The Known and the Unknown: How an Episode of The Looming Tower Comes Together

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The Known and the Unknown: How an Episode of <i>The Looming Tower</i> Comes Together

In “Y2K,” which premieres today on Hulu, The Looming Tower confronts two threats—one pressing, one distant. As we now know, of course, fears of the systemic computer crisis at the beginning of the new millennium turned out to be overstated, while the threat of al-Qaeda operatives infiltrating the United States would prove to be more significant than our worst nightmares. In addition to preparations for a potential New Year’s Eve terror attack, the episode, written by former Paste TV editor Shannon M. Houston, focuses much of its attention on Lebanese American FBI agent Ali Soufan (the excellent Tahar Rahim) and his complicated relationship with Islam.

I reached Houston by phone on her drive home from a long day in the writers’ room on HBO’s Lovecraft Country, from executive producer (and newly minted Oscar winner) Jordan Peele and showrunner Misha Green (Underground). She explained how she launched from covering television to writing for it, the creative and legal complications of adapting Lawrence Wright’s history for Hulu, and finding levity in serious subject matter. [Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited for clarity, content, and length, and contains light spoilers from “Y2K.”]

Paste: How do you even get a job writing on a TV show? What was the process of you joining the staff of The Looming Tower?

Shannon M. Houston: There are several different ways to get a job in a writers’ room, and I can only tell my way. A lot of it did stem from the work I was doing at Paste. Some pieces that I’d written had gotten Jill Soloway’s attention, and because I’d interviewed her a couple times for Paste about Transparent, she would always reach out to me and say she’d loved a piece I did, which you know how great that feels. At a certain point, I’d written something that really clicked for her, and she then made it a point to reach out and say something to effect of, ‘What are your plans? What are you trying to make happen? What is your big game plan?’

I should say, too, before she did that, I had taken the initiative at a certain point in our email relationship and asked her to read something that I wrote that’s never been published. I asked her if I could send it first, and she was honest and was like, ‘Look, I may not get to it for months, but yes, please send it to me.’ And I was very shocked when, a month later, her assistant emailed me and was like, ‘Jill loves this thing you wrote. She wants to talk to you about developing it.’ From that point on, Jill was working with me, along with a couple people at her production company, Topple, on developing this very long thing I’d written into an actual pilot. That pilot, she eventually took to Amazon, and once Amazon said they wanted it—which was great, and a huge moment for me—that’s when I needed to get agents, to negotiate that deal. Once I got the agents, they were like, ‘Let’s get you some jobs.’ Because a development deal is amazing, but it’s not a job. It’s a certain amount of money for a certain amount of time, but it’s not like being a staff writer. Around that same time, Looming Tower was looking for one more writer for their room, and it was perfect because it was also in New York. I met with the showrunner, Danny Futterman, who’d gotten a copy of my pilot, and he really responded to it. We met one time and then we had a phone interview, and I had another interview with one of the executives from Hulu and then they offered me the job.

I guess that was a long story long. [Laughs]

Paste: Can you describe how you get from Dan Futterman and Alex Gibney and Lawrence Wright’s idea for what the show is to actually sitting down and writing an episode? Once you get hired, what happens in between those two stages?

Houston: A lot of the beginning is research and unpacking the history. Larry Wright was in the room with us a lot. Larry stayed on for quite a bit of time, really just educating us. We were joking that it was like being in school, but in a good way: ‘OK, we’ll have class again tomorrow.’ We were all learning so much about everything that Larry learned while he was writing the book—there’s so much that didn’t go into his book, right? If you read the endnotes of the book, it’s like 18 other books he could have written. A lot of those stories were coming up. It’s all fascinating, especially to a room full of people who love reading, who love TV, and who love characters and who are interested in this story. Like, learning about bin Laden’s different wives and all their different stories and all of their children. And then ultimately, we don’t have room for it, necessarily, so what are we going to do with it? What can we present? What can we preserve? What do we have to show in each episode, and what are the threads we have to carry from one to the next?

I think we had basically broken the first seven episodes before I started outlining and working on my episode, so there was a lot that we had done and there was still a lot that we were figuring out even as I was writing, and going back to Danny, and getting notes from Larry and Alex. And then you also get notes from Hulu and Legendary [Entertainment, the production company behind The Looming Tower]. And then the writing process becomes collaborative at a certain point, too—the director of my episode, Ali Selim, also was helping me write certain scenes and think about certain scenes differently. We had a writer’s assistant named Abu Bakr, who was amazing, and he was also helping me with certain scenes, especially the scenes that are in Arabic.

Paste: You mentioned to on Twitter that beside’s Lawrence’s book, [Craig Unger’s] House of Bush, House of Saud was another touchstone. Was there a guiding principle that Lawrence had that he wanted you all to take away from that seminar portion of the research?

Houston: The other book that I should mention is Black Banner, by Ali Soufan, the character that Tahar Rahim is playing. We read that book before and during the room, and we also met with Ali to talk about his experience.

One of the most important things that I took away from Larry in those early stages was that, because he’s a historian, he was like, ‘We can make up things, but a lot of times the truth is so much more interesting and so much stranger than anything we could come up with.’ If we got stuck in the room on an idea or we weren’t sure about a character’s storyline, a lot of times, Larry would be like, ‘Let’s go back to the book,’ or, ‘Let’s research this a little bit more and see how it actually happened.’ That was such a great message to get when you’re adapting a [nonfiction] book—of course, you have to fictionalize certain things, but how much can this keep returning to the original story?

Paste: How did you come to write “Y2K,” specifically?

Houston: Danny assigned me. That’s the short answer. I don’t know how he came to decision of which person should write which episode, but I remember, as I was writing it, thinking, ‘This feels very much like it should be my episode.’ I hadn’t realized it when we were breaking it in the room, but I felt so connected to this particular period of time. I was almost 15 when Y2K was happening, and there were all these little pop culture things that I was remembering that I was putting in the episode—some of which ultimately didn’t end up in there. I had so much fun doing it. One example is this Y2K Nike commercial that Spike Jonze directed that we couldn’t get. ‘I remember this video. I remember this song being the thing. I remember this energy of freaking out and panic and excitement about Y2K.’ Did Danny know that? Did he know that I was going to have so much fun doing this? I kind of think he did.

Paste: When [CIA analyst] Diane Priest [played by Wrenn Schmidt] goes to [sidelined station chief] Martin Schmidt [played by Peter Sarsgaard] in the library, the decision for us not to hear the dialogue, how did that come to fruition?

Houston: One thing that we were trying to capture was that we, as writers, and even Larry, as a researcher and an author of a book, don’t know exactly what was said in every single meeting that we’re depicting. We can look at the book and say, ‘We know that they have to have a meeting about this. We know, based on these facts or this testimony, that this CIA agent knew about this person who was a member of al-Qaeda, and that they had to have had a conversation about it and decision was made.’ But we don’t know exactly what was said. I think what we’re doing is partly admitting to speculation, and wanting to give that strange feeling to the audience. One thing that we were pushing for was [to show] all these secrets that were being kept from the American public, all these conversations that we’re never going to know.

Paste: It feels to me like a visual or aural correlative to the disclaimer that runs before every episode, which is probably the most detailed disclaimer I’ve ever seen on a TV show.

Houston: There’s also the legal issue of what you can and cannot speculate about on a TV show when you’re dealing with real people: Can we say that this character said this? We had a researcher, Dina Emam—she had the incredibly difficult job of corroborating certain statements that we were making by having to find multiple sources that could prove that either it actually was said, or that there is a reasonable suspicion that it was said. We have scripts that have pages and pages of annotations where she would document why we believed we had the right to have a character say something in a scene.

Paste: In general terms, what was your experience of writing for Tahar, and specifically, could you talk about the scene where he goes into the mosque and breaks protocol and has this—I would describe it as almost like he disappears from himself for a moment.

Houston: I have to give all of the credit for that scene to [director] Ali Selim, because we did talk about it the room, but what I wrote on the page was just a hint of that—Ali did something so amazing and unexpected with a few lines that I had written. He also directed a movie that I love called Sweet Land, which you should check out if you liked that scene. It’s a beautiful film. I think about it all the time.

When we met with Tahar, we had broken that scene out in the mosque, but it was different after we talked to him. And one of the reasons it was different was because Tahar was really interested in the struggle with faith—being somebody like Ali Soufan and being connected to Islam and then watching what’s happening and how people are misinterpreting scripture for their own purposes. But also being a person who wants to be close to Allah, but who maybe isn’t, and who’s searching for a certain closeness, or who’s not sure if he should be wanting that closeness. What’s happening in that scene is somebody forgetting himself for a moment. We were trying to capture the strangeness and the complication that he feels having entered the mosque following somebody.

Paste: For the first time in five episodes, I laughed out loud during “Y2K”—at that line about the ham-and-cheese croissant. [Jamie Neumann’s Toni-Ann Marino, an FBI agent posted inside the CIA’s Alec Station, says to her partner, played by Louis Cancelmi: “Vince, if you don’t let me finish this ham-and-cheese croissant while it’s still hot, I promise, I will lose my shit.”] Was there talk in the room about how to approach levity in a narrative whose subject matter is so serious?

Houston: One of the things that you have to keep in mind is, these are people. These are regular, human people. They crack jokes. They do strange things. They have affairs. They lie. They cheat. All of that complication, sometimes it shows up at work, sometimes it doesn’t, but they’re people, and that means at various points throughout the day, funny things were happening. I think, too, having met some of the people involved, some of the characters that we were bringing to life—like Ali Soufan, who has a great sense of humor, and the person Vince is based on [FBI agent Mark Rossini], really funny guy—it was about bringing levity, but also being honest about who these people were. For that scene, too, we wanted to be honest abut the stresses of these jobs, and what people were going through as FBI agents, as CIA agents, who—regardless of how you feel about the work they do—a lot of the time are working around the clock. What does that look like? How does that inform their behavior and the way they think? And isn’t it sometimes funny what can happen as a result of those stresses?

Paste: My last question is about the Peter Jennings clip that comes at the end of the episode. It’s from his New Year’s Eve telecast that year, in the wee hours of the morning, and as he’s signing off he quotes an unnamed futurist: “Remember, when you put the known and the unknown into a computer, the unpredictable always outweighs the predictable.” And then John O’Neill [played by Jeff Daniels] turns off the TV. How did that get in there?

Houston: We talked about having the end of the episode and wanting to be like, OK, we just had this big party. Y2K is a big party. And it’s terrifying. What’s coming ahead is terrifying, because we sort of think we have a handle on things—when O’Neill is making all those arrests, it’s like, we’re trying to get a handle on this thing, but we know we don’t fully have a handle on these things. And that’s kind of the feeling of Y2K: We dodged the thing that we thought was going to happen. We thought all the computers were going to shut down and all the lights were going to turn out, and everything’s fine. And then there’s a select group of people who know everything’s not fine. There are so many unanswered questions and we’re missing so many threads and we can’t catch them. I think with that clip we were trying to capture this very strange feeling of excitement and also fear of the unknown.

The Looming Tower is now streaming on Hulu. Read Paste TV editor Matt Brennan’s column on the series here.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.