What do you see? If you’re listening to Homecoming, the cult hit podcast from Gimlet Media, the answer is nothing. A psychological thriller set largely inside a mysterious corporate facility somewhere in Florida, the podcast’s story is relayed strictly through sound, even more so than other fictional podcasts of late, or the cliffhanger-loving radio dramas that preceded them. Seemingly cobbled together from found recordings of phone calls and therapy sessions, there’s not even a narrator to tell you where you are, or when.
For the podcast’s creators, Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, that meant everything depended on the characters. “You can’t hide behind cinematography or good-looking actors or costumes,” Bloomberg said. “You can’t have action sequences. You can’t have sex, really, in any kind of convincing or interesting way. The only thing you have is an engaging scene.”
So what did the Homecoming co-creators do when Hollywood came calling, hoping to transform their podcast into a full-blown TV series? In many ways, they took advantage of the (much) more robust budgets and cool new tools that premium TV series come with. But even with all this largesse, they strove to retain the podcast’s intimate, even claustrophobic, feel.
On an afternoon last March, between takes on the Homecoming set, the two described the transformation. For their secret facility, they constructed an enormous, two-story compound within a 36,000-square-foot soundstage, one of the largest here on the Universal Studios backlot. They enlisted Sam Esmail, the creator of the critically acclaimed dystopian thriller Mr Robot, to direct. And then there’s Julia Roberts, in her first TV series, ever. “I don’t know how we got her,” Horowitz admitted.
The result is the Amazon Prime series Homecoming, which debuts November 2 and has already been renewed for a second season. In the adaptation, Roberts plays Heidi Bergman, a caseworker charged with helping combat veterans readjust to civilian life. As a therapist at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center, Heidi becomes close to one of her patients, Walter Cruz (Stephan James), a veteran eager to get better, and butts heads with Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale), her condescending, insufferable boss. The series toggles between the present day and 2022, when Heidi is a waitress at a rundown seafood shack, with seemingly little memory of her past life or job.
Work on the TV adaptation began in earnest in December 2016, when Universal Cable Productions purchased the rights to the story and began sending out feelers for a director. Esmail, a fan of the podcast, which stars Catherine Keener (Heidi), Oscar Isaac (Walter) and David Schwimmer (Colin), initially balked at the idea of an adaptation, figuring why screw up an already good thing? After bingeing the show three times, however, Esmail began to see the possibilities, and not just because it shared many of the same themes — shadowy corporate machinations, creepy 24/7 surveillance — as his award-winning Mr. Robot. “It’s not like I read the script and said, well, it’s got an evil corporation and paranoia, I’m in,” he said.
He saw it more as a throwback to the character-based thrillers of Hitchcock and De Palma, and a month later, after pitching his vision to Horowitz and Bloomberg, he got the job. As it turned out, Roberts was also a big fan of the podcast (she binged the show, she said, while sorting thousands of Lego bricks in her younger son’s bedroom), and the two met over FaceTime to talk about the possibility of working together. Esmail was getting married in two weeks (to Shameless star Emmy Rossum), so for the first 45 minutes, Roberts peppered him with questions about the wedding, while Esmail asked her about her kids. “We were like girlfriends,” Roberts said. “It was like we had gone to high school together.”
Roberts ultimately agreed to the project, with two conditions. “On the top of the list was that Sam had to direct all the episodes,” she said. “And I needed Micah and Eli to write all of the scripts before we started shooting.” (Esmail was originally planning to direct just the first two episodes, but a yearlong hiatus for Mr Robot allowed him to fulfill Roberts’ request.)
With the cast and crew largely in place, Horowitz and Bloomberg began writing the show’s first season. “We had a huge advantage coming out of a podcast, because we felt that we had already tested this at an elemental, molecular level,” Bloomberg said.
Plotwise, the series hews pretty closely to the original — there’s just a lot more of it. The creators added several characters that deepen our understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes (Alex Karpovsky, as the compound’s life-skills coach and company rat) and in the corporate overlords’ heads (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, as Walter’s not-buying-it mom). Some scenes are simply more dramatic in the series, as events in the podcast that we only learn about later through surreptitious recordings are presented in real time.
Both creators struggled to keep the show from spinning out into some large-scale “genre, paranoid thriller,” Horowitz said. “The natural tendency is to go bigger, but the solution was really to go more human.”
They have found that working on the series has been both easier than the podcast (“you can actually show a sign, as opposed to figuring out a way for characters to reveal what the sign says,” Horowitz said) and less frenzied (65 days to shoot the 10-episode season, versus four days to record season one of the podcast). And there are more folks helping out. As grips and assorted other crew members scurried by, the two craned their necks, looks of astonishment on their faces. “Look at all these people!” Horowitz marveled.
But rabid fans of the podcast need not fret; the podcast will continue and the TV offshoot can be a complementary experience. “Part of the reason we deviated from the podcast was that I wanted people to be able to enjoy both without having to sacrifice one of them,” Esmail said. “I really wanted to treat the TV show as its own creature.”
Don’t miss it!
Two seasons of Homecoming podcast are now available to stream online. The first season of the TV series, starring Julia Roberts, premieres on Prime Video on November 2.