'The Americans' Showrunners On Writing Cold War-Era Drama Amid New Russian Relations
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to finish up the show today by talking again about the U.S.'s complicated history with Russia. President Trump's warm words for Russian President Vladimir Putin are giving a lot of Americans whiplash not just because of allegations that Russians tried to interfere in U.S. elections to help him, but also because many remember when the Russians were considered dangerous adversaries. We thought it would be interesting to get perspective from people who are living in both of those worlds at the same time, in a way.
Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields are the co-showrunners of "The Americans." It's a critical favorite on the FX Network starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. They play Elizabeth and Philip, Russian spies working under deep cover in the Washington, D.C. area but also trying to raise two children in a, quote unquote, "normal" American family.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE AMERICANS")
HOLLY TAYLOR: (As Paige Jennings) You're spies?
KERI RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth Jennings) We serve our country. We wanted to tell you this for such a long time.
TAYLOR: (As Paige Jennings) But you didn't.
MATTHEW RHYS: (As Philip Jennings) No. No, you're right. We didn't.
MARTIN: I also wanted to mention that "The Americans" creator Joe Weisberg worked as a case officer at the CIA in the early 1990s in the agency's Soviet Eastern-European division. And with the show about to begin its fifth season on the air, we thought we'd begin our conversation by talking about what it's like to write a drama about the Cold War and then see current U.S.-Russia relations in the news every week. This is executive producer Joel Fields answering.
JOEL FIELDS: In terms of the process of writing the show, it is strange. We, on the one hand, write the show very much in a bubble. And it's very much about the early '80s. And we don't let outside events impact the show. But for viewers, of course, it'll be a different experience watching it. And for us, the themes of the show are very much about the nature of being an enemy and the nature of having an enemy and how human it is to make up enemies. And it's sad to be in the middle of this show, frankly, and realize that we've come full circle in five seasons of making the show.
JOE WEISBERG: I find it extremely odd. For me, it's sort of how is this all happening again? When we started this show, the Soviet Union was gone. We were not in any kind of serious conflict with Russia. And it seemed like a good time to tell a story about those old bygone days. And how in a few short years Russia has turned into an enemy again makes very little sense.
MARTIN: Mr. Weisberg, do you mind if I ask you - you were in the CIA for a few years in the '90s. This was after the Berlin Wall fell. I was covering the White House at the time, so I kind of remember the complicated feelings that a lot of people had. On the one hand, this is something that they said - a day that they always hoped would come. On the other hand, there was a lot of fear about the chaos they knew it would bring, right?
MARTIN: And I was wondering what the intelligence community thought about Russia at that time.
WEISBERG: I remember two very specific things. And I was there from '90 to '94, so the wall had fallen but the Soviet Union had not collapsed when I was first there. And there was a question about what the CIA should be doing. Should it be trying to hasten the fall of the Soviet Union? Should it be trying to attack and sort of destroy the KGB now that it was in a lot of trouble? And there was kind of a divide, as I remember it.
I mean, by the way, I was a pretty low-level guy, so this is very anecdotal about sort of things I picked up and heard. I remember one guy saying, this is our chance to destroy the KGB when it's at their weakest. And I remember asking myself if the CIA really had that kind of capability that could - it could suddenly just do things to destroy the KGB.
But the other thing that I remember that was - that was interesting was that as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, there was an immediate sense in the CIA - and I'm sure it was throughout the intelligence community - of what do we do now? And there was this kind of casting about and memos flying all over the place and people trying to almost come up with a new mission.
MARTIN: You know, so these days, as we said earlier, there's this political divide over how people think about Russia. I mean, President Trump has been openly supportive of the Russian leader. On the other hand, mainly Democrats, but not just Democrats point to evidence of Russia's tampering with U.S. elections as having helped hand Trump the White House. And, you know, there's this interesting thing going on in public opinion.
There was a poll in September of 2016 conducted by The Economist and YouGov which showed that 37 percent of Republicans viewed Vladimir Putin favorably at that time, up from 10 percent of Republicans just two years earlier. And as - I was wondering what the two of you think about that. Mr. Weisberg, you want to start and then I'll hear from Joel?
WEISBERG: Well, I think that Americans as a whole tend not to look at the Russian side from their perspective at all. So let's just look at the issue with the elections. I certainly don't think that Russia should have interfered with our elections. I wish they hadn't done it. I don't think any country should do that. But I think it's not that hard to understand.
I think that we have been the leader in imposing economic sanctions on their country, which have been devastating to their economy. It's not that surprising that the country under the sanctions might try to do something to get the guy elected who's going to end the sanctions.
And not only that, but I am fairly confident that if there were some sort of an analogous situation, most of our population would support doing the same thing in that situation. So I just think it's important to sort of take a step back and try to see the other perspective on these things.
FIELDS: I would have a different analysis than Joe of all of that. Although I appreciate the thoughtful analysis there, I see things differently. But what I mostly see for us in writing "The Americans" is I feel very grateful that the show is set in the early '80s and that we're able to write something that is about the emotional and political truth and drama of living through that time and let people take away from it what they will allegorically about this time. And one thing that's great about writing in the past is it forces you, either consciously or subconsciously or both, to remember that things are going to look very different in the future.
MARTIN: Joe, I wanted to ask you, since I think you raised this topic - what do you think is the benefit of thinking about the other point of view?
WEISBERG: I think the best thing it does is it really opens you up to the world and opens you up to seeing other points of view. And ultimately, what that does is open you up to seeing yourself. And I don't mean that so much personally as collectively or as a nation. So if you can understand other people, if you can understand Philip and Elizabeth, if you can stop seeing them as the enemy but see them as people like you, then you can start to understand their country, all the people there in the government and the things they did. And you can stop seeing them as just these crazy people doing these terrible things who are always wrong and you're always right.
And then you start examining yourself and see that you, like them, are complex. You're complicated. You and your country do right things. You do wrong things. And you can sort of get off your pedestal, stop being so self-righteous, and you would start to behave a little more reasonably and responsibly in the world.
MARTIN: Mr. Fields, what about you?
FIELDS: I think we're definitely trying to save the world, yes.
MARTIN: OK. Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields are the showrunners of "The Americans." Season five premieres on March 7 on the FX network. And they were kind enough to join us from their writing room really in the middle of actual writing. So thank you so much for joining us. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
WEISBERG: Our pleasure, thank you.
FIELDS: Thanks, Michel, anything to get away from writing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.