In part II of this interview with Jonathan Lisco, the Halt and Catch Fire showrunner and executive producer talks creating strong female characters and his unusual route to Hollywood. Click here to read part I.
Q: You’ve talked before about the importance of the female characters on this show, and in general…
A: It was very important to me, and all of us, to create female characters who weren’t just accessories to the men in the show. I have a pet peeve with female characters who are, what I call, schematic or archetypal, which is another way of saying two-dimensional and lazily constructed. I wanted to make sure that these characters had all sorts of flaws but also sparks of genius, just like the men in the show. Even more important, that they weren’t just stereotypes or caricatures. We put a lot of time, for example, into thinking about Cameron’s spikiness and immaturity and volatility. We put time into her backstory, where she came from and how it created a woman like Cameron in the early ’80s. She is admittedly a bit of an anomaly. Not too many women were working in computers at the time.
A: To make Cameron pop, and feel real, we wanted to make sure we didn’t just write her like any 80’s-era young person, because she’s specific and working in a very unusual field for women. We did the work to make her feel true to us and we kept checking ourselves along the way. Do her actions in this scene feel emotionally honest? Does her being a “prodigy” ring as true as possible? Donna, on the other hand, represents a different wave of feminism, the wave that came before. Her attitude is, “Good, okay. I’m going to work just like my husband. Things are going to be equal.” But we also wanted to explore the empty bargain that this was starting to seem like to some thoughtful women of the day. All they got in the deal, one could argue, was twice the work, not real “equality,” and that’s starting to dawn on Donna at some level. It’s women like Donna who blazed the trail for women like Cameron, but Cameron might not appreciate that. Cameron might just look at a woman like Donna and think she’s clueless, and vice versa. We felt that tension was dynamic, and good for story-telling. Donna, being the more “mature” of the two women, is in some way our super-secret weapon on the show. She is Gordon’s equal in many ways and it’s important that they have an intellectual kinship, not just a romantic one. He loves her brain. She is the woman behind the man, but very much a formidable person in her own right. The journey she goes on, in addition to Cameron’s, we hope will be among the most memorable for our audience.
Q: You took the roundabout way to Hollywood. Did any of your former careers prepare you specifically for Halt and Catch Fire?
A: Something that you need to bring, not only to concrete plot in story but also to emotional plot, is a lot of life experience to make the characters feel inhabited and authentic. That’s the ideal, anyway. Maybe this is just self-rationalization, but I believe that doing all sorts of interdisciplinary things with one’s life helps prepare you for storytelling. It keeps you vivid and open and, yes, even a little off-balance at times. Having had multiple careers before you come into the business means, probably, that there was something not right about those and that you were striving for something else or something that gave you more satisfaction. You were trying to find your bliss at some level, and I think that’s thematic with what our Halt and Catch Fire characters are going through.
Q: Were you really recruited by the CIA? What was their pitch? Or is that classified?
A: Oh, you know, I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you first. [Laughs] No. I graduated from college with a major in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, which meant that I was pretty fluent in Mandarin Chinese. I’d spent time studying in China too. At that time, the CIA was very interested in people who could speak Chinese, I’m sure they still are. I found a letter from them in my student mailbox and I wound up pursuing it for almost a year, including five trips to Langley, Virginia for lie detector tests, the whole covert enchilada. I was essentially training to become a spy — and what 22 year old kid who grew up on 007 wouldn’t be interested in that? But ultimately I decided it wasn’t really for me. The joke of course is that I actually am in the CIA, working for them in Hollywood as a mole. Not true. You’ll just have to trust me on that.