We had the honor of sitting down with Leverage Executive Producer Dean Devlin recently to talk about the series, his involvement, and the progression of the digital entertainment world. Here’s what he had to say:
How did you get involved with Leverage?
Dean: I do a series of movies with TNT called The Librarian, and they’ve worked out really well for us. We’ve really enjoyed making them, and they’ve performed really well on the network. And after we did the second one, we were at the Upfronts promoting it, and Michael Wright, from TNT, said, ‘Well, when do I get a series out of you?’
I said ‘What do you think about the idea of us doing a show about a group of hi-tech thieves who become a type of modern-day Robin Hoods?’
And he went, ‘Sold!’ (laughs)
So then I had to come up with a show! Coincidentally, one of my favorite writers in Hollywood, name is John Rogers, was that same day in his garage with a friend of his, and he was saying how he would like to do a modern Mission Impossible or Rockford Files. You know, bringing back the fun. Because shows have gotten so dry, dark, edgy, procedural. We missed the kind of shows we grew up on.
The very next day I had lunch with him, and I told him about the series that I was going to do with TNT, and he said, ‘I was just talking about doing this show yesterday. Let’s do this together!’
And so together we wrote a phenomenal pilot, and they became the executive producers of the show with me. They put together a great staff of writers, and the rest is a 13-episode history!
I know you also directed the pilot episode. Does being executive producer affect how you direct at all?
Dean: Well, I argued a lot with the executive producers, we didn’t always agree (laughs). But I always got to win, sometimes as one or the other, but always got to win. It also meant I lost every argument too, so it was a little tough, a little split personality. But, it was fun!
The amazing thing about this show is that there was no studio involved, so we got to do this series very much like an independent film. So there was no one there to tell us, ‘You can’t shoot that on the red camera’ or ‘You can’t shoot this in 7 days’ or ‘You can’t do all these sequences on your budget.’
So we just got to do what we thought was the right thing, and it ended up being more fun that way. I think, at the end of the day, we ended up getting more on camera than if we had done this the traditional way. So, being both the director and executive producer was really great in that I had no one to answer to except TNT.
Now I know there has been a lot of talk recently about shows being too serialized, like some of the problems NBC is having with Heroes. Do you think a show with a format like Leverage, where every episode is pretty contained, is a more successful format for TV?
Dean: I think it depends on the show. Look, we’ve watched wonderful shows that are serialized. The problem is if you miss a few episodes, you just give up and say ‘Aw, I’m too far behind.’
I know there are a couple series that I love, and I missed a few episodes at the beginning of the season and just thought ‘Ah, I’ll just wait for the end of the season and buy it on DVD.’
I think that’s just a convenience factor. But on the other hand, a great serialized show, for me like Brotherhood on Showtime, is very compelling drama. I don’t think it would be as compelling otherwise. But I think there is something great about series that you can just escape with. Coming into it on the eighth episode or the fifth episode, you know what’s going on. You won’t be left behind, and you can get on and enjoy the ride.
I know there have been some comparisons with Leverage and Ocean’s 11. What similarities do you think they share and where do you think they differ?
Dean: Well, they definitely have the same DNA. Ocean’s 11 is a remake of the original, and that was a show when the heist show was a genre. We used to get that, whether it was the original Italian Job or The Thomas Crown Affair. I think we share the DNA, where there was this thief, hot rod, or great heist where you put this band of people together and pull off these amazing heists. So I think we absolutely share that.
The thing that separates us from Ocean’s 11 is that they do it for the little guy. They are, in essence, Robin Hood. The leader of the gang is not a thief. He’s the only honest man, the only one who can keep that team together. So, story-wise we’re different, but with tone we’re definitely in the same universe. Although, I think we also have a lot in common with, not the movie franchise but the series franchise, of Mission Impossible, because they go to different places, and they have to do the impossible without the help of anyone. And they can’t get caught doing it. So it’s really a throw back to the kind of show we really haven’t had around in a long time.
Now, I know that The Librarian 3 is premiering the same night. Did you have a little pull in that?
Dean: No, in fact…
It just happened to work out that way?
Dean: It’s terrifying (laughs), because I have to do my own lead in! So if nobody watches The Librarian, I just killed my series. It’s enormous pressure. But the second Librarian performed very well, so we’re hopeful the audience enjoys the franchise and wants to come back for a third one. And if they do, hopefully that will be a good lead in, but it’s a terrifying aspect! And I think they’re re-running the previous Librarians even before that, so there will be something like 8 hours of Electric Entertainment on Sunday. So, it’s enormous pressure.
Do you think they will appeal to similar fan bases?
