Laeta Kalogridis: 'There isn't any good art without risk and we definitely put ourselves out there'
On Friday, Netflix will release its most ambitious series yet: The cyberpunk noir thriller Altered Carbon is an R-rated mind-bending sci-fi series starring Joel Kinnaman (The Killing) as Takeshi Kovacs, an elite warrior who is revived after spending 250 years in a cryogenic prison, awakening a new body (or “sleeve”) and tasked with solving the murder of a wealthy and near-immortal mogul (James Purefoy). The result has elements of familiarity (Blade Runner, Black Mirror, The Matrix, Westworld…) yet the sum of the parts is something both original and daring (see trailer below). Already the show has had some pre-release controversies which showrunner Laeta Kalogridis (Birds of Prey, the upcoming Alita: Battle Angel) tackles with plenty of insight and empathy in this spoiler-free Q&A below. “We took a lot of risks,” Kalogridis says. “There isn’t any good art without risk and we definitely put ourselves out there.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This show has so much going on. How do you describe Altered Carbon in a simple way to somebody who knows nothing about it?
LAETA KALOGRIDIS: I default to: “Chinatown in space where human consciousness is digitized.” Which isn’t necessarily easy to understand. This show is about a murder, wrapped in noir, covered with a space epic — to paraphrase Winston Churchill. And there’s some current-day political commentary too.
When you first read the book what made you want to make this?
It seemed prescient the way the very best cyberpunk is because it was a human story, not a technological story, but the human story let you explore the technological part more.
What was the biggest stumbling block getting the project made previously? This took you many years. I would assume the complexity of the tale and its cost?
That was the issue, a combination of those two things. The complexity of the noir story requires you make something that is an extremely twisty murder mystery, but also has to be hard-R tonally. So it’s complexity plus tone. When you take those two things and try to make it into what people think of as a PG-13 event film, and it’s not within an existing franchise … it falls more into the purview of something like Logan, where you’re building out a franchise.
What excites you most about the story?
Short version: Everything. Longer version: It’s very different than what’s in this space. I love that the story leans into questions of identity. All of us in the modern world are constructing our identities, largely through social media, for a larger audience. Having the ability to change in a chameleon-like way, I feel like there’s a great deal of overlap between the themes we’re exploring in the show and the issues of identity in our society right now.
I once heard the budget on Altered Carbon was $150 million. If anything it looks like more than that. But if true, that would make this the most expensive first-year show of all time. How close is that number?
Not. Not even remotely. I don’t know where that number came from but it’s complete bulls—. I’m flattered it looks like that. When you have really gifted heads of departments — production designer, props, costume — it doesn’t give them their due to not recognize that they took a much lower budget than that and made it look like that. We have a really healthy and ambitious budget but not history-making. What we did have that was history-making was a group of people aligned around the idea that we wanted to create something that didn’t look like anything that had been on television before. Netflix really backed our vision for scope and scale and that was a huge deal because you can’t realize this sort of thing unless the world feels real. But I would love to have that budget. I think you should call Netflix and tell them we should have that budget if we get another season!
I feel like every TV showrunner will be jealous of this concept because if any of your actors piss you off, it’s so easy to recast their part and have it make perfect sense in the story.
That’s an interesting way to put it! I had not thought of it that way, honestly, but that’s quite funny.
There have been two bits of pre-release controversy that we should talk about. The first is the idea that the show is whitewashing its main character since — like in the novel — Kovacs is a Japanese man who is re-sleeved into a Caucasian body and that’s who we primarily follow in the show.
