The Fox cop drama The Chicago Code, from creator/executive producer/writer Shawn Ryan (The Shield), follows the city’s most powerful and respected cops as they navigate the underbelly within Chicago’s notorious political machine. While the city’s first female superintendent, Teresa Colvin (Jennifer Beals), governs Chicago politics as diplomatically as possible, her ex-partner, Chicago Police Department veteran Jarek Wysocki (Jason Clarke), works the streets in an attempt to clean up corruption and crime. As they work together to bring down powerful adversaries, that include Alderman Ronin Gibbons (Delroy Lindo), they also strive to gain the respect of those who question their methods.
During a recent interview to promote the series, Shawn Ryan talked about setting the show in his hometown, the actual plausibility of what it illustrates, balancing the politics and the character development, and thinking ahead to possible storylines for a Season 2. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: How real is this situation, as far as its plausibility?
SHAWN RYAN: Well, I think there’s some things you want to and need to fictionalize. We also don’t have a Mayor Daley on our show. There are certain things that you want to keep real, and there are certain things that you want to fictionalize. Any time you dive headfirst into a community that I’ve spent a lot of time in, but I’ve never lived in full-time, you do your best. We do all the research we can. We have our scripts vetted by a current homicide detective in the Chicago P.D. – a guy grew up in the city and was raised there. We do our best. I’m sure that there will be some little mistakes, along the way, and if people want to let that derail from enjoying the experience, there’s probably nothing I can do. But, I think our batting average for getting it right is pretty higher than most shows. That would be my guess. Someone could do the math on that and see. My guess is that our cops behave more like Chicago cops do than CSI cops, in real life, like on that show. We’re trying hard to get it right, and I like it that people care enough that they’re going to point out the few occasions that we get it wrong. We’ll pay attention to those and try to correct them, going forward.
What motivated you to want to set this show in the area you’re from?
RYAN: Obviously there’s the going home aspect that most people would have, but it was also motivated by the fact that so many shows are filmed in Los Angeles and New York. Without a doubt, I’m a big believer in embedding yourself in a certain place and taking advantage of the distinctions and specifics about that place, whether it’s the San Diego beach community of Terriers or the rundown area of Los Angeles in The Shield. I’m a big believer that where your show is located really infuses an energy into your show, and I felt that the Midwest had been ignored by Hollywood, or misinterpreted. Even though I haven’t lived in the Midwest since my early 20’s, I was born and raised there, and was infused with everything that came from being a Midwesterner. The people are different. I’m not saying they are better or worse, but they’re different. The culture and community is different. I just hadn’t really seen that portrayed in any meaningful, widespread way, in movies or television. So, it was just great to go back there. My father being able to drive in from Rockford and go into the set and see it was pretty cool. But, the important thing was that it allowed us to have different kinds of people on a TV show than you’re used to seeing. Most of the guest cast came from Chicago. We had a few L.A. and New York actors, but the vast majority were local hires from Chicago, and it just feels different, as a result. It was just an opportunity where I felt that there was something missing. You’re always trying to do something different and unique that cuts through, and this was the opportunity to try to do something different, in an area that I actually knew something about. That was the main motivation for going there, along with the history of Chicago, which considering the kind of story I wanted to tell, was right in the wheelhouse of what I wanted to do.
RYAN: The Shield was done absent any LAPD cooperation. They made it clear, in a few different ways, that they weren’t fans of the show because they had suffered through a big crisis and that huge PR disaster with the Rampart scandal. They didn’t like anything that reminded people that that kind of stuff had happened, and they felt like they were moving forward and beyond that. So, looking at cops who had gone astray is a very different thing than on this show where we have had the cooperation of the Chicago Police Department. We actively engage Detective John Folino, in aspects of the show. So, my view on these police officers tends to be in a more heroic light. It tends to be more sympathetic to the challenges that they go through. It’s just a different show. My attitudes towards these characters are different than The Shield. This show feels like it’s a network show that belongs on Fox, and The Shield was a show that felt a little renegade and certainly felt like it was bucking the system of the LAPD, but both are appropriate for the circumstances that we made them in.
How did you work on developing these characters to make them so three-dimensional?
