From Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood, the 10-hour Fox event series Shots Fired examines, from every viewpoint, the aftermath of two racially-charged shootings in a small Southern town. Seasoned investigator Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan) and Special Prosecutor Preston Terry (Stephan James) are at the head of the inquiry into the shootings, and as they start to peel back the layers of both cases, they begin to suspect a cover-up that could not only shed light on a possibly corrupt Sheriff’s Department, but also involve some of the state’s most powerful people. The series also stars Helen Hunt, Richard Dreyfuss, Jill Hennessy, Stephen Moyer, Will Patton, Mack Wilds, Aisha Hinds and DeWanda Wise.
Show creators/executive producers Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood sat down with Collider to chat about how Shots Fired came about, the ways that real life inspired the story, wanting to give a view from every seat in the house, telling two parallel stories, putting together such a talented group of actors and directors, and that they have a plan in place to possibly continue the series for future seasons.
Collider: How did this TV series come about for you guys?
REGGIE ROCK BYTHEWOOD: It’s something that we had been thinking about for awhile, in terms of the subject matter. Sometimes things happen in your life and you don’t realize that it’s going to lead to a show. One significant thing that happened was during the Trayvon Martin case. I watched the George Zimmerman trial with our oldest boy, who was 12, at the time, and when George Zimmerman was found not guilty, our kid was stunned and he cried. And instead of us hugging him, we showed him the documentary on Emmett Till, and it really gave him the historical context for what was happening. He ended up writing a really cool short story, where Trayvon Martin was going to have a visit with Emmett Till, which ended up being in hour five of the show. It was events like that that really rocked us and let to a lot of family discussion.
GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Shortly after the Mike Brown murder, I got a call saying that Dana Walden, who’s the head of Fox, wanted to do something to address what was going on. It was pretty shocking to get that call. I wasn’t thinking of going back to TV, but the fact that they wanted to do a show like that and were giving us freedom to come up with whatever they wanted, I went home and talked to Reg. He was developing a screenplay in the same area, so it was perfect timing for the two of us to come together to create this show. It was a really great situation that they loved the script so much that it went straight to series. They really gave us the freedom to tell the story that we wanted to tell. We wrote a 70-page bible that laid out the entire 10 hours, plus all of the characters. Going in, everyone knew what our vision was, up front. We never got notes about, “You can’t say that,” or “You can’t tell that part of the story.” It was just, “Tell the story you want to tell.”
REGGIE: We did tons of research and drew from personal experiences, as well. It was a real interesting process, along those lines.
The show is uncomfortable, ugly and uncompromising, but at the same time, it’s also inspiring. Was that a balance you wanted to find?
REGGIE: In many ways, we wanted it to give a view from every seat in the house. That’s one of the things we really wanted to do. Ultimately, we looked at it and where like, how can we be an entertaining show that can really grip the audience, but not exploit an issue? We really had no desire to do that. It was just about how we can challenge people’s perspectives, as much as possible, and create change. My grandfather, who was a police officer, policed in a neighborhood that he lived in, and when I was a kid, our coaches were in the police athletic league. You didn’t feel like your community was under siege. So, Gina and I talked a lot about how we can affect change. Also, a lot of the research knocked us out, and it informed the narrative and many of the mission statements.
GINA: What was fun about it, as writers, was that we wanted to create a really great mystery, but we also love the character work and the character arcs. Ashe is a woman who’s in a pretty serious personal crisis, and yet she’s in charge of this incredibly difficult, emotional, important case. Preston starts as an idealistic character who believes in the system, and you get to see his journey. We love the personal, as well. So, it was always finding the balance between the mystery, the social drama and the personal stories.
Did you always know that you were going to tell two parallel stories, or is that just how the storytelling unfolded?
REGGIE: That just came up in our first conversation. What you find out is that we’re just more alike than we are different. One of the major questions of the show is, how different are we and how much are we the same? We don’t want to force any answers on you, but hopefully, we’re asking the right questions.
How challenging was it to make sure that you represent every viewpoint?
REGGIE: Nobody gave us that mandate. That was our mandate because it’s the easiest way to affect change. We talked to Ray Kelly, who is the former police commissioner of New York, and he had a totally different point of view than somebody like Eric Holder, who helped us with our research. In many ways, it became exciting to say, how do we take Helen Hunt’s character, the Governor, and add this to her or give her this complication? That made it more interesting. It wasn’t a burden to look at it from various points of view. It was exciting. It was the part of it that got us up in the morning.
GINA: In the original script, Helen Hunt’s character was a Republican governor. But when we met with her, she talked about how it would be more interesting, if she were a Democrat. She is somebody who was voted for, but she has this issue with the private prison. Of course, a Republican would feel that way, but to switch it complicates it. We were always trying to find those things that would not go the easy route, but would tell a deeper story.
REGGIE: Our writers’ room was like a mini-museum. We had pictures of people, from Emmett Till to Ray Kelly to Ferguson to Nikki Haley. There were so many representative pictures that, in many ways, reflected aspects of the story we were telling. It also created great conversation. As soon as you walked off the elevator, you saw a picture of Emmett Till. Emmett Till, in many ways, felt like a ghost of this whole narrative. By a strange coincidence, I directed the finale, and the last day of shooting for the entire production fell on Emmett Till’s birthday. There were all of these things that just kept bringing us back.
What was it like to get this group of actors together, and then watch them bring this material to life?
GINA: Because this was a 10-hour special event, we were able to get actors that don’t normally do network TV, Sanaa [Lathan] being one of them. They also came on board because they believed in the vision. Everyone came on board based on the script, and then, most of the time, Reggie sat with them and talked them through the entire series and their character. They were all blown away and wanted to be a part of that. And then, to see them come together on set, and see them all become friends, was great.
REGGIE: The level of the craft and the way they could just take something you write to another level was great to watch. One of the things that really helped us in getting various points of view was that everybody is good, in our cast, and everybody is bad. Nobody is a perfect human being. You just connect with every one of them, and that’s really a testament to this cast.
How did you put this incredible line-up of directors together?
GINA: We thought of this as a 10-hour film, so we were specific about the directors we wanted. We weren’t interested in people that would just take it as coming in for a week. We wanted people who really wanted to dig into character and story, and they really did, across the board. It wasn’t hard. We called Kasi [Lemmons] and asked if she wanted to be a part of this, and Jonathan Demme and Malcolm [D. Lee], and people that we respect. They were excited to be a part of it and really brought their A-game. It was also exciting to see the actors get amped about who was directing. And it was important that we had at least 50% female directors, and that the majority of the directors be of color, just to speak to the story and because there are so many talented people out there who don’t always see opportunity.
Is this a closed, finished story, and have you thought about future seasons?
REGGIE: Yeah, we have. We could keep going, if we chose to.
GINA: It’s ten hours, with a beginning, middle and end, but we left ourselves open. If we continue, we know where we want to go and what we’d want to address.
REGGIE: It doesn’t leave anyone hanging. You’re going to know what happens and you’ll find out if there’s any indictments. The answers to the mystery will be solved. But if we chose to continue, we could. The set-up with Ashe and Preston and the D.O.J means we could deal with a tremendous amount of different cases. That could shift with the new regime, but maybe that’s something to deal with, as well.
Shots Fired airs on Wednesday nights on Fox.