Homecoming, the latest series with prestige TV bona fides to come to Amazon, is about as subtle and mysterious as a thriller can get. Based on the podcast of same name, it is, on the surface, about a group of soldiers returned from combat and the facility—called Homecoming—that seeks to treat their PTSD. However, as seen in flash-forwards and tiny cracks in the veneer of each person’s story, none of that is what it seems, and everyone’s motives and actions are suspect.
If you know the work of Homecoming showrunner Sam Esmail, this comes as no surprise. His last big hit, Mr. Robot, steeps itself in questions about mental health, paranoia, and discomfort with government rule. The similarities, however, end there. (Well, there’s some surveillance, too. But we’ll get to that later.) Unlike Mr. Robot, with its steely futuristic hacker veneer, Homecoming has the worn edges of a 1970s mystery thriller, with just a bit of old-school gumshoe TV and Hitchcock thrown in.
It also, notably, has an onion-like story that gets a little more involved, a little more potent, as each layer is pulled back. It focuses on therapist Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) and her efforts to treat returning soldiers—particularly Walter Cruz (Stephan James)—but as we learn, she is often thwarted by her absentee boss Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale), and eventually leaves Homecoming with little to no memory of what she did there.
It is, as you might expect, a head-scratcher. In the best way. To find out how he plotted his latest artfully-drawn TV thriller, WIRED sat down with Esmail to pick his (very deep, very meticulous) brain about creating suspense, making TV out of audio, and convincing Julia Roberts to make her episodic television debut.
When Adapting a Podcast, It’s Essential to Do Something Audio Can’t
Sam Esmail loved the podcast from the moment his agent sent it along to him—but it took him a while to figure out what he could do with the story that Gimlet hadn’t already done in their audio series. “I just remember thinking, ‘Well if it’s great, why are we talking about adapting it?’ It’s already in the medium it should be,” he says. “I binged it, back-to-back. I loved it, and then I binged it again. As I started listening to it that second time, I realized that there could be things in the visual medium that could really open up a lot of the storylines in the podcast. So that’s when I knew that this could be something really special.”
It’s Also Uncharted Territory
Adapting podcasts, as opposed to books or plays or previously-released movies, is relatively new. Which sounds like a challenge, but Homecoming has an advantage: It was already scripted. (Esmail also worked with the podcast’s creators, Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, to develop the show.) “I was a huge fan of Serial and S-Town, and this was the first one that, at least from my experience, was purely scripted, from beginning to end. It’s another avenue to find great stories to tell.”
Homecoming Still Needed to Turn Conversation Into Drama
Just because it was scripted didn’t mean Esmail didn’t still have to turn an audible story into a visual one. Most of Homecoming was like found audio, overheard phone conversations or recorded therapy sessions. Before bringing his show to Amazon, Esmail had to figure out ways to fill out that dialogue. “The limitations of [of audio] are where I think it gets really exciting, when you can translate that to television,” he says. “I’ll give you an example. There’s a story one of the characters tells about an incident that happened that actually, as you listen to the story, it’s really tense and suspenseful. But because the story is being told to you, you know the outcome is that he obviously is fine and gets away with it. So for me that was an example of like, well, if you could be with the characters as they go through that experience, there is suspense as to what will be the outcome. That was just a way of saying, ‘OK, well there’s a barrier, there’s a limitation in the podcast that I think you can really kind of break out more in television.'”
If You Want to Sell a Show to Amazon, It Helps to Have Julia Roberts
So, how did Esmail sell Amazon on the idea of adapting a podcast many people had already heard? He brought a secret weapon. “We wrote the first script and we sort of broke out what the first season really be about,” he says. “Then Julia [Roberts] became involved which was just like being on cloud nine, it was insane. Then we approached Amazon and they were obviously into it.”
But First, You Have to Get Her
Homecoming is Julia Roberts’ episodic TV debut. (One-offs on Friends and Law & Order don’t count.) So how’d Esmail get her? Turns out, she’s an audio junkie like the rest of us. “She’s a huge fan of the podcast. So she came to us, we sent her the script, and she was also a fan of Mr. Robot, which again, mind blown, right?” Esmail says. “I’m a huge fan of hers and the fact that she watched anything that I did was totally flattering. So I think we just lucked out.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Robot Is Still Happening
When you’re in demand like Esmail, it helps to be a multitasker—and he is. “Before we started shooting Homecoming we were in the writer’s room for Mr. Robot,” he says. “I was also editing Season 3 of Mr. Robot while I was prepping for the Homecoming shoot. So yeah, it’s a lot of hats.”
Not That He’s Going to Give any Robot Hints
Try asking anything about Mr. Robot’s Season 4, though, and you’ll get stonewalled. “Well, I’m obviously not going to answer any of those questions,” Esmail says, smiling, “but this is what I’ve been saying: It’s going to be a great season.”
If You Wanted, You Could Live on Homecoming’s Set
During prep for his new series, Universal—which is co-producing the show under the Universal Cable banner—was constructing a new soundstage on their Southern California lot. Esmail decided to take advantage. “Because I’m a crazy person, I wanted to build this two-story facility that’s the centerpiece of the Homecoming story on that soundstage and we just lucked out that the minute they finished construction we were able to move in,” he says, referring to the massive Homecoming transitional facility where much of the show takes place. “Anastasia White, my production designer, built this crazy, very detailed set, down to the door handles. The reason why I wanted that was I really wanted to control how we can place the camera, move the camera around, because it becomes a huge character in the whole story. Most of the time when you go to a sound stage or a set like that, you know, you turn a corner and if nothing’s there you open the door, it’s not a room, it’s empty. But we really went all went all for it. I remember thinking, I think the crew even said this, we could all just crash there because there are bedrooms and running water.”
Sam Esmail Is No Longer Listening to Homecoming
It’s hard, when adapting something, to find the balance between remaining steadfast to the source material and creating something fresh. So after he set about making Homecoming, Esmail stopped playing Homecoming. “Honestly, only the first season of the podcast had been out when we were adapting it to TV,” he says. “I didn’t even listen to the second season because I wanted to stay focused on our characters and our world in the first season and that’s where we kind of diverged from the podcast and really created our own sort of story that kind of completes Heidi’s journey for the first season.”
Listen Closely to Homecoming and It Feels Like Eavesdropping
Esmail may have had a whole screen to work with, but he still wants the sound of his TV show to have that sense that you’ve tapped into a call. “Even though we’re in the visual medium, it was interesting to continue to play with sound design,” he says. “One thing that we do, I wanted to keep the phone calls between Heidi and Colin, but I wanted that kind of feeling of surveillance the way they had in the podcast. Now when you watch those scenes, even though you may see Heidi and Colin, you’ll always hear it filtered as if someone’s eavesdropping. That’s something I borrowed from one of my favorite films from the ’70s: The Conversation.”