Co-Creators Shawn Ryan and Karl Gajdusek Talk LAST RESORT, How the Show Evolved, and Challenges of Shooting a Submarine Series

     September 27, 2012

last resort shawn ryan Karl Gajdusek

The new ABC drama series Last Resort, from co-creators Shawn Ryan (The Shield) and Karl Gajdusek and premiering on September 27th, tells a suspenseful, emotional and action-packed story about what happens when a U.S. submarine crew receives an order to fire nuclear weapons at a foreign country, and then ignores that order. With nowhere left to turn, Captain Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher) and XO Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman) take the sub on the run and bring the men and women of the Colorado to an island where they will find refuge, as they try to clear their names and get back home.

During this recent interview to promote the show’s premiere, executive producers Shawn Ryan and Karl Gajdusek talked about the great feedback they’re already getting from people who have seen the pilot, how they approached the show’s development and how it’s evolved into what it is now, why Andre Braugher and Scott Speedman were the perfect actors for their roles, the challenges of shooting submarine scenes, and the value of a serialized drama. Check out what they had to say after the jump.

Question: What kind of reaction have you gotten from people who have already seen the pilot?

Last Resort Shawn RyanSHAWN RYAN: Well, the short answer would be a great reaction. The only caveat I would give is that people who contact us on Twitter or say things online tend to be the people who are going to take the time to write in, so I don’t know exactly how representative that is of the audience. The people that have sought it out online probably have a natural disposition to like the show. On my Twitter account, I’ve been hit with dozens of people who’ve watched it, and the overwhelming majority has been very positive. We’ll see if that trends to the network airing of it. But, they seem especially impressed with Andre Braugher and the direction of Martin Campbell, who I think did a spectacular job on the pilot. I think what they appreciate, most of all, is that it’s very different. There’s nothing quite like this on TV now, or in the recent past. You’re not going to mistake our show for another one. So, I think the people who are enjoying it appreciate the uniqueness of it.

Given the current political climate, how did you approach the development of the show to make it appeal to everyone?

RYAN: First of all, you just start off from a creative, dramatic point of view by thinking, “What is something that I’d like to watch?” Karl and I, both, really considered what the political situation was in the world, as of last year when we wrote this pilot, and thinking about how they got topical. You can’t appeal to everyone, and I don’t think any show does appeal to everyone, but we do hope that the show has a mass appeal. One thing we made sure to do is really focus on the characters in the situation. We’re not focusing on a political agenda. We’re not naming political parties, in this show. With the President who seems to be going off the rails in our pilot, we’re not identifying him as one side or the other. This isn’t a show that’s about Democrat versus Republican. It’s more a show about power versus the less powerful, and investigating those dynamics. As it gets past the pilot and gets into future episodes, we will deal with the difficulty of it being easier to think that you can do better than the guy in the office, but the realities are much more difficult than that. It will touch on things that are human, as opposed to things that are partisan, if that makes sense. That’s how we’re trying to appeal to everyone.

Karl, how did this initial idea that you had evolve into what it is now?

Last Resort Karl GajdusekKARL GAJDUSEK: I had a love of submarine stories, from early on. My father had books about subs in the South Pacific, all over our library at home, and I’ve always loved the submarine genre and some of those great, tension-filled sub films, like The Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide. So, as I started to think about what this show could become, I thought more about what the modern-day holistic missile submarine is and I had a realization that one of these submarines is such a powerful piece of machinery that anyone who owns one really could plan a flag and say, “Hey, I am new small nuclear-armed first world nation.” That was the gem of the idea. Once I said, “Okay this is the premise,” that was about the time that I went to Shawn and said, “Can we make a show about this?” So, we started to come up with who the principal characters would be and what the story would be. One of the things that was really important to us was the section at the middle of the pilot where the captain questions the order he receives to fire. The last thing in the world we wanted to do was take a show about a military people who’ve sworn an oath to push that button when the time comes, and then have them say, “On this day, I just didn’t feel like it,” or they have a crisis of conscience. So, we worked very vigilantly to make sure that the plot points around that section would hold water and be something where military people also would say, “You know what? I might question that order as well.”

Shawn, when you got the call about the idea of doing a submarine show, did you immediately jump on it?