RYAN: As a writer, the first thing you have to do is start by using your imagination and come up with a few key personality traits, but then, far and away, the most important thing is casting. We were really brutal in the casting process. I don’t believe that a character truly exists until you cast it. It’s just a figment of your imagination on paper. I’ve always taken the position of, “Okay, I’m going to start the blueprint of who this character is on paper, but in the casting process, I’m looking for someone to come in here and show me who this character is, in ways that I didn’t even know.” I’m not a good enough writer to fill out the character, in every single aspect. It’s when that actor comes in, that that happens. For example, Jason Clarke came in and read for Jarek, and he was really good and gave a good read, but he and I sat down and talked, at great length about who this guy was and what he might be, and Jason had a lot of great ideas. Then, the two of us sat down with Detective Folino, just to talk about things. Those conversations, and seeing the way that Jason played it, and spending a lot of time with Jason on the pilot, really affected the way that we wrote the character of Jarek, going forward. So, I would say that I always try to have an open mind. I don’t act like this character is all mine. I leave it open to who this character is, and I allow for growth along the way. Seeing a specific actor playing a specific role always inspires me to write them deeper. That’s the way that we try to approach it, especially when the writing staff comes into play. We take these characters and we just try, with each episode, to show different sides of them that we haven’t seen before. That’s the best way I can explain it.
With the day-to-day cop stuff, the one episode arc over the overall arc, and the political stuff, do you have a part of writing this that you like more than the others?
RYAN: Yeah, I’d say that I specialize a little bit in a hybrid. I like those episodes where you can feel like you have some closure in a story, and yet discover new things that will propel you into the next episodes. I enjoy that balancing act of trying to make it all work. It is a challenge in all TV, but I think especially in network TV. If you talk to the research people, they’ll tell you that even people who declare themselves to be big fans of your show will only watch one in four episodes of that show. So, especially with a new show, I really took the approach where I have got to assume there will be people who haven’t seen the preceding episodes. There is an ongoing story that we want to tell, but we have to tell it in such a way that it won’t be too confusing to new viewers. You have to find a way into people who seem to watch the show and enjoy it, even if they haven’t seen the stuff before. I enjoy that balancing act, trying to figure out how to be inviting to viewers, and yet reward the dedicated viewers.
RYAN: I think you just start approaching it from a character perspective, like anything on a TV show. There are plenty of history channel and documentary channel things that people can watch for the pure, basic information of it. If you’re going to make it interesting and make it someone’s number one alternative to watch on a highly competitive Monday night of television, you’ve got to start from a character place and figure out how to entertain. We did a lot of research. We read a lot of books. Then, we just started thinking, “What would be interesting about watching Alderman Gibbons and seeing how he maneuvers?” And then, when you cast a guy like Delroy Lindo, who I think is pretty magnetic and magnificent in the series, that really helps. I just try to approach it from a story point of view, not that different from The Shield, in the sense that The Shield had these cops who you followed, who did some bad things, but it was enjoyable and fun watching them on the road to mayhem. Same thing with Alderman Gibbons. That’s how you have to approach it, just from a character perspective.
What first put the alderman into your mind, and how have you developed him, over the course of the first season?
RYAN: Well, I’ve always been interested in aldermen. I grew up in Rockford, which has a similar political system as Chicago, in that they have aldermen. I had an uncle who was an alderman in Rockford, so I’ve always been interested in that position. As I did my research for the show, obviously, everyone knows about the mayor of Chicago and the history of Chicago’s mayors, but less is known nationally about the aldermen system and the ward system in Chicago. You have a couple of cops who are trying to stamp out corruption in Chicago. You’ve got to have a pretty good example of it to motivate the series. Having said that, one thing that Delroy [Lindo] and I spent a lot of time talking about is the reality of the situation. Delroy always likes to talk about how his character was not the guy who started this political system in Chicago. Gibbons is someone who had tried very, very hard to perfect it, and had been perverted by it and definitely has a bad side, but we wanted to show all sides. Going forward, hopefully, we’re going to show a balanced side of him. It makes him a more interesting villain, I think.
In what ways do you think a powerful female presence impacts the police force, as compared to a man?
RYAN: I think it modernizes it. I’m not sure this is the best comparison, but Egypt has been in the news and there’s a lot of change going on there. When institutions change, there’s a lot of upheaval. There’s a lot of questioning. There are people who were in power who get scared and lash out. So, looking at a female presence heading up the police force is something that not too long ago would never have happened. It really challenges a lot of people’s assumptions, and it brings a lot of raw nerves to the surface. It was interesting to me, to take a character like Teresa and show who might support her, who might resist her leadership and what that might do to a police department. There are a lot of cities in the country that have leaders of their police departments that are controversial or maybe not too popular. It creates a whole different environment to the policing of the city. Those are the issues I wanted to get into with her. It feels like a very 21st century story because a character like her wouldn’t exist in the 20th century.
