Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Thieves Like Them

Left to right: Christian Kane, Gina Bellman, Timothy Hutton,
Beth Riesgraf, and Aldis Hodge of Leverage

Leverage came along at the perfect time.

By late 2008, Enron had fucked with Americans. WorldCom had fucked with Americans. Bernie Madoff had fucked with Americans in staggeringly evil ways. Telecommunications companies had fucked with our freedoms and sold us out to the Bush administration in the name of “national security.” The Republican presidential and vice-presidential candidates both had ethics problems, and voters worried about how they might fuck things up too; go ahead and Google John McCain’s notorious Keating Five scandal, or the scads of ethics violations lodged against Sarah “Bible Spice” Palin. Finally, Bush and Co. fucked the economy up the butt so hard that it shuddered and went into a coma, the worst that history has ever seen. People had lost their houses, their banks were saying, “Oops! We don’t have your savings anymore,” and it seemed as if only the white-collar criminals profiteering off Bush’s Iraq war and the miseries of the world were doing OK.

Excuse me for using such harsh language, but there’s a point to it: these violations of the public’s trust were monumental in proportion, and their fallout isn’t likely to be fixed anytime soon. Barack Obama’s mandate-producing election as U.S. president last November was just one way Americans said, “We’ve had enough.” But Obama’s no superman; he is just a better, smarter, and more elegant man behind whom we can stand. He’s no hero. The age of heroes has passed. Now if only the Republicans would let the president do his job ...

Amid all of last year’s bad news and building frustrations, though, screenwriters-producers John Rogers and Chris Downey created Leverage. Those two guys seemed to be just like the rest of us--angry. And while they weren’t able to save Americans from the greed around them, they could at least give us the visceral, if fictional, opportunity to strike back at the bad guys. “Big time,” as Dick Cheney used to say.

Leverage, which begins its second season tonight on U.S. cable channel TNT (9 p.m. ET/PST), is a classy and stylish show, taking the best of the new TV and movie school (Burn Notice, Life, Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11) and pairing it with the old school (It Takes a Thief and Mission: Impossible, with a little bit of The Rockford Files and Mannix to add spice). Headlining the series is Academy Award winner Timothy Hutton, and it is crucial that someone like him be the star. He adds an element of sophistication to the operation, and his involvement makes more people sit up and take notice of the show. Hutton has a wonderful humanity about him; he can look like a schlub in one scene, and the badass in charge in the next. Watch his face, his eyes--in any given scene, you can practically see the wheels turning, the keen intelligence behind his performance choices. It’s what makes Hutton such a wonderful character actor.

Hutton’s character in Leverage, Nathan Ford, used to be an insurance investigator--a good one, hunting professional thieves. But then his son got sick, and the only real chance the boy had to live was to take an experimental drug test. The problem was that Ford’s employer, Ian Blackpoole (played by Kevin Tighe, who was featured in the pilot and the last two episodes of Season One), refused to pay for that necessary treatment, citing company policy. Nathan Ford quite literally watched his son die before his eyes. Then he quit his company, took up drinking ... and one night was approached by a man who wanted him to steal something for him. After assembling a team of thieves he had personally hunted down over the years, Ford took on the job. It went, as they say, not well. Yet, by the end of last December’s pilot episode, those thieves and Ford had together set up shop as modern-day Robin Hoods.

Crime dramas--the good ones, at least--live or die on the strength of their characters. Rogers and Downey have assembled a terrific cast for Leverage. In addition to Hutton, we’re given Gina Bellman, who plays Sophie Devereaux, a really terrible actress but a brilliant con artist. There’s also Beth Riesgraf, who plays the cheerfully loony explosives expert and burglar, Parker. (Yes, she’s named after the protagonist in Donald E. Westlake’s “Richard Stark” Parker novels. To emphasize the Westlake connection, there was even an episode last season called “The Bank Shot Job,” which also referenced Elmore Leonard.) Adding to the cast is Christian Kane, playing Eliot Spencer, a skilled martial artist who serves as this team’s muscle and security expert. And then there’s Aldis Hodge, who plays Alec Hardison, my favorite character. Computer expert and gadget geek Hardison really keeps things running at the Leverage “firm,” and he has all the best toys for the team to use. He’s funny and charming, but sometimes painfully nerdy, and his flirting with Parker is beyond cute. Like Hutton, all of these other performers are talented character actors.

