'The First' Creator Beau Willimon And Producer Jordan Tappis On Going To Mars For Hulu [Interview]

With The Handmaid's Tale, Hulu got the streaming service serious Emmy awards. With Castle Rock they've reinvented Stephen King. Now they got Sean Penn to do television with their latest series, The First.

Created by Beau Willimon, The First is about NASA's attempts to launch the first manned shuttle to Mars. After a launch disaster, Laz Ingram (Natasha McElhone) calls Tom Hagerty (Penn) in to get the mission back on track. Tom focuses on the mission but sometimes gets distracted by his daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron) rebelling and backsliding, while they still haven't dealt with Tom's wife's death.

Willimon spoke with /Film at the Hulu offices this week, joined by his partner, executive producer Jordan Tappis. They had clearly thought out answers for everything science and story related. The First premieres today on Hulu.

Was there any similarity between using the real world of Washington, D.C. for drama in House of Cards and using the real world of NASA for drama in The First?

Willimon: Very, very different in most ways. The subject matter lends itself to completely different tonal approach and character approach. I guess the main similarities was just the sheer amount of research we had to do. On House of Cards, I did a lot of research in terms of the political workings of the country. In this show, extraordinary amount of research in terms of not only the technical aspects of space exploration, getting to Mars but also the impact it has on the personal lives of those people that are conducting it.

The government's unwillingness to fund NASA is where we are now, right?

Willimon: I think it's not quite as simple as that. NASA does get about $18 billion a year, so it's been funded since it's inception. It's just a matter of how much funding. Some would argue that it's healthily funded and others would argue that it should be funded more. Certainly if NASA is going to be involved in any mission to Mars, you'd need to see an increase in funding in terms of where it currently is. Touching upon the realities, the more prosaic realities of funding and political support is an aspect to this journey. It's not the subject of the show by any stretch, but we didn't want to neglect it.

Those scenes are probably illuminating to the average viewer who may not realize all of these programs are competing for funding. Cutting just a little bit from one may be effectively cutting the whole thing if it's not enough to complete the job.

Willimon: Sure, I think there's definitely some truth to that. In order to accomplish anything of this magnitude requires money. Money comes with certain political strings attached to it. You have to convince others that it's a worthwhile endeavor. Touching upon that aspect of this journey was important in making sure we completely reflected this world. Again, beyond episode two, we're more focused on the mission itself and the people who are doing, and the cost emotionally and psychologically for them.

Each episode covers a few months. How did you craft the narrative to fit in those chunks and cover that much time?

Willimon: One little bit of technical trivia here is that you can only do launches to Mars every 26 months. The reason for that is you need the planet to be in alignment. There's something called a Hohmann transfer window which is the ideal time that minimizes the distance between two planets. If you're launching when they're on opposite sides of the sun, the distance you need to cover, the amount of time it would take to get to Mars makes it completely impractical, impossible rather at least with our current technology. We see in the first episode a launch that goes awry which means that you can't do the next launch for 26 months. If that's where you want to end the first season, you've got to cover 26 months of story in between the two. That certainly had some challenges because there are shows that can spend five or six seasons covering two years. I think on average most shows tend to be at a narrative pace where one season equals about a year. So we were doubling that, and with fewer episodes than a lot of shows. So it meant that between some episodes, we're leaping three, four or five months ahead. That could be a challenge but it can also be an asset. What it allows you to do is leap far ahead in the story. For instance, we see Denise return at the end of episode one. By episode two, she's been staying at home and gotten her life at least tenuously back on track between the two episodes. To be able to juxtapose where we saw her last and where we see her now fills in a lot of the story in between, without necessarily having to see all the steps. Sometimes what we do is we feel that drama retroactively in terms of the residue of what happened between episodes and how it's rippling into the here and now. I also think that human beings tend to, the changes and evolutions they go through don't take place overnight. They take place over time, usually in a lot of gradual steps. So when you're able to leap ahead, sometimes many months between episodes, you're able to have the feeling of that gradual process but you're only dramatizing the moments where the change is in stark contrast to what you saw in episodes before.

And the episodes don't feel rushed in making those jumps.

Willimon: No, in a lot of ways, there's I think a healthy tension between the internal pace of episodes, which doesn't force itself to rush any faster than real life happens. And then the larger pace, episode to episode over the course of the season, is actually moving quite fast. I think the tensions and speeds is one of the more interesting things about the show and maybe sets it apart from others.

Did you still have to build in commercial breaks for viewers who aren't commercial free subscribers?

