Director's Chair: <I>Class of '09</I> showrunner Tom Rob Smith
Iain Blair
Issue: May/June 2023

Director's Chair: Class of '09 showrunner Tom Rob Smith

The new FX show Class of ’09 is a limited series/suspense thriller that follows a class of FBI agents set in three time periods (2009, 2023, 2034) who acclimate and grapple with immense changes as the US criminal justice system is altered by artificial intelligence. Spanning multiple decades and told across interweaving timelines, the series examines the nature of justice, humanity and the choices we make that ultimately define our lives and legacy. 

Starring Brian Tyree Henry and Kate Mara, and streaming on Hulu, Class of ’09 was created by novelist Tom Rob Smith, who made his television debut with the acclaimed original show London Spy, which aired on BBC America. He followed that up by writing all the scripts for another hit show, FX’s Golden Globe winner The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, which earned him an Emmy and a Writers Guild Award for Best Adapted Series.

Here, in an exclusive interview withPost, I spoke with Smith (pictured) about making this ambitious show, dealing with post and the challenges of showrunning.

What sort of show did you set out to make? 

“There were two basic inspirations, and the first was my love of class photographs, which I find really fascinating, partly because I like looking at them and imagining how each person dreamt of their future. They seem to be about their dreams, hopes and their future, and I was wondering, ‘How do you bring all that into a TV show?’ The second part was, I was listening to a podcast by a retired FBI agent, and I was initially interested in all the crimes, but then I became really interested in all the agents she interviewed. They’re such good storytellers, and they were all so different from each other, and I felt that they’ve become secondary to the crime [on] TV now, so I wanted to do a show that puts them at the center, rather than the criminal.”

You’re the creator, writer, executive producer and showrunner on this. Did you ever feel, "I've bitten off more than I can chew?"

“Yes, in that we should have finished all the scripts before we began shooting. The energy of writing is very different to the energy of anything else in this process. Deadlines don’t work the same way they do in production and post. One of the great aspects of post is that you’re just focused on that the whole time, while in production, I was doing revisions and trying to work out the final episode, and dealing with any reshoots that had to be rewritten, so all that just splits your brain and it’s all-consuming. While we shot in Atlanta, I was working seven days a week, partly because of COVID restrictions.” 

This was your debut as a showrunner. How did you prepare and how steep a learning curve was it?
“I don’t think there’s any way you can prepare for it. We had very experienced producers, so that was a huge help, and we all knew the lesson about finishing the scripts before shooting. But even on The Assassination of Gianni Versace, we didn’t finish the scripts in time. We were still writing them during production, and there’s this point where you feel the train bearing down on you, and you’re still trying to lay the tracks ahead, and it just becomes extremely challenging to both write and shoot at the same time.”

As a successful novelist, do you like being a showrunner?

“I do, and I love working with the crew and cast, and that feeling of something abstract becoming a reality. But it’s so different from writing a novel. You realize that no one reads the scripts. There’s a very niche group that loves to find them online and read them, but 99 percent of people don’t care. They just see the show. So in production you’re trying to capture as much as you can on the day, like an amazing sunset, or a location that suddenly speaks to you in some way and changes the scene.”

How was the shoot?

“It was long and all-consuming. We prepped for a few months and shot from October till December of 2021, and then came back and shot till May last year, and that included two COVID shutdowns.”

Tell us about post. How steep a learning curve was it?

“I had no experience working on post in the US except watching the cut of Versace, but in the UK. I was in the edit room for the TV shows I created and wrote, London Spy and MotherFatherSon, and working with the editors on those showed me how similar editors and writers are in some ways. So I really love the whole editing process, especially as you can try anything and there’s not all the time pressure you feel in production. There’s a real sense of intellectual freedom that’s so much fun, and although post was a steep learning curve, it was a delight. I love post.”

Did you start integrating it all from the beginning or was it a more traditional TV post schedule?

“I thought we’d be editing as we went along, but in the end, we didn’t begin till we’d finished shooting, so it was more traditional and a hybrid post. Producer Jessica Levin was based in Brooklyn, and we did the sound and coloring in New York. Our colorist was Steve Bodner, and the DI was all remote. Our main editor Leo Trombetta was in LA, and our other editors included Stephen Philipson, who was in Toronto, Bjorn Myrholt and Bart Burcham, and all that was done on Zoom. And our composer, Will Bates, was also in LA.”

