A Darker Lens: Person Of Interest’s Nolan & Plageman Talk Show’s Weird Machinations
Last week Screen Spy took a peep behind the curtain of network television’s fastest growing show. An interview with Person of Interest series producers Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman afforded the opportunity to quiz both show creators about the shocking mid-season finale which saw Reese (Jim Caviezel) taken captive by the FBI, Carter (Taraji P. Henson) head-hunted by Special Agent Donnelly, and Fusco (Kevin Chapman) deeper in trouble with the dangerous and insidious HR.
Nolan and Plageman spoke about what’s in store for our reluctant quartet when the show returns on January 3rd, why Reese and Finch are probably not going to exchange hugs any time soon, and how despite drawing inspiration from classics such as the X-Files, Quantum Leap and the works of James Ellroy, the show’s largest influence can be found on the streets of today’s New York.
‘We always want to keep it dangerous. We always want to keep surprising people.’ Nolan says of the mid-season shocker.
“Carter being enlisted by Special Agent Donnelly in pursuit of the man in the suit has been a running theme on our show,” adds Plageman. “Donnelly is well aware of Carter’s history as an interrogator in Iraq and now that he has Reese in custody it’s going to be very interesting to see how Carter is enlisted in playing both sides of the fence. We want to show the audience that Donnelly is a very formidable character in his endeavor to take down Reese. We’re going to have a lot of fun with that. We’ve got some big serialized content coming in the next couple of episodes.”
Asked to describe the theme for these upcoming January episodes, Plagemen simply says ‘Bananas.’
Nolan offers a further tease, adding “We’ve got some friendly folks returning to create fresh chaos, which we love. Our show has periods in which we get to focus on the story of the week and things seem nice and safe, and we lull the audience into a false sense of security and then we just smash things to pieces … and I think that’s what we heading into.”
With Reese in custody, will Finch (Michael Emerson) will be left to handle things alone?
“That’s our first episode of the New Year,” confirms Plageman. “While plans are being put together and while our heroes – plural,” he stresses, “scheme to free Reese, Finch is going to have to go into very unusual circumstances in order to protect a very special person.”
Will the new year continue to prove problematic for Fusco (Kevin Chapman) where HR is concerned? And is Reese likely to step in and help him out at any point?
“Some of Fusco’s predicament is Reese’s doing,” says Plageman. “But the original ‘sin’ is Fusco’s own. Things come home to roost. Officer Simmons will be back, as well as Quinn who has been revealed as the head of HR. Perhaps the bigger issue with Fusco is that we can’t figure out how he has become such a ladies man on our show,” he laughs. “He’ll be tasked with protecting [supermodel] Karolina Kurkova when she comes up as a POI in episode 2.12.”
“It’s a team effort to cover the numbers at this point with Reese out of commission” adds Nolan.
Those hoping to see an emotional reunion between Reese and Finch (should Reese make it out of incarceration, that is) may have to hold their breaths a little while longer however. Describing both characters and their relationship to one another, Nolan sums them up as ‘Very wounded, very broken characters who are rebuilding themselves, and Reese probably the most. Although for reasons you will discover, Finch in his own way has a lot of damage there too. Every tiny glimmer of connection between them means so much. Reese is this wounded animal who is slowly rebuilding his trust and his connection to the world.”
I can’t help but wonder if having such a small core cast of characters in Reese, Finch, Carter and Fusco has helped or hindered the types of stories Person of Interest has to tell.
“I think that the missing character there is the POI,” Nolan observes. “Every week there’s a different world we get to enter. Greg and I talked a lot about the kind of shows we grew up watching. Shows like Magnum, and The Equalizer, and also Quantum Leap. So whether you’re coming at it from a hard boiled conventional PI direction, or coming it at from a more heightened, high concept idea like Quantum Leap, one of the great things about all of those shows was that each week you got the opportunity to enter into a different world – a world defined in our show by the person of interest – the person whose life Finch, Reese, Carter and Fusco are trying to figure out and unravel before everything goes sideways.”
“So those types of shows have always had smaller casts,” he tells me. “But I have to say, one of the great pleasures of creating a show and getting to continue to write it, is that you get to work with these phenomenal actors. Greg and I have gotten a chance to work with so many actors we’ve always wanted to work with. The goal from the beginning with the show was to take four characters and from the pilot you realize this is a quartet, and then over the course of the coming seasons, grow that universe. The advantage of having a smaller cast is that we really get to explore those characters. It’s not a thing where everybody has two lines per episode y’know? This show’s attention shifts focus. Sometimes you learn a little bit more about this character. Sometimes you learn a little bit more about that character. Our next episode for instance, focuses a little bit more on Finch.”
“I also think the advantage is you never know who’s going to come and who’s going to go,” Plageman adds. “I think we all knew where we were when Stringer Bell got shot! On a show like that you never know what’s going to happen if you have recurring actors. Some of them are so phenomenal it just breaks your heart when they have to go but it also keeps the show on a nice edge.”
“Those are terrible phone calls to have to make,” admits Nolan. “It’s so sad. I always tell them they’ve earned the POI badge of courage.”
Plageman laughs. “When they pop on our show they suddenly start getting offers on all these other shows. We can’t get them anymore!”
On the subject of unpredictability, I mention that last season audiences were treated to an episode (‘Blue Code’) which involved the CIA selling drugs to fund the war on terror – a brave, if somewhat cheeky plot development in an otherwise straightforward ‘case of the week’ story. Does the writing team ever come up with a storyline and then think we can’t do that. We can’t go that far?
“Every day!” laughs Nolan. “Our writers are coming up with incredibly bold and great and sometimes subversive and odd pitches which add to the heightened aspect of the show. I talked a lot about the X-Files when developing the pilot. I actually referred back to it a lot. The X-Files had great balance between a case of the week and a larger serialized mythology which they were telling. But what they also had was a great dovetailing connectedness between the case of the week and that mythology. We’ve always encouraged our writers to go out there and explore. We always want the show to reach out as far as it can in terms of jumping from one unexpected world to the next and seeing what common threads emerge from that.”
“And again, we want them to get that sense of a larger corrupt weirder universe around them. I’m a huge fan of James Ellroy’s books, American Tabloid being one of them. There’s a sense you get from Ellroy’s universe that there are weird machinations at play underneath everything. Of course, Elroy’s dark gaze on the CIA, on the events of the 1960’s, on United Fruit, Heroin out of Vietnam, it’s that darker lens that our show takes, looking towards government surveillance, and all these sorts of things.”
“It’s actually not that different from the X-Files. The X-Files universe was a very dark one – in the direction of alien conspiracies. Ours is really about surveillance technologies, and the pending odd moment when a number of different entities know more about your life than you do. I think we’re there. We’re interested in the larger universe of that and what impact that has on our relationship to our government.”
“A perfect case in point Jonah,” puts in Plageman. “We actually don’t have to extrapolate too far. One of our writers read an article today about a massive new surveillance program which has predictive pattern matching uncovered by the Wall Street Journal. There’s a constant steady drumbeat of stories – whether it’s [Mayor] Blomberg and [NYPD Commissioner] Ray Kelly’s Surveillance State being built in New York or the NYPD running guns! We don’t have to extrapolate too far.”
Person of Interest returns to screens on Thursday January 3rd on CBS.