In the nearly three years since they started collaborating, Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg have gone from strangers who created a hit fiction podcast together to TV showrunners who created an Amazon show for Julia Roberts to landing an overall development deal with Universal Cable Productions for more scripted programming.
Their partnership began after Horowitz, the co-creator of the digital novel The Silent History and Everything You Know Is Pong, an illustrated cultural history of table tennis, was hired to run the narrative division of Gimlet Media. Wanting to create fiction podcasts — or “movies for your ears,” as he says — he hired Bloomberg, a screenwriter, after producer Alicia Van Couvering shared one of his plays. One of the outlines Bloomberg pitched became the Homecoming podcast, released two years ago, starring Catherine Keener, David Schwimmer, and Oscar Isaac. Then Mr. Robot creator and showrunner Sam Esmail bought the rights to adapt Homecoming to television and Amazon ordered two seasons, the first of which was released last week. The TV show stars Roberts, Bobby Cannavale, and Stephan James, the lead in Barry Jenkins’s upcoming If Beale Street Could Talk.
Last month, Horowitz and Bloomberg met Vulture for breakfast to discuss their wild days of adapting and expanding the podcast for TV while simultaneously writing the podcast’s second season, which was released in July 2017. They are now writing the second season of the TV show, but don’t hold out hope for another season of the podcast: “They can’t coexist, so you have to blow it up,” says Horowitz.
How did you come up with the idea for Homecoming?
Micah Bloomberg: We tried to use the restrictions of audio drama to make a story. We knew that we didn’t want to have a narrator, so we needed to have scenes where people could be talking extensively and it would get personal. We thought a therapy scene might be good for something like that. And then the other idea that we thought would be interesting was confinement — if people were stuck somewhere and they couldn’t leave, that might lead to some tension. We had never done this before, but we figured out that we couldn’t use physical action like you can on a TV show or a movie. All the scenes had to be driven by interpersonal dynamics and character dynamics.
Why did you set it in the military world?
Bloomberg: We found an article about a real therapy that they use in which they call up a traumatic memory and then they administer a medicine that helps them restore the memory in a less damaging way. And we thought, That’s an interesting idea, so we fictionalized the medicine a little bit so that it actually deletes the memories.
When did Sam Esmail buy the rights?
Bloomberg: We were writing season two as we were talking to them. He had listened to season one. His agent sent it to him, he listened to it, and he thought, like, This it great, but I don’t wanna just adapt something for the sake of adapting it. And then he discovered, as he was listening to it, that there were opportunities to make it more visual. To stage things in a way that could even heighten the mystery. He really saw it as an old-fashioned, Hitchcockian yarn. Like a ’70s paranoid thriller that was more subdued and character-driven and not based on car chases and explosions, but had this menace and atmosphere that he could really get into.
It was really weird. Anything that you’re writing, people will go, That will make a great TV show! You should develop that for TV. And you send it to your agent and they’ll say, That’s fine. Maybe they even set up a meeting and you go to the meeting and nothing ever comes of it. But pretty quickly, it seemed a bit different. The people they were talking about attaching were really big, and their urgency was pretty intense.
It must have been challenging to write the second season of the podcast and simultaneously start thinking about the TV show. How did you go about it?
Bloomberg: The TV stuff just totally took over. Talking to you today, it’s a little bit like, That’s sad. It was a little tough ’cause we were right in the middle of writing season two and then went off this tangent of doing this whole other crazy thing. Season two of the podcast becomes like a caper comedy. The tone really shifts and moves away from the thriller into more of an office comedy. These people are just going after each other. And the TV show was going to be more like the first season, so we had to go back to the beginning of the story and open it up again. We ended up pulling an element from season two of the podcast into season one of the show.
Did Sam’s vision for the show help you look at the story more visually? Was he involved in the writing stages at all?
Eli Horowitz: He was not that involved in the development of the scripts. He gave notes and thoughts at the table reads. Sometimes it was very practical, like, It’s gonna be a pain to film this scene in the bathroom, so let’s not have it be in the bathroom.
Bloomberg: There’s this perception that when you go into Hollywood to make something, the first thing they want to do is change everything. That might be true in other cases, but Sam liked this story in the way it was told. It was about giving him scenes in a way that he could shoot them. I remember there were stupid plot things, like things about torn corners of envelopes, things that would make your eyes glaze over, and he would get involved in that. He wanted to know exactly how it works because he didn’t want us to look stupid.
You also ran a writers room for the first time.