RYAN: Yes, actually, I did jump on it pretty quickly. One of the things I pride myself on is never repeating myself. I don’t want any one show I do to feel like I’m trending the same territory as another. And this was an opportunity that was certain things in my wheelhouse, such as a group of dynamic people in a dangerous situation, but with a concept and a scope that I’ve never done before. I like the idea that this was a big, huge, epic show. Part of our pitch to ABC was that this is the kind of show that I would not have been able to have accomplished three or four years ago. It took all of my experience doing shows like The Shield, The Chicago Code and Terriers to develop the skill set to try to pull this off. It’s still difficult, at times. It’s an extraordinarily ambitious show, perhaps even more ambitious and serious than in the pilot, because you’ve got more time and money for the pilot. And we’re trying to live up to that pilot standard, on a weekly basis, with less time and less money to do it. That requires a lot of creative thinking. So, I knew that I wanted to try to do something with Karl, and then, when this idea came about, it just really sparked me. I hear ideas that I acknowledge are good, all the time, but I also realize that I probably wouldn’t take time from my own life to watch that particular show. This was a thing where I was like, “Wow, I would really like to see that show and, if the only way I can see it is to help make, then I guess I’ll have to do that.”Last Resort scott speedman andre braugher

At what point in the process did you think of Andre Braugher and Scott Speedman for these roles?

RYAN: We did not write any of these roles specifically for anyone. The pilot got picked up and one of the first things you do is have a phone call with the network and studio where you start to discuss casting. They always want to aim really big to start with, so threw around a bunch of big names, but Karl and I said, “What would you guys think if we could get Andre Braugher and Scott Speedman?” That was really something we said. Those were people that we thought would be great for the roles that, and that were realistic to go after. And the network agreed. They wanted us to consider some bigger names and explore some bigger names, but you want people that really feel right in the roles and who understand the world of television and the schedule that comes with making television. Andre and Scott were the two people that Karl and I had our hearts set on, from the beginning. There are lots of procedures and hoops to jump through to get there, but we did eventually get there, and we couldn’t be more thrilled that we have them.

What kind of journey did Andre have to go through, to really get the essence of this captain and make him believable?

GAJDUSEK: He’s a remarkable actor and he does his research, in depth. Shortly after we cast Andre, we had series of conversations, telling him what we loved about him, and he talked about what he responded to in the script. He immediately started reading troves of books, both fictional and non-fiction, and just researching the role. He’s a researcher and a studied actor.

last resort cast andre braugher scott speedmanRYAN: We also had a couple of advisers in the pilot preps stage, and then one during the production stage – two different people who had been captains on naval submarines – and he spent time talking to those guys about stories, in general, and about how they might approach certain things from the pilot. He is someone that really studies and does his homework, and then arrives with a real plan of attack, not only for that scene, but how the scene will play within the scope of the whole episode.

Are any of the actors who make up the submarine crew claustrophobic?

RYAN: No one admitted that, probably because they want to keep their jobs.

GAJDUSEK: It’s not claustrophobic on the set, but it is on a submarine.

RYAN: Our set looks pretty claustrophobic on screen, but it is actually a little bit bigger, in real life. Our set is definitely roomier than the real thing, but we’ve got to fit cameras. But, no one has admitted to claustrophobia. I imagine, if they have it, they’re keeping it to themselves for job security purposes.

What are the challenges of shooting the submarine scenes, as well as in the water and on an island?

daisy betts Last ResortRYAN: They’re all difficult. The submarine was more difficult. For the pilot, that set had to be built. Now that it’s built and we’re understanding the best way to film it, I think it’s going easier with every episode. Our production offices are in Los Angeles. We edit it here, but we’re filming in Hawaii, so our set is five hours away. It’s a three-hour time difference for half the year, and a two-hour time difference the other half of the year. So, you’ve got some separation there. You’ve got a big sprawling cast where we’re trying to service everyone. You’ve got action taking place on a fictional French Polynesian island, you’ve got action taking place in the D.C. area, and you’ve got action taking place in the Maryland suburbs where Sam’s wife lives. Additionally, you have a lot of special effects and visual effects, and then there’s the water. For the pilot, things were filmed around the water and then visual effects were added later. That requires really giving a lot of lead time to our special effects team. To do that, the scripts need to be in early. You need to know what you’re doing in the episodes, so that you can start planning with these people, a month and a half or two months ahead of time, in order to get the work done.

It’s not something where you can just decide on Wednesday, “Well, we’re going to write some scenes that we’re going to shoot on Friday,” because it’s not just a hospital set and we can’t change it. We really need to have a very firm plan. We need to fly a lot of actors from L.A. to the Hawaii. The acting pool in Hawaii isn’t as deep as it is in L.A., Chicago or New York. So, you’ve got to plan ahead. You’ve got a lot of characters who are recurring, and that are going to span over a certain number of episodes, and you’ve got to manage that. And then, to serialize the show where things are changing, week-to-week, you’ve got to be able to keep track of all that story and stay ahead of the game, so that you can meet your production schedule. That’s why it’s very ambitious. And then, on top of that, we’re trying to tell great big stories with great big scope. It’s a challenge. If we pull it off, I think it will be a great treat for the audience. If we don’t pull it off, there will be a very public humiliation, on our part. The stakes are high, and that inspires us to do the best we can.

How will you tackle the fact that Scott Speedman’s character has a wife back home that he may never be able to get back to?

