The Unlikely Engineering of Halt and Catch Fire
Halt co-creators Chris Rogers (left) and Plano native Chris Cantwell, in their Los Angeles offices.
It's day two of SXSW, and Mother Nature, tired of people staring at her badge, is revolting. She has painted Austin a morose gray, and a light drizzle is growing into an angry downpour. By the time a herd of black SUVs stampedes the Hotel St. Cecilia around dusk, a bona fide thunderstorm is brewing, coming so fast there's not even time to sponsor it.
A tent covers the trendy hotel's courtyard, forming a well-appointed cocoon for the occupants of those SUVs and other guests of this semi-secret party. Actors Lee Pace and Mackenzie Davis have staked out valuable real estate between the heaters and the bar. Scoot McNairy, fresh off his small-but-searing turn in 12 Years a Slave, is inside, slugging a Lone Star and talking about the things he blows up on his Texas ranch. Steve Wozniak, the Apple co-founder, is around, having been invited to moderate a panel. John Leguizamo is here too, for reasons not readily apparent.
Planted at the center is actress Kerry Bishé, her hair a deep red, her smile tight but electric. Bishé is best known for her work in Scrubs, which was canceled during her only season. But she recently watched Ben Affleck accept a Best Picture Oscar for Argo, in which she played a hostage trying to keep her husband (played by McNairy, it so happens) from foiling their escape. More movie offers followed, but it's the offer that led her here that seems to hold the most promise.
The SXSW Film Festival, like Bishé, recognizes TV's currently superior storytelling promise, so this year it included screenings of new shows. Among them was Halt and Catch Fire, a 1980s period drama about a group of Texas engineers who battle IBM for PC supremacy. It's a show AMC and its fans hope can fill the meth-and-Manhattan-soaked void left by Breaking Bad and, soon enough, Mad Men. If it does, Bishé — and Pace, and McNairy, and Davis — will be the new household names flying AMC's flag.
As she chats with a friend, Bishé is joined by one of the show's creators, screenwriter Chris Cantwell. Cantwell, nursing a beer, is half there at best. On top of a whirlwind day that he says felt like "your own wedding" — "You spend all that time thinking about it and then it's over" — he is in the middle of writing the show's season finale, a task that, for a screenwriter, runs in the background no matter how many former Scrubs stars are in the fore.
Cantwell is making small talk with Bishé's manager. His attentive posture probably gives her comfort, like the health of her client's IMDB page is safely in the hands of a veteran. Then she asks Cantwell about his career.
He explains, with neither pride nor shame, that Halt is the first show he's created. In fact, it's the first show he's ever written on. Actually, technically, it's his first real screenwriting job.
The manager's face flushes with some combination of awe and terror. She turns to Bishé.
"Do you know what he was doing when he sold this show?"
"Yeah," Bishé says, turning to Cantwell. "You worked in development for Disney."
Cantwell smiles. Now Bishé is confused.
"You worked in development for Disney," she says again, but this with the faint hiss of leaking confidence.
The circle goes quiet, and the rain pounds, and Cantwell lets the moment hang, wringing tension from it like the development executive he never was.
Cantwell did work at Disney, Bishé was right about that, but he was not in story development. He was a marketing guy, a branding stooge, the guy making character videos for YouTube and making sure the pervs and racists kept their distance from the princesses' Facebook pages. In fact, by 2010, six years after finishing film school, he was technically a marketing executive — an even worse distinction for an alleged writer, because it meant he was good at it.
One branding stunt was so good it nearly rescued him. Late in 2009, as Pixar prepared to release Toy Story 3, Cantwell produced a fake 1983 ad for the movie's creepy villain, Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear, even running it through a VCR to make it feel dated. He slyly posted it to YouTube and watched confusion rain.
That earned some meetings with Pixar, and Cantwell briefly allowed himself to fantasize about being the first marketing exec in history to promote the content so well they asked him to make it. But nothing materialized, and Cantwell began talking himself into the practical benefits of life as a marketing executive. By the time his boss came around, offering a promotion that would basically extinguish his aspirations as a writer, it was all but settled.
