The success of TV newcomers Christopher Cantwell and Chris Rogers might appear to have happened overnight, but the Halt and Catch Fire creators explain why the road from point A to point AMC was more circuitous than some might think.
Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
(June 20, 2014)
In tech-speak, “halt and catch fire” is a self-destruct command, a series of keystrokes that obliterates a computer’s hard drive, effectively creating a clean slate. It’s an apt metaphor, perhaps, for the writing team of Christopher Cantwell and Chris Rogers, who have hit the reset button several times in their young careers, moving for years, almost serendipitously and individually, through the worlds of low-budget filmmaking, social media marketing, indie bookstore sales, magazine editing, and work-for-hire screenplays before expanding their industry bandwidth by interfacing in 2009. Their first pass at sharing a keyboard was a deeply personal spec script about high-tech prospecting and computer-world chicanery in the dot-matrix era, described by some as Mad Men meets The Social Network.
That script was the pilot for Halt and Catch Fire, the new AMC series starring Lee Pace and Scoot McNairy. The pair feels grateful and fortunate that their first professional outing has resulted in a critically acclaimed show that earned more than a million viewers in its debut, yet they also recognize that their seemingly overnight success story might inspire envy from a few fellow scribes. “Just to separate or specify the hate,” Rogers says, “maybe we should say that Chris and I had both studied screenwriting in college and worked on our own for years and written a number of terrible scripts that never went anywhere.”
In other words, the road from point A to point AMC was more circuitous than it might seem. “There were many years of frustration before we found our luck,” Cantwell says. The key was that the pair was prepared when opportunity knocked. As Rogers puts it, “We were ready for it.”
Photo: ©2014 AMC
Scoot McNairy and Lee Pace in Halt and Catch Fire.
There’s some level of struggle for most writers, especially in the entertainment industry. What was the road like for the two of you?
Christopher Cantwell: I was actually just thinking about this the other day. CNBC had seen the pilot and wanted to have us on for a few minutes to talk about the show. It was so weird to have someone pick me up and drive me to Universal Studios, where CNBC tapes, and remember that I was an intern in PR at Focus Features back in 2003 when I was still in college. I was just fighting for internships back then, like everyone else. Then on the way home from CNBC, the driver passed a billboard for Halt, which was completely surreal, and then he asked if he could turn left onto Hollywood Boulevard from Cahuenga, and I said, “Yeah, it’s totally fine. There are just certain hours of the day you can’t.” The reason I knew that is because my first job out of college was as an assistant to a producer-manager on Cahuenga and Hollywood. I saw the office out the window of the car as we drove by, and it was crazy to think about starting off, applying to USC film school when I was 17, and then ending up here. I’ve been in Los Angeles for going on 14 years now, so a lot of my life is tied to this place. This is just the nicest, latest chapter.
Mr. Cantwell, you studied screenwriting at USC with Jack Epps, Jr., among other instructors. How did you pursue your career after graduation?
Christopher Cantwell: I graduated in ’04, took a job as an assistant, and did that for six months. It was as nightmarish as assistant jobs could go. It was intense. Then I saw this movie called Primer, which had just won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. I read that the filmmaker, Shane Caruth, was from Dallas, Texas, just like me, and had not gone to film school and tried to come up to the filmmaking world as an assistant, but had instead taken six-grand he’d saved up and borrowed a 16mm camera and made a film with his friends that had scored at Sundance and been released nationwide. That really shook me up. It was a moment of, Oh, God, I’m doing it wrong. So I quit my assistant’s job and, with two other friends, took some money my grandmother had left me when she passed and got my dad to invest a little bit, and we made a micro-feature in Dallas in 2005. I was 23. Of course, it was not Primer. It did not win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, which should surprise no one. But I decided at that point the most important thing was just to make things. So I wrote a lot. I started making digital videos with some friends, and through a bunch of weird twists and turns, I ended up as an online marketing executive at Disney. I was right back to being far, far away from all the creative stuff that I’d wanted to do since I was a kid.
That’s how the Oedipus story goes, right? You can resist your fate, but you’ll always find it.
Christopher Cantwell: So what you’re saying is no matter what I do, I’m bound to be an executive again [laughs]? Yeah, in a few years, I’m going to be right back where I started. Again.
Mr. Rogers, tell me about your path.
