‘Homeland’ and ‘24’ Creator Howard Gordon on Terror, Tyranny, and TV as Art
The man behind post-Sept. 11 TV opens up about his background, what goes on in writers rooms, and what he’s working on now
The most surprising thing about meeting Howard Gordon in person is how calm he is—you would expect the writer and producer behind such shows as 24 and Homeland to radiate just a touch of the existential anxiety his work so potently explores. But on a recent afternoon in TriBeCa, New York, the poet of ticking time bombs and countdown clocks—who had just come from having pizza and a CitiBike ride with his wife, Cami—was thoughtful and laid back as he discussed his path from Long Island to Hollywood fame.
Which, on second thought, isn’t surprising at all: For all of their quivering, mad energy, Gordon’s shows are always much deeper than their surface suggests, concealing profound philosophical and moral questions beneath their suspenseful and fast-paced veneer. In 24, he explored the ever-shifting position of America in a post-Sept. 11 world, which meant looking at everything from torture to political corruption. Homeland went even further, with greater psychological nuance and with America’s foreign policy in the Middle East constantly serving as a bold, dramatic backdrop. And so, when Gordon talked to us about his love for Saul Bellow—that other great American chronicler of power and its limitations, mortality, lust, community, and redemption—it seemed only natural.
As Homeland returns for its third season, we talked to Gordon about mastering the structure of TV storytelling, taking and ignoring criticism, and what it means to be an American. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Alana Newhouse: What is it you’re doing in New York tonight? Giving out some award?
Howard Gordon: I’m being honored by the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. My mother is a docent there.
AN: I didn’t know you were actively involved in Jewish causes. What’s your connection?
HG: I had a pretty standard Long Island Reform Jewish education, went through bar mitzvah and confirmation, and went to Israel a few times. I went on a teen tour as a kid, and I went again with my family for my brother’s bar mitzvah. I was sort of raised on the narrative of the land of milk and honey and found myself growing up very, very acutely aware of the Holocaust.
AN: Did you have Holocaust survivors in your family?
HG: I did. My mother’s side of the family has a number of people who perished in Auschwitz—first cousins and aunts and uncles. The survivors actually wound up resettling in Los Angeles, so as a kid I had this strange relationship with L.A. where I would go out there and see all these old people playing pinochle with tattoos. And I’ve always identified as part of this tribe, which I always wrestled with. I’m not terribly religious, but I do find comfort in the traditions. We don’t strictly observe Shabbat, but we certainly light the candles—and we appreciate the idea of it. As you get older, you appreciate the wisdom of those things. When my kids didn’t want to go to Hebrew school, I always likened it to a garden, a very thick old garden that has been around for 4,000 years. You can’t always see your way through it, you don’t always know which way is out, but you do not want that garden to die while you are in it. I like being in the garden. I like being a part of it. And it’s something I want them to wrestle their way through.
AN: How many kids do you have?
HG: Three: 20-year-old boy, 17-year-old girl, 8-year-old boy. Same wife.
Liel Leibovitz: The Hollywood disclaimer.
HG: Believe me—because everyone assumes not.
AN: Let me start with an easy question. If somebody were to do a profile of you that was actually accurate and it contained that one great New Yorker-esque line that summed up the big theme that runs through all of the stories that move you, what would it be?
HG: That’s interesting. I’m going to answer with a negative answer. I’ve often said my biggest fear was that my epitaph would say ‘he had a way with words and no point of view,’ but I think I’ve come to embrace that I’m kind of a journalist, a fly on the wall. I feel like a medium or passage of stories, a broker of stories, not necessarily as someone with such a strong voice but a channeler of other people’s voices and other stories. I’ve had a nose for stories. I would say that my reputation has been built in 24 and Homeland and hopefully now with Tyrant, so I think I have this obvious attraction to the center of gravity about them. In some ways, terrorism is just the tip of the iceberg of what I am interested in: It’s about power, it’s about politics, and it’s about people, and it’s about our world and how our world has changed since 9/11, which was a huge moment for me.
AN: Where were you?
HG: I was in L.A..
AN: Why was it a huge moment for you?
HG: Because it felt as though this thing that I had been dimly aware of had cracked open, and I felt like the world had tilted on its axis and wouldn’t right itself again. It was an earthquake of a kind. It was actually an aftershock: You realize that that story didn’t start on 9/11, it’s an old story, it moved forward in time and backward in time, and it opened up a whole thing that has been very interesting for me.
LL: When 9/11 happens, the very first moments, before we know anything and we are all scrambling to tell ourselves a story, to explain what had happened, to go back, what’s yours? What do you tell yourself? What just happened here? Emotionally, immediately …
HG: It’s a great question. It sounds like ‘how can this have happened? How could this be?’ Because it didn’t make any sense. It challenged all the parochial views that I had and my understanding of the world, which was admittedly a Pollyanna-ish, glossed over, pasteurized version of history and of our place in it, meaning our place as Americans and what’s our part in the world. So, it really made me ask what it is to be American. It made me wonder, it made me own being an American, in all its sort of American exceptionalism. I actually happen to be a big believer in this place and in its values, that America is this idea, that we are this country that still navigates multiple ethnic and tribal religious populations and makes it work somehow. The fact is that we negotiate our way and mediate against these very strong tribal impulses that people seem to have everywhere else but here. We have them here, but we seem to moderate them and sublimate them. That, to me, represented something worth getting in touch with and understanding more deeply. Including all the problems, all the bad things America has done and is capable of doing. I became very interested in what it means to be American.
LL: How do you get from that moment, from these tremors, to Jack Bauer?
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