Interview: Ted Griffin and Shawn Ryan talk 'Terriers'
At the end of press tour, I mentioned that one of my two favorite new shows from tour was FX's "Terriers," a new private eye drama from "Ocean's Eleven" writer Ted Griffin and "The Shield" creator Shawn Ryan. It debuts a week from tonight, Wednesday, Sept. 8 at 10 p.m., and it's quite a lot of fun.
I'll have a review up next week, but the short version is that Donal Logue plays Hank Dolworth, an ex-cop, and Michael Raymond-James (he was Rene on "True Blood") is Britt Pollack, an ex-thief, and the two have teamed up to become low-rent, unlicensed detectives in Ocean Beach, CA. There's an ongoing story arc about the two getting in over their heads on a case involving the richest man in town, but also lots of standalone cases, and it's a nice mix of hard-boiled drama and buddy comedy, helped largely by the chemistry between real-life pals Logue and Raymond-James.
I interviewed both sets of partners immediately after the "Terriers" session at press tour. Logue and Raymond-James should be coming tomorrow or the day after that, depending on how long it takes to get the transcript done, but after the jump are some of Griffin and Ryan's thoughts on the show's influences (including a bunch of movies that get the highest Sepinwall Seal of Approval), the advantage of writing a show about close friends where the actors really like each other, and more.
You mentioned "Harper" (a '60s private eye film with Paul Newman) in there. Beyond that, what other private eye shows did you enjoy growing up or that are influences on this?
Griffin: I remember growing up with "The Rockford Files," and you grew up in Rockford (Illinois)...
Ryan: To the point that I thought that that show took place in Rockford. I thought, "Well it’s crazy ‘cause there’s an ocean, there’s no ocean here."
Griffin: Yeah, creative license. And I remember "Ten Speed and Brown Shoe" but I was so young that I remember it but I don’t really recall it.
Ryan: "Butch and Sundance."
Griffin: I would say there’s a lot of detective fiction and films which were probably more of an influence than detective shows. I don’t think I ever watched "Mannix," though I have a big poster of…who played Mannix?
Griffin: Mike Connors in my room.
Ryan: Yeah, the genre really took sort of a critical hit I guess in the late ‘80’s. They had so worn out the genre kind of mid-70’s to late-80’s and such a lack of shows in the last 15 years...
Griffin: There’s "Magnum," "Simon and Simon"...
Ryan: …in the genre. It’s interesting so it is a challenge to try to do one and do it well and do it differently. And it’s hard. And with a police show or Kurt’s "Sons of Anarchy," when they’re drug running and gun running and everything there’s always super high stakes and cases that you can investigate, and this is harder. It’s harder to come up episode to episode with what they’re doing that’s going to seem realistic in an FX way and yet in terms that they’re low-rent guys and yet still have the juice to entertain an audience on a weekly basis. That’s probably what we spend our most time figuring out on a single episode.
We talked last night (at a Fox/FX press tour party) about Hank’s last name coming from Burt Lancaster in "The Professionals," and I’m assuming Britt is after James Coburn in "The Magnificent Seven," or is that just a coincidence?
Griffin: No, it’s not a coincidence.
Okay, so what’s the Western influence on this show then?
Griffin: I think it’s not necessarily westerns but that genre of "Magnum," "The Great Escape," "Wild Bunch," "Dirty Dozen," "The Professionals," and what the original "Ocean's 11," which really should be part of that genre, tried and I think failed to be and which I had in my head when writing that movie whatever that male ethos is that’s not 80’s testo….
Griffin: Thank you, testosterone. This is how we work. I write down half word….
Ryan: And then I fix it.
Griffin: Yeah, and he also always completes my…
Griffin: ...sandwiches. So that sort of easy camaraderie that were in those films I think are an influence. It’s not necessarily a western, I think.
But there’s also this notion in those movies that these are guys on their last legs. In "Harper," there’s the famous scene in the beginning when Paul Newman has to get old coffee grounds out of the trash. So what’s the appeal of writing about guys on the bottom rung just barely hanging on?
Griffin: It’s difficult to articulate but I think one, they’re underdogs. They’re terriers.
