From the Middle East to outer space, Jason Clark wants his stories rooted in reality.
Jason Clark is a storyteller.
The producer of such disparate projects as Red State, Act of Valor, and the Ted movies is currently producing two equally disparate television series, Nat Geo’s The Long Road Home and Fox’s The Orville.
What all his projects have in common, however, is a thread of realism and exploration of the human condition.
Based on Martha Raddatz’s book, The Long Road Home chronicles the First Cavalry Division’s heroic fight for survival after they were ambushed in Sadr City, Baghdad - a day that later came to be known as "Black Sunday.” Their families' agonizing wait on the home front back in Texas is chronicled, as well.
The Orville, on the other hand, isn’t even on the same planet. Or any planet, generally. The Orville is a science fiction series in the vein of Star Trek, with Seth MacFarlane in the lead playing a starship captain.
So, how does one man wrap his head around such different projects?
“That’s a good question. I think both are stories that I’m passionate about, and both really deal with character and the human condition,” Clark says. “I like dramas and comedies. I like science fiction. I made a movie a few years ago called Act of Valor [which was an action] movie about Navy SEALs in this fictional telling of the story. I love diving into the lives and stories of men and women who serve.”
The people with whom he works are also an important component. Clark says, “In The Orville, I’ve had the experience and the pleasure and the profound opportunity of working with Seth MacFarland, who is creatively, in my book, a brilliant guy. I did the Ted movies with him, and when he announced that he wanted to do science fiction and showed me the script, I immediately sparked to the idea.
"The greatest science fiction always has a human story at the center of it. And I felt like here was an opportunity to be a little reflection on ourselves.
“In the case of The Long Road Home, 50% of the show took place in the Middle East and Iraq, and 50% of it took place on the home front. Well, how do you do that on a TV budget?
"I said, 'we can only do this if the Army supports us,' and because of Martha’s book and because of the guys that are still engaged in the army who were involved in this battle who are wanting this story to be told, we were lucky enough to have a great relationship with the U.S. army that supported us, including allowing us to shoot at Fort Hood.”
That setting became a vital part of the production. Clark explains, “We went to Fort Hood to scout it creatively at the source of where we would set The Long Road Home and discovered these mount sites, which are these basically urban setting, framing villages that they have where the actual soldiers who were in the 2-5, in this Black Sunday story, where they actually trained.
"We went to that site, and we realized that that was the basics of a back lot, and if we modified this we could create Sadr City. And that’s exactly what we did. And it was really exciting to charge all of these filmmaking people.
"We had a lot of people from the film industry or from film who were kind of, ‘hey I don’t usually do television,’ but to tell the story they wanted to do it, whether it was in special effects, whether it was all the talent behind the camera, they were passionate to tell that story. So we got really an incredible crew together that took it to the next level.”
In the end, it’s the story that matters. “I like to tell stories that are meaningful and that have humanity, or the human experience at the center of them, even if they are as far-ranging as The Orville with the shot of comedy, or The Long Road Home, which is a story of great sacrifice and realism,” Clark says.
Getting and keeping the audience invested in the story is also an important element of Clark’s storytelling. And, no matter the story, creating a realistic environment for his characters is vital.
On The Long Road Home, Clark and the filmmakers were fortunate to have access not only to the places the soldiers actually trained, but also to the survivors and the families of the battle participants.
“We had a lot of experiences with the cast and the crew hosting the Gold Star families or the members of the platoon that were pinned down, or other people associated with the battle.
"And we’d walk them out to that mount site, which Seth Reed, our production designer had painstakingly tried to create from the photographs and reference materials that we had from 2004, some of the actual buildings in Sadr City at the time – he did a brilliant job, he and his team – and when you would walk out onto that street, it had a visceral reaction on these people that participated in the battle, and it was very powerful for the cast and crew, and, honestly, it had so many benefits.”
One of those benefits was that the location could serve many purposes without having to move people and equipment halfway across the world. Clark says, “The idea originally was let’s go to Morocco, and the concept of going to Morocco was fraught with, ‘Well, where do we shoot the home front? How can you shoot Texas in Morocco? Now we have two locations and we’re spread thin. How do we do that? We have 122 speaking roles, we’re cross-boarded, let’s figure this out.’
“Then the concept is, oh, we’re in Morocco on a street, we’re closing a street, we’re closing a street where people actually live and work, how do we keep it closed for 55 days? We had so much battle, so many days of this stuff, and we need a completely controlled environment.
"And so, by constructing it on top of this Army mount site where we created the largest backlot in North America when it was operating in its time, it had an incredible sense of realism. We didn’t have to move, which meant we could prep the following day’s shooting material while we were shooting.
"We never moved the truck, so people didn’t have to off-load and on-load every single day. And it also had this significance, because it was an actual place where these real soldiers trained and, because we painstakingly rebuilt it to be like Sadr City, it immersed those people and the actors. And the actors were charged by this, and they felt like they were there, and we transported them.
"So we created the perfect fishbowl to tell the story and to immerse everybody, from the extras to the day players to be significantly transported, that their performances are enhanced in a way. The realism enhances or supports the truth of the story.”
Even in a decidedly unreal world such as that in The Orville, the same realism is an important factor. “I think that The Orville, honestly, I think that’s another thing that we do. We’ve designed a look, and, obviously, we created it of whole cloth, but we wanted to give enough production value to this so you’re not dealing with that, so you can’t see the wall shake when you close the doors.
"It really feels like you’re really there. And, once you’re transported, then those characters are free to act in the way they would in that time frame, and you’re not building on a weak visual reinforcement. You’re building on a very strong reinforcement. We built that set. It’s a two story set for the ship so the actors can walk all the way around it.
"It really feels real when you get up into the Orville and you stand on the bridge. We built a 90-foot LED screen which projected the star fields, projected the images that the actors would see out there if they’re standing on the bridge of a star ship.
"And I think that’s a powerful tool that we have at our disposal. It gives people the chance to transport the people who are making it and the talent that’s in it, to give them that foundation so that they can really jump from there.
“Obviously, in the case of both, there’s always blue screens and green screens and all the tools that we use for set extension, but the more we have that’s really there, the less you see those seams, and the less the audience, even in the subconscious, are removed from the subject. It actually puts them in the subject.”
At the heart of it all, though, it goes back to the story and finding the best way to tell it. Clark is a hands-on producer who makes sure that the vision the filmmakers start out with is maintained throughout the production.
Clark says, “One of the things that I get a great joy out of producing is to see their point of view through, from the beginning to the end and to discover what makes me impassioned about that point of view and that story and then to try to carry that through the really complex and sometimes difficult process of production to the post.
"So you develop a thirst and you can lose your way, there’s a lot of voices in that, but part of your obligation as a producer is to see it through. And then you get into the production side, and there’s a lot of new voices that are brought in and again, you’re trying to say, what’s the point of view of what we’re trying to do? What are those key words, the ideas of this story that inspire us?
"And then in the post-production, what did we succeed at, what did we fall short in, and how do we edit to do the new version of that story? So you tell your story three times.
"The one thing you’re trying to do is maintain what you got excited about the first time.
"And, when you’re successful doing that as a producer, meaning that every project I’ve ever been on there was an enormous group of incredibly talented artists who were charged with taking this to the finish line, but when you feel that you’re still as excited the first time you see it with an audience and it reached to where you wanted to, even if it falls short of your greatest expectation, but it still carries through with that point of view, that kind of authorship that your filmmaker or your filmmaking team set out with, then it’s really a powerful experience.
"And when that gets echoed back to you by the audience who embraced it, that’s a very rewarding thing.”