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.”
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.
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 that can’t be found anywhere else.
Shawn Ryan is from this belt—Rockford, Illinois to be specific. Rockford is a blue collar town of 150,000 that was built on the strength of the machine tools, heavy machinery, automotive, and aerospace industries. In 1996 Money Magazine ranked Rockford last in their annual evaluation of American cities. The magazine cited the city’s future job growth, property taxes, and crime as the biggest reasons. Although the unemployment rate had significantly dropped from 25% in 1982 to 4.7% , it was only because the workforce was making tracks for greener pastures, leaving behind the abandoned skeleton of a city rife with crack and heroin problems and a rise in gang violence. Although not the bombed out post apocalyptic warzone that Gary, Indiana has become, Rockford during 1996 was gritty.
Though the word gritty has probably been used too many times to describe Ryan’s television show, The Shield, a more appropriate word may never be invented. The plot revolves around cops who walk on both sides of the law in a very intense (but somehow never overdone) world where sometimes the criminals may actually be the purer characters, the least guilty people.
Of course, bad cops are a staple of the tv and movie library. Even though Ryan has created a perfect anti-hero in Detective Vic Mackey, the emotional pull of the character doesn’t just come from the deeds. The Shield is smarter than that. It’s the writing coupled with the acting that makes it work. That makes it so … well, so gritty. Everybody on The Shield is just trying to survive in a world where opportunity seems to have dried up and moved somewhere else. Like the steel industry. Like the automotive industry. Like the machinery industry.
I caught up with Shawn Ryan to shoot the shit.
(me) I think Mackey is a character who could easily have grown up in Chicago, or Gary, or Flint. How did growing up in Rockford shape you as a writer?
(Shawn Ryan) I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Rockford is very insulated. Blue collar. When I was 10 or 11 it was going through bad unemployment, but it was still a wonderful place to grow up. It was a small enough town that you still felt like you could know everyone so when there was crime in Rockford it really stood out. John Wayne Gacy was active when I was a kid. There is a core no bullshit attitude that emanates from that part of the country (Gary, Rockford, Beloit). I still feel very much like a Midwestern kid.
What about Vermont, where you went to college? Did it have an effect on your writing?
Vermont has real kinship with the Midwest. It’s got the same independent streak that we have back home. In fact, every year in Vermont the state legislature takes an actual vote on seceding? from the rest of the United States. It’s that independent.
I felt a bit like of an outsider when I was there. Most of the kids that went to Middlebury were from the big east coast cities like New York City or Boston or D.C. There weren’t many other kids from the Midwest. I think most of the people who grew up on the East Coast tended to look down on places like Rockford.
Vermont is also where I developed an appreciation for writing. Writing never excited me growing up because I always thought of it as homework essays. When I was at Middlebury, I started writing plays, and that felt good. The second play I wrote won an award.
Was the material as serious as The Shield?
No. It was actually comedy. I really focused on comedy early on. After school I moved to L.A. and I spent my time writing sitcom pilots.
I think the atmosphere of The Shield is heavily bolstered by the music. It lacks the standard stock ‘Emotionally Charged Background Music’ that other shows rely on. It feels more organic. I’m guessing that’s intentional.
Clark Johnson—I had a lot of faith in that guy—I entrusted him to develop the visual look of the show. The way I described it to him ,“If you take Olympic Blvd from Beverly Hills and drive to downtown. If you just roll down your window and listen to the music in the neighborhoods, that’s the feel I want the show to have. The music is often in-your-face and aggressive. On that level music helps me define the show.
When we started, tv was different. People relied on score music—hit the audience over the head with what they’re supposed to feel. But I thought to myself, the audience is smart enough to know how to feel without score music.
What it’s forced us to do is know that we aren’t going to be able to force a scene with music. The scene has to survive on its own. When you do it, it feels more authentic.
I think the music adds a lot of depth to the show. For instance, at the end of season five when Disarm (Smashing Pumpkins) plays, it adds so much to that scene.
I didn’t know what song would be good to end the show. I spent a lot of time trying to figure it out. I sat on my couch watching the DVD scrolling through my iTunes library when I got to that song I knew it was the right song.
What’s the pressure like to write consistently at such a high level? Do you ever doubt your own work?
We’re proud of last year. I’m proud of the ten episodes we have done now that haven’t hit the air.
The pressure at this point is the pressure I put on myself. There’s nothing left to prove to the network or the fans. The pressure comes from within. You have people involved with the show who, since the show started, have been married or had kids and are dependent on the cash. I felt pressure to keep them employed. That’s sort of gone now because after season 7 the show is done. But it was always a huge motivating factor.
I don’t think you can be successful in this business unless this pressure comes from you. When you work out of fear—worried about the studio, cast, etc.—it’s not your best work. Lots of shows start strong, but by the end, the writers are thinking about too many outside things and the shows fizzle out.
I certainly, as a fan, haven’t seen any signs of fizzling out. Each year I watch the show I’m waiting for it. I’m thinking to myself, “How can they possibly top last year?” And somehow you do it.
I don’t think we’ve had a weak season of the show. That’s very important to me. We have an opportunity to do something extremely rare by finishing strong over 7 seasons.
The moment you think you know what you’re doing and think “we can’t fuck it up,” that’s when you start fucking it up. So many things can go wrong on a show. Bad guest star. Production problems. Director doesn’t understand what you want. It’s amazing when an episode goes right.
Do you have any personal scenes that kill you when you look back?
Forrest Whitaker’s scenes with his ex-wife when Vic is watching on the tv. My memories are most vivid of the recent episodes. Whenever I think back about what we done, I most often think of the last few seasons off the top of my head.
I was all prepared to not like Forrest Whitaker on the show, but then he came out and created such a powerful character. If Vic is an anti-hero, Whitaker’s character almost becomes an anti-villain. Were you surprised at how effective his character was? What do you attribute it to?
75-80% the writers. Forrest added the creepy dogged determined thing that we noticed in the first few episodes. He brought this overwhelming sense of a man on a crazed quest right from the beginning. Writing-wise it was pretty straight forward the way we wrote it. A perfect marriage of writer and actor.
What next? Any plans to write a novel?
The idea of writing a novel intimidates me. I don’t know if I know enough adjectives. There’s certainly an appeal. It’s pure. Just mine. I don’t have to worry about a bad guest spot or a director not getting across what I tried saying. It’d be my responsibility. The people I’ve spoken to that have written novels find it incredibly rewarding. I don’t doubt it. But right now I’m more of a team guy, like when I played hockey back in Rockford. I’d much rather be a part of something great where more people share the credit.
The Shield returns to the air on FX in early April.