He hadn't been writing much lately, anyway. He started writing when he was a kid, and finished his first screenplay when he was 16. (He keeps in a bedside drawer as a monument to how bad he can be.) He dabbled in comedy, founding the improv troupe at Dallas' Jesuit High and joining a comedy group at USC. But for Cantwell, the dream was always movies. He remembers his parents taking him to the UA Northstar 8 Theater in Garland, and still recalls the releases of his most formidable summer, 1989, when he saw Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Ghostbusters 2. He was 7.
After USC, he kept writing and making sketch videos with his friends, but only the videos went anywhere, landing him his job at Disney. One of his scripts placed at the Austin Film Festival, which got some perfunctory attention from an agent. But the script, about a girl whose toes played piano notes when she walked, was woefully noncommercial, and having an agent in Hollywood is like owning a pickup in Dallas: Everyone has one, but no one does any actual work with them.
By the time Disney offered him that promotion, he was writing no more than a script a year, and his adolescent fantasy seemed to be careening toward early-onset regret. He drove home that day rehearsing the conversation he would have with his fiancée, who was pursuing a doctorate in poetry. He knew just how the conversation would go.
Then he got home, and something unexpected happened. The lines he'd pre-assigned his fiancée were all wrong. She rewrote them on the fly, imbuing her role with empathy and clarity and, as wives so often do, the right answer.
"I remember driving home and thinking, I'm going to talk to Elizabeth about this and she's going to say, 'It's a great job and you can always write on the side,'" Cantwell says, slumped into a booth at an Austin restaurant between screenings. "She said the exact opposite."
Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis and Lee Pace star as a trio of Texans taking on IBM.
James Minchin III/AMC
As Cantwell was plotting his exit from Disney, another frustrated writer took a job in his unit, ready to spit-shine the Disney brand. His name was Chris Rogers, and he had written his first script years before in D.C., sneaking away from his day job to write a break-up movie ("Bright Lights, Big City but not good") in the Library of Congress. He'd moved to L.A. to pursue journalism and screenwriting and ended up doing neither.
At Disney, it quickly became obvious to Rogers that Cantwell was "the guy I wanted to be in the foxhole with." So he invited him for a drink. "I was looking to cement the friendship," Rogers recalls. But they soon discovered they were both "dream-deferred writers."
That shouldn't have been enough, seeing that they were in the capital of dream deferment. But Rogers had an idea for how to build on one of Cantwell's stories, and with no valid reason not to, they agreed to partner up.
They quickly learned how well they complemented each other. Rogers, a former editor and fact-checker, was measured and sparse where Cantwell was wild and loose. Cantwell worked into the night, taking unhinged first passes at their first project, a pilot about a secret society of the ultra-wealthy. When Rogers woke up before dawn, he would find a draft sitting in his inbox and go about searching for its center.
"When you're writing drama, you want to be able to write and be unjudged for a second without someone saying, 'Oh, I don't know if he would say that,'" Cantwell says. "With comedy it's different, because you want to be in the room laughing together. With drama, I need to just write this thing down before it's judged."
The pilot solidified their relationship with their agents, who until then were little more than names they could trade on at parties. They told them to write a second pilot, something they were more personally invested in. The idea wasn't to sell it, since no network would buy a show from two writers who'd never seen the inside of a writers' room. But if the characters felt real and the story popped, they might just get their foot on the bottom rung of the TV-writing ladder.
Cantwell had never considered his life worth mining. In college, when they told 19-year-old him that the best stories came from within, his reaction was, "Fuck that — I want to write about space." Everything else he and Rogers have written features out-of-breath men with guns. That includes a Kennedy assassination thriller called The Knoll, which went nowhere but the Black List, a collection of unproduced scripts making noise in Hollywood.
