‘Last Resort’ co-creator Shawn Ryan on submarines, Scott Speedman, Andre Braugher and more

Over the last decade, Shawn Ryan has created one of the greatest dramas in TV history with “The Shield,” done strong work running “The Unit” and “Lie to Me,” produced the brilliant-but-canceled “Terriers” and created the uneven but promising “The Chicago Code,” which was just starting to get good when FOX canceled it. That’s a resume that would make me very interested in seeing his new ABC series “Last Resort” (which he co-created with Karl Gajdusek) even if I didn’t know the series also involved both nuclear submarines and Andre Braugher.
“Last Resort,” which debuts on ABC on Thursday, September 27 at 8 p.m., stars Braugher as Marcus Chaplin, commander of the USS Colorado. When he and first officer Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman) get an order from a questionable source to nuke Pakistan, they refuse, are attacked, and flee to a tropical island in French Polynesia that Marcus assumes control of while he plots his next move.
It’s easily the best pilot for any network fall show I’ve seen (I’ve embedded the full version from Yahoo! for you to see for yourself below), but it also raises a host of questions bout how exactly Ryan and Gajdusek are going to make this show work, both week to week and long-term. I spoke with Ryan about that (and there are some mild spoilers about the premises of a few upcoming episodes, but nothing shocking, nor anything Ryan was uncomfortable sharing), about winding up with yet another Scott from “Felicity” after working with Scott Foley on “The Unit,” the pleasure of being a “Homicide” fan who gets to write for Andre Braugher, and more.
Was this Karl’s idea initially? How did this start?
Shawn Ryan:     Marney Hochman, who was my exec on “The Shield” for a number of years, and then I hired her away to help form this company, she had been talking about him as a writer for well over a year. I hadn’t really read his stuff, but she was a big fan of his writing. He had been mostly worked in the feature world, and she had communicated with him and so when our 20th deal ended and we went over to Sony about a year ago, he was one of four or five people that we set meetings to discuss things. He came in and he said, “I’ve got five ideas,” and I said, “Well, which one are you most excited about, because that’s probably the only one I really want to hear.” And he said, “Well, it’s not even really fully an idea,” and he just talked about the world of nuclear submarines and the power that they have and what it means to be in control of one, and if you were in control of one how it really made you more powerful than North Korea or Iran who are thorns in our sides. It was very intriguing.
He didn’t really have characters or anything, and then as we talked about it more, I knew it was a really big idea and it was going to be kind of massive and epic in scope and I talked to him about partnering up. I knew that if it were something that I was co-writing as opposed to just overseeing that we’d get taken a little bit more seriously. He agreed, and we started coming up with the characters. It was much more of a collaboration than anything I’ve ever done before from a writing standpoint, but it was good. We’ve got very kind of matching personalities and we’re both very un-precious about our own material.
“Nuclear sub”: with those two words, you could basically go anywhere. How did you get from that to Marcus declaring his own sovereign nation on this small island?
Shawn Ryan:     We had the ending before we had a lot of the middle, I would say. We knew we wanted to end up in that place of a George Washington/Colonel Kurtz, and then it was all in the details of how do we arrive there, what is that place and then you have all kinds of production considerations too. We didn’t know for a long time where we would film it. Puerto Rico was discussed, South Africa, Australia; Hawaii [was] obviously where we ended up. So that affected things a little bit as well.
A lot of the characters Karl had the initial ideas on. We always knew we wanted a sort of mentor-mentee, Marcus-Sam thing. In a way it’s a little bit of a blur that time. I can’t remember all the specifics about what came where. It was just kind of a constant moving forward with it. I know the biggest thing that we spent the most time on was what is the order that comes into the submarine and why don’t they carry it out. We were very adamant right from the get-go that we didn’t want it to be “Well, when the day comes these are secretly peaceniks who won’t push a button.” We believe that these guys will turn the key when they believe an order is valid and so we went back and forth on a lot of things until we came upon this secondary network thing, the idea that it’s a technically incorrect order, but delivered in a suspicious, weird way. And then we spoke to people who were submarine captains, and obviously their opinion may be a little bit biased, but they say that unlike some other branches of the military, they’re encouraged to be critical thinkers and encouraged to question something of this kind of import if there is a snag in the routine in some way. So after about two or three weeks, we came up with that aspect, which I think tends to work well.
You’ve run a lot of shows. How much thought at this point went into asking, “That this is a really intriguing premise, but what is the show here?”
