Joel Surnow: “impossible to come up with a 24-episode arc”

Sitting through an entire episode of the unnervingly suspenseful “24″ is a gleeful exercise in masochism, both thrilling and torturous. Since its debut this season, Fox’s ingenious new espionage drama has found itself at the center of a maelstrom of publicity and critical adulation, even if its underwhelming ratings don’t necessarily reflect the show’s originality and flawless execution.

“24″ stars Kiefer Sutherland as Counter Terrorist Unit operative Jack Bauer. Jack’s job is to stop a labyrinthine conspiracy to eliminate a popular African-American presidential candidate (Dennis Haysbert). The assassins, however, draw Jack into their plot by kidnapping both his disgruntled wife (Leslie Hope) and his angst-ridden daughter (Elisha Cuthbert). Add to those troubles a few untrustworthy CTU agents, a spurned paramour/co-worker (Sarah Clarke) and a couple of murders and it’s no wonder Agent Bauer is wearier than a drugged-out Michael Corleone.

With double-dealing moles, shady government bureaucrats, fancy techno gadgets and ice-cold assassins, “24″ plays up every element of the spook genre. Where the show distinguishes itself, however, is in its audacious episodic structure. As often noted, the whole series takes place in the span of one day, beginning on the eve of the California presidential primary. At the same time, each episode unfurls in real time. That means that a minute on the trail of the assassins translates into a minute of television. The impressive thing is that what could have easily degenerated into a tiresome gimmick has actually turned out to be a taut, deftly rendered storytelling device.

I recently spoke over the phone with Joel Surnow, one-half of the creative team behind “24.” (Robert Cochran is the second partner.) Surnow is an industry vet with a résumé as a writer and producer that includes “Nikita,” “Covington Cross,” “Miami Vice” and “Wiseguy.”

“24″ airs Tuesday nights at 9 on Fox with an encore on Fridays at 9.

“24″ is so tightly constructed and juggles multiple, interconnecting story lines that I imagine it must be a bitch to plot from episode to episode. Before sitting down to write the actual scripts, did you outline the entire arc of the series? Do you already know how this season is going to wrap up, or is it still a discovery process?
It is impossible to come up with a 24-episode arc. You can do about six or eight at a time. We came up with kinda like the first eight, which we thought of as sort of like Act 1. We have a rough idea where we’re going, but because it’s so many episodes, you have to divert and go off to the side and get off the main story to keep telling the story. That is a separate kind of storytelling and a separate discipline. The thing about our show is every episode’s only an hour, so it could be one small idea that becomes an entire episode.

Can you talk a little about the genesis of this project? How did you come up with the premise?
I came up with an idea of doing a show in real time and I pitched it to Bob [Cochran], who I work with very often. He thought that it was a good idea, but impossible to do. And I agreed with him. But we decided it has such a great hook. So, we started to think of what kind of story can you tell in 24 hours that would keep people up for 24 hours, not sleeping or eating or snoozing. It’s got to be a very compelling story.

So, we thought a presidential candidate’s about to be assassinated. Then we had to do something that [made it] a personal story. Bob and I both have teenage daughters, so we thought, “Wow. What if our teenage daughter disappeared?”

Then we put those together and we had a 24-hour day where a presidential candidate is going to be assassinated, a guy’s daughter is missing and one guy has to be responsible for both of them. That will keep everybody at the edge of their seats for 24 hours.

How long did it take for you to come up with the bare-bones premise?
I think it was four hours and 17 minutes, to be exact.

You know, that’s not what other writers want to hear.
[Laughs] It probably took us about two or three weeks of sitting down. We really wanted to work it out since we knew it was a complicated concept. We really were thorough and pitched out the whole season in a sense — not specifically, but where it could go and how episodes could play out and examples of how it could work. It really helped us in the long run.

“24″ is a risky proposition because it relies heavily on the patience and loyalty of the audience. In a medium not exactly known for going out on an artistic limb, how did you manage to sell a series like this?
I just think that Fox liked the pilot that we wrote. I think what happened, quite honestly, is they didn’t expect much of it. I don’t even think they were thinking it would ever get on-air. There were a couple of other shows that season that looked like they were gonna be shoo-ins. It turned out our pilot was so good and the response was so strong, that they suddenly had to face the reality of “What are we gonna’ do?”

The pilot tested through the roof; everyone at the studio flipped over it, all the way up to Rupert Murdoch and Peter Chernin. And so then there were meetings about how to mitigate the risk. We don’t want to rely on everyone having to watch every episode, so can we come up with close-ended stories to make it palatable? Can we have recaps? I think to their great credit, they knew it was a risk, but they decided to go for it.

Were you ever dissuaded by the commercial failure of gutsy shows like “Murder One” and “Twin Peaks,” both of which tried to stretch one story line over the course of a whole season?
No, because we never thought we were gonna stretch one story line over a season. Our story lines are going to evolve. Yeah, we were daunted by it, and hopefully we learned a little by their failure. One thing we learned from “Twin Peaks” is you can’t string an audience along so much that they get frustrated with it.

