Interview: Blake Masters Revisits 'Brotherhood'
I've been unable to stop raving about Brotherhood since I started watching the Showtime series earlier this month. And I'm not alone in thinking it an amazing piece of drama. To share my joy and further dissect three brilliant seasons, I went to the source: Blake Masters, the man who created the series and wrote half of it. Here's what Masters, who went on to help develop NBC's Law & Order: Los Angeles, had to say about his Peabody Award-winning first TV series.
Spoiler alert: This interview discusses all three seasons of Brotherhood. If you're planning on watching the show (which I highly recommend), you should avoid this feature until you've watched the complete series first.
How did you cast the series? You had such a great ensemble. In particular, you really scored landing Jason Isaacs and Jason Clarke as the leads - two actors who hadn't been leads on an American TV series before.
All credit goes to Nancy Green-Keyes and Matthew Berry, who cast the pilot for me. I have a general philosophy about TV casting: I'd rather cast someone the audience has never seen before, because then the audience bonds with the character and not the actor. I was always looking for people that looked like real people. That looked like they'd lived through winters in Providence.
I found Jason Clarke in the luckiest, weirdest way possible. We hired Philip Noyce to direct the pilot. He went off to Australia. Jason was broke, without a green card, living in Philip's basement. He came in, read, and I was like, "Holy shit, that's Tommy Caffee." Philip came back, I said "We found Tommy Caffee," and he said, "Who?"
Philip beat on Jason Clarke unmercifully. He was like, "You're going to be brilliant if I have to kill you to do it." He made sure that Jason became the guy. And Jason threw himself into it.
Jason Isaacs is a guy that would give thousands of notes, even when we were rolling. But the end result was a brilliant performance. Ethan [Embry], I don't think, ever asked for anything different. He's the guy who's criminally overlooked. He was brilliant. And Annabeth [Gish] was pitch-perfect. It was almost like it was too easy.
How intricately did you plan each season? It never felt to me like there was an obvious plan in place, but then we saw characters and storylines that lasted for most of the series, if not all of it. And there are all these great themes and motifs that make me wonder if they're intentional.
That's thanks to Henry Bromell, who taught me how to write television. The way we would do it was that we'd talk very loosely about the character arcs for the season. That's basically as oriented as we were. Then we'd go one step at a time. We were never worried about "Okay, in episode six, we have to hit this plot point." Things unfolded organically. We just sort of said, "What's next?" and that's something I inherited from people like David Chase, Josh Brand and Henry, who was an incredible partner in all this.
We wanted a show that was defined by our plot, by the moral paradox. The best drama comes when both sides can argue and there's no right answer. [And] we never allowed our characters to think they were villains. You're always the hero of your own story. We all make choices in the moment that we justify. We wanted Tommy to break your heart a little bit. We wanted you to feel and understand.
Season one had such a great ending, but I'm curious about one thing: why didn't we see Eileen (Annabeth Gish) coming clean to Tommy (Jason Clarke)? For many shows, that would have been the payoff moment, but it happened off-screen between seasons.
To me, her whole arc of the season was coming to terms with the fact that she had to tell Tommy that she was unhappy. The idea of being married to the great man sounds great at 18, but it sucks at 35. You've made your own prison. It was her coming to terms with that. The point of the whole show was her coming to that moment, not her telling Tommy.
That episode [the first season finale] is near and dear to my heart. It's our [Robert] Altman film. It's about Michael but he's never really talking. That's the way we conceived it. The way we interwove everything, it was a microcosm of the whole season.
On that same note, what was the motivation behind Tommy having an affair of his own in season two? That seemed incredibly hypocritical given his anger toward Eileen for her having cheated on him.
When the series started, I said, "All politicians are philanderers. I want to do something different. Tommy is going to love his family." But the problem is that he does put them on a pedestal. Once that myth is destroyed, you are filled with rage. You didn't cheat; you could've. You were nothing but devoted to, truthfully, your image of [Eileen] - what you saw her as, not who she was. How would you act out?
It seemed to me to be a very logical place, from a storytelling perspective. Also, we picked a woman [in Dana Chase] who was in that sort of aspirational world. He still sees himself as the poor kid. So sleeping with the rich ice queen still holds that sort of dreamlike quality for him.
You made the gutsy choice to leave Michael (Jason Isaacs) with lasting effects from the beating he suffered at the hands of Declan (Ethan Embry) when we rejoined the show in the second season. Most shows wouldn't dare take such a risk with a main character. Were you at all worried that it wouldn't work?
Yes. Constantly. The degree to which we were going to play it was always a matter of debate. We had to make sure that we didn't carry it too far. I was always on the side of use it less, but never let it go away. For me, it was important to make him destructible. To give him something to fight against, and you open the door for his disillusion in season three.
The show was cancelled after its third season in 2008. Did you always have those two final scenes - with Tommy becoming Speaker of the House and Michael leaving the family again - in mind for the series' ending?
In season one, we said that the last image of the show would be Tommy walks out of his house, his family's gone, and it's the death of that neighborhood. We were chronicling a dying neighborhood. But we knew season three was our last season before we started writing, so we knew Michael had to go over the edge and Tommy had to eventually go so far into the dark that he loses his soul. We knew where the honest place to end our characters was. It's circular.
Had there been a fourth season, do you know what we would have seen?
I don't know. Michael would've moved into that trailer park in New Mexico we left him in. Tommy would've been Speaker and probably gotten indicted.
Is there any part of the show that you'd do differently in retrospect?
We didn't realize until late in season three that a little bit of humor will allow you to embrace the tragedy. We had a cast capable of it. It was something I think we could've done more of and [done] a little earlier.
Give me your favorite moment or moments from working on the series.
I have tons. If I had to pick a moment that encapsulates all of the ironies and tensions of the show, it's the moment in the election episode [in season two] where Tommy has won, but he's used terrible things to do it, and Eileen knows it. She watches him get engulfed by all the people who are congratulating him. And he looks across and sees the guy that he cheated, and he knows "Next election, they're coming for me."
From your perspective, how much of a following does Brotherhood still have? I was surprised to find out that several friends of mine are fans, and I did a recent interview with Tracie Thoms, who told me that her father never missed an episode. At least from where I'm sitting, it seems like the show left a lasting impression.
It was a very odd experience because we were very different. Showtime didn't really know how to promote us because we were different. We always felt like we were out in the middle of nowhere, trying to do our best. Sometimes the really challenging stuff has a time finding numbers, but we'd get critically, spectacular feedback. My hope is that it becomes one of those cult things. I can't be prouder of a show that I'll ever do, and I love the people I worked with. The people of Rhode Island opened their hearts to us.
What TV shows hold your interest?
There's two types of television for me. There's the type you sit down and watch like a movie, and the type you watch while folding the laundry. There'll always be a place for the procedurals and the soaps side by side with really challenging TV.
Hill Street Blues was the show of my youth. I watch Modern Family. I watch Chicago Code because I like watching [Jason] Clarke. I have a love-hate relationship with Mad Men, but I'm so glad that [Matthew Weiner]'s getting to do that show the way he is.
My thanks to Blake Masters for this exclusive interview! If you haven't checked out Brotherhood yet, all three seasons are available on DVD.
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