Ryan: The freedom that these guys have. It is very cool. One of the fun things, whether Ted did it intentionally or not, is the friendship between these guys. I would always have my "Shield" rules that I would impose on the writers on things I wanted and didn’t want and Ted has a couple of rules on the show that were tough at times but turned out to great for the show. One was that he didn’t want our guys having a ton of arguments with each other. They're friends, and that’s tough when you have 2 characters and you can’t sort of have them mad at each other. They have little word quibbles about this or that. I think there’s only maybe once in the whole 13 episodes that we do where they have a real honest to goodness disagreement and fight. I don’t know if I’m answering your question but it’s a show about friendship in that way that’s really fun and you wish you had a friend the way these 2 guys are friends with each other.
Donal and Michael talked a bit (in the press conference) about the two of them having met on the set of "Life" and becoming friends, how much of that played a part into the two of them being cast?
Ryan: I didn’t know that until after they were cast. We had cast Donal and then we were bringing in actors to audition with him to play Britt, to play Gretchen and everything. And there was just something about these two together. And I remember initially Michael’s hair was longer and he was more scruffy. And I know that John Landgraf initially was very worried the two guys seemed too similar. And we were filming "Lie to Me" at that time, and we asked FX if we could bring Michael back and I had Michael go to the FX hair trailer and get cleaned up and trimmed up. Because John always loved his audition, but he just worried that the two were too similar. And he came back and there was just something, you know, that we talked about in "The Shield" and it’s was definitely true in this show: there’s certain actors that you hear the words that are written and you hear them saying them and it’s not as good. And there are others that you click and you just realize these are two guys. And when we saw Donal read with Michael, it just felt like those were the two guys.
How much easier does that make your job having these guys sort of have that ease with each other?
Griffin: A lot easier. They have a really easy rapport and then there’s always some adjustment of pages when you’re actually shooting it and they sort of have each other’s rhythms down. And because they’re good friends, there’s generosity as far as, if all of a sudden I realize a line has to go to Britt that was Hank’s, it’s not like, "Oh, shit, now I have to talk Donal down and give him a reason why like this is better." All that bullshit goes away and you can say, "Swap."
In the casting, how much of, if at all, did the two characters change from the way you had it in your head?
Griffin: I think a pretty good deal. I think during the season the characters got a little more (defined) as we watched them and figured out what suited them. But I think there are depths to Hank that getting to know Donal we found and used. When you start off writing something you really don’t know. It could have been Donal, it could have been Yaphet Kotto. That would have been very different.
It's a continuum.
Griffin: I mean, I would like to see that version of "Terriers," with Yaphet.
Ryan: It's on the DVD extras. It’s the rarely seen Yaphet Kotto pilot
Griffin: And Cantinflas as Britt. "Si senor."
Yaphet was funny in "Midnight Run."
Griffin: He was. He was. He was kind of funny in "Blue Collar," I think. There was something else early on.
Ryan: "Midnight Run" is an interesting reference to the show because it’s grounded and but funny and there’s a character who really has lost a lot of things.
And that’s my favorite movie of all time. Music to my ears. It’s not the best movie I’ve ever seen it’s the one that I can watch the most often.
Ryan: It's pretty great.
How good are they? Britt is obviously a good thief but just as detectives, how do you define their competence?
Griffin: I might not hire them. Not that I think they’re bad. One of the things I think is interesting about these guys where the detective genre lives now in shows like "CSI" or "NCIS" where there’s all this technology and all these resources, and then these guys have a pretty shitty truck and Britt knows how to break into things and Hank kind of has his nerve and his detective sense, but they’re really just trying to hang onto cases by their fingernails sometimes. And I think, at least as a detective show, that’s one of the things that marks the difference between this and other things that are going on right now.
Now, with Katie (Britt's girflriend, played by Laura Allen), that character in most shows like this would be complaining all the time about what these guys are doing. But she, for the most part, goes with it. She accepts that he was a thief. She even sort of gets turned on by some of the things he does. How did you come up with the idea for her?
Griffin: I think there was bit of evolution there. All the notes that came from FX - I’m not just saying this - but especially from Landgraf, there was never one that made me really wince. This one might have been the most effective which was, "Make sure that Katie isn’t complaining or like these guys are no fun to be around. She’s drawn to that. There’s a reason why this girl is with this guy who’s not got the greatest prospects and that’s because he’s fun and she enjoys that."
