Chances are good that you’ve seen a film that Dean Devlin has been involved in. Both by himself and together with director Roland Emmerich, Devlin has written and produced some of the biggest blockbuster films in the last fifteen years, including Stargate, Independence Day, the American version of Godzilla and The Patriot. More recently, he is responsible for The Librarian series of TV movies on TNT and now the ongoing series Leverage, where he has made his directorial debut. We recently spoke to Dean about his new show as well as the differences between the television and film industries.
PCZ: How did Leverage come about?
DD: I do a series of films for TNT called The Librarian. When I finished the second movie we were doing some promotion for it and Michael Wright from TNT said to me “When do we get a TV series out of you?” I said that the problem is the trend now, the style in television is to be very dark, kind of cold and procedural. While that makes for very compelling television it wasn’t something I was really interested in doing. He said “Well, what kind of show would you want to do?” and I said something more like a throwback to Mission Impossible or The Rockford Files. A mainstream, fun show the whole family can watch that isn’t being dumbed down. He said do you have any ideas? I said I’ve always wanted to do a show about high tech thieves who become modern day Robin Hoods. And he went “Sold!” So, suddenly we had to come up with a show. John Rogers and Chris Downey came up with this phenomenal script then everything took off from there.
PCZ: Did you have Timothy Hutton in mind all along or did that come about later?
DD: Well the truth of the matter is that when we sat down with the network they asked who we saw in the lead role and I said I don’t know, someone like a Tim Hutton type. They said why don’t you just ask Tim and I thought yeah right, we’re going to get an Oscar award winning actor in our little cable show. So, we pried him with a lot of alcohol and he woke up one morning with a signed contract, didn’t know how it happened and he had to do the show. (laughter)
PCZ: One of the dangers in casting someone like Timothy Hutton is you also have to cast people around him who are strong enough to keep up with him and you guys have done a great job with that.
DD: That’s one of the great advantages of working at TNT. If you watch their shows, they really bet on talent rather than just celebrities. In our modern age now you do a sex tape on the internet you’re a celebrity and you can get a TV series. They were very encouraging of us hiring actors. If you get really good actors you’re eighty percent of the way done.
PCZ: Did you go out and individually choose actors or have people in mind for the roles?
DD: A couple we did and a couple were discoveries. Gina had so blown me away in this mini-series called Jeckyll, I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to see it.
PCZ: Oh yeah, definitely!
DD: It’s my favorite mini-series in forever! So, I showed a clip of Gina to the head of TNT and he loved her in it, but he said to me “Dean, let’s just forget all the restrictions. If you had all the money in the world and you could get any single actress in the world to play this part, who’s your number one choice?” And I said Gina Bellman. So he said go get her. But other people, like Aldis Hodge, were a complete surprise to me.
PCZ: Yeah, where did you find him? He’s fantastic.
DD: I actually had another actor in mind completely for the role and I had made my mind up, I didn’t even want to read any other actor. John Rogers had read Aldis in another casting session. He said “Dean, I think you ought to see this kid.” And I went no, I know who I want. The day we were finally taking the actors to the network for approval John twisted my arm and said come in and read just a couple more people before we go in. I said fine. So he brought Aldis in and Aldis knocked it out of the park. There was just no question in my mind after he was done reading that this was the guy who had to play the part. We brought him into the network that day, the network was blown away by him, we told him he got the part and then we found out it was his twenty-first birthday. That was a pretty amazing day for him.
PCZ: I imagine so! Having a computer background I just wanted to say I appreciate you guys having plausible computer technology in the show.
DD: I’m so sick of this 1980’s version of the computer geek with the pocket protector and the broken glasses with the band-aid. In our modern day world the computer guy is the coolest guy in the room. That’s where the line comes from in the show, “We run the world.” (laughter)
“In our modern day world the computer guy is the coolest guy in the room.”
PCZ: You are known, obviously, for writing and producing some of the biggest blockbusters in the last fifteen years. Do you think that kind of large scope lends itself to Leverage?
DD: The things is our ambitions didn’t just shrink just because of our budget and the amount of time we had to do this in. So, it became the real challenge. We said we’re not willing to cut anything out of the script, but we don’t have enough money or time to do it, so how do we do it? What’s fabulous about that is it really forces you into old-fashioned filmmaking techniques. The problem with doing movies that cost one hundred fifty million dollars is you can always buy your way out of a problem. But when you have a cable television budget and seven days to shoot a show, you really have to be creative. I compare it to doing speed chess. It’s no less difficult than playing the grandmasters, but you have to do it in one tenth of the time.
PCZ: You directed the first two episodes. This was the first time you directed, right?
DD: It was. It was the first time I took the director’s chair.
PCZ: You’ve produced, you’ve written, you’ve acted. What did you learn or was it easy to slip into the director role?
