In Plain Sight follows the story of a Federal Marshall with the Witness Protection program who must hide her high-risk, high-impact job from her family. To those that know her, Mary Shannon is a glorified meter maid, but her real job is much more dangerous. She must oversee federal witnesses who have been relocated through the Witness Protection program and make sure that they stay safe.
We had the honor of sitting down with Creator/Writer/Executive Producer David Maples and Executive Producer Paul Stupin to chat about the series. Here’s what they had to say:
There seems to be a lot of buzz about this show. I was wondering if the two of you could talk about the show, and kind of in your own words and tell us what it’s about, the plot. Sometimes it’s good to hear the creators and the producers talk about the show rather than just reading the marketing material.
D. Maples: Okay, this is David speaking. Pretty much what you have heard, I think thus far, is accurate. It’s about Mary Shannon, played by Mary McCormack. She is a marshal attached to the Witness Protection Program in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The official title of such people are WITSEC inspectors, and WITSEC stands for Witness Security.
And the show is about from week to week we have a new witness, and Mary has to deal with whatever problems arise out of people, some criminals, some innocent witnesses to crimes who have had to testify and leave their lives behind. Mary has to deal with the problems of people having their lives yanked away from them and completely reinvent themselves from scratch, something she’s very good at. She deals with other people’s problems really, really well.
And that’s played in contrast to her seemingly total lack of ability at dealing with her own problems in her own personal life, which is also a strong component in almost every episode. There’s some element of Mary’s person life confounding her. And we try to thematically, as much as we can, although we don’t do it in a really overbearing way I don’t think, we try to tie those two story lines together somewhat thematically between the witness story and their problem and Mary’s personal problem, and the problem of her family and the other people in her life.
P. Stupin: Just to take one other element of the show and bring that up as well, it takes place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is, I think, a particularly interesting locale for our series in which to occur. It’s got a visual look and a sense of texture and feel and blue sky that I don’t really think you’d see on television right now. And so we’re hoping to have something visually unique as our characters.
D. Maples: And we try to use the city of Albuquerque and the surrounding area almost like a character in the show. We really, really try to use that environment and it really does, we think, give the show a unique flavor and texture that I don’t think any other show has.
Can you talk a little bit about where the idea for the series came from and how it’s evolved since its initial conception.
D. Maples: Well, interestingly or perhaps not so interestingly –
P. Stupin: We’ve had a long journey.
D. Maples: It’s had a very long journey. Just to give you a brief history, I wrote the script in 2004 for another network. And it began its life as a script deal that I had with the now defunked UPN. And Paul and I had developed a show for them the year before which they didn’t make, but they liked enough that they said, “Come back and we’d like you to write another script for us. And we would like it to be something with a strong female lead. And other than that, it’s wide open, so whatever strikes your fancy come in and pitch.”
So I went off and with a pad of paper just started making a list of jobs, professions, that would be an interesting place to put a strong female character in and I came up with – as I started thinking about it, there’s almost nothing these days certainly that you professionally can’t put a female lead in and have her performing at the highest level. So I honestly can’t tell you how I landed on this one. It was the gamut of job possibilities, doctor, lawyer, real estate agent, any thing you can think of, cop, whatever, I had on this piece of paper.
And I don’t even know what made me think of Witness Protection. But it was the one thing on the list that frankly I knew the least about but was most intrigued by, and I think Paul was as well, and kept coming back to it. So that was the one we landed on. That was the one we took to the people at UPN, and they said, “Great. Run with it.” And so we took off from there and that was the earliest beginnings of In Plain Sight.
P. Stupin: And I remember to this very day, it was late summer and we were pulling our hair out trying to come up with an interesting concept, and I remember the call from David, and we both got very excited because David goes, “I got it!” And I’m going, “What?” And he brought up Witness Protection. And the thing that’s so interesting about Witness Protection is it’s never been explored on a television series basis week to week. And as David mentioned earlier, everyone who goes in there, whether they’re good guys, whether they’re bad guys, witnesses, assassins, they’re under a tremendous amount of pressure, because they have to throw every element of their previous life aside and become someone new. And the thing about that is it’s a lot easier said than done.
