Interview: 'Timeless' Producers On Casting Historical Figures And Bringing Back Spielberg-Style Optimism

This month, NBC is going back in time with the premiere of their new series Timeless. From producers Eric Kripke (SupernaturalRevolution) 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.

Timeless interview - Season Pilot

Are you casting an actor as Lincoln and will we meet historical figures on Timeless?

Ryan: We have a rule here. We want to be as accurate as possible to the looks of these people but some people are more famous than others. My point on Lincoln is he's on currency so everyone knows what he looks like. That was a high bar for us. We actually found somebody who works as a career as a Lincoln impersonator. Now it's not the biggest role in the episode. Lucy actually spends a lot more time with Robert Todd Lincoln, Lincoln's son. Now, people don't know what Robert Todd Lincoln looks like the way they know what Abraham looks like. So the bar to match that isn't quite the same. But for us, if we want to make this feel grounded and realistic, if we're going to put Abraham Lincoln on the screen, he's got to really feel like Abraham Lincoln. He can't be like an almost. So we found somebody that really does embody him quite well. I think we flew him up from Chicago.

Kripke: I think the trick is, I think what we're learning is the really iconic characters that everyone recognizes, it's better to not have them be main characters in the show. We have Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. but we have them on stage and in the background. What really works on the show is to focus on important historical characters that maybe people don't know quite as much about. Robert Todd Lincoln or Judith Campbell who had an affair with JFK, Sinatra, and Sam Giancana of the Chicago mob and really acted as a go-between between the White House and the mafia. Really exploring characters and stories that maybe people don't know as well.

Events like the Hindenburg and Lincoln assassination are famous too. Are those equally challenging to get right?

Ryan: Well, the Hindenburg was a massive undertaking which is one reason why we put it in the pilot, not the series. With a pilot, you have more time and more money to pull that stuff off. Having said that, we did promise NBC that there was an epic quality to the show in the pilot that we were going to maintain in the series. So we're going to see the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater. We're going to see the Sands Hotel and the Copa room when Sinatra and the Rat Pack perform. We're going to see German rockets taking off during WWII Germany. We'll be in Mission Control for the day that we landed on the moon.

These are all things that we want to bring to the audience and bring to in a very realistic and believable way. It requires a ton of logistical work and planning and early outlines and early scripts so that the production team [can do it.] One of the amazing things about Hollywood and making TV is that these people will give you what you want if you give them enough time and resources to do it. What we're after is really, really ambitious but what Eric and I have tried to do is give them early heads up to this stuff so that they can accomplish it. So far they've come through.

Do Lucy, Wyatt and Rufus ever go to the future?

Kripke: They won't go to the future in the foreseeable future. One, we think there's such a rich tapestry in history and there's so many fascinating exciting visceral details of history to explore that we really want to explore those. We don't feel an incredible desire to create some fictional timeframe where there's slick cars with stainless steel hubcaps or whatever shitty depiction of the future happens in television so often, rather than exploring what's so true and detailed and real about the past.

With things like Kate Drummond in the pilot, does it suggest no one can really be saved? Something in the timeline will always right itself.

Kripke: I think you've touched on really the core question of the show and where we really want to live is in the question mark. It's an ongoing debate. Sometimes our heroes are able to save people and alter history. Sometimes fate just takes over and there's nothing you can do about it, Kate being a perfect example. We very, very intentionally don't want to answer that question. We think one of the core philosophical underpinnings of the show is, is there fate or free will? Are we living in a random and chaotic universe or are we living in an ordered one where things happen for a reason? I think sometimes on our show one thing will happen and sometimes I think the other. Wyatt really believes in free will and Lucy really believes in fate. But it's not an easy question to answer and I don't think we're going to answer it overtly for a long time, if ever.

Why can't Kate be saved but Lucy can alter her family?

Kripke: Exactly. That's a very intentional structuring of the pilot.

Timeless interview - Season Pilot

I understand the rule that you can't double back to a place you've always been. Does that give you another problem with the process of elimination? Eventually, they'll have been to enough places you can't revisit.

Ryan: That's when the show ends. After 189 episodes.

