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‘Homecoming’: Sam Esmail on Crafting Amazon’s “Voyeuristic, Paranoid” Thriller

Esmail, who directed all 10 episodes of Amazon’s Julia Roberts-starring drama, speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about its tense tone, political influences, and how it’s thematically tied to his soon-to-conclude ‘Mr. Robot.’
[This story contains some spoilers from Gimlet Media’s Homecoming podcast, on which Amazon’s new series is based.]

In the post-Serial podcast boom of the past four years, most of the breakout hits have been non-fiction shows in the true crime and investigative space. One exception to that rule is Gimlet Media’s scripted drama Homecoming, which launched two years ago and drew attention for its slow-burn paranoid thrills, its thought-provoking exploration of the treatment of veterans post-combat, and a star-studded cast that included Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener and David Schwimmer.

Now adapted into a ten-part half-hour drama series for Amazon, Homecoming centers on Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts), a case worker at a nascent program that aims to help soldiers reintegrate into civilian life and process their trauma after returning from deployment. Through Heidi’s interactions with a patient, Walter Cruz (Stephan James), and her slippery boss Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale), the show builds a creeping sense of dread around the true nature of the facility. That paranoia is heightened further by scenes set several years in the future, which find a changed, haunted Heidi working as a waitress and under investigation by the Department of Defense, despite – alarmingly – having no memory of her time at Homecoming.

Sam Esmail, marking his first new project since the launch of USA Network’s Mr. Robot, directs every episode of Homecoming and serves as executive producer alongside podcast writers Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg. Below, Esmail speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about the biggest changes between the podcast and series, licensing classic film scores to establish tone, and why Homecoming works as a thematic companion piece to Mr. Robot.

The podcast featured a lot of very well-known actors, none of whom are in the show. Did you consider casting any of the same people, or did you want a blank slate?

Pretty early on, when Eli, Micah and I started talking about what the television show was going to be, we started going down a different road in terms of the story. We deviated a lot in the back half of the season, and so we just wanted to do a hard reset. That included the casting, as well as other elements of how the story was going to be told. There was a sense of, if we’re going to do this, if it’s going to be its own creation, let’s just build it differently from the ground up. I was not interested in just adapting something because it had some popularity. In fact, I’m sort of against that – if something’s working in a medium, then why ruin it by translating it into a different medium?

But when I started listening to the podcast, I binged it pretty fanatically, and it was specifically the storyline with Walter and Shrier [played by Shameless actor Jeremy Allen Whitein the TV show] that shifted my perspective. The storyline is where Shrier has the paranoid thought that they aren’t actually in Florida, and they leave the facility [to explore]. In the podcast, this event is being told in hindsight by Walter, which sort of took away the tension and suspense of whether Shrier’s theory could be true. That’s when it started to make sense to me to do this in a television format. If we could actually go with Walter and Shrier, we could feel that suspense of: is Shrier onto something here? And then the realization that they are in fact in Florida, and this odd little town they’ve discovered is a retirement community, was something we could experience along with them. That was the big shift in my mind, that made me realize there was a different approach we could take with the overall story than the podcast had done. From there, it was a domino effect of just fundamentally changing plot points, and reimagining the story for a visual medium.

From your perspective, what were some of the biggest changes from the podcast?

Colin had probably the biggest change in terms of character. I really wanted to humanize him, because it’s easy to just make him this bossy, patronizing stereotype who’s all about the bottom line. We wanted him to be a bit of a late bloomer at the office; for his age and his status at the Geist corporation, he’s not where he wants to be, and so there was a kind of quiet desperation to him. It’s not just that he’s power hungry, so much as he wants the status that he thinks he’s entitled to, and he’s a little behind. In the corporate rat race at Geist, he doesn’t feel valued, and in a weird way that forms a bond between he and Heidi, because she struggles with a lack of self-value. They actually end up finding that commonality later in the season, and that really strengthened their bond, even as they are also sort of going against each other. I love when a protagonist and antagonist can find common ground.

The podcast features a lot of extended phone calls between Heidi and Colin, which you retain in the show. How did you adapt those scenes to make them visually interesting?

One thing I really loved about the podcast was the way that when you’re listening to those phone calls, you were listening to those phone calls as if they were recorded, so both sides of the conversation are sort of fuzzy. You’re eavesdropping on the conversation, and I wanted to retain that technique in the show. So even though you’re seeing both Heidi and Colin on the phone call, the audio is still fuzzy, and still has that quality as if you’re eavesdropping. I think that enhances the voyeuristic, paranoid tone of the whole show. Because those conversations between Heidi and Colin are really about how they’re hiding things from the soldiers at the Homecoming facility, so hearing those makes you sort of complicit in what’s happening.

The first episode features an extended tracking shot which follows Heidi through the Homecoming facility. What does that technique bring to the show?

With the first episode, I really wanted to show off the unusual nature of this facility, while suggesting that there’s something Heidi and Colin are hiding from these guys. Tod [Campbell, the show’s cinematographer] and I discussed this bird’s-eye view shot, as if you’re watching them under a microscope, and then as we sweep through the facility, we’re able to kind of glimpse these odd little touches. Our production designer Anastasia White did a brilliant job of turning an office building into this sort of faux-homey facility for these soldiers, where literally offices are turned into bedrooms. We were going for this combination of showing the audience what the facility is like, while also keeping with this voyeuristic tone where you’re spying on these guys when you’re not really meant to be.