So a lot of these people are prone to facing and having to deal with all sorts or problems and all sorts of issues. And those are the kinds of stories that we can explore in addition to dealing with all this great stuff with Mary’s character and her personal life. So there’s a great chance to tell interesting kinds of stories and to deal with procedural elements in a way that hasn’t done before on television.
From what I’ve read it sounds like you’re pretty particular about the casting, so I’m curious what you were looking for and from both the cast as a whole and the individual characters?
D. Maples: Yes.
P. Stupin: I think we must’ve read over 100 actresses for the main role. And David and I were sitting in a casting room every day, five days a week, 9:00 to 5:00 for week after week after week looking for people. And luckily when Mary’s name came up we both knew Mary and we both thought she was right for the – she was just the perfect embodiment for the character.
D. Maples: And we sat in this room for literally two weeks and read a lot of great actresses, people that are really, really talented, and it really wasn’t working. We would look at each other and go, “No.” And I was leaving these casting sessions feeling like –
P. Stupin: …of Witness girl.
D. Maples: I personally was feeling like I’ve written a script that’s interesting on paper, but is a big unactable pile of crap. Because I knew we were seeing talented people and it wasn’t resonating, it wasn’t coming out right. And Mary walked in the room and the second we sat down Paul and I both had the same experience. As soon as Mary McCormack came in it was – she’s it. This is the person to play the part.
And interestingly, Mary and I joke about this now, but I honestly didn’t know who she was. I’m not the best versed person in terms of the Hollywood talent pool, and it was my wife actually who read the script and she said, “You know who should play this part? Mary McCormack.” And the joke that Mary and I have now is, my reaction was, “Isn’t she the woman in Dances with Wolves?”
And I of course, came to realize who she was, but it was almost spooky. Mary came in and she is that person. And there were so many kinds of startling weird coincidences – first and foremost, the name. I didn’t name her Mary because we cast Mary McCormack, she’s always been Mary.
I wrote her being from New Jersey, a lapsed Irish Catholic, both of which apply to Mary McCormack as well. An odd little thing in the pilot episode and in subsequent episodes, Mary’s nickname for her sister is Squish, which in writing the script I just thought, “What’s a weird nickname? What’s something that we haven’t heard before?” And I have no idea where I came up with Squish, but that – I wrote it down. That was the nickname that I wrote, that Mary has for her sister, Brandi, played by Nichole Hiltz. And oddly, Mary McCormack, her nickname for her oldest daughter is Squish. It was like, “Really?”
So it’s just a whole – Mary is so much this person. She keeps people kind of at arm’s length. She’s not always appropriate. Things come out of her mouth that, “Oh my gosh. Did she really say that to somebody?” And at times, it can be off putting. But if you’re one of the lucky few that become part of both Mary the actor and Mary the character, when you break through that crusty exterior and become part of her inner circle, she’s an amazing, amazing person to get close to and has so much warmth and heart and depth. And she’s funny, and she’s smart, and she’s tough. And she doesn’t suffer fools at all.
She is … inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt. Initially you really have to, for both the character and the actress, you kind of have to earn your way into their lives. So finding Mary was really just kind of this godsend for us. I mean she really sort of was dropped in our laps; she kind of heaven sent. And neither Paul nor I can imagine anyone else playing the part.
P. Stupin: And I’ll tell you, the show was picked up originally cast contingent. So it was made very clear to us that unless you find someone with the sense of stature and the sense of presence and the sense of charisma to really support an entire series on their shoulders, you’re not going to be able to make the show. And so I think that, again, when Mary came into our lives there was very much the feeling that here’s someone who we both could see creating this character and really supporting the show.
And you know the other thing is in terms of all of the other characters, when we cast them, we really did try to go a little bit left of center with everyone. People would come in, and I think one example, Cristian de la Fuente, he was – we read what felt like a million generic boyfriends. But when Cristian came in, not only did he have this sort of quirky sense of humor and ethnicity about him, but there was a real interesting kind of dynamic and unusual aspect to the way that he approached the boyfriend. And I think immediately we thought that’s was an interesting way to go. He’s charming and he’s interesting, and he could be an interesting foil for Mary.
