While I was plenty busy covering New York Comic Con this past weekend, I couldn’t pass up an additional opportunity that arose as the convention neared – an off-site breakfast with two very talented gentlemen, Person of Interest’s Jonathan Nolan and Michael Emerson. Person of Interest creator Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight) and Emerson (Lost) joined a group of journalists for an early morning chat over eggs, pancakes and the like, while chatting about their new CBS series.
One thing that had stood out to me since Person of Interest began was the much more active role Emerson’s Finch had taken on the missions each week since the pilot, often insinuating himself into people’s lives, using various fake identities. Said Nolan, “We didn’t feel like it would be fun or fair to leave an actor as talented and cool as Michael stuck in a set somewhere. We’ve built these very elegant sets, but our goal is to use them as little as possible.” Emerson, for his part, noted, “I’ve had to change my thinking about the character because of that. He’s not as shy and reclusive and anti-social as I would have originally thought. If he’s able to go out there and masquerade so successfully it suggests that there’s something outgoing and dynamic about him and quite bold and resourceful too. ”
As to how much of Person of Interest he has planned out, Nolan said, “I know what the end is and along the way we have a number of waypoints; story moments that we have planned out. We’re about to hit one in episode nine.” Both Emerson and Nolan said to look for some of the characters Finch and Reese have encountered in the series to eventually show up again.
Discussing how much he knows about Finch’s past, Emerson explained, “I have an idea. I know basically how Finch got to be in the position he’s in, but I don’t know the particulars of it and I don’t know what rate those backstories will be revealed. Bit by bit I suppose.” Chimed in Nolan, with a grin, “Slowly! Slowly!” He mentioned that he’d been influenced by Lost and “the slow burn approach and the use of flashbacks to sort of deepen the understanding of the character. I just thought it was such a wonderful tool.”
Emerson added that while he knows some of Finch’s past, the same didn’t go for what’ to come. “The show comes as a surprise to me too. I just see it first on paper, not on the screen. I haven’t been prepped and no one has spoiled it for me. I suppose some actors might always be on the phone asking, ‘Where’s it going?’ I’m more passive that way. I’ll take it when it comes.”
Emerson got his start in theater, where he recalled, as an actor, you want to, “know everything you can” and have a “complete and detailed backstory.” However, he noted, “I learned from Lost to enjoy knowing nothing. It’s freeing because you just show up on the day and you don’t have that much baggage of the past or the future. You just play the scenes as they come and I think in a way that helps make the show or a character mysterious. ”
One element of Finch that Nolan said he and Emerson “wanted to build together” was Finch’s injury. Emerson recalled thinking about how it would manifest, and wondering, “Is it playable for many, many hours day after day? You don’t want to contort yourself too much, because you’ll constantly need physical therapy and massage. So I had to find something that was right, believable, logical, but also something that was easy on me physically.” He said that what he came up with was, “Mainly just good posture and a neck that doesn’t’ move. Oh, and the one bad leg.” The result of being so involved in coming up with how Finch would be hurt has meant Emerson finds he’s now “sort of the authority on my own disability.” When last week’s episode called for an X-ray to show exactly where he was hurt, he again spoke to Nolan to give his input on the location of the injury.
While Nolan had plenty of praise for Emerson, Emerson said he felt Caviezel was “the real casting coup. “You can find a lot of character men to play your handicapped, billionaire genius, but to find a guy that can live up to that kind of quiet, action hero… there aren’t that many guys out there. That’s a short list.” Said Nolan, “That’s a shot list in both cases!” Nolan added that Person of Interest was a case where once the cast was in place, it just felt right, remarking, “Half way through the pilot, I could no longer imagine the characters without Michael, Jim, Taraji [P. Henson] and Kevin [Chapman].”
While he acknowledged that the Batman films had given him the rare opportunity in film to tell a continuing storyline about a group of characters, Nolan said he ultimately felt that was a particular strength of TV, as you invest in and follow people week to week. When it came to the ongoing working relationship between the cast and the writer in TV, Emerson explained it as such: “You send a message with your performance and then they send a message back with the next script, as if to say, ‘Oh, we like this one thing you do, so we will honor that by including that or taking that further or whatever.’ It’s good that way.”
Person of Interest is shot in New York, while the writers work out of LA. Said Nolan, “It’s a fun relationship. It’s an odd one, especially exasperated by shooting in one location and the writers being in a distant location somewhere else. So the conversation is really through words and performance.”
As to how it was working with CBS, Nolan described it as, “A remarkably cool and largely stress free relationship,” noting that he’d always wanted Person of Interest to be on CBS because it reminded him of earlier CBS shows like The Equalizer and Magnum P.I. “It felt close to their DNA but different enough,” he remarked, saying that it shared those shows’ case of the week aspect, but also included a “a bigger, larger story.”
As to the “You are being watched” technology that is key to the show, Nolan said he felt, “The only science fiction component is a firmware upgrade.” He added that many times already they’d written something into a script, only to soon after see, “A news story that validates the approach we’ve taken on the show.” Person of Interest has also made use of several consultants, and Nolan said they’d been told, “We’re closer to the mark than most people would imagine.”