Interview: 'Lights Out' showrunner Warren Leight talks boxing drama
Warren Leight is not necessarily the first writer you'd think of to run a boxing drama, but he's the man in charge of FX's excellent new series "Lights Out," which debuts Tuesday at 10 p.m. (You can read my review here.)
A Tony-winning playwright (for "Side Man," a play about his jazz musician father), a showrunner for several seasons of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," and the showrunner on the second season of HBO's psychiatry drama "In Treatment," Leight is a small, cerebral guy. (Back in the summer, he appeared at a press tour session alongside his hulking leading men - Holt McCallany as retired heavyweight champ Patrick "Lights" Leary, Pablo Schreiber as his manager brother Johnny and Stacy Keach as their father - and thought, "One of these is not like the other.") But he had a childhood passion for the sport, and when FX felt the original version of the "Lights Out" pilot was having creative problems, they brought in Leight to get it back on track, then left him in charge when they picked up the series.
I talked with Leight last week about the changes he made when he took over, his own history with boxing, what he learned from the coterie of ex-fighters who came in to meet the writing staff, dealing with the expectations of fight movie fans, relocating the series to Tony Soprano country, and more. As with a lot of these showrunner interviews - and just like the one I did with Leight at the end of his "In Treatment" stint - the answers are long but, I hope, interesting.
I've seen the first five episodes of the season - which deal with Lights' increasing problems in retirement and his desire to get back in the ring despite the objections of wife Theresa (Catherine McCormack) - and I feel comfortable that none of what we discuss is any kind of significant spoiler. (I even deleted a few specific references made by one or both of us, while leaving in the larger point that brought us there.)
I’d like to start with what the status of this all was when you came in and what your take on it was when you got attached to the project.
Okay. I’ll give you more back-story than you need. They shot the original pilot in April of 2009. So this was supposed to precede "Justified," even. It was shot in 2009 and whatever problems there were with the pilot, Holt was undeniable I think in the lead. FX thought this is a great lead character and a great actor but there were problems. So they tried some editing and then they brought me in, in late July of 2009. It was a brief attempt at collaborating with Justin Zackham who wrote the original pilot. The original idea was a guy named Ross Fineman who’s one of the EP’s. By August of 2009, Justin left the show and (FX president) John Landgraf, "I'll give you (some time), but the clock is ticking on this thing." But by then they’d green-lit "Terriers." And he said, "If you want to take another pass at the pilot and get me an episode 2, I’ll take a look at it," but at that point it was a long shot. So I started to rework the pilot, handed that it, handed in episode 2 and Landgraf at that point kind of doubled-down and said, "Okay."
No one ever wants to do a lot of pilot re-shooting. So I kept what I could and added some things. The teaser, where we flashed back 5 years, that was a new addition. So from fall of 2009, we didn't reshoot until March of 2010. And by that time I had done probably 15 drafts on the pilot. And we re-shot the pilot, re-cast pretty much all the recurring adults except for Holt. So Stacy (Keach) was not in the original pilot. Pablo Schreiber wasn't in it. The actors were fine in the original pilot, but the main character was more of a loner. He wasn’t connected to the people around him. It was a different kind of show, I think.
So we ended up re-shooting about 3/4 of the pilot and re-casting a good deal of it. We kept the kids who I thought were pretty good. And then we did our re-shoots and went right into your series, which was kind of I thought a ballsy move on FX’s part, because they were now locked into any mistakes I was making, you know? So that was March. What I tried to do in the re-working of the pilot was the original manager was not his brother but was sort of an old friend who was clearly just ripping him off terribly. And Holt’s character was, I guess, angrier at the world and less connected to the people around him. He was alienated from his father. Didn’t have a brother. Didn’t have a sister. Wasn’t really comfortable in the house. So those were basically evolutionary changes, I’d say. And then also with permission to re-cast, by the 2nd episode you begin to meet the sister, whose part grows and you begin to meet Brennan (a fixer character played by Bill Irwin), who was originally not supposed to exist. The character, Brennan, was supposed to be a phantom. Someone created by the evil manager. But Bill Irwin is much more interesting than a phantom. And he’s Mr. Noodle.
The character of Barry Word (a fight promoter played by Reg E. Cathey) was added to the pilot. So just fleshing it out. Giving an ensemble backup to Holt’s lead. And then basically we shot 13 straight episodes from March to July
What sort of background do you have with the sport, if any?