The scenes that take place in the future are filmed in a different, narrower aspect ratio than the present day scenes. Why did you make that choice?

In the 2022 storyline, Heidi’s in a very different place and she’s been knocked down a few notches in her career. She’s a waitress, she’s obviously lost her job, and she’s also being interrogated by this Department of Defenseinspector [played by Shea Whigham]. We wanted the feeling that Heidi is sort of boxed in, that she doesn’t quite have the whole picture, so there’s something about differentiating that timeline with the box aspect ratio that helps give that sense. Heidi’s not only unaware of what’s happening, or what’s happened in the last four years, but she’s also cornered.

Was Julia the first actor cast? And did you find any roles particularly difficult to cast?

Yeah, the first person we cast was Julia – she was a huge fan of the podcast and is also a fan of Mr. Robot, which blew me away. I explained to her the tone of the show and these throwback thriller influences I wanted to bring in like Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, Alan J Pakula, who’s a director she actually worked with on The Pelican Brief. We had a great conversation, and having Julia of course attracts other actors. The only tricky casting process was Walter, because he’s meant to be very young, just coming home from the war, and he’s this idealistic person who has still gone through something incredibly traumatic. It’s a tricky balance for an actor, and we auditioned a lot of guys. Stephan actually sent in a tape, and usually I find it hard to read how actors are playing on tape, but he had me with the tape. I just couldn’t look away. Stephan brings this warmth and vulnerability, but at the same time you can see in his eyes that there’s a pain underneath. We flew him out for his chemistry read with Julia, and before they even started the scene, you could just tell there was instant chemistry between them. They had a connection, they were comfortable with each other.

The connection that develops between Heidi and Walter is very ambiguous, in both the podcast and the show. Do you see their relationship as romantic?

To us it wasn’t so much about leaning into the romance as it is about these two people who are extremely lonely, and perhaps disconnected from the world, finding this unexpected connection. They’re not even really looking, and it takes them by surprise. I love that this unexpectedly genuine relationship pops up in this incredibly artificial setting, and what should be a platonic business relationship becomes something else. It puts Heidi in an interesting situation where she ends up caring about somebody while also secretly medicating him. I think at the end of the day, great stories should be about people trying to connect, and one of the reasons why I loved the podcast was these two people trying to connect in the most unlikely way.

How grounded is Homecoming in reality versus science fiction or fantasy?

I don’t think it’s fantasy at all, so much as dealing with the prospect of if you could treat trauma through medicine, in a way that you could erase it, what would that mean? It poses the question, is it worth deleting horrific memories, versus actually facing them? In that way, I don’t think it’s a fantastical idea – I think that’s something we deal with in different ways today, and I think as pharmaceutical companies grow in power, we’re probably going to face more moral and ethical questions. I think this story’s pretty relevant to what’s happening in the modern day pharmaceutical industry.

The show is set between 2018 and 2022, and although it doesn’t reference politics it feels very hooked into contemporary fears. How influenced is this story by our time?

I think it’s completely influenced by the time. I say this about Mr. Robot, too – it’s not necessarily a conscious thing, but maybe I attribute this to the rapid rise of technology, because it’s grown exponentially at a much faster rate than we expected. Along with that comes increased paranoia about these privacy issues that are really at the forefront of human rights: how much surveillance should there be, how much power do we give our government, how the psychological effect of social media has allowed these companies to learn and understand who we are, sometimes without our knowledge. There’s a paranoia that’s palpable right now, and I think Homecoming really touches on that nerve. Mr. Robot is more directly about technology and Homecoming deals more with the pharmaceutical industry, but I think they’re all part and parcel of this growing sense that things are happening behind the scenes at our expense, and we’re not aware of it.

The show has a two-season order at Amazon, and there are also two seasons of the podcast. How closely will the show stick to the podcast narrative?

We’ve deviated from very much of the podcast, so [season two of] the podcast doesn’t really have anything to do with the way the show is going. We’re working on a second season, but we have a very different trajectory for our show. I think when I signed on, I had only listened to the first six episodes of the podcast, which is the first season, and then from there we deviated completely. The show starts out fairly close to the podcast, and in the back half of the season we really start to see the major shifts and differences from the podcast.

Homecoming, like Mr. Robot, features very distinctive and specific music. How did you approach the choice of score here?

The music was incredibly important. To me it’s the heart and soul of a film or a show, because it’s the easiest way to convey tone, and there’s something purely ethereal and emotional about it. When we were discussing the tone for the show, I harkened back to these old school thrillers that were really grounded in character, and again it was Hitchcock, De Palma, Pakula that would consistently come up. Because the music in those is so distinctive, I debated whether to hire a composer and ask him to essentially ape that classic sound from the 60s or 70s, or whether to just go out and license those great scores. So we made the decision to go with no composer, and just purely use the classic scores from old school thrillers [including De Palma’s Carrie and Pakula’s Klute]. I just thought that was a clear way of delivering the right tone for the audience.

How are you feeling heading into the final season of Mr. Robot, and what stage are you at?

I’m very excited, and what makes me happiest is how supportive USA and Universal Cable Productions have been, because we are ending the show the way that I intended from the very beginning. I would say it’s very uncommon that a television show starts out knowing exactly where it’s going, and has the support and ability to sustain that and finish on its own terms, but we have. We’re in the middle of writing season four right now, and I can’t wait to show it to you guys next year.

All 10 episodes of Homecoming arrive November 2 on Amazon. Follow THR.com/LiveFeed for continuing coverage of the new thriller.

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