This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes back Alex Kurtzman, co-creator, along with Jenny Lumet, of the adaptation of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” on Showtime. Kurtzman directed the film “People Like Us” and is the co-writer of several films, including “Transformers” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is an adaptation of the 1976 film starring David Bowie, which was an adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel by the same name. Kurtzman tells the Treatment that while he had reservations about adapting the cult favorite, he believed he and Lumet could bring something new to the story. He says star Chiwetel Ejiofor was an ideal actor to collaborate with because of their similarly cerebral approaches to the text. And he says the pandemic afforded him the time to deepen the music choices in the series.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to the Treatment. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest, Alex Kurtzman, was last with this for a film that I like quite a bit, "People Like Us." His newest project is an adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel which will be 60 years old next year, "The Man Who Fell to Earth." There's an opening line that could be an opening line from almost anything you've done: "how did we get here?"
Alex Kurtzman: Yeah. I was very skeptical [to take on this project] because to stand in the shadow of Nicolas Roeg, Walter Tevis, and obviously, David Bowie, was just such a daunting prospect. And I think that really, what we were trying to figure out was, we were looking around at the world and able to make less and less sense of what we were seeing day to day. And what better way to work through the questions that we had than to use the story about the ultimate outsider who comes to do kind of a deep dive into what it means to be a human being with all of our foibles, but all of our beauty? And that's really the question we were asking ourselves when we started.
How did we get here, to this particular moment in time where we seem so utterly divided? We've never been more connected yet never further apart. And what is it about human beings that have endured over time, and that will hopefully continue to endure? The novel and the film are beautiful, but bleak. And I think we felt that we needed to make a show that honored the spirit of both of those objects, but also reminded audiences of why people are wonderful and why there is hope for us.
KCRW: You continue the theme here from Nicolas Roeg's film, the idea being corrupted by touch and contact.
Kurtzman: Yeah, I'm a huge fan of Roeg's films. And in some ways, I think "The Man Who Fell To Earth" is his most nonlinear. The first Nicolas Roeg film I ever saw was "Bad Timing," which actually really blew me away because I think it was the first time that I understood you can tell a story not in order. It's almost as if, in the film, he cut out all the sections where the narrative was going to connect, and you would get the explanation for why something was happening. It's very elliptical. And the movie really asks you to fill in a lot of gaps. I think that the thing I take from it most is that he and his cinematographer, Anthony Richmond, managed to convey this extraordinary loneliness and isolation. You'd have Bowie, this small character in these massive, massive spaces in these beautiful anamorphic frames.
To your question about touching and physical contact, there's something about the lack of it in that film that somehow enhances the concept of what it means to be connected to human beings, and what it means to be alone, and how lonely we can be as a species.
KCRW: Let audiences know what the show is about.
Alex Kurtzman: This story is about an alien who comes to earth, who is the second alien. The original alien was played by David Bowie in the film "The Man Who Fell to Earth," and in our story we pick up 45 years later. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a character named Faraday who arrives to finish the mission that Thomas Newton, David Bowie's character, started 45 years ago. And in the original story, he was sent here to bring water back to his planet, succumbed to human vices, became an alcoholic and was blinded and sort of ended his journey having failed. And so our story, as I said, picks up 45 years later when a new character comes to finish Newton's mission, and obviously the question is: will all the same things that happened to Newton now happen to Faraday?
KCRW: So much of what Tevis does as a novelist is almost about this kind of Old Testament sense of corruption, how easily the flesh is corrupted. And that's something that very much runs through Nicolas Roeg as well; the idea of an innocent, who as soon as they make contact with others, has that ruination. Because there are no villains in those pieces, the villain really is hunger and greed. And I just wonder if that was something that you and [co-creator] Jenny Lumet were playing with, doing the adaptation?
