Interview: Akiva Goldsman on WGN’s ‘Underground’, Shared Universe Films, and ‘Winter’s Tale’

Underground

I had a personal agenda to talk to Akiva Goldsman. Not to talk Transformers, although I tried to do that too. But I became obsessed with his maligned film Winter’s Tale. The crazy film grew on me, especially with the DVD/Blu-ray’s alternate ending (think face ice), so I even read the book. All 758 pages of it.

Goldsman was on a Television Critics Association panel for his new series Underground and I got a one-on-one with him after. The drama about the Underground Railroad was also produced by John Legend. The show focuses on a group of slaves (Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge and more) planning their escape from the South. Abolitionists like John Hawkes (Marc Blucas) are also characters on the show. Underground premieres March 9 on WGN America, and I got a chance to discuss storytelling, both historical and fantasy, with Goldsman. 

I hope you can see the sincerity on my face when I tell you how much I loved Winter’s Tale.

Oh my God.

I became so obsessed I read the book, which has so much more crazy story. Was it a shame you had to lose the second generation’s story, with random moments like the arsonist midget (author Marc Halpern’s word) who died in a sinkhole?

Yeah, if I had it to do again, TV. Absolutely, because I think in retrospect, the breadth of the novel, to be properly addressed, requires more hours, more time. I think TV has emerged as being as good as movies, often better.

I love how Winter’s Tale embraces the absurdity. I like to say that making sense is the enemy of creativity.

Agree.

I love the alternate ending where the little girl makes a snowball out of Russell Crowe’s frozen face. Was that the line you thought was too much for a movie audience?

Yeah, there are places where I find magical realism is very sensible to me, but I find the rules of magical realism are elusive too sometimes. I was anticipating what people could and couldn’t tolerate. You never get it quite right.

With Underground, you’ve done world building on film. Is it different on television?

It’s similar. What’s interesting about Underground is it is sort of historical truth but it’s very high stakes poker. It is the kind of isolation and then reactive requirements of courage, of strength, of impossible achievement that we typically build a prison planet to sell. Fundamentally, it is so hyperbolic, and yet it happened. It was real. People really were trapped beyond any reasonable measure in a pervasive and impossible form of oppression. They really managed in some number to escape anyway. As such, the terms of that are actually in weirdly genre terms. So the world building is, in a funny way, no different because you understand that the requirements are historical, if you’re building a world that is real, and then narrative. You look for the things that are the truth about how hard it was. And you look for the things that are the truth about our ability to rise above hardship. That is what you do with world building. You’re never really building a whole world. You’re picking the components of a world to help you tell a story.

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