Mark Boal has focused much of his energy as a screenwriter on interpreting the geopolitical dramas of our times in the Middle East and Central Asia. For his new Apple TV+ series “Echo 3,” the two-time Oscar winner who wrote and produced 2008’s “The Hurt Locker” and 2011’s “Zero Dark Thirty” has turned his gaze to the United States’ neighbors to the south.
The drama series, adapted from the 2018 Israeli series “When Heroes Fly,” revolves around a kidnapping of an American research scientist (played by Jessica Ann Collins) near the Colombia-Venezuela border and the rescue effort that ensues led by her brother (Luke Evans) and new husband (Michiel Huisman), both of whom are ex-Special Forces military operatives who work for a Blackwater-esque private contractor. “Echo 3” bowed Nov. 23 with three episodes, followed by weekly episodes premiering on Fridays through the Season 1 finale on Jan. 13.
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“Echo 3” marks Boal’s first series production — and it was a doozy, with 10 episodes shot entirely on location in Colombia and the US over more than 200 days. Here, the former investigative journalist goes deep on his inspirations for the storylines, adjusting his rhythms as a writer and producer for TV and how impressed he was by Latin America’s TV and film infrastructure and the caliber of actors, directors and others who worked on the series.
Being a screenwriter is basically the polar opposite of being a showrunner and executive producer in TV. How was the adjustment for you?
The transition wouldn’t have been possible without a lot of help from Jason Horwitch, who is an EP with me. He brought a lot of TV experience to the table and then I leaned on what I had learned in producing features. I think everybody does the showrunner job a little bit differently. I approached it as an extension of the experience I had producing features.
How did you find your way into the story that originated in the novel “When Heroes Fly” by Amir Gutfreund?
I started from a premise that I often start with which is what would be the most naturalistic way of telling this story? Then the benefit of 10 hours is that it allowed us to use different narrative styles within the same piece. We kind of thought of it as people use the phrase “10-hour movie,” these days, in our case we thought of that in a very literal sense that the writing is meant to be taken as a whole so that the pilot really is the beginning, the same way the first 15 minutes of a movie really is the beginning. The piece changes and ebbs and flows in the way a movie does and pays off in the end as a movie does as opposed to more traditional episodes that have its own series of dopamine hits independent of the other episodes.
Was it challenging to maintain the pace of a thriller over 10 hours? I’m two episodes in — so far, it’s a white-knuckler.
That was the structural approach – and then we had this big hot-blooded core of a kidnapping story which gave us the room to be more sophisticated in some of the world-building and dialogue and per ofmranc moments. The stakes are so clear and the central plot is so simple that it allowed us to build a pretty complex series of events around it and bring in a lot more characters than one would normally do in a feature film. Including the protagonist-antagonist blend in the character Violetta, who is a prominent political journalist played by Martina Gusmán. She takes you into a political and moral dimension of the story and a Latin American dimension. With a different medium it would be harder to have that type of character.
Gusmán is a standout from the moment he hits the screen in episode 2.
Martina has been working in Latin America and Spain for a good long time and is a very prominent Argentine actor.
The storytelling is nonlinear and so is the tone. Without giving too much away, there’s a moment in episode 1 where a wedding sequence takes a dramatic turn. That comes across as the first big signal that the audience has to be ready for anything to happen.
In the back of my mind I knew that celebrations for Special Forces people were going to get a little intense. I remember someone saying to me it’s not a Special Forces team wedding until someone else is hitting on your wife and someone’s passed out in the fountain.
It establishes that these are people who work hard and play hard.
With the Special Forces characters there are all these tropes. We put them in the pilot and then we spend the rest of the series deconstructing them. Guys who very much have the classically masculine, stereotypical traits for somebody who has risen to leadership. Then we peel that back and look at the emotional and psychological life of these two characters. The people you meet in the pilot are not the same people you see in episode six. It’s not that they’ve changed but the progression of the plot allows you to see them in a more multi-dimensional way.
That’s a more naturalistic style of storytelling and more of a heightened style. In a traditional show you’d expositionally lay out the traits and then test their character and change it through events. This is a different style. It’s more like a novel in that the deeper you get, you get more out of the story.
Are you hoping for a Season 2 or is this envisioned as a limited series?
It was envisioned as a multi-season thing. I feel pretty good about how the show’s performing.
What led you to cast Jessica Ann Collins and Luke Evans as your leads?
Not going the movie star route or famous actor route enables the audience to possibly project a little more cleanly the character on to the actor’s face. And so when we cast this one that was in the back of my mind. We were really looking for the finest actors who fit the role as opposed to the finest marquee names we could get. Apple to their credit was supportive of that. Luke is prominent but he hadn’t done something quite like this. He’s obviously a gifted actor and it’s always exciting to see a side of somebody that they haven’t shown in public before.
With Jessica it was the same idea. She’s a Juilliard grad who has guest starred in a lot of TV. She did a notable performance of Shakespeare in the Park [“King Lear” in 2014]. She was in a show that Jason [Horwitch] started, “Rubicon” [an AMC Network cult fave from 2010]. So there was a bit of a confluence there. And as you watch deeper into the series you will see what I mean – she delivers a singular performance.
“Echo 3” was not a small production. You can see the money on the screen.
We used the best movie DPs and production designers and crew. Conrad Hall and Sharone Meir — both of them have decades of high-end experience. At any international show, and especially in a place as political as Colombia, success depends on linking up with the right people from the region. We got super-lucky with a young producer named Juan Diego Villegas. He helped me navigate some production and business challenges that were off-the-charts in their complexity.
We spent a lot of energy bringing scope to it. A lot of that has to do with the fact that shoot was very location-based. We shot the Afghanistan sequence on the top of a ski mountain that was near Taos, New Mexico, in a place called Angel Fire. We shot all the Colombian stuff in Colombia and moved around a lot. We spent a lot of energy moving to places that had a lot of visual panache. Some of that was possible due to the budget, some of it was sheer grit and determination. We shot for over 200 days.
It was a challenge for everyone but I think the industry probably benefited from the size and scale of the work that we were bringing in. We’ve found that the Colombian crews were pretty amazing to work with.
It’s a slow build but clearly the nuances of US actions and history in Latin America is going to be a key thread in the story. Did you find a lot of parallels to our experiences across Asia and Africa in the past century?
Part of the interest in doing this piece is that I’ve spent a lot of time and Hollywood has spent a lot of time looking at the Middle East and Europe and not enough time on our neighbors to the south. There’s an inequality there in terms of representation. For so many reasons – economic, sociological – Latin America is hugely important to the US and vice versa. I really didn’t want to do another story set in East Asia. My interest was really to bring to the screen was to show this whole other continent that has so much that’s really so fascinating.
It’s a place where we have a very troubled history. The history of US involvement is really dark. We don’t talk about it as much.
Speaking of troubled histories, the US standing in Afghanistan and West Asia has changed dramatically since you weighed in with “Zero Dark Thirty.” Is there another film to be done on how our formal military presence there came to an end?
Of course there is. I have one, actually. Any time there’s a big historic event I tend to wonder how the artistic side of the culture is going to respond and deal with it.
Are you actively shopping for something?
There’s a number of things I have in various pots on the stove. I do have a project about Afghanistan that has been on the simmer burner for a long time.
Did I totally miss it or will we understand the meaning of the “Echo 3” title as the series unfolds?
By the time you get to the end, you’ll understand the title. You’re not the first person to ask that.
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