I was a kid who grew up knowing I was never going to be an athlete. I was a kid who maybe wanted to be a sports writer. There was never a moment in my life where I thought, 'Oh I could turn pro,' but I always read sports writing. I remember vividly the Ali era. An early memory was my father and his friends watching the night Emil Griffith killed that guy in the ring. Boxing was part of male culture in the '60s and '70s in a way it isn’t right now, so I grew up attached to the sport. I guess over the 80’s and 90’s I drifted away from it, like probably 80% of their fan base. And around the time Tyson bit of Hollyfield’s ear, I was pretty much out, you know? What was strange was to re-enter a world that I'd last paid attention to in my teens, you know. But it was all sitting there and with YouTube, every fight I missed was viewable. And the boxing writing still remains great - when writers get to go into boxing, prose writers really chew it up, and it’s really pretty interesting to read. Budd Schulberg, that stuff still sings. And then you start watching the boxing movies. Once the writers room took shape, we brought in ex-fighters. It’s wasn’t really like the Bum of the Month Club, but every week we had an ex-fighter come in, or a guy who was still fighting, or a ref or a boxing writer. So we just had a nice run of people coming in and it was incredibly helpful. And it’s a very close knit community and people all know each other and they all care about each other and they all like Holt. Holt didn’t start training for the show. Holt has been boxing for sport for about 15 years. And he played Teddy Atlas in an HBO made-for-TV movie years ago and Teddy was one of our advisors. And Teddy was like the 2nd trainer to Tyson with Cus D'Amato. So the community was hoping the show will tell their story. And they were really very eager to help out in any way they could. And they would just come in and start talking.
And you’d ask these guys, "Well, were you ever asked to take a bribe? Take a dive?" And there was this old boxer, he said, "Well, I was managing my brother by then. Those guys would come to you. You knew who they were, they knew who you were. They’d sit down next to you at the restaurant you frequented. And you know you didn’t fear them but you showed them respect. And they came to me and said, 'Your brother, maybe he’s not going to have a good fight. Maybe it’s time he takes a rest on Friday.'" And I go, "Would you tell your brother that?" And he goes, "No, he had enough to worry about." It was really interesting, because the stories are so good you think they can’t be true and then you hear them coming out of these guys' mouths and it’s like, "Oh yeah, it’s a sport where the athletes don’t get rich. Where there is no union. Where these guys take tremendous risks for the benefit of the people who own them." And if that’s not a metaphor for what’s going on in America in the last 3 years, I don’t know what is. And that’s part of what pulled me into this show too. It may have been inadvertent in the first script, since Ross had the idea 4 years ago, but I thought what we probably have here is a great way to tell the story that every family has been going through for the last 3 or 4 years - which is everyone’s gotten the shit knocked out of them. Everyone’s been beaten up pretty badly. And if you have kids or a family, you’ll do whatever you have to do to take care of your family. And the options are fewer and you’ll take greater risks. And I thought Holt becomes, not an anti-hero, but I thought a heroic character forced to do bad things, not a guy who’s embracing doing the bad things. And I just felt like that was really what initially pulled me in. I thought this is a good way of telling a story about where this country is right now. And this is a guy who, no matter how many hits he takes, he gets up off the floor and goes back in there. And that’s kind of what the last few years have been like for people, so I thought, "There’s a way to make this work on a couple of levels and that appeals to me." Also, you've seen "Criminal Intent" and "In Treatment." I'd written my share of self-absorbed, conflicted, neurotic characters and it was nice to write a guy who’s kind of terse and does what he has to do and has no self-pity and doesn’t complain. The last decade was for confused male leads and I think maybe this guy is a little bit different than that.
Although Lights is quite a bit more articulate and savvy and empathic than you ordinarily think of when you think of either a real or a fictional heavy weight champ.
