Gamer's Grammar: An interview with one of the creators of 'Halt and Catch Fire'

Gamer's Grammar
Gamer's Grammar talks to one of the creators of 'Halt and Catch Fire'

At 32 years old, Christopher C. Rogers, one of the co-creators of the AMC television drama "Halt and Catch Fire," is one of the youngest and brightest creators in the industry. The show revolves around a rogue corporate computer guru, Joe MacMillian (Lee Pace), who snowballs a Texas software company into creating the first portable PC. "Halt and Catch Fire" is proving to be one of the best character-driven dramas on TV and it's not just about people who make computers. Punk, gaming, and early internet culture abound. Netflix subscribers can stream season one. Season two just concluded on AMC in August. We're crossing our fingers that AMC renews the show for a third season. In the meantime, we talked to Rogers over email about gaming, writing for television, and software vs. hardware. (Justin Sirois)

City Paper: Cameron Howe (MacKenzie Davis) is the software lead on the show and one of the most compelling characters. She gets caught up in Joe MacMillian's master plan more than anyone else in season one. In Cameron's intro scene, she's maniacally playing "Centipede" in a smoky Texas bar. I've always found "Centipede" to be unfairly difficult, but addictive in its frantic game play. It seems like a perfect metaphor for Cameron. Can you tell us more about why you made her a gamer?

Christopher C. Rogers: With Cameron we wanted to depict a character that was truly "disruptive," both to the staid corporate culture of tech in the 80s and beyond that to any corporate culture anywhere. That was one of the reasons we made her character female, and similarly we wanted her to feel "punk," in the real sense of what The Clash was singing about, without falling into "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" stereotypes. Finally, I feel like we wanted to make her representative of the wave that was coming next, both generationally and technologically. To us, games were that, and "Centipede" felt just the right blend of addictive and frenetic to mirror Cameron's mental state in those pilot scenes. Also, after Season 1, we learned the story of Donna Bailey, the female programmer who invented "Centipede" but never got credit for it. We actually sponsored a video that Vice produced to help tell her story.

CP: What games did you love growing up and how did they shape the way you tell stories?

CCR: We Rogers children weren't really allowed to have Nintendo or a console system growing up so it was really all arcade cabinets for me. I really loved the multi-player "X-Men" and "Punisher" cabinets at my local arcade—I'm 32 now so this was the 90s—and remember developing an unhealthy addiction to "Metal Slug," one of the last great side-scrollers, one year that I had to attend summer school. Did any of those shape the way I tell stories? I'm not sure. That said, I still remember my mind being completely blown when the hero of "Metroid" turned out to be a girl, thinking that was really cool, and like to think that has somehow found its way into the show I write now.

CP: The hardware vs. software developers plot is something I've never seen in a show before and I love the way it plays out. Gordon (hardware/practical guy) is always struggling against Cameron (software/existential). Joe (manager/dungeon master) is somewhere in the middle, massaging and manipulating both of them. The tensions are brilliant. With no real "villain" in the series, how tricky was it to find the right tension shifts as the plot evolved?

CCR: The great challenge of "Halt and Catch Fire" is that, unlike most TV, nobody has a gun, so all of the drama has to evolve from a place of character—what do these people want/need/love and what will they do to get it. In a show that is essentially about people trying to predict and build a guessed-at future out of thin air, we feel that the characters greatest antagonists are in ways always themselves. Just as "The Social Network" did such a great job of showing how Mark Zuckerberg baked his own demons and issues into Facebook, we always want the end products of "Halt and Catch Fire" to be reflections of what is best and worst about the people who made them.

CP: "Halt and Catch Fire" is special for a number of reasons, but one thing it nails is character development. After the first season, everyone has evolved in subtle ways. Bosworth (vice president of Cardiff Electric who gets snowballed by Joe) seemed like a throwaway villain that was going to disappear, but his transformation has a depth that I didn't expect. What really made him turn from a puppetlike corporate VP to renegade video-game company manager?

