Spies Among Us 

Richmond could be the home of AMC's next hit series. Behind the scenes and back in time with the espionage drama "Turn."

click to enlarge cover14_turn_no_headlines.jpg

Anthony Platt/AMC

High on a hill, layers of straw cover cold, soggy ground. But there isn't enough straw in Goochland to sop up all the water, which pools into divots and saturates the most trafficked paths. At least the late-February morning downpour is over.

"You came on one of our better days," quips a burly crew member on the set of AMC's new series, "Turn."

When the snow isn't falling, yet again, during this nagging Richmond winter, the mud is unrelenting. On another day's shoot, the muck caught a camera operator when his foot got stuck while walking backward with a Steadicam. A background actor in the scene focused on getting through take after take without losing a shoe.

The shoes.

"That's all I think about, is how many shoes I will be scrubbing," an assistant says, joking about the task ahead while actors walk by. Down the hill in a production tent, where plywood keeps the waterlogged field at bay, two of her colleagues are wiping off shoes one at a time, making headway on a stack.

Oh, and there's no magic formula for cleaning the costumes. "Virginia red clay doesn't come out of clothes," she says. "It just doesn't."

click to enlarge Described as a “born attack dog,” Capt. John Graves Simcoe, played by actor Samuel Roukin, gets aggressive in a scene from “Turn.” Filming in Richmond wrapped March 26 on season one, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC. - ANTONY PLATT/AMC
  • Antony Platt/AMC
  • Described as a “born attack dog,” Capt. John Graves Simcoe, played by actor Samuel Roukin, gets aggressive in a scene from “Turn.” Filming in Richmond wrapped March 26 on season one, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.

Yet they couldn't be happier — at least creatively. This is supposed to be the 18th century, after all, where the residents of a small, coastal town in Long Island, N.Y., must deal with the elements. (Not to mention the spies. But more on that later.)

Biggest production challenge? "The weather," line producer Larry Rapaport says. Then again, capturing that snow on film! "It looked beautiful."

"We don't want it to be a museum piece," says Ben Davis, a bundled-up AMC executive who was awake at 5 a.m. "We want it to feel real, and dirty, and muddy."

This from a guy who's spent years overseeing a show about rotting corpses.

Davis, a New Jersey native who lives in Los Angeles, has worked on AMC shows that have drawn loyal fans and struck the cultural zeitgeist, such as "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad." Speaking of, he's at work on that show's spinoff, "Better Call Saul."

The network also credits him with helping develop "The Walking Dead" into the No. 1 prime-time show on television among adults ages 18-49.

But "Turn" isn't a drama about zombie killers. Or a dashing ad executive who lives the glamorous life while battling personal demons. Or the secret universe of a high-school science teacher who makes a fortune cooking meth but loses it all.

No, "Turn" is about the stuff you learned in social studies class.

Or is it?

 

click to enlarge Costume Designer Donna Zakowska, who won an Emmy for her work on HBO’s “John Adams” — also shot in Virginia — offers a tour of her workshop in a warehouse near the Richmond International Raceway. Despite the show’s time period, she says, it offers a “very contemporary statement” about young people making change. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Costume Designer Donna Zakowska, who won an Emmy for her work on HBO’s “John Adams” — also shot in Virginia — offers a tour of her workshop in a warehouse near the Richmond International Raceway. Despite the show’s time period, she says, it offers a “very contemporary statement” about young people making change.

To walk through Richmond is a step through time, but the cobblestones can trip you up once you get about 150 years back.

Sure, there are powerful reminders of the nation's birth, beyond fleeting Fourth of July fireworks at The Diamond. Jean-Antoine Houdon's statue of George Washington stands inside the State Capitol, which Thomas Jefferson designed. Three weeks ago, when the boys' basketball teams from two city high schools fought for the state championship, George Wythe fell to John Marshall. In Church Hill, summer re-enactments of the Second Virginia Convention start up next month at St. John's Church, where Patrick Henry will bellow, "Give me liberty or give me death!"