Ryan: There was some concern after the pilot that it could go in that direction and so there was some conversations with John and the creative team over at FX about really looking for ways to move away from that and that was a great note on their part, and I think we embraced it.
Griffin: Also, the nice difference between film character and a TV character is in a film character that character can be a nag because you’re trying to get the story point across with all their failures. But you only have to live with that film character for an hour and a half or two hours. TV character, you want to be around a little longer and so it’s not just in service of that main character.
Ryan: And also it makes her character so much more attractive in the season as the series goes on and you wonder where Britt’s future is going to go with her. She becomes this perfect girlfriend that he risks losing. Whereas if she turns into some nag you sort of want to see him go away from her. I think the goal here is for the audience to hope that he has his act together enough not to blow it with her.
Was Gustafson (Hank's ex-partner on the police force, played by Rockmond Dunbar) written with an African-American actor in mind?
Griffin: With that last name?
I was going to ask.
Griffin: That’s one of our big jokes. Calling him "the Swede."
Ryan: It wasn’t written that way, but you want some diversity in your cast and you want to reflect a semi-accurate America in the show. After the script came in and we had cast our Hank and Britt we realized that that was the best and most pressing opportunity to what we highly consider actors of color there, and Rockmond came in. It was pretty great.
Griffin: Not that Hank and Britt were written as white. That was sort of open, too.
In the casting, what was it you saw with the two of them together that made you say, "Okay this is it?"
Griffin: I wouldn’t say there was a eureka moment. And in a way I think they got better and better together. For my money I saw them independently as being right before I saw them as a combination of being right. And also the weird thing about casting something is you have to throw away all your imagination of what these guys are supposed to be.
Ryan: Vic Mackey was supposed to be a young Harrison Ford, you know? And then Chiklis walked in.
Griffin: And I’m looking at Newman and Redford and saying (adopts very formal accent), "Are Newman and Redford available? All right, no? Kotto? Won’t do it. Won’t do cable. All right. Logue?" What’s that voice? That’s my Landgraf voice. I am John Landgraf. Sounds like him doesn’t it?
One of the things I really liked about the episodes is that it’s very casual while you drift in and out of it being funny versus there being real stakes and all that. How did you approach that? Or was it just a case of where the story’s going and if this bit’s funny it is, and if not we’re not going to worry?
Griffin: I think our one rule is, if they’re being funny or entertaining they have to funny or entertaining to each other. Hopefully this show is never making a joke. And so if these guys are having fun with each other and cracking each other up, then hopefully the show will also be funny.
Ryan: And Ted had another rule that I love which was he would always say he’d rather the joke fly by and not land than that we’d get caught trying too hard to make it work. So there’s no pressure. You can have a joke that hits like on 6, you know what I mean? And you play it realistically and people at home, I don’t think, are going to sit there and laugh their asses off, but it just hits this little enjoyable button inside you. And occasionally hopefully we do have some tags but we just never want to get caught trying.
Griffin: "The Professionals" I think is a very funny movie in the first hour. (He quotes a Ralph Bellamy/Lee Marvin exchange, doing an impression of each.)
Ryan: It’s truly a funny line but it’s not like…
Griffin: Yeah, Lee Marvin being funny is very weird. Somebody told me a good Burt Lancaster story. I’ll fuck it up because I don’t do a good Lancaster. Oh, Lancaster was doing something with an actor who’d never done anything before and was just fucking up every line—it was a TV movie—and the director from said, "We could all go to lunch if this clown would get his line right." And Lancaster turned to the extra and says (Lancaster impression), "Not to excuse our director, he’s a hack."
That was not bad.
Griffin: That’s my first ever potential Lancaster.
(The conversation briefly derails into a discussion of celebrity impressions, including Griffin trotting out his Yul Brynner, and then finds its way back into the show as Griffin mentions a question from the press conference about the show's title.)
Griffin: My new line is, why is it called "Terriers"? Because these guys are like terriers. They’re scrappy, relentless, scruffy and they shit five times a day.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com