Flashback: An interview with Shawn Ryan Sep07

Flashback: An interview with Shawn Ryan

Intro by Gregg Hurwtiz My six-year-old plays AYSO soccer. Her coach, a big, bald guy with a shy smile, was surprisingly light on his feet. Patient. Great with the kids. Confident, but not cocky. The week before, I’d busted a collarbone against a fullback ten years younger and thirty pounds heavier, and my daughter’s coach had just jammed a toe, so we were talking sports injuries. He remarked that he was glad his job allowed him to wear soccer sandals so his bandaged toe could live free. “Yeah?” I said. “What do you do?” “I work for a TV show.” “You a staff writer?” “No,” Coach Shawn said. “I created a show.” “Which one?” “The Shield.” Uh, right. Okay. Heard of it. Another few questions revealed he was also show-running The Unit, created by David Mamet. In a town where everyone trumpets what they haven’t even done (“Dude, my cousin’s hairdresser got my script to Clooney’s agent’s facialist and she’s reading it right now!!”) it was so refreshing for someone who had accomplished so much to be so…so unassuming and normal. I said to Shawn, “I bet no one’s ever told you this, but, well, I’m sort of a book geek, and I’ve never seen your stuff, but I’ve read you.” And it was true. When I moved to my new agency and met with a TV agent, he mentioned that I should think about creating my own show. To educate me, he gave me what he considered the five best TV pilots of the past few years. The Shield was one of them. Blew me away. But I’d only seen it on the page. So I picked up the first season box set and watched it. The pilot is maybe the best hour of television I’ve ever seen. I watched the first season in just a few days, which, since I’m not Jon Jordan, is noteworthy. From 11pm-2am every night, it was all about The Shield. Not an off episode. Not a false moment. Not a sore-thumb contrivance. My wife and I were over at Shawn’s house the next week for dinner, and he gave me the remaining box sets, thereby booking up my next two weeks of evenings. Each show seemed better and richer than the one preceding. I never knew TV could be that good. The Shield is far and away my favorite TV show. It’s also the favorite show of most of my consultants—from Navy SEALs to deputy marshals. It’s got an uncanny realness to it. The characters are all flawed, yet not in any neat, predictable way. They are cruel, greedy, big-hearted, compassionate, and petty. They are us. It’s the best-cast show on TV and the actors are tremendous, but for me what shines—shines—every week is the writing. The narratives jam. The dialogue snaps. The characters take wrong turns that shock the hell out of you and make perfect sense at the same time. Working on my own TV pilot these past few months has given me an even greater perspective on what Shawn Ryan and the writing staff of The Shield have accomplished. The show is grit and guts and back-alley glory. It’s magic, with the curtain raised. It’s as real as the real-deal, but better structured. LA is a beautiful excuse for a city. You never know who you might meet or where. Next go around I’m gonna find out earlier what my kid’s soccer coach’s day job is. Shawn Ryan interviewed by Ben Leroy I’ve been working on a theory lately. It goes something like this: if you take the area from Cleveland to Milwaukee that includes Dayton, Cincinnati, Akron, Gary, Flint, Detroit, and Chicago, you’ve got the real guts of the country. It’s the gritty belt that keeps industry—and by extension the whole country—moving. It isn’t big money. It isn’t palm trees and silicone. But it has a certain realness...

