Interview: Akiva Goldsman On WGN's 'Underground', Shared Universe Films, And 'Winter's Tale'

I had a personal agenda to talk to Akiva Goldsman. Not to talk Transformers, although I tried to do that too. But I became obsessed with his maligned film Winter's Tale. The crazy film grew on me, especially with the DVD/Blu-ray's alternate ending (think face ice), so I even read the book. All 758 pages of it.

Goldsman was on a Television Critics Association panel for his new series Underground and I got a one-on-one with him after. The drama about the Underground Railroad was also produced by John Legend. The show focuses on a group of slaves (Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge and more) planning their escape from the South. Abolitionists like John Hawkes (Marc Blucas) are also characters on the show. Underground premieres March 9 on WGN America, and I got a chance to discuss storytelling, both historical and fantasy, with Goldsman. 

I hope you can see the sincerity on my face when I tell you how much I loved Winter's Tale.

Oh my God.

I became so obsessed I read the book, which has so much more crazy story. Was it a shame you had to lose the second generation's story, with random moments like the arsonist midget (author Marc Halpern's word) who died in a sinkhole?

Yeah, if I had it to do again, TV. Absolutely, because I think in retrospect, the breadth of the novel, to be properly addressed, requires more hours, more time. I think TV has emerged as being as good as movies, often better.

I love how Winter's Tale embraces the absurdity. I like to say that making sense is the enemy of creativity.

Agree.

I love the alternate ending where the little girl makes a snowball out of Russell Crowe's frozen face. Was that the line you thought was too much for a movie audience?

Yeah, there are places where I find magical realism is very sensible to me, but I find the rules of magical realism are elusive too sometimes. I was anticipating what people could and couldn't tolerate. You never get it quite right.

With Underground, you've done world building on film. Is it different on television?

It's similar. What's interesting about Underground is it is sort of historical truth but it's very high stakes poker. It is the kind of isolation and then reactive requirements of courage, of strength, of impossible achievement that we typically build a prison planet to sell. Fundamentally, it is so hyperbolic, and yet it happened. It was real. People really were trapped beyond any reasonable measure in a pervasive and impossible form of oppression. They really managed in some number to escape anyway. As such, the terms of that are actually in weirdly genre terms. So the world building is, in a funny way, no different because you understand that the requirements are historical, if you're building a world that is real, and then narrative. You look for the things that are the truth about how hard it was. And you look for the things that are the truth about our ability to rise above hardship. That is what you do with world building. You're never really building a whole world. You're picking the components of a world to help you tell a story.

Underground, Season 1, Episode 105

You've also done historical dramas, but never quite this far back.

Never quite this far back. A Beautiful Mind is historical. Cinderella Man is historical. By the way, having said that, we treated I Am Legend as if it was historical. We really extrapolated with the same kind of attention to imagined detail as you look back. You have to be thorough. I think audiences know when you're not.

Is it different telling a historical story when none of the characters are still alive?

Oh, 100%. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, especially today. I read an article in the Times recently which I really quite liked about the endless controversy over that notion of "based on a true story." I think that as soon as you start telling a story about, you're fictionalizing. Life isn't real in movie terms. Life takes longer. So the degree to which you extrapolate and abstract is a judgement call. For me, I'm very happy to imagine my way through thinking I understand what is essential. Doesn't mean I'm right or wrong. It's just my view of it, and then try to tell a story about it. If the person is alive, or there are a lot of people around who remember when that person was alive, they will tell you you are right or wrong. Far more frequently than something that is historical. In terms of that component, that particular component, it is less complicated to do something historical.

How directly were you and John Legend involved together with Underground?

Only in the kind of beginning. I met Michael [Jackson, producer] and John a very long time ago. They also I think had a relationship with Sony and Misha [Green]. So there was a lot of everybody going, "But wait, would you?" This is one of those ones where people are in it for the right reasons. Doesn't make the storytelling better or worse at the end of the day, but it is the truth of this which is everybody just cares about this one. They do too. We started talking about a song and suddenly we were getting little rough tracks. John was like, "Yeah, my friend came in." It has everybody leaning into it in a way that's lovely.

Were you and your team already thinking musically with a percussive soundtrack before John Legend came in?

Yes, so what happened was when Joe [Pokaski] and Misha first wrote it, and then we worked on it for a little while, they put together a rip reel. That rip reel was to that Kanye song. It was declarative. We uses this to sell it. So this is before WGN. This was to say this is not your father's version of the Underground Railroad. This is not a historical drama, at least with the connotations you might imagine when somebody says historical drama. This is modern. It is surprising and it is contemporary. I think music was their way of saying that before it was sold. They knew it from the start. The fact that they then got an actual musical partner in John Legend was unbelievably fortuitous.

