If you’ve never had the pleasure of visiting The Barn and hearing one of Detective Claudette Wyms’ (CCH Pounder) righteous speeches, or taken pride when Detective Holland “Dutch” Waganbach (Jay Karnes) outsmarts his third serial killer of the day, or wondered just how long it would be before Detective Shane Vendrell’s (Walton Goggins) head might explode out of sheer stress, or guiltily delighted in seeing Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) finagle and bludgeon his wicked way from one fucked-up mess to the next, then stop reading this magazine immediately (sorry ed!
) and seek out season one of The Shield
This is a show that’s every bit as engaging, compelling and addictive as HBO’s The Wire and even more ferocious in its execution—it’s heart-pounding stuff. You don’t know what a tense day at the office is like until you’ve spent an hour in the company of Vic and his Strike Team.
Recently, I had the great pleasure of spending some time in the company of Shawn Ryan, the show’s immensely talented creator. Ryan started off by writing plays in his College days back in Vermont (“about as far away from Hollywood as you can get and still be in the United States,” he quips). His first break came when one of his plays won some awards at the American College Theatre Festival, and on the back of that he was brought out to Los Angeles to spend two weeks in the writers room of a popular sitcom: My Two Dads.
Since then he’s become one of America’s most successful producer-writers whose credits include the popular Angel series and most recently The Unit. Not to mention 88 nail-biting episodes featuring the baldest and baddest cop in town…
Where did the inspiration for The Shield come from?
Well, I’d written on this show called Nash Bridges for a few years, which was a Don Johnson/Cheech Marin police show in San Francisco, and I had been able to go on some police ride-alongs for research, and I saw things that I couldn’t use for Nash Bridges. So after spending three years on Nash and writing a lot of episodes, I was just looking to get that out of my system. So I wrote the pilot for The Shield—not thinking that anyone would ever make it but just wanting to write an anti-Nash Bridges episode, where the hero was very flawed, where maybe the hero wasn’t even a hero, maybe he’s just as much a villain as he is a hero, things like that, where cops spoke more like I knew they spoke. I think that if I had limited myself in any way or expected any sort of success, I don’t think I would have written the script that I did. It was only kind of setting myself free by not anticipating any success that allowed me to write that script that did garner some attention and made FX want to make it.
ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS BEING ASKED IN THIS INTERVIEW:
• Was the character of Vic Mackey fully formed in your mind back then?
• There are some shows where you get the sense that the vision has been lost and that no one really knows where they’re heading any more, but with The Shield the development of character and story always appeared very natural and realistic. How much of it was outlined in advance? Was there a seven-season arc from the word go?
• Did news items or current events ever filter into the story lines?
• What was your relationship with the other writers on the show?
• Did the actors ever make contributions to their dialogue?
• The Shield feels unflinchingly uncompromising. Were there any battles with execs to keep the vision?
• So in a way it’s a kind of branding exercise for the network—to be as shocking as they can?
• There’s a great line that Vic Mackey says to a criminal in a police interrogation room that neatly sums up the series: “Good cop and bad cop have left for the day. I’m a different kind of cop.” The show is constantly toying with the audience’s sense of right and wrong, justice and morality. Does operating in these grey areas make it easier to define character values that audiences can relate to?
• These guys are leading seriously stressful lives and I think in reality they’d need to come down from those highs at some stage, most likely by excessive drinking, drug-taking, that sort of thing…
• Was there a lot of fun on the set or did the fast pace of the show mean that it was very businesslike?
• Earlier on you said that TV can’t really be part of the auteur system, but it seems to me that shows like The Shield and The Wire are at the top of their game, and superior to most stuff coming out of Hollywood. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one I think is that they tend to share a sort of novelised complexity and artistry that’s perhaps inherently precluded from a two-hour film.
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