Flashback: Perfection…and How To Achieve it Aug24

Flashback: Perfection…and How To Achieve it

PERFECTION And How to Achieve It Walter Satterthwait A few years ago, I was visiting my brother in St. Petersburg, Florida. One particular evening he had a business appointment, so I decided to go out and have a beer. The nearest bar was a small, tidy, neighborhood place, the sort of sports bar that keeps the Lakers game’s volume strangled down, while letting Wynona wail away in the background. There were a lot of those elegant neon Budweiser and Miller Lite signs lurking about, some of them elegantly blinking. Three empty seats stood at the center of the bar. I sat down in the middle one and ordered a Sam Adams. I was about halfway through the beer when a couple walked in. Between them, conservatively, they probably weighed about six hundred pounds. Both of them wore short plaid shorts and, in an even more unfortunate fashion statement, identical black “muscle” shirts that left their arms and wobbling shoulders bare. The male of the pair had a bad, possibly terminal, case of sunburn. His plump skin was peeling and bright shining pink. The female had no skin color at all, although of course plenty of skin. They sat down, naturally, to my right and to my left and immediately they spilled onto my lap, from all sides. I offered to exchange seats with one of them – with either of them, or in fact with anyone else in the bar, or in the world. “No, sweat, man, ” the male said, and they continued to talk around me. He was, alas, mistaken about the sweat – although the bar’s air conditioner seemed to be working just fine, his friend was leaking copious amounts of the stuff onto my Levis. In addition, the male kept scratching at his shoulder, which sent fluffy white flakes sailing across my field of vision, to accumulate on my knees and thighs, and in my beer. I was reminded of the blizzard scene in Doctor Zhivago. Until that moment I had never actually wanted to kill anyone, apart from the occasional wife; but after only a very brief while I could have cheerfully killed these two people. Shot them dead and then ordered a round for the house. And then shot them dead again. I sat there for just a few minutes more, but in those few minutes the entire plot of Perfection unfolded before me. It spilled, so to speak, onto my lap. There’s this serial killer, see. And what he does, he seeks out clinically obese women, kills them, and then “perfects” them by slicing them down to size. He uses no special tools: a few easily obtainable scalpels, some skinning blades, a roast beef carving knife, and a ball peen hammer that serves as his “anesthetic.” He seeks out his victims in supermarkets, stalking the aisles while he examines the passing shopping carts. If he sees an overweight woman whose cart is loaded with junk food – Little Debbie Snack Cakes, Cheetos, Hostess Twinkies – she becomes a possible. He’s completely nuts, of course, but he’s also scrupulously fair. If a potential victim tosses some slightly more healthful food into her cart (radicchio, for example, rather than bib lettuce), he immediately disqualifies her, no matter how badly he might otherwise want to “perfect” her. And, because he’s as much preoccupied by quality food as he is by overweight women, I thought it would be fun to throw some nice recipes in the book. I believe that mine is the only serial killer novel that includes directions for making a tasty and nutritious frittata. After Perfection was published, I was accused of making fun of overweight people. I’m not, and I haven’t. I’m convinced that obesity in the United States is a deadly serious problem, but I’ve read enough about it to know that it’s not a problem with easy solutions. I tried...

Flashback: Korean Noir – The films of Chan-wook Park Aug17

Flashback: Korean Noir – The films of Chan-wook Park...