D. Maples: Down the line, every one of our cast members are not the obvious choice to play the part, from Cristian and Paul Ben-Victor as Stan and Nichole as the troubled younger sister to Leslie as the mom. In every instance there were other people who came in who on the surface of it might have been better choices, but in each case there was something about each one of these actors that brought something to the part that – it was impossible not to cast them.
In every instance, with every one of these people that we cast, including Todd Williams, I don’t want to forget him, it wasn’t close. It wasn’t like there was 1 and 1A, and flip a coin, who are we going to cast. In every one of those instances almost the minute we read them it was like, “Okay, we found that part. Let’s see if we can make a deal and move on.” So we’ve been really, really lucky with the casting.
P. Stupin: And we could keep going on about casting forever, but I can tell you that the same care and quirkiness and unusual qualities that we approach to the series regulars, you’ll also see in the guest cast.
D. Maples: And just one last bit on that, as a writer of this show, I sit down to write these scripts – there’s so much joy in doing what I do, because I have got such an amazing cast of actors to play these parts. And they’re so dedicated and they’re so invested in the roles. I sit down and I know I can throw anything at them, and these people are going to handle it with amazing skill and inventiveness and creativity and passion.
I just can’t imagine a better situation for a writer or executive producer of a TV show week in and week out. It’s just fun to come up with the situations to put these actors in and just watch them go to work. They’re really, really amazing.
And or course, Mary in particular is just unbelievable. I think the country will know what the acting community and the TV industry people out here have known for several years, myself excluded, because as I said, I’m bit of an idiot when it comes to that stuff, but she really is I think one of the best actors in the country or the world. She’s just incredible.
With the Witness Protection Program as a kind of the backdrop for the series, that program is so secretive it seems like or you don’t really know very much about it other than it exists out there. I was wondering, do you have any, I don’t know if the word would be technical advisors, but advisors, marshals or anybody like that kind of telling you how things are so that you can make the show realistic?
D. Maples: Yes, absolutely. When we started out for both of us, Paul and I, it was sort of an interesting jumping off point, and we thought this was something that nobody has really, really done in depth before. There’ve been a few movies that have been set in Witness Protection, and a couple of TV shows have touched on it but not really, really explored the depths of it.
And frankly, I knew nothing about it when I started writing it. When I started writing it I actually thought – when I first came up with the idea, I thought that FBI agents were the people who managed the witnesses. I didn’t even know that it was the US Marshal Service that is in charge entirely of the Witness Protection Program. They manage every one of the thousands of people that are in the program.
But the learning curve for us was pretty steep and very difficult, because Witness Protection as an organization is so secretive. But really nobody will talk about it. We were getting stonewalled everywhere we turned in trying to come up with a technical advisor and find a person who could really give us that background and the authenticity that we wanted for the show.
And finally after, probably after a year into the process of creating the show, and maybe we’ll get into it, but it was a very long process from the beginning when we first wrote the script to when we made the pilot to when we finally went into production on the series. And I think it was through persistence and a very, very resourceful assistant that Paul and I have working for us.
I think actually we finally wore them down and they referred us to this person, Charlie Almonzo who has become our technical assistant, who was the former chief inspector for WITSEC in the Los Angeles area. So we brought him in as our full-time technical advisor. And he’s just been an unbelievable font of information for us.
And having said that, even at that there are things that he won’t tell us. There are still things about it that we have to sort of guess at, because they’re so sensitive, and the lives of people are at stake that we have to be a little bit inventive. And Charlie and I have developed this rapport where if I’m touching on something that’s really sensitive, I kind of have to play this guessing game with him in asking how things work procedurally. And he’ll say, “Probably not.” And then when I start getting closer, he go, “That might work. That sounds like it might be a good idea. Yes, maybe you should explore that a little more.” So that’s kind of the way we work.
So what we do, a lot of it is absolutely dead on accurate. A lot of it is us having to be a little bit inventive. And things are probably just the tiniest bit altered from how things actually work, because we don’t want to give away trade secrets that could put people’s lives in jeopardy.
