Interview with Joel Surnow (executive producer / creator / writer), Robert Cochran (executive producer / creator / writer) and Howard Gordon (executive producer / writer)
Ladies and gentlemen, the 24 team. If you would all give them a big round of applause? They’ve graciously given their time to be here and we really, really appreciate it. So, from left to right we have Joel Surnow, Robert Cochran and Howard Gordon. All right, first question?
For series three was there any thought about having a baddie with an American accent living in America with an American passport?
JOEL SURNOW: Well, we don’t even know who our baddie is yet. We have new baddies about every four episodes. We do like to keep the show feeling international. I mean, global terrorism seems to be more of a concern. Homegrown terrorism really isn’t what’s on people’s minds in the United States right now. I mean, there was some, with Oklahoma City obviously, but the bigger events seem to be coming from overseas and that’s what I think has more of an immediate visceral response for the American audience.
ROBERT COCHRAN: And don’t forget Nina. Who’s a very bad baddie with a passport from America and an American citizen. We’ve had a lot of American bad guys on the show over the…
HOWARD GORDON: The beginning of the second season. These American militia types who worked in concert with the Islamic fundamentalists.
SURNOW: Laura Harris.
COCHRAN: Yeah, and Ira Gaines, his crew were all Americans, if you remember. We’ve had a lot of American bad guys. We shied away from getting more criticism from Americans for having too many American bad guys. Instead, we just get it from all sides. We don’t know what to do.
Is there going to be a fourth and fifth season? Are you planning on stop in the season?
COCHRAN: (laughs) We’re hoping we can get through the third season. But we think there will be a fourth. We don’t know, we haven’t heard officially, but we’re assuming.
Will you be planning on a fourth season?
COCHRAN: No, we’re assuming there’s going to be a fourth season.
Do you think Jack Bauer…
GORDON: Can he have another bad day?
GORDON: I’m sure at least one more bad.
I imagine pitching this show was a unique process. How skeptic were the studios?
SURNOW: We pitched exactly what you see. We pitched a concept, which was that an entire season takes place in one day, and that every hour would represent an hour in real time. And when we did the pilot, it was successful, but I think they were skeptical that we could keep up the idea of creating that much tension 24 times a season. Obviously, what happens is you depart from the real world. The amount of things that happen to Jack Bauer on one day in the first and second season is unrealistic, but within the framework of the world that we live in, we’re able to make it happen. And we sort of crack the code, of how to do this, somewhere in the beginning of the first season. I think the pitching of the pilot was very different. Because it sounded exciting, no one had ever done that. But the hard work was really translating it into making it a series and that was, I think, afforded us because we did such a good pilot that they said, you know, maybe these guys can pull this off.
There was so much suspense in the second season it seems almost impossible to make it more suspenseful. What do you reach for…
SURNOW: You know, if you look at our show it’s not unlike any other show, NYPD BLUE or ER. I mean, every show duplicates episodes, not specifically in terms of story but, you know, we all kind of know how to create tension. I don’t think one episode or another really has more or less. Maybe they do by degree, but not by kind. I think we just know how to write a tense hour of television, and it doesn’t really matter after a while what the story is. We’re able to find those small moments to create the tension and that’s how the show works.
How difficult is it for the writers to find great stories?
GORDON: I think its gotten tougher. I think all of us have felt that in some ways, that first year was a very wonderful construction, all the things that happened to Jack, you know, it was the perfect idea. The next year, it became a little bit more difficult, and this year it’s gotten steeper still. But like Joel said, we did crack the code and I think we found tension in smaller incidents. Obviously nothing as monolithic as the nuclear bomb. You really can’t top yourself after that. We had to find, I think, a little more intricate tapestry and find the drama in smaller places. We still have a couple of ideas left.
COCHRAN: The toughest thing I think, in that regard, is the personal stories to go along with the terrorist-y, the cop kind of activities. The first year they kidnapped his family, you really gave him the ultimate problem, the ultimate challenge. But you can’t kidnap his family every time there’s a terrorist attack in the United States. Although we thought about it. I’d agree with everything Howard said, I think one of the things that makes it tougher every time is coming up with personal stories that can play off against what’s happening in the terrorist side of things.
How do you collaborate together?