Last Resort Jessy SchramRYAN: Well, we love that situation. One of the things that we spoke about when we first started the show, is the idea of Odysseus in The Odyssey, and trying to get back home to Penelope while being separated by an adventure. Scott Speedman is alone on an island with beautiful women all around, but what’s best about the sexy side of our show is that it’s unfulfilled, very often. It’s about the moral problem of yearning for what you can’t have. It’s a show about people in a time of war, not a show about war, and that can mean people are separated by war. Sam and his wife are separated by war. You can also get pressed together with strange bed fellows. There are attractive characters that, all of a sudden, he can’t not be around. That can lead to the edge of temptation, and we think that’s probably the best situation to play those such stories in.

How did you convince ABC to let you make a serialized drama?

RYAN: First of all, we had our choice of a couple of different networks to go to, and we chose ABC because they’re the one network that embraces serialized dramas. Grey’s Anatomy, Revenge, Once Upon A Time and Desperate Housewives, before it ended last year, are all examples of shows on ABC that have embraced that serialization. When you’re talking about the resistance of that kind of thing, it exemplifies the other three broadcast networks, at the moment. So, knowing that this one is going to be a serialized, ongoing, big show, ABC felt like the perfect place for us. People have talked about some comparisons to Lost, but the fact is that Lost was a big hit, as a serialized show on ABC. So, for us, ABC was really the one natural place to try to make that work because they’ve had some success, and they will embrace the idea of serialization.

GAJDUSEK: The value of a hit serialized drama shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s really a great serialized show. It becomes event television, in a way that a network can hang its hat on. We hope to do that.

What is the balance going to be, between the military from the submarine, the characters from the island, and then also the characters that are back in the United States?

andre braugher last resortRYAN: There’s some crossover there, so it’s hard to say an exact percentage. What we’ve talked about is probably 60% of the action will take place on the island, 20% on the sub, and 20% D.C., but some characters can be fluid. Obviously, characters like Sam and Marcus will be on the island and on the sub, and sometimes there might be some communication with people in D.C. We’ll be on the island a lot, we are definitely going to use our submarine going forward, and we’re definitely going to play up the D.C. thing. We don’t want to get too formulary with the show, so not every episode will match up to a pie chart, but that’s the general pie chart that covers the whole season, I would say.

GAJDUSEK: After the event of the pilot, we consider the people on the sub and the people on the island to be a group. And then, we’ve got D.C. as a remote place. We don’t consider this show to be a military intrigue show. We think of it as a large, dramatic epic-adventure. Although the military intrigue and the political intrigue is a huge juicy part of our show, hopefully, it will lead to some great mysteries and some great thriller-tension moments. But, the question of who’s done it is not nearly as big as, what will these people do with the situation they’re in?

What are the dangers that these people will be facing, in the first season?

RYAN: I would say that they boil down to three different types. One is danger from the outside, with people who feel threatened by the power of this nuclear sub, who are looking for ways to neutralize the sub or neutralize the crew. Another kind of threat is the population on the island, when they arrive. There can be people there who are not thrilled with the presence of these people, who view them a little bit like an occupying force that’s endangering them. As a result, they’re going to look for relief in dangerous ways that will provide some stories. And then, I would say that the third one is the people on the ship itself. The pilot starts with approximately 150 crew members. Not everyone could be down with this program. Not everyone is going to love what Marcus and Sam have done, in the situation that they find themselves in. So, they’ll be dealing with some internal descents and some dangers from that. Those are the three main plot engines that are driving some of those storylines.

What qualities do you feel make a great leader?

last resort andre braugher daisy bettsRYAN: Well, I don’t know that I am one, so I don’t know the secrets. But, I’m a believer in team work more than individual accomplishment, so I would say having the ability to inspire those around you to do their best work is a mark of a great leader. Grace under pressure is a phrase we use, here in America, and it applies there. Intelligence and some kind of moral compass are important, as things get tougher and tougher, along with the ability to reach down and do the right thing, even when it’s the difficult thing to do. Finally, the ability to inspire confidence. Maybe that goes along with the ability to inspire.

What makes Hawaii the ideal place to shoot this show?

GAJDUSEK: One of the issues is actually a practical issue of casting. We have this amazing cast that we’re so proud of, but as series regulars, we’re asking them to make a commitment to be with this show for a long time. Knowing that we would have to shoot somewhere that would double for a tropical island, we were going to ask these people to move somewhere completely off the map, for many years of their lives. Hawaii offers a chance to be somewhere exotic, beautiful and somewhat unknown, even though we are familiar with it, to a degree. It’s also a place you can make a home in. That’s the practical answer. From an artistic point of view, Hawaii really does offer incredible vistas and dramatic places. One of the only challenges is that sometimes it’s too beautiful. We actually have to look at parts of it and say, “Okay, how can we ugly this up for our show?”

Last Resort airs on Thursday nights on ABC.