Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Matt Corman & Chris Ord on the Beginnings of Covert Affairs

Photo by Robert Ascroft/USA Network

The freshmen season of USA's newest show Covert Affairs is well underway and last week it was picked up for a second year. Piper Perabo known mostly from Coyote Ugly and Beverly Hills Chihuahua plays Annie Walker, a newbie CIA officer, and Chris Gorham from Ugly Betty plays Auggie Anderson, an agent showing her the ropes even though he has been blinded in an accident.

Like Annie, the creators of the show are pretty new to their line of work as well. In fact Matt Corman and Chris Ord have never produced another series and have only written one other script, the film Deck the Halls starring Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick. So what qualifies them to write, produce, and run their own series for USA? A great idea. That's all you need.

We spoke with Matt and Chris about how they got started with Covert Affairs, what kind of research they did, and what advice they have for young writers who want to follow in their footsteps.

After the jump, read the interview, and hear what Piper Perabo and Chris Gorham said about the research they did for their roles.

 Q: Can you tell us how you came up with the idea of Covert Affairs and how is it going to be different from other shows of this kind?

CHRIS: When we came up with the show, we originally conceived it as more of a workplace show. That was our way into it. We really wanted to examine the CIA as a workplace and all the politics that go along with that and just what it’s like to actually work in such an odd institution. When you really look at the CIA, you realize that if you work there, A, you don’t get a lot of credit for the work you do because you can’t tell anyone about it, and B, you don’t make very much money. And so it’s a very interesting person who chooses do this because the upside is just about self-satisfaction and knowing you’re helping your country and doing what you can to help your country.

So we really wanted to examine the type of people that work there and the type of people who choose to do a job like this. That was the first seed of the idea and then as we started crafting it, the characters started to come to us, and then the action and spy intrigue came after that. We started with the characters and worked our way backwards

Q: The show has been compared to Alias. But in a lot of ways, it seems more like true life than Alias ever did. Do you think based on your experiences at NASA's Langley Research Center that that’s actually true?

CHRIS: Yes, definitely. I think we’ve always intended this to be first off, a more grounded CIA. Obviously, it’s a TV show, but we wanted to start with a foot in reality and create stories from there. Also, I think there’s a big difference in the two lead characters of our show and that show, which is Annie is pulled out of training a month ahead. She is not a super hero by any means. She’s not as skilled in fighting or lock picking, things like that. It’s because of that that we feel, it’s that an experience that makes our show unique in the sense every action set piece we craft, we’re always thinking what would it be like to be Annie in this situation.

As you see in the pilot, she’s fighting a world-renowned assassin on the subway at the end. And what she does have is a tenacity and a will and a perseverance to never give up fighting. But as you see, she jumps on his back, she’s doing anything she can to get a hand on this guy. It’s that disparity that we really feel shows her character and is the foundation of our show.

Q: Why do a spy series now?

MATT: It’s funny. Things tend to cycle through. As you see with this Russian spy ring... I think people are interested in the role of the CIA right now, which is changing. Technically and traditionally the purview of the CIA has been spying on foreign countries in other countries. But increasingly, it’s becoming a more tactical agency and also having somewhat of a role domestically. So as Americans and America tries to figure out what they want their CIA to be, it becomes good fodder for television. So I think it’s just in the public’s mind right now and there are other shows. I think we’re confident that when people tune into our show, they’ll see that it has its own voice, its own tone and its own vibe and is very specific.

CHRIS: I think that’s a question for the networks in a sense. We started creating this show almost three years ago when we first thought of it. We didn’t know that all these other shows were on the horizon. But I think as Matt said, there is a collective… that just feels that the time is right to launch these shows. We were fortunate enough that USA picked us up and we were on air.

Q: When designing the series, did you design season arcs and series mythology, plot it out, and then go back with the details to execute your vision?

MATT: Yes is the short answer. But we did think about the season and what we wanted to do with that and as we were crafting all 11 episodes that will follow the pilot. And then there [are] … little, I think, cues here and there that hopefully the audiences will pick up on in terms of playing that mythology out. But it was certainly in our minds as we crafted the season, and then within that, we wanted to write individual episodes that could stand on their own, so that there’d be a case or something or mission that Annie has to complete by the end of the episode. So we’re cognizant of doing both.

Q: Can you talk about your experience going to the CIA?

MATT: It was very important for us to go because we recognized entering into this process that our entire conception of what the CIA is was based on other television shows and movies. And as writers we always try and do as much research as possible and throw ourselves into the world that we’re creating. So it was absolutely vital for us to get there.