Shawn Ryan:     It’s a little bit scary, which I like. I never do things the easy way for whatever reason. We had thought a lot about what season one would be before we ever pitched it to the networks. We thought a lot about what the final episode might be, whether it’s in season five, season seven, season nine, whatever. So there was enough there just between the two of us having spent a month half talking about it that I felt that we had a show. You never know for sure until you get into a writer’s room and you’re trying to break episode 32 whether there is in fact a show, so I can’t sit here today and say definitively that I know for sure. I know that we’ve broken the first six episodes after the pilot and they’re all different and I really like them and we haven’t lacked for stories there. We know places we’re going to go in the final 6 of our 13 episode order, but we’ll see.
You have this mystery premise about who sent the order and what happened to the SEAL team that’s on board the sub. How does the show continue if and when that is resolved?
Shawn Ryan:     There are two mysteries in our show, but our show is not based on a mystery. I can’t say ultra definitively because we’re just through episode seven, but I believe that both those “mysteries” will be revealed within the first 13 episodes but this is a show about complications and the situations that they find themselves in. The complications that they find themselves in won’t necessarily disappear with the revelations of those mysteries.
With “The Shield,” with “The Unit,” with “Terriers,” with “The Chicago Code,” there is an obvious structure for each episode. There is a case, or a mission. You know regardless of what else is going on there is some sort of central spine. What is that spine here?
Shawn Ryan:     It’s a society-building spine amongst a group of people on the submarine who are looking for order, looking for a way home, who had a very rigid way of doing things prior to this and some people want to keep that rigidity and other people don’t. You throw in the mix of the people on this island, the natives and the transplants on this island that they encounter. You throw in the political element of what’s going around the world and this becomes a society-building show, whether that society is a group of the 12 females onboard the Colorado or whether that society is the entire crew of the Colorado or whether that society is the crew and the natives on the island or the society that is in D.C. that’s trying to uncover the conspiracy.
I would argue that that’s what the show becomes and is. I think the roots of that are in the pilot, but as I mentioned in the TCAs, I try like the plague to avoid premise pilots and this is without a doubt a premise pilot. I just don’t think the story could be told any other way without it being a premise pilot. It’s always better when you can just drop in the episode, theoretical episode six of the series, but this we just couldn’t do that and so the series focuses on these two men, Sam and Marcus and their relationship and the people that work for them and their agendas whether the same or different in various episodes. The reason we ultimately went to ABC was ABC really is the one major network on TV that, no bullshit, likes serialized dramas. And this is going to be a serialized thing, which is something I’ve done before where characters change, and actions within an episode affect relationships in meaningful ways.
But when you would sit down to write an episode on one of the other shows, you always knew there would be a case. Even on “Lost” in the early going, they could say, “All right, this is going to be an episode about Jack, so we will come up with a story on the island and parallel a Jack flashback.” What is the starting point for each episode here?
Shawn Ryan:     I’ll give you an example. We’re getting ready to put out episode 104 today. I think it’s really, really good. We hired this New York playwright who had never written for TV. David Weiner is his name and he did just a fabulous with the script and essentially this is the negotiation episode. This is the episode where after a lot of shit goes down in the pilot and the three episodes after that where the American government essentially says, “Let’s figure out a way to end this,” and some people come to the island and try to end it, and it’s about what happens in that negotiation. So it’s not one freeform story the way that some HBO series occasionally can feel. That’s the negotiation episode. 
Episode 103 we call the “stay or go” episode. That’s not the actual title, but that’s where Marcus and Sam come to the realization that these people were volunteers to the Navy, and then again to go on submarines. You can’t be placed against your will on submarines in the Navy. So these are people who volunteered twice and some of them are feeling like they’ve been conscripted on this island for something that they weren’t on the con when all this shit down. They weren’t involved and a lot of them have very compelling reasons why they want to be home and not on this island and so it becomes a stay and go. If we can send some people home we’ll try. Who will stay? Who will go?
So there is a beginning, middle and end to those stories and it’s finding those stories.
But have you found it more difficult than on the other shows you’ve done to just come up with the initial genesis for what this episode is going to be?
Shawn Ryan:     Not yet. I could see how it could get tougher as we exhaust some obvious, to us, some obvious roots to take right now and if we’re successful we’ll become a 22 episode show, which certainly eats through story faster than “The Shield or “Terriers did, but for now it’s not been an issue and in fact, we’re further ahead on stories and scripts than I’ve ever been on any show before and I don’t think that would be the case if the stories were hard to break.
I want to talk about what you learned about writing a military-themed show with “The Unit.” It was a network show and it was the story about these men in this unit , and yet you had to, at the same time, tell the story of the wives. I have to assume that was CBS saying women are not going to watch this show if there weren’t women.
Shawn Ryan:     No, that was our pitch and I’m cognizant that we didn’t always pull off that portion of the show as well as we pulled off the other part, especially in the first two seasons. I actually thought we got to a pretty good place later on with that storytelling. We found ways to integrate something. 
