Hollywood loves a buddy story, so picture this:
Two bright college graduates set off for California in search of fame and fortune as screenwriters. They struggle for a while, but through an improbable connection a producer discovers them and they find themselves writing for a hit television series. One grows unhappy, and they split up. Fifteen years later, they reunite. The magic is still there! They create one of the most critically acclaimed shows on television. The sealed envelope is opened, their names are called, and they jubilantly hoist their Emmy Awards as the music swells.
Perhaps, but it’s not a bad synopsis of the career arc followed by ’84 classmates Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon. The two created and co-produce the hit cable show Homeland, now in its third season on Showtime. In 2012, they won a pair of Emmys, one for outstanding writing and another for Homeland’s being named outstanding drama series. They also have had their hands in several other popular shows, including The X-Files and 24.
The Homeland credits list the pair as executive producers and co-writers, but those titles tell little about what they actually do. Although the two still hash out each season’s story line, Gordon spends most of his time running a production company, Teakwood Lane Productions, which develops pilots for a number of networks. His role on Homeland is more that of “consigliere” (Gansa’s word) or “crop-duster” (Gordon’s word), flying over occasionally to contribute ideas for the plot.
Gansa is Homeland’s showrunner. That’s an industry term for the person responsible for every aspect of getting an episode on the air — polishing the script, coaching the director, overseeing the editors, giving notes to the sound mixer, you name it. The role “is generally acknowledged to be the worst job on the planet,” Gansa says, adding that his partner likens it to “piloting a plane through a storm with people throwing rocks at your head.”
But we’re getting ahead of the narrative. Cue a flashback to fill in some of the back story.
A San Francisco native, Gansa attended Groton and started out in Princeton’s Class of ’82, playing soccer until an injury ended his career. He took up creative writing and cites as influences a long list of professors in the English and philosophy departments. During his spare time, he also edited the Nassau Lit.
In an ironic plot twist, Gansa’s greatest disappointment as a student indirectly launched his career. In December of his senior year, he submitted the first 11 pages of the novel he was writing as his thesis (“the best 11 pages any 22-year-old had ever written,” he still insists) to his adviser, writer Joyce Carol Oates. Several days later, Oates called him to her office at 185 Nassau St. With a screenwriter’s eye, he still recalls the scene: “She was sitting at her desk, with her back to the window, when all of a sudden the sun broke through and lit up her glasses, those big glasses. My 11 pages were sitting there on the desk, not a red mark on them. That’s a good sign, I thought. Then she passed them across the desk and said, ‘Well, these aren’t good enough, are they?’
“I died. I cellularly died.”
But then Oates went to her bookshelf, took down a copy of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, and suggested that reading it might help Gansa fix his stalled novel. Over the next week, he plowed through everything Bellow had written, becoming an “instant disciple.” What moved him, he says, was the “sheer confidence” of Bellow’s writing and his “ability to open up the floodgates and let this inner voice come out.” Gansa’s friends grew tired of listening to him. There’s another Bellow nut on campus, they said. If you want to talk about Bellow, go talk to him. That “nut” was Gordon.
An English major from Queens, N.Y., Gordon had helped found the University Ballet Theater and the Expressions Dance Company before leaving Princeton for a year to study with the Harkness Ballet in New York. He recently had returned to campus and was another one of Oates’ thesis advisees. The two bonded immediately.
Graduation was soon upon them. They convinced each other to postpone graduate school and went west, driving cross-country in Gordon’s Datsun B-210 while hashing out a screenplay about the life of Lord Byron that they were sure would make them stars. When they couldn’t finish the Lord Byron story, they decided to write a script on spec for the hit TV medical drama St. Elsewhere.
Too young to be daunted by inexperience, they approached the task academically, working out of their shared apartment in Santa Monica. “We took what we had learned at Princeton,” Gansa says, “which was how to be students, how to become experts in a field or subject.” They taped the show’s episodes and watched each one again and again. After many drafts, they produced a script they liked. NBC rejected it.
Everyone hoping to break into show business has a day job, and so did Gansa and Gordon. They had opened a franchise of an SAT-tutoring service, and one of their first students was the daughter of the Hollywood producer running the show Spenser: For Hire. He read the St. Elsewhere script, liked it, and hired the two as freelancers.
With a few credits on their résumés, they next joined the writing staff of the Emmy-nominated series Beauty and the Beast. In 1990, the two landed a deal with Witt/Thomas Productions to develop TV pilots. One of those pilots — which never made it onto the air — came to the attention of screenwriter Chris Carter, who asked them to join another show he was developing, called The X-Files.
The X-Files, which starred David Duchovny ’82, went from having a cult following to becoming the country’s longest-running science-fiction series, but Gansa grew disenchanted. Where most of the other writers enjoyed tales of the macabre and the paranormal, Gansa says, he “felt like a fish out of water.” Midway through the second season, he struck out on his own.
