Online Originals

Worlds Away

Justin Marks has created not one world but two in Starz's Counterpart.

Melissa Byers
  • Starz
  • Starz
  • Starz
  • Starz
  • Starz

It's said that everyone has a twin.

But what if the whole world had a twin? And, then, what if there were a way to meet your twin from that other world?

Low-level office worker Howard Silk, played by J. K. Simmons, faces that very possibility in the Starz series Counterpart, created by Justin Marks.

The series, set in Berlin, posits a passage crossing to such an alternate world, opened by mistake during the Cold War, and a shadowy organization that controls passage between the two worlds. Although presumably everyone in both worlds started out exactly the same, each of the characters has grown and evolved very differently in each world.

When a breach is discovered threatening the balance between worlds, low-level worker Howard Silk is drawn into the intrigue and comes up against Howard Silk of the other world, who is much more accomplished and sure of himself, even if his personal life is not as content.

While stories about parallel worlds have been told before, Counterpart has a unique take on the trope, and Marks says his intent was not another addition to that canon, but a new kind of mash-up of genres that is at its heart a story about people.

"I can tell you there were two places that it came from. The first came it came from, simply put, is that I grew up on some classics of especially the British spy fiction genre. I always wanted to tell a story in that world, but you look at those writers' careers and these are people who were spies and I realized that unfortunately, my background was not in that.

"I wanted to sort of tell a story that tipped its hat to the feeling of that world, in terms of espionage and the genre of espionage, where it's about the people. It was about these spies who are just flawed, failed artists in their own respect, who deal in these human relationships and have their own expertise, but they're reaching and longing for better versions of their own lives and better versions of their own existence.

"I always wanted to tell a story set in a world like that and set in a theater like Berlin where it's just nothing like any American city that we watch a lot of television or movies set in.

"On the other side of that equation was this character question that everyone has wondered about the parallel universes idea or the sliding doors concept. I think that's well worn territory in movies and TV when it comes to 'what would my life have been if I had made a different choice? "Would I happier or more fulfilled or less fulfilled?'

"What I hadn't ever seen an exploration of and what I became really interested in, and one particular moment as I was just sitting around thinking about this idea, was what if I could meet that person? What if I could meet the person who became of a different choice? Would I like him? Would he like me?

"Would we share interests if we lived a different life or are there certain core qualities of our identity that really never change, even if the nurture has adjusted us. How would we interact with each other? Would we begin to covet what the other had? Would we maybe someday want to destroy the other self?

"All of those questions from a place of character started to get blended into, what if you could do a Berlin Wall thriller where the Berlin Wall was actually a metaphysical construct. You can tell a story that is less about, 'we've got to save the world' and more about, 'we have to save our souls.'

"We're characters lost in the middle of a quagmire. A moral conundrum or an ethical conundrum or spiritual conundrum and we have to find the true north out of it.

"I thought that would be a very interesting mash-up to do them together, because innately, spying is about secrets and taking secrets and how could one version of one man keep secrets from someone who knows all of his deepest, darkest secrets? Same with our other characters.

"Women too, in the case of Olivia Williams [who plays Silk's wife Emily], these are characters who we really have enjoyed kind of finding both sides of who they are."

In order to pull off a feat like that, casting and production personnel were of utmost importance. "Yeah. I mean, we're lucky. We did this in all departments, it was important to hire from a place outside of genre to me.

"I know science fiction. I've done a lot of writing in science fiction. I really enjoy the genre. I enjoy it as an audience member and as a reader, but I feel like sometimes the genre can be better served by taking from the language of other genres.

"We really cast in the sort of space of British theater, with the exception of JK, obviously who by the way, has his own theater background and commented to me the very first time we met that this feels like we're getting to do black box theater in a certain sense. Just with the same actor on stage with himself, which is something you don't get to do on stage.

"That was really appealing to him, that we could let them discover nuances of each self and live in those roles so that they don't just feel like one has purple hair and the other has no hair and that's how you know they're different. You know they're different because they share some qualities and they also have different qualities. That's really compelling to me.

"In the rest of our cast, we have some great British and German cast and Italian cast and Danish cast. We wanted people who don't ordinarily come from within the sphere of the kind of television that we normally tell.

"Also, in other departments, Dan Bishop, our wonderful production designer, came from Mad Men and to my knowledge had never done science fiction before. That's exactly why I wanted him was because he had vocabulary that existed outside of the traditional cliches that we'd associate with it.

"Martin Ruhe and Luc Montpellier, our two cinematographers as well, just did a wonderful job capturing a very dark and moody and grainy atmosphere in a space that normally would be more consumed by turning up all the lights and showing all the gadgets and wizardry of the science fiction world.

"A lot of that was sort of the hope that we managed to do something that if you stumbled in for the middle of an episode of Counterpart, you would be hard pressed to even know that this was science fiction at all. That's the goal."

Part of the move away from typical science fiction is the lack of shiny technology and big special effects.