SURNOW: We sit in a room, usually five or six of us. And we work off a big board, and we kind of break down each character into story beats for that episode. That usually comes after a couple of days of just sort of generally saying, you know, over the next couple episodes we want to accomplish these things and by the end of episode nine this is where we want to be. So, how do we get from episode seven to episode nine with Jack? And then how do we do it with Palmer? And how do you do it with Kim? You try and have a framework. By the time you all go off into your separate rooms to write the script it all changes. Because it just does. You know, you can’t figure it out in the room. You have to figure it out once you sit down to write it. Also, when you sit down to write it, then you start stitching stuff together. You didn’t come up with it on the board but you came up with a Palmer and a Jack thing-maybe here we’ll add a scene where the two of them talk to each other. You constantly try and stitch the show in such a way that all the characters impact on each other as much as they can.
GORDON: It is probably written, although I’ve never been on a soap opera, probably a lot like a soap opera. You find the end point of each episode, that you want to cliffhang with each story, and what’s going to propel people to the next week to watch each story. That’s another strategy that we look to when we conceive each story. How does it end?
You experienced a drop in the viewing. Was there any pressure you were working under to keep the steam between different seasons?
COCHRAN: Well, you’re referring to the fact that the audience has dropped off a little this year from last year?
COCHRAN: Of course, we’re not happy about that. It hasn’t dropped off so far that we feel any trouble of any sort.
GORDON: Just disappointed.
COCHRAN: Yeah. We’re disappointed. All we can do is the best show we can do. And we would do that regardless of how many people were watching from week to week.
GORDON: We’ve also probably dropped off proportionately with, you know, the rest of the networks. Unfortunately we didn’t buck the trend that seems to have gripped all the networks. Everything is down about 15 percent, 20 percent this year.
When you start to write a season do you know how it’s going to end?
GORDON: We’re almost done, we still don’t know. (laughs)
SURNOW: It’s true, that we’re writing 22 and we don’t know how it’s going to end. We don’t have a clue. We really look at the stories, as the season is built on two or three major ideas. The first season was the assassination attempt, the second season was the bomb, the third season is Jack and the Salazar family. Where it goes after episode eight or nine is well out of our heads. We don’t know where we’re going until we get there.
When you write a pilot you didn’t know…
SURNOW: Not only did we not know what was going on in that season but we had things in the pilot, Bob always uses this as an example-where Palmer gets a phone call that disturbs him and he tells his wife there’s a problem, and we end the act on him looking out at the city of Los Angeles completely troubled. We had no idea what the phone call was. (laughter) So, we’re very much about the immediate sensation of tension and suspense, as opposed to being well thought out and having a plan.
COCHRAN: We like to tell ourselves that by surprising ourselves in the story meetings we have a better chance of surprising the audience, and that may even be true.
Are you ever going to payoff the story, is it Mandy the Assassin, she shakes hands with Palmer at the end of Season Two, she appears in the pilot. It always seems set up for her to reappear as the big villain and we’re still waiting for her.
COCHRAN: Write that down. (laughter) We might bring her back or we might not. We just don’t know yet.
With that actress signing for the L Word if she was originally intended to be a villainess this season?
COCHRAN: No we hadn’t planned but, you know, well honestly we just don’t plan that kind of thing out very far ahead.
Is the future of 24 Hours combined with Jack Bauer’s presence or could you imagine a 24 hours without him?
SURNOW: I think the format would work without Jack. I just don’t think it would be as good. Clearly, there’s something to be said about doing a suspense story in 24 hours, that you could conceivably do that with a lot of people. But I don’t think there are many actors who create as much tension just by his very presence, as Kiefer. And that’s the collaboration that sort of works so wonderfully for us. So, who’s to say what the future holds? But we’re both happy with each other, Kiefer and us. And we plan on continuing together.
How much debate between you goes when you decide to kill off one of your central characters?
COCHRAN: We think about it a lot, you know, talk about it back and forth. And we don’t have any rules about it. If we think-unfortunately we find, that over the last three seasons, to have an impact, the character you kill has to have made an impression. We find ourselves killing our best characters, in a sense. Because to kill a character nobody cares about has no impact. I don’t want to call it a trap but that’s something that we end up doing sometimes. Killing characters that we really, really like. For instance, the character of George Mason, who we started out as a minor character in the pilot. We brought him back, started to really, really like him. And by year two, we love the character and of course, he’s a terrific actor, but that’s what gave us the notion of having him be the one who is exposed to the radiation. Because we loved him as an actor and so we knew we’d miss him. Those are the only kinds of guys you can kill off that have any impact. If you kill somebody off that nobody cares about, then nobody cares.
