"You’re only as healthy as your darkest secret": Director Thomas Schlamme on what drives "The Americans" and his new show "Manhattan"

The "West Wing" producer talks about his work, his mission and the first time he saw Alison Janney do “The Jackal"

Published January 29, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in "The Americans"         (FX/Patrick Harbron)
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in "The Americans" (FX/Patrick Harbron)

Director and producer Thomas Schlamme has come to define a certain substrain of television dramas: those shows about the very human people who do great work, whether that’s running the country in the Oval Office, designing and then building the first atomic bomb, or producing one really good sports show every night. Schlamme is currently the executive producer and sometime director of WGN’s “Manhattan,” which is in production for its second season, as well as a director for a few episodes of FX’s “The Americans,” which debuts tonight. And on his résumé: “The West Wing,” “Sports Night,” and “Studio 60 on ohe Sunset Strip,” which he did with longtime collaborator Aaron Sorkin, and an episode or two from seemingly every other show ever, including “Mad About You,” “ER” and “Ally McBeal.” He even directed the pilot for “Parenthood,” which is airing its final episode tomorrow night.

Schlamme, a self-described “ridiculous history buff,” is drawn to period pieces with a human element—as splashy as politics or bomb-making or espionage could be, his focus is always on intimacy and quiet, on creating meaning out of the mess of the world. “Manhattan” is a slow build of relationships and period grace notes—the type of show that sneaks up on you, so one day you’re just remembering to DVR it and the next you’re desperately looking for scientist reaction gifs online. And his work on “The Americans” is stellar—“Open House,” Season 3's third episode, features one of the most disturbing and intimate moments of the series, beautifully blocked and shot. I’ve been a fan of Schlamme’s work for years; it was a treat to sit down with him and discuss “The Americans,” “Manhattan,” his favorite episode of “The West Wing,” and how to write and rewrite history.

Right now you’re working on “The Americans.” You’re not one of the producers of that show, but you have, in the past, executive-produced and directed your shows: “The West Wing,” “Sports Night” and, now, “Manhattan.” You’re coming to “The Americans” with a different perspective.

“The Americans” is the only show I've directed episodically that I didn't executive-produce in 10 years, so that's been sort of joyous and wonderful and somewhat liberating. I'm directing people I know and who treat me very, very respectfully, so that makes me feel like a weird elder statesman.

I did an episode called "Gregory" in the first season—which meant that the guest star was named Gregory, and it was a pretty important piece of casting. I was starting to shoot on Tuesday. It was Friday night and we still didn't have a Gregory— that's not terribly unusual on television, that you're running with a gun to your head in the last moment. I went home Friday night and had a wonderful weekend with my wife and daughter, and I never thought once about it because there was nothing I could to do about it; it wasn't my problem. If it had been my show, I would have been calling casting agents all weekend, but all I knew was that I had to be on set on Tuesday and hopefully there would be a Gregory there. That's a really different experience! That's two nights of good sleep that I wouldn't have otherwise had, so I could focus on the work I had to do on Tuesday. I had gotten so used to wearing the hat of both an executive producer and a director of a show that it wasn't until I could step away from it that I could go, "oh!"

What do you like about "The Americans"?

I have always thought “The Americans” is more like "The Sopranos" and less like "Alias." If you could really deal with what it's like to have a family, to be an American under this extraordinary storytelling of a Russian spy during Reagan's America, it would be a monumental achievement, and I think they really pulled it off. I did this episode called "Gregory" in the first year, which was the first episode where you started to see that there was real emotion in their relationship. You started to see them connect to each other and being parents, which is what the series has slowly become. That family drama of “The Americans” was what I was so attracted to.

Especially in the third season of “The Americans,” these people are struggling with whether or not to let their children know who they really are. On that surface level, I didn't have to reveal to my children that I'm a Russian spy. But do I lie to my kids about the fact that I, almost every day, went to college stoned? Everybody has said that you don't tell your children you smoked dope because they'll think that's OK—and that's a tiny thing, but it's an easier thing to relate to the same issue on a much bigger scale.

“The Americans” and your other shows have this tension between these major world events and the personal lives of your characters—a scope that is both big and small. How do you approach that?

Well, first of all, thank you, because it's a really important thing to me as a storyteller. I do like big, dramatic historical events but I also know that those were just men and women who got up every morning, who had kids, who had to deal with the mundane nature of life as well as these other things. You can humanize that. You may be making these really large decisions but you are just as human as everyone else.