Kurtzman: Yeah, I think we're our own worst enemy is really the moral of the story in Tevis' novel, and certainly in the Roeg film, and the thing that was interesting was, at first, before I saw it, Jenny just saw what it could be. And I think I was just nervous about stepping into the shadows of all these giants. I knew, on some level that well, at least, if you go to the source material, the CIA tried to stop him, so there's a story there. We sort of figured out how to tell it in a way that doesn't feel like a cliché, because how many “aliens come to earth and then the government tries to stop them” stories can exist on the planet? There's just already been so many. And so we just wanted to figure out a way to do it in a totally different way.
KCRW: Again, you’re talking about Roeg and not just “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” but also “Bad Timing,” the idea of need being the precipitant of downfall.
Kurtzman: Yeah, need and obsession. "Bad Timing" is about this kind of need and what happens when two characters end up toying with each other, and sort of ruining each other. Tevis was clearly dealing with his own demons and did what I think all great artists do, which is, he exorcizes them through his art. But he was obviously struggling with addiction issues himself when he wrote "The Man Who Fell to Earth." So I don't know if the words metaphor or allegory [apply], but I think he wrote it so authentically and so honestly because he was writing from such deep experience. And that was something that we really did want to capture, but in a different way, just to put our own spin on it.
KCRW: What connects this for me to “People Like Us" is how need becomes such a big part of that, too. And he thinks that he's above that until he steps into it, and then it ruins his life as well.
Kurtzman: I'd never really thought about the connection between those two things. The thing that's always so compelling about a character who is driven by need is that it suggests that they are not actually facing something significant in their lives. They're barreling along and not making choices. They're making all the wrong choices. That's the most fertile ground to start a character from because inevitably life is going to come and kick them and make them realize that everything they've been doing is wrong.
For Faraday, the character in "The Man Who Fell to Earth," he's only believed that he could live as a drone on his planet, which is to say that he's only supposed to follow orders. He's never supposed to give them. He's not supposed to have any autonomy or authority or personality really, in any way. And what he comes to learn is that the only way that he will complete the mission he's been sent here to do is if he figures out a way to step out of that role and start thinking like someone who gives orders. And in order to do that he has to become a human being. He doesn't have an innate sense of what it means to connect with people like that or to make singular choices or to face the kinds of choices we have to make every day. And hopefully, that journey is going to be a satisfying one for people.
KCRW: For me it connects to a lot of the stuff you've done, which is about characters' needs to communicate. And we get to watch Faraday shaped by this environment and how that need to communicate, another need in fact, is sort of refined, but this still doesn't take away from the fact that there's corruption there. Talk about him learning to be part of this thing we have here on this planet.
Kurtzman: Chiwetel is one of the greatest actors I've ever worked with. We became very, very close, and like so many actors who have the kind of experience that he has, he always starts from the right question. And when we sat down to start breaking the text down, which we did every day together all day, even on days when we weren't shooting we would meet for a couple hours when we go through the work ahead, he said that, in order for me to understand how to move on this planet, I have to understand how I moved on mine because it's going to inform everything that I do. And he was, of course, right. Gravity is different on his planet, so the way he would feel the weight of gravity here would be entirely different.
One of the things that emerged in that conversation is the idea that the Antheans don't communicate verbally; they communicate through their version of sign language. Part of why they developed that is that the planet was so uninhabitable and inhospitable to them, and the winds and all of the noise of the planet just got so great that they could no longer literally hear each other. So they had to develop signs to communicate in the middle of sandstorms.
One of the things that Jenny and I built into the script, is the idea that he comes as this extraordinary mimic. He can parrot everything he sees. And you see that in the first couple scenes, when the police come to arrest him. He's literally mirroring them, he doesn't even understand what he's doing. And obviously, that gets him in a lot of trouble. Then when he ends up in the police station, he learns to process language in less than a minute by listening to every single conversation around him. He has very acute hearing and a very different kind of sensory perception as an alien, so he's able to learn English in less than a minute, and he begins to communicate in English. But there's a difference between being able to repeat and maybe answer basic questions, and then being able to answer them with a sense of autonomy and authority, and a sense of self.
One of the things that we worked on, in great minutia, scene to scene, was the way his ability to communicate opens up. It starts very stilted; his mouth is moving too much. It's as if he doesn't quite understand how to hold the words in his mouth. And then, by the time he meets Justin, he's learning a little bit more, and she teaches him more. By the end of the pilot, he's actually just starting to communicate a sense of emotion that he probably has never really been able to articulate before, even to himself on his own planet.
