How 'Counterpart' Creator Justin Marks Created Two Worlds With Very Specific Rules [Interview]

Starz's new original series Counterpart gives J.K. Simmons the role of a lifetime. Well, at least by sheer volume – playing a double role gives him twice as much material. Simmons plays Howard, a regular joe working a desk job, who one day meets himself. The other Howard comes from a parallel world that was just discovered,and he's a badass spy. Normally regulated so that counterparts never meet, the spy Howard needs to involve the original Howard, which raises many questions for the Howard finding out about this for the first time.

/Film spoke with series creator Justin Marks after Starz's panels for the Television Critics Association. The screenwriter of The Jungle Book, its upcoming sequel, and Top Gun: Maverick, Marks told the TCA that he had a 100 page bible of how the parallel worlds work that read like stereo instructions. He shared more details with us in our one-on-one interview.

What came first? The two Howards, or the concept and then you created the characters in it?

I would say the concept. Counterpart started off of the question, I started to wonder very early, that Sliding Doors question that we all ask ourselves one time or another. Who would I be under a different set of circumstances? Would I be happy? More fulfilled? Less fulfilled? Would this person be a good person or kind of a jerk? We've all wondered that. We've all had those questions. What I felt like I had never seen and what I began to be really curious about is what if I could meet that person? What would that person be like and would I like him or dislike him? Would he like me? What if we really hated each other? How would that play out? What if we began to covet what the other had and want to slowly work our way into that other's life and maybe steal it from each other? Then you think of the espionage genre which I grew up on, whether it be Graham Greene or John LeCarre, the British spy fiction that I love, it's all about secrets and people with secrets. How would that work in a world where you're working against an operative who knows all of your deepest, darkest secrets because that person shared your life until a certain point?

How do you refer to each Howard in the script and on set?

That's an easy one. The rule on Counterpart is the first character you meet is just their name, is just Howard. The second character you meet, if they're from the other side, they become Howard Prime, which is Prime as we call him very simply. If they're from our side, they're Alpha. Alpha and Prime is how we do it.

Do the Howards become more alike as this series goes on?

That's sort of the territory the show likes to explore. This idea that I believe no matter what circumstances are, there is one true self somewhere buried at the center of all of us. If you stripped nurture away, you would find it at that nature. The question is what is that true self? Is it more like Prime or is it more like nice Howard? As it goes on, I think we're going to be surprised where that middle is because they will start to find each other near the middle. That middle might be a more dangerous place than we otherwise expected.

How much of the 100 page bible will never even make it onto the show?

Probably a lot of it because even in the first episode, as they come through the set we call Customs, where you clear the crossing and you first come into another world, you see these guards stamping these visas in very specific places, just because the actors who played them have all read the stereo instructions. They know exactly what stamp goes where, what shape, color it should be, because we had to build and design it. What I love, especially in science-fiction, I love the movies and TV shows that give you a huge world, they've built a complete world down to the smallest detail and then they turn off the overhead lights and they they just give you a flashlight and they just let you pan around it. I think there it's more about the details and it's less about "look at all the ideas we have." I just want people to trust us when they see those guards stamping or when they see the different number protocols or the binders on the walls, that we put the thought and attention into those details so the actors can know what it is and so it can feel real. The worst thing you can do in science-fiction is something that doesn't feel lived in, that doesn't feel detailed in the way that has its own verisimilitude.

Are you dealing with characters who don't know the science of it, so you can just tell the story and not be bogged down in the science of it?

The science being the existence of a crossing, yeah. Howard to a certain extent is that character until he discovers the existence of the crossing on the other side.

Howard Prime still doesn't know how it works. He just does it.

Very few people know and Howard Prime says it in the second episode. The origin of the crossing, for example, what it was, we know as writers. There's an episode where we get to explore it coming soon.

Which episode is that?

