Creating Today’s Most Interesting Culture Crashing Satire: Comrade Detective

In a case of perfect timing for the current political climate, the absurdities of cold war tensions are being looked at from a whole other angle today than even 6 months ago. Looking back at the way both sides portrayed their ideological opposition could be downright absurd (just re-watch Rocky IV for proof), but it had a lasting impact as the only exposure audiences had to the way the other half lived. While it would have been somewhat easy to create a parody of these 80s action films (and we’ve had plenty in recent years), the creative team behind Comrade Detective took a more satirical look. Writers Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka (who also write the series Dice on Showtime) collaborated with director Rhys Thomas (one of the directors of Documentary Now and SNL) to create their homage to buddy/action/detective series with a 80s communist twist in Comrade Detective. While the show was made with an all Romanian cast and crew, the creators air the show in America (on Amazon) with Hollywood stars and comedians dubbing the stars including Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jenny Slate, and Nick Offerman. We spoke with the creative team behind the show about creating their culture-clashing satire.

The Interrobang: When you were deciding on the premise and thinking about the pop cultural references you were going to draw from, what made you select Romania as the show’s setting?

Brian Gatewood: We wanted to make something that wasn’t so on the nose, make something that felt a little more unique and make it known that this show is more satire than spoof.

Rhys Thomas: We were originally open to using something that was just set in the Eastern Block and during scouting looked at locations in Hungary. But Romania turned out to be an ideal setting not only because of where we could film and the architecture that still exists, but because their specific experiences with communism were uniquely different because of their experiences living under (Nicolae) Ceausescu. We considered Bulgaria and Hungary, but those were slightly more liberal forms of communism than Romania. People we spoke with in Hungry had almost a fondness for that era. And Romania seemed like a country that would have commissioned a show like this.

Alessandro Tanaka: There’s a great film about Western films in communist Romania called Chuck Norris vs Communism, about Irina Margareta Nistor who makes an appearance in our show. We wanted to pay tribute to her. When we thought about what country would commission a show like this, we found out that while Romania was very limited with what they could air, Ceausescu thought it was a good idea to air dubbed versions of Dallas. He felt that would be considered a repulsive look at the excesses of a capitalistic society. And it actually had the opposite effect. People in Romania love Dallas, you go there and Larry Hagman’s picture’s still on walls. Someone recreated the ranch in the countryside. It’s probably the most popular show in Romania. So that really opened our eyes to how a country could have used propaganda, and how it could ultimately backfire.

The Interrobang: There’s something similar in the show, with the Monopoly games that are supposed to show the horrible excesses and encourage bad behavior, but people enjoy playing it. How did you select the black market items that were being smuggled in by the characters?

Brian Gatewood: Everything we selected had to be feel somewhat iconic to Western items, but also seem very ordinary. We also heard about the items people really had smuggled in from our cast and crew.

Rhys Thomas: I remember having a conversation with our costume designer in Hungary. And there were permits given to leave the country, and people would return with a pair of jeans or some other piece of clothing. And they were then tasked with copying it, but they had the wrong material so it never fit right. And he told stories about all these jean knock-offs. He had a great understanding of how people had gotten things a little off in the translation. Apparently, the Italian men would come into the country and the Hungarian men would try to emulate their style of dress, but with clothing made out of terrible material.

Alessandro Tanaka: The show also takes place in 1983, so we needed items which were popular then or had just been popular in the states.

The Interrobang: Did most of the cast and crew have a memory of growing up or living under communism and relay those memories to you? Did they remember the image of America being filtered the way Americans saw communists during the Cold War?

Brian Gatewood: The entire cast and crew, besides ourselves and the DP, were Romanian. And all our conversations with them informed the scripts, to make sure their perspectives were taken into account. We had a great relationship with them. One of the guys told us that he completely believed that all Americans had contracted AIDS in the 80s.

Alessandro Tanaka: Not just him. A lot of people believed that.

Brian Gatewood: And he said that when the train would come in, he was very concerned that someone had been around these foreigners and contracted a disease. It was fascinating to listen to them and thinking about how we’d been indoctrinated, and that we’re still coming out of that period really. It’s hard to change your way of thinking.

Rhys Thomas: There’s also a moment in the show where a kid informs on his own parents, and after we filmed it people on our crew came up to us and said “that’s hilarious, that’s exactly the way that would have happened.” They really liked that because they see how absurd but true it is. A lot of the humor in the show is absurd because of how real it was 35 years ago. Kubrick planned to make a film called Red Alert as a drama, until he realized how absurd things were and he had to make Dr. Strangelove a comedy to be more truthful. You just have to look at this absurd stuff from a comedic lens to see where the humor is.

The Interrobang: Did you have a chance to see propaganda films and television shows from that time?

Brian Gatewood: We tried to watch as much as possible. There’s one, a Czech show called The 30 Cases of Major Zeman, and that was specifically made to prop up communist ideals. He was a communist James Bond and that show was very influential. There’s a film that’s like a Soviet Rambo, made in response to American action films. In 1987, a bunch of Soviet and American filmmakers got together to discuss how they’d portrayed each other. And it was clear that Americans were far more aggressive towards the Soviets. Those films were really used to demonize the Eastern Block.

Alessandro Tanaka: Soviet and Romanian propaganda were more interested in portraying the positives of Communism. Partly because they weren’t supposed to view Americans as worthy adversaries. They saw America represented as crime ridden and disgusting, so they didn’t want to elevate their status as a world-power to concern themselves with.

The Interrobang: Did the three of you grow up watching those movies which had villainized the Soviets?

Rhys Thomas: Oh, for sure. It’s interesting because I grew up in the UK, so I watched without any sense of patriotism, but American films, especially American action films, I watched a lot at that age. And I realize that without the other lessons about America, my attitude about America and Communists were informed by my exposure to those films.

The Interrobang: And I’m sure it goes both ways. There are some pretty funny moments seeing how you imagine a Romanian show would portray Americans as dumb and selfish. I loved the voice you dubbed of the background actor in the embassy.

Rhys Thomas: That actually wasn’t a dub. We found that guy in a sound-effects library, and we found it in a folder of people saying odd expressions. But we wanted the dubbing to be almost seamless because we want the compelling narrative to be the engine of the show. And when we started dubbing with comedy friends of ours, we had them play around and ad-lib, do funny voices and so on. But we kept reigning them in because we wanted to avoid things getting distracting. And those big actors allowed us to really play around. I absolutely love the performance of a pretzel vendor.

Brian Gatewood: The thing that we really needed to consider was, yes, this is a satire, but we also want it to be a good cop show and feel authentic.

The Interrobang: When the show plays overseas, will the show be dubbed rather than subtitled?

Brian Gatewood: It’s already played as is in Romanian, no dubbing of course. But the plan is to dub for other languages with recognizable actors from other countries and keep the flavor we established in the American version.

The Interrobang: How have Romanians who’ve seen the show reacted to the show?

Brian Gatewood: They seemed to get all the references. Channing and Joe were just amazed at how good the two actors they dubbed were, they said they felt bad dubbing over them.

Alessandro Tanaka: They immediately understood that this isn’t a show making fun of Romanians, but commenting on the propaganda they grew up with. And they noticed how much fun we made of ourselves and appreciated that it was all fair game.

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Lesley Coffin is the Features/Interviews Editor for the movie site Filmoria. She has also written the books Lew Ayres: Hollywood Conscientious Objector (2012) and Hitchcock's Stars (2014), and currently writing a third book. Look for her brand new podcast, "Lake Shore Drive to Hollywood" part of the Second Wind Collective podcast network. Follow on twitter @filmbiographer for thoughts on movies and cat pictures.