There were some episodes that we integrated a lot better than others, but that was always difficult. That was more difficult. What are the wives going to do while our guys are literally saving the world In Afghanistan this week? There are a lot of lessons there. That was tough. In this case I would say that all of our characters, even Kylie and Christine, who are back in D.C. and not on the island, they’re tied into the main A-story. They’re active participants in this overall global thing and so this story to me feels more like a Tom Clancy thing where there are people all over the globe, but they’re all kind of connected to the same thing.
So it’s not just that Jessy Schram [as Scott Speedman’s wife] is there because ABC is a very female-skewing network? Or even Daisy Betts as the women trying to succeed in the man’s world?
Shawn Ryan:     Well those characters were all in our initial pitch except Kylie, Autumn Reeser’s character, was a man originally in the pitch and it was my idea to change that after the pitch. It wasn’t something that ABC requested, but having signed up with ABC I was aware what a female-friendly network it is and what their core audience was. One of the reasons why they wanted us was I do think they wanted to expand beyond that audience. I’m not sure how many men watched “Good Christian Bitches.” But – and it’s not like somebody over there at ABC has told me this, I’m extrapolating – I think they’ve gone too far down the female-friendly rabbit hole and away from the broad “What can appeal to everyone?” thing. 
Having said that, we spent a lot of time thinking about the show from a female perspective, the female writers on our show. It’s very interesting because we’ve been having a big debate about something that may or may not happen in episode seven and it splits exactly down gender lines in our room, which I find interesting and I think we’re going to go with the women on that. That hasn’t been firmly decided, but I think that’s where we’re going and so there is certain allowances, but basically it’s less to do with the number of female characters or even what they’re doing as it is a focus on character and emotion I would say. This is, I think, clearly the most nakedly emotional show I’ve written before. Going straight into like some of those Sam, Christine flashbacks in the pilot there is a certain sentimentality that hasn’t existed in my previous work. 
When Paul Lee saw the pilot first of all, they kept their cards very close to their vest. I found out afterwards that he knew it was going to be on the air when he first saw it, but of course we didn’t know until pick-up day. He said that he really knew that with that script and with Martin Campbell directing that he’d get a great action ride out of the pilot. Where he felt surprised was by how emotional he felt and the people that worked for him felt watching it and that’s what, I think, makes an ABC show. 
I think women will want to watch Scott Speedman, and the female characters we have are not just going to be sort of supporting off in the corner. They’re going to have their own stories where they’ve got to drive action and even the thing with Autumn Reeser and with Jessy Schram, their stories are almost always never going to be as big as what’s going on the island with Marcus and Sam. I told them, “But when we’re there you, guys are the stars of that movie. This isn’t about you sort of in the background as the man drives the action and is hauling you from behind. You’re going to be the stars and driving that,” and that also makes an ABC show I think.
How many female writers do you have?
Shawn Ryan:     We have three.
Out of a total of?
Shawn Ryan:     Well it’s a little deceptive because me and Karl are obviously here and we have two writing teams that are all male, so there is four, but really they’re paid two slots. So we hired seven writing entities, three of which were women, but it’s eight men and three women in the room.
One of the things that I always liked about “The Unit,” especially in the pilot, is that Scott Foley shows up as the new guy and the point of view character, but usually in the trope the new guy has so much to learn. Bob knows exactly what he’s doing. There is no question at any point he fits in and Daisy’s character is new, but it seems clearly like she knows what she’s doing as well. Why did you go that way?
Shawn Ryan:     Well going back to “The Unit you don’t get onto Delta Force without being pretty damn good and that was something that Eric Haney, our advisor, who lived that life stressed. That doesn’t mean these guys don’t have anything to learn and we did play episodes where Dennis Haysbert and Max Martini teach him a thing or two along the way, but you come in pretty fucking competent and ready to go on day one. It’s funny because Eric’s book by the first two-thirds of the book just goes into the process of how Delta was formed and all the training they did and the selection process and less on the actual missions, which are probably a little bit more top secret, but it’s just unbelievable that amount that goes into that.
We had a couple moments in the pilot where Grace did sort of not know amount or made a little bit more mistakes and we ended up trimming them out because the feeling from a lot of people watching it wasn’t beneficial to her. There was a little problem in the writing that we made her a little not incompetent, but we didn’t make here quite competent enough in the original script and people want to feel like hey the number three or four in charge of a nuclear submarine knows what they’re doing and so she does. So once again, similar situation where in the subsequent episodes she’s got some things to learn, she has some things to prove, not only is she a woman, but she is going to face charges of nepotism since her father is an admiral, but you have to have her at a base level of competence that’s high and then say well how does fight to get her way up here then.