But let's face it: If there's such a thing as history hype, the real fireworks fall in the era of brother fighting brother, North vs. South, the blue and the gray. Richmond reigns as the former Capital of the Confederacy, home to passionate flag debates, Civil War museum mergers, carefully marked battlefields and Monument Avenue statues of generals on horses. When it comes to the nation's founding war, you won't run across an assembly of Redcoat re-enactors defending their love for his majesty as heritage not hate.

Going beyond the apple-pie hurrah of the nation's origin story to the gritty intrigue of the American Revolution isn't just a challenge for Richmond, either. When's the last time you kicked back with some popcorn for gripping entertainment about the Founding Fathers?

"Hollywood has never made a film about the American Revolution that has lived up to expectations," writes Steven Mintz, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, in an essay citing fewer than a dozen movies worth considering.

"Modern-day audiences find it difficult to identify with characters from the 18th century, who wear powdered wigs and knee breeches, use formal speech patterns, and write with quill pens," Mintz writes. "In addition, we live in a cynical age and hate being reminded of more noble times. There is a tendency to regard Revolutionary War movies as excessively patriotic and overly romanticized."

Or the way "Turn" showrunner and executive producer Craig Silverstein describes such treatment, a "preserved-in-amber, David-and-Goliath tale."

Which is why he isn't taking you there.

click to enlarge Redcoats prepare for a scene in “Turn” in the Richmond area. About 150 people were involved in the production. - ANTONY PLATT/AMC
  • Antony Platt/AMC
  • Redcoats prepare for a scene in “Turn” in the Richmond area. About 150 people were involved in the production.

Instead, he and AMC are counting on the nearly invisible ink on pages of history to capture viewers — the espionage, ambushes, secret signals and bodies in barrels. A profession that's "the lowest form of life there is," as one character says in a scene, growling through a sneer — "lower than a Sodomite, or a serpent's belly. A spy."

Silverstein's interest in this world started in late 2008, he says, when executive producer Barry Josephson handed him the book "Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring," by Alexander Rose.

It was the summer of 1778, and the United Colonies of America were struggling to break free from King George. The Continental Army, led by commander-in-chief George Washington, was in the midst of a war that would stretch more than eight years. The British had captured New York City, and Washington was determined to win it back.

He surrounded them, but knew little about his enemies. When it came to intelligence, New York was "dark and silent," the historian Rose writes. "Not just maddeningly senseless to the enemy's strategy and intentions, Washington now lacked such vital, timely information as troop strength, morale, army gossip, supply levels, naval reinforcements, and even the names of senior commanders."

Washington needed spies. He found them in Caleb Brewster, Ben Tallmadge, Anna Strong and Abraham Woodhull, Rose writes — childhood friends from the small, insular town of Setauket, N.Y. They and others became America's first agents of espionage, the Culper Ring. Rose says Washington's name for the ring was inspired by the county in Virginia where he worked as a 17-year-old surveyor in 1749 — Culpeper.

On 21st-century television, a young band of actors plays the Culper Ring, most recognizably Jamie Bell in the lead as Abe Woodall. Now 28, as a teenager Bell made a splash in the exuberant, title role of the 2000 film "Billy Elliot" (and yes, he can be spotted dancing on the set of "Turn"). Caleb is played by Sydney actor Daniel Henshall. Ben is played by Seth Numrich, the youngest person accepted into the Julliard School's theater department. And Anna is played by Heather Lind, who has a variety of credits from television, film and Shakespeare in the Park.

click to enlarge In the art department, Production Designer Caroline Hanania shows a model of the little town of Setauket. Its life-sized version appears on a Goochland County set, with interiors replicated on a sound stage near the Richmond International Raceway. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • In the art department, Production Designer Caroline Hanania shows a model of the little town of Setauket. Its life-sized version appears on a Goochland County set, with interiors replicated on a sound stage near the Richmond International Raceway.

