Farhad Safinia, the creator and executive producer of the Starz series Boss, confesses that he obsessively scoured the web during the first season to see what people thought of the show, and he was surprised to discover some critics sniping about it not being at all realistic.
Just to be clear, Safinia points out that Boss doesn’t aim to provide TV viewers with a realistic depiction of Chicago politics. The show is purely fiction, and it’s made to entertain. "From the get-go, we wanted to do something that was way over the top. It’s heightened reality. It’s dramatic," Safinia says of the dark series that casts Kelsey Grammer as Chicago Mayor Tom Kane, a ruthless politician secretly suffering from a degenerative brain disorder who will stop at nothing to hold onto power.
"The show is theatrical in its origins and its inspiration, and I think there is room for that on television," Safinia continues, noting, "All drama is a departure from reality. What you’re trying to capture is an essence of a truth rather than the truth. Otherwise, you’re making a documentary."
As season two of Boss begins on August 17, Mayor Kane has upped his meds in an attempt to control the tremors that could give away his illness. But in doing so, he only heightens the psychological manifestations of his disease—think wild hallucinations. And having decimated his inner circle in season one, Mayor Kane is surrounded by new aides—played by cast additions Jonathan Groff and Sanaa Lathan—who, in addition to putting up with his mercurial personality, work to help him complete the teardown and rebuilding of a housing project that he hopes will become a part of his legacy. Meanwhile, Mayor Kane’s family life remains a mess, with his wife plotting to preserve her power, and his daughter struggling with her addictions.
After participating in a panel discussion on season two of Boss at the recent Television Critics Association Press Tour in Beverly Hills, Safinia, who before this series was best known for co-writing the screenplay for the film Apocalypto with Mel Gibson, sat down with Co.Create to discuss the origins of and the creative approach behind Boss.
The idea for Boss came out of a meeting Safinia had with Grammer to see if the two might be able to collaborate on a project. Safinia had preconceived notions of what Grammer would be like based on his portrayal of Dr. Frasier Crane on both Cheers and Frasier, so he was surprised to discover that Grammer had a "gravitas and a sense of self" that he hadn’t previously associated with the actor.
As the two men talked, Safinia told Grammer he wanted to create a character inspired by King Lear’s travails, and when Grammer began spouting quotes from Shakespeare’s play, Safinia knew they were on the same page.
Safinia ultimately devised Mayor Kane for Grammer, a modern-day incarnation of King Lear—a man, who like King Lear, finds the world he so carefully built crumbling around him as he loses control of his mind. But Safinia didn’t want Grammer’s King Lear to be full of self-pity or self-loathing. In Mayor Kane, he wanted to see a man facing his demise full of "brilliant, white-hot anger."
Like King Lear, Mayor Kane is known for delivering memorable speeches (he is a politician, after all), but Grammer doesn’t often come to the set knowing them. "It’s such an intricately written show. You can’t really ad lib, not just because of the language but because you’re planting so many things that need to be paid off later. So you can’t just skip something. But Kelsey will look through a script two or three times and be able to recite it," Safinia says. "He’s got it down, and it’s wonderful. His memory is photographic, and I think it’s rhythmic, too. I can see him working it rhythmically. He likes language, and he likes to use the rhythm of language to remember."
Safinia has labored to produce layered storylines and memorable dialogue. But he aspired for the series to achieve a unique visual language, too, and he credits Gus Van Sant, who is an executive producer and directed the pilot, with heavily influencing the visual look of Boss. Van Sant felt the show, which is shot in Chicago, called for a grand feel, and used The Godfather as a point of reference when he initially spoke to Safinia about working on the project.
But while the lighting, the composition of shots and the overall look of Boss is indeed grand, with beautifully composed shots, the show also has a rougher edge at times. Some scenes are shot handheld and loose, increasing fear and tension, particularly when Kane is starting to lose his grip because of his disease or dressing down a member of his inner circle.
Then there are intimate moments not often seen in television in which the camera gets unusually up close and personal with the actors. "In season one, there’s a shot that goes right up into Kane’s ear in the council chamber when he’s hearing knocking, and then you realize his hand is shaking, or he realizes it. What the camera’s doing is taking you [the viewer] into a space that is not available to everybody else in that room. He’s the only one that’s witnessing it, and you are privy to that," Safinia says.
When it comes to how conversations on most television shows are edited, we see a bit of a ping-pong match. "There’s a tendency in television to cut to a character just as they’re about to speak. Someone says a line, then you go to the next person, and they say a line," Safinia says. "We worked very hard with the editors [of Boss] initially to establish a style where a character might say something, but we won’t cut to the response. We’ll stay on the character who first said something because it’s more important to watch that character watch the response. And that’s a style that’s not prevalent in television, to watch someone studying someone else because it’s more important for them to read the language that is not being said as opposed to the language that’s coming out of their mouth."
Safinia, who was born in Iran and grew up in England, set Boss in Chicago because of the city’s rich political history. And while Safinia sees America as having "a view of how to govern itself that is incredibly hopeful," politics has its dark side, too, and Chicago reflects light and dark. "When you look at what that city reaches for and stands for in terms of its politics, its people, its architecture, its art, its literature, you think of all these people reaching higher and higher and trying to make new things in the same city. But in that reaching, you see that dark side of it, too, how people fall from grace, how reaching for higher and higher goals can lead to really terrible things," Safinia says. "There is a lot of that in Kane. He’s reached the pinnacle of power and he’s about to lose it all, so how does he reconcile that with his ambition and his need to defy reality and the march of time? That’s all good stuff for drama."