Photo: FX
Joe Weisberg
“I literally looked up the CIA in the phone book and asked for a job application. A few years later I was working at the CIA.”
Playing the Spy Card
Where does FX’s new spy drama The Americans get its intel about Cold War-era espionage? It helps to have a former CIA agent like Joe Weisberg as a showrunner.

Written by Denis Faye

(March 7, 2013)

Like any good espionage writer, Joe Weisberg grew up reading too many spy thrillers. “I read a lot of John le Carré novels when I was too young to really be reading them,” Weisberg confesses, the creator of FX’s new Cold War-era spy series, The Americans, “and I took them very, very seriously.”

So seriously, in fact, that unlike most writers (last we checked), Joe actually decided to become a spy. So unlike most showrunners (again, last we checked), the man heading up The Americans, alongside veteran Joel Fields, actually worked for the CIA during the Cold War. The situation makes for a unique writers’ room. “Sometimes, I'll go into a long, involved speech about how I think something should be 100 percent accurate,” Weisberg says, “and my colleagues will hold up their hands as if holding a card. That's the ‘Spy Card,’ and it means I've gone too far.”

But much like a good spy thriller, the tables have turned as the season progresses. After weeks of listening to Weisberg proselytize, other writers have become so espionage-savvy that he occasionally has to issue the Spy Card himself. “It’s one of the greatest things that’s happened to me all season,” he says. “Nothing makes me happier.”

Weisberg spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site recently about his life’s compelling story arc; why it was crucial that his show be set during the Reagan administration; and how come, if you do a show for cable, it’s okay for characters to stick their fingers up inappropriate orifices.

When I read about your career path I had to dig around a bit because I didn't believe it. I thought it was a hoax. How did that happen?


Photo: © 2013 FX
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in The Americans.

I tell so many different versions of the story that I've probably lost track of which is real. After reading all those novels as a kid, I thought, as many people do, that was probably the real world of espionage. I failed to have that thing click in my brain that is supposed to click that goes, “This is a fantasy.” So I thought it would be a really good idea to actually try to be a spy. When I graduated from college, I still hadn't gotten over it, so a few years later I literally looked up the CIA in the phone book and asked for a job application. A few years later I was working at the CIA. That's one short version.

Wow. And then were you disillusioned so you turned to fiction to soothe that?

Pretty much, yeah. I worked there for about three and a half years, and I had a really interesting and good time there. It was, in a lot of ways, a great place to work. I liked the people a lot, and I had a lot of fun, but I was also, in a way, disillusioned. I thought that the work was… It was work I did not want to do at the end of the day. It was putting other people's lives at risk, not my own but other people's, the agents you recruit, who, at least back then, were the people who took most of the risks. I also thought that most of the intelligence they produced was not really worth anything so you're also asking people to take great risks for nothing.

Again, I'm talking about 20 years ago so I'm not really saying it's the same now because I don't know, but I did not want to do that anymore and was disillusioned in a lot of ways. I've been a writer my whole life. I've been writing ever since I was a kid so when I left I did decide to go back to that initial passion of mine. Among the things I wrote was a spy novel, so one day Joe Cohen at CAA called me up on the phone and said, "Have you ever thought about writing television?" And I said, "No," because I never really had thought about that, and he said, "Would you like to try?" And I said, "Okay," and here we are.

When you're writing The Americans, how concerned are you with accuracy and how much are you just having fun?

It's a really crazy balance that sometimes changes day to day. I work pretty hard to try to make the show very accurate in terms of trade craft and in terms of what I learned at the CIA – not just about the intricacies of trade craft but about how espionage really works and how spies really live. Not just for the sake of being accurate, but because that's something that can make the show different and make it interesting and appealing. On the other hand, often those things do come up against trying to tell a good dramatic story to the budget realities of production, so I find myself constantly trying to weigh one against the other.

As a new showrunner, is there anything that you've learned this season that you wish you knew going into it?

Yes, how to run a show, that'll be the main thing. I run the show with Joel Fields. We're co-showrunners and, of course, coming in, he has years and years and years of experience so I'm really learning how to do it as we go. It's a great luxury to get to do it while learning to do it at the same time and while having somebody who knows how to do it so I don't have to worry so much about screwing it up. It's a pretty ideal situation.

What's the trick to creating a sympathetic anti-hero?

We spend a lot of time talking about that. If people relate to the character, that's it, that's the whole game. These are two people, Philip and Elizabeth who, I think, are likeable people. They have kids, and they're family people, and they're parents. If they go out and do some pretty rough things, you're going to be prone to forgive them because you connect to them on a personal level. If it were the other way around, if they were people who did great things for their government, even if they did great things for the U.S. but went home and were terrible to their kids, I don't think they would be likeable and sympathetic characters.

Were you concerned about political reactions at all or surprised by political reactions?

I honestly had no idea what to expect. I thought there might be people who really just wouldn't go along with the idea of rooting for people who worked for the KGB, but there hasn't been really too much negative reaction. Most people are open to that idea. Even people who aren't so open to that idea have seen that the show also has a hero who works for the FBI and that the show is trying to show both sides of the Cold War and has very positive things to say about America. It's in no way an anti-American show. So it's been a pretty positive reception all around.

