Frank Spotnitz Previews Hunted, Creating a "Real Jason Bourne"
Frank Spotnitz, the beloved creator behind The X Files, may be introducing a new series on Cinemax tonight, but consider yourself warned, TV Fanatics:
Hunted does not involve any extraterrestrials.
Instead, it feature Aussie-American Melissa George, best known stateside from kicking ass with Jennifer Garner on Alias and from HBO’s In Treatment. She portrays intelligent agent Sam Hunter, who survives an attack on her life and returns to duty in an undercover mission, all while keeping an eye out for whomever wants her dead.
Jim Halterman sat down with Spotnitz recently in Los Angeles to talk about the challenges of casting Sam, as well as keeping the dramatic tension and character development equal on the Hunted canvas...
TV Fanatic: I know the show went through a few titles: Morton... then it was Nemesis... and now it’s Hunted. What was genesis of the title?
Frank Spotnitz: Morton was never intended to be the real title of the show. It was a working title and we just had the hardest time figuring out a title and so there was a point in time when you know, we got Cinemax on board as a co-producer of the show and there was a point in time when both Cinemax and BBC were happy with Nemesis and then they weren’t. And so it set off this mad search for another name and Hunted was the name we’d come up. I think everybody realized her name is Sam Hunter and the idea that she’s both hunter and hunted, we really liked. So, that’s ultimately what locked that up.
TVF: How did you come to find Melissa George? She is so terrific in the series as Sam Hunter.
FS: I think it’s deceptively hard because Sam herself is so cold and unapproachable and doesn’t want to give you anything and so a lot of the actresses that were reading the part, they just played that. They played cold, and hard and tough and that’s just not interesting or you know, I didn’t care, I wasn’t moved. What Melissa had from the beginning was, there is that wall but there’s something going on behind it and I felt there was a real person behind that that didn’t want me to see her vulnerability but it was there. I was moved by her and she’s beautiful and you can believe she’s physical…to be that beautiful, that physical, and that good of an actress is very, very rare.
TVF: Talk to me about creating Sam. This character is so layered and I feel like there’s so much more we’re going to find out about her in future seasons.
FS: I knew I wanted to do a spy drama with a woman but my starting point was how do you do something new? Because there’s been so many great spy movies and TV shows and so I thought ‘well, what if Jason Bourne was a real person?’
I need this to be character-based, play them real, so play Sam real. She’s cold, she’s vulnerable, and she’s manipulative. How did she get that way? And then I started thinking about that and I think something really bad must have happened to her in the past to make her become this cold, this person that doesn’t let people close. And I thought that’s really interesting. Then I started to think about my own life and my own traumas and the theme of the show really, as long as it goes, is ‘are we tracked by our past or can we overcome our past and be masters of our future?’
And that’s Sam’s journey. That’s really what the show’s about. Amidst all the plotting and the action and stuff like that, it’s somebody who as a little girl had terrible things happen to her and the hardest thing for her now is to go back and look at those terrible things. You’ll see in episode five it becomes clear that in order to figure out who’s trying to kill her now she has to go back and look at who killed her mother, which is very, very emotional.
TVF: And then watching this show, it feels obviously very European, the style, the look, the tone, everything. Was that a challenge for you from your past work?
FS: I think the funny thing is my collaborators probably were skeptical that I would want to do that. I think they thought I was going to want to do the American way and it’s like not actually I love those movies, I love Constant Gardener. I was thrilled to do that. The Bourne Series and Constant Gardener. So, I absolutely embraced it and I had a really great partner in SJ Clarkson, who directed the first two episodes.
She’s British and one of the most talented directors I’ve ever worked with and incredibly fierce. I mean we really, you know, we had quite a few arguments but they were all about making it better. I mean she was all about the work too. And by the end we loved each other because we really connected. She loved it as much as I did and I think that’s why to the degree it’s good, it’s because we just had such a strong partnership.
TVF: Having watched the first episodes, every scene has such a tension to them so talk to me about how you create that in the writing or does it come in the directing?
FS: Well, I mean it is in the directing but it’s also starting with the writing obviously. I just, I think one of the advantages of doing a show like this where it’s an undercover thing, is there’s a built-in tension. This is because she’s living a lie every moment and in this case there’s tension on top of tension because she’s not safe in her work and she’s not safe with her team so, she’s not safe anywhere.
There were a lot of discussions after I had written the first script about whether we needed to give her a friend or we needed to her have a psychiatrist, like someone she could turn to, to breathe and I said no because I don’t want her to have any safe place. I just want her to be emotionally claustrophobic and the fear was will we like her? Will we like her unless she has that, and I said, “Well, I think because you see those flashbacks and you know what she went through…you don’t know much about her in those first episodes, but you want to know more.”
And I think especially when Melissa becomes Alex Kent, what’s fascinating to me is as Sam she’s very cold and shutdown but when she becomes Alex you see all this warmth and humanity and you go well, she does have that in her, and then…to me it’s interesting just to watch what’s Sam and where’s Alex and you’re never sure from scene to scene. So, the premise gives you all that.
TVF: How important was it to you even when you were just writing that first script that this show be grounded in reality? I mean, after a fight scene, Alex is genuinely exhausted and you don’t always see that in action film and TV.
FS: We talked a lot about that and actually I took things out. I took gadgets out and stuff that we’re going to feel like ‘Ah, I don’t quite believe that.’ I think this was Melissa and SJ, too, in the first two episodes wanting to play this. It’s like ‘that hurts and I’m upset’ and when she gets attacked by those three men at the café and she runs back inside, you see her distress, and she gets shot [and] I love that because it’s not a robot and it’s not James Bond. I love James Bond. That’s not a knock on James Bond, but I wanted that this is the way it would really be.
TVF: Why do you think Cinemax is a good place for Hunted?
FS: It’s been, honestly, like a dream come true. It’s been amazing. I mean in Cinemax, it’s HBO. It’s like there are no Cinemaxes. They’re all HBO guys who are doing this and they’re like, ‘this is our new project.’ We’re going to launch Cinemax; this is an original programming channel. You know, Strike Back was first and obviously I wrote the first four episodes of that, which is why they even noticed Hunted. If I hadn’t done Strike Back, Hunted wouldn’t have happened, and they’re really smart and they’re really supportive and it’s luck, I was lucky.
TVF: Is this taking up all your time right now or are there other things you have on your plate?
FS: So many things that I want to do. There are and I’m just trying to figure out how to do them. I mean one of the frustrations about working in Britain, which has been otherwise great, is that things do tend to take longer. The shooting day is shorter so it takes more days to get an episode done, people don’t work till midnight every night and on weekends and so everything takes longer and there’s a lot I’d like to do. I’m just trying to figure out how I’m going to do it.
Hunted airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.
Jim Halterman is the West Coast Editor of TV Fanatic and the owner of JimHalterman.com. Follow him on Twitter.