Halt and Catch Fire’s Creators on Moving the Show to San Francisco and Why the ’80s Are Big on TV

Christopher Cantwell (L) and Christopher C. Rogers (R).

When Halt and Catch Fire premiered, the show was a difficult-man drama about Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan set in Texas. After picking up the pitch for the series from newly minted TV writers Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, AMC brought in veteran writer Jonathan Lisco as the showrunner. Two seasons later, Halt and Catch Fire has reconfigured twice — refocusing on Mutiny, a start-up managed by Donna (Kerry Bishé) and Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), in its latest season, and moving to San Francisco for season three. Meanwhile, Lisco has gone off to work on his own project, TNT’s Animal Kingdom, and Rodgers and Cantwell have graduated to running the show. The constants: Halt and Catch Fire is still set in the ’80s — we’ve gotten to 1986 by now — and it’s still about computers. To better understand all those changes, Vulture caught up with the Chrises behind it all to talk through the California setting, what they learned on a trip to Joshua Tree, and how Halt taught Stranger Things and the rest of TV about the ’80s.

You guys worked with Jonathan Lisco, who was the showrunner for the first two seasons. What was it like to take the reins from him?
Christopher Rogers: I have to start that answer by saying thank God we had Jonathan Lisco when we got this thing off the ground. This was really our first big thing in TV, and AMC was wonderful, was crazy enough to take a chance on this passion project of ours. The first writers room we were ever in was our own, which was terrifying and daunting. Jonathan Lisco was really our mentor. He kept us creatively involved and really showed us the ropes, and we felt like it was a master class in how to run a room, both in terms of getting a great story out of people, and in terms of being a really good and decent and fair person in what can sometimes be a brutal industry. In terms of the actual change, it was terrifying, but I think very rewarding in that Chris and I are a writing team and we have a good feedback loop with each other. Chris has great instincts and got to direct this year, and I feel like I got to explore some things.

It seems like this show has gotten the chance to reboot itself a couple of times and explore new territory in every season. What were you guys excited about in bringing it to Silicon Valley?
Christopher Cantwell: I'm from Dallas. I grew up in Texas and my dad worked in computers in Texas in the '80s. I am very fond of that region and that time period and have a personal connection to it, and was a little sad to leave. But at the same time, it does seem to be where the story wanted to go. We were very excited to get everybody out to California and have them finally try to put their money where their mouth is. They've been in Texas and they've been full of a lot of potential for the last two seasons. But can they really pull it off once they're in the big leagues?

When they get there, they have to work with all these VC firms, trying to get money. I thought it was interesting how you depicted Cameron and Donna learning how to pitch themselves.
CR: A lot of this season is about the "person as product." They're this little start-up that could out of Texas in this shark tank of Silicon Valley all of a sudden. They're gonna need money to place a bet on the table. We really wanted to show these two out there giving their pitch, preparing in the way that women uniquely have to prepare to pitch, even now in Silicon Valley, unfortunately, which is with a lot of hard facts and math. You've got to combat some of the inherent sexism. In that process, they’re having to come to terms with what Mutiny is now. A lot of this season for them is about the soul of this company and trying to retain it even while they try to make it commercial. Cameron and Donna pitching themselves is very much an exercise that reveals a lot about Cameron and Donna to themselves.

Did you look at specific models for tech companies going into this season? Mutiny feels as if it’s turning into eBay to me.
CC: We did. Ultimately our characters are fictional and the companies that they run are fictional. But we wanted them to exist plausibly within the cracks of history. So we did a lot of research going into season three again, and what was going on in technology. There were a couple things: The real growth of Silicon Valley into a world stage, which we're trying to depict in terms of the stakes the characters are facing on the business level. We're also seeing the cult of personality emerge in technology, with people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. We're gonna see some of that in Joe's story. We're seeing people from all over the world now flock to California to try to make their name in the industry. The online landscape was still a series of several little nascent islands. But they were growing and there were dozens by the time we get to '86, and they were all trying to figure out how to win. What would that big idea be that would put them above the others in the playing field? We came across this concept called e-tail, which was the foray into online transactional interaction and trading and even buying. It was a thing that everybody was kind of hot on around the mid- to late-'80s. And that was a story we thought would be interesting to tell. Because we are all familiar, like you said, with eBay and Amazon, but those companies are about ten years off from where we are now. So how do we connect the dots?

You mentioned Joe MacMillan's Steve Jobs/Bill Gates connection. Were there things that you wanted to explore in that archetype? 
CR: Season three, for fans of the Joe MacMillan character, is maybe the best we've done so far. The first two seasons serve as backstory to the guy we're going to meet at the top of this third season. Joe is a guy who constantly reinvents himself and shifts and becomes what he needs to become.  San Francisco is a place that does that, too. He studies at the altar of other people who've successfully blended their personality in with the success of their product. He even says "I am the product" at one point. Steve Jobs was certainly a master at that. Inspiration for Joe comes from a lot of places. We always like to make him an amalgam of characters. Like John McAfee, Bill von Meister, even Gates, in his youth. There's a little bit of a lot of people in Joe MacMillan.

