Writing Arcs That Span Lifetimes: Rohil Chats Process with “For All Mankind” Creators Ben Nedivi, Matt Wolpert, Ronald D. Moore, Esther Marquis, Seth Reed & Garrett Reisman

Contains spoilers for Season 1-3 of For All Mankind.

Narrative Designer and All Ages of Geek’s Sci-Fi savant, Rohil, here, logging back in, disappointingly not from a mega-corp-owned Mars base, but enthusiastically from a New York office after a roundtable chat with the creators of Apple TV+’s acclaimed “alternate history” space opera, “For All Mankind.”

I joined the show’s Executive Producers/Creators/Showrunners, Ben Nedivi, Matt Wolpert, Ronald D. Moore, as well as Production Designer, Seth Reed, Costume Designer, Esther Marquis, and NASA Tech Advisor and Astronaut, Garrett Reisman, to learn more about the show’s creative process, from crafting complex character arcs to building the impeccably accurate, groundbreaking set design.

“For All Mankind” (FAM) explores the alternate history of “what would have happened if the global space race had never ended” after the Soviet Union succeeds in the first crewed Moon landing ahead of the United States.

We gather around a cozy “mission control” in Javits North – a ReedPop Step & Rep draped room. Warm introductions from the show’s passionate team, rightfully stoked on the supreme scale of story they’ve been able to execute. 

One of the more unique aspects of FAM’s larger narrative structure involves the significant time jumps between seasons. The characters experience diverse and interconnected journeys that span entire lifetimes. Could you share the team’s approach to developing characters across multiple seasons with these time jumps? Were there any characters whose endpoint in season 3 or starting point in season 4 differed significantly in early drafts or took unexpected turns as the show progressed?

Ben Nedivi: We had a 6-7 season map of what we wanted to do with the characters. But, as is common with writers and the writers’ room, it changes. For one, the actors bring their own personalities into it, and that can change what we see (in the characters) and what we thought they were going to be in many ways. That’s the fun thing about television. Television is a continuous conversation between the writers, the actors, and the heads of your department. It’s an evolution. It changes even as you’re shooting it. Even though we believe we’re geniuses and write everything as we think we want it to be, as you go from season to season, it evolves significantly. 

Even the Gordo and Tracy sacrifice wasn’t exactly what we had in mind; we didn’t know that they both would die at the end of Season 2. I like surprising myself. One of the things we tell writers is to surprise us. Let’s take risks. The arcs are well thought out, and because we jump through time, we have a unique ability to tell a person’s story, covering not just a year or two of someone’s life but their entire life. I mean, Ed Baldwin (played by Joel Kinnaman), you’ve witnessed a lifetime with this character; they’re becoming an old man now. That’s a rare opportunity that is not very common in television. We take it very seriously.

Matt Wolpert: –Just the commitment to the physicality of age — it’s not just the make up, he walks differently—

Rohil: –Ed picking up that sort of limp, Molly losing their eyesight and subtly adjusting motion–

Matt Wolpert: Exactly! The thoughtfulness with all our actors whose characters are aging; they really think about that stuff. I remember Wrenn Schmidt bringing in a wrist support device and saying, “Margot hurt her wrist.” It’s such a great detail. Actors think through all of that stuff and adapt.

Ben Nedivi: Talk about commitment, Joel Kinnaman (Ed Baldwin) is in that makeup chair for 4-5 hours. At 3 am in the morning, he gets in there before us to do the prosthetics. It’s a very exhausting process. To their credit, the actors not only accept it, they love it and embrace the challenge of playing someone older and experiencing that age.

Could you share a bit about FAM’s approach or the techniques used to successfully set up the next generation of characters or introduce a newer character who will end up carrying a significant part of the story? How does the team achieve a smooth transition between lead characters?

Ronald D. Moore: Some of it is literally starting them off as children. You know, you met the Stevens’ children in the pilot. We’re going, “Those kids are going to grow up over the course of the show, so keep an eye out for that.” And then we touch base with them every once in a while so that when we get into season 2, well now they’re teenagers, right? Then the audience goes, “Oh, we’re going to see them in their twenties next.” So, it’s kinda fun. That’s one way of doing it.

