Interviews

HUMANS Scoop: Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent Interview

Humans AMC

The new AMC drama series HUMANS is a mesmerizing look at life with humanoid robots living amongst us and the thorny issues of what happens when some of those robots start developing or have been bestowed with self-awareness and self-determination.  HUMANS takes us into the lives of a family who have just purchased a Synth and yet she seems to have an otherworldliness about her and does things they would not expect. In addition, it introduces a handful more Synths that seem to have developed awareness and are struggling to find their place in our world and if they can find a way to exist on their own, without human interference and control.

In a recent press call, creators, executive producers and writers Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent talk about the challenges the Synths face and the reactions of the humans around them, as well as teasing where the show is going in Season 1.

Can you talk about where did the idea for HUMANS come from and how the show came to be?
JON: The show is actually based on a Swedish show called, ÄKAT MäNISKO which translates as: real humans.  And we were approached by Qdos, the British production company that made the show, who we’ve worked with several times over the last two or three years and they’d won the rights to remake the Swedish show and they asked us if we were interested.  And we watched the original and it was so full of wonderful and fascinating ideas that we jumped at the chance because we thought we could bring our own take to it.

Is there there a favorite part,  like a favorite scene that you’re excited for people to see?
SAM: I will say that in Episode 3 there is a moment that a lot of people — maybe a majority of people — will have to watch through their fingers. I’m not giving anything more than that, but it’s a key moment for the show. So we have a few good ones.
JON:  Episode 4, the audience is going to be pretty shocked with what happens in Episode 4, so look forward to seeing that one.

It seems to add a lot when you cast a guy like William Hurt because he’s kind of a gray element. He could be a doctor or professor, just as easily as play one.  Can you share how you thought of him and what does a guy like Hurt do when you add him to your show?
SAM: Gravitas, in a single word. He is an intellectual himself and I think he just bleeds through into his characters and he just provides such intellectual layers. It’s just not actually that easy to find an actor who you feel could have done such world-changing, high level work.  So I think more than anything that just his share craft and how brilliantly he is. He brings a huge amount to that part.

William Hurt mentioned that he felt that in some ways this kind of technology makes people more distant.  How do you feel about the ideal that to what extent technology brings us together and to what extent it actually doesn’t and it actually isolates us more?
SAM:  I think it’s doing both. But the thing is, we’re so in the middle of this process that we can’t possibly hope to understand it properly yet. We hear all the time how the younger generation or not just younger generation are forever buried in their phones and staring at their phones. But the real question is what are they doing on their phones? Most of the time they are communicating with each other and other people — people that they may not even know or that they may have never had the chance to meet or interact with if they didn’t have this technology. We spend so much time expressing ourselves through technology and conducting our emotional lives and relationships, at least partially through technology or with the help of technology. So I think it’s not a definitive answer in some ways, but I think it is bringing us together in new ways and pushing us apart in other ways. And think maybe that’s the way it’s always been in a way.  When the telephone was invented, there was a huge amount of worry that it would have all kinds of strange effects on human relationships. But we seem to have endured. I think we just keep adapting with it.

One thing that was interesting was that the flaws, obviously, make characters really memorable. Can you talk about designing the Synth to reflect flaws and shortcoming in characters?
JON:  You’ve rightly pointed out that the humans are sort of thrown by by the sort of perfectness of the Synths in their sort of movement, and also the way they conduct themselves.  I think that was a very sort of deliberate choice physically for us when we were creating this show. We wanted the Synths to move in a very graceful way and that was borne out of a sort of very practical concern because we wanted to treat the show in a very realistic way.  And if these things really did exist, they would use a massive, massive amount of power. So they would have to store that in batteries so when they did move they could never waste a single movement. Everything would have to be very economical. So they tend to move with a very sort of graceful smoothness.
SAM: Yes, and I would say that, you used the word “reflect”. I think a lot of it is that they are reflections, particularly George, the character played by William Hurt. His Synth is it doesn’t have a personality. It’s not Synthian.  And yet because it’s been so long with him and has absorbed so many memories, it has taken on this new value and is now a kind of reflection of the happier years in the past that George spent with his wife before she died. So I think the reflection and, as Jon says, providing a counterpoint is a real sort of human messiness and is kind of one of the sort of a key element of the show.  It brings out all of your — particularly in the character of Laura — brings out so many insecurities and paranoia that might have been already there.

Has there ever been a moment in real life where you were creeped out by some type of technological advance or machine or electronic?
SAM: That’s a good question. I’m just trying to think. I’ve had some strange interactions, definitely.
JON: I don’t really think — I mean I’m still freaked out by ads that are targeted at me by things that I’ve looked up on the Internet. That still freaks me out because I often forget that I’ve looked for the thing in the first place. So when I see the ad I think, “Oh, my god, they just looked into my brain.” But then I’ll remember that I probably searched for it on Google about half an hour before.
SAM: That’s true. But what’s happening there is that your natural thought process is the natural process of forgetting.  Technology has taken advantage of the fact that you forget and to sell you something. So that’s kind of scary.

One of the things which has guided robotic portrayals in television was the three rules of robotics.  How has that, and the fact that this was originally a Swedish show, influenced you, controlled you, and how do you make your own stamp on things?
SAM: Probably not much. I mean obviously we’re very aware that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants when it comes to this kind of stories.  There have been brilliant examples going back long before some actually. Isaac Asimov really owns this territory. The sort of existential robot story is owned by him.  What we have to do is put a new perspective on it, like how times have changed and think about what you’ve got to add to it, if anything, and what has changed.  I think there is quite a lot to add. Aalso from our perspective, this kind of ensemble which is mainly kind of conducted through domestic settings in a very grounded reality that is not recognized to be the future in any way. But instead, a parallel presence.  All those kind of things we felt gave us a platform and justified returning to this territory because it really did give us new ways to explore it on a very human and a very personal relationship level.  In terms of are the laws of robotics, we had a very direct homage to “I, Robot”. At the end of Episode 1, we mentioned what we called the blocks.  And we called them that, which are based on the three laws or an extension of them. We call them blocks because we felt well a law is something for conscious people — because you have to choose to follow a law because you can break it —  whereas the conventional, everyday Synthetics in our show, they could not choose to break a law. So instead we called them blocks because they’re just sheer pieces of programming and cannot be contravened. But we also show that it’s not enough. When you watch Episode 1, Anita is constantly — and  it’s hopefully quite amusing effect — regurgitating these long pieces of kind of regulatory legalize speak about what exactly she is and isn’t allowed to do.  We think that they would be endlessly customizable. You think you would say,  if you wanted to say, “don’t stroke the cat on a Tuesday” you would never have to tell it to do that again. So it would be a very kind of complex master/servant relationship and customizable, and with lots and lots and lots of complicated regulations. Like we had long conversations about if you’re walking down the road ad your Synth sees somebody about to have a crane full of bricks dropped on their head, are they obliged to just make sure you’re okay, or are they obliged to keep members of the public safe?  To what ratio? So are they going to have to ascribe that? Are they supposed a save a dog running out in front of a truck. And if that damages their programming, does their owner write them off?  So there have been endlessly kind of complex amount of regulations and rules governing them.

Automobile manufacturers are assessing the same thing with self-driving cars, like:  do you hit the grandma or do you hit the kid or do you hit the dog or do you save the passenger inside?
SAM: Exactly. And the thing that will happen with autonomous cars is as soon as the first person is hurt or killed in an accident with one, they’ll suspend the entire operation and we’ll all return to driving ourselves. In which case we’ll all return to killing each other on the roads at far, far higher rates.  That’s what’s going to happen with an autonomous car because it is our instinctive institutional mistrust of machines doing these things for us, even , when statistically I’m sure that in the long run they’ll be proved to be vastly safer. All it will take is that one accident for us to throw it all out the window again.

With HUMANS being based on the Swedish show, REAL HUMANS, what elements did you take from the Swedish version, and what new elements did you bring in?
JON: I think we based most of our characters on characters or amalgamations of characters from the original Swedish show. Certainly in the first episode at least, you see quite a lot of similarities in their plot strands where they start. However, we take ours in a completely different direction. So by the end of our series, all our characters are in a completely different place to where they are in the Swedish show.  I think probably overall, generally our show is probably a bit darker than the original Swedish show. The material sort of lends itself to exploring sort of darker, seamier side of humanity I think.  And we were allowed to do that, particularly because we were on a network in the UK and on AMC here, we’re allowed to do that. Where in the Swedish show was on a more mainstream network and they couldn’t really do that.

When creating some of the different Synth characters on the show, how did you go about writing each one differently to give them their unique look and perspective?
SAM: I think a lot of that had to do with working out their purpose in the world that we’ve created. So, for example, Anita is intended to be sort of a basic domestic model. So servitude is sort of her primary function.  Whereas someone like Vera, who’s introduced to look after George, is a lot more sort of overtly a carer Synth; and therefore has a bit more agency to try and look after his wellbeing and his health and hopefully comic effect.  And in the second episode she’s a bit too zealous in her pursuit of his physical health So yes, it kind of depends on what the Synth’s are designed to do in the world that we created.

What are also your own thoughts on Synths and the fact that we may be closer than ever to bringing this sort of technology to reality?
SAM: We both say that we’re relatively technically optimistic about everything. We tried very much in the show to be quite neutral on the question of whether or not this was a good or bad thing. We wanted to show lots of good aspects of it, and lots of bad aspects of it and let the audience decide, to present it as neither a utopia nor a dystopia.  But my own views on it are that humanity is only going in one direction. We are not going to suddenly slam on the brakes on technological progress. What we have to do, we’re going to keep going so it’s a matter of adaptation and preparation and understanding how this is changing us.  Because that’s the really interesting thing. And I hope this is what the show is about; at its core, is how is technology changing us and how will it continue to change us. And that more than anything is the key here.

With “Ex Machina,” “Chappie,” “Age of Ultron” and now HUMANS, this has been a busy year centering on robotics and the idea of artificial intelligence. Why do you believe these ideas are becoming so popular in modern society?
JON: Yes, well I think it’s very interesting Alex Garland, who wrote and directed “Ex Machina,” said something like this himself — in that its interesting how much it’s not heralded by any true advance in what is called true intelligence, as in artificial intelligence that could really think on a human level. So what I personally think it is about is that the last few years our technology has become — our everyday technology, our phones, iPads, and computers, etcetera — have become so much more intuitive in the way we connect to them. We now use our technology so much more to conduct our personal and professional and emotional lives and conduct relationships really, and express ourselves through social media and things like that which we access via our phone or via our table or computer.  That process has kind of increased exponentially over the last decade. And along with our technology becoming so much easier to use, and seemingly more able to understand us. Case in point, Siri on the iPhone — we no longer have to have kind of complicated systems of input and interfaces. We can just speak to our technology and we can speak to our phone and it will understand us.  And to think that alongside that, it’s becoming powerful and more mysterious. It’s evermore kind of locked away from us. We can’t go unscrewing it. We’re not encouraged to go finding out how it really works. And if we did, because it’s also so much more complicated and powerful.  So I think that maybe there’s a little bit of unease about the disconnect between the mysterious, ever-increasing power it has, and yet its seeming ability to understand us better and better, even as we understand it less and less.

With some of the Synths pretending to be completely inhuman, when they have kind of the human thought process –, especially with Max — couldn’t Leo have given him a directive going in, where he said something like, “Protect me.” Where Max could have stood up for Leo but the people wouldn’t have thought anything of it? Or, is that just something that they don’t do?
JON: That’s kind of a rule that we’ve written in. I mean you wouldn’t be able to tell your Synth to hurt someone else, because Synths can’t hurt humans. So you would have been unable to sort of act in that way. So that would sort of kind of prevent any sort of any sort of command to do so.  That would be a kind of very complex system, algorithmic sort of probability system, judging what they do. But we think overall it would kind of, for legal reasons and everything, it would lean so much more towards the passive  If something is bad, they call for help. They take passive action. The last thing they would ever do is anything that involved laying their hands on another human being. That is the worst possible outcome. There probably is, in their kind of algorithmic probability data set, a situation whereby they would. But the circumstances would have to be so incredibly extreme.  So if any kind of violent intervention, even if it’s a self-defense one, would attract extraordinary attention because that’s just not what they do.

By the end, will we get a complete explanation of kind of what Leo is?  Because obviously he’s got some strange things going on.
JON: Yes, the simple answer to that is: yes. The question that there’s a mystery strand will all be answered by the end of the series.