You also introduce Manish Dayal's character Ryan, who idolizes Joe, even as he’s working for Mutiny. Why bring him on now? 
CR: One, we wanted a homegrown Northern California coder. Someone that came from the area and represented our shift to this new location, and had this dazzling amount of ability that the best people in this talent pool did. That said, we also gave him a very specific deficiency: It's very hard for him to express his ideas. He has these huge ideas that are hard to get across, and so people misunderstand him. This is a personality type we encountered a lot in our research and we thought was a good new flavor for the show. As such, a person like Joe MacMillan holds out a special magnetism to Ryan, because Joe is such a master communicator. That reality-distortion field that guys like Jobs have, it can sometimes make the impossible possible. So I think there's a symbiotic relationship there, because Joe is a guy who has grown jaded in success, and falls back in love with Ryan's passion. When we created that character we definitely saw how he would fit into Joe's story, but we wanted him to be someone that could also plausibly cross out of and back into Mutiny's story, in terms of his relationship with Gordon and Cameron and Donna this year.

When you say you wanted someone who's a Northern California coder, were you thinking specifically of someone Indian-American?
CC: It's a long and storied process when you come up with a new character. Before the season started and right after we found out we had been renewed, Chris and I went away to the desert together, believe it or not. We went out to Joshua Tree and we rented a hut. We just sat there for several days talking about what we could do with our characters. Out of that discussion came Ryan. Soon after that came this idea of, man, we're going to California. We've moved away from North Texas in the early '80s, which is a very specific demographic. We're now in San Francisco. We're now in a major American city, in a place where people from all over would be, especially with the new industry there. So we actually came up with the idea of Ryan being Indian-American but born in California before we started casting. It was something we talked to the network about at our pitch, when we discussed the season with the high-level [executives] and our executive producers. With our casting directors, Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas, we said, "We want this character to be Indian-American." We just think it's part of the identity of the character, that this is where he's from and he grew up in California and was born there. They brought us Manish. He blew us away on camera. We loved the energy he brought to the character, which was exactly what Chris was saying. A guy who can read as brilliant, but also read as completely socially tone-deaf. A guy that's moving at a high intellectual metabolic rate. Maybe too fast. Once he showed up I think we just started writing for him in the writer's room and told his story.

There's also the addition of Annabeth Gish’s Diane, a VC executive who becomes both a role model and a foil for Donna and Cameron. 
CC: In season two we introduced a character named Jacob Wheeler who was played by James Cromwell. But he was definitely a little bit of a patriarch, an overlord in Joe's story. We really wanted to make sure that when we introduced a new character from the VC world, that she didn't feel that way. What's fun is to see a little bit of Diane rub off on Mutiny, and then also see Diane's life be affected by Mutiny in ways she wasn't expecting. We joked a lot in the writers room about Diane Gould living a normal life and having her own normal problems, but then just accidentally getting in the backseat of a car driven by crazy people, which is the cast of Halt and Catch Fire. 

You were a little bit ahead of the curve with looking back at the '80s, the time period that we're all reinvestigating in shows like The Americans and Stranger Things. What do you think is so appealing about that decade?
CR: What's the great Camus quote about how all art is about trying to get back to the first images that fundamentally touched you in your youth? Chris Cantwell and I are both in our early 30s, so that's stuff we grew up with a fondness [for]. A lot of it maybe comes from that era. There's also a desire we've always felt to understand why and how we got to where we are now that Halt and Catch Fire aims to answer. We think this is the genesis point of the world we live in now, where we're so seamlessly interconnected with technology. A lot of things are kind of a remix at this point. We were happy to have been there kind of first, or at least early, because it is high praise when things like Stranger Things come out. And a lot of actors actually who cut their teeth on Halt as well as a lot of behind-the-scenes people who did costume or wardrobe are also working on the show. It proves what TV can do now and how it's expanded into the role occupied by indie films. We're really proud to have a show that comments on our modern times in this period way.

CC: I would just add that I've been watching Stranger Things. I've been obsessed with it. I love it. Like Chris said, I grew up watching those things. I've never seen anything capture so well the look and feel and tone of those films and TV shows of that time, of that era. I mean, it is impeccable. And yet, it tells a new story. You think you've seen that movie a million times, but you have no idea what's gonna happen next, which I think is wonderful. We are trying to do something that maybe is the opposite. If Stranger Things feels like they're going for a look that feels like then, we're intentionally going for a look that feels like now. We often call our show a contemporary period piece, in the way that Chris is talking about. When you're watching Halt, people can forget that it actually did take place 30 years ago. It is a time when the world was completely different, but about to become what it is now.

It must be fun to see another show and think, Oh, yeah. That hairdo. Now everyone knows how to do that hairdo on TV.
CC: That's 'cause it's the same person doing that hairdo, believe it or not. I don't think it is with makeup and hair, but there are several people, like Chris said, behind the scenes on Stranger Things that did some great work for us too. We'll give a big plug to Randy Havens, who really came into his own as the science teacher on Stranger Things. He was one of Gordon's office buddies in our second season. We love him and wrote to him and we're thrilled to see him getting a star turn on that show. The '80s have been good to Randy.

He's found a decade that fits.
CC: The facial hair. The angles are all right.

CR: He's got a killer 'stache.

CC: Maybe it was the 'stache, yeah.

CR: He's got an awesome mustache.

CC: I mean, in addition to his excellent acting chops.

This interview has been edited and condensed.