The other way is to start a character in the background and then bring them to the foreground as you move forward. And then there’s just introducing a new character as a rolling change, but never a, “Well, Gordo and Tracy’s story is this… The Ed story is this… Margot is this… etc.”— it was more of a rolling, keep it moving forward and have a suggestion of who the next players would be so that the audience can have the fun of wondering, “I hope I see them next time in ten/twenty years — I wonder if they’re still going to be around and how they will change.”

In season 3, with the introduction of Dev Ayesa (played by Edi Gathegi)-helmed Helios, we see a private entity, drawing comparisons with SpaceX, competing with the superpowers and “disrupting” the space race. As we move into season 4, will corporations play a larger role in the story? Will the themes of competition breeding the best of humanity shift to themes of monopolization?

Ronald D. Moore: Yeah! That was an important element we introduced in season 3. Once we said there’s a 3-way race for Mars and two of them are nation-states, and one of them is a private company, we’re in a different world, right?

Ronald D. Moore: Then we go into season 4, like how has that (Helios’ presence) now changed? And Helios’ monopolization of the moon, their power as a corporation, and Dev’s personal power to shift dynamics on a geopolitical level — that was really interesting stuff to explore here. That aspect becomes more significant – the competition between nations and companies. The historian in me feels like it’s all analogous to the 18th/19th Century East India Trading Company – this private entity literally had its own army and navy, doing things to change the course of history, whether the crown knew about it or not.

An early trailer, presented as a Helios recruitment video, gives us a first glimpse of Dev and his corporation’s power position, seemingly leading the colonization efforts on Mars. 

Given the meticulous approach to realism, were there any new set or costume designs you were excited to find out were pretty close to a real NASA project? You’ve mentioned the overlap in previous featurettes.

Ben Nedivi: Yes! One of the most complicated costumes on the show is the spacesuits. Esther Marquis (Costume Designer) researched it and looked into it just like a lot of our department heads. She was so into it that she ended up helping design the look of the new suit that NASA is going to use on the moon. She was part of their team. And I think that’s an interesting thing when you talk about art imitating life. This year is all about asteroids, and as we’re writing, we’re getting new research from Mars, seeing photos from Mars, then talking to the VFX supervisor, and he’s going, “Oh look, the sand actually looks like this here…” and so we’re changing the look of our Mars as we do the show. The communication between what’s actually happening (in real life) and the show is really amazing. We have a responsibility to stay true to the science and keep the show as grounded as possible.

Esther Marquis: I worked with Axiom Space, an aerospace company in Houston, and they received the contract with NASA to create the next-generation space suit. They came to me and asked me to design a “spacesuit cover.” They were doing a big global press conference, and because the space suit is highly secretive, to avoid competition, they needed a cover, so I did that. But I’ve also designed their next flight suit. That’s going to space! So, I got there. I was really hoping they were going to ask me, “Hey, wanna come on the next mission?”

I looked at every space suit ever worn and compiled a list of actors’ needs. I have over 200 emails pertaining to spacesuits.

When the show started it was set in the 70s, this current fourth season is set in 2003. How did the history time jumps impact the production design process– how does the creative process change when going from re-creating/re-imagining past events to now coming up with entirely new ones?

Garrett Reisman: Makes my job harder because when we were doing season 1 & 2, we were dealing with actual spacecrafts and space suits. And you could ask, “Hey, where would this thing be in the cockpit,” and I could pull up my old shuttle notes. Now we’re dealing with these ships that don’t exist, beyond what we’ve done in the real world. So now, I don’t have that reference. Now I have to make stuff up. For me, as an engineer, that’s hard, you know, and that’s where I rely on the creativity of Seth Reed (Production Designer) and Esther. And then I have to see, “Okay, what’s the most logical way, in this new environment they’ve created, how would we operate this?”

Seth Reed: When you see episode S4E1, that ship you’re going to see, there’s a decision on whether it’s pushing or pulling an asteroid. It’s a metaphor for a tugboat, so you’re going to see massive, massive engines on it. The point is, part of the crux of this story, there’s a lot of back and forth — how do you deal with an asteroid, how do you move an asteroid out of its orbit that already has its own inertia, is it going a certain way — how do you move it? So the diagrams you see on the whiteboards are real. The conversations said in scripts are real. The idea here is to make this as believable as possible. So when we talk about, “What is the drive that makes the spaceship go?” and decide, “Fusion Drive” – we have to show the appropriate hardware for that. Even if the audience doesn’t know this stuff, they are going to be immersed in a world that is science-based sci-fi. Processes for the habitats are the same.

