RICHMOND, Va. — Seth Numrich can't quite get a straight answer. In character as Ben Tallmadge, the leader of a group of Revolutionary War spies known as the Culper Ring and a central character in the new
The unfortunate man is a scout who has failed to relay crucial information to Tallmadge and fellow spy Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall), who are working on behalf of Gen.
"It's very difficult to gather intelligence when we possess so little of it," says a frustrated Tallmadge, exiting a makeshift hospital tent that, on camera, appears situated in a dense thicket of woods but is actually inside a giant converted warehouse. The space is so vast that crew members bike among the many sets, which include a two-story barn with a dirt floor and Colonial-style living quarters with working fireplaces. In a nice twist, the warehouse once housed an IRS facility.
"God knows what happened here, what was repossessed," jokes
Premiering April 6, "Turn" focuses on a conflict in American history that continues to reverberate politically — perhaps you've heard of the tea party? — but has failed to captivate the popular imagination in the same way as the Civil War or World War II. It also arrives at a moment of transition for AMC. After the end of
Although it's not as somber or gory as the network's best-known series, "Turn" shares the essential DNA of an AMC show. At its center is a conflicted everyman, Abe Woodhull, a not so happily married cabbage farmer and father of one in the
"When we meet him it's evident that he's somewhat emotionally arrested, he's shut down, he's withdrawn and debased," Bell says. "He's had to give up so much of what he believes in. His patriot leanings he's had to quiet because of his father, and the woman he loves he's had to give up for the same reasons."
"Turn," adapted from "Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring" by historian Alexander Rose, has the added distinction of being true — or at least true-ish. Josephson, a prolific producer with an eclectic list of credits that includes the long-running
"I was fascinated," Josephson recalls. "I produce movies and TV, and I thought, 'This is why you do a series.' You could do a fine movie and figure out some arc to follow, but that would really shortchange it."
It is not difficult to understand the fascination. The real-life members of the Culper Ring, named after the aliases used by two of its key members, were citizens with ordinary occupations — homemakers and shopkeepers — who helped pioneer modern espionage, using encrypted messages and letters written in invisible ink at a time when steaming open other people's mail represented the height of spycraft. "What you didn't really have at the beginning of the Revolution were agents based permanently behind enemy lines filtering intelligence back to headquarters," Rose explains. "We tend to look at spying as if it's always been there, but there were no manuals in those days, there was no training, no instruction, no apparatus. These guys were improvising, it was all ad hoc. It was like jazz espionage."
Despite taking enormous personal risks and operating with little guidance, the Culpers were remarkably effective, relaying crucial information about British military maneuvers while remaining virtually undetected.
Josephson brought the book to Craig Silverstein, a standout writer on "Bones" and later an executive producer on
Creating a journey
Silverstein and Josephson initially pitched a very different version of "Turn" at AMC's annual development ritual, known as the "bake-off." "It was the
AMC passed, but Josephson persisted. With guidance from Susie Fitzgerald, AMC's senior vice president of scripted development, the project was reworked to focus on Abe.
"In serialized storytelling, you really have to take the character on a journey," says Fitzgerald. "Tallmadge was already committed to the cause. There was nothing personally at stake for him. Whereas we were taking Woodhull from a place of not being involved to a place of being very involved and having to test his loyalty to his father, to his neighbors, to his wife. That's what made it for us."
Adds Silverstein, "This really is thematically about a family, a child pulling away from its father as the kind of symbol of this war."
Once AMC was onboard, it became a matter of waiting for Silverstein to be freed from his duties running
AMC announced a 10-episode order in July, and production began in November. The biggest hurdle has been an unusually severe winter on the East Coast.
This summer, the network will also launch another period piece of sorts, "Halt and Catch Fire," set in the early days of the 1980s personal computing boom. The success of either show could help offset the perception that AMC, which has spin-offs of both "Breaking Bad" and "The Walking Dead" in the works, is "attempting to pull fresh meat off picked-over skeletons," as Grantland writer Andy Greenwald has put it.
In an encouraging sign for the network, spies are more popular than ever on the small screen, considering "Homeland," "The Americans" and the upcoming
"That's what we're trying to do with 'Turn': Bring back the tricorn hat," Rose jokes. "This is my grand aim."
Asked why the Colonists get little love from Hollywood, Silverstein suggests it's because "the propaganda version of the story is pretty quick to get. We learn it was a war of ideals and bravery and David versus Goliath, and that's not exactly the way it went down. That is hard-wired not just in the way we're taught but into who we are. It's almost preserved in amber. It's this thing we just don't want to mess with, but we're going to mess with it."
The show, for one thing, will present a more complicated view of GeneralWashington, played by Ian Kahn, who "took enormous joy in being underhanded," according to Rose. Should there be future seasons, viewers can expect to see Nathan Hale and perhaps Benedict Arnold. The series will also deal directly with the plight of slaves during the Revolution, an issue often glossed over.
"Turn" has already been an edifying experience for its cast, which is predominantly British and Australian; only two series regulars, Lind and Numrich, are Yanks. Most of the foreign-born actors learned an abbreviated version of the Revolution, if at all, but the narrow scope of American history has made the subject easier to comprehend, says the British McNally. "You feel almost that you can grasp it in one sweep of the mind. You're talking about 200 years ago. I drink in pubs that are older than that "
The Americans, though outnumbered, are not easily intimidated. "We keep reminding them that we won," Lind says.
As if to underline the point, at lunch extras dressed as redcoats cue up alongside Continental troops wearing bandages and blood-soaked rags. On the menu: Southern barbecue.