John Rogers on Leverage

John Rogers is a writer I was first introduced to during his run on DC Comics’ Blue Beetle. When he stepped down from the comic monthly series, I was dismayed. But now that I know it was to develop TNT’s Leverage, I’m much happier. The premise of the show is classic and simple: “The series follows a team of thieves, hackers and grifters who act as modern-day Robin Hoods, taking revenge against those who use power and wealth to victimize others.” TNT ordered a 13-episode run for the first season, which premiered in early December, airs every Tuesday at 10 PM (EST). Now, you may be saying to yourself: “Nuts I missed it last night.” Well the good news is that TNT is making it available On Demand, and if you do not have Comcast as your cable provider, you can watch past episodes online at TNT’s website here.

In recent years, cable networks have consistently surpassed the broadcast networks in terms of quality. And while much noise is made about the quality product that the premium cable channels (Showtime with Californication and HBO with Big Love, for example), I consider Leverage to be one of the best new shows to be developed in the past year or more. I recently caught up with Rogers (who co-created the show with Chris Downey) via email and we were able to do a quick interview. I thank Rogers for his time and for not ruthlessly mocking me with how offbase my first question turned out to be.

Tim O’Shea: Just to give folks outside of the TV industry how hard and long a process it is to get a show to television, can you give a brief rundown of how long you and co-creator Chris Downey took to develop the project?

John Rogers: Although both Chris and I have been writing for television for twelve years, and working on getting pilots on the air for about that long, this one actually came about pretty quickly. Chris and I were drinking in my garage– that’s not as sad as it sounds, it’s a very nice garage — and sort of noodling over why the most recent batch of heist shows had failed. We were both convinced that for a heist show, you want your candy. You want to see how the magic trick is done, that grim n/ gritty just isn’t the right way to do the genre for TV. This kind of led into a discussion about how we missed the classic late 60’s early 70’s crime shows like IT TAKES A THIEF or THE ROCKFORD FILES.

At the same time, total coincidence, Dean and TNT were talking about doing a series. Dean pitched the idea of a heist/adventure team show, and TNT agreed. And again total coincidence, Dean and I had lunch that week. We started talking, and boom, the show was born.

All told we pitched it, wrote it and got the greenlight to pilot in about nine months. But we then started shooting the show about nine months after the pilot wrapped.

O’Shea: Given the partial inspiration for the show, any chance you might try to get a cameo from Robert Wagner or James Garner next season?

Rogers: God willing. I came this close to working with Garner a few years ago, and it’s to my eternal disappointment it fell through.

O’Shea: How much of the character development comes from the actors working with the writers? For example, I’m curious how Eliot‘s clear distaste for guns came about, and in particular, why his character always disables a gun as his last step in a fight? Was that an idea of the writers, a director or Christian Kane?

Rogers: Eliot’s distaste for guns is something I built into the character, but the fun thing is that Chris came in to talk about it, and he had a similar idea for the character. Usually the writers start with something, the actors fill it out so they can work out the motivations for their performance, and it’s a feedback thing. There are exceptions, of course. Gina came in with a backstory for Sophie that was far, far more interesting than ours, and we immediately made it canon.

O’Shea: The show has featured some great guest stars to date. Is there any chance any of the characters could return in future episodes?

Rogers: Oh definitely, even more so a few characters showing up in the back half of the season. There’s definitely a “Leverage-verse” forming out there in narrative space.

O’Shea: How much research do the writers do on a typical episode? For example, as a practicing Catholic, I was pleasantly surprised during the Miracle job episode, when the scene during a Mass got the Profession of Faith accurately as well as the snippet from the Eucharistic Prayer.

Rogers: It’s funny, I was originally going to write that episode — I went to Catholic high school – and the writer who took it over is an East Coast Catholic. For that one in particular, we really thought, “If we’re doing a show about faith, then we need to make a point of paying attention to the fine details here.” The fact that Tim’s [Hutton’s] character is Catholic, in particular, rather than another religion, that informs his issues about guilt and sin.

We do a chunk of research for every setting — actually, the stories often come out of the research. But always, on TV, you wind up cutting explanations or details for time. It’s the eternal vicious compromise of the current forty-three minute runtime of TV dramas. My rule of thumb is “We need to be as accurate about X as HOUSE is about medicine.” Take that as you will.

