Citadel writer David Weil on Amazon’s spy thriller: ‘It's a symphony – so many instruments are being played’

Writer David Weil discusses Amazon Prime Video's Citadel, collaborating with the Russo brothers on a drama about the FTX scandal, and more

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“It’s one of the biggest shows Amazon is doing,” says David Weil, discussing Citadel. He’s right: the spy thriller, developed for Amazon Prime Video by Joe and Anthony Russo, filmed all around the world and commanded a budget of over $300 million. It’s said to be one of the most expensive television series ever made – second only to The Rings of Power – and is at the forefront of Amazon’s plans to build a new franchise from the ground up, with a number of different spinoffs already in development. 

The series follows Mason Kane (Richard Madden) and Nadia Sinh (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), two elite Citadel agents who have their memories wiped and identities suppressed when the global spy agency falls – but must dig deep to reclaim their past lives when an old threat resurfaces nearly a decade later.

Weil, who acts as showrunner on Citadel, recently sat down with NationalWorld’s Alex Moreland to discuss the series ahead of its release. Weil discusses some of the challenges involved in bringing Citadel to life, from the complexity of the script to the scale of its action, and explains how he navigates his creative role as a writer with his technical responsibilities as a producer. He also points to some of the influences he and the Russos drew upon when developing a new piece of spy fiction, and highlights what he thinks makes Citadel stand apart from what people have seen before.

Weil then went on to discuss his upcoming dramatization of the FTX scandal – another collaboration with the Russos for Amazon Prime Video – and shared his thoughts on the current negotiations between the Writers Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, explaining his perspective as a screenwriter who has so far worked primarily in streaming. 

So, you came to Citadel a little later, you joined when production had already started [replacing original showrunners Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec]. I was wondering if you could tell us a little about how you got involved with the show – did you know the Russos already, or was it through your existing relationship with Amazon?

Yeah, it was through Amazon. I've had a wonderful, long relationship with Amazon – they’ve been my creative family for Hunters and Solos – and we have a deal together, so they brought me on. Through that process, I met the incredible Joe and Anthony Russo, and have just had the time of my life collaborating with them, and with Richard and Priyanka and Stanley, in this really resplendent world of Citadel.

Just off the back of that, I’m curious about some of the ways the show might’ve changed when you came on board? You might not necessarily be able to get into this too much, so maybe just in a very general sense, where do you see your voice and your contributions shining through would you say?

It’s such a massive collaboration – it's one of the biggest shows that Amazon is doing – and so just having a fresh perspective and fresh eyes is key to any creative process. Coming in, I think I was able to serve almost in those initial days and weeks as those fresh eyes – as the audience, right? What is an audience? What would they respond to? What would they understand? What’s working? 

So that was really a thrill, just to continue to hammer home the notion of character first, character forward: with these delicious, incredible characters Mason Kane and Nadia Sinh, ensuring that their stories were serviced was really key, you know? There was so much incredible work already done, for me to come on board, I think it got even more special and exciting – but it really was such a team effort. That's what made it so rich, and so unique.

Richard Madden as Mason Kane and Priyanka Chopra Jonas as Nadia Sinh in Citadel, preparing for a fight in a train carriage (Credit: Amazon Prime Video)Richard Madden as Mason Kane and Priyanka Chopra Jonas as Nadia Sinh in Citadel, preparing for a fight in a train carriage (Credit: Amazon Prime Video)
Richard Madden as Mason Kane and Priyanka Chopra Jonas as Nadia Sinh in Citadel, preparing for a fight in a train carriage (Credit: Amazon Prime Video)

When you’re working on something like Citadel, where there are pieces in place already, is your approach to writing particularly different to something like Hunters or Solos?

Yeah, it's such a different challenge, and that's one of the things that intrigued me so much about Citadel. Normally I'm faced with a blank page, and so we had a flex different creative muscles in this process. They were equally rewarding, right, [but this was] like how can certain things evolve? Or how can we take something that's fantastic and iterate on it, and maybe blow it up even more, and make it better? It's something I've learned especially from Joe and Anthony – they're constantly thinking about how to keep pushing boundaries, how to keep making character stories more resonant. That what keeps me up at night on anything I do, on Hunters, Solos, Invasion, and Citadel. It’s really just how to continue to better the story, ensuring that an audience will be tracking it, that we'll be falling in love with the characters in the way that we feel we are. Always keeping audience top of mind is pretty key and has been key to this journey.

