TURN: WASHINGTON’S SPIES originally ran for four seasons, 2014-2017, on AMC. The series is now available in its entirety on Netflix.
Based on historian Alexander Rose’s nonfiction book WASHINGTON’S SPIES, TURN: WASHINGTON’S SPIES is a thriller set during the American Revolutionary War. George Washington has a network of spies working for him against the British. An initially reluctant recruit to this cause is cabbage farmer Abe Woodhull, played by Jamie Bell (BILLY ELLIOTT).
This is a reprint of our interview that originally ran on May 8, 2014. Following a Q&A panel held by AMC for the Television Critics Association, author Rose sits down with TURN: WASHINGTON’S SPIES executive producer Barry Josephson and show runner Craig Silverstein for a discussion of the series.
AX: When you wrote this book, did you have the idea those somebody would want to make a TV series of it, or did you think you were just writing a historical record of events and individuals that most people didn’t know about?
ALEXANDER ROSE: I think it was a combination of both. The chances of getting a series made of a book, especially a history book in the eighteen century, are pretty tiny. I think that I did play up the idea of how closely related they were, these childhood bonds, and I was very concerned with getting all their characters right. And I think that’s what helped attract Barry and Craig. So I didn’t think it would actually ever happen, but it just happened that it did.
BARRY JOSEPHSON: Alex was my first great friend in this project. He stayed loyal, he always took my phone call, I made lots of promises that things would progress and he absolutely stayed with me. It was fabulous, because then I had the opportunity to give the book to Craig.
AX: Mr. Silverstein, you have also worked on BONES, where Mr. Josephson is an executive producer. Are you and Mr. Josephson normally writing partners?
CRAIG SILVERSTEIN: No. I’m the writer, Barry – though he’s very good with story, he has a great story sense – isn’t a writer per se. And so I met him on BONES where I was a writer, and [he] also found those books [by Kathy Reichs, which are the inspiration for BONES].
JOSEPHSON: That’s my gift. My gift is finding good material. I know what people want to see way before they know they want to see it. Craig and I actually met on BONES, because [series creator] Hart Hanson told me how talented Craig was. So I thought, okay, and then tried to work with Craig as well. And that’s how this all happened.
AX: What is the British view of the Revolutionary War? How is it thought of in England?
ROSE: I think it’s probably like a quarrel over something in a faraway country about which they knew little. It’s a kind of a minor interlude in an otherwise glorious story that just doesn’t get talked about that much. Hopefully, TURN: WASHINGTON’S SPIES will actually ignite much more interest in it, because it really is a fascinating period. But yes, it’s interesting in how little it’s covered at all in England. I think Jamie [Bell] said that he just got taught the basic version.
JOSEPHSON: It makes sense when you consider that, at the time, it was one of several different fronts that the [British] empire was fighting all over the world, and against much larger rivals like France, who of course eventually got involved in the war and will be involved in our series. So, yeah, they just saw it as one problem among many at the time.
AX: Was the Culper Ring the only spy ring operating at that time, or did you choose them to write about because they were the most interesting?
ROSE: There were lots and lots of spies around at the time. The problem with lots of spies is that ninety-nine percent of them burn out after a mission, or they get busted, or the network gets blown, or they just kind of vanish from history. Even in the Washington papers, there are letters from spies who are just known by their initials – “S.B.” or something like that – and you’ll never find out who they are. The Culper Ring is unique in that they existed throughout the war. They had a very long duration. They never got caught and, most importantly for our purposes, all of their correspondence survives. I think it’s almost unique in the annals of intelligence literature, that you would have this sort of almost biography of a spy ring that’s just lying there in a dusty archive and that you can excavate it.
SILVERSTEIN: What’s also remarkable is that they are a group of their own. It’s their own integrity, it’s their own group. They had rules about how they would interact with others and I think it’s one of the reasons for their success, actually.
