Believe the hype – Covert Affairs, the new spy series from USA Network, is going to be a hit. The wait is nearly over, with the debut just over a week away. To give us some insight into creating the show, here’s Part 1 of a Q&A with Executive Producer Doug Liman. Most famously known for films like Swingers and The Bourne Identity, Liman shared a bit on taking the spy genre from film to TV, the technology that makes it possible, and more!
How did you become involved with Covert Affairs?
Well, it should be no secret that I’m a huge fan of the spy genre, and been trying to develop a spy show
with Dave Bartis and Gene Klein for quite some time. I think the real thing that sort of came together
for us was that we were doing a film called Fair Game that really immersed us in the spy world.
In connection with finally finding the right writers in Matt (Corman) and Chris (Ord), it was like everything just sort of came together at the right moment. There wasn’t a huge amount of overlap between Fair Game and Covert Affairs, but there’s some pretty obvious connections with it. Fair Game is about a real life female spy, and Covert Affairs has a female spy at its heart.
The other thing was that in doing the research for Fair Game, we got access to a lot of current and former covert officers with the CIA, and most of the material that we were learning about had no place in the movie, unless I wanted the movie to be 10 hours long. So we had this huge treasure trove of just sort of cool factoids. It was the perfect timing to be developing a TV show in the same arena at the same time, because we’ve just taken all the research that wasn’t appropriate for Fair Game and channeled it right into Covert Affairs.
And then obviously, Covert is a heightened reality. But the thing that I learned working with people at the CIA is that what they do on a daily basis is actually pretty extraordinary. I am hoping to direct an episode, or episodes, over the years.
Do you find that there’s been any kind of challenges or limitations in bringing the spy genre to television versus film?
Well, USA has really given us huge resources, so I haven’t really found the limitations. And you should know that usually I find limitations force you to just be more creative. The episode that I was talking about possibly directing was going to be our first episode back – you know, our first episode in production. And the thing where I was most excited about doing was figuring out how to use new technology to do the big action sequences that are being written into every episode on a TV budget. A very healthy TV budget, but nonetheless, a TV budget.
Things like the Canon 5D MK II, which I used a little bit on Fair Game. I don’t know if you guys know about these Canon cameras. Basically, there’s a chip in them that can shoot in no light. And I literally mean no light. So I really got enamored with the idea of using these cameras in our action sequences. Other films are using them as crash cams now, but they’re still lighting and shooting the action the same old fashioned way. And I’m saying, well, we don’t have the time or the money to do some of these outrageous sequences, the “if you had to do it properly would just get cut.” And that’s sort of the story of my life, is people always saying, “Well, we can’t afford this sequence, we have to cut it.”
While working with the team on Covert Affairs, to say, “Well, we have this new technology – let’s actually come up with a new way to shoot.” And so I’ve tried to. I come up to Toronto frequently to try to sort of just instill the new way of doing things, and it’s usually more efficient.
What is it like working with various directors on Covert Affairs, and did you play a role in hiring Tim Matheson for the pilot?
Dave and Gene pick the directors, then I sort of accept that as a fait accompli, and come up there and work with them. And I love it. Because this show is so connected to my own personal body of work, the directors are so collaborative, and not defensive. They’re eager to roll up the sleeves and work, and embrace ideas that I may bring to the table.
The thing that people don’t necessarily realize about this business is that if you’re a film director, you never get to meet other directors. You know, I meet actors, I meet producers, but I literally never meet other directors, because there’s only one director on a movie set. And there’s only one director in a story meeting at a studio. It’s kind of lonely in terms of meeting other directors and learning from them.
So, working on a show like this is such an amazing experience, because I get to come up to Toronto every week and a half and collaborate with another director. It may sound like I’m just sort of glad handing, but I’m really serious about this concept … the chance to work with other directors in the kind of collaboration that Covert Affairs provides is amazing.
With regard to the story structure, is Covert Affairs going to have weekly problems that are solved by the end of each episode, or is it going to be more of a seasonal arc?
Yeah, it’s definitely a mission of the week, that you don’t need to have seen the previous episode. There’s a very specific problem that is set out that needs to be solved that week. There are character arcs that extend across the season, and romantic arcs, but in terms of the A plot, the A storyline, it’s a story a week.
Photo courtesy of 30 Ninjas