Interview with Leverage creators

4 December 2008
by R.A. Porter

This fall has not been a great season for TV. New shows have been painful letdowns, old shows have come up short, and the few standouts have either been canceled – Pushing Daisies – or ended their runs in heart stopping fashion like The Shield. So even when something’s been great, we won’t be seeing it any longer.1

Into that vast wasteland comes a breath of fresh, stylish air on TNT. Leverage marks the return of the superstar thief to the airwaves to fight back the onslaught of reality programming and forensic procedurals. You can read my preview here. It’s a tight, snappy show with a stellar cast having a lot of fun with what they’re doing. Which makes it a great change of pace from a lot of the somber and downright glum people littering the dial.

I was able to ask the creators a few questions about the show. I hope you enjoy their answers as much as I did.

John Rogers: Showrunner, Creator

DreamLoom: How did the Leverage pilot come about? Did you and Chris have the idea and pitch it to Dean Devlin, or did he have the premise?

John Rogers: It was a weird bit of synchronicity, actually. While Dean was developing the latest installment of his Librarian franchise for TNT, they asked him for a series. He said he always wanted to do a heist show. They said “sold!” — but Dean didn’t really have more than that.

At the same time, Chris and I were having beers one night, and discussing how most of the recent TV heist and con shows had failed because they were too serialized and gritty. It seems like we want to see the magic trick in our con shows, get the payoff every week. Basically, what happened to The Rockford Files, and It Takes a Thief, and Switch and Mission: Impossible? We started tossing around ideas for such a show…

…and the very next day, Dean and I had lunch. Total coincidence. We joined forces and moved forward together from that point on as partners.

DL: TV or movies? You’ve got a mix on your resume and I’m sure your accountant is happy the WGA’s awarded you a credit on Catwoman and Transformers, but in your ideal world, which would be your preference?

JR: I wouldn’t be so sure I’m happy about the WGA awarding me the credit on Catwoman

It’s a tough call. With film you have much larger budgets, a manageable story space – but you spend a lot of time in development. You spend more time talking about doing your job than actually doing your job. So I have to say TV eases ahead. The writer has more power, you actually shoot the script instead of sending it off for two years of rewrites – and in particular, TNT has been an amazing creative partner. Almost no interference. So TV in general, and this relationship in particular takes first place.

DL: This is a long, meandering question. Sorry.

I would assume your background as a standup has helped you learn to hone dialog for greatest impact, but do you feel your background in physics helps at all?

Let me clarify. The two writer-bloggers whose writing on writing I most appreciate are you and Alex Epstein. You have your degree in physics, Alex has his in CS. I dropped out of my physics program in my final semester and ended up getting a degree in CS instead. It seems likely my affinity for the two of you is a product of a more analytical worldview and embrace of process. Do you think your education leads you to write and run a writers’ room in a certain way?

JR: I’ll let my writers, who stare in horror at my colored pens, index cards, and structural fractals answer that question.

Oh yeah. I always attack a script from a very problem-solving approach. A hero has a problem. We want a certain solution. What are the reasonable – or creatively unreasonable – approaches the hero might take? Do they lead, inexorably, to a different solution than the one we anticipated? A TV story in particular is a complex beast, with act structure, budget and shooting schedule added into the mix.

DL: I’ve gathered you guys are using a mix of locations and sets. As the EP, how cognizant are you of the costs involved, and how much does that impact the way your scripts are written? From the first two episodes, it looks like you’re willing to go where the story takes you, and I know you did a good deal of location shooting in Chicago for the pilot. Are you are using standing sets much, or sticking a couple bottle shows in the mix to save money?

JR: Well, the problem with a con/heist show is, we can’t really bring people to our offices to con them. We have to go into their world. Plus, exploring those “worlds” is part of the appeal of a wish-fulfillment show like ours. For example, in “The Two Horse Job”, we go to Kentucky and get hip-deep in the bloodstock agent business, the business of tracking the bloodlines of racehorses, as they do with royal families. Finding out cool details about that unseen side of the sport is part of the fun.

That said, you have to remember there’s no studio here. Dean is financing the show himself through his production company. So hell yeah I’m cognizant of the costs – if we go over, I’m not sticking it to some faceless corporation, I’m risking a very good friend’s frikkin’ house. We definitely balanced out some of the bigger shows with some more bottle-y eps. For example, we had an old courtroom set from another show stored in our soundstage. That led to a “counter-heist the jury” episode “The Juror Number Six Job.” Which turned out to be great.

DL: Who’s crazier: the guy who created the Goa’uld, or Warren Ellis?

JR: Warren is insane, not crazy. There’s a difference. Dean, however, just shot an entire season of television basically on spec. He is fucking crazy.

DL: Who wins in a fight: Eliot Spencer or Angel?

