Photograph by Matt Walljasper
In the 1980s, Dallas, Texas, was the scene of a tech company boom, centered in what became known as the “Silicon Prairie.” Set during this period, AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire” focuses on troubled computer visionary Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), almost-was hardware builder Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), and programming genius Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis). Last season, the trio worked together (and against each other) to create an early laptop computer. In season two, set one year later, the three character’s lives once again intertwine as Cameron works to build a proto-online-gaming startup called Mutiny. The show, which films here in Atlanta, recently invited us behind the scenes for a visit. Here’s what we learned:
Soundstage filming can be even more elaborate than street scenes.
You’ve likely seen the cameras, lights, and trailers around town, but not every production takes over our streets and buildings. Some—like “Halt and Catch Fire”—are partially shot on a soundstage, where highly detailed sets can be built much better, and much cheaper, than in the wild. Walking around the show’s studio space, we spotted no fewer than four sets, including a downtown Dallas office building, Gordon Clark’s suburban Dallas ranch house, the Mutiny startup house, and an IBM mainframe computer room.
It’s less glamorous than you might think.
With tight corridors between plywood sets, equipment and wires everywhere, and the need to be quiet every few minutes, it’s about as glamorous as a submarine, actually. And then there are the long hours. There’s a mantra that’s often drilled into film students’ heads: “If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re late, you’re fired.” We arrived at our “call time” of 10:30 a.m., but the crew had been on set since before 9:00 a.m. The entire production staff works with military-like precision to ensure that everything runs smoothly and efficiently, but still, a cheery family-like atmosphere permeates the set. (I’m sure the incredible free catering spread doesn’t hurt.)
Authenticity makes for serious work.
Our first stop on the tour: The Mutiny house, a major set which not only doubles as the company’s HQ, but also Cameron Howe’s home. (Here’s a clip.) The set was meticulously created to mimic homes found in the Lakewood neighborhood of Dallas.
Series co-creator Christopher Cantwell recalled, “AMC came to us and said, ‘We’re going to shoot in Georgia,’ and at first, as a Texas native, I was like, ‘Whoa, what?’” But Cantwell and the rest of the crew worked hard to create an incredibly authentic environment. “It just feels like it could fit right into [Lakewood],” Cantwell said.
Like Cantwell, I’m also a Dallas native, and I was struck by how spot-on the set’s architecture and layout are. It’s modeled on a single-story Craftsman home from the 1920s with hardwood floors and white-painted built-in shelving. The kitchen is lined with simple painted cabinets and curved woodwork. Everything has an abundance of trim molding. It looked exactly like my grandmother’s house. Even the smell was correct. (A sweet sawdusty scent created when old lumber bakes in the heat of 75 summers and the cold of subsequent winters.)
Watching TV = fun. Watching TV being made = not so much.
Afterwards, we were ushered over to the video village—a few director’s chairs clustered around several video monitors—where the episode’s director, writer, and other senior production staffers analyze takes as they’re filmed. Again and again, we watched the same scene unfold between Joe MacMillan and Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé). Every scene is shot from multiple angles an average of three to four times, and it took around an hour to complete what would amount to less than five minutes of dialogue in episode six.
Still, there are moments of magic.
Even with repetitive nature of takes, even with the busy worker bees buzzing around prepping for the next scene, even with all the fake walls and fabricated props, eventually everything starts to feel real. That’s where the magic comes in. Sitting there, watching the monitors, you forget that these are actors around the corner. You begin to automatically cut between camera A on Lee Pace and camera B on Kerry Bishé and think of them in character. You watch the show. It’s just unfolding live in front of you—real.
Season two of “Halt and Catch Fire” premieres May 31 on AMC. Catch up on season one on Netflix now.