KVODO. It’s great.
ASSIGNMENT X: What are the changes you made to have it work in the U.S. as YOUR HONOR?
MOFFAT: The premise is the same. The same thing happens in Israel, as happens in New Orleans at the beginning of the show. But I made a very early choice, which is when Liz Glotzer, the producer, called me and told me the premise, the idea is this simple thing: what would you do or not do to protect your child? She told me the circumstances particular to this story.
I stayed up all night and started writing, and thinking, and asking questions, and writing myself questions, and wrote very fast, and found that I was on a real roll with the story, and became afraid to go and look at somebody else’s version of the same premise, the same idea, which was the original. So, I didn’t for a while, because I wanted to keep control of my own material. But then I did, of course, which was fantastic, because by then it was giving me all sorts of new elements and new ideas that I hadn’t thought of myself. So, it was a good combination of establishing oneself and knowing what you’re doing, then having the great privilege and luxury of introducing things from that show which I hadn’t previously considered, or the writers’ room hadn’t previously considered. So, that was great.
AX: As you are British, did your experience with THE NIGHT OF, where they had taken your show and Americanized it, help you with YOUR HONOR, in terms of learning about the American court system? Or were you far away from THE NIGHT OF and didn’t really look at what they were doing with it with the changes from CRIMINAL JUSTICE?
MOFFAT: Richard Price [who developed THE NIGHT OF with Steven Zaillian], who wrote a lot of the episodes, sent me early drafts of the pilot episode of THE NIGHT OF, and it made me very happy [laughs]. He’s a great writer. He knows what he’s doing. And he had, I want to say, the confidence not to change things for the sake of changing things, but the confidence to change things when he could make it better. So, I felt very comfortable with what he and Steve Zaillian were doing. But THE NIGHT OF took years and years to make. It was a very long process. My relationship with the American criminal justice system began later than that. I’ve spent a lot of time in Chicago, a lot of time in New Orleans, obviously, inside prisons, and jails, and courthouses, just learning about how it works, and how it doesn’t work.
AX: Would you be able to set YOUR HONOR in England, for instance, or would there be big differences?
MOFFAT: There would be big differences. It definitely could exist here, no question. But I used to be in the criminal bar. I used to be a trial lawyer here in the UK. I came across lots of people in trouble, I did a lot of defense work, people in crisis who you’ve got to talk to very quickly, so that you can help them the best that you can, in the condition that they’re in. That work took me into difficult spaces, and ugly environments. So, I felt fairly inured to that stuff, but America shocked me. You go and look at Angola [Prison], for example, or Orleans Parish Prison, frightening places, not treating human beings well.
AX: Obviously, you do have racism in Britain, but you don’t have the same kinds of problems that the U.S. does with the police shooting people. Does that aspect of American culture factor into YOUR HONOR?
MOFFAT: Yeah, absolutely, it does. I’ve spent time on the south side of Chicago, talking to people whose work it is to collect data on the relationship between the Chicago police department and the African-American community. And it’s not a good relationship, obviously. I was particularly interested in the Laquan McDonald story, and got to know the journalist who broke it. So, that was central to my thinking, particularly in and around the third episode [of YOUR HONOR]. But in the UK, police officers don’t have guns. We have bad incidents, when things happen, and sometimes they’re racially motivated, but it’s less likely you’re going to die, because our men in blue don’t have have guns, which makes all the difference in the world.
AX: Was Bryan Cranston attached to YOUR HONR before you came on, or did you as producers collectively ask, “Who would be good to play the character,” and then go, “Ah, Bryan Cranston!”?
MOFFAT: Exactly. That second one. [laughs] I think we probably had seven or eight episodes written when Bryan came on board, and we should be so lucky. Terrific actor, and a real team player, and a real cast leader, by example. He conducts himself on set so well, and people follow that, and see how it should be done. And as a consequence, it was a very happy set, it was a very happy production.
AX: YOUR HONOR has a lot of characters, and a lot of subplots. In constructing something with so many moving pieces, do you set out charts for yourself of different characters’ trajectories, or how do you keep all of that straight for yourself?
MOFFAT: Literally, I’d never been in a writers’ room before, until YOUR HONOR, and that’s what a writers’ room does. It puts up on white boards cards, which show what’s happening to Character X across the episode, or across the season. That’s pretty useful, and helps you keep everything in your head, and gives you the freedom to then do the writing inside the plot that you need to do, which is about character, and about what’s happening to people. So, the only thing you’re a little bit careful about, I think, is not to become overly plot-dependent, and allow yourself the space to give audiences a sort of privileged look at how your human beings are doing at any given moment. Things don’t have to be plot-driven all of the time. Good if they are, but not all of the time.