Focusing on that clandestine team of patriots who risked their lives in secret service, Silverstein envisioned a way to illuminate the more complex tale of the American Revolution, which he likens to a family breakup, a child pulling away from a parent. "It was very tough, it was very sad," he says.

"They all thought of themselves as British subjects," Silverstein says of the colonists, and to join the American cause was to become a traitor. "People's honor and their word meant a lot. So to go against that was no small thing."

He recalls his pitch for the show — and why this is the time to put it on television. "America is in a very complicated place now," he says. "And a lot of people politically have been invoking the Founding Fathers. It's sort of framed as, we started pure, we started simple. How did we get so complicated and screwed up?"

The reality is more relatable, he says: "I think there's great comfort in saying, it actually was not as pure as you may think. There was a little bit of sanitizing that went on so that we could have a real strong creation. So that's what we're kind of breaking down a little."

And that's how "Turn" became a spy thriller, an exploration of patriotism. The series is built not only around everyday people forced to decide where their loyalties lie, but also on the beginnings of, in essence, the Central Intelligence Agency.

If you visit the CIA's campus in Northern Virginia, you'll find a statue of the man the agency lauds as "the first American executed for spying on behalf of his country," Nathan Hale. He was a classmate at Yale University with Ben Tallmadge. According to legend, Hale's last words before dying at 21 were, "I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

 

click to enlarge With his horses inside a church that serves as a makeshift headquarters, Maj. Hewlett, played by actor Burn Gorman, confers with Judge Woodhull, played by Kevin R. McNally. Woodhull is a loyalist while his son, Abe, fights for a different cause. - ANTONY PLATT/AMC
  • Antony Platt/AMC
  • With his horses inside a church that serves as a makeshift headquarters, Maj. Hewlett, played by actor Burn Gorman, confers with Judge Woodhull, played by Kevin R. McNally. Woodhull is a loyalist while his son, Abe, fights for a different cause.

Another 21-year-old stands inside the door to a tiny church atop that muddy hill, packed with dozens of patient extras and crew, who execute a graceful dance around cables, monitors, cameras, laptops, lights and a boom mike.

"I drove one and a half hours to get here," Aaron Peterson says. A landscaper for a church in Fredericksburg, he's playing one of the townsfolk of Setauket. He's been growing his hair out for about four or five years, and it comes in handy for the era he's traveled into, his long ponytail trailing behind his tricorn hat.

It's Peterson's first brush with the business, and he's enjoyed taking it all in, he says: "I didn't know the scenes had to be acted out so many times."

But compared with film, things move quickly. "It's a new deal!" someone calls out, signaling it's time to change setups and move along.

On this visit, they're shooting episode seven on their way to the 10th, the final of the season. They use two cameras in the church scene, and there isn't the luxury of spending hours to overthink technical points or explore every nuance of dialogue.

That isn't to say there aren't lots of eyes on the details. About 150 people are part of the production, and Silverstein is here today.

Carrying coffee, he climbs into the passenger seat of a mud-splattered white van around 10:40 a.m. He reviews notes on the drive up the hill, pausing to look out the window, gesturing. "That field out there is ocean in our show," he says of the special effects that come later.

This is where the sets were built for the 2008 miniseries "John Adams," produced by Tom Hanks. It's the former James River Correctional Center west of Richmond, or State Farm, which has become a boon for the Virginia Film Office in landing productions. Among them, two versions of "Lincoln" spent time here — one by Spielberg and one by the National Geographic Channel.

click to enlarge A few hours after a downpour on a cold day in late February, a line of background actors prepares for a sweeping shot on the set of “Turn,” west of Richmond. Just over the hill to the right is the set for Setauket, which appears onscreen as a small, coastal town. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • A few hours after a downpour on a cold day in late February, a line of background actors prepares for a sweeping shot on the set of “Turn,” west of Richmond. Just over the hill to the right is the set for Setauket, which appears onscreen as a small, coastal town.

