HBO’s “Silicon Valley”: Behind The Squirm

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Editor’s note: Scott Adelson is co-founder of Signal Media Project, a nonprofit organization promoting and facilitating the accurate portrayal of science, technology and history in popular media.

HBO’s “Silicon Valley” is more than your average breakout series that had audiences praying for a second season even as the credits on the pilot began to roll. The show has clearly hit a cultural nerve, both inside and outside the tech community.

For insiders, it holds up a mirror that reflects both the attractive and ugly sides of the startup world, with an accuracy that simultaneously brings on nods and squirms. For outsiders, the series offers a fictionalized look at the esoteric community, eliciting cheers along with copious amounts of schadenfreude.

I chatted with Co-Executive Producer Clay Tarver about how the show approaches both cultural and technical accuracy, and how a love-hate relationship with Silicon Valley makes for great television.

Q: At the concept development and early writing stages, did you go in thinking about accuracy in terms of both technology and culture? Was it a critical component? If so, why?

TARVER: Well, the concept for the show was created by Mike Judge, who I’ve worked with for many years on the feature side, and his two long-time producing partners, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, who are geniuses. They wrote the pilot. When John and David couldn’t actually do the show, I came on, as did our show runner Alec Berg. And from conversation one our priority was to get things right.

Mike had heard some comment from Dr. Dre, I believe, where Dre said, “If it plays in the hood, it plays everywhere.” That meant to us that if the people who actually know this world deem it accurate and genuine and funny to them then so will everybody else. It’s the Spinal Tap effect. Nobody loved Spinal Tap more than rock bands. (I know. I played in bands.) They knew it got the shit right and it was a joy to see it on screen.

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I’d had no interest in tech, actually. But the more I learned—the more everyone doing the show learned—the more it became glaringly clear to us that we had to be as accurate as possible. It’s a fucking crazy world as it is. That’s the point. So you can’t take shortcuts or liberties. It really is a matter of trust that you build with an audience. And if you’re bullshitting them every once in a while or, worse, if you’re getting things wrong, then why should they believe anything you do?

Personally, I’ve written many feature scripts based on “worlds.” From hunting to barbershop singing to surfing to basketball. And the strange thing is the real details are always funnier than a bunch of shit a comedy writer would think up. The deeper you dig the more interesting things get.

Furthermore, one of this show’s biggest strengths, I think, is the satire. And maybe satire means something different to other people. But to me it means showing things for how they are by looking at it through a different lens or different point of view. Accuracy and authenticity are critical to pulling that off.

Q: Did you have a strategy regarding accuracy? What did you do upfront to approach the challenges from these two angles?

TARVER: Mike worked in Silicon Valley years ago. He knew the world really well. And while it’s changed a lot since he was an engineer, the type of people he encountered stayed the same. Also, Alec’s brother worked in tech. So he’d had more familiarity with it than I did, that’s for sure. But it was clear to all of us that we needed to do as much research as we could. We toured incubators. We went to TechCrunch Disrupt. We brought people in, read books, all that stuff.

“If you’re bullshitting them every once in a while or, worse, if you’re getting things wrong, then why should they believe anything you do?”

But the main thing was to get Jonathan Dotan on our team. He’d had some tech type ventures with our producers at 3Arts, and he just became our resident expert. So we’d just think of an idea and pitch it to him. He’d come back and say, “Hey, I think I know what you’re going for, but that doesn’t hold water. Maybe something like this?” And he’d generally send us off into a better direction. There was a lot of push and pull. Sometimes the research would give us great story idea. Sometimes a story idea would push us to dig deeper into the real scenarios.

Q: What about case by case, as you’re writing each script? What structures have you set up to handle this as you go along?

TARVER: One of the most critical things we had to figure out was how big the scope would be for the first season. Are they billionaires by the end of it? Do they get nowhere and this thing is just a workplace comedy that happens to be in an incubator? I think maybe the best decision while creating this show was deciding to have each week really be about something. Something happens. The story pushes forward each week. It’s not just some network show where they have to shoot 22 episodes and end up setting a fire and putting it out every week.

So we started with pretty basic questions of “What would really happen if you were building a startup? What would be the challenges?” And we started pulling from all the famous Silicon Valley stories about the early days of businesses. We heard that the Google guys couldn’t cash their first check for two weeks because it was written literally to “Google” and they hadn’t cleared the name. We heard about the street artist that Facebook hired. They couldn’t pay him in cash, so instead they gave him stock options that are now worth 50 or 100 million bucks. Stuff like that. So we’d take that kernel of lore and build a story around it. Then we’d go to Dotan and ask about the reality of each little turn in the story and go from there.

Q: What was challenging to get right? Can you give some specific examples?

TARVER: One of the biggest challenges is that by its very nature, coding isn’t particularly cinematic. It’s just guys sitting at computers with headphones on typing at computers. It’s easy to get that part right, but hard to make it entertaining. And yet, as I said, we wanted the drama of building a startup to be genuine. So whenever we could we’d try to make it about people and characters. Like that name idea. We had a sprinkler company already have the name Pied Piper and that guy became a part of that episode.

The other big challenge is that the whole thing rides on our lead character’s big innovation: a compression algorithm. Again, it’s easy to just say it. But to see or feel how it is important to the world was very difficult. I think another critical key to the entire season was having his former company, Hooli, try to reverse engineer his algorithm and rush to market with it. That seemed realistic and gave us the conflict we needed. It became a race. It was the Bad News Bears vs. the Yankees.

Q: There are some thinly veiled real-life characters in the show. How do you handle this? What are you trying to stay true to in these cases? What liberties do you feel comfortable taking?

