Download: Creator/Producer/Writer/Director Alex Kurtzman on Honoring David Bowie Through Showtime's 'The Man Who Fell To Earth'
From projects like Alias and Fringe all the way to his current work on multiple Star Trek series, Alex Kurtzman has so regularly worked in the genre of science fiction it’s as if his name should be synonymous with the term. Now, Kurtzman has taken on what is quite possibly the most challenging sci-fi project of his entire career with Showtime’s The Man Who Fell To Earth—a series that pays tribute to the Nicolas Roeg film starring David Bowie of the same name from 1976, while standing on its own as a distinctive and original piece of work that speaks to our current times.
In our conversation, we talk about the challenges of getting such a complex project right, while also delving deep into the influence Bowie had on this production and on Alex’s artistic life as a whole.
Awards Daily: You have spent a lot of your career working on sci-fi projects. What drew you to this particular piece of material?
Alex Kurtzman: The show opens with Faraday asking, “How did we get here to this place, this moment in time?” I think Jenny [Jenny Lumet, co-creator] and I found ourselves over the last five years increasingly looking around and understanding less and less of what we were seeing in the world around us. One of the beautiful things that science fiction allows for is an interpretation through a future story about what’s actually going on in the present. Walter Tevis [author of the novel The Man Who Fell To Earth] had the incredible foresight to talk about the climate crisis before it was happening.
It’s never been more relevant than it is now, because we seem to be at this extraordinary crossroads that’s going to determine our fate. The great joy and gift that we as artists get, when it comes to work like this, is that we get to work through things that are going on in our lives or things we are seeing around us through the work itself. It seemed like a really excellent way to do that, the idea of exploring what it means to be a human being from the point of view of the ultimate outsider, somebody who would come here and see us without all the noise that we surround ourselves with but who would just see us very, very clearly, our strengths, our weaknesses, our frailties, the beauty of what it means to be a human being as well as the ugliness. Faraday sees it with a very unique unclouded specificity. We almost needed to ground ourselves in that simpler point of view to try and answer some of the questions that we ourselves were asking.
Awards Daily: When I first heard of this project I thought it was going to be a remake and I thought that would be really cool. But then when I got into it, I said: wait a second, it’s a continuation. How did you come to the choice to go that route?
Alex Kurtzman: I think we just didn’t want to remake what was already so well made. And we didn’t want to tell a story that had been told twice—first by Tevis and then by Roeg’s interpretation of Tevis. That being said, what we didn’t want to do was ignore the amazing source material that we had to work with. So, it struck us that the way to do it was to tell a sequel forty-five years later—to take both of those pieces of material as a basis and a backstory that we could build on now. It was very exciting to do that, because I love both the film and the book. The single biggest challenge that we saw immediately was what it would mean to step into David Bowie’s shadow. That was a very terrifying prospect in many different ways. Just because it felt like it was a field full of landmines where we could step in the wrong place at any moment. In looking at the story, it felt like something told us that it would be inevitable to include his character. We had to include his character in order to tell the story correctly.
The thing is, if you look at the character, he’s an extraordinarily passive creature. He arrives here as a wide-eyed innocent; he is corrupted by human vices, he feels love, he feels betrayal. He’s betrayed by the CIA, he’s betrayed by Mary-Lou, the woman that he loved, and he ends up blind and with a failed mission. That’s a very tough character to organize a show around. However, what really interested us was this question of what would that have metastasized into forty-five years later? What would the alcohol have done? What would the betrayal have done? It led us to the idea that Thomas Newton could become an unreliable narrator and become unpredictable in ways that the character wasn’t necessarily in either the film or the novel.
That sort of led us to this larger really interesting dramatic question which is: here comes Faraday, who’s traveled across an entire galaxy to arrive here to save his planet because he’s used to following the orders of his mentor, Thomas Newton, only to arrive and discover that Thomas Newton might in fact be insane. So, it put blood in the water in a way. It made us go, okay, now Faraday is going to have to wonder whether or not he’s even doing the right thing by arriving here and by listening to Newton. Most importantly, if he chooses not to listen to Newton, how does a character who, for his entire existence, has only followed orders and only understood what it means to follow orders—how does that character become a person who has to figure out how to follow his own orders and listen to his own inner voice, when he’s been told his whole life that he should not do that. That was a really compelling character question for us.
Awards Daily: Bill Nighy is cast in what was essentially the Bowie character. Did he have any reservations about stepping into those shoes?
