Counterpart Creator Justin Marks on Splitting the Universe in Two

The Counterpart showrunner reveals what inspired the compelling new sci-fi/spy drama.

The following interview contains slight spoilers for Counterpart.

Counterpart, which premiered last night (January 21) on Starz, takes place in a world where, 30 years before it starts, something happened to suddenly divide our universe into two parallel realities — where both society and history have gone in somewhat different directions and everyone has a double who may or may not lead a wildly different life. A state of uneasy détente exists between the two realities, and government agencies on both sides work hard to keep the vast majority of their populations from knowing that the other world exists.

Caught in the middle of this is Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons). In our world he’s a sad, rather unremarkable employee of the agency in charge of the portal between the two worlds, who is not even aware of what his employer does. But he finds out soon enough when the Howard from the other side — an aggressive high-level spy and assassin who’s quite different from him — crosses over to investigate a series of murders that may have implications for both worlds.

Created by Justin Marks (writer of Disney’s live-action The Jungle Book and its upcoming sequel), set in Berlin and featuring an international cast that also includes Olivia Williams (Rushmore), Ulrich Thomsen (Banshee) and Nazanin Boniadi (Homeland), Counterpart is a gripping, thought-provoking fusion of science fiction and spy drama that poses questions about the lives we lead and how we might change them if we had the chance. Den of Geek spoke with Justin Marks about how he conceived the show, envisioning the crossing between the two worlds and more, including a brief word on his scripts for The Jungle Book 2 and Top Gun 2.

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Den of Geek: What comes first for you a character, a scene, or a premise?

Justin Marks: I would say this whole show came about because of this idea that I wanted to do a story about two versions of the same self, but not in a way that is exploitative of the concept, but instead just sort of sits in a place where each version of the same self can just sit in a room with each other, and explore each other’s lives, and the boundaries of the choices they made. What was different and what was the same between the two? So, that’s where it started. That was the kernel of it.

For this show, the idea was a scene, but it’s always different, honestly. In the case of Counterpart, it was the interface room, in the very beginning of the first episode when he comes down the long hallway, and he goes, and he sits in a room, and he just has this coded conversation with someone on the other side of a table. I thought that would be cool, and I conceived of it without knowing what was on the other side of that table yet. Saying, “What would be the most interesting thing to be there? What would be the most interesting entity to have some kind of a cold war with?” Then, it became about this idea, what if it were a parallel dimension that was once identical, but has since sort of peeled off in its own direction? So, that’s where it started for Counterpart, but it’s different for every project.

It’s very relatable because we all think, what if I had done this? What if I had taken that job? What if I had met that girl? Whatever it is.

It’s a show about what if. It’s a show that gives all of its characters an opportunity to explore a version of their life that they haven’t gotten to live. It asks that question, if you had that opportunity, would your other self, would your other life be better? Would the other self be happier? Would it be more fulfilled, less fulfilled, or would you both be equally miserable? In the event you see another version of yourself, who seems to have more, how long before you begin to covet what that other person has? That, especially, was really the fun idea that started to give us some long term stories.

!s there any actual basis in any kind of weird scientific experimentation either the East or West was doing during the real Cold War?

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Ultimately, what I wanted to do was to sort of take the science fiction and use it as an excuse to tell this kind of story. We didn’t know about any specific experiment, or no specific line of experimentation. Honestly, if we’re going to go into the realm of the quantum mechanics or quantum physics experiments that it would require to create another universe in and of itself, that wasn’t available at the time in the 1980s. At least within the real world. Maybe the East had its own thing and they were able to do it, but we try to just kind of stay away from it and stay obfuscated as to what exactly was the experiment that caused this, at least for the first season. The second season right now that we’re getting into, delves a lot deeper into the origins, but that’s what were just sort of having fun with.

Do you want to keep that a complete mystery?

It’s definitely not. In fact, we know it down to the smallest detail, and there are a lot of characters who have associations with the origin, even in the first season, that maybe we don’t quite know about yet. What became important, especially in the first season of a show like this, is if we did that too soon, I think then the story only has to get bigger, and bigger, and bigger. We don’t want to go down that road, we want to be able to stay intimate with the characters, and keep guessing, and keep leading forward.

I think honestly, just a freeze frame of the crossing at various moments throughout the season offers a lot of clues as to what exactly the crossing is or what it used to be. We really built that very carefully with Dan Bishop, our production designer, who just did amazing sets for us. It’s a really fun giant Easter egg in and of itself. Part of the fun of it was to build out all these secrets inside of this set and then just to turn the lights down so that you can’t really see it all at any given moment. To literally turn the lights down. I just wanted to do that.   

Usually, you spend all this time coming up with the secrets and you just want to tell everyone about it. I want people to ask before we tell them the answers. I don’t want to give people answers before they ask. For me, in science fiction, there’s nothing worse than being presented with answers before I actually want to know what’s going on. I’m a big video game player and I feel like video games, very often, commit that cardinal sin. Just like, “Here’s a lot of exposition about stuff that you don’t yet care about.” I don’t want that. I want to really care about something and then intuitively start to get answers.

What I found interesting about the crossing is that it’s so sort of subtle. It’s not like this tunnel of flashing lights or a stargate…just this eerie background rumbling. Were there a lot of ideas tossed around about how to visualize it?

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Yeah. If you want to find the right idea, you have to go down every wrong path first. We talked about a lot of things. But for me, I really wanted it to feel like a real place, because I didn’t want to feel like I was going through a stargate to get to this other side. I wanted it to feel like a very simple thing. There’s a hallway. You come in one side, and you come out the other, and it’s as if you just turned around and came back.

We worked on the design based on a tunnel that I visited when I was in Berlin, before we were even shooting the show, that goes underneath the Reichstag, and it has this great concave shape. You stand on one end, and you can’t see to the other end, you can only see the center of it. I love that idea of being able to just sort of create a dip to it, and then to use sound to carry the rest of it. Ben Cook, our sound designer, did an amazing job. There are two things we have. One thing, which I took from THX-1138 in its sound design, was insects in the walls. I love just hearing really small little creatures from behind the walls, even though, what it is, we have some answers, but not all.

You’ve also got this sort of seismic shifting that happens, that you can actually see manifested in the crossing. To hold a bridge of this kind, they’re re-pouring that concrete every couple of months, and it’s cracking again on them, and then they have to re-pour it again. We wanted to sort of play with that. My background was in design before I got into writing, and I always go back to some of the best, most lived-in science fiction, like Gilliam. Like, you look at Terry Gilliam’s movies, they have such a sense of humor to them, because he’s vividly built up the world. That’s kind of what we wanted to do with the interchange. To really build it, down to the smallest detail, so that you can actually find jokes, and find little things here and there…like, the guy whose job it is to sweep the stairs of that crossing probably has a miserable job. Who is that guy? What is that job? It gives us ideas for other stories in the future.

You drop these little hints and references about the other side, and how things are different there. There are little clues about people not wanting to breathe the air, and they don’t have smartphones.

Yeah. That’s part of it. What’s important in a sci-fi story, what I think you want to do, is to build a big world down to the smallest detail. To fill a soundstage with a world, you know? You really sort of build it out and you get everything right and you work on where the stamps go on the visas, and everything else, and you then, you turn off the overhead lights. You don’t just click them on, you turn them off and you hand the audience a flashlight, and you let them walk through it.

You let them see the things that they’re interested in and the things that they’re picking up on and noticing. It’s interesting, in the office of the interchange, the technology seems grounded around the late 1980s, early 90s. Why is that? Or, the phones. Why do their phones look different? Why is it that they talk about people not shaking hands over there? People are walking around with turtlenecks and face masks a lot. All those kinds of things, I think it’s more interesting, and you get the answers to that, even in the first season, even in the first half of the season eventually.

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It goes back to that idea of don’t give the answers before people actually have questions. That’s a lot of what we tried to do with Counterpart. To make it lived-in, because I think the higher the concept, the more grounded it has to be in its execution in order for us to believe it and actually care about the people inside of that world. That’s what J.K. does at the center of the show, as well as the rest of our cast. They don’t think of it in terms of science fiction, they think of it in terms of, “I’m doing a character drama, and I have this other version of myself that I’m also going to be doing in a lot of ways.” That’s where the show lives.

The show is guaranteed to run for at least two seasons.

So far.

Does this particular story end after two seasons?

No, we really intend on staying with our cast through the run of show. Obviously, there are some twists and surprises coming with certain people, but we see this as one complete story. I have, in my head, a single image that is the final image of the series. All the writers know about it, and we’ll chase that, and how long it takes us to get to that image, I don’t know. That’s the moment that we wanna go to.

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That’s the best part about television. I come from features, but stepping into the world of TV, there’s the freedom to sometimes say, “You know what? We’re taking this story in a specific direction, and I don’t know where it’s going to go beyond that until we get there, and then I’ll tell you that.” What I do know is who these people are and what the origins and backstory of the world is and then we just let it go.

We were able to shoot the first season having written the scripts for all 10 before we shot a single frame, which was very nice. It made it feel like a very complete version of the story, but it has a very climactic ending that launches us into what we’re doing right now in the second season. We hope to just keep repeating that structure into the future.

You’re working on some features too at the moment.

I am, yeah. I’m in the middle of Jungle Book 2 right now, the sequel to the movie I wrote. Top Gun 2, as well. Some other new stuff coming out, too. Most of my time is in the features. Counterpart is my true love when it comes to television. It’s a world that you get to build from the ground up. A lot of times in features, we’re writing for properties and different things, but in TV they give you a lot of resources to make something original. I get to have the best of both worlds.

Anything specific that you could say about either one of those scripts?

I can say that Jungle Book 2 takes place in the jungle and has all its characters coming back. With Top Gun 2, it’s about Maverick and it’s about planes (laughs). I don’t just say that to be dismissive of it, I actually mean it. I think what people are gonna see with Top Gun 2 is it really is a movie that focuses on this guy and the other people who actually fly these incredible planes. Which is, I think, the important thing, because you can go a lot of wrong ways. Make it more about technology or different things, and that’s not what they’re doing with it. So, I’m really excited about that one.

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Counterpart airs on Starz on Sunday nights at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT.