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Writer-Producer John Rogers Talks About Leverage

March 20, 2009

Relentless. Sad. Ronin. Hopeful. Odd. These are the words stand-up comedian-turned physicist-turned writer John Rogers uses to describe the main characters of his successful TNT drama, Leverage, about a group of thieves out to help those who need more than the law can provide.  Despite many successful jobs together, on February 24th, after getting revenge on the former boss of Timothy Hutton’s Nate Ford, the first season finale saw the team – Nate, Sophie, Eliot, Hardison, and Parker – going their separate ways.

“The whole point of the finale was really to say, at the time, we didn’t know if we had a second season,” said Rogers, who admitted that blowing up the L.A. offices and disbanding the team made writing the opening of Season Two difficult. “If this is it, you have gone through a whole journey with these characters, they are different from the people you’ve met, they’re different in a very specific way – a better way, we think, and if you never saw another episode of Leverage again, you’d be happy.”

Which isn’t to say he wasn’t grateful for the quick pick-up. “It was a very nice surprise.  We did not expect to hear that soon, and it was nice not to leave everybody hanging.”

Filming for Season Two begins in April, and in light of the explosive season finale, the second season is leaving Los Angeles for a currently undisclosed location. Whatever city is chosen will become the new base of operations when the team reunites six months after the events of the finale.  Though he wouldn’t go into details about the circumstances surrounding the reunion, Rogers said, “It’s not a crime that brings them back together.”

According to Rogers, the show itself came together by a series of coincidences.  “Chris Downey, the other co-creator, and I had been friends for years, and we were sitting in my garage, drinking – which isn’t as pathetic as it sounds, it’s a really nice garage – were talking about heist shows, and con shows, and why a couple heist shows that had been on recently had failed.” They came to the conclusion that the audience was looking for fun rather than a gritty crime drama, Ocean’s Eleven tongue-in-cheek instead of the intensity of Smith.

Rogers had lunch with Dean Devlin the next day.  Devlin was working on a Librarian movie and had been approached by TNT for a series.  When the two started batting around ideas, they realized Rogers was writing the kind of show Devlin wanted to direct.  With Downey on board they wrote and filmed the pilot before the writers’ strike. The show was picked up the day after it ended, leaving Rogers and Downey scrambling to familiarize themselves with the footage they hadn’t been allowed to watch while on strike.

Of course what they saw in that footage came as no surprise given the role they, as executive producers, had in casting.

“We kept talking for Nate Ford, ‘A Tim Hutton type – not that we would ever get Tim Hutton,'” said Rogers with a laugh.  He credited Hutton with being truly gracious, insisting that the Academy Award winner made it clear he did not want the show to be “the Tim Hutton Show,” while raising the bar high in terms of professionalism. “Tim set a caliber that that cast really locked in on.”

Which is why chances are we won’t see a blooper reel on the Season One DVD set – the cast is just too damn good. “There weren’t a lot of bloopers, to tell you the truth…and the occasional improv was really something we wound up using in the show.” However there will be deleted scenes, including several unused flashbacks – one of Hardison in braces – as well as Parker’s attempt to seduce a man in a bar.

“Beth [Riesgraf] and Aldis [Hodge] were just straight auditions,” Rogers said about the scene-stealing actors who play Parker and Hardison respectively.  For Parker, the producers saw “the Parade O’ Television Hot Chicks” before Riesgraf came in with her hair in her face.

“Beth made a really specific choice with that character,” said Rogers, referring to Riesgraf’s Asperger’s-like performance which stood out from the crowd. Though initially discomforting, even off-putting, Riesgraf stuck with her decision, embodying that character completely until you couldn’t help rooting for Parker and her social ineptitude, culminating this season in one of Rogers’ favorite episodes, “The Juror #6 Job.” (And in case you were wondering, the people in the house Parker blew up in the pilot were not her parents.)

In “Juror #6” Parker got a few lessons on manipulating people from Sophie Deveraux, Gina Bellman’s character who served as a mentor to Parker throughout the season. A professional art thief and terrible actress when not working a job, Sophie specializes in the long con – which often involves a number of accents. Bellman was the number one pick, according to Rogers, who was familiar with her work from the BBC’s Jekyll. “We just bullied TNT long enough until they let us hire her.”

While Hardison is the hacker, Parker is the cat burglar, and Sophie is known for the long con, Eliot Spencer is categorized as “the retrieval specialist.”  Rogers knew Christian Kane before Leverage from casting for the never-aired pilot Global Frequency, and though they auditioned other people, “Chris had it from day one.” It was thanks in part to him that his character became more than a one-note hitting machine. Rogers referred to the moment in the pilot when Eliot disarmed an attacker and discharged the gun clip, letting it fall with a look that indicated he had no more time for such things.  Kane took that moment and repeated it in every encounter Eliot had with a gun, making disarmament his signature move.

“[Eliot] is the closest to Nate in not thinking himself a thief,” explained Rogers. “There are situations where a certain amount of brute force is required, he applies precisely the amount of brute force, and no more, no less…He considers himself a negotiator, not a thug. