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Arts & Entertainment

The Americans Isn’t Really about Spies and Murder

Show’s writer: it’s about family, marriage, and everyday deceptions

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Sure, The Americans is about a couple of KGB spies. But executive producer Stephen Schiff told the audience at last Friday night’s BU Cinematheque that the FX series is really about much more: it’s about us.

“There’s a lot of skullduggery and spycraft and people doing nasty, nasty things to one another,” Schiff said. “But it’s really about family, and the complications that come from the sensation that we are all spies in our own lives.”

The Americans follows the overtly normal lives of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Kerri Russell), two deep-cover Soviet agents living in the Washington, D.C., suburbs in the early 1980s. Their marriage is real and their two teenaged children, Paige and Henry (Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati), are real American schoolkids as well, but at the same time the whole family image is just part of their cover.

“All of our lives have to do with some combination of the deception we bring with us—because we want to be a little secretive at times, we don’t want to tell everyone everything—and at the same time this urge we have to be known, to be seen, to be honest, to be understood, to be loved for who we are,” Schiff told a packed house of about 250 people at the College of Communication.

In a recent episode, Philip and Elizabeth let Paige in on their real identities, which seriously complicates just about everything. As does the spies’ friendship with Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI counterintelligence agent who happens to live across the street. “If you follow our show a little, that means not following it at all, because it’s really hard to follow,” Schiff said.

Former Boston film critic Stephen Schiff gave BU students a look inside the writers’ room on the FX series The Americans at Cinematheque.

Former Boston film critic Stephen Schiff gave BU students a look inside the writers’ room on the FX series The Americans at last week’s Cinematheque. Photo by Jake Belcher

The Cinematheque series brings accomplished filmmakers to campus to screen and discuss their work. Earlier in the day, Schiff spoke at a lunch with MFA screenwriting students. In the evening, he screened two episodes of The Americans written mainly by him, then took questions. Cinematheque curator and COM lecturer Gerald Peary kicked the questions off by asking, “How much are Philip and Elizabeth really just typical Americans?”

Their lives are very different from those of most Americans, Schiff answered. They murder, honey trap (have sex with sources of information or to compromise someone), and steal bioweapons from American labs and send them to the Soviet Union, all terrible things. “But they’re living American lives and having American problems. Among other things, we’re trying to say something about American life.

“It’s a metaphor, I suppose,” he said. “We all have our tensions and our pressures. And you saw in the second episode that they needed a break, and were given one,” a long vacation from new missions bestowed by their Soviet handlers. “Do we all sometimes go through something like that? Probably. Do we go through it for the same reasons? No. It’s one of the functions of drama to reflect in a funny mirror everything that our lives represent.”

“Trading sex for information has been a big part of my life,” Schiff joked.

Schiff was asked if the writers feel different loyalties for Philip, who is questioning his mission, and for Elizabeth, who is more committed.

“We love our characters, and we get them,” Schiff said. “Part of what we infuse ourselves with is the idea that we can, at least empathetically, be pro-KGB. We get Elizabeth’s point of view. When she says, ‘That’s so American,’ I don’t think I could have written that line if I didn’t get inside that head a little bit.”

Schiff has a history with Boston film fans that dates to the same era as the show. In the early 1980s, when Boston was home to two alternative papers, Peary was the film critic for the Real Paper and Schiff filled the same role for the Boston Phoenix. Peary stayed in Boston while Schiff became a staff writer for The New Yorker, then went on to Hollywood, writing True Crime for Clint Eastwood and Lolita with Jeremy Irons, before signing on with The Americans.

He started out on the show as a contributing writer and has moved up to executive producer, with duties that include casting and logistics. During the evening Q&A, The Americans’ writers room was the focus of most of the student questions. Schiff explained that the writers settle on major storylines, breaking them down into episodes and scenes (“breaking the story”) before scripts are written by individual members of the staff.

Photo courtesy of FX

Photo courtesy of FX

“We have a room full of whiteboards that we put it all out on—and then we feel free to change it,” he said. “We have to change it in a way that makes sense, we have to change it in a way that doesn’t contradict things we’ve already filmed. But anything else we want to change, we can change. It’s up to us. We’re the writers.”

Students asked about the accuracy of the spycraft in the show, especially the honey trapping, which Philip and Elizabeth do often. Was that really a common technique?

“Trading sex for information has been a big part of my life,” Schiff deadpanned. Yes, the honey trap really was a common tactic for Soviet spies, he said, as were other tactics seen on the show. Extensive research is the norm for the show’s writers, with a treasure trove of information that became available after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Americans was created by former CIA agent Joe Weisberg, with Joel Fields, who are the showrunners. Schiff said the writers have other ex-spooks they can call on when needed.

The Americans, now in its fifth season, has been renewed for a sixth and final season, and the writers will bring the Jennings’ story to a close. Weisberg and Fields have had the ending planned for a while, Schiff said.

“We started breaking it today, actually,” he said. “I was on the phone all morning.”

New episodes of  The Americans air Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX. The show can also be seen on Amazon video.

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Joel Brown, writer, BU Today at Boston University
Joel Brown

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@bu.edu.

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