So, you’re an executive producer on Citadel. I’m curious how you balance the demands of that alongside writing – are you ever sat there typing, you know, EXT: MOUNTAIN RANGE and then a little voice goes “hang on, that’s another hundred thousand dollars”?

[Laughs] It's a constant battle. I allow myself, and I've learned this over a number of shows, to just have freedom on the page – not to self-edit or self-censor, to just have freedom on the page. It's how I can tell the best story. What I would say is that I then put my producer hat on, or my executive producer hat or my showrunner hat, and say “How are we going to do this? How are the actors going to get there on this day? How much time will they have to do the scene?” All these technical and logistical questions begin to come flooding in. 

But what I also love is there are two or three processes to the writing: there's the initial creation, then there's the revision process, and then there's the production process, and the production process always creates great limitations and challenges. I often find, genuinely, that the most interesting scenes, or the most interesting emotional beats, come from those limitations and challenges. “All right, we can't go here, we can't do this. What are we going to do? We have five days to shoot this thing or or to write something new, what are we going to do?” That's when, in those key moments, that I think some of the most inspired ideas come through out of necessity. I love that, and I always leave myself and the work open to those new discoveries and new inventions. So I actually love that that synergy, it's like one hat complements the other.

Are there any examples of that you can share? Maybe a big set-piece that looked touch and go for a while, something where you were pleased with whatever workaround you came up with to eventually achieve it? 

Totally: the train sequence at the very beginning. I mean, it's such a battle royale, right? In so many ways, I think it's a symphonic piece, in the sense that there are many different instruments being played. There's incredibly rich, dramatic acting between Richard and Priyanka, great seduction at play with such humour and charm. Then there's the language of the action and the action set piece – which is its own instrument and sound – there's grand production value, there's a lot of mythology and exposition that has to be unleashed and unloaded. That to me was such an immense challenge, both from a storytelling point of view and also a production point of view. How do we make this look grand and great and real? I'm really proud of the expression of that that we've realized on screen.

Richard Madden as Kyle Conroy in Citadel, looking at a picture of Nadia Sinh and trying to remember his life as Mason Kane (Credit: Prime Video)Richard Madden as Kyle Conroy in Citadel, looking at a picture of Nadia Sinh and trying to remember his life as Mason Kane (Credit: Prime Video)
Richard Madden as Kyle Conroy in Citadel, looking at a picture of Nadia Sinh and trying to remember his life as Mason Kane (Credit: Prime Video)

What you’re saying there about the mythology and exposition – there’s a lot of moving pieces in Citadel. You’re dealing with all these characters in different locations and timezones, there are all these twists and turns in terms of who knows what when. Was that difficult to keep track of?

Oh, my God, it's near impossible. [laughs] The timelines, the identities, the truths and the secrets that any character knows at a certain time – these are spies, so they're born liars, they're paid liars. Are they lying to the audience? Are they lying to each other? Are they lying to themselves? Working with Richard and Priyanka, every day when they came to set [discussing] “what does this character know at this moment? What are the secrets of their holding? What persona are they playing? What percentage of Mason is within him, and what percentage of Kyle is within him?” It takes artists and actors with great capacity to be able to balance all of that and to really pull that off.

So, I was so impressed by Richard and by Priyanka, their approach and their dedication and their discipline in ensuring that, you know, if you go back and rewatch the show, or if we were to edit the show into chronological order, that you would really see such a sound arc for these characters and for the story.

When it comes to spy stories, what’s your immediate frame of reference? I’m curious what those influences on Citadel might’ve been, both in terms of what you might’ve borrowed and what you might’ve wanted to deliberately break away from.