Horowitz: It was interesting. It immediately just raised all these questions that we had just been able to blind ourselves to during the podcast. In a podcast format, you can be really focused on a scene. If it’s not in the scene, it doesn’t exist. But TV raises those questions. So it was really useful to have other people in the room to bounce those ideas, but also deciding when to pursue those threads and when to put boundaries into the story we’re telling. Like, what was Carrasco’s childhood like? Do you want to go that deep?
Or who was that lady that died in the diner?
Horowitz: Exactly, yeah. That’s Mrs. Trotter.
Bloomberg: It’s amazing to have these people with experience who are just tireless. It was just amazing to me that they spent all day just spitting stuff out and working on stuff in a very journeyman workaday way. And then some days, it was like a rodeo. Some days, there were so many ideas and there was so much stuff that it could be very overwhelming. And then other days, you’re like, Oh, I understand exactly why these people are here. They’re questioning us in this perfect way. They’re seeing stuff from the outside, which is really useful.
Horowitz: The challenge is respecting television as it is, and then also making sure you’re not blindly following those rules or those rhythms.
What were your biggest creative hurdles, the hardest stories to either break or expand?
Bloomberg: Carrasco’s story was really hard. He was the character that I had thought least about in the podcast because he’s such a plot mover. I think we got to a voice with him, especially with season two, which was kind of interesting. As Eli was saying, the good thing about the podcast is that if we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. You can focus the attention so closely that what Carrasco was there to do is not even really clarified too clearly. When it came to the TV show, we really were like, Who is this guy? What is he doing? Why is he investigating this? And why does he care? And so, that story line we spent a lot of time on. How did the complaint start? What does he think at the beginning of the story? What does he want and where does he end up? And then, luckily, we had Shea Whigham play the role and he just saw it and he ran with it. He understood it in a way that I never did. He created this whole human being around these documents and using these props and that is one of my favorite parts of the show.
Horowitz: We debated a lot the specific level of rules and secrecy within the facility. Is it a secret facility? Is the address secret? Are you able to leave? How much do these guys know? There were all these ways in which we could’ve made our lives easier by just making it an underground and an undisclosed location and the doors are locked and no one can come or go. But we were trying for something a little more mundane. Hopefully, interestingly mundane. It raised all these questions that we had to keep, on one hand, defending, and on the other wondering if we were crazy.
Bloomberg: People fill in the blanks how they want it to be a little bit. The tricky part is it comes to these weird pinch points like, the doors of the facility. Do those lock or not? Can you walk up to that door and just walk out of it? Is there somebody at a desk? That exact question of how the lobby works and whether or not you can just walk out took up a whole bunch of bandwidth for us in discussion and planning — and that hit production, design, script, and the actors because we could not agree on what the rules would be on coming and going. I remember at one time I really wanted there to be stanchions.
Horowitz: The takeaway is that we do have this idea that wrongdoing or conspiracies or cover-ups are way more sloppy and imprecise and human than they seem. And that’s a worldview that’s important to the series in general.
Right, like, is Colin as smart as he thinks he is?
Horowitz: Not even close. In these big situations, a bunch of individual decisions and the stakes and greed or resentment or fear or insecurity combines to make those situations. It’s not like someone thought through everything about the facility. Colin blundered into it and maybe it became more secret than he intended. Or the person who decided the door policy didn’t know about the medications. That, to me, is an idea that’s important to Homecoming throughout.
What was it like to walk on set the first day and see the world that’s lived in your head come to life?
Horowitz: It was crazy. For me, it was far more about the physical things they constructed. The actors was crazy, too, just as a fact. But seeing how far they had taken the physical details of the location, especially the facility — which is you know, of course, on a stage — that’s what felt surreal. We just made up a sentence on a page and then it sprang into being. And you could explore it. The facility was a building. It wasn’t like two walls, like when you go to the Friends set and you’re like, That’s weird how they make this look real. On this set, I could wander. I could be like, Which room did I leave my bag in?
How did Julia Roberts get involved? How was she cast?
Horowitz: She was one of the people who had been interested in buying the rights. And then that faded away. And then when Sam bought them, she expressed interest. She’s a real podcast person. There were fairly random ones she was asking me about. I think there’s a weird Hollywood podcast subculture.
She’s an executive producer, too. What was it like to work with her?
Bloomberg: I was thinking, She’s a huge star, this is gonna be a big problem. Just having this magnitude of a personality was going to slow us down. Is she gonna have issues? But she was super friendly, super nice, super jokey, always ready to go. You could not ask for a better captain for the actors ’cause they all look to her. I honestly was blown away. The conversations that we had, the scenes that she really wanted us to work on, it was a rigorous process of getting her what she needed in the scene. Oftentimes, it was taking her lines away. There were things that she didn’t want to say.
