Interview with Naren Shankar

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

Edited by Tess Stone, Questions organized by Kelly Boaz

I had a chat with Expanse Show runner and Executive Producer Naren Shankar to talk about some of his experiences with both the show and in his personal life.

J: As someone with degrees in physics and engineering, and an interest in science fact, what got you into science fiction?

N: I think it’s probably the other way around. I think science fiction got me into science fact. I loved Star Trek when I was a kid, I loved science fiction when I was a kid, and I think from that and maybe my natural tendencies I got interested in physics and math and science and ultimately that led to me becoming an engineer.

J: Were there any authors or screenwriters that inspired your desire to write?

N: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know offhand if I can say that that was how I got into writing. I’ve loved writing ever since I was a kid. I would write stories and I was a really horrible artist but I would try to draw comics and things. I think that the comics were, weirdly enough, like classic illustrated comics and comic books but also books like Jules Verne and things of that nature. They kind of got me into that frame of mind, but it was something I always did just for my own enjoyment.

I actually started college as a liberal arts student. I did that for a couple years as an “undecided.” I told my parents I was pre-med—which was a lie—when I was taking French Literature, Medieval Studies. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Then I transferred into Engineering and I stayed there through graduate school. When I was in graduate school, I started gravitating back towards things I loved, which were history and literature. By the time I got out I decided that I didn’t want to be an engineer. I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer but I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer. So I kind of had a weird path into that.

J: NPR said, “More than any other space-themed show, The Expanse gets the science right.” Was that realism present in the source material or has it been something that you worked on specifically in the script?

N: It was actually what attracted me to the material in the first place. I wasn’t actually familiar with the books but I read the pilot for The Expanse, which had been written by Fergus and Hawk Ostby, and from that I picked up the book. The idea of a realistic depiction of life in space, of ships where you had weight only when you were under thrust, of space itself being realistically depicted, that was all in the book. Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, who are collectively James S. A. Corey, they had really researched these things and that was part and parcel of the story that they told. It was something that almost every bit of science fiction that I’ve seen on film or television has really run away from. In Star Trek we had magical gravity generation in the floors so you didn’t have to actually show these things. In The Expanse, space was a character in the story, and that’s actually what attracted me to it. That was something I hadn’t seen in a series before, and it made me actually want to come back into a genre that I’d been away from for quite some time and put that on the screen.

Pictured above Daniel Abraham, Naren Shankar and Ty Franck Photo from Temple of geek

J: What’s the biggest challenge for you in making science that doesn’t yet exist in our world seem real on screen?

N: There are a couple of things, for the most part, we try not to make things magical. We try to make the number of dramatic pushes that you have as small as possible. This is true in the books, too: the thing that makes settlement of the solar system possible is an extremely efficient fusion drive, and from that stems many, many things. If you can get from planet to planet in a very short amount of time—and do it under thrust—it allows people to survive the journey. It gets people to employ vast energies to create things on the places that they get to and It enables a lot of things in the world. The proto-molecule and what it does I certainly wouldn’t call magic because it has logic and rules. It just employs forces and technologies that humans really don’t have access to yet. So I think the number of pushes in The Expanse in terms of creating stuff that doesn’t exist, we try to keep it as minimal as possible because science fiction is filled with magical things sometimes and it kind of works against the story that we’re telling. If we just create gizmos or fields or particles or things that solve the problem at hand. We try not to tell stories that way.

J: I notice that three of the biggest shows you’ve worked on (CSI, Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Expanse) are all ensemble shows. Is there any specific way that you approach writing for an ensemble?

N: Maybe the short answer to that question is you try to make sure that every character has got a point of view and something interesting to do. That is the hard thing to do. Game of Thrones in the seasons when that show was really at its peak did it incredibly well. And you can point to The Sopranos, The Wire, or a million shows of that nature where the ensembles really were amazing. It means that you have to write deliberately for every single character, make every scene meaningful, make every story line meaningful. There’s nothing that you just throw away and there’s nobody that just comes in and tells you information or gives you a lab result. That’s not the kind of story telling that ensemble drama is and we certainly try to avoid it.

J: How is your process different when adapting a work from source material as opposed to creating an entirely new show?

