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Sub Commanders: Talking With Last Resort‘s Shawn Ryan and Karl Gajdusek

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Gajdusek and Ryan, at left, with cast members Autumn Reeser, Andre Braugher, Scott Speedman and Daisy Betts at TCA press tour.

Last night was the premiere of ABC’s military-political thriller Last Resort. At the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles in July, after watching the pilot, I sat down with creators Shawn Ryan and Karl Gajdusek to ask them about the show, its premise, and how they plan to keep the intrigue going:

With a lot of ambitious pilots like this that I’ve seen over the past few years, there is sometimes the question: is this a TV series idea or a movie idea? To the extent you can talk about it, how do you plan to keep this situation spinning forward?

Shawn Ryan: It’s a classic Mike Tyson quote that everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face. Production in series is about constantly getting punched in the face, and can you rise up? What I would say the advantage we have over some of these shows you’re referencing, I’m thinking of like The Event and Flash Forward, is that ultimately at the center of our show is not so much a mystery as there is a situation and a conflict, and that situation/conflict, we think, can be propelled forward. The Nine is another example. Those shows that are based on the idea of, We’re holding some crucial piece of information from you, the audience, and we’re not going to tell you. And then they either wait so long to tell you that you don’t care about that point anymore, or they tell you upfront and once you know who killed Rosie Larsen, you either don’t care or you feel you’ve waited too long to find out. Even if some of the other stuff is entertaining up to that point. So we think there’s a show–you know, do we know for sure? I don’t know. We’re [writing] seven episodes after the pilot ends story-wise and we haven’t lacked for story yet. What’s great is that we have a huge international canvas where you can literally bring players – you can bring chess pieces from any country in the world to play in this story. You can go to D.C., you can go to Rhode Island, you can be on the submarine. We can go to Hong Kong if we want. I mean, we can literally do anything.

(MORE: Review of ABC’s Last Resort)

I got asked that question a lot on The Shield. You kill the cop at the end of the pilot episode, what can you possibly do from there forward? And there have been plenty of shows that have tried and failed. We’re aware of them. We think we’ve learned from some of their mistakes. We think, ultimately at the core, our show is different from those. Will it be different enough that we can do it? We’ll have to see. That’s my long answer. [To Karl] What do you add to that?

Karl Gajdusek: I won’t make it so long. But you asked – you said this is – you mentioned, is this a big feature or is this a television idea. I come from the world of features and in feature films it is always, as Sean said, like one big question, or one big sort of thing that must be accomplished or a mystery that must be unraveled. And we’re not that. We could out every one of our mysteries and we would have a TV show on our hands still. You could know what happened in D.C. and what everyone was hiding, and we’d still have this amazing situation.

SR: And everyone says this, but they all say it because it’s true – it comes down to your characters. Are your characters people that you want to spend every week with? Our hope is, especially in these first three or four episodes, is we put our characters through these various crucibles that you’re going to fall in love with them, but will then be able to tell some personal stories as well.

One thing I’m wondering about the world was the decision to focus on this initial crisis in Pakistan, where some shows might have created a fictional country. And it’s sort of a fictional situation–I mean, Pakistan is a problem country for the United States, but it’s at least nominally an ally in our world. To what extent will you be changing the details of our reality?

SR: Well, obviously, we have a fictional President, a fictional administration. Karl and I have talked all along about how we think this is a show that takes place five minutes in the future. It’s not a futuristic show, but that this is something that could play out in the near future as opposed to this moment right now where Barack Obama is the president. It’s inspired in many ways by the political division that’s happening not only in the country, but in the world. What exists is a general distrust of government, of institutions, and this allows us to tie in to that.

KG: If you were to ask any number of – either the Tea Party or the Occupy movement, would the president of the other side be willing to go to those lengths, we might be at a time when they would say, yeah. They would believe that.

But tell me if I’m reading it wrong: the premise we’re starting from is that there is some sort of undescribed international tension that we’re right in the middle of. They’re not surprised [in the pilot], for instance, that there’s a Pakistani frigate threatening the sub.

SR: Yeah, and there’s an incident that our Navy Seals are involved in that we’re going to learn much more about in the first season. There’s going to be an explanation that’s positive in either the second or third episode, I’m it getting mixed up. I think it’s the third episode that gets at why this attack happened. We won’t necessarily believe it, but that’s the cover story going out to the world and to the American public. We’ve talked to a policy expert at RAND. I talked to a lot of Navy Seals. I wrote a movie for Paramount based on a Tom Clancy book, so as a result, I spent a lot of time last year around Navy Seals. So you talk to them about where, not where trouble has been in the last couple of years, but where trouble’s coming. And there are three countries they’re always mentioning: Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, are the three places. And so as a result, Pakistan felt like a logical place for us to go.