Korean Noir The Films of Chan-wook Park   For a couple of years now, (thanks in no small part to Quentin Tarantino) the films of Chan-wook Park are being seen by an American audience for the first time. And frankly, if I’ve seen five great films this year, three of them belong to Chan-wook Park. So why haven’t you heard of him? He’s one of the most decorated directors in Asia. Due to the notoriously skewed purchase and release tactics of U.S. distributors, the three films below were released domestically all within the last year. Remember, this is the industry that took a year and a half to release Zhang Yimou’s brilliant Hero a year-and a half after they had managed to have it been nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars.For the purpose of my own sanity, I’ll comment on each film in the order in which they were made, rather than when they were made available.   J.S.A. – Joint Security Area (2000 available on DVD) This film, the first film available by Mr. Chan-wook, centers on the region that separates North and South Korea. The focus characters are the men who guard that border, which is no wider than your average coffee table. In the film’s opening, we know that something has happened, an incident that has left soldiers dead and could spark war between the Koreas. Of course, both sides are telling completely contrasting stories. In a style reminiscent of Rashomon, the film then intercuts between the investigation of the incident and the actual events that has led to the deaths of the soldiers. As the film progresses, the clues don’t match either side’s story, and the investigators begin to suspect a cover-up. The tragedy and dread that the film is able to conjure in the audience comes primarily in the retelling of the timeline as it literally happened. One begins to not only truly like, but feel for all of the characters whether they belong to the Northern or Southern factions. We also know that not all of them will survive, and that is the emotional arc of the film that devastates. If there is a villain in the film, it is the ignorance of politics and war.   Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance(2002 available on DVD) The first in what will be eventually be referred to as the Vengeance Trilogy, Sympathy tells the story of a deaf man (Ryu) and his sister, who desperately needs a kidney transplant. Ryu has enough money for the transplant, but no kidney is available and time is running out for his sister. A deal with black-market organ dealers goes horribly wrong and Ryu is left with no other options. In his desperation, Ryu and his revolutionary girlfriend concoct a plot to kidnap the daughter of the boss who recently laid him off. Chan-wook Park masterfully balances the delicate balance between desperation and crime versus evil in a domino-like fashion. The viewer can only sit and wait for the first domino to fall. When it does, the cycle of revenge that generates is heartbreaking to watch.   Oldboy(2003 available on DVD) This was the big one for Chan-wook Park. Oh Dae-Su (portrayed with savage brilliance by Min-Sik Choi) is kidnapped one night off the streets. He awakens in a room with no knowledge of how he got there, who put him there or why. He also can’t leave. After fifteen years (that’s right, fifteen) of imprisonment, he’s released and anonymously given a cell phone and a suit. His captor has given him five days to discover the motive behind his imprisonment, or there will be further consequences. Oh Dae-Su wreaks a swath of brutal violence in his quest to find the reasons his anonymous tormentor had for stripping him of his life and family. When the shocking answers are revealed, the simplicity of one’s everyday sins hits the...

Flashback: WHAT IS A THRILLER? Aug03

Flashback: WHAT IS A THRILLER?

This originally appeared in issue ten (Jan/Feb 2006) WHAT IS A THRILLER? In October, 2004, at the Bouchercon suspense conference in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, a group of writers celebrated their common interest by creating the International Thriller Writers organization. In fact, before I realized what was happening, I found myself elected (along with Gayle Lynds) as the co-president. A lot happened since then. Our membership grew from around 80 to 350, with combined international book sales of over one billion. We organized strands of thriller panels at the 2005 Left Coast of Crime and Bouchercon events (this had never been done before). We arranged for an Internet Thriller Writers Newsletter. We spread the word to our members about advanced marketing techniques that are cheap but amazingly effective. We compiled a major upcoming anthology, THRILLER: STORIES TO KEEP YOU UP ALL NIGHT, that Mira Books will publish in June of 2006. Mira will also host a gala International Thriller Writers cocktail party at the 2006 Left Coast of Crime conference in Bristol, England. At that time, we’ll announce the nominees for our ITW thriller awards. Plus, there’ll be several thriller panels. Lots of things are happening. To put this in perspective, two years ago, in 2003, I attended a major suspense conference, at which there was only one thriller panel, and that was scheduled opposite a speech by a guest of honor. The tiny room for the solitary thriller panel was at the farthest reaches of the hotel. Six people showed up. By contrast, the average attendance for each of the 12 (twelve!) thriller panels featured at 2005’s Bouchercon was over a hundred. One panel drew an audience of more than 300. Exciting stuff. But it’s not as if thriller writers suddenly appeared on the scene, so the question is, why are we suddenly getting this welcome attention? The answer (appropriate for a topic about authors and readers) involves language. My first novel FIRST BLOOD was published in 1972. More than three decades ago. Since then, I’ve written an additional 27 books. Some have been about spies (THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE). Others have been about protective agents, undercover operatives, investigative journalists, and war photographers. In none of my books was a corpse discovered and a detective dispatched to follow clues to discover the killer. Yet, in my long career, just about every time I was introduced at a signing or a talk, I was puzzled to be called a mystery writer. If there was a polite opportunity, I would murmur that, well, actually, I’m a thriller writer. The response to this was almost universal bafflement. What’s a thriller writer? When the International Thriller Writers organization was formed, we got similar questions from readers and booksellers. What’s a thriller writer? Those of us who worship thrillers and love writing them took the answer for granted. But we discovered, to our surprise, that some readers evidently have a porous view of who-done-its, crime stories, action stories, suspense stories, thrillers., etc, and group them all together as mysteries. By definition, a mystery involves a puzzle that demands to be solved. The word “mystery” creates expectations about the sort of book one is about to read. Imagine somebody coming to my latest novel CREEPERS in the expectations that it’s a mystery. That novel is about urban explorers—history and architecture enthusiasts who “infiltrate” old buildings that have been sealed and abandoned for decades. In this case, the deserted building is the Paragon Hotel in Asbury Park, New Jersey, a structure and a region that have complex, disturbing histories. I dramatize every instant of every breath of the harrowing eight hours that the “creepers” endure within the walls of that crumbling edifice. The novel is a mixed genre—a dark suspense story that feels like a ghost story, even though there aren’t any ghosts. But with no corpse in the opening pages and no detective following...