O’Shea: In the opening to the Miracle episode, it was revealed that Sophie had portrayed a female Willy Loman in a production of Death of A Salesman. Is it safe to assume that when she landed the once-in-a-lifetime score in the first episode, she gained the ability to fund her own vanity productions?

Rogers: No, she auditions. She would consider that cheating. And I have SEEN that verison of Death of a Salesman on the LA amateur theater scene. Trust me, it ain’t pretty out here.

O’Shea: Do you think TNT picked up Leverage partially in an effort to tap into the audience that USA has garnered with Burn Notice? Both shows are vastly different, but both have a modern day Robin Hood element to them.

Rogers: I don’t think BURN NOTICE was the motivator, but I do think they were looking for a more action-y, lighter show than their Monday night dramas. You know, it’s no sin to have a show where sometime’s people do cool shit and things blow up.

O’Shea: Given how crucial her “bunny” was to her origin, are there any plans to reveal if Parker still has her bunny?

Rogers: Absolutely no comment. But let’s just say Mr. Bunny is ever present in our minds.

O’Shea: Parker is the only member of the cast without a full name, and as noted in her show bio, her only insecurity is “her ability to pass herself off as a normal person”. Is that an aspect of her character you intend to explore further (her abusive childhood and period in foster care) in this season–or is that something you intend to tackle next season?

Rogers: It definitely comes up this season, bit in “the Stork Job” and especially in “The Juror #6 Job.” We tried to find, for each character, one episode that explored their backstory and relationship with the team. Oh, and Parker’s not her real last or first name — it’s a [Donald] Westlake homage. Of course, shes not the only character you don’t know the real name for …

O’Shea: How many episodes have you co-written of the initial 13–and am I correct to assume you have input on episodes you did not write?

Rogers: Co-wrote the pilot with Chris, “the Homecoming Job”, the first half of the season finale, and then co-wrote the second half of the season finale with Chris. So four altogether, and yea, I usually take a last pass on all the episodes, along with some miscellaneous scenes. Some are barely touched — Amy Berg’s “The Bank Shot Job” is pretty much shot as her first draft — but Chris and I meddle with them all. Not always to their benefit, might I add.

O’Shea: What tweaks would you like to take back, given that you admit some of yours and Chris’ meddling was not “always to their benefit, might I add.”

Rogers: I think I over-complicated the choreography in “The Two Horse Job”, without taking into account the actual geography of the location and the runtime of the episode. Mostly little tweaks where you realize the original writer probably had a better sense of the… integrity of the voice or rhythm. By and large, however, we let the writers’ words stand. There was very little tinkering over the course of the season, usually just adding an extra scene or bit of dialogue.

O’Shea: Timothy Hutton directed episodes of A Nero Wolfe Mystery back in 2001 and 2002–does he hope to direct an episode of Leverage? What does having someone of Hutton’s experience and talent add to the show?

Rogers: The lead is the captain of the ship. Having a guy who’s done it all, seen it all, he just makes sure everything stays light but at the same time professional on the set. I’m sure he’s going to want to direct at some point. This year he was really focused on making sure Nate worked as a character.

O’Shea: Has TNT considered the Internet numbers (folks watching the shows online) and On Demand viewing trends in terms of measuring how successful the show is? On a related note, how important has Internet marketing (such as the show’s You Tube channel) been to bolstering word of mouth on the show?

Rogers: Streaming and On-Demand are not yet quite as important as Same-Day reruns and DVR numbers. Cable, unlike, network shows, sell “runs” of the show for advertisers. So the fact our midnight showing garners big numbers, that factors in alongside the numbers for the “flagship” showing at 10pm. Also, we get a very helathy bump off DVR. As far as word-of-mouth, I’d say the TNT strategy online has been very strong, but what’s really helped us is the fan base. It’s surprisingly passionate for such a new show, and they work harder than any human you could pay.

O’Shea: Can you give some examples of how hard working and passionate the fan base is for the show?

Rogers: No, because although I love them, as soon as you start acknowledging them things spin out of control. On the “check the boards every day” to the “sod off, its my intellectual property” scale, I fall soundly in the middle. I like to keep boundaries with the actors, my fellow writers, and the fans. It’s better for everyone that way. That said, people are cutting some great banners, icons and avatars together, and I personally appreciate the work the recappers are doing. It adds a life to the episodes beyond broadcast.