GORDON: It’s becoming a badge of honor, how you exit the series.
COCHRAN: Yeah. (laughs)
How do write the news to the minute and what stage do you have to tell them?
COCHRAN: Well, we tell them before the script goes out.
GORDON: Didn’t we mess up once? I think it happened…
SURNOW: I did.
GORDON: Oh, Joel did.
SURNOW: Yeah. I thought Xander, who played George Mason, had already known that his character was dying and I said something to him, “Yeah, I mean, it’s really a great scene where you go down with the plane.” And he goes, “What scene?” (laughter) “What plane?” “Call my agent.”
Can you comment on why you think Kiefer is so good as Jack?
COCHRAN: For me part of it is you know, again I don’t know why exactly but he projects a sort of darkness in his persona. A torturedness or a guy with demons haunting him. And for that reason, I think he’s been cast as a villain many times. And that seems to be his natural, it seemed before this to be his natural sort of place and he has played many villains. If you take a guy who projects that and make him heroic you get a built in tension between some of the darkness that seems to be under the surface and the noble things he’s doing. And I think Kiefer just plays that to perfection. I think that really helps give the character an edge that most actors can’t achieve.
At the end of the first season when Jack was about to shoot Nina she turned around and said, if you kill me you’ll never know who I’m working for. Are we ever going to find out who she was working for?
GORDON: We sort of found out that she’s working for herself. We suggested at the end of last year that she was, at the very least, an employee of Max the German. I think he was something like that, German or Austrian. I think she’s really– Nina works for Nina. I think that’s ultimately who she’s out for. Who she’s always been for. I think that’s the scary part. I don’t know if you saw that episode where Tony looks at her…
SURNOW: I don’t think they’ve seen…
GORDON: Oh no, okay. Have you guys seen the third season? Oh, no one’s seen the third season. Well, Tony winds up asking her, who are you? And she has this wonderful look that answers that question, which is really impenetrable. She’s a riddle, you know, who she is.
Are there any plans for 24 THE MOVIE and do you think it would work?
SURNOW: We do. I think obviously you’d have to call it TWO (laughter) because it wouldn’t be a 24-hour movie. But it’s something that we’ve talked about.
COCHRAN: Yeah, you’d have to cover the exact amount of time as the movie. You wouldn’t do 24 hours in that movie.
SURNOW: It may be a TWO movie. Yeah, two hours of real time. But there’s nothing planned.
24 causes more problems than other TV shows. In TV from spring to autumn it’s just one day. So how do you solve these problems?
COCHRAN: Well, that was one thing that actually kept us in L.A., because there was a lot of talk when we were first doing the show, should we go somewhere like Toronto or Vancouver? And you really can’t, for that reason. You have to show in a temperate area that at least looks on screen like the temperature’s relatively constant all year. Which limits you pretty much to L.A. and San Diego, at least in this country. And that was a strength because the weather changes too rapidly in a lot of other places.
So does it happen that you have to have a delay of three days because it’s raining all the time?
SURNOW: No, we usually bring things indoors.
COCHRAN: Yeah, we can work around that as long as it’s just rain, usually.
Do you have any consulting work in order to know things about biological weapons?
GORDON: Bob’s assistant is our…
COCHRAN: My assistant calls CDC, or she calls the FBI or the CIA or whomever. We don’t honestly do an enormous amount of research. We want to keep it seeming realistic, but we’re more interested in the drama than in the accuracy of the tale. But in order to keep it from going too far off the rails, we do make two or three calls per episode, on what would really happen here, how does this work. And we try to keep it…
GORDON: We create the illusion of reality.
COCHRAN: Yeah, yeah. Try to keep it from going off not the highway of reality entirely.
Is the commercial pressure from the network growing or can you still do the creative things in the TV format?
