The “Brian Finch’s Black Op” episode of the CBS drama series Limitless, sees Brian (Jake McDorman) call in sick for a day off from the FBI, only to have the CIA abduct him from home to borrow his NZT-enhanced capabilities for a black ops mission. As the operation becomes increasingly dangerous, Brian finds himself without FBI support in a situation that’s spiraling out of control.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, showrunner/executive producer Craig Sweeny talked about weaving an homage to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off into this particular episode, deciding which references they wanted to make, giving Brian a stash of his own NZT, playing around with the drug’s effects, that the purpose of Eddie Morra’s (Bradley Cooper) actions will start to reveal itself, which upcoming episode he’s most excited about, how they’ve been building a 22-episode story arc since the beginning, and how grateful he is that the network and studio have been so supportive of all of the show’s quirkiness.
Collider: First of all, congratulations about the full-season pick-up!
CRAIG SWEENY: Thank you very much. It’s great news!
Have you been plotting the over-arching story to allow for the addition of the extra episodes, or have you had to slow anything down or hold off on anything to accommodate that?
SWEENY: I think we have been expecting the pick-up pretty strongly, so we’ve been planning the arc for 22 episodes the entire time. We had an emergency ending, if there was some kind of disaster and we ended up with 13.
Now that you’re in the thick of Season 1, what’s been the most surprising thing about making this show?
SWEENY: This is not intended to insult them, in any way, but it’s been surprising how far our network and studio have been willing to let us go, as far as experimenting with the forum and doing interesting things, like having Brian as Ferris Bueller talk right at the camera. I think they understand that part of what makes this show tick is that it has a little bit of a weird heart and it’s different, in that way, than a lot of what they have on the air. They’ve just been so supportive of that. It’s great.
What made you decide to weave Ferris Bueller’s Day Off into an episode of this show, and why this episode (“Brian Finch’s Black Op”), in particular?
SWEENY: Why the black ops episode? Well, when we were doing the second episode of the show, I started thinking about that movie, which I was just a big fan of, as a kid. It came out at exactly the right time for me, with that fantasy of an older kid who can get away with anything. He just spoke right to the reptile part of my brain. So, I knew the movie inside and out. We were using some of the techniques from it in Episodes 102, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to do an homage?” And we had this episode idea about Brian being abducted by the CIA, which I thought was cool and that it was believable they’d want to use him. But as we broke it, it was just like, “This is some dark stuff, lost in the woods, murdering people.” And Brian has got to fight to survive. I guess it’s as gritty as Limitless has gotten. So, I said to the writer, “You know what? We’re going to put Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in here.” We did the opening, and then the fantasy of that can flavor the whole experience, so that even though you’re off in this life-or-death situation, the people who tune into the show for fun won’t be disappointed by the episode. And part of it was just daring myself to do it.
It seems like the craziest idea, but it really works.
SWEENY: Well, thank you very much. It’s great to be on a show where we can try stuff like that. At one point, it was very meta, all the way across. The name of the CIA guy who came to talk to them and say, “Can we borrow your asset?,” even though they just kidnapped him was Dean Rooney. We were messing around in a meta way, and I don’t think we cracked it until we realized that all of the Ferris stuff had to be through the filter of Brian’s imagination. And then, you can do a black op and have it be fun. At least, we hope.
For what’s technically a CBS procedural, you get to do a lot of pretty weird and quirky things on this show. Do you ever worry that someone will draw a line somewhere?
SWEENY: We definitely have drawn internal lines. Might we try a gag someday where they’ll say, “That’s too far”? Yeah, probably. So far, we’ve had people singing at the camera and imitating Ferris Bueller. I don’t know what it will be. I’m very happy what they’ve let us get away with, so far.
How did you decide which scenes you would directly take from Ferris Bueller and what you wanted to just reference?
SWEENY: Obviously, the opening is so iconic. The entire movie is iconic, but the opening is particularly so. It also just fit with where the character was. He has these five pills that he got from Senator Morra (Bradley Cooper) in the last episode. He finally actually is equipped to take a day off. We would never use a record scratch effect, but when those black ops guys walk in, we’re in a different world. From that point on, we were very strategic about it. We drop a few lines, here and there. We had imaginary Rebecca (Jennifer Carpenter) appear as Sloane, which was great. I love the way she looks in that costume. By the way, I can’t believe that costume was ever in fashion. And then, the writers came in with the ending and it was pretty weird, but we wanted to try it. It just seemed like too much fun not to try. So, we knew that we were going to have the beginning and the end, where he says, “Go away! Go away! Show’s over!” From there, it was just about picking our spots. We wanted it to feel like, even though you’re seeing this homage, it’s still an episode of Limitless and you don’t need to be an expert on Ferris Bueller, necessarily, to enjoy it.
Had you always wanted to start pushing things with the NZT, as far as forcing Brian to take more than one pill in a day, and to see what the drug might do to him, as time goes on?
SWEENY: Yeah, for sure, absolutely! Obviously, we saw him start to experience the side effects in the previous episode. As it turns out, in this episode, there’s not really a strange effect from multiple doses. Part of what’s cool about the show is that it’s a pill that Brian or anybody can take as much or as little as they want, if they get their hands on it. I’ve always wanted to and will continue to mess around with that.
Brian is an unpredictable character, as it is. How does having a handful of his own supply of NZT make him even more of a wild card?
SWEENY: He’ll come up with creative uses for those. The question is, is it like the pilot where he just wants to take a pill and expertly help a hot dog vendor to learn how to be a better business man, or has he changed in the seven weeks since he started working at the FBI? What he chooses to do with those pills, over the course of the next few episodes, really does show you that Brian has changed quite a bit since he started working for the FBI.
Obviously, it’s a very cool thing that Bradley Cooper is involved and that he makes appearances on the show, and because his appearances are a big deal, the network really promotes them. Do you ever wish you were able to keep some of that a secret and make it a surprise when he turns up?
SWEENY: I completely understand why they do it the way they do, but yes. The most amazing thing would be an unpromoted Bradley Cooper appearance. But it’s so unique to have a movie star of his stature who wants to come be on your CBS show. I completely understand why they promote it as heavily as they do, but sometimes I’m like, “Come on, guys!”
You’re adding more characters who are connected to Eddie Morra, and who are something of a looming threat for Brian. How much will that escalate? Will we see anyone else who’s just as threatening, or even more so, than Mr. Sands (Colin Salmon)?
SWEENY: Yes, that will build. I don’t know how you could have anybody more threatening than Mr. Sands, though. He seems like he’s threat level maximum, or threat level midnight. But we will meet other foot soldiers in Eddie’s army, for sure. The nature and purpose of that organization will start to reveal itself, as the season goes on, and what Eddie wants to do with NZT.
Beyond this episode, do you have any other episodes coming up that you’re particularly excited about?
SWEENY: Well, the lame answer is that I’m excited about them all. But of the ones that we’ve got coming up, Episode 109 is called “Headquarters,” and that’s where Brian decides to pursue the entire Top 10 FBI’s Most Wanted list, essentially on a dare. It’s an episode blast of an episode, so I’m really excited about that one.
Limitless airs on Tuesday nights on CBS.