[Editor’s note: The following article contains spoilers for The Expanse]
As I have said many times on Collider, The Expanse is one of the best series airing on any channel. Over five seasons, the incredible sci-fi series based on the novels by James S. A. Corey (the pen name used by collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) has used the genre of science-fiction to consistently deliver complex and dynamic storylines that are unlike anything else on TV. I cannot recommend this series enough.
Shortly after seeing the Season 5 finale (which is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video) I was able to speak with producers Naren Shankar, Abraham, and Franck. They talked about why they decide to kill off Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman) and Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), how George R. R. Martin‘s Game of Thrones influenced certain decisions, how much fun they have writing for Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and the great scene where she resigned from the cabinet, the way the series talks about factionalism, how it’s decided how many episodes each season will have, why Season 5 felt bigger, the challenges of filming on location for the Baltimore sequences, and more.
Finally, for more on The Expanse Season 5 finale, you can read my interview with Steven Strait (Jim Holden) and Wes Chatham (Amos Burton).
Collider: I’m going to start with how much I love the show. One of my favorite things on TV. So jumping right on in. Is every city, and I’m not sure who should answer if I should direct it to certain people, but is every city in the world in shambles like Baltimore right now?
TY FRANCK: No, they’re not. There have only been three asteroid strikes. The cities that are devastated the same way, Baltimore is one of the ones that are close to the strikes, but there is still widespread problems in the other cities, even the ones that weren’t directly hit. Problems with access to food, access to power, so there is a breakdown in the social structures and in the civil structures, but not all of the cities have physically collapsed.
Was the decision to divert from the books and assassinate Fred Johnson because of Chad Coleman’s availability or to further Holden and Bull’s story?
NAREN SHANKAR: The decision was really about, there is a gigantic sequence and it’s a little bit different than in the books. But to go through all of that, without having a single person get really hurt that was close to it and just felt kind of wrong. And Fred was obviously dying in the books at a certain point, we felt it was a good change and a justified one. I think it was Dan Nowak who was actually pushing for that pretty hard. And we set it up early in the season and I think it paid off pretty well.
When did you guys decide to kill Alex? Did it require reshoots? How did that all get worked out?
DANIEL ABRAHAM: We were actually talking about that one, like really early in the process. Like last November, December, the idea of, like Naren said about the action sequence with Fred, the idea of going through this whole story about war and the losses of war and the pain and the danger and then having everybody we care about on the other side of it, seemed a little sentimental. And I’m a sentimentalist, it’s what we did in the books because we’re sentimentalists. But Naren and Dan Nowak are not.
SHANKAR: We had really talked about the idea of losing people very early on as we were getting into season five, as Daniel was saying. And it’s kind of an ongoing conversation that you’d have in shows of this nature about certain characters having plot armor. And that’s one of the things that, George R. R. Martin in Game of Thrones really kind of drove home with the Red Wedding and something of that sort of thing happens and it really is, at the end of the day, it’s one of those incredibly difficult, moving moments in a show, but it has tremendous ramifications on the creative side moving forward, because this is a consequence that hangs over season six, as we go forward into it and all of our characters are feeling it and it really informs the drama going forward.
It’s awful to lose a character you care about, but I also think that it’s more realistic that not everyone can survive. Was the reunion at the bar on Luna the first time the main cast was altogether during filming in season five?
FRANCK: Yeah, I think so.
SHANKAR: That was baked into the show from the very beginning, is that we talked about not having them together from day one and then having them together at the end. Only because you are craving it as an audience and that’s part of the reason it feels so good. Or I mean even though it’s sad, but …
ABRAHAM: As much as the family gets back together as it’s going to get back together.
SHANKAR: That’s what they were striving for all season.
The cabinet meeting where Chrisjen resigned was very telling with the female cabinet members opposing the male dominated military officers from responding to the attacks in kind with more civilian deaths. Yet in the end, Chrisjen is reinstated via martial law. Is she just an opportunist, or does her love of the planet extend beyond political and militaristic borders? Also, how fun is it to write lines for her telling everyone to F off?
FRANCK: Yeah, I’m not going to answer that one, I’ve answered that one a couple of times online. There was no gender commentary there. All of the civilians leave with her, and that just happens to be two women and a man. All of the military stays that just happens to be two men and a woman so we didn’t go into that with any sort of commentary on gender roles. It’s just that the civilians agree with her and the military feels like they have to stay. On the other hand, I think what we’ve seen from Avasarala is enormous growth. In the first episode of the first season, she’s saying Eartj must comes first, she’s hanging Belters on hooks. By this point in the season, she’s arguing against civilian deaths or Belters. Against Earth projecting its power in that way. It’s a pretty dramatic change and it is always awesome to write lines for Avasarala. And it’s kind of a bummer that we almost always let Daniel write them.