Chris Rogers: I came to screenwriting through a very circuitous path. I was a history major in college and then went to law school, which totally freaked me out, and then I got into the magazine world, which is where I really wanted to be, I thought. I started out at The Atlantic in Washington D.C., but I really wanted to write movies, so I wrote my first screenplay – in the Library of Congress, after hours. It was one of those pathetic Bright Lights, Big City things, where you write in the dark after a terrible breakup. But I liked the script well enough that I decided to totally freak out my parents by telling them I was moving to Los Angeles to live in Northridge to sleep on an air mattress using my coat as a blanket. I worked in magazines for a while, then I got a job at Skylight Books, which surrounded me with the kinds of writing I love – historical, literary stuff. It took me a long time to think of screenwriting as something that could be on par or of a piece with the stuff at The Atlantic or The New Yorker, the stuff I’d grown up wanting to write.
If you had a certain snobbery back then for screenwriting, I can’t imagine what your thoughts were about the programming on the boob tube.
Chris Rogers: Right! It was just stupid thinking. The truth is: so many of the great movies of the last 10 years have actually been TV shows. TV is a medium where you can not only entertain, but actually say something.
When did the two of you meet?
Christopher Cantwell: We hired Chris Rogers at Disney in 2009, and he and I started working together. About a year into that, we finally got around to talking about our old dreams of being writers.
Chris Rogers: Yeah, we finally confessed that we’d both put our real dreams on hold and maybe it was time to do something about it. We found a real harmony in our ideas and the ways we work together. So in that way, Halt and Catch Fire is probably autobiographical, without either one of us willing to confess which of the show’s characters we most resemble.
Mr. Rogers, in 2007, you shared with Twitter that you were on Page 3 of The Great American Novel. How’s that coming?
Chris Rogers: Oh, my God, my Twitter account!
Christopher Cantwell: Yeah, how’s that coming, Chris? Can we read it?
Chris Rogers: Oh, man. That’s probably the best three pages ever written!
What was the inspiration for Halt, a show that takes place, more or less, in the years you were born?
Christopher Cantwell: The original idea for the show came because we were so fascinated by the PC Revolution that was going on in Texas about 30 years ago, when the region was known as the Silicon Prairie. My father was a software salesman in Dallas, and that informed things too. But at its heart, the show is about two guys who decide to partner together as underdogs and take on The Man, as it were, and end up doing something pretty cool. So subconsciously at least, we probably see a lot of ourselves in this story, whether we like to admit that or not.
Like many of TV’s other recent, great shows, Halt aspires, in its way, to being The Great American Novel for the small screen. There’s the enigmatic protagonist, the manifest destiny, the hunger, the yearning, the gunslingers in nice suits.
Chris Rogers: That’s what you’re always after, to write something with a novelistic scope and vision. People would say that, starting with shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, then moving onto things like Breaking Bad, TV is where that’s happening. You can tell a 10-12-hour story instead of a two-hour story with a rigid three-act structure. Beyond telling a great story, TV allows room for more empathy and compassion, for greater detail in the characters, which I really like.
There must be many differences between scripting 10-hours for AMC and 120-pages for Joseph Kosinski, who is reportedly directing one of your feature screenplays.
Christopher Cantwell: I was never really interested in television, to be honest, but Chris brought me into it by giving me the script for the pilot of Breaking Bad, which totally blew me away. On the page, it was this incredible thing. It crafted those characters so quickly and so deftly, so completely, in the first few pages and hooked you instantly to read more. I also loved that nothing had to be wrapped up satisfactorily or tidily at the end of 50 pages. You could just leave everything on a precipice and walk away. That was so cool to me.
Chris Rogers: For us, there was a very specific difference between writing features and writing Halt. We used to jokingly call Halt our “no guns script” because everything else we’d written had been in the thriller genre. It’s easy to motivate your characters when they have a gun pointed at them. But with Halt, we had to figure out how to create drama or tension or character movement without the threat of that obvious violence. That forces you to look more deeply at the violence brewing inside your characters, at what’s going on inside of them as people. When you remove the easy dramatic choices, you’re forced to go deeper and get better and maybe do your best work.
Christopher Cantwell: What we’ve learned in writing together for a few years now is that the more action we have to write into a script, the less real estate we have to craft the characters. You have to be extremely good at building character quickly. We wrote a lot of action-oriented features earlier on, and we kept realizing, “My God, we have, like, three pages to wring out an emotive moment between Character X and Character Y before the plane has to crash into the moon.” The stakes in movies are really tough because the scope of studio movies today is so big. It’s nice to be able to spend more time with characters. So TV kind of feels like freedom to me.
From spec script to the AMC premiere, how does that happen?
Christopher Cantwell: It was sheer luck.
