A deep dive into character: Ken Biller and Noah Pink on Genius
Ken Biller and Noah Pink discuss writing in a nonlinear narrative structure, the advantages of working in a writers room, and the value of doing more work than you should.
It was the stuff of fairy tales.
A network about to embark on scripted television for the first time, an A-list director…and an inexperienced but very talented writer who went above and beyond to prove he had a vision worth bringing to the small screen.
In 2015, National Geographic began looking to add scripted series to their programming. Odd Lot Entertainment had the rights to Walter Isaacson’s biography Einstein: His Life and Universe, and they asked Noah Pink to have a look at the book. He did, and before long a pilot was written, nine additional episodes were mapped out, and National Geographic, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer were all on board for a 10-episode series called Genius.
Next to sign on was Ken Biller (Star Trek: Voyager, Perception), who was hired as showrunner to work with Pink, rewrite the pilot and develop the rest of the series. What resulted was a successful first run at scripted television for National Geographic, and a critically-acclaimed series that was renewed for a second season before the first even premiered.
Creative Screenwriting recently spoke with Biller and Pink about Genius, research, and writing in a nonlinear structure.
How did you become involved with this project?
Ken Biller: The genesis of the project preceded my involvement with it. The lead producers were Gigi Pritzker and her company called Odd Lot, and Sam Sokolow. The original idea was to develop it as a feature film, and they had discussions with various screenwriters about adapting it. But they ultimately arrived at the conclusion that it wasn’t really a feature film.
Then they met a very young, very inexperienced writer – but a very good writer – named Noah Pink. They decided to take a chance and hired him to write a one-hour script and sketch out what the series might be.
That script eventually found its way to National Geographic, where Carolyn Bernstein had just been hired to try to get scripted programming started. In other words, they were looking for dramatic scripted television. And in a kind of “kismet-y” sort of way, this project about Albert Einstein seemed to match the Nat Geo brand, being about science and exploration.
And that’s when I came on board. Noah hadn’t been involved in the production of a feature or television show before and didn’t have any experience with figuring out ten episodes and how to make them work as a series. So I was approached to see if I would be interested in coming aboard to rewrite the first episode with Noah, and conceive what the ten-episode series could be.
Noah Pink: To be quite honest, like most people, I knew very little about Einstein until I had this meeting with Odd Lot and they said, “We have this book that we own…we’ve been trying to develop it as a feature film but it hasn’t worked out. We’re beginning to explore the idea of television but we’ve never done it before.”
And my response was, “Well I’ve never done television before, so I guess we’re in the same boat!”
Reading Isaacson’s biography – which was not only exciting but so thorough and made the science make sense – I immediately saw the draw of a television series.
If you’re in the historical fiction or biopic world, there are a lot of stories to tell where people have “a moment”. A moment of breakthrough which would justify a great two-hour story. But I immediately saw why Einstein’s story would not make for a movie. He had too many moments, too many breakthroughs, and there were too many interesting periods of his life that needed to be explored in much more depth.
Lucky for all of us, television is willing to take the risk these days to explore those stories.
So I went back to Odd Lot and said, “You’re right – this is definitely a television story. I know that I’m a long shot for this job, so I’ve mapped out all ten episodes, let me take you through them one by one.”
I was in Toronto at the time and had to do the pitch over the phone, which I don’t recommend to anybody! But I did it, and literally took them through every single episode in detail.
I had a unique way into the story, which was just a paragraph in Isaacson’s biography about this period in 1932, when Einstein is looking to go to America after things begin to boil over in Germany. Much to his surprise, he’s interrogated for being a communist, and it looks like there might be a chance that, under the behest of J. Edgar Hoover, he won’t be allowed into the country.
Did I know in 2015 that this would be so relevant today? No. But I knew that it was a really interesting launching point for me. So I held onto that idea and began to structure a story around it.
That’s how it all started.
Did you know right away that you wanted it to be in a nonlinear narrative structure?
Noah: Yes. Right from the beginning, that was the pitch. It really came from me trying to understand Einstein’s theory of relativity. I thought it might be a very organic way of incorporating his views on time with story structure.
So in the pilot when he says “for us physicists, the difference between the past, present and future is but an illusion”, that is something he actually said. I took that idea and felt like there was a very interesting narrative structure to be played off; off Einstein’s version of time. That’s how it all began.
Do you like working with a nonlinear narrative structure?
