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Shawn Ryan: Creator of The Shield

Very few DVDs get DVD Talk's highest rating: DVD Talk Collector Series and almost no TV show on DVD has gotten this prestigious rating for every season released on DVD. But then again The Shield isn't like any other show on Television. Gutsy and original, The Shield takes everything you think you know about cop shows and turns it completely upside down. It's one of the best written, most innovatively shot and best acted shows on Television, and if you've never seen it, you're truly missing out on some of the best TV ever.

At DVD Talk we see literally thousands of DVDs each year, and it's hard to remember a series that got our review team buzzing more than The Shield Season 1 and The Shield Season 2. It's just that good!

We had the opportunity to talk to The Shield creator Shawn Ryan about the upcoming season, his perspective on Season 1 & 2 on DVD and more. In our interview with Shawn he discussed some key points from the first two seasons which we removed from the printed version of the interview, to keep it as Spoiler Free as we possible. If you'd like to hear the complete interview we have an audio version of the Interview with Shawn Ryan which includes discussion of some key plot points of the past two seasons.

Has the experience of going back and revisiting Seasons 1 & 2 of the Shield with commentaries and special features on DVD impacted you at all for Season 3?

A little bit, yeah. Going back and doing the extras and watching the episodes over again is all of the fun with out any of the work. It's a lot of fun to make this series, but it's a hell of a lot of work. To go back and to see the finish product, to do interviews with directors and to watch the audition tapes - it's pretty great. In a couple instances it reminded us of things from ten or eleven episodes back, and gives us things to think about for future episodes.

One of the great things about The Shield is the balance between the episodic elements and the series' through-lines. When you lay out a season of The Shield are you looking at things on an episode-by-episode basis or as a season?

We have certain things that come up at the beginning of a season that we want to aim for. At the same time there is so much story and material in any given episode that most of what we come up with is done while we are working on that particular episode. The nice thing about having episodes that have 4 or 5 story lines in them is that you can always do 2 or 3 of them that start and finish within that episode and then have the rest continue on to the next episode.

For people new to the show, there's story they can start and finish and feel a certain level of completion. For our hardcore fans there is also stuff that rewards them for continuing to watch every week.

The Shield is definitely an addictive show. On DVD I found myself watching two, three, four and even five episodes back to back. There's definitely a payoff for watching several episodes in a row.

There is stuff there that we that we'll pick up and haven't forgotten about. Sometimes things are delayed intentionally, and other times there isn't much of a choice. We had a whole story line with Gilroy the first season. We wanted to bring him back early in the second season but the actor himself wasn't available - he was doing a play. He became available later in the season, so the episode where we have him come back is later in the season when initially we wanted to do it earlier. Sometimes when we pick up stuff later on, it's intentional and sometimes it's because of actor availability or other factors.

Have all the accolades, awards and attention on the show impacted the way that the show is made? Does the added attention create higher stakes creatively?

It puts pressure on us when we've been lucky enough to get good reviews the first year or two. We don't want this to be the year everyone turns on us. We end up working really hard. The nice thing is when we get the good reviews it gets the network off our back a bit. Even though we feel the show is good, and they think the show's good, we are definitely working in a vacuum for a little bit. Yesterday, for instance, there was a very nice review of our show in Entertainment Weekly reviewing the first 5 episodes of the season. When the network sees that they get very happy. Not that they don't have trust in what we're doing over here, but if the critics are saying, "Hey, things are going well", they are more likely to think things are going well, and give us the freedom to keep on doing it.

How do you think TV's move toward High Definition will impact the show?

I don't know enough technically how it will. The show is intentionally shot to look not as pretty as we could make it. It's intended to give the viewer a "ride along" feeling, more like a documentary. Certainly there are other shows that aim for a more beautiful palette and appearance. So in the future, in a High-Def world, we still won't be the prettiest show on the block. Hopefully, we'll still feel authentic, something caught on the fly, and that will attribute to the overall feeling of intimacy in the show. There are some shows which create separation between itself and the audience by the way it's shot. It forces you to notice beauty shots and how things are done. We strive to make you not notice the filmmaking. We are probably going to look even grimier with future technologies.

Has there ever been a discussion to shoot digitally?

It's been discussed but never seriously. For now Ronn Schmidt, my DP, is happy doing it the way that we are doing it. If he came to me and said, "I think we should consider doing this", I would give it consideration, but he's happy with what he is achieving. There was a discussion on the pilot about whether or not we wanted to shoot with 35, or 16 or with Digital. There were a couple of tests done to see what it would look like. Our director Clark Johnson suggested the tests, but he wanted to use the 16, so there are no plans to change it at the moment.