The second season, which is what we're writing right now. Now, you're going to understand some key things about it in the first season, but even Howard Prime says, "Maybe some people know but they ain't telling." The idea is there's a madness at the center of it that if we understand too much, you're going to drive yourself insane. So most of the characters go with the idea of, "You know what? I walk through that doorway and I'll be in another world." I'm just going to accept it and move on." That's one of the things that was most important to it.

I'm glad because I'm always frustrated when shows spend so much time explaining their premise that they forget to explore the drama.

Yeah, never answer a question before it's asked. That's my main thing. Here's my one criteria for any movie, television show that I watch. Does it need to make sense? Does it do all this? Whatever it is, the only thing I really care about before anything else is do I care? Do I care about these characters? Do I care about the outcome of this story? I think a lot of stuff, maybe it explains the world in great detail, but I just don't care what's going on and I disengage. By the way, I'm a big video game player and that for me is also a very important thing. Games where I actually care about what's happening and I'm not just skipping the cut scenes, those are the ones that I actually dig into. Everything else, it's like don't show me the nice wallpaper. Show me the person who's standing there who I empathize with. That's what you want more than anything.

What is different from our world in Prime?

We did our deep dive because in order to ignore some of the details beneath the surface, you actually have to create them. You have to build the engine before you put the hood over it so to speak. One of the things that we began to brainstorm and research was if there were a pandemic in our world in present day, how would things begin to manifest themselves? The other side, in the fourth episode, you see their medical technology is actually quite advanced and really wonderful, but smartphones, just typical electronics, are not as advanced as ours. One world is not better or worse than the other. They just progress in this different way. I don't think we've ever gotten to see these alternate presents that technologically are not better or worse. They're just different.

What are some other differences?

Some of the differences we see are architecturally. You veer towards this high contemporary postmodern architecture in the skyline of Berlin.

The corkscrew building?

Yup, I call it the corkscrew to our visual effects department. "Give me that corkscrew right there" is always the thing they hear from me. The other, we call it the arch. I don't want to get into too many spoilers, but the Memorial Arch for the victims of the flu which is this triangular thing that sits there. Well, it's not a spoiler. Actually that's what I kind of like about this show. At no point does the show actually address the fact that it's a Memorial Arch. It goes back to one of my favorite things in Return of the Jedi, the Rancor master. It was this seminal moment for me as a kid watching a genre film. You don't just have the Rancor, you've got his master. When the Rancor dies, the master cries for it. That's so complete but it's just shown as a brief moment and then you throw it away. I wanted to do things like the Memorial Arch in the skyline of Berlin and you never have a character actually point it out and say that's a Memorial arch. We know it as creators and we let it go.

Is there an idea that our world drains the resources of any new realm we encounter?

That's the big question. What is this war really over? When you look at the tropes of the Cold War, resource allocation and resource theft, whether those be like the great line from The Right Stuff, "Their Germans are better than our Germans." We're stealing German scientists from the Russians and vice versa. That's one of the big things that we compete over between these two sides. And then we also have just resource sharing when it comes to, in the third episode, information. The other side found a petroleum deposit in the South China Sea. We don't know where that deposit is but if they would tell us, we know it's there in our world. We could really profit from that. It does become a zero sum game. Eventually over time it has to be and that's where the tension resides.

counterpartIs there an actual theater called Cosima or is that an Easter egg?

You mean the marquee outside the Cosima in Berlin? Yes, it is the Cosima theater. It's actually a marquee that I fell in love with because I wanted people to remember it because it'll come back again. When you do, I wanted to just find icons like that that stood out in our head.

Did you know that's the name of one of the clones in Orphan Black?

No, really? Interesting. It's a real location in Berlin. It's a beautiful old theater that still shows silent films.

Was episode four the longest you could wait to hold off on bringing our Howard into Prime?

Yeah, I consider if the first season is 10 episodes, the act break between acts one and two is episodes three and four. That's where the problems of the premise start to present itself. That's where it becomes a show about not just two versions of the same self, but both of these versions inhabiting each other's lives.

As far as I've gotten, I've seen three pairs. How many pairs could we potentially see in season one?