Noah: I think that if it serves the story and character correctly, then yes I do. In this case we play with time a lot in the first episode, and then a little bit, and then we kind of drop off…It’s a bit of a risk to do it that way, but I think the audience just jumped on and went for the ride.
I think for the pilot it was really important for me to show the two Einsteins together. For one thing, the audience was going to have to be prepared for that character switch. And secondly, to see how much he’s changed as an older man and a younger man.
It was important to show because at the end of the day, it’s real. You have the ideological, impudent student who refuses to shut up even when it’s probably in his best interest. And then you have the middle-aged man who still has that spark of a rebel in him, but in many ways is much more comfortable in his life and doesn’t want to be uprooted.
There’s a line in the pilot where the younger Einstein shows up in Italy and promises his father that he’s never going to go back to Germany ever again; and then we cut back to older Einstein in Germany. One, it’s true, and secondly, it leaves the viewer with a lot of questions as to how that happened. What did he sacrifice to give up on that promise?
Ken: I’ve always enjoyed it. When I first became involved with the project, Ron Howard basically told me that he didn’t want to do a straight biopic. He didn’t want to start with the old man talking about his life to a reporter and then flashback and tell the whole thing in a linear way.
The show that I did right before this was called Legends. I didn’t do the first season, but I did the second season, which was kind of a reboot or re-conception of that show. I made a decision very early on with that show that the most interesting way to tell the story (which dealt with the characters’ pasts and how they were affecting the present) was to tell it in a nonlinear way.
Through the process of writing that, I realized that there was a lot of value and, for me, a lot of enjoyment in showing the audience how certain things turned out, and making them wonder “how did that happen?” How did this character, who was a straight-laced Mormon in 2001, turn into someone who walks with a limp and has a drinking problem in 2014? What happened to him in between?
So I find that a really fascinating way to tell a story, and just break out of the conventions of relaying a story that unfolds from one event to the next event. You can often create more drama by juxtaposing events dramatically that didn’t necessarily happen concurrently or sequentially, but that really become more illuminating and more emotional by the way those events are juxtaposed.
When it came to Einstein, I think it seemed to lend itself to this structure. We have this conception of him and seem to know who he is from posters where he has his tongue stuck out. From iconic photographs.
But from a dramatic standpoint, what I thought would be the most interesting thing to do would be to ask the question, “How did this man, who we think we know, become this icon?” And if we depict him as this rebellious, brash, impudent young guy who thought he knew everything – which turned out to be really true – we could ask the question, “How did he go from being this unusual but relatable guy to this icon that we think we know?”
Tell me about your working relationship.
Ken: Noah is a really talented, really smart, really hardworking young guy. I found it very energizing to work with him. He had a real kind of professional maturity for somebody who had never worked in the sometimes brutal world of scripted television. In other words, he was not precious in any way about his original script. He wasn’t defensive about ideas that Ron and I had for reconceiving it, or changing the approach to telling not only the first episode but the whole series.
I’ve been in relationships before where it’s very fraught and difficult and there’s a lot of creative conflict and a lot of ego. I will say that – for my part anyway – I didn’t feel any of that from Noah. I really enjoyed the process of working with him, of brainstorming with him, of reconceiving the first episode with him.
Noah: When Ken came aboard, he had a lot of really interesting ideas, and obviously came with hundreds of hours of produced television behind him – where I came with zero. The moment I met him and he started giving his ideas, I realized “Here’s a guy who knows what he’s talking about, and I’m going to learn a lot”.
Once Ken came on board we redeveloped the pilot. It was my first time working in a writers’ room and my first time collaborating with other people. So it was a very interesting experience for sure, and one that, as a writer, I really enjoyed.
Most feature screenwriters don’t get to talk to many people during the day! Or have people to bounce ideas off. So to be in a room where you have an idea and you can just spit it out and immediately get seven other writers give you their thoughts on it is both humbling and very productive. Because you’re not going to waste a week on this bad idea.
What I learned was that the number one job of a showrunner is to get the show in on budget and the scripts in on time. But also, a huge skill of a showrunner is the ability to find the right balance of writers to put in a room together. To get people who bring different skills so that they will come together to create the best possible show.
I definitely learned from Ken the importance of doing that. He took a lot of time to try and figure out who would bring what to the show. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, but together we could create this one cohesive unit. So the experience was definitely one of jumping in head first, so to speak.
The series was renewed for a second season before the first premiered – and I understand the subject will be a different “genius”. Did knowing that force you to change your story at all?
Ken: Only to the extent that we knew we’d have to end the story of Einstein. But I think the ten hours was the right amount in which to tell that story.
So unlike other series that I’ve worked on, we didn’t feel the necessity to leave lots of open questions, or end the first season on a cliffhanger because we were going to tell more of Einstein’s story.
We were allowed to tell a complete story that really explores his entire life. Not in a linear way, but basically the first series about Einstein goes back as early as when he was five years old, and to beyond his death. So I think we were able to tell a very complete – and I hope very satisfying – story for the audience without having to worry about keeping that particular story going, and knowing that we were going to tackle a whole new subject in Season 2.
I would imagine that it’s a project that involved an immense amount of research. What were some of your sources?
Ken: It was really intense, and it continued right through the very end of the project. And it’s started up again in a very intensive way on the subject for Season 2.
If you’re going to try to depict someone’s life dramatically, you really have to be able to understand that life.
Our main source was Walter Isaacson’s biography, which was very informative and comprehensive, and really provided a great overview of Einstein’s life. But of course there are many books about Einstein, about history…And there were primary sources, including all of Einstein’s letters and Mileva’s letters, which we had access to.
So we did a very deep dive into the character. Our writers’ room was piled high with biographies and histories and other sources that either dealt with Einstein directly or peripherally…And once we decided we were interested in some of the other characters that were going to appear, we’d suddenly be reading historical accounts of those figures.
We also had to dive into the science, and we had a lot of help with that. Although the science is very well explained for the layman in Isaacson’s book, we felt like we really needed to understand it better, and also to make sure that when we were depicting it, both in words and in pictures, we were doing it accurately. Particularly as we were doing it for Nat Geo.
So we hired a science consultant named Clifford Johnson who is a professor at USC, and a very distinguished scholar and science historian. He was very helpful in terms of not only explaining many of these scientific concepts to us in ways that we writers who all majored in the humanities could understand, but also in helping us think about ways to depict and dramatize the science, and make sure that the language and the terminology that we were using and putting in the characters’ mouths was accurate and made sense.
And then when we were in Prague shooting the show, we had a couple of physicists on set to answer questions for the actors and make sure that our blackboard equations were accurate. So we basically had a whole division of the art department whose exclusive job it was to accurately create these blackboards and graphics that would appear in the show as depictions of Einstein’s work.
It seems like most people know very little about Einstein’s personal life. Through this process, was there anything in particular you learned about him that surprised you the most?
Ken: So many things. That’s one of the great things about being a writer – it allows you to dig into subject matter that you might not otherwise know about and kind of become a perpetual student, which is one of the things that Einstein always talked about.
I really didn’t know anything about his personal life. So for me, most of it was new and surprising. I think if I had to drill down on one particular aspect of his life that I knew absolutely nothing about, it would be his first wife, Mileva Maric, who really became the central figure of the show aside from Einstein.
She’s the primary relationship, certainly for the first six or seven episodes of the show, and just learning about her and who she was and what their relationship was…As a dramatist, that was certainly the most interesting thing to learn about, because it became the fuel for a lot of the drama and surprise and emotion of the series.
Because of course you want to surprise an audience, and it’s sometimes difficult to do when you know how things turn out. A lot of times with historical drama you know what’s going to happen – the question is, what don’t you know? This is something that I think very few people knew about, that hopefully makes for some entertaining drama.
Noah: I think that when people watch the show, they’re going to be surprised by how much of a ladies’ man he was! And how romantic and poetic.
Finally, do you have any advice for our readers?
Ken: Keep writing. We don’t work in a profession where you go to medical school, earn your degree, do your internship and become a doctor. There’s no path like that for writers. The only path to becoming a writer is just to write.
And so my advice would be to keep writing and keep reading. It’s pretty simple and it’s pretty straightforward, but there’s really no other way that I know of to do it. Keep writing.
Noah: The crux of it is that you have to work harder than everyone else. Don’t expect people to bring things to you – no matter what level you’re at, you’re always going to have to prove yourself.
So my advice is always do more work than you should. In the case of this project, I believe that one of the reasons I had the opportunity to do it was because I literally spent the time to map out all of the episodes, so that I could show the producers that I had a real vision for this.
I can’t promise it will pay off, because it doesn’t always. I have so many projects that have fallen by the wayside. But everything you do, you have to see through to conclusion, because otherwise you won’t have a shot. In short, just do the work!
Featured image: Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein in Genius. Photo by Dusan Martincek © National Geographic
Genius is currently showing on National Geographic.