Flashback: My Favorite Crime Film Jul27

Flashback: My Favorite Crime Film

This originally appeared in issue ten (Jan/Feb 2006) When Jeremy asked me to write about my all-time favorite crime movie, interestingly one of the first films I thought of was Get Shorty. It’s certainly one of the most enjoyable crime movies I’ve ever seen. Director Barry Sonnenfeld captures the humor of Elmore Leonard brilliantly because the actors never play the script for laughs. All of the characters take themselves ultra-seriously which makes the deadpan crime farce even funnier. The whole cast shines, in particular John Travolta as a mobster/Hollywood wannabe, Gene Hackman as the desperately sleazy film producer, and, best of all, Delroy Lindo as the perfect Leonard psycho. And the script has many unforgettable lines, such as “It’s the Cadillac of mini vans” and “Look at me.” Okay, so maybe films with great quotable lines shouldn’t be a criteria for greatness—no one would argue that Airplane or The Naked Gun deserve greatest-film-ever-made status–but, given all the movies that are released each year, if a film has dialogue you remember years later that has to be an indication of something special. But the main reason I couldn’t consider Get Shorty as my all-time favorite crime movie is that it’s probably not even the best Elmore Leonard adaptation. That honor has to go to Jackie Brown. When the adaptation of Rum Punch was released, it wasn’t universally loved, but it’s certainly one of the best pure adaptations of a crime novel I’ve ever seen. Although Quentin Tarrantino made several significant changes to the plot of the source material, the film captures the tone and flavor of Leonard’s prose and moves with a novel-like pace. Tarrantino abandoned the unwritten rule of screenwriting–never write that lasts longer than five pages or five minutes of screen time–and let scenes go on for as long as the material demanded, and he got a slew of great performances. Standing out: Bridget Fonda as the perfect air-head burnout, and Robert De Niro, who gives one of the best performances of his career–yep, right up there with Raging Bull and Taxi Driver–as a brooding ex-con. Still, I had trouble picking Jackie Brown as my favorite when Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs fanatics would argue that it isn’t even Tarrantino’s best film. Moving on, my next possibility was House of Games. In my opinion, David Mamet’s directorial debut was his finest film to date and talk abut great lines! Repeatable gems from Joe Mantegna such as“Watch my cards, I gotta go pee,” and “Yes, sir, may I have another?” occur throughout the entire script. The film also features a terrific con plot, full of twists and turns up until the final chilling scene. But, what with Mamet’s post-modern sensibility and the film’s “stagey” performances, I don’t consider House of Games a pure crime movie, and for the purposes of this article I wanted to choose a film from the golden age of crime cinema, that has withstood the test of time. I decided I had to choose a so-called film noir. Naturally I considered Double Indemnity. This noir gem would make many people’s top ten lists. Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck–arguably the greatest femme fatale of all-time–are terrifically evil, and if a tighter screenplay for a crime film has ever been written I don’t know what it is. The film also happens to be based on one of my favorite novels of all time so it seemed like the obvious choice. Yet I couldn’t pull the trigger on Double Indemnity for the same reason I couldn’t choose Get Shorty or Jackie Brown. While there’s no doubting the film’s lasting brilliance, the other major Cain adaptations, Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice, are also classics. Each of these films would probably make my top ten list, or top fifteen list, and I decided to choose a film that, if applicable, was clearly the best adaption of its...