Alex Kurtzman: I’m sure he had reservations before he read the script. This is sort of what he told us: when he read the script he knew he had to do it, and he knew that we were all working so hard to honor and respect the legacy of David Bowie. And he knew that no matter what he did—and he wanted to do something very different—there was no way to avoid the perception that he was playing David Bowie. There was just no way around it. I think that Bill played the part, in his own unique genius, in a way that only Bill could do. That was to give a performance that’s uniquely very Bill Nighy, but you can see the shades and echoes of Bowie in there in a way that’s very subtle. It takes a legend like Bill Nighy to do something like that, because you are stepping into the shoes of a legend.
Awards Daily: You often hear the phrase “casting is everything.” On this show I really feel like casting was, while maybe not everything, damn near everything, right? One thing I love so much about what Chiwetel’s doing is how he leads us through his character’s development. His character is of advanced intelligence and he’s learning as he goes, but the nuances of language and social situations are lost on him because those can not be discovered as quickly. But the show foreshadows where he ultimately ends up by showing him speaking in front of a stadium full of people—he’s clearly become an accomplished public speaker and polished stage personality. Yet his progress through each episode is so gradual and nuanced. It’s an amazing performance.
Alex Kurtzman: He’s just the best. We got very close in making this, because our process is very similar. We like to be very exacting, very methodical—go through every single line of dialogue, both for what’s going on in the text and what’s going on in the subtext. We like to talk about the big picture. What is the arc? From the character you’re describing, who’s essentially an infant who’s learning to walk and talk in the pilot, to being the man on stage who’s gregarious and free and couldn’t feel more human in a lot of ways. What we didn’t want to do was rush that journey. We actually wanted to take ten episodes to get him there in a way that the audience felt was very authentic. We would measure out where he is with his speech in the pilot versus episode two, and you see a fairly big shift even there. There’s a slightly more halting quality that begins to ebb away in episode two. It’s still there in three and four, but it’s starting to really break down as he breaks down. There’s the scene in four where he experiences Thomas Newton’s emotions for the first time and it’s so overwhelming to him and he has the most human reaction you could possibly have, which is to break down and weep openly. It couldn’t be less Anthean and he’s confused. He touches his face and goes, “What is this, what is happening to me?” He doesn’t understand. But, those are massive cracks, those fissures really form. It lets the water in literally and figuratively.
By the time he’s in episode five and six, I think you’ll see he’s becoming a very different person. He’s discovering new sides of himself and he’s understanding what it means to be human in a way that he couldn’t conceive of when he first arrived. Getting to break that down with an actor of Chiwetel’s caliber, who can physically inhabit a part so meticulously, but who can also really understand and track where he is moment to moment—especially considering that when you’re shooting you’re shuffling the deck on scenes. Sometimes we’d be shooting, when we were in Spain, scenes from the pilot and from the finale on the same day. Those are two wildly different moments in where he was as a character. My job was to watch him very carefully and just make sure that I was tracking the arc. As the writer and the director I have the unique perspective of knowing exactly how I want it to be tuned episode to episode and scene to scene. His job is to stay entirely in the moment. We had a really great collaboration there. Naomie, similarly in a way, crosses a massive distance within herself over the course of the ten episodes—from somebody who’s really in hiding and terrified of what she’s capable of and feels that she’s done great harm to the world, to recognizing that in fact she’s going to be, potentially, responsible for saving it. The confrontation of that fear within her is equally challenging; it’s just that it manifests very differently.
Awards Daily: Justin’s character makes me think of something Ethan Hawke once said to me about making Training Day. In a very egoless way he said, “When you go see Training Day, Denzel Washington is the event. But if you really think about it, it’s my character’s story.” Naomie provides that, here. She is the anchor. She has to sell you on her ability to go along with a person who—well, her best way to explain his behavior is to say he’s on the spectrum. It all seems very crazy, but you have to buy that she would do that. She does a phenomenal job of selling that to the audience.
Alex Kurtzman: For sure. Jenny and I knew from the beginning when we were writing the pilot that Justin was the audience. She was going to be the emotional entry point. As much as Faraday is a fascinating character and a fascinating creature, and the show is asking an interesting question, which is “how does he get from there to there,” in that first five minute set-up, Justin is the one you’re going to anchor into. She’s the one that you’re going to connect to emotionally. Your ability to buy and believe Faraday’s arc has everything to do with her reaction to him. If this were a network show, she would have said, “Yes I’ll join you on your journey” at maximum by the end of act two. But you would have skimped on so many necessary and important and authentic steps about how a character who was that closed off and damaged ultimately opens up. We wanted to take two episodes to get her to say yes, ultimately because we didn’t want the audience to jump too far ahead into feeling like we were rushing what you will see becomes a more real, more fleshed out, more nuanced relationship. In many ways, we’re all Justin in a sense, that she gets to react to the insanity of what’s presented to her in a way that most of us probably also would react—which is to deny it, and then to deny what it means about what we have to become in order to accept it. That’s why she’s the audience.