(MORE: Preview of ABC’s Last Resort)

KG: It also goes to something really important to us. The show has been misdescribed as “the nuclear sub goes rogue.” In our world, our guys are patriots. And we’ve talked to nuclear sub commanders about [the order to launch nukes in the pilot], they do what they should do.

SR: We spoke to two different former submarine captains and explained the scenario. And they both said that they would look for more clarification and confirmation before carrying out that order, considering how it was delivered. There’s a reason why you have certain people in control of nuclear weaponry, not just machines. Because machines could be operated to control these submarines and to fire. They don’t. Why is that? Because they want the human element. And so, yes, we have people who think they’re doing the right thing. To push a button and kill 4.2 million people, of any nationality, is a huge thing. And if everything isn’t crystal clear, if there’s no declaration of war, if it’s coming in on a secondary channel that shouldn’t be used for this kind of thing, you’re going to stick an antenna up to the surface and you’re going to ask, “Are you sure?” And that’s what our people do. So yeah, it kind of bugs me when people say, “they go rogue.”

There’s a lot packed into the pilot plot-wise, locations, characters. Was there stuff that you would have liked to have gotten in that you left out, that you pushed back to episode two?

SR: There was a huge element. We filmed a a two and a half minute scene that we had to drop, unfortunately for time purposes that gets to Marcus’s state of mind, and Marcus’s backstory. I don’t know if I want to give it away.

KG: Well no, but there’s a way of saying this, that one of our most important stories is about this captain who now has this group of people on an island against the world. And will he be George Washington, rallying this rebel group to start the most idealistic new nation ever, or will he be Colonel Kurtz or David Koresh who’s spiraling down a rabbit hole on agendas that are completely his own?

SR: It will be raised in episode two. It becomes a huge plot point in episode two.

Last question, especially for Shawn: you’ve had a very successful show on cable [The Shield]. And you’ve had a quickly cancelled show [Terriers]. You’ve had a very successful show on network [The Unit]. Are there lessons that you’ve learned about how keep a show like this alive on a big network?

SR: Yeah, I don’t think those lessons are creative so much as like, Terriers was a horrendous title. Horrendously, horrendously titled show that told nobody what the show was about. I think I’d involve myself early on with the marketing on that show. I’m not saying that with different marketing, different title that it would have been this huge mega-hit. But we didn’t do everything on that front. I learned that you don’t want to turn into a network exec, but you do need to understand them and understand what they need in order to succeed. And so I’ve started befriending the kind of wizards behind the curtains at these various places.

So you have Preston Beckman [an executive at Fox], who when I did Chicago Code I started to engage with him, well why did this show work? What could we have done differently? And on this show, Jeff Bader is the head of programming. He’s a guy who’s survived nine or ten different network presidents in his tenure. He’s seen it all. He talked about some failures they had with big-event shows like Flash Forward.

So, one, I think you have to sell it to the right network, that knows how to market it and that they has an audience for it. Now, on the surface you’d say, Well, ABC shows, they seem real soft. They seem to appeal primarily to women. But then they also had Lost, which was this sort of big, epic show. We keep trying to avoid Lost, but there are a couple of undeniable things. You have a group of people who end up on an island who are trying to get home. So they’ve made that work on ABC. But what really worked about Lost were these huge, emotional threads between characters, and emotional stories that ABC’s primarily female audience does care about. I know Paul Lee said to us afterwards, “I knew you’d make a fun pilot to watch. And the action part, I didn’t know it would be so emotional.”

The lesson I learned, to answer your question, is less about creatively doing something differently and just knowing what the network thinks. They do have a brand. You’ve got to fit that brand. You’ve got to think about the title. You’ve got to think, unfortunately, is there a poster for this show? Well, they just unveiled the poster. Can this network market this show? When Karl first came with the idea, what appealed to me was, “Oh my God. There’s nothing like this on TV. You can say the submarine show if you want, and people will know what you’re talking about.”

KG: We’re out there [in Hawaii], filming an action scene on Tuesday. It’ll be our first. And we’ve been giving so much thought to what our show is—how to make an action sequence that is emotional. When you think about The Thin Red Line or Platoon, those are about the emotionality of action as opposed to the chase-a-guy-down-a-hallway-with-a-gun type of action.