Of all four factions, Earth, Mars, OPA, and Marco’s Followers, who mostly resembles our world and who’s the hardest to write honestly for?
ABRAHAM: They’re all present in our world. So much of The Expanse is talking about factionalism and the dangers of factionalism and the problems with factionalism. I mean any of those four, you can find representatives of now or in history. That’s kind of the game we’re playing. What’s hardest to write for? I don’t know.
SHANKAR: They all have their issues. I mean, and again it’s like, and there’s good and bad people in every side. I mean, look at Cyn, he’s incredibly sympathetic. He’s Marco’s right-hand man. In course of the season he’s like … Every side has it’s challenges, let’s put it that way.
When I spoke to two of the cast members they basically were smiling when I said, “What’s it like being the end next season, season six being the end?” And I was sort of looking for some things and the way they were smiling made me think that perhaps there’s like a spinoff or like something that I’m not aware of. Is season six, the end of The Expanse? Have you guys talked about possibly doing like a spinoff or other things that could take place or am I just looking up the wrong tree?
ABRAHAM: Well, we got three more books. They’re right there. If somebody wants to do something with them, we got them.
But there’s a time jump, in terms of, so what I’m wondering is, there’s a time jump, but there could still be stories that take place between, I don’t know. As a fan, I just want more.
SHANKAR: Let’s put it this way, we support your desire.
I completely understand. When you guys were making season five, was it always going to be 10 episodes? Is the 10 episode mark due to like the budget you have from Amazon? Is that what Amazon is saying? Like, “We want 10 episodes.”? How does that number get determined?
SHANKAR: It’s always a negotiation. It’s a negotiation between the studios and negotiate between the network. It’s changed. We started season one with 10 episodes, the next two seasons were 13, season four was back to 10. I think the streamers, they’re all sort of coalescing around different numbers. I think their analytics is what drive it in terms of the number of episodes that they feel people can attach to in a given season and that’s really what it is. We alter the story or we adjust the story relative to how many episodes they want.
Season five was my favorite thus far. I thought what you guys pulled off was incredible and it felt to me like all the location work you did really added to this story and have to ask, did you guys have more money for season five? Because it felt bigger than what you’ve done before.
SHANKAR: I should probably speak to that. I think that for the first time, the show, it’s always a struggle with the budget. Season five, I think we were able to make the show what we really imagined from the very beginning and the fact that we had one huge storyline set on Earth allowed us to do more location work than we have in the past and I think that lends a lot to the scope of it. Because we kept coming back and we kept moving around, the show felt very, very big last year. I think it’s fulfillment reasons, but thematic reasons as well.
How tough was it to pull off those Baltimore scenes and film on location?
FRANCK: Well, I spent a lot of time outside, so maybe I can answer that. Yeah, I was with our director for two episodes that we shot a huge amount of footage outside. It was the middle of winter up in the woods and the difficulty there was that it was up in the woods, in the middle of the winter. Getting the vehicles out there was brutal, getting the crew and the cast safe from the cold and all that was tough. But I think in the end, when I watched the dailies of those shots in the woods that Jeff shot, like instantly it was all worth it. He shot some of the most beautiful sequences in our show out there in those woods. And then at the end of the season, the stuff Breck shot at the mansion, with Amos (Burton) and Clarissa (Mao) escaping are just some of the most beautiful sequences of the show. So I mean, yeah it was brutal to do, but once you saw what you saw it on screen, it was like, “Yeah, that was all worth it.” I’m glad he did it.
How many of the scripts are typically done before you guys start filming?
SHANKAR: As many as we can. I think last season, what would you say guys? About like six or seven?
FRANCK: Yeah, I would say maybe at least half of them, and the other half had solid outlines. So-
ABRAHAM: One of the things that has been amazing to me in this whole process coming in from writing novels to being involved in a television show is how much the scripts still change once they’re finished. I mean, they’re tweaks on the day, there’s changes in the editorial bay when it’s in post. I can’t tell when a script is done anymore. Naren and Ty, maybe they know, I can’t. I can’t tell.
FRANCK: You know the old adage, it says it gets written three times, right? It’s once on the page, once on the stage and then once in editorial, but one of the things that people haven’t asked about that, and maybe we’ve forgotten, Cara (Gee) was pregnant.
ABRAHAM: Yeah, right?
FRANCK: We had to write so far ahead and commit to her storyline because we shot it like two months before the rest of the work. I mean, it was crazy. We wanted to shoot her out by sort of the end of December before we broke for the holidays. And so we had to commit to her storyline, we shot all of her scenes, like two months ahead of time from where we normally would have, before the scripts were done. So that was kind of, that was a unique aspect of a unique season.
Look for more with The Expanse producers soon.
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