Interview: 'Hand of God' Creator Ben Watkins Talks Hollywood's Fear of Religion, Creating 360° Portrayals of Black Women, More
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Interview: 'Hand of God' Creator Ben Watkins Talks Hollywood's Fear of Religion, Creating 360° Portrayals of Black Women, More

Ben Watkins

Premiering on August 28, Amazon Studios pilot "Hand of God" follows Judge Pernell Harris, a hard-living,

law-bending married man with a high-end call girl on the side, who suffers a

mental breakdown and goes on a vigilante quest to find the rapist who tore his

family apart. With no real evidence to go on, Pernell begins to rely on visions

and messages he believes are being sent by God through his ventilator-bound son.

Written and created by Ben Watkins

("Burn Notice"), the project marks the television debut of director

Marc Forster ("Monster’s Ball, "World War Z"), and stars Ron

Perlman as Judge Pernell; Dana Delany as Pernell’s wife Crystal Harris; Andre

Royo as the slick, smart, gregarious, and greedy mayor Robert "Bobo"

Boston; and Emayatzy Corinealdi as Tessie, Pernell’s high-end call girl and

confidante. 

As the project nears its Amazon premiere, executive

producer Ben Watkins made time to talk with Shadow And Act about creating the

show and what audiences should expect to see.

JAI TIGGETT: Spirituality and religion can be controversial topics,

especially for TV. Did you have any pushback or hesitation about tackling it in

the show?

BEN WATKINS: I did. When we went out to pitch it,

people would be frightened to death about the idea of a show with the word "God"

in the title, and I actually got approached about changing the title and I said

no. Even as a writer I hesitated a little bit to go down that road, knowing

that it would scare a lot of people. But when I decided to write it I felt like,

"I have to write this, and even if I don’t ever make it I’ll never regret

writing it."

And then I just pushed forward. Every time my

rational self would say, "You should pull back a little bit on that,"

I just had to remember what the purpose was and try to do what scared me.

And so you have a show where the main

character thinks that God is talking to him and another main character is a preacher,

but the show itself is not actually about religion. One of the reasons that I

make religion prominent in the show is because it’s one part of our society

that is full of hypocrisy. Some people who say they believe in God don’t necessarily

act that way, and then some people who don’t believe in God have a sense that

there’s something unexplained out there but they’re not trying to explore that.

JT: How did you come up with the concept for the series?

BW: It was a collection of a lot of different

ideas that have been bouncing around in my head for a while. One of the themes

was zealotry. It has always fascinated me – whether it was John Brown or Nat

Turner, who were zealots about ending slavery – people who were able to do miraculous

things because they were so singularly obsessed with something, and how that

obsession affects the people around them. They of course thought that they were

inspired by God, and everyone else thought they were crazy. But there’s no

doubt that they were operating on another level.

The other theme I’m really interested in is

how ambivalent we are as a society about what’s going on around us. I think

we’ve done a great job of making our lives incredibly convenient, and so even

when we say we care about something we don’t really have to change our lives

because of that. We’ll write a check to fight global warming but we won’t sell

our cars. We’ll do just enough so that we can sleep at night. So I wanted to

shine a light on that with a character that goes from the kind of person who

doesn’t really care about anything to someone who cares about one thing so much

that they’ll do anything for it.

Hand of God

JT: The idea of corrupt judges and vigilante justice sounds

relevant to a lot of what’s happening in society now. With "Hand of

God," do you plan to tackle any real cases, or fictional versions of real

cases? The Law

& Order example comes to mind.

BW: I feel like the show will give me an

opportunity to touch on a lot of hot button issues. For me a lot of the topics

are conflicting, where we wish that there were just black-and-white answers, but

really a lot of times the answer is gray. Ferguson is a great example, where

there’s so much gray there but we want it to be black-and-white; that Michael

Brown could have been good and bad at the same time, but no matter what

happened before he was shot, you can’t tell me that he deserved to die.

Even looters – you can make the case that

looters deserve to loot. You can make the case that these protests aren’t only about

Michael Brown, but about the legacy of institutionalized racism and how it has

oppressed the black community. A lot of people want it to be only about Michael

Brown, and that makes it much easier to land on one side or the other.

JT: Were you inspired by any real events as you were researching

and writing the script?

BW: There weren’t specific cases, but one of

the ideas is these really popular preachers with huge mega-churches, and then

they’ll have a fall from grace. You could say that person was always a liar and

a hypocrite, but just the day before you were following the person devoutly.

And for me, the truth is that person is good and bad at the same time. Ted

Haggard, the preacher who ended up having an affair with a gay prostitute – when

you find out this thing about him, do you throw everything out the window? Does

he just become that preacher who’s been lying all this time, or is he still the

guy that his followers felt was great? To me it’s a fascinating question.