JR: Chris Kane says Eliot could kick Lindsey’s ass, Lindsey nearly beat Angel, so I’ll go with Eliot.

DL: Totally off-topic, but quick: do you think Jaime is going to stick, or do you think DC will give into fanboy pressure and eventually re-resurrect Ted Kord?2

JR: They’ll bring back Ted, but that doesn’t mean Jaime won’t stick. He’s in the cartoon, in other books – they’ll just reboot the legacy with both of them present, I think.

DL: Finally, since I brought up comics, here’s a question I often ask when interviewing software engineers. Who wins in a fight: Hulk or Superman? How?3

JR: Superman. Brains always beats brawn, and they define “win” differently in that fight. I anticipate sub-orbital punching.

Chris Downey: EP, Creator

DL: Your first writing credit is for an episode of Cosby. How did that come about? Were you an assistant on staff, or was that a freelance script?

Chris Downey: I was actually working as a criminal defense attorney in New York when I was hired as a staff writer on Cosby. I was writing screenplays at night and wrote a few spec sitcom scripts as well. Around this time, Norman Steinberg, an old family friend, was hired to take over Cosby and knew I was trying to become a TV or feature writer. Norman (also a former lawyer) liked my specs and hired me. It was very much a case of right place, right time. And I didn’t even have to move to LA because Bill Cosby insisted the show tape in New York!

DL: How long were you working in the trenches before you made your first sale? And how many specs had you written and tossed before that point?

CD: Oh boy. Before I was hired on Cosby I wrote three full-length features with another lawyer friend. I also wrote three spec sitcoms scripts on my own – a Mad About You, a Friends and a NewsRadio. (This was 1995 back when NBC had lots of successful sitcoms on the air). I would say that the Friends was terrible, the NewsRadio was okay and the Mad About You was pretty good. So, to answer your question, it was probably four years before I actually started getting paid.

DL: Your writing and producing background is, even more so than John’s, focused on sitcoms. What challenges do you find in an hour-long show that didn’t occur to you before you started working on it?

CD: There are lots. Too many to mention here. But the biggest challenge is that the pre-production is much, much more involved in a one hour than a sitcom. There is a solid week of meetings and location scouts that have to happen before you shoot a frame of a one hour. A sitcom could pretty much be written over the weekend and then shot on a Thursday or Friday without missing a beat. That is because sitcoms take place primarily on existing sets on a soundstage and rarely go on location (I am talking about a multi-camera sitcom here. Single camera shows, like 30 Rock, have more in common with a one hour.) Of course, the re-writing process in sitcoms is much more extensive than a one hour. After a Monday table read the entire script could be re-written over the course of the next four days with one all-nighter after another. A one hour the script is pretty much written in stone by the time you start shooting.

DL: Please describe your writers’ room and the process there. I’ve read John’s blogs on it, but I’m curious to hear about it from another perspective.

CD: I don’t know how much more I could add to John’s exhaustive blogging on the subject but I will say we have a terrific room. Everyone comes prepared. We are all on the same page about what the show is. And having a relatively inexperienced staff (we have four staff writers — the entry level position) everyone is really enthusiastic. You can’t say our room is jaded.

DL: How much have the actors changed your impressions of the characters you created? What has the evolution of the characters been like?

CD: I think that John and I thought the character of Nate (Timothy Hutton) was going to be the master planner, calling the shots from the HQ like Peter Graves in Mission: Impossible. But Tim really took to actively playing parts in the cons so his character evolved accordingly. Christian Kane’s character of Eliot was conceived as a very precise, Zen-like tough guy. But Christian showed such a flair for the comedy we wrote to that. But Beth’s character of Parker probably went through the biggest evolution. She was conceived as someone with a social disorder, very uncomfortable around people, not giving eye contact. Beth was fantastic playing that. But the actress happens to be incredibly charming and winning and it was really impossible to keep that out of the show. My personal feeling is that in television, eventually every actor ends up playing themselves. It’s best not to fight it.

DL: In addition to a stellar cast, you’ve had some great guest stars. How much fun has it been writing for people like Saul Rubinek and Robert Pine and Mark Sheppard?

CD: We were incredibly lucky with all our guest casts. Saul is an old friend of Tim’s and really elevated the pilot. The biggest risk you have with villains is that they have no personality. And that is one problem Saul does not have. Mark Sheppard is a complete pro. In “The 12-Step Job,” one of our last episodes, he contributed a ton of ideas to a really tricky scene he was in. But I think we really hit a home run with the guest cast in an episode I wrote, “The Wedding Job.” Getting Dan Lauria and Nicole Sullivan as our quasi-Tony and Carmela Soprano was really a dream cast.

DL: I’m asking John and Dean, so you get this one too. Who wins in a fight: Hulk or Superman? How?

CD: The Hulk. Is this even a question anymore?