But as he and Rogers hunted for some shared passion to pour into their "staffing sample," the conversation turned to Cantwell's childhood in Plano. It was a time and place Cantwell had shoved to the edges of his memory. But as Rogers dragged him back there, to the place Cantwell had dismissed as "all chain restaurants and Plano moms," even Cantwell couldn't deny the story that was lurking there.
Showrunner Jonathan Lisco (left) with “The Chrises,” at a SXSW panel moderated by Steve Wozniak.
Cantwell was just six weeks old when his dad, Patrick, moved his family from Chicago to Plano, to take a job selling software. He'd been working in computers since the 1960s, when he "didn't even know what computers were," and had heard that Texas was "booming." On the drive down, he stopped in St. Louis to see his brother.
"Why are you moving to Texas?" his brother asked.
"Dude, I could make 40,000 dollars in Texas!" he told him.
He doubled that in the first year, and it's easy to understand why. Even at 62, he's got a broadcaster's voice and charm to spare.
Chris looked up to his dad and longed for his 6-foot-3 frame (which never came) and big personality (which did). But he wanted nothing to do with sales. That was solidified when he was 14 and Dad made him spend the summer cold-calling prospects. That, Patrick says, was the summer Chris learned "what hell was all about."
It was no surprise to Patrick. He'd bought a video camera when Chris was a baby — "I've got two hours of him on the living room floor, if you ever want to see that" — and by the time Chris was in kindergarten, Patrick says, "I'd go into his room and he'd be in there with his action figures making movies, for crying out loud." So even in that brief moment of waning confidence, when Chris floated the idea of following in his dad's footsteps, Patrick knew to stop him cold. He told him, "I do what I do so you don't have to do what I do."
Talking about what Patrick Cantwell did knocked something loose in "the Chrises," as their coworkers call them. Cantwell was mostly oblivious to Texas' role in the PC boom; to him, Texas Instruments was "the place I pass on 75 every once in a while." But in talking about, and later with, Cantwell's father, they learned how Texas had emerged during the 1980s as a secondary hub, the so-called Silicon Prairie, with Dell, Texas Instruments, Radio Shack and others competing to carve off a slice of IBM's market share. Like Cupertino and Palo Alto, it was the PC boom's wild, wild West, only here the visionaries were actually wearing cowboy boots.
A colorful world began to unfurl, Cantwell says, of Texas salesmen dealing "not with oil but technology." He kept calling his dad, peppering him with questions and writing down some of the vernacular — "Blow the balls off the numbers," "You're dog shit until you close the deal," etc. — that would bring the story to life. Meanwhile, they discovered stories of risk-taking engineers trying to reverse-engineer IBM's computers, capitalizing on the company's shortsighted decision to use non-proprietary hardware.
The pilot coalesced around a character named Joe MacMillan, played by Pace and based very loosely on Cantwell's dad. He's a software salesman without the elder Cantwell's practical streak, and he wants to build a computer. But he's not an engineer, so he recruits Gordon Clark, a failed entrepreneur, played by Dallas native McNairy, who has remade himself as a sales engineer at MacMillan's firm.
While MacMillan tries to yank Clark from the comfort of his new life, Clark's fellow engineer wife, Bishé's Donna, works to keep him in it, at least at first. Dropped in the middle is Cameron Howe, played by Mackenzie Davis, a computer prodigy MacMillan recruits to help them reverse engineer a PC, over the protests of his conservative Texas bosses and under threat of legal action by IBM. They called the show Halt and Catch Fire, after an early PC command that forced each instruction to compete with each other, grinding the machine to a halt and, mythologically anyway, setting it ablaze.
The pages came quickly, especially with Cantwell out of a job. (Rogers stayed at Disney until the show's promise became real enough to quit.) Their agents shopped it to the obvious networks — HBO, Showtime, etc. — and the writers found themselves on a carousel of hopeless meetings, where the only things that materialized were bottles of cold water and some empty keep-us-updateds.
They arrived at AMC late in 2011, five months after Cantwell left Disney, expecting the same. The decision to quit was looking especially rash; his savings were running low, and there wasn't a paycheck in sight. The meeting with AMC was the last on the books.