Well when I met these guys - and by the way, they give you like the softest handshake you’ve ever had, because they don’t want to hurt your hands - they were very sweet. They’ll tell you about their big victories and they’ll say things like, "Well, you know, I had to fight one and that guy wasn’t going to go down. And I didn’t want to hurt him for life so I eased up the last 3 rounds. And I knew he would die in the ring if I didn’t." What surprised me about them was that they are in fact deceptively smart. Because you don’t ascribe intelligence to brutes, you know? But actually it is a science of boxing. You actually have to be very aware. Even these guys who are now somewhat damaged would come in, and you’d start talking about a fight and 30 years would fall off their body and they’d start talking about a fight and the memory of the fight is in their body and they’d start moving around like they were still in the ring. So they have like a kinesthetic memory of it and they start moving and turning and say things like, "He comes at me with a jab, but by now I’d taken so many of these jabs I realize that when he comes at me with the jab, he’s dropping his right so I hit him with the hook." And the whole time they’re getting beaten up in the ring, they’re thinking. It’s not a sport for dumb brutes.
And I also thought it was interesting even in the marriage that he’s a bit more the empathic one and she’s a bit more the structural one. I thought, "That’s a little different anyway." He's been the caregiver right now over the last 5 years, and she’s an English mother in some ways, you know? You can be warm and empathic without being neurotic and I thought that was just a different blend, you know? I don’t even know if his family realizes how smart he is, but I always like that when he’s processing things he knows what to do at the end of it. When Lights makes a decision, he’s clear about it. And also that’s what boxers tell me. I asked, "Do you ever get into a fight outside of the ring?" And they go, "Well, you’ve got to be real careful. You’ve got to be careful. But the thing is people will taunt you or a guy pulls a gun on you or they threaten you, at some point, I mean, they have to understand you’re a trained boxer, if they push too far when you go, you go. And there’s no stopping." And I realized that even an explosion of anger from these guys is a decision. I just kept hearing this thing: "When you go, you go." And they’re aware of their strength and their power and they’re aware of at a certain point if they make that decision they’re not going to be able to turn it off. They’re very conscious of their strength.
(I refer to a few fights Lights gets into in the early episodes.) Was there a sense that, structurally ,you had to have Lights getting into sort of these physical altercations to spice things up, or was it that this is the kind of man he is and this would happen?
It's a little bit that I’m on FX - I’m not on Lifetime, you know? But also, he's under a lot of pressure financially, but what he wanted to do is reignite his hunger for the ring... And these fights give him a taste again. He doesn’t just miss the fame. He doesn’t just miss the life. I think he misses hitting people... And he realizes he still has something and it’s almost like a lot of boxers would talk about how they wouldn’t really get ignited in a fight until their opponent drew blood. And if they tasted their own blood, then they would go. So when I started to hear that I thought, "Okay, he has to get a little taste for getting hit and he’s the kind of boxer who has to get hit before he can figure out the other guy’s style. He has to take a lot of punches to give punches." Part of what I was thinking was every episode is basically a round of a fight for him. So the answer is yes, I was aware I need to spice things up. People aren’t going to watch a series about a boxer who never fights. That might be an original writers conception, and I can be interested in the psychological laundry that he’s got, but people want to see this guy go. But also I realized for his character, he needs to start getting that rhythm back and that taste back and a little bit of the adrenalin rush that comes with it and realizes that that’s what he’s been missing.
Now, Theresa does not want him getting back in the ring and that’s sort of a trope not only of boxing movies but just sports movies in general. The wife, the girlfriend, whatever, is always reluctant to see her man get back in a position where he’s going to be hurt, taken away from the family, etc. There are a lot of things in the show that’s dealing with the expectations of the genre, but specifically with her, how do you deal with that and make it seem like, she’s not just being Adrienne or she’s not just being a shrew or whatever?
It’s tricky. First of all we went with what I’d say was not the classic boxer’s wife actress. She’s more complicated... It’s a tough role, because I think the audience wants to see him go and this is the one holding him back. I think part of what I thought is, "She’s right." So that you can get angry at her or his father can get angry at her, but she’s right. He shouldn’t be doing this. She doesn’t even know the extent of the problems he has but she’s right. She’s not just an alarmist. She knows that there’s more at risk. You have kids, right?
You know when you have your first kid you can still be (carefree), but somewhere along the way you’re in pretty deep. When you buy your next car, you get a safe car. And basically by the time that third kid is there, she realizes they can’t go on the way it’s been going on. She knows what it will take him longer to understand. I think it was a constant challenge for us: all of these movies that have preceded us - not TV shows, but movies - and how do you write the reality? We talked to boxers' wives. Also, my dad was a jazz musician and my mother fell in love with him because of the horn and how beautiful his sound was. And as the marriage wore on, she couldn’t stand the sound of that fucking horn. And I was very aware of the idea that what you fall in love with may not sustain over time. In the case of the trumpet, it was everything that was wrong with that marriage. He wasn’t home. In the case of boxing, it’s everything that he’s risking.