Dean: I think so. I mean, they’re both genre shows, and they’re both pretty smart. One of the things that has really been a standout for TNT is that, while they like to make real mainstream entertainment, they don’t dumb it down. And I think that is why it stands out. I think there’s a tendency to look down on mainstream entertainment as though it’s a lower art form, but it isn’t, it’s just a different art form. And when done intelligently and with love and with passion, it can be as moving as an art film, especially if it’s been made with as much love. I think TNT has that feeling. I can tell you, out of three Librarian movies I never once got a note from the network that said, ‘Let’s make that simpler.’
In the pilot of Leverage, we introduce 5 characters in 6 minutes with flashbacks on all of them, all while they’re in the midst of a heist! I can’t imagine any other place that I could have put that in front of them without them saying ‘That’s too much. Sandwich guy won’t understand; he’s making a sandwich, he won’t understand. He won’t be able to follow this. You have to make it simple.’
We never gotta make it simple. The notes we usually get from TNT were ‘Don’t get too silly.’ You know, ‘Keep it smart.’
That’s great when you’re actually encouraged to be clever and not have to spell everything out to the audience. Assume the audience is smart, assume they’re paying attention, and let them do some of the work themselves.
I know you’ve done a lot of work in film as well. What medium do you enjoy working with more?
Dean: Well, you know, each has its own benefits. It’s lovely to do a big film and have all that time to do it in, but it also takes a long time to get it off the ground. The last film I did, it took 5 years to get the script. TV has this wonderful immediacy; you come up with the idea, you’re shooting a couple weeks later, and it’s on the air a couple weeks after that. And then we did some stuff on the Internet that was very interesting. We took a two hour movie and told it in 25 minute episodes that was told on the web. That was a fascinating way to tell a story. I think, at the end of the day it is all about storytelling, and what medium is needed to tell that story. It all has it own rewards.
I was in awe when I read that you created the first movie-marketing website back in 1994, and I was wondering if you could talk about how digital entertainment has changed in regards to what people want to see and expect to see on marketing websites for movies and TV shows.
Dean: It’s interesting. That website for Stargate happened because no one at the studio really knew what the Internet was. They thought it was a great way to get rid of me. The two things they really let me run were the Internet and sci-fi conventions. And the interesting thing was that the traditional studio tracking had our film opening with 6 million dollars, when in fact we had an enormous opening that October. Actually it was the largest opening in history at that point, and we went on to make 200 million dollars. I credit a large part of that to the Internet and the sci-fi conventions, because we were able to speak directly to an audience that was directly interested in the product.
But now we’ve gotten to where every movie has to have a website, and I think fans expect to get additional information. The audience is more sophisticated today, and they want you to prove it to them. Just seeing the trailer isn’t enough for them any more. I think it’s a good thing. It allows us to expand the experience of the product.
Right now, if you go to our website for Leverage, there are really some terrific behind-the-scenes clips of how we made the show. In fact, our technical adviser is a phenomenal former thief. It shows how he taught all of our thieves to think and act like thieves.
How did you go from that side of things to producing and directing?
Dean: Well, I started as an actor. Performing is my first love. Then I started writing for Roland Emmerich, and then I hated what another producer did to my writing. So I said, ‘I won’t write any more unless I’m allowed to produce it.’
Next thing I knew, I was writing and producing partners with Roland Emmerich for 12 years, and when we finally decided to end that partnership, I was really looking for new challenges, looking for new ways to expand and grow as an artist. I found that the place that I would stumble is when the director came on board. If I was lucky enough to have someone who shared a vision with me then we had something good, but if we disagreed on the vision, it was disaster for everyone.
So, Leverage was such an important project for me. I felt so passionately about it, about the actors, about the writers, I wasn’t going to let someone else direct it. I wasn’t going to take that chance that they didn’t share my vision. So I directed the pilot, and I directed 5 more episodes all together. I really got to set the tone, ‘This is the way the show’s gonna be.’
We were so fortunate to get such great directors. We had three feature film directors that came on board in the first year. It really allowed us to stay within the theme, to stay within the vision, and yet have really unique voices as directors coming in and building upon that.
From your perspective, is it challenging to deal with different directors all the time, or is it better for TV series to have the same one? I’ve always wondered, as far as sharing visions go, how is the show not drastically different with each new episode?
Dean: We made a bible and said, ‘If you want to direct the show, you kinda have to agree to this. This is the style guide of the bible of the show, how we shoot the show. This kind of technique in this situation, this kind of technique, the camera is gonna be moving more often than you’re used to, we’ve got a lot more steady cams, a lot more cranes, a lot more more.’
And they have to sign up to that and agree to that before they can come on board. But once they understood the playing field, they were given enormous freedom to create within that structure. So then it was interesting to see what they would then add to it.
Interview By: Emma Loggins