Creatively, what was the toughest obstacle you’ve had to face?
We already did the attempt on Palmer’s life, so the biggest obstacle was how to continue to keep the heat on the show, even though that seems to have culminated. And we did keep the heat.

Kiefer Sutherland nabbed a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Jack Bauer. What did you see in his prior performances that made you think he could pull off the role?
First of all, I didn’t know if he could pull off Bauer. We loved him as an actor. What he has is a lot of anger. He sort of reminds me of Gene Hackman in a way: He’s kind of a tough, angry guy. You channel that and turn him into a hero, you got a really volatile, potent character.

What I didn’t know that he could pull off was being the father and stepping into full manhood, which he has. Some people age into really good parts and I think he will be one of those people.

According to the trades, Dennis Hopper is close to signing on as the mastermind behind Senator Palmer’s assassination. Can you confirm this little tidbit?
Yeah, I think the deal’s done. That’s all I’ll say.

Before “24″ even hit the air, Fox hyped it to the hilt and critics gave it glowing reviews. Did you ever fear the show wouldn’t live up to the high expectations set for it?
No, I knew the show would live up to it. However, it’s like introducing a comedian with, “Ladies and gentleman, the funniest man on the planet!” What helped us on the pilot is that there were no expectations. We were under the radar and we surprised everybody. I think the show has lived up to the hype, but I think people are kind of turned off by overhype anyway.

How did film director Stephen Hopkins get involved in the project?
We actually had hired this director Jamie Foley. He had done “Glengarry Glen Ross” and other wonderful films. He had a family tragedy and had to leave the show and we were a week from prep — maybe we were even in prep on the pilot — and we needed a director. I had heard of the movies he [Stephen Hopkins] had done, but I had never met him and didn’t really know much about him. We met him and clicked instantly. It’s just one of those lucky accidents for us. He’s a tour-de-force director, second to nobody in terms of episode directing.

“24″ makes effective use of the split-screen technique to up the tension factor. Did you always envision using this device or was this a conceit of Stephen Hopkins?
It was Hopkins and David Thompson, our editor, who started using it in the pilot because we had a lot of phone calls. Then it grew from there.

How much research did you do with real counterterrorist organizations? Was the government cooperative?
The government has been very cooperative since we never called them once to ask them for anything. They just take taxes out of our paychecks; that’s how we cooperate with them.

The premiere of “24″ (featuring an airplane bombing) was delayed in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy. At any point, did you ever think the show might never make it to air because of the sensitive subject matter? Was it uncomfortable to watch that first show so shortly after the attacks?
No, but we did cut out the plane explosion. That was uncomfortable.

“24″ is one of three espionage-themed shows to premiere this season. What attracted you to this particular genre in the first place?
Well, [Robert Cochran] and I did “La Femme Nikita,” so international espionage is an area we know and have done successfully. We felt that it was a good area for this format.

Give us some insight into your working relationship with Cochran. How do you divide the duties between yourselves? What’s a typical day like while producing a weekly series?
I come up with all the ideas and he writes them down.

Do you think if he were here, he’d say the same thing?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I have him locked up in a cage. No, we do everything together. What we really bring to the table more than anything else is we can sit in a room and crank out story after story. We did 96 episodes of “Nikita” together, 44 of “The Commish,” 22 of “Falcon Crest.” We’ve done hundreds of hours of story breaking together, which is the hardest part of our job.

Many people think “La Femme Nikita” was terminated before its time. What was the biggest challenge translating Luc Besson’s film to the small screen? Are you surprised by the program’s continued cult following?
No, it was a really cool show and in some ways, every bit as groundbreaking as this one in terms or how far and deep it went and how intense it got. The biggest challenge was making Nikita a likable character. In the movie she wasn’t, so we made some changes to make her more heroic.

As a die-hard “Prisoner” fanatic, I loved your show “Nowhere Man” and was pretty pissed when UPN yanked it. Many critics explained the cancellation by saying the series was too intelligent and “out there” for the average viewer. Do you agree? Without biting the hands that feed you, what do you think of the majority of TV audiences out there?
Hey, listen, I was told at the very beginning of my career that there are as many people out there watching with I.Q.s over 100 as under 100. I think it’s a big country, there’s a lot of different people; there’s enough for everybody. There’re “dumb guy” shows, and “smart guy” shows and “old lady” shows and “young lady” shows. “The West Wing” and “The Sopranos”: These are very intelligent shows and they’re very successful. So I don’t ever buy the fact that the audience isn’t smart.

Assuming “24″ gets renewed for another season, do you already have definitive ideas as to how you’d like the show to evolve?
Yeah, I’d like it to get better ratings.

Which shows currently on TV do you most admire? Are there any you watch regularly?
Well, I used to watch “ER” all the time the first couple seasons; I admire that show a lot. “The Sopranos” I watched the first season; I thought it was great.

In your professional opinion, what do I have a better chance of getting — a staff writing position on “24″ … or Sarah Clarke’s phone number?
Um … they’re both available for a price.

We’ll negotiate later.

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