P. Stupin: As David said, it was a really long road to find Charlie. And initially there are books about the Witness Protection out there, which were certainly valuable resources, to David in particular, as we were developing the pilot. But at one point, right when we were starting development of the series, I had a Federal Marshal who I had called who had agreed to come to the studio and come into my office and talk about things. And we got about two-thirds of the way in. He came to the studio. He came into my office. And then he announced that he had just gotten a call from his boss and could not tell us a word.
So it was frustrating initially. And then I think, again as David said, when they realized that at least they were working with – when the Marshals realized that at least they were working with producers who were quite eager to be as truthful and deal with the subject with respect and reality, then it got a little easier.
Following up on the last question, I was just wondering when you are researching US Marshals, what’s the most interesting thing that you discovered that you didn’t know going into it?
D. Maples: Well, it was a revelation for me early on that in fact it was the Marshals who administer the Witness Protection Program. I think there were a couple of things. One, which makes the show so much fun to write, is the improvisational nature and the autonomy that these WITSEC inspectors operate under. In a lot of instances they kind of make it up as they go along, because there are so many unique situations that arise with these people. So the WITSEC inspectors have to be very inventive in dealing with these people’s personal lives. Because every problem that might arise in a person’s life can have an aspect to it that puts them in some jeopardy or conflicts, confounds, their agreement with the Marshal Service and their status in the Witness Protection Program.
So I think Mary at one point in the pilot script says any given day she gets to try on one of many, many hats she has to wear, which is priest, rabbi, marriage counselor, therapist, best friend, you name it. So that part of it is very interesting as a writer, because you get to explore so many aspects of the character’s professional life.
The other thing that I found out, and was one of the things that made it difficult for us, is the distinction between US Marshal and US Marshal/WITSEC Inspector. Because early on, it wasn’t difficult to talk to people in the US Marshal Service, but they operate quite separately from the WITSEC Inspectors who are also Marshals, but they have this hyphen to their job.
And I would talk to US Marshals around the country and they would say, “Well, obviously we know there are WITSEC Inspectors here. We know that there are people placed in the Witness Protection in the area, but we don’t know who the WITSEC Inspectors are. They don’t work out of the same office as the Marshals.” They have their own separate facility or separate room, office, and usually it’s a small isolated place that they work out of.
The guy said, “We sort of have an inkling who these people are. We’ll see people out on the firing range, and we know they’re Marshals, but we don’t know who they are so we just assume that they must be with Witness Protection.” So even within the Marshal Service the WITSEC Inspectors maintain a certain amount of anonymity and distance from even the people within their own law enforcement agencies. And that was fascinating to me. I don’t know, Paul, was there something that struck you?
P. Stupin: Yes, I’ll tell you. Not only everything you said about the sort of role of the marshal and how that worked within Witness Protection, it was also interesting for me the demands and the challenges that the witnesses face. Like in my mind, I had always figured that they give them a new identity, they get them a job, they set them up in a particular part of the world. And there’s elements of truth in that, but there’s also a lot of the responsibility to reinventing themselves that’s placed on the witnesses themselves. They basically have to go out and get a new job for themselves and help create their identity. And there’s a lot of the training that the marshals are given that’s focused towards helping the witnesses help themselves. And some witnesses are quite capable of it and other witnesses have a lot of difficulty and get into a lot of trouble doing it.
D. Maples: Fail spectacularly.
P. Stupin: Yes, they fail spectacularly. And one of the things we found is it’s not determined upon quality of education or sociopolitical elements to who they are. It’s that the most successful people with the most amount of money can really bomb out in the Witness Protection Program. And sometimes the people from the other end of the spectrum succeed. And a lot of people stay in the program and after a number of years some people actually leave. And when they leave, they’re opening themselves up to the potential consequences of that, which in some cases might be life and death.
Did the writer’s strike had any effect on the series and where you guys currently stand on filming the season, if you wrapped, and if not, are you worried at all about the impending strike in June?
D. Maples: I think everybody’s worried about the possibility of a strike in June. At the moment, an actor’s strike hopefully would not affect us. If we get a second season pickup, and hopefully we will, the writers would go back to work probably around the beginning of July, and we would start shooting the second season in the fall sometime. Hopefully an actor’s strike would not be long enough to prevent us from starting on our production as planned.