Do you think that might be because, for today’s young people, the KGB is pretty irrelevant, like the Confederate flag on the General Lee?

I hadn't really thought about that. It certainly doesn't present any kind of current threat or danger, which takes some of the threat out of it. I've been thinking about the movie Das Boot. I love that movie, but what if I'd seen that movie in 1946? What if I'd lived through the war and then gone to that movie then? What would the experience have been like? So it certainly helps us that a lot of time has passed.

You set it in the '80s obviously to kind of dial up the tension, but why did you pick that era and not the '60s and '70s?

I initially was drawn to the '70s because I grew up in the '70s too and loved that hair. I’m also more of a '70s music guy than an '80s music guy at the end of the day, but really it was about Reagan. Under Carter, the Cold War was dialed down, and then Reagan just took that dial and turned it as far and as fast as he could. That's what you want. You want the maximum degree of conflict and you want the American president who is avowedly and openly committed to destroying the Soviet Union. Nothing's going to fan the flames and make the KGB more scared and angrier and more active than that. We always think of Reagan as really a character in the show, he's such a vibrant and fascinating and interesting and powerful character himself so it just had to be Reagan.

Is there the craft of weaving a fictional narrative around sort of fixed points of reality?

We keep watch of what was happening when. Our first big one was the Reagan assassination attempt; it was so soon. We were shocked when we started it. Most of us lived through it, but we didn't remember that it was something like 68 days after he took office and that was going to be right after the beginning of our show. So we knew that we were going to have to reckon with it, and in fact, we wanted to do a whole episode around it.

Really big events like that or when a Soviet leader dies, when you're doing a period piece we wanted to either acknowledge them or, if they were important between the U.S. and Soviet Union, deal with them outright.

Also, there are the historical facts of what happened that everyone knows, and then there's the covert world that our characters inhabit where we can have anything happen that is remotely plausible. It doesn't have to really be true, we just have to be able to say that this happened, and nobody ever found about it so we can make things up.

We've also discovered there's a sort of covert world of events and things that really did happen but most people don't know about and those are interesting to explore in the show too. When we were doing the Reagan assassination episode, there's that famous saying that everybody remembers about Al Haig saying that he was in control. We wanted to build the episode around that, but we discovered that when that happened Haig had also gotten a copy of the nuclear football. I'd never heard that before and that was such a fascinating thing, so it became such a powerful part of the episode. Little unknown things like that are pretty powerful.

Did you find it liberating having a show about people sneaking around without having to deal with cell phones and GPS and the Internet?

It's just great. The fact that you just can't solve a problem by calling somebody creates so many dramatic problems but in a good way. What you want when you're writing a show is problems because then your characters have to solve them. Also for me, I studied trade craft at the CIA when there weren't really cell phones. What I understand is most of what's done now has more to do with computers and sending things over the Internet, but when I studied trade craft it was all pagers and personal meetings and dead drops and things like that. That stuff's not just more fun, but it's more interesting and requires more human interaction, which is what you want on a TV show. You don't want to just show things through the Internet. So that old school stuff just works much better.

If this show's a hit and goes for several seasons all that stuff is going to start coming into existence, right? Have you thought about that?

That's right, that's exactly right. We're sort of right at the cusp of the turning point of analog going to digital and all those things, exactly. We had this sort of idea for a character, we haven't done him yet, but a guy who realizes that it's all about to happen, that everything they're doing technologically is about to become obsolete, a kind of visionary.

You're going to give Al Gore a cameo.

Exactly.

I was pretty astonished by the sex on the show. How did you get away with that?

First of all, shockingly, it's real. The KGB used sex a lot. They used it, I believe, even more with their male intelligence officers than with their female intelligence officers, although they did it with both. They used it kind of ideologically in the sense that the Communist system had a very open, liberal attitude about sex and what they trained their officers in was, “Look, it's just a very bourgeois attitude to believe that sex has to be so guarded and private. It makes perfect sense just to trade sex for secrets and use it in your job. Don't be so uptight about it.”

So they sent their officers abroad so they could use sex as part of the mission. One example of this as reflected in Philip/Clark's relationship with Martha. They sometimes had great success using honey trap operations on secretaries of important officials who then had access to all their information. At one point they were so successful with this they decided to run something called the Secretaries Offensive where, during a particular season all around the world, they tried to entrap as many secretaries as they could. There's a great historical basis for all of this.

Also, we're on cable. That's the short answer: we're on cable.

It's really extreme, like in the pilot when she says, “You never had someone stick a finger up your ass?" You're not going to see that in Alias. If you tried that on a major network how do you think it would have gone over?

I'm sure that line would have got cut out. There's been a lot of reaction to that line – it was also responsible for a terrible moment for me because we were doing the table read of the pilot, and I just forgot that there were two kids sitting there.

Oh no.

Suddenly somebody said that line, and I was like, “Oh, what have I done?”

Well, but they would have seen the show because they're in it eventually.

Actually, we specifically showed them a version where we cut out all the really horrible stuff, including that.

But they know. Kids are smart.

It's probably nothing compared to what they see and hear, but I'm not responsible for that stuff.