A documentary that I absolutely love and have used as a reference for “Manhattan” is “The Fog of War.” What you realize is that in that case, it's just people making decisions. That's all it really is; not some sort of larger-than-life human beings. Just a bunch of white men making decisions.

What was always interesting to me on “The West Wing” was not, "Oh my God, are we going to invade Cuba?" but after the press conference, when you're dealing with the people you work with, when someone is telling you you're full of shit or you think too much of yourself... just trying to humanize these extraordinary people. In “Manhattan,” that's even more so. The thing I always missed in “West Wing” — and I understood why we chose not to do it — was seeing these people at home. Clearly, that's not what Aaron [Sorkin] does, and I embraced that, but I missed it. Even in the first season when John Spencer had to go home and tell his wife—she asked if his job was more important than his family and he said yes—it was just a rejected wife, at that moment, and a man who had to be really honest with himself. I remember that scene a lot more than a lot of the walk scenes we had to do.

When I read Sam Shaw's script [for the pilot of “Manhattan”] I saw this combination of a family drama and an intense workplace— as intense as any workplace environment could have ever been, and also a community. It had all these things, and he was balancing them in an amazing way. It so easily could have just been, “This is in Implosion [the name of the team “Manhattan” focuses on] and it never leaves Implosion and we're just dealing with the workplace." But the reason I so wanted to jump into this project was because it balanced both those worlds. I did the pilot of “Parenthood” and I loved it—I loved casting the show and working with Jason [Katims]—but they had no life outside of their family. They had incredible family life, but what does everybody do?

We had T-shirts made for “Manhattan” that said, "If they can build a bomb, we can make a television show." I wouldn't put what we do on the level of what the characters in “The West Wing” did or what people in the Manhattan Project did in any way, but in terms of the time and passion they're very similar. You work really long hours and you create alternate families and they're very instrumental in your life. You don't just punch out and go home and have great weekends.

So “Manhattan” has two of the things I care so much about, even in my own life. I've done these shows, I've worked enormous amounts of time, and I've been in a long marriage with three kids... that's no easier than the productions I've done, you know? There are some people who don't think they have to worry about their family, but that's not the relationship my wife and I have; we're partners in this. We're partners in raising our kids, and in both of us having our careers and doing other things.

One of the things I think “Manhattan” and “The Americans” really do well is the way both shows explore marriage. It's about secrecy and keeping secrets from other people and what that does to you— these two shows are about that conflict, magnified.

The best of all drama is based on a secret. I know something that somebody else doesn't know, and I either have to let them know it or don't let them know it. There's a technique that I think we even referenced in “Manhattan,” the idea that you're only as healthy as your darkest secret, and that's really true of all of us. With Olivia [Williams] and John [Benjamin Hickey]'s relationship in “Manhattan”: They don't have what is perceived as a traditional marriage, which almost no one has anymore to begin with. But 20 years ago, if you showed that relationship, most people would be bewildered by it.

The thing for Sam and I too, with “Manhattan,” is the context of postwar America. It became so much more sexist; as soon as those men came back from war, this oppression of women, especially educated people in their 30s, started. The idea of Frank [Winter] and Liza [Winter]'s relationship, of a relationship between two professionals, isn't us trying to reinvent the wheel—it's trying to represent a contemporary relationship set in 1942. We've done a bad job of dismissing the way people functioned before we began to tell stories in ‘50s America; we've assumed that's the way everybody's always functioned. In the ‘30s there was a much more open way of dealing with sexuality; even the somewhat extreme relationship that Rachel [Broshanan’s character, Abby, has with another woman] might have existed. You're able to tell a story in both cases— both with “The Americans” and with “Manhattan,” both of which are period pieces— that seems incredibly contemporary in how it shows relationships.

Just yesterday, Sam and I sat for like five hours and talked about those two relationships. Last year was "can we make a bomb?" and this year is "we're making the bomb," but for us, the more intriguing, interesting thing is the relationship between two really brilliant people. It really feels contemporary, but it's still in the context of building an atomic bomb and seeing the damage that something like this will do to the world.

Frank Winter's character is fictional, but there are real historical characters in “Manhattan” as well. How are you going to do that? Who's going to build the bomb?

