Matthew Carnahan saw only one path when he pitched his vision for a series based on the real-life stories of the ‘90s tech bubble to National Geographic.
The House of Lies creator was never interested in telling a conventional story about clicking keys and endless lines of code. He cooked up something strange, a plan to make a show that was both fresh and innovative, worthy of being set during a period of profound technological advancement. So Carnahan walked into a pitch meeting and told the network that he sought to “ruin the genre.” He wanted the show to be as disruptive, an overused buzzword today, as the OG tech disruptors.
Nat Geo complied and let Carnahan piece together Valley of The Boom, a hybrid scripted-documentary series that isn’t bound genre or ordinary storytelling devices. The best way of illustrating that is through the brief interactions I had with his actors on set one day over the summer. In the first scene our group of reporters witness, one of the series’ leads, New Girl actor Lamorne Morris, is breaking the fourth wall. That’s not out of the ordinary for anyone who’s seen Carnahan’s work on House of Lies. But the impromptu flash mob that breaks out behind Morris throws me for a loss.
In between takes of this scene that he’s not in, actor Steve Zahn mingles with reporters, recapping a dramatic scene in the first episode where he breaks out into dance with a professional dancer. Zahn, who shot a different scene earlier that morning, was supposed to go home but decided to hang around because he was having too much fun watching. On a whim, he decides to try and convince the director to let his character be in the background of the flash mob for a take, just for the hell of it. As Zahn said in our interview a day prior, they were there to break rules.
“For a company that’s old and established, [Nat Geo] has been the most progressive, the most forward thinking, embracing of crazy, crazy ideas that I would have fired myself for if I were in charge,” Carnahan tells us during a brief break in shooting the flash mob scene.
Valley of The Boom, which premieres January 13th, is a story of boom and bust. The ‘90s tech bubble wasn’t just about the biggest winners still kicking around Silicon Valley today; it was about promise both fulfilled and unfulfilled, the spoils of excess, heartbreak, epic downfalls, and bundles and bundles of cash. The series uses the perspective of the major players of that era in a documentary format, but it’ll be remembered for dramatizing the bubble in an unconventional manner with actors like Bradley Whitford, John Karna, Oliver Cooper, Dakota Shaprio, Morris, and Zahn. We spoke with Carnahan about his creative choices for the show set during a time when thousands of millionaires were created every day.
So you wrote, directed, and produced Valley of The Boom. Where did you get the inspiration from?
Jada Miranda at STX came to me first and asked if this was a movie that I was interested in. I was kind of not interested. I said I would look at the material, but it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that was for me. I took some of the materials and preliminary research that they had done home and I was like, ‘well, the only way it would work is if it was done in a form that was as disruptive as the creators of the tech during that period.’
I was thinking I don’t really know how to do that without completely blowing up the shop, blowing up Nat Geo. It was already kind of placed with Nat Geo. Jada said, no, that’s actually interesting. So I sat down with the Nat Geo people and I said that. I just said, ‘I want ruin the genre. I want to make it the kind of thing that if anyone wants to do this kind of thing again they’ll have to go through this. They’ll have to somehow acknowledge that this project happened. We’re going to make it so strange, and so inclusive of everything.’
And so, to use an overused term, meta, the idea was that it was maybe slightly hybrid. But I felt we should sort of go beyond hybrid and make it nothing off limits in terms of, you know, we’ll use green ballet. We’ll use the flash mob sequence. We’ll use direct address. We’ll use a rap battle. We’ll use all that stuff. And they said yes. They were very excited, and so that’s been the spirit of the collaboration ever since.
How did you approach assembling the structure of the show? Do you start out with a basic narrative that you want to tell and then kind of figure out how to blow it up here, blow it up there?
Exactly. So I started out with three stories: Netscape, theGlobe.com, and the Michael Fenne, David Kim Stanley story. They were different reflections through into the prism of the internet and dot com boom and bust.
They were all really varied in terms of the way each, not only the level of success each of them had, but the parenting each child had. Each company is sort of this baby. Netscape had Jim Barksdale, a brilliant leader who parented this company into this multimillion dollar sale. The Globe, which had these two brilliant kids, and was parented by Robert Egan, who ultimately kind of abandoned them in a way. He sold his shares and moved on, which gutted the company. And Pixelon, David Kim Stanley, which was just a terrible orphan story, with a strange, unhappy ending.