Was it difficult in the plotting and writing process to sort of balance the emotional and ethical issues that you wanted to cover with the technical and scientific part?
JON: That was a challenge. It’s about balancing those different elements of the show because it’s short of a new and slightly unusual show in a way because it has elements of genre in it. And there’s a sort of a thriller aspect.  But it’s also very much sort of a domestic drama and an emotional drama. Because when we came to it we wanted to explore the sort of ensemble of characters and explore this world in a very sort of 360 degree way, rather than focusing on one sort of narrow aspect of it.
SAM: It’s an interesting thing. Whenever you have a kind of potential piece of tension like that, I think we always try to say, “Well, how do we make them work together? How do we make one flow out of the other rather than kind of potentially clashing?” So we tried to make the emotional and the ethical flow out of the current technical questions, and vice versa. For example, we established there’s a kind of a technical logic thing offered.  Anita is not permitted by her regulations to hug Sophie, the little girl. And then we have a moment where clearly she breaks that rule which kind of hopefully creates a kind of quite unsettling, scary moment. We don’t know why we’re doing that.  So we try and make the two things work in concert as much as possible. One of the actual bigger challenges was, as Jon says, making a family drama painting and making those dynamics within the family just a very kind of real, grounded domestic, emotional issues; making them work as hard as possible and feel that the stakes inward in the family; the emotional stakes, are just as high as the stakes for the Synths which are literally a lot higher.  So we needed to make sure they matched and everything kind of earned its place. And I think if we manage that then we’re very happy because that was one of the main challenges I think going into the development of it.

There’s so much content out there right now, why should people spend our time with your show?
SAM: I would say that we are the only show about people’s relationships with their technology that is on at the moment that I can think of.
JON: Yeah. I agree, I mean there’s certainly because of — this is partly coming from the original Swedish show and the things that we loved about it and the things we brought into this version — but there’s certainly no other show like it on TV. I don’t think that explores a world in the sort of 360 degree way looking at so many different aspects and that’s even before you sort of bring, take into account that there are robots in it too.

The robots were so humanlike. They don’t seem like machines.  That was the thing that really drew me in.
SAM: Well maybe, maybe they’re more.  Maybe they’re more than just machines.

The U.S. and the U.K. have different laws about technology and cloning. Will HUMANS explore more of a religious viewpoint about the HUMANS technology?
SAM: The religion aspect it does come into it but not in a very heavy way. We don’t kind of create a large story line out of it but it does come in in hopefully a quite unexpected way in Episode 6 actually.   We explore, we did something we always wanted to do from the start and we ended up doing it in a quite a light touch way. It resulted in really in one of my favorite scenes actually in the whole series when we bring together the idea of God with these machines and U think it’s quite a special scene down, especially down to the actors involved actually.  It’s just little things but it’s a really nice moment. So we do touch on that a bit.

What Anita does at the end of Episode 1, was that part of a plan of screwing with Laura’s head?  Because at the end of Episode 2 you see that Anita is really happy that she’s getting sent back.
JON: It’s difficult to answer that comprehensively without sort of spoiling things, but I think it’s safe to say that there is several levels of complexity bubbling underneath Anita’s surface, things that are sort of getting collided and confused so.
SAM: There’s a struggle going on within her which is leading to instincts becoming sort of corrupted and misguided, so her action there will become very clear and as, as a clearing house she looks at the window and the rain on the window just before she does what she does at the end of Episode 1.  But it becomes clear I think later on why she glitches in that way and does that particular thing. Of course of course it’s very dangerous and worrying but it’s not necessarily malevolent, or although maybe it is.

It feels like Anita  was playing with Laura’s head a couple of times, like where she gives her kind of creepy looks and says stuff specifically to instigate her.  Was that because we’re seeing it kind of from Laura’s perspective and it was in Laura’s head or was that really what Anita was doing?
SAM: We really want the audience to decide.  We tried to kind of balance that stuff to really make you think not only kind of make you wonder what’s happening with Anita, like is she just glitching or is it something more sinister happening.  And if so, but even if it’s just glitching why on earth is she glitching in this way.  And then also for Laura to actually doubt herself and for others to doubt her, wonder if she’s really seeing this,  Laura’s under stresses and strains of her own and  it’s possible.  We kind of go there a bit further on in the series that Laura starts to think, “Well am I just imagining this? Am I just seeing things or am I reading too much into this because I’m already edgy and paranoid about aspects of my own life or is there something really actually quite dangerous going on?”  But we wanted to balance a very fine line, so it’s great that you’re asking that.

What can you share about George’s (William Hurt) relationship with the two versions of the Synths that he has?
SAM: We wanted to do a story about how we can invest so much in inanimate objects.  We can have a rich and fulfilling emotional relationship with something that doesn’t fill the emotion back, whether it be an object or beloved heirloom, something that somebody gave you or a, or even an animal.  Obviously, animals have different levels of consciousness but  we can feel deeply affectionate towards, certain kinds of animals that may never acknowledge you, in their entire lives because they’re a stick or something. But it doesn’t stop off from loving them if they’re our pets.  And what we, we’re trying to do in the Odi story, we show that Odi has become even though he’s  an unthinking machine, he’s become a repository, a leaky repository of precious memories for George. Odi was alive, Odi was with them, with George and his wife when his wife was alive the three of them have,  had some really happy times together.  The wife had died, George has had a stroke, and the person who kind of holds on and keeps the memories alive because of course he can record things perfectly, or he has been able to recall things perfectly up until recently, he’s Odi so he becomes this kind of reflection the beloved past and an aid-memoir.  So that’s why he’s so incredibly precious to George,  and that’s where I think some of that fondness comes from is, what he represents and what we’ve put into these things is what we’ve poured into them — we’ve poured our feelings into them and we’ve become so incredibly attached.  And of course that’s not the case at all with Vera when she shows up because George doesn’t have that history with her. He doesn’t have that richness, emotional richness with her and also she’s giving him horrible bowls of low sodium soup when he’s asked for a grilled cheese.

How far is George going to go to protect Odi?
JON: I think George will go as far as he can to protect Odi but  he is limited by several sets of circumstances, one being his sort of social circumstances, his sort of physical capabilities and the fact that he’s got Vera looking over his shoulder the entire time. But his beloved Odi so dear to him that he will, he will go to great lengths and, and to protect him and keep him with him.
SAM: We have some fun with it and then with the story, it have some fun turns and it has some sad turns definitely.  I think it’s a lot to do with loyalty — it’s the loyalty that George fills to Odi and but also the loyalty that Odi doesn’t feel but the loyalty that Odi displays towards George that ends up being quite an important part of the story.
SAM: There’s some sad turns and there’s, there’s definitely some, some fun as well. I mean what do you do when you’re being oppressed by a sinister jailer?  You try and escape.

Will some of these stories all intersect eventually because first couple episodes it seems that everybody’s sort of in their own world with what they’re dealing with?
JON: Yes. All the, all the ensemble stories are separate at the moment but all of them will converge as we progress through the series meeting in the sort of finale in Episode 7 and 8.
SAM: The characters, in unexpected ways, all cross each other’s paths a lot.

Which story lines do you think will actually hook in viewers initially?
JON:  I think , the fact that we have a sort of a regular everyday family that’s the heart of the show I think draws people in, that sort of domestic setting and the sort of familiarity I think people really respond to.  But something we found talking to people here and back home where the first two episodes have been shown on Channel 4, is the George and Odi story line, people really respond to that.
SAM: Yeah I think that’s made a huge part of the credit is down to the, what the actors did with that, William Hurt and Will Tudor is Odi and then also Rebecca Front as Vera comes into it is immensely funny and sinister at the same time.  I think they did a wonderful job.  So I think that is really striking people emotionally.  But I think the kind of eerie threat of interloper in the home is kind of quite an ancient and wonderful story format and whether or not trying to figure out what exactly Anita, what’s going on with Anita and just how dangerous she is and what she wants if anything is a real driver of intrigue, brilliantly driven by Gemma’s performance and by the performance of the whole family.  And then there’s also the more conventional I think thriller element,  the much more sort of action-paced element with Leo and Max and their quest to reunite the group which kind of provides us with a good counterpoint really against the more domestic stuff.

