Interviews · TV

The Creators of ‘Comrade Detective’ Have a Penchant for the Absurd

Three wise men with the answer to the ancient question: What is Romanian Noir?
Comrade Detective Smoking
By  · Published on August 1st, 2017

Three wise men with the answer to the ancient question: What is Romanian Noir?

There is one show and one show only that you need to watch this week. Comrade Detective is the kind of series that is so crazy it just might work. And trust me, it does. It’s a narrative that you usually only see on the fringes of the Blacklist’s best-unproduced scripts list—that’s a cool idea, but who’s going to put up the money for that? Well, thank god this one got made. The conceit of the show is that a state-sponsored, Romanian, communist propaganda, cop TV show from the 1980s has been remastered and dubbed into English by Channing Tatum and his famous friends. In reality, the show was shot just last year, not that you would be able to tell.

The creative team behind this new Amazon series, co-creators Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka along with director Rhys Thomas, devised the series to explore the tropes of 1970s and 1980s thriller cinema by way of a different perspective. The series is chock-full of nods to Brian De Palma and Roman Polanski among others, while the dialogue sounds like something out of the Communist Manifesto.

On the morning of the show’s first public screening, we talked to Gatewood, Tanaka, and Thomas about the show’s development, creative partnerships, and why Dallas is so popular in Romania.

FSR: So how long have you been in development with this project?

Brian Gatewood: For a few years now. We were talking about What’s Up, Tiger Lily, the Woody Allen movie, and as television was really getting experimental and adventurous and fun, we thought about applying that to a television show. So it was just sort of a germ of an idea, and we looked at a lot of global cinema and TV and found that—

Alessandro Tanaka: We were looking for something to dub over ourselves in the Tiger Lily style.

Gatewood: Yeah, like Tiger Lily. But it became apparent pretty early on that that would be impossible rights-wise, and also it had been done a little bit. So once we started talking about just making our own show and then dubbing it, that was really exciting. And from the research we had done on global television and cinema, we knew that there was this world from behind the iron curtain that western audiences were not aware of.

There’s this show called 30 Cases of Major Zeman from Czechoslovakia that was about a communist detective, and it was a show designed to prop up the communist party. That was an initial inspiration. There’s also great cinema from around the globe. There’s La Piovra in Italy; there’s Tatort in Germany, and also in Eastern Germany, there’s a show called Police Call 110.

And that was around when Rhys and Channing and everybody came on. We started developing this and went off to make it. But once we figured that it was going to be a show that we created ourselves—that idea for a police show from behind the Iron Curtain came pretty fast.

“We hadn’t finished the scripts by the time we were in Romania.” – Brian Gatewood

So what are the nuts and bolts of your writing partnership, and how do Rhys and Channing factor into the equation?

Gatewood: Well, we originally pitched the idea to Channing, and he loved the idea. So we wrote a pilot that ultimately became the first two episodes. That’s when Rhys came on and we started working together, you know, the three of us developing it as a group and figuring out how to make a full complete story—making a story that could sustain itself, and be a real story on its own without this insane idea of the dubbing and all that.

Tanaka: We were moving really fast. We hadn’t finished the scripts by the time we were in Romania, so Rhys would be location-scouting while we were writing. I think it forced us to work together really well. And, like, Rhys would say, “We got this great place we can shoot at,” so we would write that in. That’s what was great about it. It was hard because it was so fast, but it kind of forced us to all be in sync and move this thing forward.

Gatewood: And we were also in Romania with a full Romanian cast and crew and getting Romanian input on the story and the world and the characters. So we made sure there was a lot of Romanian input in what we were doing.

“Not that I would recommend going into prep without a finished script. But in some instances, it helps.” – Rhys Thomas

Rhys Thomas: And also there was a kind of tonal tightrope to walk in figuring it out. There’s the conceit of dubbing something and doing this propaganda-tinged thing, and I think this was a large part of the concept. Wrapped up in the speed of it all, there was this trying to figure out how broad do we go, how straight do we play it? What is sustainable? That was a part of a lot of the early discussions in sort of getting it going.

Obviously knowing it’s going to be overdubbed puts it into a weird place, and yeah, do you exploit the dubbing of it or do we kind of play that as a detail? And choosing Romania, and getting informed by Romanians, started to clarify the path to take of really going straight with it, and committing to the idea that this was made by Romanians in Romania in the 80s. It was a useful process from scouting to being in prep to sort of keeping that conversation alive. Actually the fact that the scripts were not totally finished, and that we were still kind of working on them while we prepped actually helped us because we were casting people, therefore having conversations with the cast, and there was a sort of fluidity and flexibility to the thing that kind of worked. Not that I would recommend going into prep without a finished script. But in some instances, it helps.

Tanaka: Well that whole ending happened because Rhys found this incredible set, and he was like, “Oh, well, we should end here.” There was a completely different ending; in our outlines, it was completely different. So there were happy accidents like that.

Did you carry that spirit of exploration into the dubbing process? Your cast is stacked with improvisers. Was there room for improv in the post process?

Thomas: We came into it with an open mind. We basically came back from Romania and cut the shows in Romanian, so they worked. Like there was an original document. By February of this year, we were at that place of having a show that we could overdub; that we had an original that it was like we were looking into if it was possible to get the rights. But we had no idea what the dubbing layer was going to do, what tone it was going to take.

So we spent a few days very early on—we were lucky enough to have a chance to bring in a bunch of improv-trained people and friends and what-have-you, and basically experimented for a couple of days. So we just said, “Ok, with this role jump into episode three, do this guy,” and some people would come with broad characters, and some people would play it straight. We’d play with the timing where it was clearly off, and sometimes dialing it in.

It was a real process of experimentation just to see where we wanted to land. And I think quickly we became aware that obviously, if you let people get too broad or if the character started shifting too much that our narrative would start breaking down a little bit. So for our main characters, at least, we all agreed that we should play it pretty straight and try and match things as close as we could so you don’t have a disruption of being bumped out by a sort of joke layer because the Romanian actors are all playing it incredibly straight.

We shot it really straight so it sort of made sense to keep it in that sort of tonal place. I mean we have some fun with some of the background characters and smaller characters where we let things get slightly broader because ultimately it’s just adding a texture. It’s not subtracting from the narrative.

Gatewood: Yeah, it’s generally pretty close. We did allow for actors to have fun in scenarios as long as the intent of the scene was the same. If they found something funny, we always encouraged them to go for it. But we made sure that the intent was the same always even if it was a little off. Because there’s no way to match English to Romanian exactly. It’s just impossible. We spent several months learning that every day, and making sure with the actors in Romanian that the intent was the same and then bringing the voice actors in to stay within the bounds of intent. But if something felt more natural to say in a certain way, we would let them roll with that.

“I think we have to have a sort of sense of the absurd in order to have made this show work.” -Alessandro Tanaka

What attracts you to these high-concept projects?

Gatewood: We really grew up with cinema. All the classics. And then we were certainly influenced by a lot of great cinema of the 90s and the sort of resurgence of filmmakers in that time. But television has obviously changed and offers a little more room to be creative. In terms of previous stuff, we spent over ten years working “studio jobs” and it’s been a great experience, and I think that we learned a lot about the rules. It’s helped us realize that you can break the rules, and it’s helped us deconstruct things and find humor in new ways.

Tanaka: I think also Brian and my sensibility—and Rhys has this too—is that we have a real love of the absurd. I mean we sold a—and it didn’t work out—but originally a show about a doctor and his best friend was a monkey [NBC’s Animal Practice]. And we never thought that they’d make that, but they ended up doing it. And of course it took a left turn, but there’s always an absurdist quality that we gravitate to a little bit in terms of comedy. I think we have to have a sort of sense of the absurd in order to have made this show work.

Gatewood: In fact there’s that story about how Stanley Kubrick approached—originally he was going to adapt “Red Alert,” and it ultimately became Dr. Strangelove because the idea of nuclear annihilation was so insane that you could only sort of laugh at it, or laugh about it, or find a humorous take on it. And a lot of times we find ourselves looking at things and finding the absurdity in the situation.

What were the biggest differences in selling a show to NBC versus Amazon?

Tanaka: Creatively, this show in particular—I think the reason why we all did it was we shot it completely on spec. So with our NBC show, the moment we sold it they had control over telling us what to do from that moment on. But that was not the case with Comrade Detective, and that was why Brian and I jumped on board, and that’s why Rhys jumped on board. We were basically able to shoot an entire television series the way you would write a feature and then send it out on spec and hope to sell.

So that gave us a lot of leeway in terms of the shooting. The biggest limitations were due to budget and production as opposed to getting notes as you would with a network or studio. And on our part, we all took a pay cut and we didn’t really get paid for any of it until it sold, so it was a big swing that we took. But the benefit of it was that we got to do a show that we both always wanted to do.

Thomas: And it’s interesting because ultimately we didn’t know that this was going to Amazon and we didn’t know that it would land on a streaming platform. We were just literally making an independent feature. That was like we’ll go out and make it and see what happens. And the tradeoff was, obviously, you have to limit your liability, so the budget was tighter than we probably would have had any right to go out with considering the action and the ambition with what we wanted to do. But we had this great freedom and protection from A24 for doing what we wanted.

Then we came back and we cut it, and the episodes kind of fell into the lengths that they did: not necessarily fitting the 21-minute network half-hour. But it wasn’t until we got word that Amazon was really in for it that that relief came. And even then, I think we still were worried that we might get hit with having to knock some episode run times down because most of the episodes sit up around 40 minutes, and then we have one that’s half an hour. So hats off to Amazon for letting us do that.

Was it a conscious decision to go on a more independent track with this project?

Tanaka: Ravi Nandan, who is the head of TV for A24, was a producer on Animal Practice so we had worked with him for many years, so we have a shorthand and a relationship with him. So the whole thing was very informal.

Thomas: Which is lucky because it’s a difficult show to pitch. So the shorthand definitely helped.

Comrade Detective is six episodes, and Brian and Alessandro, you write for Dice on Showtime, which had a six episode first season. Is there an advantage to shorter episode orders?

Gatewood: I think it’s specific to the project. We approached Comrade Detective definitely more like a long film. In fact, aside from all the period-appropriate references that we spoke about ad nauseam while we were developing the show, one of our early conversations with Rhys was we all talked about Inglourious Basterds and the way that it’s a little bit of chapters and sequences. We took some inspiration from that.

Tanaka: The good thing about six episodes is that Brian and I could write every episode and that Rhys could direct every episode. So I think when there’s a longer season that becomes more difficult to do and you get different directors and different writers. In this regard, it was basically the three of us from beginning to end. And I think that helped to give it some sort of cohesive vision.

“The show is really an exploration of propaganda and a celebration of the genre, just with a shifted point of view.” -Rhys Thomas

Is there anything surprising that you learned during the creation of this project?

Thomas: Coming into it, you’re feeling like you’re treading delicate ground. We’re approaching ideology and propaganda and doing it from what we, as Westerners, understand as a region that was under a different type of rule. So I think at least for me going into it, I remember early on scouting—because originally we didn’t know it was going to be Romania—so I spent a week and scouted Hungary and Bulgaria as well. And you sort of get a sense of the different flavors of communism in each place. Hungary being the most liberal regime, Bulgaria being more Soviet, and Romania was dominated early by Nicolae Ceaușescu and his cult of personality.

I remember Romania making the most sense because it has such a distinctive energy of communism. You could believe that that regime would pull the trigger on such a show. But I remember being cautious about tackling that world and suggesting someone like Ceaușescu was behind it. Then when we got there we were working with a fully Romanian crew and cast. And there was the initial hesitation of like, are they going to be cool with this? Are we being insensitive? But talking to them and seeing that they were enjoying that we were looking at that period with a sense of humor and not a bleakness.

And this was something with the whole show: we were never setting out to mock communism or mock the quality of what they might have been doing. That’s not the show. The show is really an exploration of propaganda and a celebration of the genre, just with a shifted point of view. And so once everybody saw the show we were making and what we were doing and that we were firmly grounded in this reality where this was being made by Romanians in that period—in their acceptance of it, it became a fun collaborative energy with the Romanians in doing it. It was not surprising, but it was pleasant and a relief.

Gatewood: The collaboration with the Romanians on the basis of finding and shaping the show was constantly insightful and interesting and fun, and trying to step fully into someone else’s shoes and find our common experiences even if we’re in different places.

Thomas: Obviously the script was written in English, and then was translated into Romanian by a Romanian translator. We learned that our translator had a propensity for really foul language. Almost every day an actor would come up and say like, “This is gross. Is this really what you want me to say?” And we would find out that he had put in his own interpretation. And also in turns of phrase: there are a lot of cop show tropes and phrases that literally have no meaning in Romanian. They have a pretty literal language. My understanding is their sense of metaphor is different, so there would be either literal translations of turns of phrase or complete mistranslations. And there would frequently be confusion from the actors. They’d come and say, “I don’t really understand this line at all.” And you’d find out that whatever the translation was it meant something completely different.

Gatewood: A cut line from the show—“flash the cash and give us the stash…”—they had no idea how to translate that. I think they thought it meant we flash lights.

Thomas: Yeah, it was the initial drug deal in the first episode. They pulled the car in, the actor flashes the lights on the car, and he just sort of sat there. So we sort of found that out.

Gatewood: But that was actually fun finding everyone’s intention and landing it in the same place, and sometimes it took some conversations for that. But it was always interesting. One very fascinating thing in learning early on about Romania was the idea that the State made very little television, but they would import some Western shows. And the one show they imported was Dallas. And they showed it because they thought that it would repulse the Romanian population, but, in fact, it backfired. It was the most beloved show in Romania. And when we went there you still see Larry Hagman, like, everywhere. Someone even re-created the Dallas ranch in the countryside of Romania.

Thomas: We talked about including it in the show.

Do you have plans yet for a season two?

Gatewood: We would love to do a season two. We have a lot of ideas for many seasons. And it was such an experimental process that now that we have been through it, it would be really fun to refine everything you learned from both making a show in a foreign country and also the dubbing process, which was definitely surprising.

Thomas: Ultimately, what is exciting to me is the fact that we got to play in this genre. And you get to revisit the films that we all really love, but we’re just shifting the perspective on them. So I think for us, there’s a whole world of other stories we can see taking these characters through because it’s a fun landscape for us all. It can go anywhere.

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Currently on the lam from three California public library systems.