Kripke: Look, if we were doing 1,000 episodes, maybe, but there's enough historical periods that are fascinating.

Ryan: And they're usually only in for a day or two.

Kripke: That we don't foresee running into that problem.

Has costuming for each episode been a challenge?

Ryan: Yeah. First of all, it's expensive to wardrobe not necessarily your main characters, but all the extras. When you have all the people out at the Hindenburg field or we have 100 audience members at Ford's Theater. There's a big street scene that we just filmed on Friday with all these people in 1865 Washington, D.C. It's a challenge but it's not an impossible one. It's just a question of time and resources and will. We have the will. Sony and NBC have been great about giving us the resources and we've been vigilant about giving the production team time to do that. As for wardrobe for our main characters, that's one of the fun things you get to play with each week, especially with Lucy, Abigail's character. Abigail is in pig heaven each week figuring out these things that she gets to wear. We have a fun thing I don't want to give away but in an early episode, the whole idea of we can't just keep scrambling for outfits at the last minute each time. What are we going to do about this if these missions go on? We have some fun story stuff with that.

You invoked the name of Quantum Leap on the panel as a great example of a time travel show. What aspects of Quantum Leap do you see in Timeless?

Kripke: I think primarily in the way that Quantum Leap was fun. Especially at the time it was made, with a really unique focus on character. There was an incredible amount of heart on that show. There was an incredible amount of emotion in that show. We aim to capture all of that. I don't know what law got passed over the last few years that said that all time travel shows have to be complete mindfucks. Time travel used to be fun. Back to the Future was fun. Quantum Leap was fun. They used to all have a lot of heart. Our goal is to very consciously return to that style of storytelling. There was a show that I used to love when I was a kid called Voyagers in which they traveled to a different time period every week. So to me, to do the sophisticated modern day version of a show like that was very appealing.

Quantum Leap changed history every week too.

Kripke: Well, Quantum Leap had a model in which he was basically God sent to places where history was wrong and he had to set right. Our guys have a more complicated journey which is they have to decide whether or not they should set things right.

Ryan: I would just add, what I always liked about Quantum Leap when I watched it was that each week he was a fish out of water. Now he's a black female maid in the 1950s or this week he's this and that week he's that. He always had to adjust to the surroundings and that's what our main three characters are doing each week. They find themselves having to adjust and improvise and think their way out of these situations.

Just to reiterate what he's talking about, I'm partly to blame because I did The Shield. This movement towards TV being this dark thing with hugely damaged characters and pessimistic looks at society, certainly I did that for seven years. I'm very proud of that work but the only reason I ever made The Shield was because I'd spent the previous three years working on Nash Bridges which was so phony and light. Now to be able to make something, I think this is an optimistic show. There's a lot of TV now that believes that in order to be good, you have to be pessimistic. I don't believe that's the case. We reference all the time these classic Spielberg movies and Michael Crichton stuff. Jurassic Park is ultimately, despite the Icarus-esque hubris of making dinosaurs, it's ultimately an optimistic movie. Raiders of the Lost Ark is an optimistic movie. E.T. is an optimistic movie. I think there are ways to be entertaining, to be thoughtful, to go deep into the character and yet still be something optimistic.

I have a 16-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son and they love the show. You might say, "Well, they're your kids." They love to tear apart my shit. My son goes out of his way to find mean critic quotes about stuff. Just last night he was reading a list of like, "Yeah, Shield's on the list of the best cop shows of the last 25 years but Criminal Minds is ahead of you." All this sort of stuff but they both legitimately like it.

I want the show to be inclusive and welcome everyone. That's why you make a big show on NBC that airs after The Voice because everyone's invited. There's a place for the FX and AMC and Showtime/HBO shows that dive into the darkness but to me, if you're going to make a show on NBC, make it with some hope. Make it fun. Make it an adventure that each week you're excited and thrilled to come to. TV is a big wide canvas and to me, that part of the canvas has been abandoned and ignored in recent years to networks' detriment. Hopefully audiences will respond to it.

***

Timeless airs Mondays at 10PM on NBC.