It's remarkable that The Shield, now 26 episodes/2 Seasons 'old', has been able to manage the same look in episode in 26 that you had in the pilot. That's a visual style that you don't usually see.

Thanks, we're trying to progress and trying to learn. I see little differences along the way, but I do think the show feels the same - from beginning to end. We have consistency - the same DP who did the pilot and has done every episode for us, the same camera operators and much of the same camera crew. We have a lot of the same directors who work over and over for us. We're always trying to push the boundaries of our look and not just tell our directors it has to be this way or that way. We do say there is a feeling we're going after, and then allow them to explore within that.

How intrinsic is the city of L.A. to The Shield?

Very intrinsic. LA is such a multicultural town and I think the best place for The Shield is in LA. You could film it in other cities if you were there filming, living and experiencing life as we experience life in Los Angeles.

You are definitely showing a side of LA that most people never see; it's far past the glitz and glamour.

LA is a very big town. You always seem to see the same places in LA in the movies and TV shows: Downtown, Beverley Hills, Century City, Hollywood and the beach. Those are the only four that you see. I was shocked when I moved out to LA to find myself driving through all these other areas that looked different than what I'd seen that were much more real in my estimation. Both good and bad real. When we were making the pilot for The Shield our Director Clark Johnson and I talked about the idea of trying to film the show in a way that those areas of Los Angeles that you are familiar with (Hollywood, Downtown) would be in the show, but in the background. You'd see the parts of town you were familiar with but they'd be like Oz, off in the distance and kind of glittering. So it anchors you to a place that you are familiar with, yet we're in the little side alley that you aren't familiar with that's dirtier, grungier, more ethnic and more dangerous that what you commonly associate with Los Angeles.

And don't forget that blue tarp! I think a blue tarp shows up in almost every episode. Is it the same blue tarp?

No, it's just what people do out there. We have a wonderful production designer that ensures that our areas look authentic. A lot of the time it's just a matter of filming what's there, and getting permission from people on the streets to film. We don't spend a lot of money on production design. We grab what we can. We're the kind of show that if a helicopter is flying overhead in the middle of a shot, we don't stop filming, we turn the camera up to get a shot of the helicopter. We don't hire helicopters. It's very much like a documentary crew - grab what you can. We don't try to control the environment - we don't close off 3 streets just to get a street scene. We'll film with real traffic.

A new writer on our show who's a very accomplished guy, his the first day on set, he was watching one of the episodes and was like "Oh my God! Michael and the guys are just running through traffic!" The camera guy was just following them, and he couldn't believe we filmed that way. He'd never seen that before in his 20 years on television. There's is something different about it and it seems to work for us. It isn't appropriate for all shows, but it works really well for us.

So 26 plus episodes later, you still have to come back to the moment on the end of the pilot. It's probably one of the more shocking moments on TV. How important has that moment been to you now that your in your 3rd season?

What's great about that moment is that it really solidifies exactly who Vic Mackey is. What's wonderful for the show is that viewers who have seen that and are familiar with it know now not to assume anything - TV conventions don't dictate how our stories play out. On our show when someone gets put in a dangerous situation, it's not a sure thing that they'll get out of it. It's a wonderful thing when an audience isn't able to anticipate what's going to happen. When I originally wrote that scene I never thought the show would get made. I was just viewing the script as a writing sample. There was discussion whether we really wanted to do that especially so early in the series. I thought for a day about possibly changing it or taking it out, but I figured that 'it is what it is'; this is a part of what appealed to the network when they bought it. I didn't know where we would go from there, but I wanted to be true to the script that they bought. It was important to me that we don't ignore that it happened. I am working on editing an episode right now where it all bubbles back to the surface. But we have been able to move beyond that as well. There are times where you don't even think about it, and there are times when you watch an episode and are very much reminded of what happened in that episode. It's been great for us to do that.

In terms of Vic Mackey, do you see him as a modern super hero? How does Mackey resonate in your mind?

I wrote for the show Nash Bridges for 3 years, where Nash was really written as a super hero. There were certain rules that applied to Nash and professionally he was never really wrong. I don't think Vic is that way. Vic is an extraordinarily good cop who uses some extraordinarily bad measures. He's not a super hero, and he's not always right. We love on occasion writing a line early on in an episode where Vic says "I know A happens', and then you find about later in the episode that B happens. Then you realize Vic doesn't really know everything. He's a very flawed character in many ways. Certainly as a cop there are things that he's able to get done that the other cops can't or won't. In that way it makes him in some respects a superior cop, but we don't view him as a super hero at all. If anything we try to concentrate on his flaws and weaknesses and try to exploit those.