The Leverage plots are great too, just simple enough that you can relax and be entertained, but complex enough that you can’t zone out for long. I have railed before against television shows and movies that require no intellectual attachment. I like my brain. I like to be engaged by entertainment. I don’t care about a film like Transformers, which made a lot of money and received the thumbs-up from audiences primarily because it had lots of big, loud explosions. However, I love Leverage because it rewards people like me who demand some substance in their TV viewing, and prefer that if there is a big, loud explosion, there be some reason for it, other than just to keep audience members from falling asleep.

In advance of tonight’s Season Two Leverage debut, I had a chance to speak with executive producer John Rogers about the origins of his series, how the characters have evolved over time, the process of writing new episodes, and what we can expect from the show during this new season.

Cameron Hughes: Talk to me about the genesis of Leverage.

John Rogers: Chris Downey and I were drinking in my garage--it’s not as sad as it sounds, it was a very nice garage--and talking about the recent failures of serialized heist shows. We landed on the idea that for heist and con shows, we want our candy. We want to see how the trick is done every week. We were also craving the light, fun style of the ’60's and ’70s crime shows like It Takes a Thief and The Rockford Files. I mean, for God’s sake, have you seen those [modern police] procedurals? They’re an unremitting parade of suburban nightmares made flesh.

At the same time, TNT had asked [screenwriter-director] Dean [Devlin] to do a TV show. He wanted to do a team show. Out of pure coincidence, Dean and I had lunch that week, and realized we were both creating the same show. We joined forces, whipped it together, and sold it to TNT in a week.

CH: How do members of the Leverage team stay flush? I remember that Hardison did some wizardry to get them a nice nest egg in the pilot, but how long can that realistically last, given all their expenses?

JR: They grift a little off the top of their cons, although to tell you the truth, most of their tech is readily available and pretty cheap. I once got a note from TNT, saying, “The mini-credit card reader in that episode feels a little unbelievable.” I called back: “Unbelievable? The real one is smaller, and sitting on my desk.”

CH: I like that Nate is kind of a jerk and still won’t admit that he’s a thief like the other people on his team. He’s Robin Hood, but they’re thieves. Was the character always intended to be like that?

JR: Yes, and that’s really the theme of Season Two. Without the excuse of his grief and his alcoholism, how does he deal with the fact that at heart, he’s bent? The fact we got Tim Hutton, who manages to walk that line--disapproving of his team and loving them at the same time--well, that’s just damn luck on our part.

CH: How did Hutton get involved in this series? He adds a lot of class to the role that other actors wouldn’t have given it.

JR: We kept tossing casting ideas around, and saying, “You know, like Tim Hutton.” I was a big fan of his Nero Wolfe series, and knew he could bring the funny along with the class. Finally somebody said, “Hey, why don’'t we just send it to Hutton?” We did, Tim read it, and on page three he decided he was in.

CH: Was he also responsible for having Kari Matchett [who had regular, though non-recurring roles on Nero Wolfe] cast as his ex-wife?

JR: Kari actually has a great rep down here in L.A., so she would have been on our list anyway. But yeah, that was a happy combination. Tim suggested her; we already liked her, boom boom, she’s in.

CH: The interesting thing to me about Nate Ford’s replacement at the insurance company, and now his rival, insurance investigator James Sterling [Mark A. Sheppard], and Sterling’s own team is that they never consider themselves “in the wrong.” There’s a moral ambiguity about each team you give us in this show. Was that a conscious thing you did in creating their conflict?

JR: Yes. Mark Sheppard is very proud of the fact that on every version of this show on every other network, he’s the good guy. Although we fall soundly on the idea that [Ford’s] team is a necessary evil in an unjust world, we do try to play out the idea that they are, in the end, rationalizing. They’re wolves who just happen to hunt other wolves.

CH: It is no coincidence that your crazy thief character is named Parker, and that your bank robbery episode last season was partially named after Westlake’s second John Dortmunder novel, Bank Shot (1972). Are you a big crime-fiction fan?

JR: I’m more of a sci-fi geek than a mystery geek, but I had my classic mystery education. Weird blend of Ellery Queen and the pulps. But yeah, of course Parker is named after Westlake’s character. Hell, her name’s not even really Parker. I leave it to you whether she chose the name, or even if in “Leverage world,” thieves give that nickname as a sign of respect.