Awards Daily: One thing that I wasn’t expecting was how incredibly funny the show is. Some of it has to do with the “fish out of water” concept of a person just learning his way around Earth as Chiwetel is. Were you surprised by the amount of humor the actors accessed or did you know it was going to play that way?
Alex Kurtzman: No, it was very deliberately written on the page. Jenny and I, and John Hlavin, and all of the writers, early on we all discussed that humor would be our secret weapon. Here’s the thing: we’re making a show about some very intense things. The last thing that we wanted was to have the audience either feel that we were wagging our finger at them or that we were making them eat their vegetables. We wanted to actually make all of the commentary quite invisible, and the key to that is to entertain people. The key to that is to make them laugh. The key to that is to surprise them. What we were going for with the humor was two things: first is that the humor has to come from people’s authentic reactions to insanity. Nobody is ever reaching for a joke, right? Human behavior is funny when you’re reacting to things that are crazy.
The other thing is that we wanted a kind of humor that stayed very unpredictable. In the pilot, in the scene where Faraday arrives on Earth, he steps on broken glass, he sees/hears the water, shoves the hose down his mouth, and the cops come. You’re suddenly in a whole commentary about race. You have an African-American man walking naked down the street shoving a twelve foot hose down his throat with a bunch of white people in positions of authority holding weapons on him. You’re instantly in a welcome to America conversation. However, the tricky thing that Chiwetel, Jenny, and I worked on very carefully when we were writing that sequence was creating a scene that was so weird that you were laughing while also being horrified at the same time. There’s a rule Wes Craven once told me about, and how he would sort of compose the structure of his horror movies. If you look at them, it’s very consistent. He would have an opening scene where he would attach you to somebody and then he would kill them in the opening scene. It would tell you right out of the gate: “Whoah, I don’t know what to expect from this movie. Anything could happen.” I think there was a little bit of that in the thinking behind the hose scene. Once you get through a scene like that you go, “This show could give me absolutely anything and I have no idea where it’s going to go.”
Awards Daily: We spoke about Faraday discovering human emotion through Newton’s message—in the scene when he’s dealing with that, the sequence shot in the rural landscape, Faraday asks Justin how humans live with their emotions. Her answer is to tell him: “We tell ourselves stories.” Can you talk a little about that scene? I just thought that was so beautiful, because isn’t that what we all do to get through the days? To not think about the fact that this all ends?
Alex Kurtzman: That scene was one of those scenes that you kind of know that as much as you can talk about it in advance with the actors, it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be in the moment because it’s such a raw scene. Funnily enough, on that day there were two locations outside, we were on one estate and there were two locations, one was going to be in this beautiful field of trees that was fairly easy to access and the other I was sort of meandering around at lunch and looking and thinking about it, and I was like, well, we could go to this field but it’s going to mean getting the crew into that tall grass, it’s going to mean not trampling the grass to get there, it’s going to mean we’re going to have to climb through the grass to do the scene with all these obstacles. So we can either do this the easy way or we can do it the hard way and Chiwetel goes, “Well obviously we’re going to do it the hard way.”
So we got out into the field and I think what’s so beautiful about that moment is that he is just holding nothing back as an actor and Naomie is holding nothing back as an actor, but the dialogue is really the first understanding. I don’t understand as an Anthean, says Faraday, we don’t endure each other. We don’t take in each other’s pain this way. I don’t get it. I don’t get how you can live like this. And she says, yes it’s terrible, but it’s also what makes us who we are. It’s the basis of empathy. And the line where she says imagining cuts both ways. For me, the real origin of that line comes from Joan Didion who said “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I remember reading Joan Didion’s The White Album in high school as sort of my entry point into Didion’s world and recognizing that there are stories that are told only in only the way Didion could tell them or stories told in only the way only Bowie could sing them—to capture something about what it means to be human in a way that only the truly great artists of our time are able to do. I think that’s what she’s talking about is this basic element of human experience that we have to tell ourselves lies in order to keep going. If we faced all of the things that are going on around us all of the time, we’d collapse. We wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. And he’s realizing it in that scene.