As far as last season went, it was interesting for us. We managed to get the last scripts delivered literally – I sent in the last episode I think five minutes before the strike deadline. I e-mailed it out and it was pencils down and no more writing, which was frustrating and challenging for me and for Paul. Because in the normal course of things after our first draft is turned in, there’s a lot of writing that goes on, and a lot of back and forth between a line producer and the actors and all of the production people.
And for my part, I was removed from most of that process. I couldn’t rewrite any scenes or any dialogue, which was frustrating to both me and the actors. But I continued to function from a distance as executive producer, and I would help as much as I could from a distance. And Paul had to sort of carry the burden of me not being around in terms of making sure that the two and a half episodes that we had left to shoot stayed on track and maintained the tone and the spirit of the show and didn’t sort of run amuck. And he did a great job doing that.
Then we had to – we still had a lot of post-production that was required. And I, being a loyal union person, wasn’t going to cross any union picket lines. So I couldn’t go on the lot where the post-production was being done, because the lot was being picketed by writers and I wasn’t going to cross my own lines.
Having said that, I didn’t take the Shawn Ryan hard line which was I’m absolutely not going to do anything further on my show. My feeling personally was that that was not going to in any way adversely affect the studio if I walked away from the show, at least not from their point of view. I think they might have missed me a little bit, but they would’ve carried on and finished the show as they saw fit, which is not a criticism of anybody at the studio nor the network. But as in any collaborative process or creative endeavor a lot of subjective decisions are made, and my feeling about it was that I needed to stay plugged in. I needed to continue to give my input in the editing process.
But I couldn’t do it in the way that producers normally do. I was limited to having DVDs sent to me daily. And I would watch cuts, and I would relay my thoughts on the cuts to Paul. And then he would communicate them to the editors. So it was really literally playing telephone through most of the post-production. I think the writer’s strike ended maybe before we finished cutting the very last episode. The strike ended and I was finally able to go back and finally sit in an edit bay and go through some things.
But it was challenging and it was a little bit nerve racking because there were still – we use voiceover as a convention in the show throughout. And the last scripts that I turned in I turned in without voiceover, and I couldn’t white those until after the strike was over. And there was some question for awhile, “Well are we going to go on the air before I get a chance to write those voiceovers?” It was a little bit nerve racking.
But all in all, Paul did a great job picking up the mantle of our duties. We try to take advantage as much as can of his producorial skills and me as the writer. And he had to take on both jobs during the strike. And I have to say that the other people involved too, our line producer and the actors and the directors, really did a great job of making those shows with pretty rough first draft scripts turn out very, very well.
P. Stupin: And we were able to get through the entire first order. We didn’t shoot over a – we didn’t have to curtail our episodes. We didn’t have to change story arcs around. We were able to shoot all 11 episodes.
D. Maples: So we were one of the lucky few. We had all the scripts turned in before the strike began so they continued production, got them all shot. And I think actually the last couple of episodes are as good if not better than anything we did before. So I’m pretty happy about it.
It looks like from the promos like there’s a really good mix of humor and drama in the show, so I’d like to ask how those elements mix and work together on the show.
D. Maples: I think that the challenge for us in doing the show is finding that mix and we do in a lot of episodes. Hopefully we succeed in making you laugh and cry in the same hour show. It’s a difficult, difficult balancing act.
My natural bent is towards comedy. So I’m sort of constantly checking myself as we write the episodes where there could be a very dramatic emotional moment, and my first instinct is to write a joke. So for me personally, it’s okay, “When do I let the drama play a straight drama and when do I let these emotional moments just kind of ring through without adding any comedy? And when do I let the comedy play as a pure comedy moment? And when do I do both?”
There are instances in some really, really tight dramatic moments we find a laugh or we find – it’s a real challenge. We’ve got great actors who have an amazing ability to bring that human element to it. In the darkest, darkest moments there are those moments where you have to laugh, where something strikes you as funny, at least they do me and I think most people. Those are the kinds of moments that we look for and we try to take those left turns when we can. And I think for the most part we succeed in no small part thanks to an incredibly talented cast who can pull those kinds of things off.