Willimon: Sure, and our partner in the U.K., Channel 4, airs the series with commercials as well. In the writing and filming of it, we weren't building in commercial breaks. We simply told the story that we wanted to tell and then in the editing process, we looked for where those breaks would make the most sense, but not writing towards a four or five act structure and saying I need a cliffhanger before this commercial break. Really we wanted to tell the story as it should be told, and also keep in mind that there'll be a lot of viewers who are watching it without commercials so it shouldn't feel like it's been broken up into parts.

Is the launch sequence where a lot of the budget went?

Tappis: I'm glad it looks like a very expensive sequence. That makes us feel quite good. I can answer that question. There's no one episode or one scene or one event that soaked up more budget than others. Obviously visual effects is an expensive undertaking. Episode one and episode eight have proportionally more visual effects than the other six episodes. The budget of the show is distributed over eight episodes pretty evenly actually. Episode one took a little bit longer to shoot so there was a few more days added to the schedule, but beyond that it was relatively episode by episode the same.

Willimon: It's pretty common. We blocked episodes into two at a time, so the first two which are the equivalent of a pilot, you usually spend a little more time on those episodes because you're establishing the look and feel of the show, and I think getting your sea legs.

Does season two become a space show?

Willimon: Well, I would say season one is a space show. You could say this is a space show that's spending a lot of time on Earth but there's a lot of aspects to getting into space and getting to Mars that require a lot of work here on the ground and a lot of preparation before you get to a launch. If we're seeing in the mid part of the season technical difficulties that the engineering team is trying to confront on the surface of Mars with the Mars ascent vehicle, to me that's telling a space story but we're seeing it from the perspective of people who are working on that problem from Earth. I think while we spend a lot of time here physically on the ground on Earth, in every episode you'll see certain story points related to the mission are being pushed forward and giving us more insight to just how much work it takes to get to the starting line. It's not unreasonable to expect that going into season two, we would see them on their way and potentially reach the surface of Mars. But, we will also be following the stories of people here on Earth since we've invested so much time into them in season one. To see those two parallel tracks side by side I think will be really interesting from a narrative perspective.

Will it be any more complicated seeing those parallels than it was to go between different stories on Earth?

Willimon: Everyone on that crew has deep investment in the people that they've left behind, and vice versa. I think in terms of the parallels, while they may be in two totally different places and environments separated by 10s of millions of miles, in many ways what they're going through will be connected to one another from an emotional standpoint and sometimes a literal standpoint in terms of obstacles that they'll be facing that they have to confront from both ends, not just technical but emotional as well. I think the parallel will reinforce what's happening on the other side. I think they'll complement each other. I don't know if complicated is the right word. There is a certain complexity involved in telling the story of two parallel tracks. It's not necessarily different from a story where everything is set on Earth, where you've got two parallel threads that then interweave in interesting ways. I always want to bring complexity to storytelling no matter what. No matter what the setting or character are and this is no exception. I'm really excited on the work we've been doing thinking ahead in terms of how those two things will complement one another.

Set in the 2030s, how did you decide what technology has advanced but that we're not living in Blade Runner?

Tappis: I think number one, we did our homework. We surrounded ourselves with some of the smartest people in their respective fields in the world. Astronauts, physicists, scientists, mathematicians, futurists, designers. We spent a lot of time with them learning from them, talking about what the future might look like. After studying that for quite a long time, we sat down and looked at the data and made some creative choices. We focused on three core principles: cars, communication and?

Willimon: The third one is what the mission looks like, the actual hardware of getting to Mars. What's interesting about the first two is you're looking at something that affects all eight billion people on the planet. The way in which we communicate with each other and the way we get around. There are a gazillion choices you can make in terms of dramatizing the near future and where you place the emphasis. We thought those were the two that would be the most transformative and the most relatable. The differences in how we communicate with one another, so maybe as opposed to handhelds being everywhere, we're looking more at augmented reality glasses and kits that might involve  earbuds or bracelets. You can customize your kit in a way that is ubiquitous but doesn't feel as homogenous as everyone having one of these [phones]. With cars, we decided that self-driving cars, electric cars would be the norm. That's not just based on guesswork. We're talking to a lot of people whose job it is actually to make those speculations so that manufacturers, engineers, designers can anticipate where the market's going. Then you say, "What does that actually look like?" We kind of took a Steve Jobs approach. We don't want to just take a stab at this. We really want to design each of these elements to their fullest. So by picking and choosing where we put our focus, we could really put a lot of time into augmented reality glasses. We put a lot of time into cars. There are other things we might not pay as much attention to because we'd rather do a few things really well. Part of that also in the writing and the filming of it is to make these things feel like they're part of everyday life. Our technology doesn't blow our minds every day. When I look at my phone, I don't go, "My God, look at this magic rectangle and all the things it can do." It just feels part of my life.

But it would if you showed it to someone 20 years ago.

