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BERLIN STATION Q&A w/ Richard Armitage, Michelle Forbes and Cast + Making of the Series

Maj Canton - December 14, 2016

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BERLIN STATION premiered Sunday, October 16, 2016 on EPIX. This contemporary spy series takes a look at the activity of an American CIA office on a global stage in the midst of an investigation into a now-infamous whistleblower. This case and the myriad of others the Berlin Station team takes on are international in scope and are as riveting and real as today's news headlines. Filmed on location entirely in Berlin, the city provides a rich and layered tapestry for the narrative, and the visuals are cinematic. On November 17 -- just halfway through the first season -- EPIX renewed BERLIN STATION for a second season of 10 episodes.

On December 18, 2016 EPIX premieres the Season 1 finale, “Oratorio Berlin.” In this episode Daniel leads the Berlin Station crew in gathering evidence that will illuminate Langley's role in the Iosava rendition; Hector takes a new approach to atoning for bad behavior; the Shaw mantle is passed.

 

 

This past August at the Television Critics Association (TCA) Summer Press Tour, EPIX presented a BERLIN STATION panel that included stars Richard Armitage, Michelle Forbes, Richard Jenkins, Rhys Ifans and Tamlyn Tomita. Here are a few highlights (edited for clarity and readability) from that panel.

 

 


 


Question: Does this sort of material require extra work on your part where every line may have a double meaning and different intentions depending on who you are saying it to?


Rhys Ifans: In any good script the lines always have a double meaning. That's what makes a story 3exciting and engaging, certainly for an actor. And none of us, very rarely mean what we say or say what we mean in life. Never mind whether you are a spy or an actor or dare I say a journalist.



Question: Richard, you've played the spy game from a more, action-oriented direction. I'm sort of curious about the fun of playing a character that is not the action kind of spy. He's basically a nerd.


Richard Armitrage: It was the thing that initially attracted me to this script and to this story. With this character in particular, I really felt like we were going to explore a human being who had flaws, and we were taking him into an environment where he was going to be challenged and stretched in a kind of post-technology society whereby the security services can't rely on those things anymore and they have to answer the game and face their opponent as human beings and seeing how those flaws affect what it is they do. So it was far less action-based and much more an intellectual game, which really fascinated me.


Question: Mr. Jenkins, you get to play a philanderer this time, which I don't think you'd always get cast as. Is that kind of interesting to do?


Richard Jenkins: Yeah. I take the Viagra, and then off we go. Only in a TV series would a woman like Tamlyn Tomita fall in love with me! I mean, come on. It was a tough duty. Somebody had to do it. I did it, and it was great.


Question: Ms. Tomita, what can you tell us about your character?


Tamlyn Tomita: The interesting part when I read the script is how an integral component she is in running the station and that she knows each of the characters, not intimately, but intellectually, and she has to serve them. And for Sandra Abe to have the piece of information she has about each of these characters, it can be weaponized, for lack of a better word; but it can also be utilized to benefit the goodness, the wholeness of the station. So I think her character can be interpreted as a little bit ambiguous because she's having an affair, which is revealed quite early on in the series; but whether or not she serves her country or serves her man or serves her station is left for the viewer.


Question: What did you know about spies and espionage before you took on the roles?


Richard Jenkins: Not a lot. We live in that world through the script, and you start not to trust anybody. I don't understand how you live your life as a spy and then live your life. And we did meet a couple of CIA people there, who are just these folks who have jobs that happen to be CIA agents, but you know that it's so much more than that. It's a fascinating predicament to be in. And trust in this series is a huge issue. There's a lot of betrayal and interesting betrayal. You just happen to be in the middle of it. Are you really my friend? Were you my friend? Can I count on you? And it changes constantly.

Michelle Forbes: I didn't know that much about the spy genre. It wasn't a genre that I turned to on a literary level. But what really interested me, was the psychology behind the people who choose to do this for a living and live not only duplicitous lives but multi-duplicitous lives and have to navigate not only the ever-shifting loyalties that are happening within your station and within the closer world that you are living in, but also the global stage. And how do you, at the end of the day, keep your own identity? And that requires an extraordinarily flexible mind, a spine of steel, or you are a sociopath. So this is tough crap. Okay. But it's not unlike what we do as actors, except there's a huge human cost. It's a life-or-death operation rather than what we do. We play pretend. We go home to our safe lives. How do you maintain a steady moral compass when you are oftentimes, asked to betray your own ethics in order to achieve a certain goal? These were all important questions for me, and I learned a lot while we were there for five months.


THE MAKING OF 'BERLIN STATION' FEATURING SHOWRUNNER BRADFORD WINTERS AND CREATOR OLEN STEINHAUER


To shoot BERLIN STATION, the team had to find the best artisans in Germany to build a great show. Although the series was shot throughout the city of Berlin, the production needed a studio base and Studio Babelsberg seemed the clear choice. As Executive Producer/Showrunnner Bradford Winters explains, the team never regretted that choice: “This crew continually blows me away,” Winters points out. “You come to shoot abroad and you just expect, perhaps naively, perhaps somewhat arrogantly, it is going to be a bumpy road. But working with Michael Scheel as our line producer, production designer Marco Bittner Rosser and his whole crew in set design and art production, we could not have been more happily surprised. It’s just the smoothest ship. Every time I show up on set, I’m blown away by their work, also by the locations department on this show. I will forever tell anybody: If you want to make a show anywhere abroad in Berlin, here is your crew.” He was equally impressed with the work of DOP Hagen Bogdanski: “It literally is just art watching the dailies before these things ever get cut together into an episode.” Winters’ really wanted to surprise the audience: “When you see this show, you just will not believe the places we have gone, the things that we have gotten access to. I think the audience will be thrilled to see BERLIN STATION once it is on screen.”