JOSEPHSON: Yeah, and they were successful because, unlike, “You’re going to work with this guy and you’re going to work with this guy,” they were childhood friends. They grew up with each other. They knew each other and trusted each other and had a shorthand with each other. Even though they all went separate ways before the war and one became a whale boat man, one became a soldier, one stayed as a farmer, when you grow up with somebody, that’s a bond of trust that’s hard to break, and that’s what really made it successful – all the kids from the same small town.
ROSE: They didn’t just let anybody in, as Barry said. The reason why so many spies or networks get caught is because they let in somebody who just infiltrates it and he flips or he gets caught or whatever, but the Culpers, because you have these old childhood bonds, they all knew each other, they knew their foibles, they knew their strengths, and while they had their little fights between each other, they would always just come together for the greater cause.
AX: How much discussion was there about translating the characters and the dialogue into something contemporary audiences would understand without making it seem like parody?
SILVERSTEIN: It started with trying to find a voice for the dialogue for the show – we didn’t know how they spoke. We know how they wrote letters, and it was deciding that the way they spoke was not the way they wrote. And without being anachronistic, you can make it feel visceral, you can make it feel contemporary.
AX: As far as casting, did you ever think, “Well, we’re hiring an Englishman to play somebody with an American accent, and an American or a Canadian to play people with English accents”?
SILVERSTEIN: No. Nobody had an American accent at the time, so that made it easy [laughs]. Whoever you were, even though we have Americans, everybody’s got to play the same accent, which was a kind of hodgepodge. The American accent had not really come into its own yet. I think Ben Talmadge [played by Seth Numrich] and Abe have the same kind of rough Irish thing in there. If you listen to Abe, to my ears, there is a bit of that rough Irish feel. Same with Anna Strong [played by Heather Lind], who’s there, and [Abe’s] father, who’s a bit more Tory, has a bit more West Country feel to him.
AX: As the story goes forward, how much of the emphasis is on the emotional, interpersonal aspects and how much of it is the machinery of spying?
JOSEPHSON: The bulk of it is personal, because they are not trained professionals yet. So what you see is, the spy craft creeps in more and more and more. But really, if we don’t have the personal stories, which are really the stakes of what they’re going to lose if they get caught, then the spy stuff won’t really matter. You get to see the machinery get built, which I think is exciting.
AX: Now, is there anything in your years working with the storytelling style of BONES that you’ve been able to apply to this?
SILVERSTEIN: There’s some dead bodies …
JOSEPHSON: Some good male/female relationships. And we have an ensemble that bonds. But we didn’t ever consciously think about that. This is more about Craig and I absolutely being fascinated with Alex’s book and then just trying to imagine how the story would be told, and then one day, Craig went off and came back with a created document of the show that he wanted. The origin of this show really starts there. It starts with reading Alex’s book, being a fan of what we didn’t know – we didn’t know at all about the Culpers – and Craig going off and creating the show.
AX: Did you write all ten episodes?
SILVERSTEIN: No, we have a staff. We break all ten stories together – I do writing on every episode that you see.
AX: How much of the emotional content of the series is in the book? Are they coming up with things that have surprised you or made you go, “Oh, that’s an interesting way to look at what that might have meant between these people,” or is that all from the book?
ROSE: Well, there are lots and lots of twists and turns. It is a drama about characters and it is a spy thriller, but at the same time, you have to remember that these characters are actually based on real people. The characters are very, very close. Abe Woodhull in the show is one thing; it basically riffs off what he was like in real life.
SILVERSTEIN: You’ll see in the series that Talmadge is one of his best friends, and then you see that Abe and Caleb and his town have been taken over by the British. So their town is very different than the town that they experienced as kids. I think all the characters are very caught up emotionally with the times, with what’s happened.
AX: In production terms, was there anything that was especially difficult?