CH: I appreciate that Hardison isn’t the stereotypical nerd television loves to show. Not only is he black, but he’s funny and charming. However, he seems uncomfortable when he’s away from his beloved technology for too long. Hardison is a lot more like most nerds I know. Was he created with this in mind, or did Aldis Hodge put the spin on it?

JR: Hardison was actually more of the latter; that is, [he’s] comfortable with technology, but Aldis is so damn charming we just wound up putting him in more and more cons. I mean, the character is still true to his roots--you never see Hardison doing a long con; he’s too undisciplined--but he’s definitely Aldis Hodge’s Hardison now.

CH: It seems to me that Eliot Spencer is the hardest character to write for. Thieves and con men want situations that won’t include violence, so Eliot has the least reason out of all of them to be there. Can you talk about him and actor Christian Kane?

JR: Actually, Eliot has the most reason to be there, since he sees himself as a negotiator who occasionally has to break the law, as opposed to being a full-on thief. He’s a guy with a skill set who’s found his niche, and his niche happens to occur in a lawless context. He’s OK with that.

As a matter of fact, if you watch Chris’ fights, he always disarms every gun as he goes. The point of his fights is to end the fights as quickly as possible. The character is frankly disappointed when violence occurs, and working with someone like Nate tends to take variables out, variables which might otherwise lead to conflict.

I always shorthand Eliot as being a negotiator who understands that there are times when the correct negotiating technique is a precise, controlled application of force.

CH: Now that the team realizes they can’t trust each other fully, after one of their number conned the others in the first season finale, I feel like there will be a lot more feuding and in-fighting. Will that continue into this new season?

JR: There will always be personality conflicts, and they’re only going to grow as Nate tries to hack out who he is, now that he’s not driven by his vengeance. Although we ended [last season] on a conciliatory note, you’ll see the Sophie/Eliot relationship go through its paces.

CH: Of course, there’s a small matter that the legal authorities now know who they are, and whatever their coverage story for the Leverage firm is blown.

JR: They're lifelong professional outlaws. That was a total burn-off. They are perhaps slightly more wanted than they normally have been for the last 10 years of their lives.

CH: Will actor Kevin Tighe be coming back? A man like Ian Blackpoole doesn’t go down easy, and holds a grudge.

JR: We’ll see. Blackpoole was tied to a specific stage in Nate’s life. On the other hand, Saul Rubinek [who plays the man responsible for bringing Nate Ford’s team together] keeps calling and pitching me the “Brotherhood of Evil” Leverage episode, where all the old bad guys unite. We may see him again.

CH: A show like this represents a great opportunity for character actors, doesn’t it? Is there anyone you would love to have guest-starring in the future?

JR: Now that we’re in the second season, it’s nice to see the attention we’re getting from agents who want to transition their clients into TV, not to mention actors like Michael O’Neill who want to vary up their résumé with our juicy villain parts. Nobody in particular springs to mind, but we’ve got a wish list, and we’ll see what we get.

CH: The show doesn’t have long-running plot lines, yet it has a pretty tight continuity. Sort of like USA’s Psych. Was that intended to catch the casual viewers, while not boring weekly watchers?

JR: I like to use [comic-book illustrator-writer] Keith Giffen’s rule: “Consistency, not continuity.” You can drop in on any episode except the last two [from last season], have the person sitting on the couch next to you explain, “They’re high-tech Robin Hoods,” and you’re in. If you watch regularly you get more out of it, sure. But it’s a crowded media market out there, and I want people to be able to drop in without feeling like they have to do homework.

CH: You’ve written comic books and been involved with other writers in that field. Is there any chance of guys like Brian Azzarello, Ed Brubaker, Brian K. Vaughn, or others writing Leverage episodes?

JR: Hell, Vaughn’s on Lost. I’m not sure I could get him on the phone. I’d love [Greg] Rucka or Ed Brubaker or any of those guys to take a swing, if they want. It’s a tricky bastard--a con movie a week, very few recurring sets, no continuous plot lines--so right now we’re concentrating on just getting the next batch up, and then I’ll try to bring on some freelancers.

CH: Talk me through the writing process for Leverage. For a confidence-game drama, plotting would seem to be pretty important.

