'The First': Executive producer Jordan Tappis beaks down the look, feel and sound of Hulu's Mars mission drama

In this detailed interview with Meaww, Jordan Tappis breaks down the sleek, futuristic look and feel of Hulu's Sean Penn-starring original drama series 'The First'.

                            'The First': Executive producer Jordan Tappis beaks down the look, feel and sound of Hulu's Mars mission drama

Hulu's original drama series 'The First' presents a unique perspective on the sci-fi space-faring genre. Created and executive produced by Beau Willimon (House of Cards), along with his producing partner Jordan Tappis under their Westward Production banner, the show takes place in the near future and follows the first human mission to Mars, exploring the challenges of taking the first steps toward interplanetary colonization.

But instead of hurrying straight into the exosphere, 'The First' takes its time firmly grounded to Earth as we delve deep into the characters who bring the show to life - focusing on the relationships between the crew, their families and loved ones and the trepidations of taking on an unprecedented journey. 

These rich, diverse characters are played by a star-studded cast, spearheaded by Sean Penn (in his first major TV role), who plays the battered and haggard Captain Tom Hagerty, who after the failure of the Providence 1 mission, is left with the tough choice of heading the following mission. Natascha McElhone plays Hagerty's boss Laz Ingram, the level-headed CEO of Vista, a SpaceX-like organization that runs the whole shebang. LisaGay Hamilton, Oded Fehr, Keiko Agena, James Ransone, Melissa George, and breakout star, Anna Jacoby-Heron round out the cast for the first season.

Sean Penn as Captain Tom Hagerty in Hulu's Mars mission drama 'The First'. (Image Source: IMDB/The First)
Sean Penn as Captain Tom Hagerty in Hulu's Mars mission drama 'The First'. (Image Source: IMDB/The First)

Set somewhere in the 2030s, one of the many great things about 'The First' is its sleek and futuristic design, characterized by subtle changes to everyday objects — cars, flashlights, eyeglasses, cigarettes and so on. To iron out the look and feel of the show accurately, showrunners Willimon and Tappis worked extensively with a group of technical consultants, including astronauts and engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In this interview with Meaww, executive producer and music supervisor Jordan Tappis discusses how they carved out the aesthetics of the show, researching past technologies to hypothesize what the near future might look like, the importance of Colin Stetson's score in the world-building of 'The First' and more. Read the full interview below.

Congratulations on the show. 'The First' has a beautiful look and feel and is a very interesting take on the sci-fi space genre. How did you (and Westward productions) get involved with the show? Did Beau Willimon approach you?

Thank you! 'The First' emanated out of a series of conversations Beau and I had over the course of a year.  Once we determined we had a viable multi-season story, we developed it for television in conjunction with our team at Westward Productions. Beau and I originally bonded over a mutual attraction to stories about human exploration and about people challenging the outer limits of their physical and mental capabilities. Journeys of all kinds—be it someone crossing an ocean or a desert or climbing a mountain—always seem to draw our attention. Space is a natural extension of that lifelong curiosity, and within our solar system, Mars is the ultimate challenge. 

You worked with several experts including astronauts and engineers from NASA’s JPL. What was the experience like? Did you learn any astounding facts that blew your mind?

Beginning in the developmental phase and then continuing on through prep and production, our creative team worked closely with a broad range of consultants whose myriad contributions would be difficult to overstate. Every technical element of 'The First' was conceived by Beau and rendered in close collaboration with the world's foremost experts in their given field. From former JPL director Charles Elachi and NASA / JPL’s Chief Engineer for the Mars 2020 project Adam Steltzner, to our astronaut consultants Chris Ferguson, Michael Lopez-Allegria, and Chris Hatfield, to our visionary quantitative futurist Amy Webb; each of our consultants made sure our show, though a work of fiction, was fastidious in terms of its technical accuracy.

Jordan Tappis, executive producer and music supervisor of Hulu's 'The First'. (Photo credit: Taylor Aikins)
Jordan Tappis, executive producer and music supervisor of Hulu's 'The First'. (Photo credit: Taylor Aikins)

The show is set somewhere in the 2030s. The futuristic look is very subtle and chic. You consulted a futurist for the production design. What exactly does a futurist do and how did the input influence the look and feel of the show?

It took years of research and dozens of real-world consultants and experts to help us flesh out what the near future would look like and how everyday technology would function within our world. Before we looked forward, however, we decided to look back. Season 1 of 'The First' takes place 13 years from now and yet we began the process of future prediction by analyzing what the world looked like 13 years ago. We studied medical technology, smart home tech, cars, phones, computers, wearables, architecture, and fashion and we found that many of the most practical, widely used and visible technological advancements between 2005 and 2018 had to do with cars and communication. Once that analysis was complete our next challenge was to imagine the leap between 2018 and 2031, and for the most part, we honed in on those same two fields: cars and coms. With the help of our extraordinarily talented art department, we developed several autonomous electric vehicles and a suite of interactive AR wearables in the form of glasses and earbuds to tell the story of 2031. Most of our near future communication predictions, while subtle, incorporate broad scale voice activation, augmented reality (vision) and bone conduction technology (sound) along with a sweeping range of environmental smart tech all of which are in early phases of real-world development today. 


Just curious - how were the Zero-G shots in episode 8 filmed? Many sci-fi films employ different techniques I hear. From something as rudimentary as wires to filing in ‘vomit comets’ to very sophisticated CGI. How did you guys do it on the show?

Mystery meat! 

A still from the show. (Image Source: Imdb/ The First)
A still from the show. (Image Source: Imdb/ The First)

Season 1 spent a lot of time grounded on Earth as we got comfy with the characters. Can we expect to see more of space and Mars in the second season? 

Absolutely, unequivocally, unwilling to discuss season 2 other than to say it will both deliver on and subvert your expectations…

You’re also the Music Supervisor for the show. How was working with Colin Stetson? What were you guys going for with the sonic feel of the show?

Colin Stetson was the first decision made when we began putting together the team for 'The First'. There was no debate. His prodigious creative spirit aligned perfectly, in tone and substance, with the world we were building for our inaugural season. Colin's resulting score plays as significant a role as any other creative element in the series. As Beau likes to say, “More than anything, it was Colin Stetson’s music that inspired the creation of 'The First'. His compositions and performance style were unlike anything I had ever heard. They take you on a vast journey, both epic and intimate.” The man is a revelation.

Seems like music is a fond subject for you. You’ve done two documentaries on Ozzy and directed ‘Johnny Cash: American Rebel’. 

I’ve been making films most of my life.  My first short, when I was in junior high, was about a legendary band called Doom who regroups after years of obscurity to play one final show. The majority of the films I’ve produced or directed since then have been rooted in music. Growing up, my mom introduced me to science and my dad introduced me to music. 'The First' is a merger of my two great loves and I just feel so damn grateful. 

I found that you used silence as a very effective tool during tense scenes throughout the show. Was that a conscious choice - to keep the score so minimal?

Thanks. Yeah, I can’t fully articulate just how much Beau and I appreciate silence.  In many ways, 'The First' is an exercise in restraint and Colin’s music, along with our minimalistic sound design and mix all played a crucial yet subtle role in the show's tone.

I also didn’t find too many licensed tracks from the show. Is it because the show is set in the near future and you didn’t want to include tracks from the distant past or am I reading too much into it!? 

The score is without a doubt the dominant musical personality in 'The First', yet Stetson's kaleidoscope of sound is periodically punctuated by a few key syncs, many of which are from artists with a direct connection to New Orleans such as Alex Ebert, Jack Teagarden, Shaye Cohen, Clifton Chenier, and Jackson Square All-Stars. In many ways, New Orleans itself is a character in 'The First' and we wanted the sounds of the city to be accurately represented throughout season 1.