Interview: Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, Producers of the Cold War Spy Series 'The Americans'
In the hit FX show The Americans, viewers are transported back to the height of the Cold War, with Soviet and Russian spies plying their deadly craft among the unknowing civilians in Washington, D.C. and suburban Northern Virginia.
It's one of the best spy series to come around in a while. The most unique aspect is that the main protagonists are KGB agents who covertly came to the U.S. in their teens, started a family and are trained to blend in with American life.
Two of the masterminds behind the show are series creator Joe Weisberg and executive producer Joel Fields. Weisberg, the brother of well-known journalist Jacob Weisberg, was a CIA case officer in the early 1990s. Fields is a veteran television producer. We caught up with them at a small screening of the most recent Americans episode at the Spy Museum Wednesday.
BREITBART NEWS: The Central Intelligence Agency requires former personnel like Weisberg, to submit their material to the CIA publications review board, when the former employee writes material for the public relating to the agency. Has the CIA ever rejected a script submission from the show?
WEISBERG: It’s a funny process. Just the other day for the first time I got something back from them. In my lifetime where I’ve written a lot of stuff, I’ve gotten things back from them, but over the years I sort of figured out what bothers them and what doesn’t. So on this show, it’s been easy to sort of steer away from stuff that may be a problem.
Just the other day for the first time in many years working on not a script but sort of a piece related to the show, I got a thing back from them saying, ‘Can you please take this thing out?’ And I was just showing and talking to Joe about it. I always say to them, ‘Can you expedite this review, because we’re on this really tight production schedule.’ instead of the month that they ask to review anything. I ask, ‘Can you do it in four days?’ They’re always dealing with that from me. Now they’re like, ‘Can you take this out?’ and I’m like, ‘Let’s everybody be reasonable here. Of course I can take it out.’
FIELDS: My experience with the CIA publications review board is completely different. I never signed a secrecy agreement with the CIA. I met Joe—became partners on the show. We’re having a great time and then the first thing we write together goes to these people at the publications review board.
And one thing that has happened over the course of getting to know Joe and talking about the CIA and through the process of research, all your preconceptions get smashed and you realize the inevitable truth about everybody, which is, they’re just people. They’re people there.
They’re trained in what they’re trained in their jobs. They’re human beings. They’re doing their job, but I’m also a human being and I’m a writer. So we send the script to them and it comes back and I’ll say, ‘Did you hear from them?’ And he’ll say, ‘It’s approved.’ And I’ll say, ‘But did they like it? Just as it’s approved and I’m waiting for a more personal response.’
BREITBART NEWS: The Americans does an incredible job with nailing down the details of the 1980’s Cold War era. How difficult is it to get everything just right and how often, if ever, does anything modern day slip through by accident?
FIELDS: Some of the period stuff is very tricky to find. I was on set and Holly Taylor, who’s a brilliant actress, plays Paige reached for her phone and went to dial it with her two thumbs like a mobile device and I took her aside and said, ‘People didn’t dial phones like that in the 80’s.’ And she said, ‘What?’ and I showed her how you do it with a finger with a push-button phone. But to do it with a single finger while you held the receiver, she was very surprised that was how it was done. So there are things you don’t think about that are just fundamentals of that period. There’s also the tradecraft and the history.
I can’t think of any specific examples, but things have slipped through that we’ve caught and fixed in editing. And they’re things that slip through that we get caught for.
Earlier in the season, we did that wonderful sequence where Gregory (actor Derek Luke) kidnapped Rob’s wife—great sequence and there was a great surveillance sequence in there. We spent a lot of time using art direction and computer graphics to change the signs and really set it in the location that it was set. A couple of viewers freeze-framed and they caught us. So they catch us. So we try hard to get it all right.
BREITBART NEWS: The response to The Americans is remarkably positive, but have you been able to get a sense as to what the intelligence community thinks about it?
FIELDS: Richard Thomas (Frank Gaad on the show) is doing a play here in town and somebody approached him on the metro and said he loves the show and then he said, ‘You, know all of us in the business really respect the show a lot.’ He walked away and he didn’t say which business. I thought maybe a travel agent?