Interview: Sam Esmail and Julia Roberts on turning Homecoming from podcast to TV
James R | On 03, Nov 2018
This weekend sees one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and one of TV’s brightest talents team up for a new Amazon series: Homecoming (read our review here). The psychological thriller, which explores a sinister corporation offering therapy to soldiers seeking to transition back to civilian life, is based on a hit podcast of the same. First released in 2016, a mutual love of the show brought Julia Roberts and Sam Esmail together.
“I was organising LEGO bricks for hours, consumed for hours with the podcast,” recalls Julia Roberts, sitting down with Sam Esmail at Amazon’s recent London event to talk to us about how the show came to be.
Sam, meanwhile, was driving to work when he first listened to the programme.
“I’m used to listening more non-fiction podcasts, but this was a radio play, it was scripted and had actors and it was great,” he explains. “It was this throwback to old-school thrillers, as opposed to these more action thrillers nowadays. I fell in love with it and I binged it one sitting and then I binged it again and I thought there was really something here to do it as a TV show.”
He contacted creators Eli Horowitz (The Local’s Bite) and Micah Bloomberg (99 Homes), who also serve as writers on the TV adaptation, and the rights were swiftly purchased.
“Then I heard that [Julia] liked the podcast and I was super excited it, because I’m a huge Julia Roberts fan. Who isn’t? Even Julia Roberts is a Julia Roberts fan,” he continues.
“I, like Sam, heard the podcast and loved it, because it did harken back to sitting back and listening to someone read a book out loud on the radio and you’re imagining everything. For artists, that’s where it starts: what it would look like, what it would sound like if you were doing that. Then Sam came on and called me and we seem like different people, but we’re kind of the same. We became just instantly, we were like 20-year friends, and it seemed really clear that this was going to be a match.”
What’s immediately clear is just how well the duo get on, overlapping each other constantly and adding details, cracking jokes or responding to things said 30 seconds ago.
“It was an instant connection,” Sam recalls of their first Skype chat. “We didn’t even talk about Homecoming!”
“We truly talked about Sam getting married and the first dance song and a plethora of other things for 45 minutes,” nods Julia. “It felt like we’d known each other for years.”
“And then we talked about your kids, we were just talking like we were friends,” adds Sam.
“Then we realised we should talk about the show,” remembers Julia. “We did that really fast.”
“It was going back to the old masters, Hitchcock, De Palma, Pakula…”
What’s most impressive about the show is how visual it feels, never once seeming like a show based on an audio format. Sweeping camera angles, long takes and multiple aspect ratios are the order of the day from the very first episode, with one stunning tracking shot taking us through the Homecoming facility where Julia’s therapist, Heidi, works. DoP Tod Campbell and Esmail, who worked together on Mr. Robot, waste no time in establishing a style and tone that feels unique.
“The one thing I wanted to make sure was that there was a reason why it needed to be visual,” explains Sam. “Visually, it was going back to the old masters, Hitchcock, De Palma, and Pakula, whom Julia had the good luck of working with.”
That old-school paranoia, steeped in the suspense of 1970s-era thrillers, is another mutual passion for the pair, with both name-dropping The Parallax View, Sleeping with the Enemy and, of course, The Pelican Brief, which starred Roberts. That added to the appeal for her, to the point where the fact that it marked her first TV role wasn’t even a consideration.
“I was just thinking of it in terms of the material, because that’s what matters – it doesn’t matter if it’s going to be on stage, on television, and Sam just had such great ideas about the visual style of it, and really taking it to the next level, and that’s what I said yes to.”
The part she’s given is certainly one that warrants exploration over multiple episodes, rather than a single film: when we meet Heidi, it’s four years after her time at Homecoming, but she can’t remember any of it. The mystery starts there, and it was the ability to jump back and forth between those two time periods that set Esmail’s creative brain ticking, opening up new ways to approach the material.
“It was telling in some of the sequences where, in the radio play, they would actually have to tell the story in hindsight,” he says. “That would kind of kill the suspense, because you’d know how it would turn out. But if we could be with the characters in some of those experiences, I thought the suspense could be really amped up. So it started there, in terms of storytelling wise, in how we’re going to rewrite the show for the TV.”