Instead of accepting a more complicated

reality, we usually want to make it a yes or no answer. One of my favorite

characters is the one that Emayatzy plays. She’s a high-end call girl and if

you take that at face value, there’s all kinds of judgments that you can make.

But in the pilot she’s the only character who does not lie, and over the course

of the series the intention is to showcase her in a way that completely upends our

preconceived notions.

Hand of GodJT: I have to ask about that, because historically there have been a lot of black women to play prostitutes on screen, so of course there’s a stigma. What was behind the decision to have her play that role?

BW: One of my priorities as a writer is to portray black women in surprising, multilayered ways that they don’t always get a chance to be showcased in. I think black women are the most underappreciated element of our society and they don’t get the full 360° treatment in film or television. When "Middle of Nowhere" came out, it was a good example of getting to see all sides of a black woman. It’s not all perfect or all bad. So when I was developing the show I wanted to come up with a character that would be a vehicle in that way, who could reflect the limitations that have been placed on black women, and then also what black women have been able to do to empower themselves. 

So Tessie is a character who knows herself, and whether not we agree, has made some choices very consciously with a plan in mind. So when you see it at face value you’ll say, "Okay, there’s a pretty black call girl." But what you get to eventually see is that this is a powerful woman who is one of the biggest factors in the show. So we get to reverse the stereotype and the expectation.

JT: What can you share about selecting the rest of your cast?

BW: A lot of the elements of the show just fell

into place. I think Marc Forster is one of the few directors who could have

handled this the right way. He was looking for something to do in TV, and he

read the script, loved it and came on. And literally within the same week Ron

Perlman had found out that he was going to be leaving "Sons of Anarchy,"

and he quietly put it out there that he was looking for a follow-up project. So

within a span of ten days I had given the script to my agent, gotten one of the

best directors in the world involved, and I’m sitting in a room with Ron

Perlman.

One of the first things Ron said was he felt

like he wouldn’t be the most obvious choice for the judge, and that’s exactly

what I was looking for. I wanted to get the right choice but not the obvious

choice; someone who had the ability to do it, but might be scared to do it. One

of the themes of the show is doing the thing that scares us. So I knew that he

was the right person.

“You need black storytellers to be able to give a three-dimensional portrayal of our stories. It’s better for the entire experience, it’s better for the quality.”

Dana Delany plays his wife. She actually

wasn’t looking to do a project at the time. So we went through some incredible

powerhouse actresses in Hollywood trying to find the right person, and then

eventually her name came back around and we found out she was interested. And

she luckily took the part.

Then we got Andre Royo to play the mayor. This

is a guy who on "The Wire" was so iconic as Bubbles that it was

almost hard to think of him as anything else. And I think that followed him

around for a little while. But Marc and I wanted to get an actor who had a

completely different energy than Ron Perlman. I wanted the mayor to be black; I

had a whole backstory related to that. I wanted to have these two guys who have

been friends for a long time, know where all the bodies are buried, and as the

show goes on the goal that they’re working towards starts to fracture. Part of

it is that mayor Bobo has been put in place by this more powerful white man. And

then I get to upend it a bit in terms of how people perceive him. He turns out

to be incredibly powerful, strategic and calculating, and more than a match for

Pernell Harris who put him in place.

JT: Tell me about the process of developing the pilot with Amazon.

BW: I had written the script and had Marc Forster

and Ron Perlman attached. So we went in as a team and pitched to a few

different places, and Amazon was the most enthusiastic and made it clear that

they would give us a chance to do the show the way that we wanted to do it.

They really supported us creatively all the

way through. One of the advantages of working with Amazon is that they’re

trying to break new ground for themselves, so you’re not in a position where

you have to fit into whatever slot that they want you to be in. Broadcast

networks and even some of the legacy cable companies like HBO and FX, they have

developed sort of a brand and they want their shows to fit within that, but Amazon

is really defining itself. So it was a good opportunity.

JT: There hasn’t been a lot of information released about the

pilot to date. What do you want audiences to know, as they tune in?

BW: That’s a great question, I hadn’t really

thought about it. I’m really proud of the show. I’m proud of the work that we

did and I really want the opportunity to continue the story. Because of the

characters and the subject matter, but also because, as we all know, there are

not enough black content creators in Hollywood. It’s not just about jobs; that’s

crucial, but for me it’s also about being able to tell our stories with more of

a 360° perspective – the beautiful parts and the gritty, edgy, bad parts, so we

don’t have a glut of two-dimensional characters. You need black storytellers to

be able to give a three-dimensional portrayal of our stories. It’s

better for the entire experience, it’s better for the quality.

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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