As regular readers may know, I’ve written about TV and film for DEPARTURES for a while now, but this summer I found the tables turned in the best possible way. Strange Angel, a series I’d written for, made its debut on CBS’ All Access App back in June. With a story shipped straight from the truth-is-way-stranger-than-fiction department, it follows the insane life of Jack Parsons who, in the 30s and 40s, helped develop America’s first rockets for Cal Tech and the Army–all while simultaneously being drawn into, and ultimately heading up, a Sex Magick cult in Pasadena devoted to the teachings of English occultist Aleister Crowley.
Yes: Nazis, Sex Magick, jet fuel, and that barely covers half of it. It was a show unlike any I’d ever heard of; and writing and producing it was, to say the least, a strange trip. Now that the Season 1 finale approaches tonight, I interview series’ creator–and full disclosure, my boss–Mark Heyman to discuss the challenges of realizing an overly ambitious show that filmed throughout L.A., often in some of Parsons’ real-life stomping grounds, and what to expect going forward. (Hint: crazy)
I’ll start with the obvious question: is your life as crazy as Jack Parsons'?
Nowhere near! That is for sure. I think for all of us working on the show, and those watching the show, it’s about getting to see someone who went far beyond what anyone would actually do, probably.
I wonder if the spirit Jack Parsons inflected the show. I’m not saying we went out and did any Sex Magick, but I’m not not saying that either.
[Laughs] Hmm, I would say to a degree, but considering this is a show with a lot of attractive actors in front of the camera and a fairly attractive crew behind the camera, it was disappointingly, relatively tame.
I want to shout out in specific our costume designer J.R. Hawbaker, whose downtown scene [in episode 5] was one of her big canvass moments: every extra on that street had a story, and it became a magical Dr. Zhivago moment with Peter running after Marisol on the Red Car.
It felt like we were in downtown LA [in the 30s], transported. It was a hugely ambitious show. Every episode had something: in Episode 8 Jack and Ernest get in a biplane; in Episode 7 the big Sex Magick, bodies-on-the-moon sequence. But the fifth, as an episode, being out in the desert for a camping trip that involved a peyote trip where he ends up on the moon—that felt like the highest wire act.
The sixth episode was massive, too: a werewolf transformation and huge downtown LA and [shooting at the original] Clifton’s.
For various reasons, we wrote much of the show before we started filming; what was the biggest story surprise for you?
In the sixth episode, the werewolf transformation, which I saw as more of a kind of interesting flight of fancy. But it really did operate as a turning point for [Jack’s] character. Our creative executive at CBS All Access very astutely pointed out, once I’ve seen this guy turn into a werewolf...
Once you go werewolf, you never go back.
And she was right! The werewolf transformation was the key pivot point for the season. I was still writing the finale, and it became instructive in terms of how to create the back half. Also, there was Elena Satine’s character Maggie, who’d always been thought of as a short, four-episode character. She was such an incredible performer and we became so invested in the relationship between her and Ernest that we are already hatching ways to bring her back.
Let's discuss our amazing cast. What does it mean to watch the character on the page become flesh and blood in an actor?
There’s always a moment of surprise because it’s never going to be exactly what you’ve been imagining. Sometimes when you’re writing you have an amorphous sense of what the character is, and then you see the actor and it all coalesces. Here we were working with a fairly clear idea in mind because there’s the historical figure of Jack Parsons. The most surprising in a good way was probably Rupert [Friend] just because of the nature of how he was cast. He read the scripts on a Friday because he was leaving for Antarctica the following Tuesday; we talked to him on Sunday, his deal was closed on Monday, and he disappeared for three weeks without any contact with the outside world. Then he showed up on set day one with this fully formed take on the character.
Each member of the cast had something innate about them that really spoke to the character.
For sure. There was a lot of deliberate thinking about it because it’s always a leap of faith, casting. In the case of Jack, here’s a character who does a lot of questionable things in pursuit of his ambitions, and Jack Reynor brings that drive but he also has an inherent boyishness and charm I knew would always win an audience back. Bella has a real quiet intensity too. I knew for a role that J.R. our costume designer described as dormant, you want that simmering [aspect]. So with each role it wasn’t accidental, we did see something but we are happily surprised it worked out as well as it did. And in each case, we had our dream: we didn’t have to settle.
I think Bella deserves a shout out for trusting you with a role that is dormant. People might watch the first few episodes and think “She’s just a typical 30s housewife; we’ve seen this before.” But that’s not her story at all.
In our very first meeting, she was very cognizant that it would take a while for this character to get to where she wanted her to be in the beginning. And everyone does, through the modern lens. There’s a certain frustration: can’t she be activated already! Of course, once she did, that meant being under a shroud all day having nails pounded next to her head and I’m sure it was like, “maybe I don’t want to be quite so activated!”
What do you want to tease folks with about the finale?
The penultimate and the finale are pretty massive, explosive episodes. It’s where finally Jack’s belief is at full tilt, and when all the characters are in crisis. There have been people who talked about the deliberate pace of the storytelling of the show and in some ways, own that’s all been to set up these last two episodes: we’ve set the pieces in place and now we get to see it all blow-up.
When someone is as nuts as Jack Parsons, it’s important to spend time with him not being a complete lunatic before he goes into orbit.
That was the thinking. I felt if you jump in with someone who already feels crazy, how long are you going to be able to be invested in that character? And to see that full arc of someone who starts as an outsider trying to sneak in through a crack in the doors of Cal Tech to someone who, by the end of the season, is going out to the desert to do Sex Magick rituals and summon the anti-Christ—it’s fun to see that and not just start out with someone who’s already there.
Why do you think you were so intrigued by this crazy person’s story?
I’ve said this before, but he grew up in New Mexico, with ex-hippie parents involved in a new-age religious group. That part of the show, with people joining in an off-beat subcultural kind of world in pursuit of some better version of themselves, hit home. It reminded me of my upbringing, though the one in the book was a much more titillating and scandalous version of it.
There was also something interesting about a guy trying to create a connection with that expanse. I’m ultimately too skeptical to ever devote myself to something that would actually try to bridge that gap, but I’m always drawn to characters that are fascinating in that way: literally and metaphorically trying to tap into the infinite. I totally could relate to the pursuit even though I would never go to the lengths that he went to.
So, what can we expect in Season 2?
More crazy. It's gonna get waaay more crazy.