Do you remember an example?
Bloomberg: One of the scenes that she worked on the most was that [final] diner scene. She wanted to be left alone more in that scene. She wanted to let the physicality and the story do the work and not have them be delivering exposition. She really kept up after us about that. We did multiple drafts of that scene and were showing it to her up until the day. It was rigorous, but the scene ended up much better for it.
In that last scene, the camera focuses on Heidi’s fork after Walter left the diner. It’s at an angle. Heidi looks down at it and reacts as if she’s realizing something. Is she thinking that he did remember her?
Bloomberg: You remember he was always messing with her pen in the same way.
This is why I ask. Is he indicating to her that he does remember something? Or is he just being his playful self?
Bloomberg: I really don’t think the show is answering that. Is he gonna think that’s funny and try to mess with her? Or is he trying to tell Heidi something? I have my own personal private belief. But the way that you lined it up is exactly how we talked about it.
Horowitz: Hopefully it’s not just ambiguity for its own sake, but actually gets at a larger question we’re asking about what makes a person who they are. How much it’s your individual memories, or a spark in you or in your bones. Hopefully, there’s not a one-to-one way of expressing it. But something about how you interpret that final decision — about how you interpret what Walter’s doing — is also how you understand how we become who we are. To make it highfalutin like that!
Did you consider other versions of that ending?
Bloomberg: My memory is that the writers were working on various endings and they mentioned this fork idea and Eli and I were like, That’s really interesting. And then Eli and I had to execute it in the script and make it all work. But it was something that came up from the process.
Horowitz: It became ambiguous because, from the beginning, there were different interpretations of what it meant. But there wasn’t a directive for an ambiguous ending. That just seemed like a cool ending to different people for different reasons. Among the writers, we all saw it differently. It was a good test that the ambiguity worked that both versions could be satisfied.
On the podcast, after Walter leaves the facility, he’s running around with his misfit pals somewhere in California. We don’t see that on the TV show at all. We actually don’t know what happened to him in the interim years. Can you talk about how you worked to expand his story?
Horowitz: The boring answer is, we were essentially just starting with season one of the podcast and then pulling in our very favorite bits of season two. Without much consideration of season two of the show because we knew it would be different.
Bloomberg: We both felt like that was gonna be too much to get into season one, or I certainly did.
Horowitz: We were excited to give him a little bit more independent reality as a character. In the podcast, to some extent, we talk about him as like a damsel in distress. He’s a nice helpless guy who Heidi needs to save. And there’s some of that dynamic in the TV show, but we also wanted to give him more of his own story and own reality. We were able to bring in his mother, his patient background lurks in the background, his relationship with Shrier is something we could dig into. Just understanding his time overseas a lot better. This is a place where asking the questions really helped us understand the character better. We were glad to go down those rabbit holes.
Stephan James and Julia Roberts have great chemistry. How did you end up casting him?
Bloomberg: He was not as well known to us, as obviously Julia and Bobby [Cannavale] are, so we did more of a traditional casting process. They did self-tapes, came in and read, and he was just one of the best of those. And then we had a chemistry test with Julia, where she read with four or five of them. The vibe in the room totally shifted when Stephan was doing the scene with her. The way that he could be confident and you could imagine this unlikely romance between the two of them was key. You have to remember there’s an age gap and it’s not super appropriate what Heidi’s doing. All those things are great for a story, but it would seem wrong and inappropriate if he didn’t have agency in it or understand it. We wanted someone who wanted this relationship and understood what he was doing and had that confidence to play a full part in it. He’s just got this charisma and steadiness that we thought was really, really cool.
You also expanded the relationship between Colin and Heidi. I know that Bobby Cannavale pitched himself to play Colin to Sam when they were working on Mr. Robot. What did you think about casting him?
Bloomberg: It’s really hard to find someone to stand next to Julia Roberts and go to toe-to-toe in that way. She’s a really big star. A lot of actors are like, I’m not doing that. And he was willing. The unexpected thing to me about Bobby is that he’s got a weird mix of arrogance and aggression with this vulnerability that’s always there. You can always see the fear and the insecurity and the vulnerability of Colin. I think the scenes at the end with [his wife] Lydia, and when he’s brought up against Temple at the [post-credits sequence], you just buy that this guy who has been tap-dancing so hard for the whole season, all that stuff’s coming crumbling down. You almost feel bad for him a little bit.
Horowitz: Especially in that final scene with Temple. I think he does such an amazing job of trying to cling to that other version of himself.
