21CF Chats: Chris Keyser, exec producer for FX’s ‘Tyrant,’ on portraying the Middle East, weighty themes, the show’s diversity

Photo credit: Kata Vermes/FX

21CF Chats: Chris Keyser, exec producer for FX’s ‘Tyrant,’ on portraying the Middle East, weighty themes, the show’s diversity

TV

As a show featuring an American family wedged in a tumultuous power struggle in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Abuddin, FX’s “Tyrant” looks and feels different from just about any other television drama today. With that distinctiveness comes a certain responsibility to accuracy and entertainment, which holds particular weight in today’s world.

To learn more about the behind-the-scenes work, thinking and decision-making that goes into “Tyrant” (which is produced by Fox 21 Television Studios and FX Productions), I talked with executive producer and showrunner Chris Keyser. He discussed how the show strikes a balance between truth and entertainment, how its stunning scenes are achieved, and the one powerful theme the show features in Season 3.

As one of the few American TV shows set in the Middle East, do you and the other showrunners feel a particular responsibility to portray that culture accurately and with sensitivity? What kind of research and consideration go into this?
We take very seriously our obligation to accurately and sensitively portray the culture and politics of the Middle East. To help us do that, we have many, many advisors on the show who sit in the writers’ room with us, who give us notes on every outline and draft of our script and on every cut of each episode. We try never to be disrespectful – or knowingly inaccurate – even as we take seriously our obligation to entertain and inform. We are, after all, a television show, and just as a show about lawyers or doctors is hardly a documentary on the medical or legal profession, we never pretend that we are an undistorted mirror held up to the life of that region. We balance – or try to – some level of truth with a healthy dose of drama.

The scenery and sets on "Tyrant" are quite striking. It all makes it easy to become immersed in the show. How do you and the crew find shoot locations and design sets?
Though we periodically use practical locations in Budapest when we film “Tyrant,” more than 90 percent of the show is shot on sets that we have built. We have two full stages to house the palace, and we have a backlot the size of the backlot at Universal where we film the sequences in Ma’an, in Asima and in Caliphate territory. We have an amazing production designer, Ricky Eyres, who works with an incredible staff of people including Gwyneth Horder-Payton, our producing director, and Pavlina Hatoupis, our producer, to create the entire world of “Tyrant.”

Chris Keyser, executive producer and showrunner for FX's "Tyrant."

What goes into creating that world? And how has this evolved with each season?
There is an enormous amount of research that goes into creating each season’s new sets – and a good deal of plain imagination. Much of that planning goes on well before the first word of the first script is written. The writers sit with the production staff of the show to talk about where we see stories going and what new sets need to be built to accommodate them. This year, for example, because we planned to tell so many stories in and around the University, we designed and built University Square, which is now one of our favorite sets. And because we knew a new family (Bassam’s) was moving into the palace, and that they had a whole different style from the Jamal and Leila’s family, we built a kitchen. That way, this more casual family had a place to gather other than the palace’s formal dining room. Those are just two examples. We keep imagining new worlds and then building them. If we’re back for a fourth season, we already have some designs in our back pocket.

"Tyrant" weaves many themes together -- the delicacy of family relationships, temptation of power and turbulence of political instability among them. Which of the show's themes resonates most with you?
The show is about all kinds of themes – the complexities of family dynamics, the temptations of power, etc. For me, it’s the smaller relationship stuff that happens underneath the larger chess match of politics that excites me the most. This year, though we have a lot of plot – and plot that moves very quickly – we’ve also tried to slow down a bit, from time to time, and explore those individual relationship, talk about who loves whom, for example. Having said that, I think the single most powerful theme we deal with this year and the thing that is at the very heart of “Tyrant” and makes it – to whatever extent it can claim to be this – universal is the conversation about how we respond to evil. We ask the questions: How can one respond to the evil perpetrated against us? Is it possible to destroy evil? If we try, can we do it without changing ourselves in the process? Given how the world is changing around us, I think that’s one of the most fundamental questions we need to grapple with as a world.

You were a political speechwriter early in your career. Does that experience inform your approach to the show when you write or make decisions as an executive producer?
I don’t think being a political speechwriter has too much to do with how I approach the show, except maybe when I write characters’ speeches. Maybe that’s not fair. It’s the speechwriter’s job to turn political (or social, or economic) arguments into emotional arguments. In a show that’s set against the backdrop of regional and world politics, but ultimately has to be about people, I suppose that’s what we do all the time.

What aspect of making "Tyrant" do you wish viewers could know more about?
I suppose I wish people could appreciate how much it means that this is a show made by the most diverse group of people with whom I have ever worked – Muslims, Jews and Christians from so many countries around the world. Even as the show itself can sometimes seem like a pessimistic musing on the impossibility of the world working together peacefully, the making of “Tyrant” itself is the most beautiful representation of what cooperation across national, religious, ethnic and cultural lines can produce. What else? Sometimes we kill off characters because the actors are no longer available. It’s not always just to drive the audience crazy.

What was the most satisfying part of making Season 3? What do you hope viewers will enjoy the most?
I think Season 3 is the year that “Tyrant” kicks into high gear. No character can sit on the sidelines anymore with the luxury of saying he or she is safe – that the fate of Abuddin is somehow separate from their own. I think that makes the show very exciting. And, in a terrible way, the changing nature of Middle Eastern, European, U.S. and world politics makes our story increasingly relevant. In some sense, none of us are immune from the implications of the questions the show is asking.

“Tyrant,” now in Season 3, airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.