We continue with our conversation with Jonathan Nolan, the executive producer/writer of the new crime thriller Person of Interest. The CBS series pairs Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ) and Michael Emerson (Lost), as Reese and Finch, an ex-CIA operative and a billionaire, who attempt to figure out what crimes could occur before they happen, through state-of-the-art surveillance equipment. Their actions draw the attention of the NYPD, particularly Detective Carter, played by Taraji P Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), who is determined to discover what they are up to.
What is your process for developing an idea that can be applied to different plots every week as opposed to a finite story for a movie?
We really started with the idea, and the idea seemed to suggest a case-of-the-week structure. I’ve always loved shows that combine both approaches; that have a mythology and a set of characters whose stories develop, change, whose relationships evolve, fracture.
I grew up watching shows like Magnum PI and The Equalizer, and I loved them. They had a case-of-the-week structure that was natural to them.
It felt like this conceit, the idea of this irrelevant information falling out of some part of the national security apparatus that would simply go unheard unless someone was listening for it, seemed to lend itself really well to a case-of-the-week structure.
Television is very different than working on film. My wife is a TV writer and producer. And I’d long been jealous of the amount of time that she gets to spend working on a character. With films you get to develop a set of characters, and then at the end of the film, you have to throw them away.
I’ve been lucky enough to work on a franchise set of films [like Batman] where we continue to go back to those characters.
So for me, the attraction of TV is that you continue to get to tell those stories and refine those characters. The other thing is TV in the last 10, 15 years, got really, really good. There’s some fantastic drama on TV. So I was hoping to swim in those waters.
What was it about Jim Caviezel that made him right for this show?
I first got excited about Jim when I saw a film he made with Terry Malick thirteen years ago called The Thin Red Line, which is one of my all-time favorite movies, and his performance in it is just unbelievable, and he’s done some amazing roles since.
When we heard he might be interested, and I got on the phone with him, I was just amazed and thrilled to be working with him.
Jim had just done The Prisoner, which also dealt with surveillance gone haywire and the paranoia that can result from that.
Interesting resonance for me with The Prisoner, the original version [with Patrick McGoohan in the ‘60s] was a show I loved that my brother and I used to watch. I think it was broadcast on A&E at, like, midnight. We would eat pizza and drink Dr Pepper. I was a huge, huge fan of that show.
In the UK, that surveillance state really sprang into action in the ’60s. That was one of the first shows to really deal with that question, and it did an amazing job.
And the version that Jim worked in with Ian McKellen was a really cool update of that idea, because that idea has only become more and more relevant over the 40 years since they broadcast that show.
Can you explain a little bit more about Taraji’s character and what you wanted her to bring to the series? Her character always seems two steps behind Reese and Finch.
Absolutely. When you bring an actor like Taraji, you better bring some great character moments and some great turns. And I wouldn’t necessarily assume she was two steps behind.
I love the fact that this show has that somewhat tried and true case-of-the-week aspect to it, and that allows us to play on the idea that New York is a city filled with millions of people and, therefore, millions of secrets, and each week we get a chance to look at at least one of those stories.
For me really the draw here is the ways in which characters can build, change, and grow in which their relationships can transform.
So we’ve got some big plans in terms of stories. That’s part of the reason I wanted to work with Bad Robot [JJ Abrams’ company], because they have such an amazing track record of amazingly produced, beautifully made television that has stakes and relationships that are free to transform.
You never really know what you’re going to get when you turn it on, and that’s very much the case with our show. If you get lulled into thinking it’s one thing week after week, you are going to be very surprised.
CBS is over the moon about the test results for this show. They say it’s the best-testing show they’ve ever had. Why do you think the test scores are so high?
I think our kickass cast is a big, big part of it. I think we have the best cast on TV. And we’re really excited to share that with the audiences. It’s always gratifying to hear that people are excited by something that you’ve been excited to make.
I think we had a great experience making the pilot. We’re having a great experience right now making the next episodes, and I think that comes across.
We’re really excited to get it out to that big CBS audience to see what they think.