The area's versatility, with its rolling hills, sweeping riverside, remaining set pieces and remote location make an attractive place to set up shop. A map drawn for "Turn" illustrates the show's sawmill, farm, church and town — and crew parking.

Inside the church, Silverstein tucks into a spot near this episode's director, Nick Copus. The two worked together on another series Silverstein created, "Nikita," which ran four seasons on the CW before ending in December.

They watch and consult, trading ideas quickly and efficiently.

Extras have been instructed to react to something revealed in dialogue between actors, but the murmuring comes off a little too loud.

By this time in the story, the townspeople shouldn't be as surprised by what's revealed, Silverstein says: "I feel like it's old news."

Copus agrees. "Background," he instructs: "On this one, just a tiny mumble. Not as big of a reaction, please."

It works. They move on. "New deal!"

Across town, near the Richmond International Raceway, other "Turn" teams are busy inside a 219,000-square-foot warehouse last occupied by the Internal Revenue Service. Carpenters, office staff and members of the set design and wardrobe departments are at work. Replicas of building interiors are located on a soundstage. There are working fireplaces, backdrops and a barn set, where the scent of recently visiting farm animals lingers.

Costume Designer Donna Zakowska, who was last in Richmond working on "John Adams," moves through the workshop, pointing out colors, clothes and hats, from simple farm clothes to intricately designed dresses.

"It takes nine pieces of clothing to create one 18th-century costume," she says, estimating that there will be close to 3,000 pieces by the end of the season.

She started with the pilot, which shot last April in the Richmond area and Petersburg. The production flew mostly under the radar with actors who are accomplished but perhaps not recognizable in the line at Starbucks. Yet.

Once the show was picked up, it started filming here in November.

If anyone noticed, it was nothing like the fervor that accompanied Steven Spielberg riding through town in a black SUV, Daniel Day-Lewis sightings and Joseph Gordon-Levitt night life run-ins during "Lincoln" filming in 2011.

But if you're counting pennies, there's a bigger payoff from the little screen. The economic impact of securing a major television series is what the Virginia Film Office's director, Andy Edmunds, calls "the golden goose of our industry."

If you buy into the state's figures on "Lincoln," the economic impact in Virginia was $64.1 million. But two seasons of "Turn" in Richmond — with the first estimated at $45 million — would surpass that.

click to enlarge Horses and wagons are prepared for their moment on camera during a scene in episode seven, filmed in February. The church, which sits on top of a hill, was built for the season’s pilot, which shot locally in April 2013. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Horses and wagons are prepared for their moment on camera during a scene in episode seven, filmed in February. The church, which sits on top of a hill, was built for the season’s pilot, which shot locally in April 2013.

So what's the key to a second season?

"I'm not going to comment on that," AMC's Davis says. But the team has been "phenomenal" and the network is "really pleased with every aspect of the show," he says. "They've done an incredible job of bringing to life the next, we hope, great AMC series."

Last month, soon after Davis visits the "Turn" set, AMC announces that it's promoting him to senior vice president of scripted programing. And "The Walking Dead," which aired its season finale Sunday, continued as a ratings powerhouse till the end. Prime-time episodes ranked first among young viewers in Nielsen ratings, beating "Scandal," "Survivor" and "American Idol."

Luring millions of viewers to the American Revolution on Sunday nights will be a gamble. But as with other successful AMC shows, Davis says, what's important will be pacing, authenticity and letting the story breathe.

"The trick is to be able to know when to move quickly and when to kind of take our time," he says, "and really kind of explore this world in an immersive way."

In exploring that world, as Zakowska says, viewers might realize it's more contemporary than what appears on the surface. "I think this is a very American thing — a belief that an individual can change history," she says. "This is really not an old story, this is just our story." S

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