Here's the deal: We're not doing an alternate universe. "Ragtime" is one of my favorite novels, and I think what [E. L.] Doctorow did so well in that book was that there were fictional characters and then there was Houdini and a lot of other very real characters. The story was about the idea of ragtime, and I think what we try to do with the show is explore the idea of the Manhattan Project. What, emotionally, was that like? It's not a documentary; it's not a re-creation; we don't cheat with science. As far as taking real people's lives and what they did, the restriction of that on storytelling is not what our interest was.

It was a conceit that we would temper this. We weren't going to change the things everybody knows— and it's stunning, by the way, how little most people know— like Oppenheimer and Gen. Rose, who was the military equivalent of Oppenheimer. People are like, “Was Einstein there? Did he have something to do with Fermi?” Rather than letting us be restricted by that, we decided to let Oppenheimer be there so people understand. If Niels Bohr shows up, that's great, because it would be like John Lennon showing up.

Right. The cameo of the real.

We can then create a much more fictionalized world of what we felt, emotionally, that it must have been like for these people. There's a great documentary called "The Day After Trinity" about this era, and it's mostly a lot of the living people from that time who are just sort of talking. As a director, looking at this: The body language is weird, the relationship between one another is weird... these were all people who, from my point of view, were in the fog of war. If that's the idea of what this really does to us all, it would be easier if we fictionalized that, if people saw the disintegration and maybe even the reintegration of people's world and where they stand.

I don't think Frank is naive, in our show, to keep going in the interest of never having another way. It was the only way a lot of brilliant people— I mean, we're looking at this through a revisionist lens going, how naive is that? But he wasn't. He was thinking that if we built this thing that was so destructive, no one would ever use it. They would know that this would end civilization, which is, unfortunately, not completely true but also not totally false. We haven't used it since.

You were talking about how our conceptions of the past aren't always accurate, and along those lines, one of the characters in “Manhattan” I love is Sidney Liao. It breaks our conception of what America looked like in the past, having this Chinese-American character around.

He was born in America. His parents were Chinese but he was born in America. It's interesting that you pick up on that, because we were restricted by visual diversity. We didn't want to totally revise history— and I think in the next season the Native American population will play a bigger role, because they were on the land that Trinity ended up blowing up.

I'm first-generation, and what is so applicable today is the insane perception of immigration that we have in this country right now. I mean, that's all the Manhattan Project was made up of!

We just came up with a really wonderful idea for next season that deals with racism that's not blatant or overt. Racism is this kind of age-old cancer that exists in this country, and I think immigration and race are about the same thing. Whether or not it was the Italians or the Jews or the Hispanics... I grew up in Texas and I had to hear "Mexican" used as a negative word. It was so derogatory.

If we can shed more of a light on that I would be happier; if we can shed a light on it and have something that resonates with the way we treat immigrants right now. Everyone who built this country and everyone who built that bomb was an immigrant. My own mother's family was stuck in Cuba for nine months waiting for her visa to show up, because Roosevelt had a limit on how many German Jews could come into America. The fact that these great assets that come from Latin America right now, these kids, that we would want to send them back and not let them be part of this country is kind of crazy.

You have a very strong sense of mission in your work.

I try not to wear it on my sleeve! That is what's buried underneath me. I feel more passionate and I'm a better director with those stories. There are directors who I know both in television and film who can take any script; because of their visual vocabulary and who they are they can make anything work. The truth of it is that with procedurals, I'm not as good as some other people doing it; I can't quite connect to it in a way. I'm not sure I want to know the hero who killed the villain who killed the blond white girl. Just as a filmmaker, I'm not as good. I'm much better when I get more and more passionate about the themes I'm working with.

Speaking of directing, more generally, you've been directing in television at what has turned out to be a very intense time for television. You started breaking the formulaic nature of television direction, and then other people started breaking it, and now it feels like a bit of a free-for-all. How does that feel to you? Does it feel like television is still distinct from making features? What do you like about making television?

I'm very fortunate to have started just at the beginning of this new birth of television, this new way of telling stories. It's a medium that came out of radio; it's not movies. It should have naturally come from the movies, but it didn't, and I think it took 20-something years to pull itself away from radio and have a connection to the cinematic arts. I was lucky enough to be involved at an earlier time in television where that was just starting to take hold.

I truly believe the landmark face of television was “Hill Street Blues”; in truth, if you think television was from the ‘50s to now, right at the midpoint was “Hill Street Blues.” I remember people seeing “Hill Street” and going, "That's the way I feel when I see movies!" It showed me a world, and I was in that world and it felt real to me. It felt like a really honest way of telling stories, and it was the first time I thought of television of what it was in the visual arts that I was most interested in.

