Tag: tnt

‘Leverage’ Interview II: Talking With Dean Devlin

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.

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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)

PCZ: Exactly!

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.

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Review: ‘Leverage’ – “The Homecoming Job”

Much like the premiere episode of Leverage did a great job of introducing us to the main characters, the second episode handles setting up the basic setting of the series. Essentially, Nathan Ford (Timothy Hutton) has used most of his cut from the pilot to establish Leverage Consulting & Associates, complete with fake history dating back several decades and state of the art offices. This gives the team the cover of a consulting business and a base of operations from which to plan and hatch their latest caper. First case: take on the U. S. Government. Well, sort of.

Ford decides to reunite the team to help a Reservist wounded by what is being called friendly-fire from a private military contractors in Iraq. This incident also claimed the life of his buddy. Utilizing thier own unique talents, Sophie Devereaux (Gina Bellman), Eliot Spencer (Christian Kane), Parker (Beth Riesgraf), Alec Hardison (Aldis Hodge) and Ford slowly begin to uncover a conspiracy of greed.

This second episode, written by John Rogers and Chris Downey and directed by Dean Devlin, is a strong outing and effectively builds upon the premiere. The team’s raison d’ĂȘtre is convincingly established. The fact that they gelled very well in the pilot and genuinely seem to like and work well with each other makes there coming back together as a team not forced at all. The dialogue is very snappy and the pacing and plotting are tight. I applaud the production team for tackling a headline-ripping, timely subject with grace and dignity. They don’t weigh in on the Iraq itself, merely show the dangerous mixture of greed and guns in an already intense environment. All of this creates an entertaining hour of television that provides a great stand-alone story that leaves you wanting more. Leverage has been added to my weekly must-watch list.

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‘Leverage’ Interview I: Chatting With Gina Bellman

In the first of two interviews for the new series Leverage we had the pleasure of speaking to Gina Bellman. Gina has had a string of high profile and highly acclaimed roles on British television. Best know for playing aloof Jane Christie for four series of Coupling she also showed she could deftly handle drama in the 2007 BBC show Jekyll. Now audiences in the U. S. are lucky to see her in the new TNT series Leverage. Enjoy this interview and check back Thursday for our interview with series producer Dean Devlin.

PCZ: You are a very successful British actress. What steps lead you to being on Leverage?

GB: Step one of any project is reading the script. I’d done Coupling where I played a real high comedy character. Then a couple of years ago I was on a very dark show called Jekyll. When I read Leverage what I loved about it, apart from conceptually, was that it sort of married both those girls, the comedy and the drama, and it would be a real challenge for me. I hadn’t really come across a TV script that did those as successfully as this script. I knew that it was Dean Devlin’s project and I knew that he was known for big production values so I knew that it would have that element. Then I heard that Timothy Hutton was involved and then it was a no-brainer.

PCZ: Would you say that the character of Sophie Devereaux follows the pattern you’ve had of the quirky, offbeat, non-mainstream characters?

GB: Yeah, I mean I think the most interesting characters are the sort of outsiders and the people that surprise you. My character in Jekyll was supposed to be this generic wife character in the beginning and then she was the surprise element. But in terms of playing quirky, I don’t think you can ever play quirky. I think that’s a mistake. If you start playing kooky then you’re kind of cheating the audience, I feel. So, I don’t think I’d put Sophie in those terms. I think she’s funny in her behavior, but she’s incredibly serious about what she does. She’s very professional about grifting and stealing and she’s ambitious and wants to be the best in the world at it. Then she has this massive payoff and needs to find a different thrill and a different sense of excitement. When Timothy’s character recruits the team she’s curious about what that would feel like, to help people and feel less mercenary.

PCZ: It seems like it would be an interesting challenge in that you have to play Sophie as herself, Sophie acting badly and Sophie acting as several different characters to do whatever scam the team has going on. Do you have a chart to keep track of which facet you’re playing?

GB: No, I don’t even have a chart to keep track of who I am! Again, Sophie thinks she’s a great actress because she doesn’t know she’s terrible. There’s one episode where the gang have gone to see her in a play and they’re all just completely paralyzed with fear about what to say to her. No matter how they phrase it, she takes every comment as a compliment. She’s so overexcited that they loved her performance and thought she was terrific when actually what they’re really saying is it was completely unpalatable. What I love about the character is she doesn’t see any difference between when she’s pulling off a con brilliantly or when she’s playing Lady MacBeth and that was a lot of fun to play.

PCZ: Along those lines have the other characters, or even the audience for that matter, seen the real Sophie?

gina-bellmanGB: I don’t think we ever see the real Sophie in the first season. We see elements of her. We don’t even know if that’s her name. The characters don’t even know if that’s her name. What’s terrific about this season apart from the different cons is the fact that it’s self contained and a different movie every week. What I love about the series on top of that is these characters only reveal themselves very slowly. They take one step forward, one step back. They’re all sort of orphans in a way. They sort of reveal themselves to each other, they start taking on each other’s skills, it becomes an exercise in trust really. The characters reveal themsleves through the writing instead of us having a template of who they are.