So I tried to write it real and I guess I thought, "Okay, we’re stepping into territory where others have been." I didn’t make her overtly blue-collar. I didn’t make her industrial... (Leight talks about a later revelation from her backstory that will explain why she wanted to marry a guy like Lights.) And I don’t think her initial draw to him was this guy’s a meal ticket but he was a big, strong protective guy. And that was the nature of the appeal. So we just tried to deepen it a bit. Didn’t want her to be Barbara Billingsley. I kind of liked making him the more maternal parent in some ways. And maybe this isn’t the freshest thing, but when the chips are down and Lights is in trouble... suddenly no matter what her anger, she gets very clinical and knows how to analyze it and that’s also part of her character. She’s very clear where her loyalty is. And the truth is one thing and what we have to do to survive is another. I grew to like her character even though I was worried that she was the harpy, you know?
It’s interesting what you said before about how there have been many boxing movies, but not boxing shows. When I was interviewing Frank Darabont about "The Walking Dead," I asked him what distinguishes this from all the other zombie stories, and he said, "It’s a series," and that’s basically it. No one has ever done it ongoing before. And that’s what distinguishes it. In what way does doing an ongoing boxing story change the nature of it as opposed to just a standalone 2-hour movie?
Well what’s funny is the whole season has almost a classic 3-act structure (from movies). If we get to go again it would be a different thing. But I was aware that you could go deeper. You could start to meet the other characters in the life. I guess I’m quoting Frank here. What did it come out to (without commercials)? 8 or 9 hours as opposed to an hour and 45 minutes. You get to meet more members of the family, you get to see the pull on him. You get to see the war between the promoters as it develops. I was surprised to see how much we had to stay seeing the show through Lights' eyes - how subjective the storytelling stayed in season 1. We’ll see other characters away from him, but we never go too far from Lights for too long. I was surprised by that. I thought it would be more of an ensemble show in season 1 than it became. A year ago, I would have answered, "Oh, it's going to be more of an ensemble," but that’s not where the show went. And it became ever more obvious that we wanted to stay with this guy and his arc through the year. So I’m hoping (in future seasons) you get to know them a little bit better, that you know more.
I don’t mean to say this is "The Sopranos," but there have been a lot of mob movies but not a mob TV show. Over time you were able to do with that show is what I would hope over time be able to do with this show is to really use a larger canvas.
And of course, he lives in the same sort of neighborhoods that Tony Soprano did.
Yeah, yeah. The original pilot was set in Connecticut. And obviously there are blue-collar neighborhoods in Connecticut, and Connecticut can be as corrupt as any place else, but you hear Connecticut and you just don’t think "hard scrabble boxer." We shot the thing in Astoria and you can shoot Astoria for Bayonne very, very easily. It’s not like shooting Toronto for New York where it’s like obviously a fake. Astoria and Bayonne are ethnic enclaves with the same kind of housing, the same overhead electric wires. And the minute we shifted it to Jersey, Jersey does have Far Hills (where Lights' mansion is) and it has Bayonne (where Lights grew up) and they’re 45 minutes apart - but they’re a universe apart. And the minute you’re in trouble in New Jersey, it’s understood that there may be a way around it. And I was aware, "Okay, now we’re shifting into a place others have gone," but I thought by moving it to Jersey, the audience understands immediately a culture of corruption is part of it and boxing has always been the most corrupt sport. And it helped frame the story. Essentially, we had less exposition to do because we knew people would go, "Oh, well, New Jersey. Oh, okay." And I say that with respect.
And that's how it's taken from this Jersey native.
It’s just different. Somehow if you say, "He’s from a mean cul-de-sac," it’s just not the same, you know? So that was, again, sometimes we drove into the skid of a trope and just hoped that we could still keep going. I worked for Rene Balcer on "Law & Order." He drove me crazy as a boss but that guy could find infinite variation within that very tight format... So it was "Okay, other people have done boxing, other people have been to Jersey, doesn’t mean there’s no stories left to tell and just keep them going."
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org