DD: Again, in all honesty, I was just being a pig. I read the script and loved it so much I wasn’t about to let anyone else have it! (laughter) I hired myself! It’s such a horribly gluttonous thing to do, but I’ve been waiting my whole life to have material like this. I just wasn’t going to let go of it. And I was so blessed. I had this amazing cast, I had amazing writers, I had a phenomenal director of photography, the camera operator had done every one of my feature films. I had a phenomenal editor, phenomenal production designer… I was so surrounded by feature film quality talent. When you have that all around you all you really do is sit back with a cafe latte and yell “Action!” (laughter)
DD: My job was pretty easy. I had a lot of people that made me look good.
PCZ: Do you direct anymore this season?
DD: I direct five of the thirteen.
PCZ: Is the season set at thirteen episodes? Is there the possibility of more than that?
DD: On TNT thirteen is a full season.
PCZ: What kind of feedback have you gotten about the show so far?
DD: The reaction has been phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal. The testing was through the roof. We’ve been traveling the country doing these little screenings and the audience response has been amazing. The problem with television is whether you’ve made something good or not good has nothing to do with whether or not people tune in to watch it. We’re very confident that if people tune in they’re going to like it because the vast majority do, but will they tune in? That’s the big question that has all of us nervously grinding our fingers into our chairs.
PCZ: Do you think television still kind of has that stigma of “just being TV?”
DD: I think less and less. Years ago it used be that TV was the ugly step-child and was incredibly formulaic and movies were king. Well, with the rising cost of production and marketing a studio can live and die based on one movie. So now there’s huge pressure in movies to be more formulaic. When I was coming up in the movie industry you could do an original movie and have it be a big, giant movie. Today they don’t really want you to make a big movie unless it’s a remake or based on an old television show or a highly successful video game or highly successful children’s novel. There’s this pressure to be more formulaic. At the exact same time on television suddenly there’s five hundred channels on cable and satellite and they’re trying to get heard in all that noise. The only way to get noticed is to be more daring. So, we’ve watched this migration of some of the best writers in feature films moving into television. Also, some of the best actors and directors. I think it’s a very interesting time to do television because suddenly now we have the freedom in TV we used to have making feature films.
“When I was coming up in the movie industry you could do an original movie and have it be a big, giant movie. Today they don’t really want you to make a big movie unless it’s a remake or based on an old television show…”
PCZ: You’ve also been doing The Librarian series [of TV movies] for TNT.
DD: This is the last movie-of-the-week we’ll do. What we’re really hoping is that if the audience shows up for the third one then we’ll try to do the next one as a feature film.
PCZ: You’ve got both of these projects at TNT. How are they to work with as a network?
DD: These are the best partners I’ve ever had in my whole life. Their philosophy is we’re going to be very careful in what horse we bet on, but once we’ve bet on him we’re going to let the horse run. They don’t give notes just so they can feel like they were part of the process, they give notes when they feel very strongly about something. What’s great about that is then the notes you get are very intelligent. If you don’t agree with one of the notes you can actually have a discussion like grown-ups in a room talking about something. I’ve never had that before in my life, I’m telling ya. It’s completely unusual. The process became so supportive and so creative that what ends up happening is that all the writers, all the actors and all the directors suddenly want to do their best work to reward that kind of support. Instead of it being this constant conflict where you feel like you’re fighting them to make something good, now you find you’re fighting yourself to make something even better to reward them for all the support they’ve given you. It’s a remarkable situation.
PCZ: So far the episodes seem pretty self-contained, but will there be threads that play out over the season?
DD: There are character threads that go throughout. There’s a lot of shows that you have to watch every episode and some of them I really like. I’m a huge Brotherhood fan, but what I do find even with that show is if I miss the first two or three I end up thinking I’ll wait until the end of the year and buy the DVD’s. I kind of give up on it. We wanted to have a show where you could see the first one, the fourth one, the ninth one and you’re not lost at all. You know exactly what’s going on and it’s easy to follow. However, if you do watch each week then there will be some rewards because there will be these things that have an over-arching story. Things like the story of Tim Hutton and his son that will become clearer throughout the show. These characters, why they are as broken as they are slowly gets revealed over the course of the season. The more you watch it the more you can get that aspect of it, but if you missed it you will still understand any episode you watch.
PCZ: One of the traditions on TV is everything leading up to a big season finale cliffhanger. Do you do that or do you wrap everything up?
DD: That’s a hard question to answer, so I’ll put it this way. The biggest episodes are the two part season finale. We decided to approach this entire season with the assumption that we don’t get a second season. We want one! (laughter) We’re hoping we get one, but we said let’s not make a show where you don’t feel like you’ve had a complete meal. We really designed these thirteen to be a fulfilling season.
PCZ: That’s all the time I have. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me.
DD: I appreciate you talking to us. It’s hard to get heard in the noise and we appreciate it.