"I remember pulling into this gas station on the way and practicing this page I had written about what the show was about, what the characters were about, why this was cool," Cantwell says. "I was going to try to talk about the show as much as they would physically let me."
But then they walked in and noticed something seemingly obvious but actually rare: The executives were holding the script.
Their timing, it turned out, had been unwittingly perfect. The network's recent dramas, Rubicon and The Killing, had failed to catch on, and critics would soon begin questioning whether the network's blazing foray into scripted TV was about to flame out. It needed something to follow its two-headed monster of critical adoration, Breaking Bad and Mad Men, and their ratings-devouring cousin, The Walking Dead. If that something capitalized on the market's obvious desire for tech-visionary stories, even better. The Social Network wasn't far in the rearview, and Steve Jobs had recently died.
"We were really interested in trying to tap into that world — into the spirit of innovation, and the tech world specifically," says Ben Davis, one of the executives at that meeting. "I loved the idea that it took place in Dallas and that I didn't hear Steve Jobs' or Bill Gates' name. It approached it from the backdoor instead of straight ahead."
To the Chrises' surprise, the network scheduled a second meeting, to see how well the two untested writers could flesh out the story. As they prepared, Davis would call from the set of The Killing, in Vancouver, to throw questions at them and let them rehearse their answers.
The meeting went well enough, but it still felt like the longest of shots, that the network would hitch its future to another period piece, by a pair of creditless writers. The next day, Cantwell and his wife waited all afternoon to hear back from the network, slowly convincing themselves that his decision to quit had been a vintage act of Hollywood folly.
"If they don't call it's not happening," Elizabeth remembers. "It was like 6 p.m. Everyone's gone home. No one's going to call. Chris was moping around the apartment. I was moping around the apartment."
She decided to take their dog for a walk. Whatever pep talk she rehearsed on that walk disappeared when she saw, in the distance, Cantwell bursting from the apartment, cell phone in hand.
After a morning screening, AMC's caravan of SUVs delivers the Chrises and some friends to an Austin restaurant to refuel before that night's party. Over elaborate sausages and heavy steins of beer, Cantwell riffs with an old friend, quoting obscure movies without context and daydreaming aloud about moving back to Dallas and buying his favorite dive, the Lakewood Landing. It's a special brand of fuck-it-all daydreaming particular to writers in the middle of a project, and it's one Cantwell, known by colleagues as a manic writer, has often. (He says he also "hurled a thermos through a picture frame" during one daunting sequence, another a common remedy for writer's block.)
At the center of the table is showrunner Jonathan Lisco, the man AMC hired to channel that mania. Lisco is tall and utterly composed, with sharp clothes and a salty shock of black hair. He is obviously the Chrises' mentor, and after a few minutes with him you feel like he's yours too. He cites literature without effort or pretension, dispenses career advice without patronizing, and steers the conversation without commandeering it, like a conductor who keeps perfect time without letting baton meet podium.
Lisco says he nearly passed on the show. A veteran TV writer, he was just finishing Southland, which he executive produced, when AMC ordered the first season of Halt and went looking for someone to run it. He wasn't interested, he says. The tech world didn't move him and, having worked on NYPD Blue before Southland, he was wary of tackling another TV drama.
But then he read the script, and he realized the show wasn't, at its core, about technology. It was about what the Chrises had gone through to land it. Lisco had gone through the same thing years before, when, with his wife's blessing, he quit his high-paying lawyer job to write plays. It was about, he realized, "people at war with themselves as they search for something bigger."
He signed on and helped the Chrises stumble through the unfamiliar terrain of setting up a show. (It probably didn't hurt that Mark Johnson and Melissa Bertsein, who shepherded Breaking Bad, would produce.) They leased office space in Studio City and hired a team of writers. It was an awkward exercise for two TV rookies, reading, judging and hiring writers who had written on groundbreaking dramas. Lisco led them through it step by step.