Dean Devlin: EP, Director, CEO of Electric Entertainment

DL: This is your new company’s first series. Were you at all worried that jumping in as a first-time director on the pilot was increasing the level of difficulty too much?

Dean Devlin: I try not to think about all the foolish things I get myself into. I think if I did, I’d never get half of what we’ve accomplished done. It was daunting but exhilarating. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a year as challenging as this last one. I think that’s why it’s been so rewarding.

DL: You did a great job with it, by the way. Stylish and crisp. Besides Roland Emmerich, who are your influences behind the camera?

DD: Obviously I mentored under Roland Emmerich for 12 years, so he’s clearly been a big influence. But on this particular project, I think I was mostly influenced by the direction of some of the television programs coming out of England. Steven Moffat’s mini-series Jekyll was a huge influence on me visually and staging. I also fell madly in love with the British version of Life on Mars. I was watching both religiously shortly before I took on directing the pilot for Leverage, so they set a very high bar for me and influenced the visual direction of the show.

DL: There’s a lot of money ending up on the screen. What are you doing differently from other producers and small studios that lets you be that efficient?

DD: Since we’re financing the deficit of the show ourselves (no studio involved) we’re able embrace a lot of cutting edge techniques that would have been shut down at the mere suggestion if we were in a more conventional situation. As a small company, and with so few voices influencing the direction of the show, we’re able to create a lot of efficiencies. But probably the biggest advantage is the fact that we’re a completely digital show. We shot the pilot with the GENESIS camera, and we’ve shot the entire series on the RED ONE camera and the Sony EX1. These cameras record to hard disks that are brought over to our facility and downloaded onto our master servers. From there, every department in our building accesses the material from the same source drives. That included editorial, sound FX, sound editing, visual FX, color correction, looping, ADR and the final sound mix. This streamlined workflow really allows us to put as much money as possible up on the screen.

DL: You already had a relationship established with TNT through the Librarian movies. Did you come to them with Leverage, or did they ask for something in the light-adventure realm?

DD: We’ve been making a series of movies for TNT called The Librarian. It’s been a widely successful partnership, both in the ratings of the shows as well as an incredibly successful creative partnership with the network. We absolutely love working together. After the second Librarian movie was finished, Michael Wright at TNT asked me, “when are we getting a series from you?” I quickly replied, “Ok, what do you think about the idea of a group of high tech thieves working together as modern day Robin Hoods?” Just as quickly he said, “Sold!”.

Coincidentally, John Rogers and Chris Downey were working on an idea to bring back the great heist shows of the 60’s and 70’s back to life. The next day John Rogers and I had lunch. I was so thrilled that this was an arena he was already excited about. So we joined forces and John and Chris wrote this fantastic script. As soon as I read it, I quickly decided that I just had to direct it.

DL: Writing, producing, acting, or directing: which gives you the most satisfaction as a creator?

DD: It’s really a project by project thing. If the material is personal to me, then I really enjoy writing it. If I’m working with a director who really inspires me, then Producing is an absolute joy. And now that I’ve been directing a show with such incredible scripts, that’s been fantastic. Acting…well, that I’m glad I’ve left behind me.

DL: There aren’t many jobs left you haven’t tackled in Hollywood. Is there any job left you’d really like to try? Maybe scoring a show?

DD: I’m really enjoying telling stories. Whether that’s on television, the movie theater, the Internet or in a game, it doesn’t really matter. Whether I’m the director, writer or producer doesn’t matter either. It’s the process of telling stories that excite me that turns me on. I’m just very grateful that we’re in a position where we can continue to tell the stories we love and to work with other artists and craftsmen who inspire me.

DL: You’re in a strange position on this show, being a hyphenate with both purse string and day-to-day responsibilities depending on the episode. How do you balance the competing pressures to do it all as cheaply as possible with doing it all?

DD: Yeah, I get into a lot of arguments with myself. The bad news is I lose every argument. But the good news is that I win every argument as well. Seriously, it’s not as difficult as it sounds. I know the limitations we have as far as time and money, so the entire focus for me and for our entire team is “how do we make the best possible show given the cards we’ve been dealt.”

DL: I’m asking this one of John and Chris as well, so please bear with me. Who wins in a fight: Hulk or Superman? How?

DD: My answer is Superman. Not for any real thought out reasoning. It’s just that Bryan Singer is a good friend of mine, so I gotta back the horse he rode.4

R.A. Porter is an aspiring television writer who currently toils away in the software mines. He can be found at Sketch War, Tumblr, and stalked on Twitter.
  1. Yes, I know there’s still Friday Night Lights. And, um…what else? []
  2. Sorry to the non-comics readers out there. This one’s just for us nerds. []
  3. Seriously. I ask about half my candidates this question. There is a reason. []
  4. No software engineering candidate has ever answered with that rationale! []

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posted by R.A. Porter in → Interviews

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