Every episode looks like a high-budget feature film. Are there any visuals you are most proud of that look lavish or incredibly expensive but were actually quite cost-effective or particularly smartly produced?

Seth Reed: I’m going to say this, we have a very large art department — illustrators, set designers, etc. A tremendous amount of upfront effort went into developing the world. We’re all handing back and forth to each other. So the key (to the visuals) was getting organized, of course, taking some time to do it, and then, there are the most amazing images we created for everyone to work from. The key was collaboration to make the show look the way it does. We are way ahead of where we were 10 years ago in terms of capturing gigantic scale.

Garrett Reisman: The other person I want to give a shout-out to is Jay Redd, our VFX lead. He covers up a lot of our sins. We shot a scene where Gordo and Ed are walking in Ellington Field, in Long Beach! There were no T38s parked out there– there were two vans parked on a tarmac just so the actors had some reference point to walk towards. There were palm trees and a modern office building in the background. I’m like, “Guys, this is supposed to be Ellington Field in the 70s.” They’re like, “Don’t worry, Jay will fix it.” And sure enough, when you look at it, there are T38s and no palm trees. Amazing.

The supplementary or bonus content around For All Mankind is fantastic, the science breakdowns, for example — can we expect more of that additional content, whether it’s more educational material or even world-building content across different mediums?

Matt Wolpert: Yeah, one of our favorite things to do is get into those “yearly news reports” of everything that has happened and find a different thing to focus on in the world of the show, in our alternate history/alternate science, and then doing the time capsule. It’s just fun to build out the universe of the show in a way that’s not necessarily a story we want to tell (in the main series) but is making the fabric of the history of the show come to life more. A lot of fun.

Ben Nedivi: In Season 3, we had Wrenn do the “Behind the Science” segments, which was something we were pushing for, and I’m glad we did it. Due to the SAG strikes, we weren’t able to do it again this season (Season 4), unfortunately, but it is something that we always hope to do. Fans of the show are so die-hard and into it. The more we can provide extra bonus material, the more we want to. Opening the world up between seasons is a part of that.

Those educational components lend themselves well to interactive media, are there any plans for the show to expand through more interactive/gamified experiences? 

Matt Wolpert: We definitely flirted with ideas like that even from season 1 with the Augmented Reality project we did, you know, it takes so much, as it’s been said, to make the show — it’s all-consuming. But as technology continues developing, our show feels like an especially good opportunity to bring that kind of stuff (interactivity) into the world. It’s definitely something we’re excited to look into, finding ways to use interactive content to build the world of the show is an exciting opportunity.

Showrunners Ben, Matt and Ronald reamina as utterly mind-blown by their team as I am. Production is in awe of their concept artists’ attention to detail and realism. From the outside, “For All Mankind” seems to foster a collaborative, highly-focused environment, fortifying my motivation to contribute to the pantheon of rad space-suit-clad characters.

Some takeaways from the trailer include a central conflict revolving around seizing control of the resources on an incoming asteroid, with major players being North Korea, the CIA, KGB, and of course, Helios. Ed Baldwin is likely frustrated as the face of Helios’ Happy Valley recruitment plans, seeking the thrill of his former heroism, and Wrenn Schmidt’s Margo Madison appears to be operating a more covert mission.

The show is moving beyond alternate history and heading into the boundless possibilities of traditional expansive sci-fi, but with the grounding of alternate history established in past seasons. It’s a unique place for a sci-fi show to be.

As we head to the unsettling Helios “governed” land of Happy Valley, Mars, and much of the core cast reaching the tail end of their arcs or left in precarious situations after Season 3’s events, a sturdy foundation has been set for satisfying closures and compelling new characters. Combined with the increasingly impressive sci-fi set pieces as teased by Seth Reed, Season 4 is primed to be an intense ride.

#ForAllMankind Seasons 1-4 Now Streaming on Apple TV+ HERE!

Want Rohil to cover your film, series or game for All Ages of Geek? Have a tip for us? Please send an email to [email protected].

Rohil Aniruth is a journalist and content producer at All Ages of Geek. You can follow him on Instagram/Twitter @create.with.rohil & see his Narrative Design portfolio at rohilaniruth.com.

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