It seems one of the major areas of flaws and weaknesses for Vic is the whole home scene. I am blown away that you cast your wife as Corrine. How has it been working with your wife in a series where it's so intense and emotional, when she's having knock down, drag out fights with Mackey?

I am usually not on set for them, so it works out good for me. It's good for Cathy. The good thing about using Cathy in the show is, for instance, today she is filming and we're doing a table read of the show, whereas normally during the course of the work day I don't get to see her. Today I'll get to see her at the table reading. I'll get to spend a little time with my wife in the middle of my workday, which is really nice. But essentially she is just one of the few people who I thought deserved a chance. I was here in Los Angeles for a long time before I got a chance to make this show and have known a number of people who I thought were good actors but who hadn't gotten the breaks that they deserved. Jay Karnes who plays Dutch has been a friend of mine since 1989 and acted in a couple of plays that I've written. I knew what an extraordinary actor he is. Dave Snell who plays Ronnie has been a friend of mine for a while. He had done TV movies back in Kansas City where he is from, but hadn't really been given a chance. This show has allowed me to use people I've known and whose work I've admired and who haven't been over-exposed on TV. One of the important things about this show was to use unfamiliar faces because audiences buy into those people more as their characters.

A lot of deserved attention has been paid to Michael Chiklis and his performance; do you feel that some of the rest of the cast has been mistakenly overlooked?

It's hard to complain because we've been very fortunate when it comes to critical response and awards. We won the Golden Globe for Best Drama and Michael has won several Best Actor Awards. We are very lucky in that regard. Having said that, Michael deserves every reward he's won. This is a case where being on FX has hurt us. Because we're on FX, they seem to feel that acknowledging Michael is enough. If we were on NBC or HBO, I think the support for these other actors would run deeper. That work that Walton Goggins and Benito Martinez do in this up coming season is absolutely unbelievable. The work deserves to be considered amongst their peers who are normally recognized. I don't know if it will ever happen or not. It's just a case in some ways we've been overly praised, and in other ways that relate to them, under praised.

Do you ever have any time to look at any other DVDs or listen to other audio commentaries?

I try, it's usually during the hiatus that I get to sit down and watch other DVDs and I haven't had a hiatus since last June. The last DVD I saw is one of my favorite movies, Say Anything, the commentary track on that was very interesting. They had so much to talk about before the movie starts they were talking over black for several minutes. They couldn't contain all the commentary to just the picture of the movie. With two young children, the DVD that is mostly in our system right now is Dora the Explorer and that gets played over and over again. My oldest daughter actually loves Finding Nemo. So we've got that in the DVD player. In a month when I am done with this season, I'll get a chance when the kids are asleep to catch up. I've got about 150 DVDs to catch up, but not enough time right now to watch them.

Without giving any spoilers away, are there any sneak peaks or teasers you can give away anything to look forward to in Season 3?

In the first season the major through-line of the show was David Aceveda vs. Vic Mackey. In the second season it was David and Vic in a new relationship with Claudette having an effect on Vic. In this third season, while there still are external conflicts both from Claudette and David, the main area that we focus on is internally within the strike team and how what happened in season two creates tension and conflict within the own team. So in many ways the enemy was outside of the team the first two seasons, but in this season it's about the internal pressures.

March 9th can't come soon enough!

I think season 3 stands with or above the seasons we've done. I think the episodes have turned out really amazing. We've got actors who really get into their characters, directors who have directed for us a number of times. They've come in and done a great job. I've got writers who are on their 3rd year of the show. Everyone's in a group and I think it's turned out really well. Because things really have gone well, we've agreed to do a couple more episodes. Whereas the first two seasons consisted of 13 episodes each, we're doing 15 episodes this year. People can look forward to at least a couple more shows.

Are you up for the extensive commentaries again for DVD?

I am. We only did 4 commentary tracks on season 2, whereas we did tracks for all 13 episodes on the first season. I think this upcoming year there will be a lot of them.

I am sure that will make a lot of DVD fans extraordinarily happy. The first two seasons were very well received, both from critics and from our readers.

Thanks! I'm headed back to the writers room where we are breaking the story for the very last episode and we've got our DVD producers in there with the crew and filming it. We're going to follow the creation and execution of the last episode of the season. It's going to be a big long documentary. I go from talking to you about the DVD and then going in there and being filmed for season 3's DVD.

So in what, about 9 months we'll see it?


The Shield, Season 3 debuts on the FX network on March 9th at 10pm

Listen to this interview with Shawn Ryan (including some spoilers of Season 1 & 2)

- Geoffrey Kleinman


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