Howard Gordon

SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains information on critical plot developments on the third series of 24.

After graduating from Princeton University in 1984, Howard Gordon moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in writing for television. He began a two year contract with Witt-Thomas Productions during which he co-produced several pilots. Country Estates, a pilot produced for ABC caught the attention of Chris Carter who asked Gordon to join The X-Files as a supervising producer. Since then he's worked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and, more recently 24, as executive producer and writer. Darren Rea spoke to him as the third season of 24 was due to be screened in the UK...

Darren Rea: You've been with the production from the beginning. What was it that originally attracted you to the show?

Howard Gordon: I came on board right after the pilot had shot.

I had actually shot my own competing pilot called Ball and Chain, which was based on a comic book. It wasn't picked up and I was lucky enough to be asked to work on 24, as that had been picked up by the network. I saw the pilot and was completely blown away by it.

I felt like it could really be something special. I think even the most pessimistic side of me thought that at the very least it would be a noble failure.

DR: When 24 was released there were other shows out there that followed government backed agencies. What was it that made 24 stand out from other shows?

HG: There was The Agency, but nothing else really promised real-time. The real-time element also helped. Part of the secret that Joel [Surnow] and Bob [Cochran] came upon was the thriller genre and the idea of introducing several stories, so that we could cut away.

There was a number of events that contributed to the show's success. One is the split windows, which was originally a 1960s device, but it worked phenomenally well to cover the gap in geography. It was a great way to compress information and make it feel really compelling. Certain scenes were covered from different angles, so that you'd see a wide shot and a close shot of the same scene. This compression of information added to the heightened sense of reality.

DR: With the terrorist threat more in the public mind, post September 11th, do you think that a lot of the appeal also stems from an interest that there may well be an government backed agency like CTU, and that this is quite comforting to the audience?

HG: Absolutely. I think Jack is someone that we really hope exists. He definitely represents someone that will skirt the law and take civil liberties every now and then to get the job done.

We hadn't even aired when September 11th happened, so we were afraid that the show wouldn't even be given a chance to air. We had to make some modifications to the pilot episode.

There was one graphic scene with a plane exploding, and we had to cut away from it earlier than we had intended. We were worried that the public, at that time, would want to see more comedies and blue sky shows rather than something that was a little more topical, and based around things that were happening in the news.

I think, in particular in season two, we found ourselves looking at the Islamic terrorist problem and asking whether we should write to it, or write away from it. But, we looked at it squarely and decided that we couldn't do a show about counter terrorism and not deal with this issue. But, I think we dealt with it in a full bodied way. We also dealt with the Xenophobia that this new, emerging problem was going to have. That's why [in season two] we had an Islamic guy marry a blond, blue eyed, all American girl and then twisted all expectations by having her be the bad character while he was the innocent party.

We also introduced an intelligence agent, from some unnamed Islamic country, who came and helped Jack Bauer. So, we felt like we'd dealt with it even-handedly. And, of course, in the end it was a greedy, corporate, multinational company that wound up being behind it all.

DR: How does working on 24 differ from working on other shows, like Angel, where continuity is not so much of an issue?

HG: It's interesting. You find yourself telling one whole story. It's like telling a long movie - it has a Dickensian quality to it.

The challenge is keeping the interest up for 24 continuous hours. Whereas Angel, The X-Files or Buffy is very self contained - the story has a beginning, a middle and an end.

In some ways it's more confining and in other ways it's more liberating, because you can take a smaller amount of action and make it the subject of the substance of one hour of 24, whereas in those other shows you have to reinvent it every time. I remember in The X-Files I would sometimes spend weeks between episodes thinking: "Oh my God! What am I going to do next?" Whereas here, on 24, you're bound, at some level, by what came before and what you know is coming after.

DR: Do you find that getting the right crew is also important and that the experience is very different for them too?

HG: I would say that between the crew, the cast and the writing staff, it has been - I think hands down for everybody involved - the greatest experience of their careers. It's a very collaborative effort. The prop master will come in and say: "Give us script notes." It's a very democratic experience for everyone, because of the continuity and because everybody is so intimately involved in the deals of that continuity.

The actors have this real intimate understanding of where they are emotionally and physically, and what their wardrobe is like, so it becomes this puzzle that we are all solving together.

DR: Have you tended to keep the same crew together from season to season?

HG: There's been remarkably little turnover. I've done a lot of shows and I've never seen so many people so proud to be working on a project than they are on 24. And I think that pride shows.