It wasn’t that easy to gain access because they’re not really an outward facing agency. They’re very internal. They don’t do a lot of interfacing with the public. So we had to send a lot of emails and place a lot of phone calls. But finally we were able to get in and it was transformative, as far as this process because a lot of the details that you saw on pilot and you’ll see on the show going forward were borne out of our experiences. For example, there is a food court with a Starbucks. There are a lot of young people that work there. You are not allowed to bring cells phones into the building. Just some of the little details just came from walking around and talking to people.

Q: When you were doing the research at Langley, what did you learn that surprised you the most about the CIA lifestyle?

MATT: Surprised us the most about the lifestyle, one thing, and you might presume this, but it was interesting to hear it is that when officers are in the field, they’re given an enormous amount of latitude. They may not communicate with Langley for days or weeks at a time. That to them is one of the most exciting parts about the job.

It’s, on one level, this immense bureaucracy that has all the safeguards and bureaucratic nonsense that any big company would have. But when you ascend to the role of operative in the field, which is general takes about seven years, all of a sudden you are almost like James Bond. You’re given such free autonomy to do your job that it’s kind of breathtaking even to them. So to us just to really hear how much without a net they’re able to operate out in the field was interesting.

Q: When you visited the CIA, did you see any agents that had disabilities like Auggie?

MATT: That short answer is no. We didn’t see any blind people working there. There are certainly people with disabilities within the CIA, but we did not have the chance to interface with any of them in our visits. They’re intrigued by the character. They think it’s credible. Certainly a character like Auggie, there [are] some limitations on what he can do, but we like to think that he’s always succeeding expectations and doing things differently than a sighted person might. We actually have an episode coming up down the line without tipping our hand too much, where he’s going to get out into the field. And it was an exciting episode to write and I think the audience is really going to enjoy it.

Q: What were some of the inspirations—books, movies, other TV shows—once you figured out that this was more of a workplace show and than a spy show?

CHRIS: We did a lot research beyond just visiting the CIA, trying to do as much combing through new articles as possible, finding real stories that we could use as a jumping off place. I think that was helpful to us to recognize what was out there, what would be interesting that could make the seed of a good story and go from there. We really tried to do that and have everything from Annie and what it would be like to be in her situation doing these missions.

Q: Did you take anything from your own life when creating these characters? Obviously, you’re not CIA agents, at least we think not.

MATT: Not that you know of. Yes, I think whenever you write characters, you pull little bits from one’s own life. All these characters have little pieces of us in them. To be really specific about it would be hard, but everything we do informed by our own experiences. I think that’s what all good writing is. You’ll pulling from the full pantheon of your human experience and using things as you see fit. But none of the characters are specifically based on us. No, no, the closest we go is the inspiration for Auggie with a mutual friend, but that’s as far as we really base anything on life.

Q: Can you talk about launching the show in this world of social media where Twitter is such a big deal and Facebook? What’s the impact?

CHRIS: We have not been Tweeting. We’re both on Facebook, which is pretty impressive if you knew us.

MATT: I think it’s great. What we do appreciate is that it’s actually really helped launch the show and get the show to people in ways that you couldn’t do before, like this phone call and like the USA Network Web site, where you can see previews and things and interact with other fans of the show. We’re all for it. I think it’s really just helpful in terms of putting the show out there and having it actually interact with the world.

CHRIS: Chris Gorman is huge on Twitter.

MATT: So he’s all about it.

CHRIS: And Gallagher is on there, too, which ought to be interesting and Anne Dudek, too, so we feel the show is well represented on inter-webs.

Q: Can you tell us about your relationship as writing partners and how you started, how you met, and how your past led you to where you are now?

CHRIS: Both Matt and I met in college. We went to Brown together. We started writing over a decade ago together. We were friends first and not all friends make great writing partners, but we really felt we clicked and had the same ethos and the same sensibility and it grew from there.

It’s been great. I think we recognized the value of writing as a team. We’ve actually taught seminars on collaboration and how to find value in it and it’s been great. I don’t know what else to add. I think it’s been very fruitful and productive for us and we’re really appreciative of it.

Q: Do you have any advice for people wanting to get into the writing/producing business?

MATT: I think the key is always [be] reading, always be writing. I think the more original you could be in your writing, the better off you’ll be. Oftentimes people try to write things with an eye towards the marketplace and that’s very difficult. It’s better to just write from your heart and the marketplace will find you if things are really specific and really interesting.

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For other Covert Affairs interviews check out:
Piper Perabo Takes on Her First TV Role
Peter Gallagher Talks About his New Show, Covert Affairs
Tim Matheson: Actor, Director, Former Animal House Star

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