Awards Daily: A lot of this show plays like a tribute, or even a valentine to David Bowie. From easter eggs like the Stardust Motel, to the font that’s used on the “Showtime presents” title card, and of course naming the episodes after Bowie songs. But I just have to tell you the part that absolutely slayed me, and I’ve watched it multiple times and just can’t stop talking about it to people, and I’m probably annoying the hell out of my wife who loves the show too, is the: “Tell my wife I love her very much,” “She knows.” It is so emotional. It could have been very hackneyed to have done that, to have Faraday answering Newton. But it wasn’t. It just worked so magically. How tricky was it to put these mixtures of easter eggs and more obvious things about Bowie into the show and not distract from your story?
Alex Kurtzman: In considering how we were going to invoke/honor Bowie in the show, we went through a long, long conversation process. Of course you start with “Well, we should not even touch it.” You’re touching the third rail, and why do that? Then you begin to realize that if you’re going to tell the story authentically, you’re going to have to touch it. And then if you’re going to touch it, how? We sort of found our way through very, very carefully. From the beginning we were like, ok, the first thing is why don’t we title each episode after a Bowie song—but then we have to organize the story around that song. You’re not just throwing a random title on there.
Every single episode is taking a title that makes perfect sense for the story that we’re telling in that episode. That was an interesting organizing principle because in that sense, David Bowie was our co-author. That was a very fun thing to do. The “tell my wife I love her very much… she knows” moment I think works because we have created an emotional context for it that actually makes it feel real and authentic and raw. You literally have a spaceman saying to another spaceman: “tell my wife I love her very much” because I’m never going to see her again, which is exactly what is in the song—that’s exactly what is in Major Tom (“Space Oddity”). Most importantly, you have two of the greatest actors on the planet doing it. So at a certain point you go, if they can’t pull it off, nobody can pull it off. You have to have that faith to take a big swing like that, knowing you have the talent behind you who can execute it.
Awards Daily: Were you a big David Bowie fan beforehand? It seems like it would be hard not to be.
Alex Kurtzman: I feel like everybody is to some degree a David Bowie fan. I was a big David Bowie fan beforehand, but I will tell you that my experience of having David Bowie and his music live inside me over the course of the four years that we worked on this, from its inception in 2018 till now, was a whole journey in and of itself. I think that for me, Bowie is defined by this extraordinary bravery. I know the same is true for Jenny. When you do a deep dive into his music, what you see is an artist who is calling out so many truths, very painful truths, about what it means to be human, but he was also fully recognizing the beauty of who we are as a species. It’s very interesting to me that he tried on all of these personas over the course of his musical life that spoke to so many different people.
When you look at early interviews with Bowie, he is electric. He is this extraordinary combination of very, very provocative and very insecure. He’s discovering who he is. He’s figuring it out, but there’s this innate genius that’s guiding him through. There’s an incredible Dick Cavett interview where you’re seeing so many different people in Bowie, but he never forgets who he is and what he’s trying to do because it’s coming from such an authentic place. There’s also an interview that just kills me, with VJ Mark Goodman on MTV, where Bowie calls out MTV for not airing Black artists. It was so incredible the way that he goes at Goodman. Goodman’s just stuttering through it in a way where he’s just not expecting an artist of David Bowie’s magnitude to be like, “Why aren’t you playing Black artists on MTV?” But Bowie is relentless, going after it. You can see that what he is saying is—and he talks openly about this—my music was so inspired by the Black artists that I grew up with, and now you’re here playing me but you’re not honoring them. That’s not acceptable and I’m going to use my status as an artist with a voice to tell you that it’s not okay. Which is an incredible thing to do. It’s an amazing thing. And I think when I looked at stuff like that, I think Jenny and I felt like we had an obligation to try and reach some level of bravery in the storytelling the way that he did as a musician and as an artist.
Awards Daily: I’ve always thought that, like you were saying, Bowie tried on all these characters and eventually the one he finally settled on was David Bowie. At a certain point, his best character was just being himself because as he got older he was so fascinating and engaging. When you’re talking about him figuring it out as he went along, it translates to the story you’re telling about Faraday too. I can only imagine it’s very gratifying to walk this tightrope that you walked and have it work.
Alex Kurtzman: I appreciate you saying that and acknowledging it. When you take a big swing like this, where there are just so many, as I said, mines in the field, the fact that they didn’t go off—it’s really gratifying to see it. The fact that everyone’s like, “Oh we love what you did with David Bowie” instead of “How dare you even try,” which could have absolutely been the reaction. It might have been my reaction, my first instinct. What I love so much is we’re just getting warmed up. There’s so much coming in the show that people are not going to expect on any level, and if people are already reacting to the show by episode four this way, that to me feels like exactly the reaction I would have hoped for. When an audience synchronizes with your intention, that’s the best feeling in the world for an artist.