April 21, 2016

WGN's “Underground” Creators on ”The Bravest Story Never Told”

The cast of the WGN series "Underground"

photo by: WGN America

Henry (Renwick Scott), Zeke (Theodus Crane), Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Noah (Aldis Hodge), Cato (Alano Miller), Sam (Johnny Ray Gill), and Moses (Mykelti Williamson) are the "Macon 7."

It’s one of the greatest, but most rarely told, American stories: the tale of how enslaved people in the antebellum American South risked everything to travel thousands of miles on foot, driven by the promise of freedom. They were hounded by bounty hunters, given shelter at safe houses along the way, and guided by abolitionists and allies. Their story is the story of the Underground Railroad. It’s estimated that about 100,000 enslaved people escaped to freedom via the “Railroad” over the course of the 19th century.

Now, a new television series from WGN America seeks to capture the peril, bravery, and humanity of those who fled enslavement. Underground, created by veteran television writers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, tells the story of the “Macon 7,” a group of seven African-Americans from the fictional Macon Plantation in Georgia that band together to make the 600-mile journey to freedom.

Filmed at the historic Felicity and St. Joseph Plantations in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as well as Louisiana State University’s Rural Life Museum, Underground is executive produced by John Legend and set to a contemporary score featuring Kanye West and others. It feels like anything but a history lesson. We spoke with Green and Pokaski about the challenges and rewards of bringing the Macon 7's stories to life.

Alano Miller as Cato, Aldis Hodge as Noah, and Theodus Crane as Zeke in WGN's "Underground"

photo by: WGN America

Cato (Alano Miller), Noah (Aldis Hodge), and Zeke (Theodus Crane) band together to escape enslavement on the fictional Macon Plantation.

Can you talk about how you chose the locations of Felicity and St. Joseph Plantations [in Baton Rouge]?

Pokaski: We looked at a couple places to shoot, and Baton Rouge became the apparent winner for a couple reasons. Felicity and St. Joe were great—we really liked the owners, we liked what we were able to do with the space to kind of make it suit our story. But another thing that was really a godsend for us—Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge has a Rural Life Museum, which has about 30 period-specific structures that we were able to use. They ran our script through the gamut of the academics, and they liked the script enough that they allowed us to shoot there. It’s a great place to really get a lot of production value in, to really tell the story as big and as beautiful as we could.

What was the experience of shooting in those locations like?

Green: It was weighty, I think. I think we all felt the depth of shooting inside actual quarters, stepping onto a plantation and just looking at those trees that have been around forever and just wondering, “What have those trees seen of this time period?” I think for everyone, it just kind of hit us from those first days stepping onto those locations and being like, “Wow. This is where this happened, and we’re here to tell that story the best that we can.”

What went into the decision to use modern music in the show’s soundtrack?

Green: We thought contemporary music would really bridge that gap between the past and the present and make this feel immediate and raw—more 2016 than, say, 1857.

In terms of historical information about the events in the show, where did you turn? What were your primary sources?

Green: We looked into a lot of the slave narratives from the Library of Congress. Any and every book we could find, we would kind of just sort through and really try to understand what was going on at this time. It was really important to us to give voice to those who have been enslaved. We felt like we had seen a lot from this time period, but we hadn’t seen these people be full people who laughed and cried and suffered and overcame. It was just fascinating to hear, in these first-person narratives, people actually talking about their own lives in enslavement.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee in WGN's "Underground"

photo by: WGN America

Jurnee Smollett-Bell (in foreground) as Rosalee.

What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced in portraying this particular moment in history?

Pokaski: There’s never enough money to keep horses and carriages and kids all working. We wanted to tell so many stories, which was part of the issue. As Misha said, we found some great resources, whether it was those recordings or [African-American abolitionist and writer] William Still’s collection of narratives. We just ended up adding so much to the cast and making our story bigger and bigger because there were just so many interesting stories to tell. So I think one of the challenges for us was editing.

Did you feel any sense of responsibility in what parts of the story were most important to tell?

Green: I think we wanted to start from a personal place. We wanted to depict historical characters, but it became an amalgamation of all of these narratives we were reading, and then we would read a story and be like, “Oh, we want to see that character,” and that became Cato. “We want to see that character,” and that became Rosalee. So, I think, from the start we said we wanted to start personal, and, as the season goes on, branch more into the historical events that were happening at the time.

Why did both of you think that it was so important to tell this story?

Green: I think when I first came to Joe and we started talking about it, you know, we both just love genre and this is a thriller story. The story of the Underground Railroad is action-packed. So much of the stuff we were reading, we were like, “Wow, we couldn’t make this stuff up.” The ingenuity people were using to get 600 miles north was crazy.

The subtext that I didn’t really realize until we started diving into it was this feeling of needing to give a voice to people who were voiceless before. I feel like we haven’t seen people who were enslaved who were fully rounded, complicated people who loved and laughed and cried and hurt.

Pokaski: Ditto. This is the bravest story never told in American history, so it’s just a great opportunity and a big responsibility to give these people a voice.

Did you look to any other shows for inspiration, or did you have any influences in the way you wanted to tell this story?

Green: I think we both love genre, we love comic books, we love thrillers, we love that roller coaster ride. So I think we wanted to take this time period that’s always been kind of this portrait on the wall, and drag it down and live in it.

A preserved cabin at LSU's Rural Life Museum, used as a set on WGN America's show "Underground

photo by: WGN America

"Underground" was able to shoot scenes at historical slave dwellings at Louisiana State University's Rural Life Museum.

Do either of you have a favorite character?

Pokaski: I kind of love them all. I mean, it depends on the week, to be honest.

Green: It’s not so much a favorite character, but Wednesday [April 20], Episode 7, is an episode that I think is special to both of us because we are telling the story all from the children’s perspective. I think that when we started, one of the themes that was coming out a lot was, “What kind of world are we building for our children?”

So, I understand that Underground has set a network record for WGN, and that kind of speaks for itself, but what kind of feedback have you been getting on the show thus far?

Green: Well, my parents love the show, actually. [laughs] No, we’ve been getting great feedback, it’s been fantastic. What I love are really the conversations that it’s starting, and people who are like, “Wow, I guess I just didn’t think that it was that bad for a house slave,” or, “Oh man, what would I do if someone asked me to open a station on the Underground Railroad?” And I think those are all great conversations being had around the show.

Pokaski: The Wednesday night live-tweeting on Twitter has been kind of amazing. There’s a lot of moments where I’ll call Misha and be like, “Wow, I thought this was going to be a subtle moment that was a private joke between me and you, but everyone really got what we were trying to do with that word, or that line, or that look.” It’s interesting how everyone really has picked up on the show and has really gotten behind it.

Have there been any particular challenges in working with the actors to portray any of these storylines?

Pokaski: They’ve all been amazing. We’ve asked them to do a lot—we’ve put them back in the swamp after they tried it a couple of times. We asked them to kind of inhabit these characters and change the way they think. I think every actor—you know, down to these five kids who are each going to be in a little one-act play on Wednesday’s episode, have just put some truth out there. So it’s been fantastic so far.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Katherine Flynn is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

@kateallthetime

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