'Rubicon' Set Visit: Paranoia, Espionage and Milk
by Marina Zogbi, posted Jul 26th 2010 5:20PM
How do you follow up two of the most acclaimed television series in cable history? If you're AMC, whose 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad' have both pushed the boundaries of small screen drama, you veer off into another direction entirely.
'Rubicon,' which has its two-hour premiere on August 1 (a sneak preview followed 'Breaking Bad's' season finale last month and 'Mad Men's' premiere last night), may seem familiar to anyone who's enjoyed '70s-era paranoid conspiracy thrillers à la 'The Parallax View,' or 'The Conversation.' Yet the 13-episode series -- created by Jason Horwitch ('Medical Investigation,' 'The Pentagon Papers') and starring James Badge Dale ('The Pacific,' '24') -- reflects a moody, modern, post 9/11 sensibility and, not incidentally, continues AMC's tradition of slow-building, intricately detailed story-telling.
TV Squad recently visited 'Rubicon's' main New York City set. Read what we saw and learned, after the jump ...
The set is located near the South Street Seaport, where several floors in a vintage building house the show's American Policy Institute, a political intelligence think tank. Dale plays brilliant but troubled analyst Will Travers; his co-stars include Dallas Roberts, Miranda Richardson, Christopher Evan Welch, Lauren Hodges, Jessica Collins and Arliss Howard.
We chatted with Dale and Roberts ('The L Word') between takes of a scene from episode 10 involving a tense analysis of multiple bombings.
Unlike some other TV shows set in offices, Rubicon uses actual vacant office space for API's headquarters. So touring the set's cubicles, conference room, staircase and roof -- all of which are featured in the series -- feels a lot like visiting someone's actual workplace. API is surprisingly low-tech: lots of wood, paper and old light fixtures. Though the show references current events, it's not meant to be that realistic. "We're creating our own little world," Dale said. "It's like some netherworld between 1975 and 2010; this noir-esque kind of place." The seaport, visible outside many windows, reinforces that timelessness.
The AMC Pedigree
Before 'Mad Men's 2007 breakout, AMC (originally American Movie Classics) specialized mainly in film. With the additional success of 'Breaking Bad,' the network is now firmly at the forefront of quality cable programming. Is there any pressure to be excellent? "There's nowhere to go but down!," joked Dale. "They're setting us up here. The pedigree's too good!" But seriously, "I think it's important to take risks, " he said. "That's what makes 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad' so good. Our greatest chance of failure is if we try to go for par because status quo is just not good enough."
Regarding AMC as an employer, "They're letting us take our time, we don't have to beat anyone over the head with anything," Dale said of the show's pace and tone. The channel is clearly not willing to sacrifice its approach for audience pandering. "Not everyone's going to watch this show," he noted. "Some people are going to want swift action, but [AMC] has committed to this style; they're going to let the story play out ...They're not operating on fear."
According to executive producer Henry Bromell ('Homicide: Life on the Street,' 'Chicago Hope'), there have been many TV and movie depictions of the spies who gather intelligence information, but, "There's never been a show or movie about the people who try to analyze it and figure out what it means." There are myriad scenes in upcoming episodes -- we've seen the first four -- of Travers and his fellow analysts attempting to make sense out of seemingly random details. (The on-set analysis we saw included a possible connection between Hitler's birthday and the time of day sacred to pot smokers.) It's to the writers' credit that these scenes are imbued with believable emotions (usually frustration) and a certain amount of wit.
Said Bromell of API's work, "It's a completely independent analysis so it's a lot of pressure. If they make a mistake, a lot of bad things can happen." As the series unspools, we become familiar with each character's foibles, strengths and secrets in addition to their stressful work days. Needless to say, given the show's tagline ("Not every conspiracy is a theory"), things and people are seldom what they seem.
The brooding yet likable Will is at the center of 'Rubicon.' A top analyst at API, he's experienced personal tragedy and has made work the focal point of his life. "To me, the most important thing about Will is that he has grieved," said Dale. "I've had a lot of grief in my own life (his mom, actress Anita Morris, passed away in 1994) and I get to tap into that." Conversely, "The scariest and most foreign thing about Will is that he's much more intelligent than I am. He's very quick with information, details, numbers ... when a lot of my friends found out that I got this job, they made fun of me: 'You're never going to be able to pull this one off.'"
As for Roberts' character, the socially awkward MIT grad Miles Fiedler, the actor explained, "He has the heart and interests of an 8-year-old boy. He's really all milk and comic books." Literally. "I tend to make little rules and see which ones stick," he said of his input into the character. "Miles doesn't drink coffee; he's eight years old, he drinks milk." Roberts agreed that Miles possibly has a mild form of Asperger's Syndrome. "He's incredibly high-functioning, he can get lost in his own world, but I really don't think he has a huge understanding of how his behavior affects other people."
His biggest stretch, character-wise: "I don't relate to the mathematical genius aspect," Roberts said. "I had to take remedial math to get out of high school because I was afraid I was going to fail algebra." Then it must be especially satisfying to play a math whiz. "Luckily, the writers do all the deep thinking, so if you can just say the lines quickly without messing it up, it makes you look really smart," he said.
Location, Location, Location
Both actors are happy to be filming (mostly) in New York City. "I'm a native New Yorker; my parents lived in New York," said Dale, who often walks to the Seaport set from his apartment. "I've been in New York for 20 years," the Texas-born Roberts said. "I don't desire to go anywhere else ... I've got family now (a wife and two sons) and we all live here, so it's great to be able to work on something that's fulfilling and be in New York."
Filling Out a Skeleton
Roberts, who has worked mainly in theater and film, likes the fact that he has no idea how where the story is going. "You get to ride it the way the audience does, finding out stuff week by week ... It feels like pieces of a puzzle are fitting together, like some sort of skeleton filling out." He was so curious that when 'Rubicon' had its sneak preview, "I went through the opening credits frame by frame to see if I could figure out anything they hadn't told me about the series." He couldn't and neither can we, but we look forward to learning the old-fashioned way, every Sunday night.
• Emmy-nominated cinematographer Michael Slovis --who has given 'Breaking Bad' such a distinct look -- is also DP on 'Rubicon.'
• The former offices of an architectural firm serve as the set for API's headquarters
• Before pursuing acting full-time, Dale was devoted to hockey. He once played for the Utah Valley Golden Eagles (Junior A team).
• The character of Miles was originally described as "a 50-year-old who looked 70 with long gray hair and a smoking problem." Roberts read for the role anyway and the character was subsequently changed.
• As part of his preparation for 'Rubicon,' Dale read 'The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,' the Pulitzer-winning book by Lawrence Wright.