Flashback: Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets: An Appreciation Jul13

Flashback: Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets: An Appreciation...

This originally appeared in issue 8 (Sept/Oct 2005) SHOOT TO THRILL: Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets: An Appreciation by Duane Swierczynski Hardboiled comic fans are a rare breed; tough guys don’t usually do funnybooks. Yeah, yeah, I know—Mickey Spillane got his start in the comics, and his illustrated private eye Mike Danger eventually begat Mike Hammer. Batman calls himself a “detective,” and he’s certainly tough, but there’s all that fetishistic rubber to deal with. (Not knocking Christopher Nolan’s reimagining of the series, though—that was cool.) And while Sin City has been around since the early 1990s, I’m willing to bet you never heard of it until this past April, when Robert Rodriguez showed us his version of Frank Miller’s noirville where blood runs in both red and yellow. Ditto with Max Allan Collins’ Road to Perdition, brought to the screen by Sam Mendes. You can see what I’m getting at. Hardboiled readers. Comic books. Kind of like peanut butter and mayonnaise. Two great tastes that don’t most people don’t think to put together. At least that’s what I thought until I picked up my first 100 Bullets trade paperback collection, First Shot, Last Call (DC Comics/Vertigo, 2000). It may not have come first, but it’s the one that does it best. The very first bit of dialogue: “Bang, you’re dead.” The first image: A gun to a young woman’s head. We’re in some back alley. It’s pouring rain. Next: “What’s it feel like to be a ghost, Dizzy?” Narrator: It’s a long story. Turn, the page, and we’re inside the shower of a women’s prison. C’mon. How can you turn away from that? Writer Brian Azzarello hooked me from those first two pages. What follows is a hardboiled crime/revenge/tough guy/spy/thriller/conspiracy theory/noir epic that’s still unfolding, (As you read this, we’ll be up to #64 out of 100 comic books—from the beginning, Azzarello and his publisher, DC/Vertigo, promised a complete run.) The genius of 100 Bullets is often what Azzarello doesn’t do with the story. Let’s start the series’ main conceit: a creepy old guy who looks like the love child of Steve McQueen and Lurch—named “Graves,” no less—hands you a suitcase containing a gun, 100 untraceable bullets, and evidence. The evidence? Irrefutable proof that somebody done you wrong. Maybe it’s the woman who ratted you out to the drug squad years ago. Maybe it’s the guy who killed your wife. Maybe it is your wife. We’re in noirville. Anything’s possible. And so you have this gun with untraceable bullets. Even if you decide to pop a cap in the head of the Pope in the middle of Times Square, cops will dig the bullets out, check with their superiors and then let you go. “Sorry, Padre. We’ve gotta let the kid walk.” God may not forgive you, but the NYPD will. Grave’s case of guns and ammo is free ticket to murder anyone. Anywhere. Anytime. This presents an interesting moral question: What do you do? Do you take revenge? Do you kill? Or do you take the high road? And that’s assuming you can find it? What’s great is, Azzarello avoids the obvious. In other words: Each issue of 100 Bullets isn’t about a new chump/chumpette getting his/her hands on the gun, and exacting ironic vengeance. That would be the lame TV version. A high-caliber Fugitive, a noir Love Boat where you just know that, sooner or later, guest star Jessica Simpson is going to end up with the friggin’ suitcase. Instead, the suitcase is your entrée to world of a centuries-old secret society called “The Trust” and its seemingly dormant band of lethal enforcers, “The Minutemen.” (As you may have guessed, Graves is one of those Minutemen.) Along the way, the activities of The Trust collide with a surprising cast of characters, from a female Latino gangbanger to an ice cream truck driver to a gas station attendant in El...