Interview: ‘Timeless’ Producers on Casting Historical Figures and Bringing Back Spielberg-Style Optimism
Posted on Monday, October 3rd, 2016 by Fred Topel
This month, NBC is going back in time with the premiere of their new series Timeless. From producers Eric Kripke (Supernatural, Revolution) and Shawn Ryan (The Shield, of course), Timeless is about a trio of heroes with a time machine who have to chase a terrorist with another time machine through history.
Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer) is a historian recruited to lead Wyatt Logan (Matt Lanter) and Rufus Carlin (Malcolm Barrett) in pursuit of Garcia Flynn (Goran Višnji?). Already in their first mission to the launch of the Hindenburg, they alter Lucy’s present and Garcia reveals some information he has about her future.
During their panel for the Television Critics Association, Kripke and Ryan mentioned the NBC classic Quantum Leap as a good example of time travel made accessible to mainstream viewers every week. We spoke with them after the panel to get some more details about the series. We discuss some spoilers for the pilot just in case you haven’t seen it at Comic-Con.
Are we limited within American history, so probably nothing before 1492?
Kripke: We’re not necessarily limited to America. We have been looking a lot at world history. We have a story set in Germany. We have international characters throughout. Ian Fleming, who was a real life spy for MI-6. Wernher Von Braun, the former head of the Nazis’ rocket program and then became head of the United States’s rocket program. The French and Indian War, we have British characters, French characters. Santa Anna, General [Antonio López de] Santa Anna.
But, in terms of time frame, so far the earliest we’ve gone back is 1730. One of the reasons is a very simple one. Because the show aims to be quite realistic, they need to be able to speak languages that our characters would actually recognize and be able to respond to. There’s a time at which you’ll go too far back. In old English or in ancient Gaelic tongue that our main characters simply wouldn’t even be able to speak in. We want to maintain a certain level of grounded reality and so for us, not going back to the Middle Ages in the foreseeable future is something we’re probably going to do.
Is there a butterfly effect every time they go back? Maybe not as drastic as in the pilot, but just being there changes things.
Ryan: Hopefully a lot of times our heroes will be successful and there won’t be any discernible effect. Sometimes there will be. One of our rules is whenever we can, if there’s a change, can it be specific and personal? The best example of that is the pilot when Lucy’s sister vanishes from the timeline. But we also can use it for comedic effect. I won’t give away too much but I think there’s a change in history after the German WWII episode that tickles my funny bone a lot.
We talk a lot about what the changes are going to be. The thing you have to remember is the only people that are truly aware of these changes are the three people that have this institutional knowledge that go away and then come back and find things are different. For everyone living in that world, that’s just the way the world is. For all we know, we know the world the way we know it but somebody could come right now and say, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, guys.” For the audience, our heroes’ job is to preserve a recognizable reality. Things aren’t going to get too crazy and too weird if our heroes do their job. That said, there are going to be times where they can’t control everything and Flynn’s going to do some damage. They’ll come back and something will be different. But the goal is for our heroes to make sure the world stays recognizable.
You don’t have to go that far back to find time periods that aren’t good for black people or women. Is it different in every time they go back to? 100 years and it’s before women’s suffrage, further and it’s still during slavery.
Kripke: Yeah, we are not going to shy away from the reality of what it was like to be African-American or a woman in those time periods. It’s the truth of who these characters are and we don’t want to stylize it or sugarcoat it. One of the goals of the show is to present history as accurately as we can. That said, an incredible amount of history is from the perspective of rich white dudes. There were entire communities of African-Americans throughout all of history. There’s going to be certain doors that our two white characters cannot go through and Rufus can. We’re interested in illuminating some corners and stories in history that haven’t been told, some peoples’ history. Same for women before the suffragette movement and they had incredible challenges but they also had an incredibly sophisticated world of interpersonal relations that in a lot of ways wasn’t recorded by mainstream history. There’s aspects and corners of that world that we can explore too. So I don’t think it’s going to be a one-trick pony of every episode, Rufus confronts racism and Lucy confronts male chauvinism. I think the tapestry is a lot more complicated than that and we have every intention of depicting that.
Say in 1730 or the Lincoln episode, how are Lucy and Rufus treated?
Kripke: That’s a perfect example. The days before Lincoln was assassinated, in Washington, D.C. and this particular northern city was a time of incredible optimism for African-Americans. Slavery just ended. They just won the Civil War. There were black Union troops moving freely through the streets of Washington, D.C. Over the next few years after that, there were a dozen or more African-Americans in Congress. It was only after the next 10 or 15 years that all that was walked back into Jim Crow and segregation and racism reasserted its ugly visage. That’s not to say that there wasn’t incredible racism at the time, but there were different facets of it. Rufus goes back to 1865 Washington expecting it to be terrible and he meets some black Union troops who are proud and are looking forward to life as free men. Unfortunately what he knows and they don’t is that Lincoln is going to get murdered that night and that begins the end of whatever brief shining window of optimism they had. Anyway, the idea is to play all the complexity of it.