CCR: Almost all of the credit for this belongs to Toby Huss, the actor who plays Bos. In the pilot script, Bosworth was much more of a generic hard-ass, and was in ways the most underwritten of our leads. When we cast Toby, who comes from a comedy background, he brought this really surprising warmth and vulnerability to the character that we'd have [been] fools not to write to. I still remember watching that last scene of the pilot where he essentially threatens Joe and says he's going to keep an eye on him, and thinking to myself "Why am I on Bosworth's side?" On our show we work very hard to write to what's working, and huge component of that is seeing what your actors do well. Toby's wiry, folky energy was just such a natural fit for Mutiny (similarly his scenes with Cameron in s1 were so good) that we couldn't have lived with ourselves if we just told another story of an older guy in the industry becoming obsolete.

CP: Are you close with any older gamers like Bosworth?

CCR: We get a lot of the actual hardware for "Halt and Catch Fire" from a place called the Rhode Island Computer Museum in North Kingstown, RI. I like to go up and visit with the guys who run it every summer, who are mostly retired hobbyist collecting this stuff out of love. I like to keep them in mind when we think about serving the gamers of this era. Ditto tech consultants Carl Ledbetter from IBM and Bill Louden, who used to run games for CompuServe.

CP: The Black Flag stick-and-poke tattoo scene was brilliant and it made me realize that Cameron and Donna, the real heroes of the series, have more in common than I thought. Their creativity saves the day again and again. Did you have any real-life inspiration from creative women while you were writing about women in a male dominated industry?

CCR: First of all, as a Virginian, it delights me to no end when we can sneak a reference to Black Flag, Bad Brains or any other D.C.-based band into the show, glad that scene landed with you. To your question, we definitely drew inspiration for Cameron and Donna from the likes of Roberta Williams (Sierra On-Line) Donna Bailey (Centipede), Grace Hopper and even Ada Lovelace. Looking ahead, should we be so lucky as to do a third season, the respective rises of Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Meyer are of great interest to us. Since our show takes place in the 80s the sexism is less overt than it was in the Mad Men era but its certainly still there. We try not to be too on the nose with pointing that out, but this is really the time when because of how they were marked, computers were branded "toys for boys" and women started to fall out or be pushed away from STEM careers such that there were actually more females per capita in tech. grad. Programs then than there are now.

CP: In the end, "Halt and Catch Fire" is a great TV show with outstanding character development. At one point, Joe says to Gordon, "Computers aren't the thing. They're the thing that gets us to the thing." Could this a metaphor for good TV—the real thing being compelling characters and plot?

CCR: That's a great question. I'd say first of all that my writing partner and I are lucky in that we're both in our early 30s so de facto part of a second wave of showrunners working in the so called "golden era" of TV. What I mean by that is we got to be schooled and influenced by the "Difficult Men" shows like "The Wire," "The Sopranos," "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men" before we had to step up and do Halt. I think the Wire for me is the one that first demonstrated that you could use character drama to actually teach people about important things. Nobody would have shown up for a show about the Baltimore school system but David Simon pulled off this great trick of couching that in compelling character drama. We don't necessarily have an agenda that is that noble or overt, but if we can educate—tell "the story you don't know"—about the rise of computers and whether they've brought us closer together or driven us farther apart, I'll feel that we've accomplished something a bit bigger than if the show was about entertainment only.

CP: Online gaming has the ability to bring people together, but Gamergate showed the ugliest side of that culture. Without spoiling too much, you touched on that when Lev got assaulted by people he met online. All of the characters involved with Mutiny (the company) were greatly affected with that assault, even Joe. How did it feel writing a scene where a medium that a company created became the vehicle for hurting a colleague?

CCR: One of the great opportunities HACF has is to use a period 1980s lens to examine modern problems, Gamergate not least among them. In depicting what happens to Lev as a result of his online relationship we wanted to show the dark side of connection that comes part and parcel with all of the good things online community allows. That idea, "connection," its costs, values and hazards, is really the central idea of our second season.

CP: Are there any games you're looking forward to? And if you are, why?

CCR: Ah man, other than having a few beers and hitting the old coin-op arcades of LA I rarely have time to game much anymore. My wife and I have a Wii that we used to play the dance games on (again, usually after several beers) until we started messing up our furniture and antagonizing our neighbors with the noise. That said, we'll see. The storytelling in games is so deliberate and strong now, maybe it's just a matter of time until I find my next Metal Slug.

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