This interview is spoiler-free for Treadstone, which premieres on October 15, 2019 on the USA Network.
With the prevalence of “cinematic universes” these days, it’s no surprise that Universal has sought to create a shared world for the Jason Bourne saga with upcoming movies starring Jeremy Renner and Dwayne Johnson. But Ben Smith, who has produced a number of Robert Ludlum adaptations for the theater, has now branched into television with a new Bourne prequel for UCP on the USA Network entitled Treadstone. Smith talked to us for The Fourth Wall podcast about the series’ premise, which explores the origins of the sleeper assassin program that began with The Bourne Identity.
DEN OF GEEK: For those who may not be familiar with the Ludlum novels, what can you tell us about the name Treadstone and what it means in the Bourne timeline?
BEN SMITH: The mythology goes that in the 60s — and this is referenced in the books as well and somewhat in the films — there was a group called Silverlake, Operation Silverlake, which was the precursor to Treadstone. In the movies, we called it Emerald Lake, but in the books it was called Silverlake. And then at some point in the early 70s, there was a Treadstone program that was a covert, black ops program that initially started as an assassination program when that was deemed by Congress to be outlawed.
Our story of Treadstone starts in ’73 when we have an agent who has been captured by the KGB in East Berlin, and he is put into an experimental program called Cicada. And that’s John Randolph Bentley, played by Jeremy Irvine.
Cicada — great name for a sleeper agent program! Is that something moviegoers or book readers will recognize?
Cicada isn’t referenced in the books; there’s a lot of programs that are in the films like LARX-3, which is mentioned in The Bourne Legacy, and Outcome where Aaron Cross — in The Bourne Legacy as well — came from. This organization is another organization that we’re finding out about now was in the timeline and story of Treadstone, which is Cicada, and yes, we’ll be finding out a lot about the program and also how it feeds into the origin story of Treadstone as well.
You were a producer of the film franchise as well. What freedoms and limitations were presented by taking the concept to the small screen?
Conceptually this is something that I’d been working on for many years, doing a Treadstone story. Within transferring it to television, there are things that we are still exploring in the Bourne world, and while there’s a conducive mythology in that things work together, there are things that you won’t see in the Treadstone TV series, and there’s things from Treadstone that you probably will not see in the Bourne films although they are concurrent.
Oh, so this is considered a shared universe between Treadstone and the Bourne movies?
Absoultely! Within our first episode, there are references for careful viewers that they will know that they’re firmly within the world of Jason Bourne.
One thing the Bourne films and Treadstone seem to have in common is the feel of the fight sequences. What do you think makes a Bourne action scene so unique and recognizable?
We approach the action sequences from a grounded place. Our stunts coordinator and second unit director is a guy named Buster Reeves who actually worked on The Bourne Ultimatum, so when we were talking about doing action for the series, we definitely wanted it to be grounded. One of the things that The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy and that the movies did, which wasn’t necessarily heavy in movies before action movies, is that each of our action sequences has a strong emotional core and an emotional through line. We don’t take a break to have an action sequence; it’s very much in sync with the emotional journey of our characters.
What’s happening with Bentley, when we see him enter into an action scene, is furthering the story. And that’s something that Bourne introduced over 20 years ago, at least in the cinema, which is having a very strong emotional core, and that is something that we are continuing to do within our series.
Does the television series allow you to explore multiple sleeper agents across the life of Treadstone and the Cicada project?
We do have multiple timelines. We are following John Randolph Bentley in the early 70s, and we will continue to through the season in terms of the origin of Cicada and also how that seeded into becoming a big part of how Treadstone began. So we will be following Bentley, and then we do follow a few other Cicada agents… The two that we meet in the pilot are SoYun [Hyo-Joo Han of Dong Yi] and Doug McKenna [Brian J. Smith of Sense8].
SoYun’s story in the pilot takes place in North Korea. How did you design the look of those scenes without any real frame of reference?
We did a lot of research, and our production design team led by Gerald Sullivan really dug in. What was in our mind’s eye in terms of what North Korea was and then actually what we found was very different. There’s a lot of color; there’s a lot of pastels. And that world is something that we wanted to reflect.
I was able to spend time and have spent time at Langley, and we met with one of the head North Korean advisors at the agency. And one of the first things that he said to us — I think that it was the first thing actually — is, “Let me dispel one popular misconception, which is that most of the people by and large that live in North Korea love living in North Korea, and they love their leader.”
So kind of dispelling what our narrative was and what the reality was is something that we definitely wanted to pursue and to present because it reflects more of a reality of what’s in North Korea right now, or at least to what we’ve been able to discover. And that goes, as mentioned, with our research at Langley.
The film franchise, like most spy films, has always had an international flair. Were you able to achieve this same feel on a smaller budget, and what locations will we see in Treadstone?
Yeah, there were a few pillars that were very important to me in terms of doing Treadstone as a television series. Having grounded action was one of them, and another was being able to travel to locations. So before we started on day one, I built in a way to which we could travel within the Bourne world. There is a kind of travelogue nature to it, and I know it’s something that I enjoy when watching the films and I know our audience enjoys as well.
Yes, we were constricted to a degree by our budget, but knowing how important that was to the Treadstone story, we all built a way. I wouldn’t say that it was a guerrilla style of filmmaking, but we have a smaller crew. And within the last nine months of shooting, I’ve traveled 240,000 miles. We shot in Africa; we shot in Taiwan; we shot in Hong Kong, the Arctic Circle, Colombia, India, Paris, Amsterdam, Greece. We had a unit that was literally a traveling road show. So we had a separate action unit, which was our second unit; we had a foreign unit, which was constantly on the road; and then we had our main unit. So at any given time, we had three units shooting.
No doubt all the hard work will pay off when Treadstone arrives on October 15, 2019 at 10/9c on the USA Network. The Fourth Wall podcast seeks to allow creative people behind the scenes to break through the illusory “fourth wall” of stage and cinema to speak directly to the audience of their work. Our interviews with authors, composers, set designers, and others give voice to a whole host of artists we wouldn’t normally get to hear from. Subscribe so that you never miss an episode, or simply listen to our full interview with Ben Smith below!