Once inside the writers' room, they went barreling into what they agree was their most common hurdle: balancing the show they needed to sell, about a race to build a PC, with the one they wanted to tell, about the interior lives of very ambitious people, and the questions Cantwell says nag them: "Am I the real deal or am I a fraud? Am I a visionary or am I a phony? Am I an innovator or am I a thief?
Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishe play married engineers in Halt. They played married diplomats-turned-hostages in 2012’s Argo.
James Minchin III/AMC
"Am I a Disney suit or am I a writer?"
They plowed through books and sent searching emails to their tech consultants, trying to identify anecdotes that could move the story: How would you make a computer lighter? What was IBM doing? What was Texas Instruments doing?
The material was obviously rich. But inevitably they would find themselves wandering hopelessly through a maze of circuit boards, with daylight fading. "We knew we were on the wrong track when someone was talking about peripheral drivers and everyone else was doodling," Cantwell says. "The way to get back on track would be to say, 'What if Gordon Clark beat the shit out of someone?'"
He doesn't — not in the pilot, anyway. But their effort to strike that balance is obvious throughout the episode, especially in its pivotal scene. MacMillan and Clark are trying to reverse engineer an IBM in, where else, a garage. The scene is dense and fast, packed tight with sequences you're meant to feel more than understand, and on the surface it poses the central question of the series: Can they do it?
Then Bishé's Donna Clark comes home and, with their kids looking on from the still-running car, poses the series' real question: Isn't this enough? The parallels to the lives of the creators were not lost on them, nor their wives.
"I cried the first three times I saw it," says Elizabeth Cantwell, who's since received her Ph.D., published a book of poetry and landed a prestigious teaching job. "I'll probably cry when I see it on TV."
As the rain pounds, the cast and crew arrive at the St. Cecilia, almost safe from SXSW's #clutches, free to roam Austin in search of beer and tacos. Tomorrow they'll fly back to Georgia, where they've been living and shooting for months. (The series shot mostly in the Atlanta area, owing to Georgia's superior incentive program.) Soon they'll go on hiatus and await the response — from viewers, from critics, from advertisers, from AMC — to their show. McNairy will blow things up on his ranch. Bishé will go to Annapolis to learn to build a boat. The Chrises will try temporarily to dislodge Halt from their brains and maybe write a movie.
First, though, there's the matter of Woz. AMC invited Wozniak, the Apple co-founder, to attend tonight's screening and host a short panel. Before the screening starts, he appears in the bar, dressed in all black, save for his fluorescent Nikes. Soon enough Lisco, the Chrises and Pace are huddled around him, wondering what he thought of the show, which he watched before he arrived.
"It's very realistic," Woz says. The writers have been obsessed with nailing the show's technical aspects, and Woz's affirmation is meaningful. But as he goes on, it becomes clear that the realism he's touting has little to do with the specs or the vernacular. It's the people. Character by character, he recalls a person from his own life whom he was reminded of watching the pilot. That includes MacMillan, the salesman at the show's center, whom he says recalls his late partner, Jobs — "a little untrustworthy."
"It really pulled me in," Woz says, finally. "I'm hoping for you."
Relief bursts from the writers' and actors' pores, and they settle in to screen the show. After the panel, they exist for a while in happy stasis, today's work behind them and tomorrow's safely in the distance. The Chrises make plans to decamp to a West Austin bar, thinking it will be just them and some friends. But the entire cast will eventually show up, drinking together in a state of anonymity that, if things break right, will be short-lived.
Before they go, though, Cantwell owes Bishé an explanation. While he did work for Disney, he finally says, he worked in marketing, not story development. Before Halt, he'd barely seen the inside of a story department.
Later, Bishé will explain that the Chrises' inexperience had not deterred her, especially once they shared their vision for her character, whom she says transforms well beyond the worried wife we meet in the pilot. And in a way, she says, the fact they hadn't worked in development, the land of vision-killing notes, was a relief. Tonight, though, she and Cantwell don't say much about it. They just drink and smile and let the moment hang a little longer, comfortable that everyone is in good hands.
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