KCRW: We should say Justin is played by Naomie Harris. I think what's interesting about that, too, is that we find that, as he speaks to people, we realize that people aren't used to being heard in that way. They're not used to being really listened to, and so that changes the tenor of every contact he has with somebody new that he meets.
Kurtzman: It's so true. I mean, he's listening more deeply than most human beings ever listen to each other. And he makes the observation in the pilot that we think we're communicating with each other, but we're not. We exist mostly within ourselves. And that's a really interesting first observation for an outsider who comes to look at how we are and, again, it goes back to this idea that we've never been more connected as a species, yet we've never been further apart.
KCRW: So many of your protagonists are people who pay attention and take in clues and take in information in a way that completely discomforts the people they're communicating with.
Kurtzman: That's why I love talking to you. I never had never really thought of it that way. I'm a pretty shy person in general. As a kid, I think I was much more comfortable observing than really diving into conversations. Even now. I think that it affords you a certain perspective, which is that you pay very close attention to what is going on between the lines, not just what people are saying, but what they're not saying or what their body language is saying. And I think in that sense, it was, I guess, very easy for me to step into the point of view of an alien, because I kind of often feel like one.
KCRW: So much of what you do, as, I think, one of the premiere adapters of IP that we as audiences have relationships to, is to take a look at and say, what is it that demands that I put my hands on it? You were talking in the first half about your trepidation about stepping into this. So often you've taken on a piece of material that people know and love and feel like they have not only a relationship with, but a proprietary relationship to. Are you visited by that same kind of anxiety as you step into these projects that people do have relationships with?
Kurtzman: Yeah, for sure. I think if you don't enter into the work with some sense of fear, you're missing something. And it's also part of why Jenny and I make such good partners because we have different fears at different times and different excitements at different times. I think if it hadn't been for Jenny, I'm not sure that I would have said yes to this particular piece of material. I think she just intuitively felt something there before either of us really even knew what it was.
When you take on these things, be it "Star Trek" or "The Man Who Fell To Earth," people have such different levels of connection to them. What you have to recognize, just going through the door of that experience, is that you are messing with people's childhoods. Some of their most formative moments as people they would attribute to watching “Star Trek” and feeling heard or seen for the first time, or even with a movie like "The Man Who Fell to Earth," it's certainly more of a cult film. I think people really felt it as a particular thing, as a moment in time in the '70s. And the endurance of Bowie's performance in that film has been very meaningful to people.
You're never going to please everybody. There's no way to do that. And if you try, in my experience, you always end up with something that's just going right down the middle, and frankly, it doesn't work. You have to take a big swing with these kinds of things, because it's the only way for it to evolve. Nothing will evolve unless you take a big swing. You don't want to just regurgitate or repeat what people have been doing. You want to say what you did was incredible, and now obviously in the case of "The Man Who Fell to Earth," here we are 45 years later, and all three artists who made both the film and the novel, we're writing about something that's still so relevant. But what's different now? What is it about this particular generation or this particular moment in our timeline that's different?
KCRW: The Bowie performance: he's almost a mime. I mean, he's kind of dancing in place. You were talking about the way Faraday, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, communicates. And he's not even aware of the size of his voice, or, I think, aware of his physicality. I thought about that great moment in the pilot where he's being tasered, and he looks and sees himself with these electrodes on his face. You're playing with something by casting an actor who is in his way quite steely and powerful and concentrated. What were you looking for from him?
Kurtzman: It starts with the fact that when Chiwetel Ejiofor or Naomie Harris or Bill Nighy say yes to your script, you get down on your knees and you thank God because they're gonna be the biggest gifts ever. I had rewatched "Twelve Years a Slave" a little while before we started casting. And what he does in that film, physically, I couldn't even imagine how he put himself through it. I knew that no matter what we did, I was going to be in the hands of somebody who was just almost supernaturally gifted.
