Festivals TV & Film

ATX TV Fest 2016: A Talk with “Underground” co-creator Joe Pokaski

“Underground” is a historical period drama on WGN America, co-created by Joe Pokaski and Misha Green, centered on a group of slaves who plan to escape a Georgia plantation with the help of abolitionists. The first season aired from March to May and WGN America has picked up a second season for next spring.

Interview questions by ChinLin Pan and photos courtesy of WGN America

We sat down and spoke with co-creator Joe Pokaski last weekend at ATX Television Festival about the show and his TV watch list.

Underground 2When you first got started with “Underground,” what did you aspire to make?

Joe Pokaski: Misha [Green] and I started saying we want to be bold, to be bold in our storytelling, in our pace, and how aggressive we are visually. We were fortunate enough that WGN and Sony got behind that. We were fortunate to have met Anthony Hemingway, who directed our first four episodes. He came on and knew exactly what we were trying to do. He’s a genius director. He helped us continue to be bold. People like John Legend came along and make it better and better.

What was it like working with the cast and crew?

Pokaski: We really lucked out. We got the people we wanted on our wish list. They were perfect for the role. We were really tight. We became a family. The weather was horrible. We had to make the show for less money and less time than we had. Everyone just banded together and knew they wanted to make something special. It was an amazing experience.

Underground 3What was the weather like in Louisiana? How tight was your shooting schedule?

Pokaski: Our schedule was probably two days shorter than we should’ve had. We had to cram a lot in. The weather was unpredictable. It rained. It was too hot. The mosquitoes were crazy. At one time, we had a mudslide that stopped production.

Was it swampy?

Pokaski: Yes, it was swampy. And it rained a lot. Sometimes even when it wasn’t raining, there was lightning. If lightning was five miles away, we couldn’t shoot. We had a tornado. Which I didn’t think they had in Louisiana. At one point, the sky turned green and everyone got these alerts on their phones. We had to go hide and wait out the tornado.

Underground 6Was there any funny moments behind the scenes?

Pokaski: We made our cast run a lot. You know, this was a show about running, so we would always challenge them. We try to get the good shots. Our Director of Photography Kevin McKnight was a runner: he loved to run. Everyone was in good spirits and everyone worked hard to make the best show we could.

What current shows are you watching?

Pokaski: I just finished the first season of “UnReal,” which I really liked. I also just finished “Borgen”—It’s a Danish political melodrama. It’s a fantastic show. I’m catching up on a lot of things. It’s sad that making television cuts into my watching-television time. It’s amazing how much good television there is out there.

I keep hearing from others how they’re nicknaming this time another “golden age of television.”

Pokaski: Yeah! I think it’s a period there’s a lot of new voices making brilliant television. It’s all over the board in a good way. People are re-inventing what you expect from a show.

"Underground" co-creator Joe Pokaski at the Roaring Fork at ATX Television Festival 2016 / Photo by ChinLin Pan
“Underground” co-creator Joe Pokaski at the Roaring Fork at ATX Television Festival 2016 / Photo by ChinLin Pan

If you had to pick one show from your childhood you’d like to reboot, which show would it be and why?

Pokaski: That’s a really great question. I was always a sucker for “The Greatest American Hero.” It’s about a teacher who could barely control his class. He takes a field trip to the desert and finds a super-suit, left there by aliens. He gets the suit but not the instruction manual, so he becomes this reluctant hero. It’s a completely silly show that I remember watching and it made me want to work in television.

Haven’t seen “Underground”? Check out the trailer below!

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