"Really, for us, it was about I wanted this world to feel dysfunctional. To feel like the bureaucratic mechanisms were both larger than our characters, but also just as inadequate as our characters are as people. That things don't work in this world and that they're sort of bound to certain bureaucratic norms of kind of public service that don't feel like they have all the most expensive, high-end equipment.

"For story reasons, but as well as aesthetic reasons, the technology inside the office of interchange is very antiquated. They're not allowed to upgrade their computers, because close to the crossing you don't want to expose to the other side what technological developments we've made, again vis à vis, the other side.

"Everyone in the office uses these sort of computers that are dated to the time of the creation of the crossing. We kind of like that, as you can see, because it allowed us to have not just a more antiquated style, but I find that in spy stories today, it can become pretty easy to write yourself out of story problems by simply coming up with different technologies that you see in typical spy [stories], James Bond or anything else.

"We don't have that luxury. We stick to the very low tech, realistic style. That spoke to the other thing, which is that the more extraordinary and I mean it in the most literal sense of the word, extra ordinary, the concept is, the more grounded and ordinary the execution had to be in order to believe it on a human scale,

"I didn't want to see our characters walking into a star gate as they travel across these dimensions. It would just feel like an ordinary hallway with hints of darkness that you don't really get to see much further beyond it.

"We wanted it to feel ordinary and grounded and we took from the allegory of the Cold War. There are our sets of customs, which you got to see a little more of in the third episode of the show, as Olivia Williams and Nicholas Pinnock come through.

"Those sets were very inspired by the Friedrichstrasse in East Berlin, the train station that connects the East to the West, all the way down to the wood panels. It was as if people from that era, which is when the crossing was created, took that language and just applied it to this interdimensional world. We wanted it to be very grounded in the ordinary.

"In that way also, it relieves us of the burden of ... I think sometimes it would be nice ... it would be easier in a story if we didn't have a good character moment to just show a shiny, flashy visual effect that did something interesting, but we wanted to take that tool out of our tool box in the genre, so that we have to make the most out of great actors performing against themselves."

The choice to set the story in Berlin was also purposeful in telling the story. "I mean obviously the allegory is strong in Berlin and we wanted that to ring true. Honestly, beyond that, I like to do things that I've never done before. It's something that I feel like over the last seven, eight years of my career, I found the most success when I reached beyond my comfort zone, and I had never been to Berlin before we shot this show.

"That meant that I had to approach the city academically when I first started into it, which is what gives me a more rigorous understanding of how the city works.

"My background is in architecture and design, so I really became interested in the city architecturally and starting to understand it. Yes, it has this sort of Cold War metaphor. It was the center of it all and a fascinating center at that. Obviously, that version of the city is long gone. It doesn't really resemble it .You see some skeletons in the closet, but it hardly resembles the East/West dichotomy that existed 30 years ago.

"It interested us and it became a great background for the story. It was exotic and American audiences, at least at the time, hadn't seen it as much as I thought they should. The other thing, honestly, just on a pragmatic level, we shoot a lot of the show in Los Angeles. JK lives here in LA and we wanted to accommodate him.

"I'm actually standing here in downtown LA where our writers room is and our post-production is and also our sound stages are at LA Center Studios. We have two full sound stages full of a lot of our set. Last season, we shot in a lot of locations in LA that would then double or seam up with locations in Berlin.

"In order to do that, we needed a city that had, at least in certain respects, the same energy and same vibe on the street level as Berlin does. You would never think that Los Angeles and Berlin have that kind of connection. Ironically, we are sister cities officially, which is a program where cities link up.

"You really do get a lot of the aesthetic that you can find in certain regions of Berlin here in downtown LA. Especially when it came to building the difference between our side and the other side, we wanted warmer, more Cold War textures for our side Berlin, which feels like the West and then you would sort of go with the aesthetic of the East where it's colder and more contemporary, more clean lines.

"You can find a lot of those in Los Angeles at night. It worked out pretty nicely for us.

"I'm a huge location nerd. When I watch movies and TV shows, I love knowing where things were filmed. There's action sequences in the second episode, for example, of the series, that take place over four different locations in two different countries and they're all just sort of seamed together very effortlessly.

"It was a very difficult show to shoot logistically, not just because it's two universes, but because we were doing this magic trick of one city playing another very often. It was always a thing that we had to contend with throughout the shoot. The Berlin of it all is that in addition to just being a fascinating city, it actually doubles for Los Angeles a lot easier than we had originally thought, so that made it more ideal."

Having established the story and characters in the first season, Marks says the second season takes that basis and moves the characters and the two worlds into a new phase.

"Largely, we feel that we told one version of a complete story in the first season that sort of brings it to a very natural conclusion as to the, if anything, the first act of our story has now been revealed based on a couple twists that you'll see throughout the next several episodes. We set the stage.

"Season two now is about fulfilling that and living with it and going deeper into our characters now that we set up a lot of things about the world and without getting into spoilers, some major twists about certain characters and the implications of the twists as they move forward.

"We want to live with those and never force ourselves into a situation where, as I put it, once you get someone addicted to a hard drug, it's really hard to get them to have a glass of wine."