IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Writers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields Talk 'The Americans'

Wednesday, 19 February 2014 09:30 Written by  Justine Browning
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Writers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields Talk 'The Americans'

It has action, romance, and wigs--lots of wigs. There's also plenty of 80's knitwear and some of the decade's most loved tunes. But while there's an element of camp to The Americans, there's also a range of haunting themes that ground it in realism.
The Cold War-set series centers on a pair of deep cover KGB agents (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), who go by the names Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. The arranged couple, which was trained in Russia, has been living in the U.S. under the guise that they are an average married couple. They've even raised two children, who are unaware of their parents' true identities. What threatens their covert operation is the fact that they have contrasting priorities. Philip not only loves his children and fake wife, he's grown fond of America (he's rather enthusiastic about cars, malls and cowboy boots). Elizabeth, however, is an absolute daughter of the KBG and will face death before betraying her homeland.
Yet when Philip makes a monumental sacrifice for Elizabeth, she begins to develop genuine feelings for him. As a real relationship takes form, they are forced to recognize whether they are more devoted to their country or one another. To further complicate matters, their FBI agent neighbor (Noah Emmerich) has his suspicions about them and is slowly getting closer to uncovering who they really are.
I recently had the chance to speak exclusively with The Americans’ creator and former CIA officer Joe Weisberg as well as writer Joel Fields about the hit FX thriller, which goes into its second season on February 26, and has its first season currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.

There are elements of the show that I think are reminiscent of eastern European cinema and films set during communism like The Lives of Others (2006). How do you create that atmosphere? It's certainly not Brooklyn (where the series is shot) that provides that.
Joe Weisberg: Well, over by the Gowanus Canal, I'm not sure it's that different. (Laughs) If you think about the dark, shadowy, grey world that's often associated with that, you're right. It's very different from Falls Church suburbia. It may be that the connection isn't visual but there's something in the feeling, mood and people that Philip and Elizabeth have brought and kept with them that permeates part of the show and connects with that other word.

There's an impressive show but don't tell approach to a lot of the writing--you don't over explain anything. The scene in the pilot where Philip is trying on the cowboy’s boots at the mall says so much. We know just based on that short moment that he's grown to enjoy American culture and start to question his devotion to "the motherland." The same can be said of the scene where he strangles Timashev after he learns that he raped Elizabeth and the couple doesn’t speak for the entire sequence that follows. Is it difficult to pull those scenes off?
Joel Fields: Thank you for the compliment because there are others who refer to that style as "confusing." [Laughs] Joking aside, that is one of the challenges. We really struggle to keep things real. You talked about, The Lives of Others…a lot of that cinematic style and what we try to capture is something that feels real and true. However big this premise may be, we try to tell a very human story and try to tell it simply. When we write, one of the challenges becomes trying to avoid exposition as much as possible and we try to walk the wire of the audience being able to follow. Sometimes simply hoping that they follow and catch up as we go rather than having the characters stop and say things to each other that they would know anyway.

Weisberg: I remember that scene in the pilot after they kill Timashev when they're just driving in the car and learning from that how powerful scenes with no dialogue can be.

I'm curious how you chose Misha and Nadezhda as Philip and Elizabeth's actual names, which they're never supposed to use again once they join the KGB. The names are so fitting for who the characters actually are.

Weisberg: Elizabeth's was chosen because it's a good name and a beautiful name--and a word that sounded phonically very good in that line that she said in the pilot. Nadezhda just rang right.

A lot of strong women throughout Russian history had the named Nadezhda.
Fields: That's definitely what he intended. [Laughs]
Weisberg: What was it that struck you about the meaning of his name?
Misha has a feminine feel because it's also used as a girl's name. I thought that was perfect because, especially with the children, he sometimes takes on a more maternal role.

Weisberg: Well that's great! I love that and I'm going to use that from now on. That's interesting.

Whether they're fighting or having an intimate moment, many of the episodes end in Philip and Elizabeth's bedroom. How did that pattern emerge?
Fields: It just did. Joe and I bonded early on over the psychologist Carl Jung and his writings and we believe that there is a Jungian subconscious side to creativity. We definitely got to a point where we said, "Not another episode that ends in the bedroom!" and we're still at that point because it does seem to want to go back there and maybe that's because at the end of the day the magnetic north of the show is the marriage and that's where the marriage lives.

It's always quite jarring to watch how each of the characters compartmentalize the contrasting elements of their identities. As Keri recently put it, her character is “making a bologna sandwich for her kids one minute and then blowing a guy in a hotel for intelligence the next.” What are some of the challenges of having to find that balance in the writing?
Weisberg: I love that word "compartmentalization" because it's got a spy-craft meaning. In the intelligence world, information is compartmented and emotionally that's what spies do. To some degree everyone does it but spies particularly have to compartment their emotional life and these characters have to do it so much and I think that that emotional compartmentalization is the story of these two people. In fact this second season that's coming up is in part the story of how some of their compartmentalization starts to break down. I don't necessarily mean in a positive way of emotional growth but things happen in the story that challenge it and create great trouble for them.
We see their former lives seep into their cover identities a few times in season 1, when they share details of their pasts and in the finale when Elizabeth tells Philip, "Come home" in Russian, even though they were instructed never to speak in their native tongue or about their former lives. Is that something we'll see more of in season 2?
Fields: Yes, maybe not in exactly the same form. I think that's the big change in the show.
The Americans enters its second season on February 26. Season 1 is available on Blu-ray and DVD February 11.

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