N: It’s a fundamentally different kind of task, and it’s both freeing and constraining. It’s great to have a story at hand. It’s great from the standpoint of world building that you have an author who has created a world inside a novel that you can actually exploit. Usually because of the time people have spent on the novel, you get the advantage of many, many years of thinking and research and deep dives and creation of all these thing you may or may not use but they’re there. That way the world has depth and history. These are great things to have. When you don’t have those things at the beginning, you have to create them, and sometimes you create them as you go as the world fills in. So there’s a little bit more of a wing and a prayer. The advantage is that you’re not constrained by everything that you know is ahead and everything that’s in the book, but it’s a very different kind of an endeavor. On this show the plot is extraordinarily complex. Ty and Daniel seed things in that you don’t even think are important for two books ahead and then they pay off much later, so there’s a meticulous and dense level of plotting that you’ve got to be very careful not to break if you’re going to do a faithful adaptation. I think that is one of the things that we try to do. People who’ve read the books and seen the show know that even though both of those things are significantly different from each other in many ways, they’re also significantly the same in other ways. And I think that’s what people mean when they say that the show feels very true in spirit to the books.

J: Having worked on shows like The Outer Limits and The Expanse in Canada, and Star Trek: The Next Generation and CSI in the United States, what’s the main draw for bringing a show to Canada to film?

N: You’re going to hear this a lot, I’m sure, but I think the draw right now is tax credits [laughs]. I think, though—and you’re seeing this a lot—it’s that the crews are amazing, the technical skills are amazing, the infrastructure and support is amazing in Canada. It’s a very different world than when I was working on The Outer Limits, which was 20+ years ago. I think that the industry in Canada was in many ways legitimately looked upon as not at the same level of quality as crews in Los Angeles, but those days have gone. The crews, technical skills and productions in Canada are terrific.

J: Have there been any major changes since The Expanse was picked up by Amazon? Do you think TV will continue moving more toward streaming services like Amazon and Netflix?

N: I think television has found its perfect home in the streaming services. It’s terrific as a delivery mechanism; it’s also terrific for long form storytelling and novelistic television series that we’re doing these days. These are shows that would never have been on broadcast television for a million reasons, many of them economic. I think that’s what’s great about this era. It’s like shows that would never be made in an earlier era can be made now, and also be made at an incredible high level. In terms of The Expanse specifically, we never really looked at the show—even when it was on SyFy—as a broadcast or basic cable show. We always really built it for streaming, so in many ways it was an easy transition. Instead of leaving our home, it feels like we came home to Amazon more than anything.

J: What was it like doing the CSI/Two and a Half Men writing swap? That seems like a unique experience. Was it fun getting to do comedy as compared to the darker stuff on CSI?

N: It was fun working with the Two and a Half Men gang. Chuck Lorre is hilarious, and he and Lee Aronsohn were a blast to work with. It started really almost as a whim, as Chuck had always wanted to send out a Christmas card of him at the autopsy of a sitcom diva. Based on that, this whole idea of switching writing staffs was born almost as a joke, and then we actually did it. It was an eye opener to how sitcoms are made. It’s a really unique art. It has an entirely different set of constraints than single camera dramatic stuff, which is much more like filming a movie. This is much more like a play. It was just a great eye opener and just incredibly fun watching those guys work.

J: In what ways has the industry most notably changed when it comes to writing and producing sci-fi shows since the 1990s? What new challenges do you face when working on shows today

N: I think the big change is that science fiction is no longer considered a ghetto. When I was on Star Trek: The Next Generation, that was kind of the only science fiction around. I remember my agent would say, “Do you have anything else other than a Star Trek script as a sample?” because people didn’t even want to read them. It was considered to be its own thing. “Oh, that’s that weird science fiction show.” So it didn’t really have any applicability to cop shows or doctor shows or lawyer shows. What people have understood is, in reality, science fiction is not a subset, but more of a super set of shows. Within a science fiction framework, you can do a cop show, a doctor show, or a lawyer show. You can tell stories about terrorism by allegory, like Battlestar Galactica. There are so many ways to tell stories within that framework, and I think the rest of the industry finally woke up to that. This is a popular genre, and now with the advent of the way that visual effects have come into play, you can build these worlds and put them on screen and realize them in a way that you absolutely could not do 25 years ago. That’s what’s fun about it. It’s a really great time for TV and for science fiction in particular and it’s fun to be able to work in it.

J: How do you approach fan expectations when it comes to the direction of your shows? Is that something that you take into account or do you stay away from the noise of social media?

N: I stay away from the noise of social media. It’s very hard to design a show by committee, and if you’re trying to listen too hard to what some people like and what other people don’t, and what that guy wants and what that person doesn’t, you’re just going to end up making something that's mush. You can’t make a show or tell a story by committee, so what we try to do is have faith in the novels and the work that Ty and Daniel created, and try to put on screen a faithful version of what that is. What we’re bringing to it however and other things, is that we are telling it for a different medium and we acknowledge all of that. At the end of the day, they’re telling a story about something, and that’s the story I want to put on the screen.

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