BERLIN

As principal photography was set to begin in November 2015, production designer Marco Bittner Rosser and location manager Angela Mages had recce with Steinhauer and the writers to scout Berlin for shooting locations. Berlin has a lot of different sides. Mages showed the writers around Berlin to inspire them and highlight the city’s diversity.



 

BERLIN STATION is a contemporary spy series so the production designers wanted to showcase known locations in Berlin as well as lesser-known spots in the city. For Winters, the great thing about Berlin is how richly it plays into the thematic concerns of the show: “Berlin is a city whose history is so layered,” he notes, pointing to the history of Berlin being the capital of the democratic Weimar republic, Nazi Germany and later the communist East German Republic at the same time. “When you walk around this city and you see those layers at every turn, it inspires you to play to the same effect with the characters. Because with the spies, there also are these multiple layers of who is the real character beneath it. It allows us to plum those kind of metaphorical depths which we love in the show.” Steinhauer also found inspiration in real situations while he was in Berlin: “There’s a movement in Berlin for Germany to offer asylum to Edward Snowden. I frequently came across stickers supporting the case and these stickers became the inspiration for our ‘I am Shaw’ posters. That’s another reason Berlin was a great place to tell this story”. The writers also wanted to incorporate breaking news events into the episodes. BERLIN STATION includes frequent references to political and current events, such as the Boston bombings, to maintain a contemporary feel. Winters: “We are looking to the news and doing our best to keep up with it. We were shooting the pilot in December 2015 when the terrible attacks in Paris happened. Knowing the show was going to air in the aftermath, we worked with this news in the writer’s room. We certainly tried to keep current.”

 

BUILDING THE CIA STATION AT STUDIO BABELSBERG

Principal photography took place both on location in Berlin and at the city’s famous Studio Babelsberg. Since 1912, film history has been made in Studio Babelsberg’s legendary stages and backlots that have captured the work of notables such as legendary directors Fritz Lang (Metropolis) and Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (Nosferatu), and actress Marlene Dietrich who shot The Blue Angel at the stages. In 1924, the young Alfred Hitchcock worked at Studio Babelsberg as an assistant director and is known for stating: “Everything I had to know about filmmaking I learned in Babelsberg”.


 

Eight weeks before the start of principal photography on BERLIN STATION, the team around production designer Marco Bittner Rosser began to build the CIA station located at stage 21 at Studio Babelsberg. An advisory team of ex-CIA agents aided and reviewed the design process. As there is no reference of a real CIA station in a foreign country, the filmmakers assumed that the station would be situated inside the building of the U.S. Embassy of Berlin. Permission was granted to shoot outside of the Embassy for the Exterior of what played as the U.S. Embassy and CIA station. Due to security reasons, closer access to the Embassy building - situated at a prominent position right next to the Brandenburg Gate - was impossible for shooting; a part of the façade of the Embassy building was recreated on stage. After a site check of the interior of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, Bittner Rosser designed a set that reflected the actual place. He also created a continuous set space that led thru from the exterior straight into the CIA station. The CIA Station is an entirely windowless space – hidden away from the outside world. The layout of the office space reflects the hierarchy of the different characters - Frost’s office at the top end overlooking the station, his secretary’s office and the offices of his higher-ranking agents are situated below him. The bullpen is the heart and hub of the station, with cubicle offices surrounded by vertical division posts that reference the outside fencing design of the exterior of the Embassy building. A bank of large wall mounted monitors was installed in the bullpen that constantly showed the latest news from around the globe, and displayed scripted news and media footage right in the center of the CIA station. A media server was installed and allowed full control of the media footage during the shoot.


STATEMENT FROM BRADFORD WINTERS, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER/SHOWRUNNNER


As we near the finish line shooting the first season of BERLIN STATION, I wonder if the past ten months as showrunner have given me a slight taste of what it might be like to run the actual CIA station in Berlin: I oversee an extremely sharp and talented group of colleagues (the writers and cast); I answer to a governmental entity (the studio and network combined) who allows us a good deal of creative freedom while at the same time keeping an eye on us and making its will known; I have many operations (scripts, casting, production, editing, etc.) in play at once; and along the way I make my fair share of mistakes but cannot let them compromise the hard-won successes. Other things get compromised, such as sleep and family time, but that’s the job. In this case the job is also the chance to work alongside renowned novelist Olen Steinhauer and our incredible team of writers; to partner with our incomparable Line Producer Michael Scheel in pulling off a production that continually amazes me with its feats and fantastic Berlin locations. We are thankful for his genius and the world- class crew he assembled for the cause; and to watch our amazing cast bring it all to life on camera. Here’s an opening line, though not of a joke: Richard Armitage, Rhys Ifans, Richard Jenkins, Michelle Forbes, Leland Orser and Tamlyn Tomita all walk into a room. No, not a joke, but a testimony to the very special privilege it has been when they walk into the CIA bullpen on our stages at Studio Babelsberg. The espionage genre is one that plays (in both senses of the word) with existential questions of human identity. This makes the city of Berlin, with its layered history, the perfect setting for a spy drama rooted in those questions by its de rigeur use of personas, code names and ever-changing masks that we all wear -- not just spies. I imagine I’m not the only one whose own identity has been profoundly affected by working on this particular show in this particular city.