SURNOW: Well, I think the commercial considerations have more to do not with what we can do within the show, but how much scripted programming they can afford. It seems that a big consideration right now is reality. They seem to be doing so well, so much better than scripted programming. I think there’s more of an impact of that as opposed to, you know, be more sensationalistic to get bigger ratings. I think they know that your show is going to get the ratings it gets, based on whatever it is. And there’s very little you can do once you’ve aired, short of recasting somebody who would be so popular that it would change your ratings. The ratings really don’t change much after the second or third episode. So you really can’t make any adjustments. But I think the considerations have to do with what kind of shows they’re putting on in the first place.
Does the budget get bigger as the series gets popular? And if so, how much bigger it gets on every show?
GORDON: Well, you know, I think that the budgets go up according to people’s contracts. Probably five percent to ten percent. But we haven’t done anything along the lines, it hasn’t been exponential or anything like that, and we’ve kept a really efficient organization. We shoot two episodes at a time, so one director. I think it’s the only television show that does that. We’ll shoot two episodes at a time, so we can save money on a location. If we’re here for two episodes, we can shoot this room. And it winds up saving us probably you know, five percent of our budget. And we’re very much in line with any hour of television. Frankly, I think it looks a lot more expensive and a lot richer than a lot of other shows.
Would you allow the actor to touch up the character or absolutely not?
GORDON: Everyone has a very intimate understanding of their character and in some ways much more than we do, in terms of the details of how’d they react, how’d they feel, what they’ve carried with them up to this moment because it really is a moment. And so the actors absolutely have a lot to say about…
Kiefer Sutherland at the SAG Award did a nice speech for the writer…
GORDON: He’s been remarkably gracious.
Does he only absorb the character and that’s it or if he’s…
GORDON: It’s a wonderful collaboration. That’s part of what Bob was talking about before. He really did create the way this character, you know, moves through the day.
When you wrote the character of Jack Bauer did you have Kiefer Sutherland in mind?
SURNOW: We didn’t really know who it was. We were casting a lot of people and then we heard Kiefer Sutherland’s name and thought, that’s Jack Bauer. That’s sort of how it worked.
CSI has moved from Vegas to Miami and now New York. Would you consider moving 24
SURNOW: As long as we don’t have to move. (laughter)
Because you could take the show all the places in the world without moving from L.A.
COCHRAN: We would have the problem that the gentleman alluded to earlier if we try to set it…
COCHRAN: …yeah, someplace too different from this and it would be difficult to keep it in one day.
SURNOW: We have talked about taking one of the stories-even for six episodes or so, and maybe setting it in some remote place.
SURNOW: We try to keep the look fairly generic in that it’s not an L.A. looking show. You don’t see the beach, you don’t see Beverly Hills. We don’t really try to hit landmarks. We try to keep it feeling like it could be any city that this is happening in and I think that’s part of the effectiveness.
Are there still some people watching the speed that the beard grows and the way the clothes look after a few hours?
COCHRAN: (laughs) I’m sure there are on the Internet people that delight in pointing out what they consider to be slips, yeah. Sure.
But the other people on payroll for that…
GORDON: Oh everybody.
COCHRAN: Yeah everybody.
GORDON: I mean, everybody on the show really pitches in on the continuity, from the script supervisor to-everyone really is very attentive to that. We’re the least attentive to it, frankly.
When you were creating Jack Bauer what were some of the things you thought about in how we can make our hero unique?
SURNOW: What we did, I think, that made it unique, is we gave him a family in crisis at the same time we gave him a crisis. And that’s sort of what we hadn’t seen before. I mean, you’ve seen glimmers of it in movies, but usually it’s James Bond in action doing stuff and it doesn’t resonate into his personal life at all. We wanted his personal life to almost overwhelm everything that he did. And like I said, we created conflict in that world, as well as the work place. It was that, coupled with the way Kiefer brought himself into the role that created Jack Bauer.
How much do you believe the success of the show owes to the current climate of fear, post 9/11? And how much do you feed off that as writers?
COCHRAN: You know, that’s a good question. I don’t know the answer to it. I know that THE AGENCY came on at the same time we did and didn’t have the same impact. So I don’t think it’s automatic that if you do a show about terrorism in this political climate you’re going to get a positive reaction to it. On the other hand, there’s little question that people are more aware of the kind of issues that we raise on our show than they otherwise would be. So, I really don’t know. There’s some people who thought it would be a big turnoff, for a show to come on which shoved in the audience’s face, as it were, the concerns that they were facing in real life. But that didn’t turn out to be the case either. So in the end, I don’t really know the answer to that question, if it helped us or not.