I thought I was going to be a movie director. All I really thought about was being Robert Altman or John Cassavetes, and I honestly didn't watch that much television. My father was very... I didn't know televisions could be on during the day. I thought you would, like, lose part or all of your intellect if the television was on during the day. And then I became consumed by movies, so television was not really a medium that I was connected to.

There have been elements of television that have always been extraordinary, so in no way am I saying that television now is really important and television before was not. That said, as a visual filmmaker, and not a writer, I felt that television was sort of growing up around me, was embracing the question of, “How do you make this look different than everyone else? How do you put your visual stamp on this?” When other directors come in and shoot episodes of shows I've helped design and set up I want them to use all the vocabulary they have, just like writers do.

I also realized, beyond that, that for who I am the kind of immediacy and sense of waiting... I don't have too much patience so waiting around to do a movie and shooting it and then finally it's out two years later. All that meant that I was better suited emotionally and creatively for television. My better decisions are my quicker decisions. There's a really great quote from Picasso, when someone asked him about the difference between his masterpieces and all his other paintings, and he said, "The masterpieces were the ones where I knew when to stop." I always found that interesting.

I do think you learn to trust your instincts and who you are. When you're doing something, and it's with a mission, it's really clear to me. I can move faster and think better. Just the whole process of television... I love the idea that I can be driving and come up with a thought and then run into an office and talk to Sam or Aaron or any of the really incredible writers I've been able to work with in my life and go, "What about this?" And then the next thing you know, six weeks later you're shooting it. You're not waiting two years to develop it. Once that train leaves the station, once the pilot is done, you're just shooting. You're just moving. That level of energy is so much better suited for me.

What are you watching on TV right now?

The only thing I consistently don't miss is Jon Stewart. The most recent thing I'm watching on television is “The Comeback.” I love Lisa; I thought the original was as brilliant as anything on television, and now I'm just floored by this one. I think it's really amazing. I also watched the final season of “Parenthood,” because I'm moved by it and I did the first season and I love those people. “The Honorable Woman,” I thought, was a really incredible piece.

The direction of “The Honorable Woman” is a big part of the series.

Absolutely. I also love the fact that it has such a beautiful classical feel. I love contemporary television, and I love the ways in which you can tell different stories—but I'm also a massive fan of really classical cinema and how it's put together. I thought that was part of what made it such a beautifully crafted piece.

I just watched “The Roosevelts”— I'm a massive Ken Burns fan and a huge documentary geek. Last night I watched “Happy Valley,” which is the Joe Paterno documentary. There's also the TV show of the same name that I haven't seen but I've heard great things about it. I think that's everything I'm watching currently. I watch an enormous amount of news, to the point where my wife turns it off.

I have to ask. What's your favorite “West Wing” episode?

You asking me about my favorite “West Wing” episode is a little bit like asking me who my favorite child is. I might actually tell you who my favorite child is, but I would just feel so bad for the other two when they found out! No, I'm kidding, I don't actually have a favorite child. [Laughs.]

I think of that whole experience with “The West Wing” as creating an alternative family. You talk to old jocks, and if you ask them what game they miss, they say they miss the locker room. They miss not being with everyone again. There's an episode called "Noel" that I did and that I loved, and the reason I remember that episode so profoundly is that Aaron's only child was born the night we were shooting outside the Oval Office. We had these carolers playing a Christmas carol on bells, and they happened to know this old Jewish traditional song that they dedicated to Roxy. That whole episode was the episode where Roxy was born.

It's the life and death elements of working with a show and a family. You could tell me almost any episode, and what I would quickly relate to is not the crane shots or the scene we had to do in the Oval Office. I'll remember what happened later than night, when it was the first time I saw Allison [Janney] do “The Jackal” and we were drunk out of our minds and Aaron saw it and the next thing you know it's on TV.

I hadn't seen “The West Wing.” in a long time but it came back and I saw it on Netflix. My daughter and her friends all at NYU were watching it and they'd never seen it before, and there was this whole new rebirth of people watching “The West Wing.” They would talk to me and I would be like, "I should watch some of these episodes again!" The truth of it is that I was so proud of the show. I'm an incredible critic of my own work, but for the first time I was like, "You know, I directed that one pretty well." I’ll almost— not quite, but almost— give myself a pat on the back.

By Sonia Saraiya

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Aaron Sorkin Fx Manhattan Parenthood Sam Shaw The Americans The West Wing Thomas Schlamme Wgn