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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Bourne, Treadstone, and creating a franchise for a multi-platform world

By Jordan Zakarin

There are two market and creative trends driving Hollywood right now: the proliferation of new streaming platforms and the ever-growing reliance on big franchises. If you've got access to intellectual property, it's a pretty sweet time — the industry has an insatiable appetite for programming, and there's nothing that execs love more than a sure thing with a track record of making money.

You can see the two trend lines intermingling in real-time, as TV franchises pump out new shows and big movie franchises begin migrating to TV. The most prime example is what Disney is doing with its upcoming streaming service, bringing characters from its Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbusters and the first live-action Star Wars shows to Disney+. Netflix, meanwhile, is stocked with Dreamworks Animation shows that began as movies (How to Train Your Dragon, Boss Baby, etc.), and Star Trek continues to expand rapidly.

This month, NBCUniversal (the parent company of SYFY) debuted a bit of smart corporate synergy with the premiere of Treadstone, a TV series "based on an organization from the Bourne series of novels by Robert Ludlum." It is the Universal Pictures-produced franchise's first foray into TV after five movies, beginning with 2002's The Bourne Identity and up through 2016's Jason Bourne.

While 2012's The Bourne Legacy did not star Matt Damon, subbing in Jeremy Renner, it still focused on that general storyline and references the Jason Bourne character. Treadstone branches out into the history of the titular, top-secret CIA program and its many unwitting participants. Ben Smith, a producer on Bourne who serves as showrunner on the series, spoke with SYFY WIRE about the art of converting a hit movie series into a TV show in this era of multi-platform demands.

You'd been thinking about doing this for a while, right?

We'd been talking about doing a TV series about Treadstone for about a decade. This is independent of Bourne. It's definitely within the world, but we weren't looking to recreate Bourne at all, as you can tell. You don't need to have seen Bourne to appreciate the show.

Back in 2009, there were still several more Bourne movies still to be made. So from the beginning, was it always about Treadstone, without Bourne? Or did you eventually say, "All right, let's not have Bourne involved" after the last movie?

From the beginning, when we started talking about Treadstone, Bourne was never going to be involved.

Interesting. How come?

Bourne is a character in a story and a guy unto himself, but the mythology that Ludlum created, and the world of Treadstone and the different black-op groups just seemed like a phenomenal sandbox to mine from. We always thought about it independent of Bourne. Obviously, Bourne comes from that world; but yeah, a completely new story.

What are the keys to taking care of an IP in this day and age so that you're not over-expanding it or milking it too much, doing it in a sustainable way that it works?

Being cognizant of the times that we're living in is one, and it's all about story. The IP here has such fertile ground, that there are great stories that could come from this world. So it all starts with story.

And with story, obviously completely tantamount is character. And beyond the world-creating, what we're doing in the Treadstone series is creating characters that are cicadas, that are being woken up without any memory of even being asleep is a phenomenal starting point to create different characters.

That's the most important thing, that when we're looking at whatever book or, mythology, or story within this world, it comes from what is the most interesting characters that we can create within this world, that people are going to relate to. I think that the times that we're in now are very different from the times when the first Bourne Identity came out. I think that we're a lot more… jaded is not probably the word, but possibly.

At that time, the idea that there would have been a black op group that was training assassins like Jason Bourne was both scary and exciting and like, "No, like that couldn't be happening." Today it's almost expected. When we did the first Bourne, that still was a shocking revelation.

Talk about mapping out a much more expanded world, beyond anything that was ever written in the original books or movies.

That was something that was important to Robert Ludlum, and he was very much about how this is great, fertile ground, so please continue it. And there's been many Bourne books. There's a Treadstone series of books that are out or coming out now. So expanding on the world is very much, within what he did and what we have been doing for some time. The Bourne Legacy was an extreme example of that.

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This show has a lot of different characters and story strands — Jeremy Irvine plays an agent in the 1980s, and you also have Treadstone agents in North Korea and on an oil rig in Canada. How do you choose those characters and storylines?

From an origin story place, meeting an oil worker on a rig who happens to be a Cicada agent and is unaware of it, we thought that that was timely and something that we could relate to as well. North Korea is a world I haven't seen and the idea of having a character wake up who had been placed in North Korea, it seemed somewhat plausible.

We wanted to explore a foreign world to us and to dispel some of our preconceptions, but also to explore the human connection of how we're all kind of the same and what we all have [in common]. I mean what Soyun comes across in her journey is something that people around the world can also relate to.

We are really getting to the core of what it means to be a human being, and what it means to be a part of a family, and how all of these global concerns can affect you personally. At some point in time, the character that we know as Soyun and the character that we know as Doug, they did choose to be a part of this organization, and part of something about which they are not aware of today. They don't know today why they volunteered then But the ramifications of which, and those decisions that they made years ago, they're having to deal with those consequences today,

Then we really wanted to have an origin story about how some of this could have started. Out of kind of Soviet KGB-type program? Or there was an arms race and maybe there was something kind of similar to creating a perfect soldier type race.

Treadstone North Korea

North Korea was an interesting thread to me, because we really just don't see much about that place, beyond the occasional documentary. But I've never seen a North Korean character.

We did a lot of research and there were a lot of preconceptions that we had, just based on what our notion of life in North Korea would be like. Then the more we dug in, we saw that just in terms of the interior, there's a lot of color. There's a lot of pastel colors, which we were not thinking. We were thinking kind of more monolithic and grays and things like that, but that's not what's there.

We went to the CIA and we met with one of the training specialists at Langley. One of the first things he said was about North Korea was, "Let me dispel one myth. 95 percent or more of everyone that lives in North Korea loves living in North Korea," which was interesting. He just wanted to make sure that we got that people that lived there actually love living there. Now, maybe it's because they don't know anything else. Who knows? But they're very happy about living in North Korea. So that was interesting as well.

Obviously there are a lot of different conditions there. You're depicting a group of people that are relatively well off in the bureaucracy.

When we say North Korea we think of the people who are being punished or in camps and certainly that's real, but you know, there's another class people there as well. There's a lot of different narratives that we have, and a lot of it depends on where we're raised or country we're in and what's being told about us. But that there is a very common thread amongst all of us, which is searching for meaning, identity, and love of family.

Treadstone airs on USA Network on Tuesdays at 10PM.