Q & A with Howard Gordon

Running a television show is the sort of job that rarely leaves you with free-time on your hands, but during the writers’ strike of 2007, “24” executive producer Howard Gordon suddenly found himself with just that – free time, and no scripts to write.  So he decided to try his hand at a novel instead.  Gordon’s debut effort, an international thriller titled “Gideon’s War,” hits shelves this month. 

Jewish Journal:  Why a novel after so many years as a TV Writer?

Howard Gordon:  It’s actually less sudden than it may appear.  I’ve always wanted to write a novel.  I wrote a short novel for my thesis in college with Joyce Carol Oates as my adviser.  When the strike happened, I decided to take the opportunity to explore and flex those muscles again.

JJ:  How did you find the novel-writing experience compared to the collaborative effort of scripting a show?

Gordon:  It’s a little akin to show-running.  Actually, I take that back, it’s profoundly different.  It’s much lonelier.  The terror was far more acute.  I’d become used to relying on others; I genuinely feared not finishing the novel.  It was a real learning process for me.  Having a great editor and a great agent helped, and so did the flexible deadline.

JJ: You seem to be drawn to writing about spies and international intrigue.  What about that world speaks to you?

Gordon:  I’m fascinated with foreign policy, especially with how we (America) represent ourselves internationally, how we project our power.  I thought briefly about joining the State Department when I graduated from college.  I currently serve on the Pacific Council on International Policy, and the Homeland Security Resiliency Task Force, so it’s important to me.  It also appeals to me as a genre.

JJ: The protagonist of your novel, Gideon Davis, is in many ways the opposite of Jack Bauer when it comes to dealing with conflict.  Gideon’s brother, Tillman, seems to share more of the same views as Bauer when it comes to handling terrorism, while Gideon’s more of a pacifist.  Which approach are you sympathetic to?

Gordon:  I identify with Gideon more than Jack.  He tries to talk his way out of things, like I do.  He seeks the peaceful approach, until he’s forced to act.  Conflicts between brothers have always interested me – Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, even a movie like “The Fighter.”  I love how things swing from sibling love to sibling rivalry.

JJ:  So your book is named “Gideon’s War,” and much of the action centers around an oil rig called The Obelisk;  in the Bible, Gideon is one of the Judges, and he fights a war with the Midianites and destroys the altar of Baal.  Baal is often associated with Obelisks.  Coincidence?

Gordon:  Completely!  I didn’t even realize it until I was googling the book one day and made the connection.  Maybe it was a subconscious thing.

JJ: The novel seems tailor-made for a film adaptation, any plans for that?

Gordon:  I’m still considering it.  I didn’t write the novel with that in mind, but obviously if an opportunity comes along, I’d have to think about it.

JJ:  Any other projects in the pipeline?

Gordon:  I’m shooting a pilot in North Carolina for Showtime.  It’s called “Homeland,” and it’s based on an award-winning Israeli TV show.  So you can hopefully look forward to seeing that soon.

’24’ producer Howard Gordon : Our only politics is to have an exciting show

Howard Gordon, 47, is an Emmy Award winner and executive producer of the hit action series, “24,” which portrays the life of Jack Bauer, an agent in the Los Angeles branch of the U.S. Counter Terrorist Unit.

Later this year, the American Jewish Congress, Western Region will give Gordon the Stephen S. Wise Award for his contributions in helping the American public understand the threat of terrorism.

Jewish Journal: ’24’ has been praised for fast-paced and complex plots. On the other hand, some critics have objected to the excessive number of torture scenes and the show’s “ticking-time-bomb” premise that if you don’t beat the information out of the suspect quickly, America will suffer irreparable damage.

Howard Gordon: The charge that we may be promoting Islamophobia is not entirely specious. You referred earlier to a giant billboard for our show along the 405 Freeway, which showed a recognizable Muslim family with the warning: ‘They Could Be Next Door.’ This was put up by the Fox promotion department without our knowledge, but I can see why it caused a fair amount of disgruntlement among Muslim advocacy groups.

On the other hand, we have also been accused of being pro-Obama, because we once featured an African American actor as a presidential candidate. We also hear that the show has a right-wing agenda, which is absurd. The only politics is to have an exciting show.

JJ: So how do you draw the line between putting on an exciting show and your responsibility as a citizen and human being?

HG: That’s a question we weigh very carefully. The old excuse, ‘It’s only a TV show, so it doesn’t matter,’ doesn’t hold water anymore. Yet our ticking-time-bomb narrative, the constant sense of urgency, that’s an unreal conceit. You get an unreal picture of the real world, by and large.

JJ: When did you realize that ’24’ was more than ‘just a TV show’?

HG: We had a visit from a high-ranking West Point officer, who said that his cadets were not only great fans of our show but were actually taking their cues from Jack Bauer. That was very disconcerting. We subsequently put out a public service announcement that our show presented a very hyped-up version of reality.