How closely did you work with the cast about how each Synth would act or did you just put it on the page and then the director kind of took it from there?
JON: In terms of the sort of the how the Synth behaves in their Synth movements in the original pilot script we wrote in the stage directions that they moved like someone doing a Japanese tea ritual, and that was only, the only real information that we gave apart from the fact that we stipulated we didn’t want anything sort of classically robotic, no sort of head cocking or so curious looks.
SAM: It actually said “no head cocking” in capitals in Episode 1 script, actually.
JON: But then when we got our director on board, Sam Donovan who directed the first two episodes he worked very closely with a guy called Dan O’Neill, who works for a British dance and movement theater company called Frantic Assembly.  He’s a choreographer and together they developed a sort of a language of movement of how these Synths would move.  So all our actors who played Synths and our supporting actors went to Synth school to learn how to move and behave, and all the movement was kind of borne out to a sort of a practical thought because we wanted to approach this in as really as big a way as possible, these things are just use up a huge amount of battery power, so there would never be a wasted movement so they’d be very economic with how they move so that would sort of make them very sort of slow and graceful.

Did you any particular favorite things that were an inspiration for you while you were writing or different things that really speaks to your imagination?
SAM: Well, we certainly went back to Isaac Asimov’s robot short stories. There’s actually a volume you can get.  He wrote so many robot short stories and there’s a very thick volume you can get, there’s about 50 stories in there and it just about his robot related ones.  And there’s a real scattering of absolute masterpieces among them.  He explored that area from so many directions and he was definitely a big influence.  Then we had to think of all the wonderful instances of AI and robots of various kinds that we’ve seen in cinema and on TV, less so I think on TV.  I’s more the, been more the province of films historically and yeah, things like “Blade Runner” and “AI” itself, which of course, stars William Hurt and “2001.”  I think Hal is probably my favorite instance of artificial intelligence in the cinema of all time.  So we have a kind of very aware of all of those kind of wonderful references and we just have had to work hard to learn what we could from them and also try and avoid doing anything too similar to them and also finding out what was new, what was fresh, what was the new take on this, what was the new perspective on this idea that we’ve been fascinated by since Frankenstein, if not before.

Do you think there’s ever going to be a time when we kind of have to take sides of the humans or the Synths on HUMANS?
SAM: That’s not where the kind of conflict line resides necessarily because I think we have humans who are a big supporter of the Synths and humans who are definitely against them and think they pose a very dire threat to humanity and we have Synths that want to integrate with humanity and live peacefully alongside and we have Synths who come to starkly different conclusions.  So it’s kind of a more complicated picture than that, there isn’t kind of one side to drop on, it’s more about which particular character or characters you find yourself sympathizing with. But there, yeah there’s definitely more than two sides.

Does Leo know exactly what he is?
JON:  It’s safe to say that we can safely say that Leo definitely does know what he is.
JON: It’s probably too much of a spoiler to definitively say what that is, but we have humans and we have Synths and we have Leo. Leo is definitely a unique being in this world.
SAM: Yeah. He’s one of a kind, Leo, and he definitely has a reason.  We will definitely find out exactly what he is and how he came to be by the end of the series. So no question of that and we’re just lucky that we got an actor like Colin Morgan who could portray  somebody so unique with such, with such it’s an otherworldly intensity and charisma that he does.  So keep watching all will be revealed, definitely.

Is there a chance that this show could come back for a second season or is this just a limited series?
SAM: We always knew we were designing the show with a lot of mystery and a lot of kind of intriguing backstory to find out over the series particularly in the case of  Leo and Anita and things, but we thought if we’re going to do that you, our view on it was that we wanted to pay it off and we wanted to kind of provide a really kind of satisfying conclusion to those mysteries and reveal it all and get to the bottom of everything as the story moves forward and the stakes increase and the season goes on.  So we reveal that mystery.  But absolutely, the idea for this story is to return and we hope we can come back to it because we’ve got a lot more to say about these characters and a long way to go with them. We have a concept for the future of the series where the world has moved on a little bit and changed a little bit more yet again and all of our characters have to respond to a rather different landscape.  But we have to see, we have to see how we get on with Season 1 first.  But we don’t leave anything hanging.  We didn’t want to do that.

To find out more about the mystery of who or what Leo is and why a handful of Synths are so special, as well as exploring what it means to have self-aware Synths living amongst us, be sure to tune in for the premiere of HUMANS on Sunday, June 28th at 9:00 p.m. on AMC.

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