P. Stupin: And also I can tell you that it is very, from my perspective, it’s really finding someone with a really unique voice in really, which was what David has always had and has brought to the table, is a real sense of wit and a real sense of humor and a real sense of character melted together with an understanding of elements that are necessary in a procedural show. And I think what you see out there on television now are a lot of shows, most of the shows that deal with law enforcement or different areas of law enforcement don’t have, in my mind, that same sense of wit and fun and storytelling.
And what I think separates us from, hopefully, the rest of the pack is not only do we shed an interesting light on an element of law enforcement that you haven’t seen, but we also do it in a way that explores every single aspect of our character’s personalities and lives. And our characters are witty and fun and smart. They’re coming from the head of a particularly talented writer who can bring these people to life in an unusual way. And I think those elements of our show will be something which hopefully will come across as really unique.
The other thing, really from the very beginning when we first started developing these shows, David has a particular propensity toward creating these amazing female characters. You wouldn’t know from looking at him, but you know he’s –
D. Maples: What are you saying, Paul? What are you getting at?
P. Stupin: He’s not a woman but –
D. Maples: That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.
P. Stupin: But he’s got just this incredible gift for writing these incredible female characters. Anyway, that’s one thing which I know we’re just both really proud of.
D. Maples: And the other thing, just to cap it, a lot of what happens just to go back to the actors, Mary and Fred in particular, they’re both kind of great barometers for me. There are instances where I will put in something that I think is funny in the middle of something that doesn’t belong. And they’re both so incredibly respectful of the material, which is a godsend to any writer. Because I think particularly in television, there’s a huge tendency for actors to walk on and use a script as kind of a blueprint and feel like they can improvise however they want.
And Fred and Mary are both extraordinarily well-trained stage actors, but I have the great fortune that they treat these scripts like the bible, which is not to say that they don’t question things and they don’t have great suggestions. But they always – I’ll get phone calls from them at all hours saying, “Hey, this line here, is that really the best way to go? Does this work or is it okay if I change ands to also.” They’re so incredibly faithful to what’s on the page that I can write almost anything.
And I have confidence that they have such a great sense of the character in the show that if it’s not appropriate, if it doesn’t work, they’ll let me know. And usually they let me know and have a great suggestion for how to fix it or a better way to go. So I’m really lucky that I have those people as well on the stage in front of the camera with this incredible collaborative spirit and willingness to take chances with stuff, often that they go, “I don’t know if this can work.” And sometimes I’ll say, “Trust me. Just give it a shot. If it doesn’t work, we won’t use it.”
And they throw themselves into it and sometimes I’m right and sometimes I’m not. When I’m not, hopefully I’m the first one to say, “You’re right. Not working let’s do something else.” And vise versa, and sometimes they’ll say, “You were right. That worked great.” But as far as the comedy and the drama goes, we have a really good system of checks and balances to figure out a way to make it all come together seamlessly hopefully.
How does filming in New Mexico – does that impose any I guess difficulties or anything as opposed to filming in Los Angeles?
D. Maples: Paul.
P. Stupin: I can tell you without a doubt, absolutely. I mean first of all, most of our cast basically moved down to New Mexico for the four months, five months that we were shooting. And that certainly causes a little bit of a disruption in everyone’s life.
The other thing is what New Mexico brings to the table is an incredible sense of texture, an incredible feel, a blue sky that just stretches on for what seems like forever. And I think, visually we got something that you haven’t seen on television before.
Now on the negative side, it’s a state that has a brand new film industry and so a lot of the mechanisms that we’re use to dealing with in Los Angeles, like location permits and the number of hours we can shoot in any particular locale and things like that, are still being worked out down there. So there’re a lot of little kinks in the machinery that we would have to deal with on a daily basis.
But most of that and most of the concerns surrounding that would kind of dissolve away when we would look at the footage that we were shooting. And we’d see the desert, and we’d see the mountains, and we’d see the ravines, and we’d see this incredible sort of architecture from the 1960’s and the roadside feel of Route 66 that is still there.
And I think that the fun of – and as David said, New Mexico and Albuquerque is very much a character in the show. And it’s a character because it’s vivid and it’s bright and it’s colorful and it’s something that I think gives us a color palate and a look that you haven’t seen. So anyway, there are pluses and minuses to Albuquerque, but I think the pluses outweigh the minuses.
by Emma Loggins