We actually expanded Kovacs background from what’s in the book so I could cast three other Asian actors, and they’re playing parts that are very well fleshed out. We toggle back and forth between present-day Kovacs and Kovacs of the past. One episode is entirely centered on Will Yun Lee [who plays Kovacs during his days as a mercenary]. But to address the issue specifically, I’m very sensitive to whitewashing as a concern, and very much in support of the movement that’s trying to course-correct the whitewashing problem in Hollywood. Our show wasn’t an iconic Japanese or Asian property turned into a white property, or a real-life Asian character that was then cast with a white actor — those are the two ginormous [problems]. I was surprised and disappointed I when Motoko Kusanagi, the character in Ghost in the Shell who lives in future Tokyo who I always read as Japanese, wasn’t cast that way.
What we have is a novel that takes place in the far future, written by a Scotsman [Richard K. Morgan], in which the lead character grew up on a planet that was settled by a combination of Japanese keiretsu and Slavic people. I tried hard to take that part of his history and racial identity and anchor him in it by taking the three or four sentences about his past in the book and turning them into entire episodes, or parts of episodes, and then casting them with the people who represent him in that Asian identity. Part of our story that makes it different than other stories is it hinges on the ability of people to move between bodies as if the bodies are disposable; it’s a skill Kovacs is adept at. Part of who he is his ability to seamlessly download into another sleeve like he’s a driver of another car. But in his head — and in the book you can see this — he thinks of himself as Asian. You can experience that in the first-person narrative in a book that you can’t visually. In casting, I tried very hard to root his identity in his Asian childhood and his life in his Asian sleeves.
Casting your lead is so crucial. What made Joel right?
What Joel brought to the table that made him the obvious choice was [his ability to deliver a] dry sardonic wit coupled with an intense physicality and barely leashed violence. He has a phenomenal presence. That fit the Kovacs who’s been on ice for 250 years. With this show, you can cast facets different moments of a person at different moments from a very long lifespan.
The second issue is that at least a couple critics have accused the show of indulging in sexualized violence against women.
I haven’t read the specific criticisms. But the show is absolutely dystopic. If anybody thinks I’m putting forth a future that I hope we have, I am not. This is a cautionary tale. And in creating this story, the violence is absolutely equal opportunity. The worst things that we do are actually to [Kovacs]; there’s nothing as bad as what we do to the male body. The show is about the commodification of the body; it’s a thought experiment of what would happen if we could separate the mind from the body, what we would do if the flesh became cheapened to both genders. And we have that along with very strong women, combatants — Ortega [Martha Higareda], as an example, is not a victim. Reileen [Dichen Lachman] is not a victim.
The second piece is that this is a cautionary tale about where we are now. All the science fiction I loved as a kid was holding up a mirror to society and warning us about the need for course correction. The Handmaid’s Tale is not a book or show advocating enslaving women or creating a theocracy, it’s not glorifying that, it’s talking about what happens if that happens. The purpose of the violence [in Altered Carbon] is twofold: One, to think about the disposability of the body being an extrapolation of our disposable culture in which we are consuming our planet to death, and this is one more step where one more thing becomes expendable; and two, it’s about how we treat women and the disenfranchised — which is, very badly. The show is absolutely saying this is a class and gender issue both. This is a future that’s not desirable. It’s not what we want. The parts of the show that are dystopic are because of this widening gap in wealth and it reflects to me what’s happening right now and it’s meant to make people say, “Oh that’s not good, we should do something about that.”
Also, the purpose of noir has always been — when it’s done really well — to take things out that that make us uncomfortable and make us look at crime, societal inequality, and very often the treatment of women. Chinatown is a movie, at its heart, about sexual abuse; it’s about a woman being abused by her father who is then killed. Where my show is not clearly noir as there’s reckoning for the men who do these things and there’s power for the women — they don’t get shot through the head and their daughters get dragged off by their abuser. Margaret Atwood and Ursula K Le Guin were the biggest inspirations for my work because they trod into areas considered to be owned by male writers and created these worlds that are infused with an understanding of so much more than just technology. From the time I was 19 years old I kept a quote by Margaret Atwood on my computer: “This above all, to refuse to be a victim.”
Netflix releases season 1 of Altered Carbon on Friday, Feb. 2.