JR: Usually, the writers come in with either a bad guy or a setting/high concept. We then reach into the Big Bag of Cons and Crimes we’ve accumulated over our research, and start matching up the puzzle pieces. Always keeping in mind, of course, a character story to thread through the episode.

Everybody has a different process. I like to lay out the beats of the crime story, and then find the cons to fit. Chris Downey likes to figure out the characters he wants the team to play in a high-concept con, and then we back into the bad guy. [Co-producer] Amy Berg likes tight, controlled geographical settings. She then digs into the nooks and crannies for plot complications.

Apollo Robbins, our crime consultant, watched us [developing] a late-season episode and said, “You realize the writing staff is now a fully functional crime crew.” We had a mark, we looked at his weaknesses, we matched them against our team’s strengths and known cons, and took off from there. One of the proudest moments of my career, I think.

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

JR: It happens on every show, and we’re very blessed to have five great actors--no weak hand, nobody we go light on--you know, the usual TV trap. So Tim’s love of playing quirky characters has turned Nate from “hang out in the command center strategy guy” into a character with a playful--and plainly vicious--sense of humor going up against marks. There’s a lot more shit-kicker in Eliot since Chris defined him, and we already discussed Aldis taking over Hardison. Parker was always meant to be a little cooler, more emotionally distant, but Beth Reisgraf, well, people just like her. They just do. I’ve never seen a fandom spring up around a non-genre character this fast. She made Parker warmer and quirkier than we imagined. When you get lucky like that, you ride it out. I think Sophie’s the closest to the original intent, but seeing as it was written with Gina Bellman in mind, that’s not surprising.

CH: I imagine a lot of research is done with a show like this. Does the technology the team uses or faces really exist?

JR: Eight of 10 things on every show exist. Everything else--well, I like to say we’re as accurate with tech on this show as House is with medicine. Take from that what you will.

CH: OK, I’m allowed one Catwoman question: How much of your work actually made it into the script for that 2004 film?

JR: Precisely one scene. Kind of. After two years worth of work. There were four writers on after me, and maybe four or five on before me. I think they gave me the credit because I was the one to get it at least shootable. Before they fired me for not ... well, let’s just say my version did not have the final fight sequence in a summer tent-pole movie be Halle Berry beating the shit out of a 50-year-old woman in a pantsuit. In an attic.

CH: You didn’t know if Leverage would have a second season, so it feels like you crammed as much as possible into your first season, hence the horse race episode and the bank robbery episode. What do you have in mind for this new season?

JR: Man, the great thing is, you open the paper these days, and our villains--the rich and the powerful--they just tumble out. So we’ve got a mix of new Madoff-like bad guys with some classic old cons we didn’t do last year--a train robbery, corporate kidnappings, an auction heist, some bigger Mission: Impossible-type cons. We’re doing 15 [episodes] this year, and I don’t anticipate any problem filling them.

* * *

If you haven’t been watching Leverage up to this point (shame on you!), and would like a simple summation of its players and plot lines, check out this Season Two preview video.

READ MORE:Leverage Season Two--An Early Look,” by Danny Gallagher (TV Squad); “Timothy Hutton Evens the Score with Leverage,” by Brian Gallagher (MovieWeb); “Timothy Hutton: The TV Squad Interview,” by John Scott Lewinski (TV Squad).


Randy Johnson said...

I'm sorry to say I was one of those who had never heard of this show when I watched last night's season premiere. Enjoyed it and don't know how I missed it before. I will be on the lookout for earlier episodes.
Oh, by the way, Dark Blue wasn't bad either.

Max Allan Collins said...

LEVERAGE is a terrific show, walking that tricky line between comedy and melodrama. I've been onboard from the beginning, and the Tim Hutton/NERO WOLFE connection was probably what put me there, since I'm not a huge fan of most American crime series.

The show does owe a debt to the British HUSTLE, but I think it's gone well beyond that.

Great interview, though I admit I wished I'd been listed among the comics writers who might be asked to "take a swing" at a script (in the world of novels, Don Westlake was one of my two mentors, the other being Mickey Spillane). I have hounded various editors in the tie-in world about this show, because I'd love to novels with this cast and premise.

MysterLynch said...

I agree with Max, HU$TLE is clearly an influence for LEVERAGE.

Season 2 premiere was wonderful. The writers and cast really seem to have found their footing.