RYAN: Not in this first season. We don’t actually flashback, in any way, in that regard, but we do have some interaction between them, where you learn more about what their partnership was like, and you learn that he was the one who ended it, and that she still bristles a bit at that. So, we do delve into some backstory, but not through visual flashbacks. It is a fun partnership between the two of them and a fun relationship. If there’s one criticism I’ve heard about this show it’s, “Oh, a police superintendent wouldn’t be at some of these scenes or wouldn’t involve herself in this way and would be doing a lot more paperwork,” which technically is true. But, one of the things I spoke with our police consultant about, when I was first driving around with him was, “In your ideal world, what would the police superintendent do? How would he or she involve himself in the police department?” The first thing he said was, “I’d really respect someone who I saw a lot, and who made an effort to be down at these crime scenes and really interact with the police and really get himself or herself involved in these cases.” So, the relationship we’re showing with Teresa and Jarek is an idealized one. It’s what our detective and I would consider a “wish” relationship – a superintendent who really did insert herself into these things and interact with cops and get to know as many cops as she could by name. That is the relationship with Jarek that she has. It is special and different, and has been fun to write.
Since you guys are done shooting already, is there any less pressure or more pressure because you can’t make any adjustments as a result of reviews or ratings?
RYAN: Well, you don’t have the luxury of reading the criticism or looking at research on the ratings and being able to do something different about it. There is something that makes you sanguine about just saying, “Well, we’ve done it, and we did it in a pure way, and we’re unaffected by all those things.” We just artistically did what we thought was best, and now we’ve got to live or die by it. What’s nice is not having to go to set and worry about what the ratings were the night before. You don’t have to go and talk with the actors about some review that came out, where somebody liked three of the actors, but not the fourth, and deal with the politics of all that. We were able to make the show in a vacuum, which was really nice, in the sense that all we had to worry about was pleasing ourselves and making as good of a TV show as we could. Then, you hope that, over time, America will embrace it. It’s really tough to launch a new show, in this era. We’re proud of the episodes, and we’re in it for the long haul. I think the network is in it for the long haul.
RYAN: Well, I don’t want to give away too much of how we end this current season, but I would say that we went with the ending that we creatively felt best about. If that turns out to be a series finale, our characters don’t fall through some wormhole and land in some other world, in some huge cliffhanger fashion. Having said that, obviously we hope that we’ll be going on, beyond the first season, so we just did creatively what we thought was best. That is the only way I can put it.
How far ahead do you think creatively, in terms of a second or even third season?
RYAN: I try to think far ahead. I don’t ever want to get too bogged down into notions that are too specific, too far down the road, because too many things change along the way, but for the last month or so, I’ve really have been thinking a lot about what some elements of Season 2 would look like. There’s also the defense mechanism. You don’t want to spend too much time doing that until you have a good indication that there’s going to be a Season 2. I’m sure, at some point, part of our sales presentation to the network will be a pitch about what I think Season 2 will be, so I already have a lot of ideas. I’m already thinking a lot on it. I’ve had a lot more time to think about Season 2 than I did with Season 1, when we were making the pilot. Things were so busy and crazy during the pilot. We turned the pilot in less than a week before the network made its decisions on what to pick up. There wasn’t a lot of time to really think about what would come after the pilot, so I was in a bit of a scramble, hiring people and thinking about that then. Now, I actually have the luxury of spending a lot of time thinking about what Season 2 would be, and I’ve got some ideas I really like. I was reading an article in one of the Chicago papers about the tradition of “dibs” in Chicago, during snowstorms, which has to do with people placing objects and furniture in the streets to save parking spots after snowstorms. I started thinking about how that might be the basis of an episode. So, these ideas come all the time, and I have the luxury now to think about them.
RYAN: I haven’t spoken with Chicago officials. Mostly what I get are reports back from Detective Folino, of reactions he’s hearing in the city, because I’m still based in Los Angeles. I’m not in Chicago, at the moment. I may be going there next month for a short period, so maybe I’ll hear more. But, you also have to take it with a grain of salt. The people that are approaching John in Chicago to talk about the show are probably going to be fans and people who like it, and those who don’t probably will keep it to themselves. On the whole, the reaction that we’ve been hearing from the city is, “So glad you’re filming here.” There’s been a lot of filming in Chicago, but it tends to take place all in the Loop and the financial district, all in the same area. I think we’re really the first show or movie, of any kind, that has spent a lot of time really shooting in a lot of different areas of Chicago, and I think people appreciate that. But, they’re also going to be tougher on us than on other shows. Any time you come in and say, “Hey, we’re going to dive into Chicago and try to show you what it’s like,” they’re going to hold your feet to the fire and hold you to a high standard. If they think you make a mistake along the way, they’re going to let you know about it.
Are you still hearing from people that are sorry Terriers got canceled?
RYAN: I do. Usually, I’ll get about one person a week who is just learning the news. I don’t know where they’ve been, but they’ll be like, “Wait a minute! Terriers got cancelled?” That just makes me relive the death, over and over again.
Have you asked Ted Griffin, your partner on that show, to do work with you on this one?
RYAN: He’s busy with features, so I haven’t yet, but I’d love to convince him to be able to chip in and help. I just had an amazing experience working with him.
THE CHICAGO CODE airs on Mondays on Fox