How far does the first season take us in history?

I don't want to tell you what the ending is. Here's how this thing works. A year of story time is about a year of historical time, a little less. The hope is it runs and runs and runs. But if it ended after one season, it would've been a complete story.

How much did you already know about this story from school or from researching it?

I think I know more about it than it seems people are taught today, but I certainly didn't know anything like I know now. For me, Harriet Tubman and her plight was a real sort of teaching tool in New York in the '60s and '70s. I think we were much more aware of that time than Joe, but we were not versed the way I am now.

I'd heard about how politicians used to really set up a podium in public and campaign. Do you have a certain nostalgia for that idea, that John Hawkes may only reach one person one day?

Well, it's complicated. I think communication to masses of people is a really interesting thing. I think all of us who are in the entertainment business are somehow drawn to it. I also watch it change. The conversation with the world now that takes place on Twitter is, for the most part, well beyond my desires to be in conversation with the world. So I don't long for the podium. I don't long for the bully pulpit but I guess I long for something because I don't really want to be in a conversation that is a few words back and forth with everybody.

Underground

I think a number of artists are finding that out about Twitter. It can be a good communication tool but do not mistake, it is a full time job. If your full time job is something else, you might not have time for that.

Yeah, and I've luckily never been drawn into it. I think I've sent out maybe two actual original tweets and then I think I have retweeted probably 50 things. That's my whole Twitter life.

One of them was when you arrived in New York for the Winter's Tale junket and then you didn't tweet for months.

[Laughs.]

Obviously Underground is about the harrowing times of slavery but is there a chance to show the good times there must have been in any period?

Look, I think there are moments of relief. I think there are moments of joy. I think there are moments of catharsis. Not a lot of good times in our show.

It sounds like you had an eye on television for a while. Has it lived up to your expectations?

And more, because TV keeps improving. I'm a TV person as a viewer, so I was the kid who actually bought and read the fall preview TV Guide like it was cool. I watch a lot of TV and I've watched TV become extraordinary. In some ways often more than movies. What you can do now is tell these longform stories which you could never do anywhere before. Yes, all episodes have beginnings, middles and ends, but to be able to tell fully serialized character stories over the expanse of the season, for any storyteller that's a delight.

Are movies copying television with the episodic nature of shared universes? You're involved with some. Is this ultimately a good thing for film?

Yeah, I think all available options are good things for everybody. First, even when looking at the objectives of the two, they have inverted. So when I was a kid, movies were for a small group of people, those who were attracted to that movie. Ultimately sometimes they would grow, but pre-Jaws, they never really grew that much. TV was for everybody. The way you build M*A*S*H or All in the Family or The Mary Tyler Moore Show or The Dick Van Dyke Show was to get everybody. That was the goal. The outcome goal was the most people. Now they've switched places, so you can make a show on Netflix for the people who will watch that show. You have an algorithm. You figure out how many rentals a Kevin Spacey show will drive and then you build a Kevin Spacey show for that many people. It's particular and exactly right for a small group, and then it grows if you're fortunate. Movies are for everybody. So their objectives have inverted in my lifetime. I say this primarily. Obviously there are examples that are exceptions in both categories. As such, TV and movies are cross-collateralizing, cross-pollinating and stealing from each other. We steal the good. People can say this show is cinematic. It is. When we were working on Fringe, it wasn't. It was nice stories but it wasn't like oh, look at the scope. In the same way that television is borrowing style and a more revolutionary kind of sets of narrative expectations, movies are borrowing communal storytelling. They're borrowing the idea of collaborative writing, writers rooms, thinking through more than one off when it comes to a story. I think that's great. It doesn't mean that all movies should be built that way and it also doesn't mean that there shouldn't be a wonderful auteur TV show. The widest range of possible entertainment options and methodologies are good for everybody.

In film, do you have to be sensitive that some franchise movies now tend not to end, they feel like just a part? Do you have to be sensitive that even film series come out once or twice a year, no weekly like TV?

By the way, I think that fundamentally all, whether they be a television episode or a movie in a series of movies, they all have to end. In the same way that, by the way, chapters end. Fundamentally, some of the trick of storytelling I think is to satisfy and leave unsatisfied simultaneously. I think when people face "to be continued" too many times, whether it be TV or a movie, they get frustrated.

Are you going to be careful about not having too many "to be continued"s in the shared universes you're working on?

Look, I think that fundamentally we're looking today, in everything we do, to try to be both satisfying and to elicit curiosity and hope for more.

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Underground premieres Wednesday, March 9 at 10/9c on WGN America.