Do you have a number of options you are juggling with for Season Three?
GORDON: Were there a number of options we were…
I mean, apart from virus like was there something else?
GORDON: What else would there be?
GORDON: If there was, I don’t remember what it was because it was-and again the virus really became less monolithic than the nuclear bomb. It’s a much more involved story in Season Three. We took a different turn-but no one has seen this, so I’m talking out of turn.
We’ve seen some of it.
GORDON: Some of it, yeah. I mean, again, we knew that the nuclear bomb was the ace in the hole. You really can’t top that in terms of impact or in terms of intensity. So we really approached the third season differently. And so the virus became…
SURNOW: It was about lethal people in Season Three. We didn’t have a face to the bomb. We have a face to the villains from Episode One. The Salazars are in a sense, the bomb, more than the virus, for the first part of this season.
GORDON: We felt at the end of Season Two that the one disappointment on our parts, was that our villains, weren’t as richly drawn as we might have liked them to be. One of the things we set out to do in Season Three was to, right from the start, have antagonists who felt worthy of Jack and to understand them a little bit more.
Elisha Cuthbert has spoken in recent interviews about her desire to quit the show at end of next season to pursue movies. If Kim’s allowed to walk does Jack Bauer still have anything left to fight for? What was behind your decision to transform Kim from a bimbo to a brainiac?
SURNOW: Jack Bauer will have something to fight for whatever we decide he wants to fight for. If we want to bring a brother in, or a new love interest, or an adopted kid, I mean, there are any number of things that Jack Bauer could conceivably be fighting for in his personal life that we haven’t explored yet but that are certainly out there. There’s no shortage of those things. The answer to your second question is that we felt we liked Elisha a lot more than we liked Kim Bauer. She’s a wonderful actress but Kim Bauer as a character really gave us very little in terms of storyline. So it was all self-generating. It was never involved in the main plot.
COCHRAN: In year two, especially.
SURNOW: In year two especially. We figured, you know, we have this wonderful actress and she’s is the one actor that speaks to a younger audience and I think that teens really seem to like her a lot, and tune in for her. And we didn’t lose that. We thought, let’s try and get her involved in the central storyline by bringing her to CTU. I mean, it’s a little bit of a stretch three years later, that she’s now a systems analyst for CTU, but not so much so that people watching TV- who are sophisticated enough to know that this isn’t the real world-can get past the groaner aspect and go with it. Which I think we did. I think we accomplished by the second or third episode that Kim’s just in the mix of things and…
GORDON: Even in the first episode of this year, I think it was a remarkable moment when you turn around, and you see Kim’s working there. I do think we all were worried that would seem like a pretty steep change. But I think she sold it from the minute she turned around and faced the camera. She played it beautifully. Plus, the idea that each season is this compression of time in one day. Between seasons, you know, it’s not just a year later like it is on every other show, you think it’s just kind of the next week. It’s the same as last week. Whereas here, people pay attention to how time has elapsed, and what happened in that time. So they’re watching the foreground as much as they are the background.
Where is Jack’s greatest conflict, as you see it?
COCHRAN: I think right now this character doesn’t see any other way for himself. He’s still consumed by guilt at the death of his wife. Blames himself for that rightly or wrongly, so I think that’s an interesting place for a character to be, particularly one who does care deeply. On the one hand he blames himself and he’s guilt ridden, but on the other hand he still does care deeply about his daughter. In year two he was capable of developing some feelings, although they were tentative because it was just one day for Kate. That’s another source of tension, I think for the character, a guy who’s in some ways cut off from people but there’s a part of him that really wants to reach out. Kiefer plays that kind of thing beautifully.
Would you bring back Kate?
COCHRAN: It’s possible. We don’t have any plans to.
What seemed like a passionate love affair and then I was very surprised?
SURNOW: She got a movie offer.
SURNOW: Yeah. (laughter) And she took it.
Isn’t that frustrating for you as writers?
COCHRAN: A little bit, yeah. We had planned to go somewhat in the direction that you indicated-to explore what their relationship had been, and how sincere he’d been, and some of the things he’d said to her and so forth, and then we couldn’t.
SURNOW: They had a great chemistry too.
ROBERT COCHRAN: Yeah.
Thank you all very much.
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