It's so interesting, because his process is very intellectual, as is mine. We really love to talk and get into the details and the lines and what's between the lines and how do we manifest all these things? It's one thing to write. It's another thing entirely to put it in front of the camera and make it feel real. With actors like this, you go in front of the camera knowing they will do most of the job for you, and that your job, sometimes is just to stand back. And sometimes it's just to make micro adjustments to them. But you have to create, from the beginning, a place of extraordinary trust. And right from the beginning with all the actors, we had extraordinary trust in each other. And that just built and built and built over the course of the season.
KCRW: It's an obvious thing, but I've got to bring it up: to have this material about a character who is the "other" embodied by people of color because that just brings, especially where we are now, context, not even subtext. Talk about that because that's obviously something that you and Jenny Lumet must have discussed.
Kurtzman: Oh, yeah. I mean, Jenny, and I knew from the beginning that Justin was going to be a woman of color, and that we wanted to write a story about her family. And the truth is, Jenny really deserves all the credit for that, because I would never have been able to write that with any authenticity. And I think that's another testament to our partnership: how much trust we have with each other. And once we get into the zone of it together, we really do start seeing it in exactly the same way. It would have been utterly inauthentic for me to take that on. As the director of the show, I felt like part of why I ended up choosing Tommy Maddox [as cinematographer], who has become my person.
When you have a cinematographer, you're not just sharing eyes–this is gonna sound super cheesy, I apologize in advance–you're sharing a soul. Because when it comes down to those little micro moments between characters, where you place the camera and how the cinematographer is lighting it, is the difference between it being really real or not. And as the white director of a story about a Black family, I knew that the DP couldn't be a caucasian. It would be wrong. And I had to trust my team to tell me when I was not seeing something correctly, and vice versa. And that became an extraordinary place for all of us to work from in terms of Justin's character.
If you ask Jenny, she would say women of color are the most imperiled species on the planet in many ways, and that affords them a very particular perspective. Because if you were an alien and you were coming to the planet, and you wanted to find out what was really going on, you'd go there because you'd get the truth. And that was our operating assumption. Because Faraday was an alien, I think we were always hoping that we would end up casting somebody of color in that part. But we were writing the alien side first. And then obviously, the choice to cast Chiwetel in that role, the scene when he first encountered the police and gets tased, that's an entirely different scene because of the color of his skin. And we knew that. We knew that, and we wrote it deliberately, and we wanted to make a statement about it. Welcome to Earth, you're two minutes in, and this is what happens. The show hopefully comes from the perspective of recognizing that these people who had been rendered invisible for so long are actually the most important people on the planet, and are gonna save us.
KCRW: I want to talk to you, too, about how interesting the music bed is for this, the kind of music choices, like having a ukulele cover of “Claire De Lune” or Sharon Jones doing "This Land is My Land.” These things that we think we know have been reinterpreted by people who aren't part of the mainstream, and that echoes your casting choices.
Kurtzman: The pandemic afforded me a lot of time to think and write because everything stopped. I think we were five scripts in and then everything stopped. And then it was a year plus later before we started shooting. And in that period of time, from when the pandemic started, I created a playlist that I think is over 20 hours long.
I wake up with a song in my head every day, and I don't get to choose it; it just appears in my head, and it will take me down a road. And Spotify will open me up to a link for another piece of music like it. And I just would acquire these pieces of music as we went that were inspiring me on the day, so much of it ended up on the show. Some of it didn't end up on the show, but it just inspired me in my writing that day.
The '70s wasn't really my era of music. But for some reason, all the music choices for me intuitively went back to the '70s, some to the '60s, but mostly the '70s. And as you say, they were all non mainstream pieces of music written by mostly people of color, who were kind of making comments. "This Land is Your Land" is obviously a commentary. And that was really an amazing experience for me to be able to live in that space. And I've now emerged with this literally 20 hour playlist that marks every turn of the last two years of writing and of pandemic life and making this film in a pandemic. But yeah, it was a deep, deep dive. And I think had I not had those two years, I don't know that the music choices would have been as varied and deep as they are.