I started with those three stories, and the disrupting of traditional narrative began with the notion of mixing up the scripted and unscripted. So having a scripted character pretending to be an unscripted character. So that happens early in the first episode. John Karna, who plays Marc Andreessen, begins talking and there’s a chyron that says Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape. And he’s talking and somebody off screen says, ‘You know, you’re not Marc Andreessen.’ And then he says, ‘yeah, we’ll I’m the actor playing Mark Andreessen, but obviously I’m an actor, so I’ll say anything. Marc Andreessen would rather do just about anything than come here and talk about the good old days of Netscape.’
So that’s the first little break in the reality. And then in all the stories there are these odd moments when the character’s against the camera. They are obviously breaks. There are surreal elements. There are breaks with reality. I love theater, just being able to break into song or dance or soliloquy. Always for me, the things that were the best were like Richard III’s opening monologue, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent. Make glorious summer.’ But that’s right to the audience. And it’s so dark, it’s so private and intimate, and it’s right to you, you know?
And Our Town, my favorite play, is just the stage manager talking, right? That’s always been such an important thing for me in the work that I do, is having characters be able to have this communion with the audience. So that was the first piece where I got to have my voice really be able to poke through as a filmmaker. And then all of the really fun stuff, like we’re shooting today, the flash mob and things like that.
There’s a fourth story in the show, right?
I was going to mention that. I love that Patty Beron became part of the story. You know, it’s interesting, and I think poignant, and horrible, that the female story was pretty much forgotten. Patty Beron’s SFGirl website is like such a footnote in all of this. Because she did the parties, but now that goes to corporates like TechCrunch and, you know, TechCrunch Disrupt. And she had the first avatar, the name SFGirl.
As we started going through the story, one of the connectors that we kept finding was the party scene, and what drove the party scene, and how were these parties organized? And so we realized she was the complete outliner. She was the pioneer of social marketing, social media. She really, really was out in front of it. Kind of what the guys at the Globe were doing was definitely related to her thing. She didn’t do it to make any money on SFGirl. She made money later throwing those pink slip parties after the bust when everyone was getting fired. She was able to make money from the venues that were all going broke and needed people and so she would bring these parties.
Have the innovations of the ‘90s tech bubble improved our lives?
No. I don’t. I think it’s improved our ability to make commerce and I think it’s improved our ability to reach more eyes and ears, but I really don’t. Obviously there are massive technological gains that have been made, but the social, I mean just the fact that it’s called social media, I feel like it kills us socially. Makes us less deep. I just feel like it’s all about how you make that perfect square and picture that sells your life as a happy thing. And it’s an endless source of discussion with my children and friends. I try to unplug.
What are you hoping that viewers take away from this show?
I would just like people to take a breath and go, ‘oh wow, this was the moment when all of this happened.’ You know, maybe the most important invention or advance of our contemporary history is this thing called the internet, and these were all the people who were deeply flawed, who were unbelievably brilliant, and who were making this stuff up.
You see somebody like Spence Murray, who was a lead designer at Netscape, and you hear him talking, he talks like an artist. He talks about it as if they were making art, and in a way they were. They were absolutely, they were makers. They were creating something from whole cloth that had never, ever been imagined before. And so, I mean, that’s cool. That’s what happened at Netscape. That’s what happened at the Globe. These guys were saying it’s this thing that’s called social, it’s a social network. It’s a network, but it’s on the internet. People would just go, ‘yeah, I don’t know how you monetize that.’ I mean that’s Facebook. That’s everything.
Do you consider some of the show a cautionary tale?
Yeah, I think there is a cautionary tale in any story that encompasses a bubble and the bubble’s demise. I mean, we’re in another tech bubble now for sure. I mean it will be a cautionary tale, and what we’ve learned from all the other cautionary tales, all the other bubbles, is that nobody cares because the guys who are really driving it make money no matter what.
Valley of The Boom premieres Sunday, January 13th at 9/8c on National Geographic.
Chris Longo is the deputy editor and print editor of Den of Geek. You can find him on Twitter @east_coastbias.