LSA Grads Make Interesting Spies
July 7, 2014 | by Brian Short
The AMC drama Turn explores the world of spies during the American Revolution. LSA alumnus Mitch Akselrad (above right) talks about creating the show with a fellow alum, what it’s like being the youngest writer in the room, and what he looks for in a good character. Also pictured (from left): Turn First Assistant Director Jason Ivey and Supervising Producer Andrew Colville.
Sometimes reading the right book pays off.
Mitch Akselrad (‘09) was working on a movie script with fellow LSA alumnus and TV writing and producing veteran Craig Silverstein (’97) when it came up in conversation that both men liked Washington’s Spies, a book about the Culper Ring, an American Revolution–era group of spies that reported to George Washington. The story and characters seemed like they might make a compelling television show, and Silverstein and Akselrad worked on early drafts of a pilot script together. After some rewrites, AMC ordered 10 episodes of the show, which was titled Turn.
Turn features secret agents, star-crossed lovers, and a healthy dose of 18th-century spycraft, including decoder sheets and aliases. But the show that was finally made wasn’t the show that Silverstein and Akselrad thought they were writing when they started.
While revising the pilot script, the focus of the story shifted enough that Silverstein and Akselrad decided to change the main character of the series.
“We originally wanted the main character to be Ben Tallmadge, who was in the Continental Army and worked with George Washington,” Akselrad says. “Tallmadge is still in the series, but he’s too simple to be the main character. He’s a patriot. His work is dangerous, but his motivation is clear. We wanted a character who was more conflicted.”
Eventually, the writing team settled on Abe Woodhull, a member of the Culper Ring and a farmer in British-held Setauket on Long Island. Setauket is a small community of American loyalists who support the crown and ostracize separatist sympathizers. Played with passion and nuance by actor Jamie Bell, Woodhull grows increasingly agitated by the arrogance of the British military men in Setauket, who quarter themselves in American homes and drink to excess in the public house. When a Revolutionary sympathizer is arrested unjustly, Woodhull decides to switch sides, eventually agreeing to gather and pass on information on troop movements to the Continental Army.
But there is a cost. Woodhull’s role as a Revolutionary spy endangers his family and imperils the wealth of his father, a Long Island magistrate who uses his power and influence to enrich his holdings and secure his family’s safety. Despite these risks, Woodhull turns his back on his father’s politics and sides with General Washington and the new republic.
“It’s one thing to watch someone join a cause because of ideology,” Akselrad says, explaining the choice to relocate the series’ main story with Woodhull. “But it’s much more arresting to watch someone decide to join a cause for such personal reasons as Abe Woodhull has.”
Looking for Great Moments
As a child, Akselrad loved watching and re-watching movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark. By the time he was in high school, he was making movies with his friends and writing scripts.
“They were terrible,” Akselrad says. “But I was trying.”
When Akselrad was considering his options for college, he looked very closely at the film programs of the schools he visited. The University of Michigan’s screenwriting program stood out.
At Michigan, Akselrad majored in Screen Arts and Cultures where he studied with Dan Shere (’97) and Jim Burnstein (’72, M.A. ’74), taking class after class on screenwriting and screenplay revision, entering his work into contests, and seeking out opportunities to write more. He’s unabashed in his affection and respect for his instructors in LSA.
“I love those guys,” Akselrad says. “I owe everything I know today to [Professor] Jim [Burnstein].”
At the age of 27, Akselrad is the youngest writer on Turn, a position he enjoys.
“It’s like being the younger brother in a family,” Akselrad says. “I’m working alongside people who have been doing this for 5 years and for 20 years. I feel like I’m always learning.”
Whether it’s studying up on 200-year-old spy techniques like painting hidden messages onto hard-boiled eggs or learning how soldiers used local gravestones as makeshift shields, Akselrad says that the joys of research and writing are always there. Now that AMC has ordered a second season of the show, Akselrad will have even more time to experiment with Woodhull, Tallmadge, and company.
“Just finding ways to get two very different characters into a room together where they can interact is fun,” Akselrad says. “You’re always looking for great moments.”
Top photo courtesy of Mitchell Akselrad. Conference photo by Mary Lou Chlipala.