JOSEPHSON: From a production standpoint, it’s very challenging to recreate the period. It’s one of the reasons we’re in Richmond [Virginia]. To create that period, everything that goes with that period – those boats, these buildings, these things, only exist in certain parts and some places – in production, we have to construct and build certain things that don’t exist any more. One great thing is that, in and outside of Richmond, there are many historical buildings that exist that are a way for us to create the times. We built the entire town of Setauket there, so that I think is the production challenge – that, and how many exteriors there are.
AX: Was this a tough sell to AMC? Were you already talking to AMC and they said, “We’d like to be in business with you?” Did they go, “We’re the American Movie Channel – we should do something about America?”
SILVERSTEIN: They were great through the process. It wasn’t a tough sell, actually. The development was rigorous. They really wanted us to make it more and more and more personal, and we loved that, and so we pushed in that direction. By the way, they’re not the American Movie Channel any more. It’s like KFC – [the initials don’t] stand for anything now [laughs].
JOSEPHSON: There’s an executive at AMC, Susie Fitzgerald, who really had worked with Craig and I early on in the development of the show, and so we felt absolutely compelled, once Craig had time to do this, to go to Susie exclusively with the show. We were fortunate enough that she was interested and it was really about Craig finding the way into the story and finding the right way to tell the story that impressed them.
AX: Do you think could something like this happen now, with all the technology around, that a group of friends could come together to commit espionage?
SILVERSTEIN: I think it’s what happens in any kind of underground, in any kind of uprising. It might happen with cell phones now, or if they see the cell phones are able to be tapped, they go back to passing messages hand to hand.
ROSE: The Culpers were always very, very concerned with communication, so they spent a lot of time working out how not to be intercepted. So again, it does have certain lessons for today. I think if you turn back the clock, it’s actually much more secure.
SILVERSTEIN: Than email or anything else that we have now [laughs].
JOSEPHSON: I read in the New York Times the other day about a group – some of them were professors, but they basically had become friends, and friends in cause, what they believed was unfair spying by the FBI. So these friends got together, and they were so caught up with it that they broke into the Philadelphia FBI office and they kept the secret all these years, that they did collect papers and disseminate them. They felt that it was time to reveal that this kind of spying by the FBI was wrong. And they kept their secret. I thought that was remarkable, that in modern day it was another example of what the Culpers did brilliantly.
AX: Was there anything any of you learned about the period that impacted the plot, about how they did things, where you said, “Oh, that’s how they …” like the horses being stabled in the church?
JOSEPHSON: Endless things, spying, how they did certain things, invisible ink, things that I didn’t realize were created in that period. I think the thing that really impressed us all was how they were able to be successful, gather this information, disseminate the information. It’s all so difficult.
SILVERSTEIN: Yeah, going into it, you know that the missed signals, the letter dropped in the mud and then someone else is moving on for another month thinking that nothing’s changed, there’s a lot of drama created in the missed messages.
AX: Did you really think in terms of what you needed to put in the writing of it to make it credible to the viewer that these people went, “Okay, I’m going to risk my life over unjust taxation”?
SILVERSTEIN: Yes. Because I didn’t start from the point of view of, “I would risk my life for liberty,” it was hard for me to put myself back then, I chose a character that – if you focus this thing on Ben Talmadge, who is all for the cause. But Abe Woodhull is trying to get by. And watching the events of the first few episodes make him really want to rebel, even against sort of knowing the risks, I found myself getting to the same place and realizing, “Oh, that’s how it would happen for me as well.” Once I got there, I thought, “This is really working.”
AX: Is there anything else any of you would like to say about TURN: WASHINGTON’S SPIES right now?
JOSEPHSON: No. Just that Craig Silverstein is a brilliant show runner and he’s doing a great job.
SILVERSTEIN: I think that just the idea that the Revolutionary War up to this point has been told sort of top down – Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, John Adams – and we’re telling it from the bottom up – Woodhull, Talmadge, Anna Strong – and these characters at the time were just as important. And it’s important to remind ourselves as Americans that democracy is collective action. It’s the man on the street who gets things done, not just the guy in the top job.
ROSE: That’s what I was going to say [laughs].
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