“We didn’t want to imitate the podcast. We wanted to create our own new thing.”
The show, however, takes care to move away from the story of the original, even before its first season is up (the podcast dropped a second season of its own earlier this year).
“I think when we took on the task of adapting this, it was a conscious decision to say ‘The podcast is great, but we are doing our own thing’. That included casting it in a different way and we also deviated from the storyline in a significant way in the TV show. We didn’t want the comparison, because again, we loved the podcast, that’s the reason we wanted to make it as a TV show, but we didn’t want to imitate the podcast. We wanted to create our own new thing out of it.”
That included creating the Homecoming facility itself from scratch, with the opening episode showing just how expansive and impressive their set is.
“This is not just my technique, this is my brilliant crew – especially with the production designer, Anastasia White,” enthuses Sam, “who I worked with on Mr. Robot. She came up with this in her head, she’s the one who saw this when she listened to the podcast.”
“I really wanted to build the set,” he elaborates. “I didn’t want to go out and find a location, because of the camera movements, I really wanted as much control as possible. And I think we shot something like 70 per cent on that set. I told her the tone and she took it and ran with it.”
“I had never come to work and walked onto set and just thought ‘Wow! This is incredible!'” says Roberts. “We would just marvel at what was there for us to play inside of… Anastasia, she is so incredibly calm. A week ago we were in the same space, and it was just tape on the ground, and it was ‘Oh, this is supposed to be stairs’. Then [a week later] the kitchen was really a kitchen, you could cook in there… it was astounding.”
That left the cast with the space to play and feel out their characters – in the case of Heidi, two versions of the same person.
“I kind of played two characters, so it was, in a way, just a great, fun challenge for me,” says Roberts, who notes that the production was almost movie-like, in the way they filmed everything in blocks rather than one episode at a time.
“Sam kept me on track with the map of what we know has happened and what we don’t know has happened,” she adds. “I can’t say I did research per se, there were some things I pursued… but so much was already there in the way the scripts were written. Sam’s fingerprints were on everything, he was my source material, really, and he had such a clear idea of each character and what made us all tick. I relied on him probably more than I’ve relied on someone more than my husband in a long time!”
“A lot of the music is Pino Donaggio, Brian De Palma’s composer…”
She’s equally as admiring of Stephan James, her co-star, who plays Walter Cruz, the solder she’s tasked with helping. Soon to impress in If Beale Stret Could Talk, don’t be surprised if his name is soon in awards conversations for either.
“He’s just terrific!” Roberts declares. “The highest compliment I can pay as a person is he’s always on time. The highest compliment I can pay as an actor is he’s incredible prepared. When you are those things, that leaves space to be creative and have fun, and be encourage and be nourished, and we were able to fill the space in the way that we felt confident about, the space we made was so unique and present.”
Roberts had another homecoming of a different time while filming, with Sissy Spacek also joining the cast as her mother, marking something of a reunion for the pair.
“I adored the relationship between Heidi and her mother, maybe because I’m in love with Sissy Spacek,” she jokes. “Sissy, who I’ve known since I was 13 years old, so she might as well be my mother! I’m the luckiest person in this room!”
“Even the crew was like ‘Sissy…'” she laughs. “I was like ‘I know, she’s standing next to me, keep your voice down.'”
“We were all having a moment,” agrees Sam, who notes that its surreal to have Spacek, the star of Carrie, in a series that owes a lot to Carrie’s director, Brian De Palma.
“I felt like I wanted to keep the music as authentic as possible,” he adds. “So I licensed music, the old music is from the old classics. So a lot of the music is Pino Donaggio, Brian De Palma’s composer, and we used one of the big scores from Carrie in the show that Sissy’s also in. It’s very meta.”
Dermot Mulroney also appears in the show as Heidi’s boyfriend, Anthony.
“I’m a huge My Best Friend’s Wedding fan,” grins Sam. “It was one of my favourite romantic comedies growing up. It was deliberate! I was like ‘We’re going to bring these two together…'”
With Homecoming already given a two-season order by Amazon Studios, you can imagine the show’s producers being just as excited about a reunion between this pair.
Homecoming is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.