It’s a cool, cloudy Saturday afternoon during South by Southwest, but things are heating up inside a Second Street restaurant where cast members and show runners for the new AMC drama Halt and Catch Fire, premiering 9 p.m. Sunday, are high on the buzz coming out of the festival.
In addition to being one of the high-profile TV screenings at this year’s SXSW — HBO’s Silicon Valley and Fox’s Cosmos also generated noise — Halt and Catch Fire has the added cachet of taking over a slot on AMC’s coveted Sunday lineup that was home to Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
For North Texans, there’s extra incentive to tune in: The show, set in the ’80s just after IBM introduced the personal computer, chronicles the birth of DFW’s Silicon Prairie, where both creative types and con men were just beginning to see the promise and the payoff of living in a wired world.
It’s all seen through the prism of such characters as Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace, “The Hobbit” movies), a gung-ho former IBM exec who tasks disillusioned engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy, Argo) and punkish computer prodigy Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis, That Awkward Moment) with coming up with a PC knockoff on the sly.
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MacMillan wants to put his new company, the fictional Cardiff Electric, on the technological map, but he has to connive the firm’s old guard — like feisty boss John Bosworth (Toby Huss, 42) — into believing it’s worth the risk. Meanwhile, Clark’s wife, Donna (Kerry Bishé, Scrubs), doesn’t want Gordon rocking the corporate boat and upsetting their safe, suburban world.
While this might sound cerebral and sedentary, it’s the shifting power dynamics among the characters — as with Mad Men and its office-bound advertising world — that hold your interest, not car crashes and shootouts.
For series co-creator Christopher Cantwell, who conceived Halt with writing partner Christopher C. Rogers, it all stems from his childhood reality. Raised in Dallas, he has memories of those early years as his dad worked in the computer industry. While he’s adamant that all the characters are fictional, they are informed by elements of what was going on back then.
“My father moved my family down to Dallas [from Illinois] in 1982 when I was 6 years old for an opportunity in computers,” he remembers. “He saw the industry change from year to year. And then the more research we did on Texas at the time, we learned about Michael Dell [in Austin] in his dorm room making computers. We learned about Compaq [in Houston] reverse engineering the IBM PC. We learned about Texas Instruments. We learned about Ross Perot founding EDS and getting that off the ground.
“There was a lot of interesting stuff that people aren’t that aware of, and we thought that was a really great backdrop.”
“[Texas] was viewed by a lot of people at the time, per our research, as sort of a catch basin for people who had not succeeded [in Silicon Valley],” says executive producer Jonathan Lisco, who most recently worked on the series Southland. “On the other hand, there was a lot of wonderful tech going on here. TI, [Fort Worth’s] Tandy were doing amazing, quasi-below-the-radar-type technology.
“As you start to unspool and untangle it, the truth is somewhere in the middle,” Lisco says. “It wasn’t as if all the rejects were in Texas and all the geniuses were in Silicon Valley. In fact, there was a great symbiosis between the two places.”
Still, much of the world associates the computer revolution with the West Coast, where Seattle and Silicon Valley, homes of Microsoft and Apple, respectively, dominate the digital discussion. Yet it was exactly for this reason that AMC was intrigued by Cantwell and Rogers’ pitch of Texas as a hotbed of innovation.
It was a story it hadn’t heard before.
“The fact that’s it not set in Silicon Valley, or in any of those archetypal places that you associated with the business, is one of the things that drew me to the project,” says Lisco. “I thought it was a wonderful way to do a backdoor version of this [birth of technology] story and create an alt universe that’s just two beats off our own but could have existed in nature.
“It’s a fascinating way to do it and we don’t tread on a lot of other material people are doing,” he says, pointing to the upcoming Aaron Sorkin-scripted movie about Apple pioneer Steve Jobs, based on the biography by Walter Isaacson. (Additionally, the next project from Steven Bochco of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue fame is Murder in the First, a crime drama set in Silicon Valley for TNT.)
Cantwell and Rogers, both of whom had worked in marketing for Walt Disney Co., were relative newcomers to the TV writing game and came up with Halt as a calling card to land a gig on an established show.
“The second thing we wrote was Halt and Catch Fire. It came from a place of writing about something we love and it communicates our ability,” Cantwell says. “And, all of a sudden, it’s its own show. It’s very surreal and not something that we expected. We were really writing for ourselves and now we’re at a network where they really champion that kind of material.”
No hat, no cattle
For Cantwell, who grew up in Wylie, Murphy and Plano, and went to Dallas’ Jesuit College Prepatory before moving to Los Angeles to attend USC, one of his goals was to paint a more complex, less cowboy picture of Texas than is typically seen in the media.
“The Dallas that’s been represented on screen, while enjoyable, has been things like Dallas the TV show. It’s big hair, big hats, big oil and there’s so much more to it,” Cantwell says. “Growing up in the ’80s in Dallas, I had friends whose parents were from Missouri, California or Illinois and it was a city of transplants. It was people coming for opportunity and I think we’ve really endeavored to make sure that any Texas characters that are in the series are not portrayed as yokels.
“There’s a tendency to do that with someone like John Bosworth, but we want to make him a multidimensional human being who is worldly, is smart and just happens to be from Texas.”
Georgia on their minds
Yet for all of Halt and Catch Fire’s deep roots in North Texas’ blackland prairie soil, it’s actually being shot on the red clay of Georgia.
The state has more generous tax incentives for filming, and AMC — whose most popular series, The Walking Dead, also shoots in the Peach State — already has a crew and infrastructure in place there.
“There was a discussion early on [about filming in Texas] but AMC said ‘Let’s take it to Georgia,’ ” Cantwell explains. “At first, I was disappointed because I wanted to film it where it took place, but then I met the crew based in Georgia and I saw what they were capable of — they work on The Walking Dead when they’re not working on Halt — and they’re phenomenal.”
He adds with a laugh, “[The people in the crew] like our show because it’s in air-conditioned office buildings as opposed to in the Georgia heat and a zombie is chasing someone.”
McNairy concedes he felt right at home in Atlanta. “I was driving around and the first thing I said was this reminds me so much of Dallas — the downtown area, the neighborhoods,” he says.
Of course, whether Halt and Catch Fire can live up to the ratings and critical expectations set by The Walking Dead, Mad Men and Breaking Bad remains to be seen. Other AMC series, from Rubicon to Low Winter Sun, have not been able to share in that magic.
The network certainly seems bullish on it. To whip up interest, it began streaming the pilot online two weeks ago and it was even available through AMC’s Tumblr feed, a first for a new show.
“We’re eclectic by design,” network president Charlie Collier told the Los Angeles Times about how Halt fits in with the other programming. “It is a rare network that has a show like Mad Men and a show like The Walking Dead.”
As for the series’ name which, very unlike The Walking Dead, offers no clue as to what it’s about, Cantwell says its oblique nature is a perfect fit. It’s a reference from the early days of computer coding in which a line of code supposedly could instruct the machine to speed up, freeze and self-destruct.
“It really speaks to the characters and how they are all competing. We start the machine in the first episode and it’s neverending. It’s a runaway train, and what’s going to result?” he asks. “Will it be some huge crash? Who’s going to survive?”
As much as Cantwell is considered the Texas guru by the crew on the set — “they come to me and say, ‘You’re the Texas guy, does this look right?’ ” — he only occasionally gets back to North Texas these days. His parents retired to Palm Springs, Calif., nearly two years ago.
“I do miss it. I miss it every day,” he says, noting that the show gives him a chance to explore his Texas roots. “It’s nice to tell a story that takes place where I grew up.”
Cary Darling, 817-390-7571