Moving from big feature films like "Independence Day" and "Godzilla" to the very different (and smaller) world of television, producer Dean Devlin recently said there was one thing that didn't change from one to the other - "There was no adjustment in appetite." While there were challenges that he and his producing team faced in creating the TNT crime drama series "Leverage" in 2008, Devlin recently told our Jim Halterman that choices like location and the manner in which they shoot each episode only ended up serving the show in positive ways that he didn't fully expect. As the third season continues this weekend, Devlin also touched on the scary things he's found out from real criminals as well as how the show's rabid fan base has surprised him.
Jim Halterman: Going back to the beginning, what was it about Timothy Hutton that made him the perfect choice for the role of Nate?
Dean Devlin: Honestly I have to give all the credit to Michael Wright at TNT. We were talking about who should be the lead of the show and we said, "We're looking for something like a Tim Hutton-type." He said, "Why not Tim Hutton?" and I said, "Yeah, right, an Oscar-award winning actor is going to do our little cable show." We felt that we knew he had the depth to play this complex character and we wanted to show a guy who had been the most straight-laced guy his entire life until his son died and then he went into the abyss. We felt that Tim could handle that. He surprised us at how great he was at comedy and we were unprepared at his ability to be light and fun. So, casting him really altered the way we created the character.
JH: As dark as "Leverage" can sometimes get, it's also very funny at times. How important was it for you that there be a balance of comedy and drama?
DD: That was huge for me. I had done a series of movies of the week for TNT called 'The Librarian.' After the second one had aired, we were all in New York for the upfronts and at the dinner afterwards Michael Wright said, "When do I get the TV series out of you?" I said, "Television today, while it's very compelling, tends to be very dark, edgy, procedural, cold..." I said, "I don't think I'd have any fun making that." He said, "What would you like to make?" I said I wanted to make shows that I grew up watching like "Rockford Files" and "The A Team" and "Mission: Impossible." I'd always wanted to do a show about a group of con men who become modern day Robin Hoods. He said 'Sold!' I called my friend John Rogers, who is my favorite writer, and I said, "I just sold a show." He said, "What's the show?" I said, "I don't have that!" I told him as much as I had and he said that the day before he and Chris Downey had been talking about coming up with a modern heist show. We got together, pitched out John and Chris's version, Michael loved it and we moved right to pilot.
JH: What did you know about the kind of world of professional thieves that we see in "Leverage?" Are there really teams that exist that you could research?
DD: There actually is. One of them is a guy named Apollo Robbins, who has a team very much like this one that works with the police. You know, cash criminals. Apollo Robbins came on board as our technical advisor. He's such an amazing person but every time he'd come to our offices and tell us stories we'd get so depressed - nothing is safe! Apollo turned to me at one point and said, "Does someone have an iPhone where if someone calls you their face comes up?" I say, "Yeah, my wife." He picks up his phone, he dials some numbers and suddenly my phone rings and I think it's my wife calling and it was him across the room. I was like, "OK, you're terrifying me now!" He just said, "Nothing is safe anymore."
JH: Obviously audiences picked up on the show early and you did even better with the second season. What do you think is going to come with this third season?
DD: I have to be honest with you, we were not expecting to have the kind of fan base that we got as early as we did. It's an intense fan base! They watch the show religiously [and] tweet about it like crazy. At the beginning of the season I decided to throw a "Leverage" convention up in Portland and everyone called me and said, "Dean, science fiction shows do that. You can't do that with a regular show!" I figured if we got 300 people we'd consider it a success but 700 people from all over the world showed up. It just blew our minds!
JH: The relationship between Sophie and Nate is always interesting. What's to come with them this season now that Sophie is back full-time?
DD: Sophie went on a journey last year to figure out who she was [actress Gina Bellman was on maternity leave] and while Nate didn't know he was going on the same journey, he did as well. At the end of last season, Nate finally came to the realization that he is actually a thief and he's accepted that in himself. He's never lived as a thief but he's lived in his mind as the most honest person on the planet so he had a big adjustment. Sophie has come back full circle as to who she is and she came back to be with Nate because he reached out to her but he didn't tell her the whole truth. They have some cleanup to do this year. He has to win her back a bit because he hasn't been honest with her. He's ready to open his life to her but she's going to make him work for it.
JH: How do you weave guest stars into the show without their celebrity taking you out of the show?
DD: We have phenomenal guest stars this year. We have everyone from Richard Chamberlin, Tom Skerritt and Bill Engvall all coming in this year. It always starts with the character. It always starts with what do we want from this character and what do we get from them? We always start with, "If we could get anybody, who would it be?" and we throw it out there. We've been amazingly fortunate at who has said yes! Years ago, I was an actor on Richard Chamberlin's last television series. I loved working with him and thought he was such a unique personality. We had this character [on "Leverage"] that was really unique and old school and we couldn't think of an actor who could play it. I said, "What about Richard Chamberlin?" And he said yes!
JH: Why is the show shot in Portland? Is it more for economics or is there another reason?
DD: Economics was the first reason. There are a lot of things about the city that are very appealing for filmmakers and it's also on the West Coast. But what really was the deal clincher for us was how many different architectural styles there are in a short distance. Our show has to be in different cities all the time. We needed a place that could be Washington, New York, Eastern Europe, Middle America... everything in Portland was in a short distance. The show takes place in Boston and we double Portland for Boston every week.
JH: With your feature experience, how much did you have to adjust your production style for television?
DD: There was no adjustment in appetite. There was an enormous adjustment in resources and it became a real challenge. We weren't going to cut anything out and we weren't going to not do it because we couldn't afford it so we got together and thought, "What's the most interesting, modern technology that hasn't been used in television before that can allow us to give the audience more for less?" We became the first action show in television history to do a 100% complete tapeless workflow. We shoot from the Red cameras to hard drives. The hard drives are delivered to our offices and goes into the master computer. Every aspect of the filmmaking process happens in that exact same computer. We do everything from digital effects to sound effects to editing to mixing right here. When we're done it goes from our servers to the servers at TNT and it goes on the air. That new workflow has allowed us to really change everything from how we did it to the way we did it to when we did it. All the savings we were able to put back onscreen and do things we otherwise wouldn't be able to do.
JH: Could you be doing the same show if you were on one of the broadcast networks?
DD: It would cost a lot more but I can tell you that the people we work with at TNT are unlike anyone I've ever worked with in television or feature films. They don't ever treat you like you're an employee but they treat you like you're their partner. When you have discussions about the show it's like the creators are sitting together having an intelligent, adult discussion as opposed to "We want the show like this!" or "Don't do this!" It's changed the entire tenor of the experience. If we get a call from Michael Wright or Sam Linksy or Lillah McCarthy nobody is dreading it. We're excited to hear from them and we can't wait to get their thoughts. They don't bet on a lot of horses but when they do they let the horse run.
"Leverage" airs Sundays at 9:00/8:00c on TNT.