Totally. I mean, Bond, you know? Bond, Mission Impossible, Bourne – I wish I could say, like, some obscure spy thriller, but the truth is I grew up on the movies that I think the world really has fallen in love with. To me, what is so unique about Citadel is not only the opportunity to tell a story in six parts over nearly five or six hours, [but] to get to go home with the spies. You get to see them when they're not at work, you get to see the flaws and depths and dimensions in a way that sometimes a two-and-a-half-hour film may not allow. But I also think, you know, you talk about Bond, Bourne, Mission Impossible, those are all white western male leads at the centre of it. What would also set Citadel apart is that we have a spy duo at the centre of this – I would say that Nadia Sinh really propels so much of the storytelling, so much of the action. To have an Indian spy and an American spy working together, it's just so modern and it's so different and it's so exciting. I hope that more spy stories begin to reflect the world around us in that way.

Just to pick up on that and that relationship: Nadia is very much a mentor to that Mason Kane character. Is there ever a worry as to how much she has a story of her own, and how much it’s ‘just’ in service to his arc?

It's about finding that balance of allowing them to be the heroes of their own stories, but then also [allowing] this relationship to be almost the third character in the piece, the third lead character. What's unique about Nadia’s journey is that we play it cards down, right, whereas we play Mason’s story cards up for the audience. Sometimes, when you have a character who, as a writer, you want to cloak their true intentions or cloak the secrets that they may be harbouring, you're not able to show the audience as much [of them]. But in time – you know, you've seen the first three episodes – in time, I think an audience will be rewarded for their patience, where they will be able to uncover the secrets of each of these characters. 

Anthony and Joe Russo, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Richard Madden, and David Weil at an LA press event for Citadel (Credit: Masha Maltsava/Prime Video)Anthony and Joe Russo, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Richard Madden, and David Weil at an LA press event for Citadel (Credit: Masha Maltsava/Prime Video)
Anthony and Joe Russo, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Richard Madden, and David Weil at an LA press event for Citadel (Credit: Masha Maltsava/Prime Video)

Your next project is a dramatisation of the FTX scandal. There’s a Citadel connection there, too, with the Russos as executive producers on that as well. How’s that coming along so far, and how’s your working relationship developed across the two series?

It's amazing. They are indefatigable, they're unstoppable, they never sleep. They're so brilliant, kind and creative, and I've learned so much from them, you know? I want to do everything with them, I want to do so much with them. Getting them back on this FTX series has been such a [dream]. We're working away, we're hard at work – it is such an incredibly insane true story, so it's a really special tone with that piece. They’re such colourful characters, where only the truth is really stranger than fiction. But we're very, very bullish and excited about it.

By the time this piece publishes, the vote will have taken place, but I’m curious what your thoughts are on the current negotiations between the WGA and the AMPTP, and the potential for a strike? 

I mean, I think every writer, we're all just really grateful for the Guild – really grateful to be a member of the Guild, where collective bargaining can ensure that writers have a living wage, that they can actually pay the rent, and that writing is a career and not just part of the gig economy. It's key – I think especially with these mini rooms – that writers are paid what they're due, and what they're owed. 

My hope is that there will be a deal to the to be made. That my hope, because it all starts on the page, right? Everything in this process starts with the writer. I think what the Guild is asking is just for that to be recognised and honoured and for people – really genuinely, I mean, you see the stories that are out there and writers that I've worked with as well, they just want a living wage – to really be able to pay their bills and to have one career and that career being writing.

Just to draw it all to a close, then: what do you hope people take from the show?

Just wish fulfilment. You know, I think this is a show that is so delicious in so many ways, it's mesmerising in so many ways: there's great Shakespearean drama at the centre of it, then there's incredible action sequences that only the Russo brothers and AGBO could pull off. This is something that, normally, people would watch in a movie theatre, but to get to see it in their own living room? I think it's very exciting. It’s a thrill ride! It's a bullet train.

I spoke to Joe and Priyanka yesterday, and they were talking about Citadel as something that pushes a lot of technical and creative boundaries – do you think that’ll come across for audiences? 

I agree with Joe and Pri, this does push so many technical boundaries. But also, you know, what I would [point to] is the global reach of this series: we're building brand new IP, and we're building it with creators around the world. Creatives in India and Italy, together we're holding hands and constructing this large tapestry of a mythology and of a storytelling universe. That's really never been done before, so I'm psyched for people to watch the US series on April 28, and then hopefully next year the Italian series, and then—

Series 2?

Yeah, I hope so! I hope so. That would be really very exciting. [Either way] I think an audience is really going to love it.

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