Willimon: Right, so the key is to make it feel totally integrated and innocuous in the lives of our characters and of interest to people watching, but not to the point of distraction. So they might go, "Those augmented reality glasses are really cool." The first time you see them, you start thinking about what would that mean? How would my life be different? Then as you see the characters just treating this as though it's a normal thing, you become used to it the same way they do and it doesn't distract from the greater story.

The First Review

Was Sean Penn a tough sell on doing a TV series?

Willimon: No. The short answer is no, but it didn't happen overnight. At first, his rep said he was unavailable but we decided to give it the old college try and see if he would respond to the scripts. Luckily he read them and responded really well to them. Then it led to a series of meetings and conversations talking about the character and where the story was going, what we were setting out to do. After that process, thankfully he came on board. I wouldn't say it was hard or easy. It was just thorough.

How many scripts did you have ready to send him?

Willimon: I sent him the first two and those went through a lot of changes. I was still working out exactly what I wanted to do with the show. Certainly some of his input was helpful in thinking about that. He read the first couple.

Is his character struggling with as a scientist at work his problems are all analytical, but humans in his life cannot be solved that easily?

Willimon: I think that's a fair way to characterize it. He's an astronaut so they're a little different than scientists in this respect. They see themselves as executing a mission where they're directly putting their body on the line. A scientist might take an approach where they're looking at something in a more abstract way and it doesn't necessarily require physical danger. Some science does. He's an astronaut who will conduct science along the way but more than anything I think he's driven by a sense of destiny that comes from "This is what I know how to do, this is all I know how to do and this is what I was built to do. Part of what sets me part is that I'm willing to risk my life in order to achieve these great things." You can have total clarity in your sense of mission on that front and yet as you say, when it comes to interpersonal relationships, when it comes to your family, be totally lost and ill equipped. Humans are messier than missions in the sense that their behaviors can shift. They are the farthest thing from cut and dry. You can't engineer your way out of problems and if you try to apply that sort of thinking to humans, you're going to run into a lot of trouble pretty quickly.

Is that exercise he does with weights at the bottom of the pool a real NASA training exercise?

Willimon: There are no actual hard and fast rules on what is and isn't a NASA training exercises. You have a certain number of things, for instance a drill of what happens if there's a fire on the vessel that you can expect they're going to do over and over again. In terms of personal training exercise, a lot of that is customized by the astronauts themselves to what their own personal regimen would be. That actually was an idea of Sean's. He uses that method to work out himself and when we ran it past our real-life astronauts who were consultants and said, "Is this the sort of thing you might do?" They said absolutely.

Tappis: The origin of that exercise actually goes back to Hawaii. The North Shore lifeguards started doing underwater training doing lava rocks, carrying them underwater and they would compete to see who could go the furthest underwater and come up. Laird Hamilton took that exercise routine and turned it into a school that he teaches out in Malibu. Sean actually experienced that first hand, had a great time and introduced it to Beau and we integrated it in the show.

Willimon: I liked it because not only was it visually compelling. It was also specific to the character and it had thematic resonances with the loss of his wife.

So that explains how he got those arms in real life if he's really doing that.

Tappis: He's diligent about exercising.

I want to try it if I can find a pool and some weights.

Willimon: I actually haven't tried it yet, but you've done it before.

Tappis: Many times, yeah. I've done it probably a dozen times. I don't like it at all.

Has working for Hulu been any different than working for Netflix?

Willimon: I've loved working with Hulu. They've been really supportive of our vision from the get go. They place a lot of trust in us. This is a hard type of show to produce just from a technical perspective. Then we were taking a lot of narrative risks that they not only supported but were enthusiastic about. Both Hulu and Channel 4 have been really great partners along the way. Their input has been instrumental. They've certainly challenged me at times in ways that improved the story, but were also totally open minded when there was a question that I felt strongly about and explained to them why. They understood and got behind it. We've been very lucky that they have really seen the vision and shared the vision with us every step of the way.

Can the final season of House of Cards still be the final season you originally planned with the drastic change that there's no Frank Underwood?

Willimon: I honestly don't know. I haven't been involved with the show since I left.

So you don't know if they're using any of your plans.

Willimon: I have no idea.

So as The First launches on Hulu, what is next for you? Movie screenplays, season two or developing other shows?

Willimon: It launches here this week and then in the U.K. next month so we'll be focused mostly on getting this thing launched. We have begun some work on season two in the hopeful anticipation that we'll have a season two. We don't know officially yet but in order to stay ahead of it, we wanted to get to work. So we've been doing that and my primary focus right now is this television show, its success and hopefully getting to continue the story.

Tappis: We're pretty deep into the preparation of season two in anticipation of getting picked up because we're positive thinkers. That's the way we like to conduct ourselves. There was no break between the completion of season one and the beginning of season two.

Willimon: We'll see. Ultimately the world will decide.