Clay Tarver

TARVER: They were less thinly veiled than you might think. Mike, John, and Dave based all of them on character elements, but not individuals. There was never a one-to-one ratio. For example, a lot of people assume Peter Gregory is Peter Thiel. Not true. Sure he’s anti-college and is building his own island. But we wanted to show a character who’s brilliant, immensely curious and yet terribly awkward with people. A lot of tech billionaires seem to have this vibe and we wanted him to personify this. You can see elements of a lot of big names in him.

Honestly, I think the real magic of that character came from the actor Christopher Evan Welch, who died during filming. I think his take on it was wholly original and just a joy for us all to write for. In fact, one day we asked him how he came up with the character, his mannerisms, his way of talking. (The actor was nothing at all like [the character] Peter Gregory.) Was he basing it on Peter Thiel? He had never heard of the guy. He just built this character based on how interior he thought his brain would be and let the awkwardness reign from there. To see him do it up close was something I’ll never forget. He was amazing.

Q: The depiction of the Disrupt conference was a hit. I heard some comments wondering if you actually filmed it there. How did you nail that?

TARVER: We went to it for three days—Mike, Alec, my fellow writer Dan O’Keefe and I. So did the production designer, Richard Toyon, who was key. We all just soaked the details in. Drew comedy from it. (The HumanHeater was loosely based on a wireless power source that the judges were skeptical of.) When we shot it in L.A., Richard did an amazing job of recreating it on set. We even brought down a lot of companies that were actually sitting at booths there. We had the video that they play on the floor from the actual event feeding through monitors on set. It was all so seamless people thought we’d filmed the video, too.

Q: As a writer, dialogue and language has to be as great a concern as plot. How do you approach crawling inside the characters’ heads and getting it right in terms of their culture? Is there a “method”? Is it difficult for you?

TARVER: To me, it’s always more funny if it comes from the world. So that’s an opportunity not a concern. That place has such a unique and ridiculous way of talking—the lingo, the attitude, the fallback terms. All the inside baseball shit. I love it. We all do. And there are so many “jokes” that aren’t jokes at all. I was a big advocate of that opening speech the CEO gives at the party in the opening of the series. The one where he says something like: “I have seven words for you. I love Goolybib’s cross platform integrated functionality.” Or whatever it was. That was a joke that could only appear on our show. I think it really established the right vibe right off the bat.

Then for the second episode we realized we didn’t know what everyone in the company did. And if we needed to figure that out, so did the characters. And that became the story. For example, we had Dotan give us the language of the bitter and underappreciated coder, Gilfoyle. Jesus Christ, it was gibberish to us. But we knew it was right. It just felt right. And Martin Starr, the actor who plays Gilfoyle, just absolutely killed it. He was fantastic. Especially since he’s basically speaking an “alienese.” To this day, I honestly don’t know how the actors memorize lines sometimes.

Q: What’s the “carrot” of accuracy? Why should writers concern themselves with it as opposed to leaning into the pure fiction of it all?

TARVER: It’s absolutely crucial. You have to sense this stuff is right, otherwise the whole journey you’re asking the viewer to go on is kind of meaningless. What’s happening in the tech world right now is interesting enough on its own. It affects our lives, I think, more than movies or TV or music. Tech is the thing that is defining our age. There’s no reason to make this stuff up. It’s real.

Q: Okay, the white paper. “Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency.” Why’d you do it?

TARVER: That was a Dotan thing. He’s truly committed to showing what would really happen. And I think that’s so great. He literally had compression experts at Stanford write it. They claim we’re onto something. That if this could be actually figured out we’d all be rich.

Q: In the [Showtime series] “Californication,” the main character was a writer​ and the show released the actual book he’s portrayed as having written in the show. I heard it even sold okay. Do you see more meta-stuff coming out of “Silicon Valley”? Is there an audience “community” developing?

TARVER: Other than the white paper, our guys built a really solid website. Danny O’Keefe wrote all the character bios, which only he could do. They’re pretty genius. I’m sure we’ll do more stuff like that as it comes up. I know that [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg wore a Pied Piper T-shirt to work one day. That was a highlight.

Q: Final question. There’s clearly a love-hate thing going on regarding the people and the technology that inhabit the show, and there are no pure good guys or assholes. Can you tell me about what drew you to the subject​ and how you feel about its heroes and villains?

“The billionaires are obviously out of touch and have apparently no idea they’re out of touch. They haven’t really been called on the culty shit they’re peddling. That’s what our job is and I love being a part of it.”

TARVER: Well, the more I know about the world—and, again, it was nothing before I started writing on the show—the more I’m fascinated by the people who inhabit it. I love that these are all smart, creative people, and they’re from all over the world. There is an ethic of open-mindedness, freedom of expression, free thinking, etc. If you have a good idea, I truly believe you can be heard there. You can be a 50-year-old Indian woman and if you’re on to something people will hear your pitch. There’s still some hippie ethic that survives somehow in the Valley. And I think that’s great.

On the other hand, it’s ruthlessly capitalist. As hard core as it gets. And yet no one really wants to admit it. They turn themselves into pretzels in order to avoid admitting it. That’s why they shroud all their capitalism in “we’re making the world a better place.” And clearly a lot of the lucky few—talented, sure, but luckiest motherfuckers in the world to have lived during this unprecedented boom—believe their own hype. The billionaires are obviously out of touch and have apparently no idea they’re out of touch. They haven’t really been called on the culty shit they’re peddling. That’s what our job is and I love being a part of it.