Gordon, on the other hand, remained with The X-Files until 1997 and, after stints at several other shows, he moved to Fox in 2001 to write for a new show, 24, about a counterterrorism agent, Jack Bauer. Gordon became 24’s showrunner in 2006 and shared an Emmy that year when it was named outstanding drama series.
Over the next 15 years, Gansa went on to write for and produce several other shows, including Entourage and Dawson’s Creek, but the sort of professional success that his former partner enjoyed eluded him. “Alex had always been extremely well-respected by other writers and by studios and networks,” 20th Century Fox TV chairman Gary Newman has said, “but he never quite caught some of the breaks along the way that other writers have.” Gordon approached him several times about joining the 24 staff, but Gansa says he preferred to remain on his own. Just before the show’s seventh season, however, Gansa went to his old partner to ask if the offer was still open. “I was broke,” he admits, “and needed a job.” He got it.
The following year, Israeli director Gideon Raff approached Gordon with an idea for a new show, based on an Israeli drama about two soldiers who return home after eight years as prisoners of war. “I have your next show,” he told Gordon, who insisted that Gansa join them as co-producer. The three adapted the series from one more focused on the soldiers’ domestic readjustment into a psychological thriller, shifted the action to the United States, and called their new show Homeland. They added several new characters and plot angles, including the bipolar CIA agent who tries to expose the returned POW (there is only one in the American version) as a terrorist before falling in love with him. In a gesture to his Princeton years, Gansa named the CIA agent’s supervisor (played by Mandy Patinkin) Saul Berenson, after Saul Bellow. Gansa, Gordon, and Raff co-wrote the pilot, which later won them an Emmy.
Collaborative writing can be difficult, Gordon says, because traditionally, “the person who is the loudest tends to get his way.” It’s a challenge to develop a story idea and then break it down into 26 or 30 discrete scenes that will compose an episode. The three tried to write the pilot’s first scene together, then divided the remaining scenes between them. Then, over the next several weeks, they hashed and rehashed everything out. “You have to check your ego at the door,” Gansa says, “because it’s all about the rewriting.”
Although their responsibilities prevent Gansa and Gordon from writing together as they once did, they say they have a true partnership, with Gordon tending to the big picture and Gansa filling in the details. “If you put it in the parlance of [Homeland],” producer Alex Cary told The Hollywood Reporter, “Alex is more like the CIA officer and Howard is more the politician or the State Department. Howard is the one who makes a lot of noise — and it’s good noise — and Alex is the one who cuts it into some kind of decision.” Gordon compares them to “an old married couple.”
Now in its third season, Homeland has been nominated for 13 Emmys and won six times. In 2012, The Hollywood Reporter named Gansa one of its Top 50 Showrunners alongside such heavy hitters as Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey), and Aaron Sorkin (The Newsroom). President Barack Obama is a fan, as are Bill Clinton and Lindsey Lohan. Leslie Moonves, CEO of CBS Corp., which owns Showtime, has said, “I’ve never gotten as many requests for DVDs in my entire career in television as I have for this show.”
Like 24, which premiered just after the 9/11 attacks, Homeland is very much a product of its times, addressing such topics as the morality of U.S. drone strikes and a pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities while trying to stay a step ahead of the headlines. Although both producers insist that the show is not a response to 24, it does portray a different America — one weary after a decade of war and the controversies surrounding Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. Its characters are hard to pigeonhole: Nicholas Brody, the freed POW who is both a returning husband and a terrorist mole; Carrie Mathison, the brilliant but emotionally crippled CIA agent; Abu Nazir, the terrorist mastermind and grieving father.
Gordon, the more politically engaged of the two, is intrigued by the possibilities of using a dramatic series to explore current national issues. Homeland, he says, shows “that America’s creative talent can create a story that has nuance and is not polemical. I hope it shows an empathy and appreciation for the complexities of the world we all live in.” Gansa adds that, while the show retains several consultants, including a Muslim imam, to advise on technical details, it doesn’t pretend to be a documentary. “We do try to be as accurate as we can, but we take license all over the place.”
During the production season, Gansa spends about 80 percent of his time in Los Angeles, where the show is produced and edited. The rest of the time, he is in Charlotte, N.C., where most of it is filmed, or Israel and Morocco, where scenes set in the Middle East are shot. He still writes or co-writes a few episodes each season. Gordon, based in Los Angeles, has several new shows in the development pipeline, including a revival of 24 set to air on Fox next year. On top of everything else, he also has published two novels.
When Gansa, Gordon, and Raff were announced as Emmy winners last year, they threw their arms around each other and strode to the stage together. Gordon looked dapper in a black suit and vest with a long black-and-white tie; Gansa wore a traditional tuxedo. He had bought it 25 years earlier, when he and Gordon were producing their first show together, and had not worn it again — or attended the Emmys — until that night. They had been warned that if they won, only one could give an acceptance speech.
All three spoke anyway — they could not leave anyone out of the spotlight. “Writing partners,” Gordon said, with Gansa beside him, “don’t do that.”
Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.