Talk about the editing. How did that work, as there were a few editors?

“Leo worked on all the episodes and advised on all of them, and he’s very experienced and brilliant, and fun to work with. Then Stephen and the others collaborated closely with Leo, and didn’t mind getting feedback from Leo, so it was a great working relationship.”

Given that it spans different time periods, features a large cast and has a lot of moving parts, what were the main editing challenges?

“It all goes back to the original concept and the fact that we never intended the show to be opaque or confusing. It was always intended to be very accessible and clear, and we were always looking for moments of emotional clarity and through-lines that you could follow. What we were trying to say is, ‘This story connects to this story, because that moment you saw back in the class impacts the way people behave ten years later, and this moment in the present gives them the chance to become this person in the future.’ So the big editing challenge was how this puzzle unravels, and our guiding principles were clarity, emotion and the most interesting points of connection. 

"For example, in Episode 5, we see Brian Tyree Henry’s character first fall in love, and then in the present, we see how that marriage is under great strain, illustrating the journey of life, as well as the individual characters’ stories. And then we’re also trying to tell the evolutionary story of the FBI, which is like another character in the piece. So it is complicated, but we didn’t want the audience to feel that, and so finding the right balance and flow to it was a big challenge.”

There are quite a few VFX. Was that also a steep learning curve for you?

“It was, but we had an amazing VFX team, headed by two supervisors — Keith Kolder and Mark Savela, and our whole approach was to always be grounded with the VFX work. We couldn’t do that thing where you create all kinds of VFX and people accept it because they know the situation isn’t real. We wanted everything to look real, like the big fire scene in Episode 2. All that was really interesting to work on. The big VFX challenge was that we shot it all in Atlanta, but it had to feel like every state and the whole country was in the show. So we had to create all these different landscapes and looks, ranging from mountains and snow in Montana, to urban areas and cityscapes, and that visual contrast was partly done by cleverly choosing locations, but mainly by VFX and post. And it was quite hard editing all that stuff till we got the finished shots, as so much of it still looked like Atlanta to me. 

Photo: Tom Rob Smith, on-set

“Then you get the final VFX shots and suddenly, it all comes alive. We ended up using a lot of vendors, as there were so many different components, and the VFX industry is so busy these days. FuseFX did our destroyed FBI HQ exteriors, Lennix’s arm, most of the snow at the ranch, the AI Judge, several sky replacements, and many more odds and ends. Crafty Apes did our Processing Center avatars, all of the basement fire, most of the series’ gunplay, all the blood and gore, and a lot of the very hard shots with invisible work. These guys are the unsung heroes on the show! 

“Folks VFX did all of our FBI drones, exclusively — great work on their part. Varnish Bros. did Poet’s Eye, a lot of the future graphics, the Philadelphia precinct exteriors, the Future Highway Checkpoint, some sky replacements and the Future FBI HQ shots. Muse VFX started the snow at Tupirik’s ranch, but were unable to complete when we pushed delivery dates. They’re responsible for the big, sweeping shot of the burning compound with the chopper. Scarab Digital did the remainder of our GFX, plus the 108 News montage. Rogue One VFX was primarily responsible for invisible work, like paint-outs/crew/rig removal and monitor comps, but they did also do Lennix’s CG arm stump from the present timeline. 1.618 VFX was also another ‘invisible work’ vendor, but most recently was responsible for the diner GFX. For me, a lot of VFX can look too glossy and perfect, but we wanted to keep a real sense of physicality and grittiness to our VFX, and everyone did a great job.”

It must have been fun creating the soundscape and music?

“Great fun. We mixed at Warners in New York and in LA, and the sound team was so creative. For example, for the burning ranch, they made it sound like a creaking ship, and they found all these very unusual sounds, such as making the code scenes sound like centipedes moving around. So that was another great aspect of post, that we could make so much of it tangible, as if you could smell it and touch it.”

Do you want to showrun again?

“Yes, I loved the whole experience, especially post, which was such a joy, but having gone through this, I wouldn’t consider doing it again without having finished scripts. That was the big lesson I learned.”