JJ: How does being Jewish play into all this?

HG: Well, I’ve had to confront my own sensitivities and proclivities. I am very pro-Israel, I love Israel, I consider it the Jewish homeland, but I am also not just a rubber stamp for Israeli policies. I am an advocate for a strong Israel, but I am also an advocate for peace.

I hope that my moral and ethical infrastructure is based on what I learned as a practicing and identified Jew, and these values have certainly influenced me as a writer. My wife, our three children and myself attend University Synagogue, and we’re going to Israel in December for our daughter’s bat mitzvah.

JJ: Dalia Mogahed, executive director of Gallup’s Center for Muslim Studies, speaking to the Writers Guild of America, West, cited figures from a poll of tens of thousands of Muslims in 35 countries that only 7 percent supported the actions of Muslim terrorists, with 93 percent opposed. What do you make of this?

HG: I take the Gallup figures at face value. There is widespread ignorance and contempt of Muslims and a streak of that in the United States, as well.
I am by no means blind to the threat of Islamic extremism and that Jews and Christians are subject to gross caricatures in Muslim countries, such as the dramatization of ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’ That’s absurd. That’s like ‘1984.’ But we’re Americans, and we can’t use that as an excuse.

Unfortunately, we know so little about each other and, with the stakes so high, that’s not a good thing.

For more information on the Dec. 4 function, contact the American Jewish Congress at 310-496-4280.

Time’s on his Side

There’s no denying that Fox’s critically acclaimed "24" is a fast-moving show that, unlike other dramas, operates in "real time" — each 60-minute episode’s action literally unfolds over an hour’s time.

But what series co-creator Joel Surnow never anticipated was that his rookie show would move as fast in the real world: Not even halfway through its first season,"24" was nominated for Best TV Drama and Best Actor (Kiefer Sutherland)Golden Globes.Dark horse Sutherland won over perennial award show favorites Martin Sheen and James Gandolfini.

Since episode one, the series has tracked Counter Terrorist Unit agent Jack Bauer (Sutherland) into a web of intrigue that turns his corrupted agency against him. Bauer’s odyssey grows murkier each week as he must foil an assassination attempt on an African American presidential candidate while simultaneously locating his own kidnapped wife and daughter. The twist: He cannot trust anyone.

It’s been a fast rise for Surnow, 47, who wrote for "The Equalizer" and "Bay City Blues." Surnow co-created "24" with his former "La Femme Nikita" partner, Robert Cochran.

"Both Bob and I were raised steeped in Judeo-Christian values," Surnow says. "Bob was raised Christian-Scientist, and we inform the show with those values. We see our hero the same way."

Growing up on the fringes of Beverly Hills in the 1970s was exhilarating for Surnow, who moved from Detroit at age 9 and was bar mitzvahed at West L.A.’s Congregation Mogen David. Surnow’s father, whose lineage comes from Odessa, w as a tin man. His mother, in clothing retail, came from Lithuanian descent. Surnow attended Beverly Hills High, dated the daughter of B-movie horrormeister William Castle and befriended the son of Frank Sutton (Sgt. Carter on "Gomer Pyle").

A few years ago, "24"’s star went through some growth of his own. Sutherland left Hollywood to go the cowboy way on the rodeo circuit. When he decided to make "24" his big return, there was no hesitation at Fox.

"He was transitioning from boy to man in his life," Surnow says. "I think his life experience outside of the business gave him some gravitas, as they say."

Indeed, the running storyline of "24" harkens back to 1970s TV staple "The Fugitive," which strung viewers along by dangling a dramatic carrot from week to week. "24’s" glossy cinematic style evokes filmmaker Michael Mann. No accident: Surnow worked on the first season of Mann’s visually flashy "Miami Vice."

"I was influenced by his attention to detail," Surnow says, "which I think he brought to TV — saying that a series could look bigger, like a movie."

Stylish flourishes, like a split-screen effect, make "24" appear big screen. But this is more functional than conscious homage to Norman Jewison’s "Thomas Crown Affair."

"It was organic," says Surnow, who credits the pilot’s director, Steven Hopkins and editor Dave Thompson, for this device. "A real-time show has lots of phone calls, and phone calls on TV are boring. We decided to start and end every act with a split screen."

Off the clock, Surnow spends time with his five children, ages 6 – 19. "Two Jewish, three mutts," he says, tongue in cheek. Now remarried, Surnow says, "I’m basically a holiday Jew. However, she’s a pretty devout Catholic, and there are a lot of similarities in the two cultures."

"24’s" creators have already begun brainstorming for a Day Two. But Surnow has an even grander project ahead once season one wraps.

"I’m going to plan a vacation," he says, laughing.