DR: On the terrorist side. How do you go about ensuring that details about possible terrorist threats appear as realistic as possible.

HG: A lot of it goes to personal responsibility rather than accuracy. Our first interest is to tell the most compelling story possible whilst trying to avoid clichés.

Because CTU doesn't actually exist, we can take a lot of license with jurisdiction and legal issues. We never pretend to be real, and because of that we take a lot of liberties.

In the second season we did several things that couldn't really have been squeezed into such a short time frame - we mobilised a war in 12 hours [laughs]. What happens in the course of our 24 hours couldn't really happen in a year.

DR: Also, we never see anyone go to the toilet.

HG: They do! [laughs] Everybody always says that, but when we cut away that's what's happening. Jack's taking a piss while Palmer's on screen.

DR: You're half way through screening season three of 24 in the US at the moment... is that right?

HG: Yes, we're half way through airing it and we're just about to shoot the season finale.

DR: Is there anything you can tell us, without giving too much away, about what is happening in season three?

HG: The third season is much more layered than previous seasons. It centres around bio-terrorism, but that's a bi-product of a much more complex story.

The success of the show, for me, is the emotional of Keifer's character - who comes to realise, after two seasons (two very bad days), that you can't do this kind of work and have a personal life.

We have Tony and Michelle who have married since last year, and Kim and, Jack's prodigy, Chase, starting to get involved. And Jack has given up any sort of connection to humanity in a way - he's become a junkie and everything. It really is testing his theory that you can't have love, you have to give that up, if you are going to do this work. I guess the part that I like best about this season is that it comes from that emotional place of sacrifice.

DR: Does Kim's luck improve?

HG: [Laughs] Yeah. How could it not? That's interesting, but she was an actress that we adored, but it was obvious that we were fighting [in season two] to find something to do with her [laughs]. It became quite absurd, and we knew that, but ultimately we have no regrets because we didn't know what else to do with her. So, this year we put her squarely in the action and I think she's handled herself incredibly.

DR: This season sees Jack kill Sarah. Are you sorry to see her go? And was that something you felt you had to do, because it would be silly to keep having their paths cross?

HG: Yes, absolutely. Last year I think was the organic time to bring her back and to kill her, because she had to die. I actually wrote the scene where Jack kills her in the second season, but it wasn't satisfying on the page. So I had the idea of Jack not going through with it and whispering something in her ear, which ended up being a lot more evocative. This year we were presented with the proper context for her end, and took advantage of it.

DR: Are you worried that if you kill off any more of your characters it'll just be Jack running the whole operation?

HG: You know what? It's ten little Indians on this show. Anyone can go. Keifer is the first one to say: "Hey, look. If you're done with my story, kill me." And he means it, that's what's so funny. If it served the story, he'd be happy to go.

DR: Which of your roles do you prefer between producing and writing? And why?

HG: I much prefer producing to writing. Writing is an unfortunate necessity for what I do [laugh]. It's lowly sitting in a room... you know. What are you asking me for? [laughs].

It's terrible. You sit in a room, look at a computer and tear your hair out - and I have very little hair. But, the satisfaction of having written a script is probably unlike anything else.

In television, fortunately, we get to do what directors get to do in films. We are the ones who get to control the creative direction, and what finally gets released and shown is the writers domain. Television is a writers medium, so I suppose it goes part and parcel with producing.

DR: Looking back over your career, what's the one thing you're most proud of?

HG: I think, 24. I'm most proud of this show and I've had more satisfaction doing this show than any other. I liked The X-Files a lot, that had it's own satisfaction, but I'd say 24 is the thing I'm most proud of.

DR: If you weren't in this industry what would you be doing?

HG: Erm... That's a great question... I guess I like to fantasise that I'd be a novelist. That's what I thought I'd be when I grew up, but somehow I came to television. And if I wasn't a novelist, I'd own an antique store.

DR: And what of the future? What are you planning next?

HG: Actually I'm thinking about the next season of 24, and possibly the movie. But I'm still in 24 mode, so I don't know. Part of me is also afraid to think of something new because I don't want to do something just for the sake of doing it. I need to be gripped by it and I don't really have that idea just yet.

DR: Thank you for your time.

With thanks to David Cox at DSA

Season Three of 24 is out to buy on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment from 09 August 2004

Buy season three of 24 on DVD for £34.99 (RRP: £49.99) by clicking here
Buy season two of 24 on DVD for £32.99 (RRP: £49.99) by clicking here

Buy season one of 24 on DVD for £30.99 (RRP: £44.99) by clicking here

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