Here's the nice thing about this show. Every actor on the show knows who their counterpart is. When they meet that counterpart or when we meet that counterpart is a bigger question. For some of them, it happens in the first season. For some of them, it happens beyond. The important thing for me was to make sure that everyone knew who they were on that other side so that they could plan their character based on an opposition that would later come.

My question about Top Gun: Maverick is do you have a role for Kelly McGillis? Even if she and Maverick are no longer together, she could still be a veteran instructor.

I think Jerry [Bruckheimer] would kill me if I told any specific details, but what I will say, and I'm working on this show, so I don't know what they're doing. They could be doing a lot of [different] things but I can speak about my script. I spent a year and a half doing the research for it, understanding pilots and understanding what makes them who they are. Also, because Top Gun was a seminal experience for me in the movie theater when I was six-years-old and I saw it seven times, no movie looked or sounded like it, I know what I, as a fan, would want to see. Here's what I can say about what I brought to it. I know I want it to be a story about Maverick where we get to see Maverick being Maverick in the way we want him to be. I feel like times have changed in 30 years but the desire for that kind of hero still remains the same. That doesn't mean he's a perfect character. That's the fun of it.

One of the ways times have changed is that we don't want to see the hero move on to some new young love interest.

Right, and without getting into details, that was something that was important to everyone to avoid, to find something new.

With Jungle Book 2, is there more Kipling to adapt?

There is. There is so much more Kipling to adapt. I just finished a draft of it quite recently. Even in the first film, we really looked to the other Kipling stories for inspiration, The Elephant and the history and the mythology and the creation of the jungle. In the second film, the idea is to go further through the Kipling but also go into some of the Disney resources from the '67 film that maybe didn't get to see the light of day in the first film. If you look back to Bill Peet's work on the original film, some of which was thrown out by Walt Disney, Jon and I really dove deep into the Disney archives to see some of the ideas. We were like, 'Wait, that's a great idea. We really need that in the film.' So we've built it out like that.

Did you go to the end of the original Kipling book in the first movie?

The Kipling ends with Mowgli returning to the man village, returning to man in some way. Obviously we wanted to suspend that at the end of the film, mostly because I felt like in a story of identity and appropriated identity, a boy from one world raised in another, it was important to Jon and it was important to me to tell a story about family being what you make of it, and identity being the people around you and that's who you are. So it didn't feel right to send him to another place, at least in the first film. A later film, maybe we reevaluate that."

This film?

I won't get into spoilers.

Hearing you describe the two worlds of The Jungle Book, did that inform Counterpart?

That's interesting. I haven't thought about that. I guess in a certain way, it probably did. Honestly, I consider myself to always have been alienated and born of two worlds in a certain way. Whether it was the fact that I was an east coast kid who was born in Texas just because my father was working there at the time and then moved to the east coast, had a silly accent that all the people on the east coast made fun of. I had this sort of love for movies and I was terrible at sports and I was always on the outside looking in so to speak. I always felt like Mowgli sitting there and watching the wolves howl. Maybe there was a sense of building two identities and adjusting it for different worlds.

Did Orphan Black and films like Multiplicity and Adaptation pave the way for making a show like Counterpart possible?

I'll tell you how Orphan Black did. What did help pave the way is their method of shooting it, which I understand has a lot of her, not just two but many in certain scenes. At the beginning of our process, we're trying to figure out how to do it technically. What was the fastest way that got the best performances, that made the best version of the scene? As we began to make a lot of mistakes and feel our way through the darkness, we actually called the Orphan Black producers an d their visual effects team. This was about a month and a half into production so a little late. We said to them, "How'd you do it? You must've figured it out." On the phone to us, they said, "We're still figuring it out. We still are doing it every day the hard way, just trying to get our way through it. Every scene is different." That was both reassuring, in the sense that we're not idiots. We're not missing something, but also terrifying. That's the barrel we're staring down right now as we move into the future.


Counterpart premiered on the Starz app in December and begins airing on Starz this Sunday, January 21, 2018.