Speaking of Audrey Temple, she’s not as present as she was in the podcast, where her phone calls with Colin are legendary. And her job here is different. What happened?
Bloomberg: Well, the character of Temple is one of those, like [Walter’s mother] Gloria, that underwent a big change between the writing of the podcast and the show. I guess I would say we found some other uses for her. In the show, she was essentially his assistant, a junior staffer.
Horowitz: Who somehow leapfrogs. The show is about these power structures, and about gender in certain ways. So it’s a very interesting question of how she made the move. We’re being intentionally vague right now about Temple.
Because you don’t want to discuss what happens in the end credits?
Horowitz: Because we’re not supposed to talk about season two.
Is that your way of saying we’ll see more of Audrey next season?
Bloomberg: We might’ve already said too much. Do you know what I mean?
I do not.
Bloomberg: [Laughs.] Well, we love the character of Temple. We love where Hong Chau took it. And we’re excited about that.
On the TV show, Heidi gets involved with Colin while he’s duping her. Why did you go in that direction? They didn’t date in the podcast.
Horowitz: Remember, they go on the Ferris wheel! They do go on a date in the podcast. Sort of. And they take a Ferris wheel ride. It’s sound effects, the Ferris wheel.
But they don’t have sex.
Horowitz: Well, the Ferris wheel has a pretty small bench. Too skinny. And uncomfortable.
You must not watch Insecure! Go see the Coachella episode.
Bloomberg: What? That’s pretty fancy.
Horowitz: There are cheaper Ferris wheels you could find. Closer to home. [Laughs.] One of our writers, Shannon, came up with that. This was a place where TV impulses really helped us. Instead of keeping it all buttoned-down and subtle gestures, she really encouraged us to go for it.
But why did you want to bring them together that way?
Horowitz: Making her predicament more uncomfortable, more intense, and more complicated is always good. We thought it said something about her character. That she was so desperate and despondent and feeling so bad about herself that she would just make the absolute worst decision, ’cause she almost didn’t care.
To her credit, he seemed like a nice guy.
Horowitz: Niceish. We talked a lot about how Colin’s able to be genuine in that scene, even though it’s this elaborate lie. They’re both these lonely people in over their heads and he’s pretending that, but it’s also true about him, even if he can’t tell her the details. Another great point is that Heidi can tell him what’s been going on and how she’s been feeling because there’s a romantic connection there. Heidi as a character, especially at the diner, is very closed off to people. And so we thought, Wouldn’t it be amazing if the person that she shares this inner life with, the struggles she’s been going through, is the very person who’s trying to deceive her?
Bloomberg: She needed a stranger to unburden herself, but she just picked the wrong stranger.
It was also interesting to see Heidi in her Homecoming job interview. Her disposition is more like the Julia Roberts we know with the megawatt smile. But she changes over time. Even the way her face looks changes.
Horowitz: That’s one of the reasons we thought she would be great for this part. She is this iconic figure and to see that diminished is its own kind of pathos. You know what she’s supposed to be, and when you see her being bullied or depressed or indecisive, it feels wrong.
You really see a wide range of emotions go through her in that last scene at the diner with Walter, the one where she asked for fewer lines.
Bloomberg: It’s not her first rodeo. She just knows. She knows what’s gonna work onscreen. She makes bad lines good, she makes good lines better, she finds a way to read things that make sense. It’s just insane acting.
Was there anything from the podcast that you sacrificed that you wish you could have included in the show?
Horowitz: Just a lot of mindless chatter that we like. [Laughs.]
Bloomberg: There’s space in a podcast that TV can’t afford to take. You need to get to the point a little bit more in TV ’cause people start to be like, Bad confusion, what’s going on? There’s an arbitrariness and a banality to some of the conversations in the podcast that we’re really fond of that we couldn’t afford.
Will there be a third season of the podcast?
Horowitz: Nah. They can’t coexist, so you have to blow it up. It’d just be hard, practically. I think we could do it. We’d have to go through a deep exfoliation and come out naked and rediscover the whole thing.
Bloomberg: The one idea that I thought was cool — this is a crazy fantasy idea — you treat all the actors from both the podcast and the TV show as one big stable. The world would blend in and mix in a fun way. It would be like cool to see the podcast weirdly conscious of the show.
Horowitz: You mean like, five years after the podcast, it’s been adapted into a popular true-crime television show? So Julia Roberts is the fictional Heidi Bergman.
Bloomberg: And there’s scenes between Catherine and Heidi.
Horowitz: It would be complicated.
Bloomberg: There you go. Season three!