AX: What did you have to learn in order to write this?
MOFFAT: When we were employing the six other writers for the writers’ room, I wanted to get people who I knew who could tell me things I didn’t know, who came from life backgrounds that were incredibly different from mine as a white, middle-aged, middle-class male. It’s pretty important when you’re writing a show set in New Orleans, and going across the whole spectrum of society, that you represent that society in your writers’ room. So, it was super-important to get that, and it just helps to have those diverse voices. And when you come to research the thing, the same thing applies.
One thing I would say about the American system of writers’ rooms – much though I grew to love it, is, it should stop being in Los Angeles, unless the show is set in Los Angeles. So, any show set in New Orleans should have a writers’ room in New Orleans. A show set in Chicago should have a writers’ room in Chicago. It’s obvious. It gives you texture, life, voices, sounds. You need all of that to write properly. If you’re writing on Sunset Boulevard about New Orleans, it’s self-evidently not the best place to be.
AX: How did YOUR HONOR come to be set in New Orleans?
MOFFAT: Originally, we were thinking about Chicago. And then we had a conversation with Showtime, who said, “There have been a few shows in Chicago.” And very oddly, I think, apart from TREME, there haven’t really been big shows set in New Orleans. And I thought, what a good idea. If you stay away from too much voodoo and maybe too much jazz, and avoid the stereotypes, then it’s an extraordinary place, New Orleans, because it’s so complicated, and has such history, and it’s so corrupt, as well, which was pretty useful for the story that we were telling.
AX: Well, Charlie, Michael’s mayoral candidate friend, played by Isiah Whitlock Jr., certain seems to take his mob connections completely in stride, up until it smacks him in the face, but initially, it’s just presented as a matter of course.
MOFFAT: Yeah. And that’s the thing in New Orleans, is that everybody knows everybody. It’s that thing where it isn’t wrong to call in favors, in some people’s minds, that people would be surprised to be criticized for that. I guess that is a cultural difference, sometimes. I love Isiah Whitlock. He’s such a strong actor, he’s such a presence in the room. He’s great to watch. He’s one of those actors that you think, “Oh, good, here he comes,” when he’s in a scene, which is a lovely feeling as a writer, to get that from somebody.
AX: You’ve got two fathers, Michael Desiato and Jimmy Baxter, but Michael’s wife is dead, and Baxter’s wife Gina, played by Hope Davis, is very much part of the story. Why did you feel that was a good balance between those families?
MOFFAT: Two things. I felt that having Michael and Adam, father and son, just the two of them, would bring an element of pathos to their story, that they’re reliant only on each other. And that’s all they’ve got. All that Michael has is his child. He doesn’t have his loved wife anymore. So, it just makes it more important that he’s successful in what he’s doing. Of course, it’s always important to every parent to protect a child. But he will have nothing if he fails. He will have nothing at all, nowhere to turn to, if he fails. And so, that’s just a question of stakes, I suppose.
And then, with the Baxter family, the mob family, I just thought it would be a good idea to start them looking like a normal family, that they have three kids and have breakfast together, and laugh. I wanted to avoid some of those obvious stereotypes that come along with those kinds of characters, and those kinds of families. Their home is not filled with marble and chandeliers and bad taste. You might, in those early scenes, mistake them for something completely different, which then gives you the room, I think, to explore them properly, as people who, for example, are of course capable of feeling grief, or doing good things, as well as horrible things.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about YOUR HONOR?
MOFFAT: Oh, wow. That’s a great question. Oh, gosh. I would say this, wouldn’t I, because I wrote it, but I think it has the best ending I’ve ever written.
AX: Speaking of endings, Hope Davis said something about “this season,” as opposed to next season. So, is there a chance there will be a YOUR HONOR Season 2?
MOFFAT: Hope obviously knows much more than me. [laughs] That’s kind of great. It’s written as a limited series, as a one-off. It finishes. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end at the end of Episode 10. But I would be being dishonest if I were to say to you that, as a writer, I don’t think about some of the things that might go in Episode 11. Of course I do, albeit idly at the moment. So, we’ll see. Let’s hope people like it, and if they like it enough, then I guess there’s a conversation to be had.
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