AMC's new 'Turn' looks at espionage in the age of George Washington
By Julie Hinds
Detroit Free Press Staff Writer
Espionage is big on hit series like “Homeland” and “The Americans.” But who knew it would inspire a show set in George Washington’s day? “Turn,” which debuts at 9 tonight on AMC, exposes the intrigues of the Revolutionary War, an era mostly ignored by television and movies. And don’t let those dapper red coats and ponytails fool you. Spying is gritty, dangerous work, even in 1776.
Based on a real-life saga detailed in Alexander Rose’s book “Washington’s Spies,” “Turn” focuses on a farmer (Jamie Bell) who’s recruited to turn away from his British-leaning father and become a secret agent for the Continental Army. It’s also the latest project for Craig Silverstein, who grew up in Birmingham and is a graduate of Groves High School and the University of Michigan. Silverstein, an executive producer and writer for “Turn,” talked recently about his career (his credits include the CW’s “Nikita” and Fox’s “Terra Nova”) as well as the seamier side of life in the colonial era. Think vomiting in boots.
QUESTION: The first episode of “Turn” has bayonet stabbings, beatings and an 18th-Century version of waterboarding. Did you know before this that the Revolutionary War was so full of intrigue and violence?
ANSWER: No, but when I found that out, it didn’t surprise me. It made a lot of sense in that there was a lot of brutality on both sides. I think that the Civil War is thought to be a more brutal time, but that’s only because the Revolutionary War has been whitewashed a bit.
Q: Is it fair or accurate to compare “Turn” to a “Homeland” with powdered wigs?
A: I think that’s fair. Yeah. Absolutely.
Q: You have a former president for a fan. What was it like screening the pilot for President George H. W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush?
A: It was very special. We flew down to Houston and they invited a bunch of their friends. It filled up a little theater. It was an honor to meet the former president and Mrs. Bush. I was lucky enough to be seated in the row behind them, off to the side, so I was definitely watching the back of his head to see when he liked a moment.
Q: In shows like “Homeland” and “The Americans,” the characters are conflicted and have a lot of emotional baggage. What about the spies here?
A: They’re more in the mode of John le Carre spies as opposed to Ian Fleming spies. They’re morally conflicted because to be a spy in this time was not an exciting profession. It wasn’t professional at all yet. Back then, your word of honor was everything, so to essentially lie with every breath that you took about your loyalty was a much bigger deal even than it is now. And there was the moral conflict of the war itself. We thought of ourselves as British subjects at that time. We didn’t think of ourselves as Americans yet. So to pull away and to define something new was like a child pulling away from a parent. It had that same feeling of, this is something I have to do, but it’s something very painful to do.
Q: You credit Prof. Jim Burnstein of the University of Michigan with helping teach you the art of screenwriting. Do you remember a script you wrote for his class?
A: Oh, absolutely. I wrote scripts in two of his classes. One of the scripts was a dark comedy called “Hungry” about organ thieves and a guy who’s a chef in debt to the mob who gets his stomach stolen. It took a year or two, but that same script that I wrote in Jim Burnstein’s class is the same piece of material that got me representation in Los Angeles.
Q: What was your first job in either TV or movies?
A: I served as a production assistant on some music videos, then I was production secretary on a movie that was released as “Playing By Heart” with Sean Connery, Angelina Jolie, Gillian Anderson. It was a big ensemble.
Q: You worked with Angelina Jolie in the late 1990s before she was, like, Angelina Jolie. Can you tell us something about her?
A: Well, I didn’t really interface with her, but they were shooting scenes at a club in downtown L.A. I was there on the day she was shooting scenes with Ryan Phillippe. I definitely caught her eye for a moment and, trust me, I think she was Angelina Jolie back then. It’s just the world took a second to really take note.
Q: Is it more challenging to re-create a world with dinosaurs (as in “Terra Nova”) or the completely technologically unplugged world of 1776?
A: Both are really exotic worlds. When you’re going into a show where it’s in the future or the past or anything, you’ve got the same set of questions. How does it work? What are the rules? How do people communicate? And both require a lot of visual effects. Because even if we shoot on colonial plantations in Virginia, where we shoot the show, you still have to digitally remove telephone poles and extend bodies of water that aren’t really there.
Q: You refer on Twitter to the “1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.” Are there any expletives you can share?
A: There are, but some of them are not for mixed company. I was surprised. The ones I remember are really crude. But there’s a phrase for being so drunk in a tavern that you throw up into somebody’s boot next to you. If that happened so much that there was actually a shorthand term for it, there was a real drinking problem in the colonies.
Contact Julie Hinds: 313-222-6427 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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