PCZ: Your character and Timothy Hutton’s character obviously have at least encountered each other in the past.

GB: They definitely have a history. He’s been chasing her for years. He knows her next move before she even knows it herself. But we all made a conscious decision, we didn’t want to rush into any resolutions with any of these characters. What really develops between Tim’s character and mine is a friendship in the first season in the sense that they can’t trust each other. She’s a criminal and he’s been on the moral high ground for so long investigating criminals. She’s been running from him for so long and has been so mercenary for so long. We haven’t taken it to a really formulaic place where they’re suddenly involved in this very passionate romance, instead we’ve taken it to a much more interesting place where they’re exploring trust and friendship. That has its problems, too. There’s quite a few sparky confrontations between them also.

PCZ: Is this your first American television production?

GB: It is.

PCZ: How different is it than doing British television?

GB: You know, I haven’t found it that different actually. I’m having an amazingly positive experience because I’m working with Dean Devlin’s company who are very familial and supportive. Also, TNT are incredibly encouraging. They haven’t put us under any kind of pressure or given us lots of notes and that’s very similar to the way we work in England. I feel incredibly lucky to be in an American production where we have a lot of creative freedom and we feel really supported. I thought I would associate working in American television as being under incredible pressure, being nervous, getting lots of viewpoint and opinions, changing things all the time and there hasn’t been any of that. It’s been really liberating.

PCZ: Is it the same sort of shooting schedule?

“It’s really hard to think of your character subjectively, it’s kind of like analyzing yourself a bit.”

GB: No, you guys work much, much, much harder than us! We’re used to long lunches, short days and afternoon naps. We shot six hours of Jeckyll in the same time that we just did twelve hours of very high production film. So, it’s already double.

PCZ: As the series progresses are you able to use more of your comedy background?

GB: Yeah, I do a lot of…well, I hope it’s comic anyway! I do a lot of great characters in the episodes. Like we were saying earlier, Sophie’s not a goofball and as extreme as Jane [from Coupling]. She has her fun moments where she’ll…you know, it’s really hard to think of your character subjectively, it’s kind of like analyzing yourself a bit.

PCZ: How do you intentionally act badly?

GB: Yeah, it’s difficult, especially when you’re doing it in front of an Academy Award winner. You have to just leave your ego at the door. You think “Ok, I have to act badly in this scene in front of my contemporaries and a huge crew!” I think you just leave your ego at the door and you get on with it. I’m a bit more worried about one episode where she finally has to act well and everyone’s so astonished because they expect her to be terrible, but actually she’s really quite good. I’m more worried about that, what if I didn’t act well in the scene where I’m supposed to act well?

PCZ: Well, that’s all the time I have. Thank you very much for your time.

GB: Bye, thanks a lot!

Review: ‘Leverage’ Series Premiere

In the opening moments of Leverage we are introduced to Nathan Ford (Timothy Hutton), a man close to the end of a downward spiral. He has suffered a horrible tragedy indirectly due to the insurance company he used to work for. When a desperate man (guest star Saul Rubinek) seeks Ford’s help in stealing back some documents he only agrees when he is told that it will also cause harm to his former employer. Knowing he can’t do this job alone, he assembles a team of criminals, each with a particular skill. There’s Parker (Beth Riesgraf), who scales skyscrapers as calmly as she repels off of them. She may also be clinically insane. Cool and confident Eliot Spencer (Christian Kane) can incapacitate a group of tough guys frighteningly quick. For the computer hacking needs of the operation there is Alec Hardison (Aldis Hodge). And lastly, but certainly not least, there is professional grifter Sophie Devereaux (Gina Bellman) who also is an aspiring actress…a bad one. Once together these loners have to figure out how to work as a team or if they even want to. Then the double-cross starts.

leverage_the-nigerian-job-18-timothy-hutton-gina-bellmanLeverage is a prime example of what TNT excels at, great characters and what they do in dramatic situations. What the premiere episode doesn’t do is start off with the normal situation and setting of the show. That doesn’t happen until the second episode. What it does do, and it does this very well, is introduce us to the characters. As the episode, and eventual caper, progresses we see each character’s strengths play out as well as their personalities. This happens organically in tandem with the plot and not gratuitously rushed, which is not always easy to accomplish in a first episode. It’s also refreshing that the story is self-contained. Who the characters are, what made them who they are and what evil-doer they take on next is what will compel you to tune in for each subsequent episode in this thirteen episode run.

A few things stand out after the episode is done. The script by John Rogers and Chris Downey is well paced with some great dialogue. Aldis Hodge nearly steals the show almost upstaging the rest of the cast, including Hutton. Dean Devlin makes his directorial debut look like the work of a veteran director. This pilot episode does it’s job and does it well. The “Modern Day Robin Hood and His Merry Men” conceit that’s at the core of the show doesn’t feel worn out at all. In fact, with these characters and script it feels new again. This is a fun show and well worth checking out. Do the quality and premise hold up through to the second episode? We’ll answer that on Tuesday.