Amazon released its latest batch of pilots a couple of weeks ago, in the midst of press tour, so it took me a while to get to them, and I still haven”t had time to watch “Point of Honor.” But I saw all the other adult scripted series, and two clearly stood out as the ones I hope go to series: “The Man in the High Castle,” about a reality where the Axis powers won WWII, and “Mad Dogs,” about four middle-aged friends (played by Steve Zahn, Romany Malco, Michael Imperioli and Ben Chaplin) whose vacation to visit a fifth old pal (Billy Zane) goes terribly awry. Both are adaptations with top-notch U.S. producers involved: “Man in the High Castle” with Frank Spotnitz working from the Philip K. Dick novel, “Mad Dogs” with Shawn Ryan teaming up with “Mad Dogs” UK creator Cris Cole.
Amazon moves at its own pace with these things – this is the fourth batch of pilots Amazon has done, and “Transparent” and “Mozart in the Jungle” are the only shows picked up from the second batch to have already premiered (“Bosch,” also from that group, debuts February 13 – and doesn”t have an established pattern of pick-ups. (Only two from the third group got series orders, and one from the second – Chris Carter”s “The After” – was picked up, then quietly killed without a second episode ever being filmed.) It”s still not clear how much weight Amazon actually gives the crowd-sourced process, since “Transparent” was easily the lowest-rated of its pilot class, while Woody Allen recently made an Amazon series deal that allowed him to skip this process altogether. But if I were a betting man, I would wager on both “Man in the High Castle” and “Mad Dogs” getting pick-ups.
While the various shows wait to hear their fates, I emailed Shawn Ryan (producer and/or creator of “The Shield,” “Terriers,” “The Unit,” “The Chicago Code” and “Last Resort,” among others) some questions about the “Mad Dogs” pilot – which I found atmospheric and engrossing even in its slow-burn plotting, and which looked great courtesy of director Charles McDougall – how he and Cole intend to deviate from the original, how different (if at all) the process has been with Amazon, and even how a TV veteran like him feels about Amazon letting Woody Allen avoid the pilot process he”s currently going through. There are spoilers for the pilot, so if you haven’t watched yet, beware.
What interested you in the original series and made you want to be part of a new version?
Shawn Ryan: I loved the tone of it, the unpredictability of it, the way that the character work grew and grew each episode. I had gotten to know Cris and was developing a different show with him when Sony bought the company that produced “Mad Dogs” UK. They asked Cris and I if we would like to do an American version. Cris and I talked. For all that he liked about the UK version, there were also a lot of things he would want to do differently now. Back then, he never thought they would make more than four episodes so he never really thought the backstory through a lot. He liked the idea of starting with the original premise and then quickly splintering off into a completely new version. We also talked about how American men were different than British men and how that might affect the show. He started to get really excited about the notion, which made me really excited.
Adaptations of foreign formats are big right now. Some are very loosely based on the original idea, while some are beat-for-beat (and at times shot-for-shot) from the original, even if the original is in English and aired here in the States. With Cris on board for this version, how different, if at all, are you expecting it to be?
Shawn Ryan: The pilot, while having many similar story beats to the UK version, also has some significant differences and those differences will only grow bigger until episode 5, when it will be a completely new story with only the occasional nod to the original. And, as I mentioned earlier, American men are just different than Brits.
As someone who wasn’t familiar with the original, I came to the end of the pilot and said, “That was really interesting, but I have no idea what the series is beyond that.” In broad strokes, can you give me a sense of what the show is going forward? Just a never-ending vacation from hell?
Shawn Ryan: Yes, I would expect that everyone would have that conclusion at first. I love that challenge. And I think a lot of people who watch the pilot will watch episode 2 to see if we can answer that satisfactorily. Last year we were able to hire three very talented writers and have a month-long writers room where we broke all ten episodes of a first season. We have every beat of those first ten episodes done and that document is what convinced Amazon that it was a series and not just an interesting pilot. There”s definitely a vacation from hell aspect to the show, but we think it is much more of a character piece about longtime friends/rivals and how they react under intense, and sometimes surreal and bizarre, pressure. Cris and I like to say that this is really a show about the uselessness of the middle aged American male. I also like to say it”s an Anti-Anti-Hero show in the sense that none of our guys have any real special skills. In fact, their instincts are often their worst enemies.
My understanding is that the original show had short seasons even by UK standards: 4, 4, 4 and 2. Is there enough plot here to fill a longer season? And have you had any discussions with Amazon yet about how many episodes you might do in a given season? So far, everything they’ve done has been 10 or 11 episodes per season, but I don’t know if they’re married to that length.
Shawn Ryan: Right now it”s a plan for ten episodes. I think that”s the right length for this kind of show. As I”ve said before, we”ve broken all of Season 1, but we”ve also pitched broad strokes to Amazon for Seasons 2 and 3. Not sure if their other series would be more or less episodes. We told them it was a ten episode a year idea and they liked that.
Charles McDougall (who worked with Ryan on “The Chicago Code” pilot) always gives good pilot, but this is really beautiful and atmospheric even by his standards. Was it just the location adding a ton of value? (And will you be able to film the series in the same locations?) What kind of discussions did you have about what you wanted the thing to look like?
Shawn Ryan: Charles is great. He had a few different advantages on this. One, Puerto Rico is truly gorgeous and exotic looking. Secondly, finding that villa was really crucial. It plays a huge role in the show and it”s spectacular. In the UK version the villa was inland with hills looming over it from all sides (making it feel beautiful but claustrophobic) and plot points were dependent on that. We initially tried to find something similar in P.R., but we couldn”t find anything whose grandeur satisfied Charles. When we saw the villa on the ocean, Cris and I talked about how we could adjust the story (not just in the pilot but in future eps) to fit that. Once we embraced it, Charles just made it look fantastic. Finally, we shot this pilot in 4K. I don”t understand all the technical ramifications of that, but basically it just looks better and richer. Once again, Charles took advantage of that. I think, visually, this is easily the best-looking pilot I”ve been associated with.
The little man in the cat mask is among the creepiest images I’ve seen in a while. Is that something from the original? If not, where did that idea come from?
Shawn Ryan: There is a similar scene in the UK pilot, though in that case he was wearing a Tony Blair mask. It”s hard to get celebrities cleared for that kind of thing, but dead celebrities and politicians are legal to use. We circled the ideas of Michael Jackson and Donald Trump, but then Cris went searching on the internet for Halloween masks and he discovered that cat mask. It was just so freaky. The moment he showed it to us, we all agreed it was perfect. Plus Cris and I liked anything that deviated (at least in a good way) from the UK version.
Having done shows for both basic cable and broadcast, how different was this process, if at all? You certainly don’t lack for production values, and you got a terrific cast; with Sony involved, was this appreciably different than, say, making the “Last Resort” pilot?
Shawn Ryan: Not really very different. I was very pleasantly surprised by how financially and creatively supportive Amazon was. They want their product to be the best on TV and they gave us a budget to really shoot it right. Certainly a ten episode order made getting our cast easier than if it was a 22 episode order. The creative community is really intrigued with Amazon and Netflix and want to be in business with them.
Speaking of that cast and the process, do you think you could have gotten those four guys (plus Billy Zane) if you had to do the casting in the crunch of network pilot season?
Shawn Ryan: Possibly, as the 10 episode commitment is attractive to actors like Zahn, Imperioli, Chaplin and Malco. But, realistically, it would have been much harder to achieve. I wasn”t hearing a lot of talk about actors getting simultaneous offers on other things as we were trying to figure out our cast, which always threatens to make you panic. We were able to take our time and ensure that not only were all the actors great but that they felt like they could be friends for the last 20 years.
Did the public nature of this particular pilot process factor into anything you did creatively?
Shawn Ryan: No, like any pilot you do, you know that you”ve got that one episode to get their attention and hook them. So that doesn”t change. The nice thing about the Amazon process is that because the pilot is definitely going to air you have to finalize all music, sound, credits, etc.., which means you get to deliver it exactly the way you want, unlike all other pilots, where sound, music and credits are often temp.
Amazon recently made a series deal with Woody Allen that lets him skip their pilot process and go straight to series. Do you figure four Oscars and decades of acclaim earns him special treatment, or would you like to see him also have to deal with Amazon customer reviews before he got the series order?
Shawn Ryan: I don”t mind at all that an artist was given an opportunity to go right to series. I”m always happy when a writer has power and leverage in this business to ask for (and receive) something better than his predecessors have. I think this is a writers medium and the more control and power a writer has the better the product (usually, but not always) is.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com