Because it occurs to me Jarek’s partner on “Chicago Code” also knew what he was doing.
Shawn Ryan:     So now you’ve connected the dots on three of my shows and it makes me think well, is that just something I do? I do think an audience kind of rebels against people in professional positions who don’t seem to know what they’re doing and yet he wasn’t as competent as Jarek was, so it’s funny. This guy is good and this guy is great and you still want that separation, but you can’t have the guy shuffling around unable to tie his shoes.
Were you a “Felicity” fan?
Shawn Ryan:     I recall myself in the middle. I certainly watched a lot of “Felicity.” It wasn’t a show that I had to get home to. It’s not a show that I saw every single episode of, but I watched the vast majority of the first season. By the time the final season rolled around “The Shield” had just started up and I was uber-busy and so I dropped out a little bit near the end, but I knew a lot of what was going on.
I’m just curious. Were you watching the two Scotts and thinking “Hmm, I can use these guys one day”? Or is it just a coincidence?
Shawn Ryan:     Well I was just happy “The Shield was going. I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but Scott Speedman was at my wedding 14 years ago. I got a call the night before my wedding from my college roommate who said and he had married a Canadian girl and so he was in Toronto, and it’s a very small acting community there. He said, “I’ve got this buddy who just finished filming this pilot. He doesn’t really know anyone in town; can I bring him to your wedding?” And a couple of people sort of cancelled last minute, so I said bring him by. And so my roommate brought Scott Speedman who had just finished filming “Felicity.” So one of the reasons why I started watching “Felicity” was I had met this guy was aware of it. So when it came out I was like, “Oh, that was the guy at my wedding, let me check it out,” and then it was good. 
Then my college roommate, he had a brother who lived out here and Scott became friends with him and we were friends with him, so I would see Scott like once or twice a year socially. About 2006 or 2007 I started threatening him with, “I’m going to find something for you. The time is coming; I’m going to find something.” So we weren’t like good friends, but we were aware of each other and it is funny that I’ve nabbed the two Scotts both for these military things.
I’m a guy who tries not to repeat myself and yet, I see certain things being repeated.
Dennis Haysbert can give good monologue, but that was not a character who talked a lot. Mackey didn’t talk a lot overall, although he did at times, like the confession. Have you worked with an actor before where you just want to give them these big meals like Andre Braugher?
Shawn Ryan:     Not like Andre. It was always great to write a good Claudette monologue on “The Shield” if she was indignant about something. I’m trying to think if there is anything even close on any of the shows. Probably not. If anything, we’ve over-written some monologues on the first three or four episodes that we’ve had to go back and kind of cull a little bit because it’s just so tempting, but you have to be careful not to have it come across too speechified, but he’s just a wonder. It’s unbelievable.
I know you were a big “Homicide” fan, and now you’ve got Pembleton captaining your sub.
Shawn Ryan:     Yeah, I remember those episodes really great and we got Jay Karnes coming on the show, so I tweeted that a couple ago, whatever, that it was going to Pembleton versus Dutch in one of these episodes.
All due respect to Jay, character-wise that’s not a fair fight. Frank would kick Dutch’s ass.
Shawn Ryan:     Yes, I think he would. I think that’s right.
When is the smoke monster coming?
Shawn Ryan:     And that’s probably a season four thing and that’s when you’ll know that there weren’t enough stories for this show when we go the mystical route.
How much thought went into building this island, the culture and history of it? How much do you know about this place?
Shawn Ryan:     A lot, some of which we can’t pull off from a production standpoint.
What do you mean?
Shawn Ryan:     Karl and I had a vision of the city on the island, but we found some pictures of it that just proved a little impossible to pull off on Hawaii, so we’ve had to adjust kind of what the city is. In our minds there was a large central area, sort of like “Deadwood,” even bigger than that, and that was just impossible to pull off. Now it’s become these pieces. The bar is here and then the hospital is there and these other things over here and we’re going to add to that as the show goes on, but it’s impossible to make the one sort of big central on the water city that we had first imagined and envisioned when we came up with the show.
But historically, was this always an independent nation?
Shawn Ryan:     We think it was French at one point. This was in French Polynesia and we think this was probably the French colonial thing. There is a native population that lives on the interior part of the island, and the exterior is a little bit more expats, faded hippies, people running away from something else in the world, vacationers, adventurers. There are volcanoes to climb here and waves to surf and everything, so we think on the outskirts, where we spend a lot of time, it’s a very eclectic international place. And then you go inside and that’s where the native population lives and so you get both those elements.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com