Chris Rogers: It was a confluence of preparedness and luck. When we wrote Halt, we only really got one note from our TV agent at the time and she said, “Make sure you’re not chasing The Social Network. By the way, we probably can’t sell this thing.” It was a writing sample. We had a meeting or two that didn’t go anywhere. So we turned to writing movies and kind of forgot about Halt. Then a long summer passed and we asked our agent again if she’d send out the script. Almost to placate us they sent it out to HBO and a few other places and we had a few of those meetings where you get a bottle of water and a pat on the back and nothing really happens except for some smiles. Then we got to AMC, the last good meeting on our list. I remember sitting in a parked car in a gas station near their office before that meeting, rehearsing what we were going to say, with the big plan being we were going to talk until they wouldn’t let us talk anymore. When we walked in there, it was an actual conference room, every person there had a copy of the script in their hands, and they knew who we were, and that was very different for us. Maybe it was luck.
Christopher Cantwell: That was October 23, 2011. You like how I remember that?
A year later, you pitched the show again to the network’s executives at their annual Bake-Off. What was the key to your success there?
Christopher Cantwell: For us, the key to making that pitch great was the script itself. In the year between our first meeting with them and the Bake-Off, AMC had developed Halt with us. They had brought in an executive for us to work with, and we’d been working with Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein, who produced Breaking Bad, and they were all fantastic. They really helped us shape the script, and they had us write a 20-page format, which was really just a 50,000-foot view of the characters and the world they live in with some story suggestions. That was the pitch document. We worked on that day and night. After all the hard work, it really came down to confidence, which after all of that hard work, was pretty easy for us. We loved the show, so it was really just a two-hour chat with the good people at AMC.
Chris Rogers: In terms of the development, we were always encouraged to create great, open-ended possibilities with the characters and the stories without marrying ourselves to any of it. Details often give executives too many things to resist or reject, so that was a useful note for us, and kind of a counterintuitive one. AMC’s mandate is to do people’s passion projects, which Halt definitely is for us.
In your writing careers, you went from being solo artists to forming a duo, and now you’re in a band. What’s it like going from typing alone in the Library of Congress to hitting a writers’ room with guys like Halt showrunner Jeremy Lisco?
Christopher Cantwell: The best thing we did going into this series was to keep our minds open always. We were, no doubt, the most inexperienced people on that set or in that writers’ room every single day. While we had a very strong passion and connection and vision for the show and the characters, we wanted to be inclusive and collaborative. How could you not be with the producers of Breaking Bad and Southland and writers from The Sopranos and Deadwood and Mad Men? These are people you really, really want to listen to. If you’re not going to listen to them, why bother doing this at all? But this was the first writers’ room we’d ever been in. It was intimidating, worse than the first day of high school.
Chris Rogers: I was really worried going into all of this that we would feel overpowered or that we wouldn’t be able to speak up. But the truth is, if it’s a passion project, you just care so much about it that you can’t help but speak your mind. The passion carries you. I don’t know how you can work in television if you don’t really love the project you’re doing, though I know some people do. In time, we felt less like frauds than we initially did.
Are there any writers’ room hazing rituals for the new kids on the block?
Christopher Cantwell: Having your own show is the best hazing ritual possible!
Halt’s second episode is entitled “FUD,” an acronym for “fear, uncertainty, and doubt.” Is there any of that for the two of you these days?
Christopher Cantwell: It’s always scary to take that final step, which you have no control over – turning it over to the public and letting them do whatever they want with it. It’s been a really sacred time for us, creating this show, producing it, having it be ours, but now it belongs to everybody else. That’s very scary, but very thrilling. At their core, film and TV are audience-based mediums. They don’t really exist until they’re in front of an audience. So it’s a necessary step that we’re looking forward to.
Chris Rogers: I know we’ve made a great season of television. We worked with so many great people who just did extraordinary work. We got this show so right by our standards that if people don’t like it now, I’m not really sure what we would’ve done differently. As a creative person, that’s the most peace of mind you can ever have.
Christopher Cantwell: The saying goes, “It’s the journey, not the destination,” and I finally understand what that means, having made our first season of television with all of these amazing people.
What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?
Christopher Cantwell: This comes from my screenwriting teacher Jack Epps. He just told me the other night about good luck and bad luck. He said, “Good luck is having an opportunity come to you when you’re prepared to seize it with very hard work. Bad luck is having an opportunity coming to you and not being ready to give it the hard work it requires.” I like that.
Chris Rogers: There’s an Allen Ginsberg poem called “Cosmopolitan Greens,” and I always liked the lines: “Notice what you notice/ if we don’t show anyone, we’re free to write anything.” If you approach writing from that standpoint, you’ll do your best work.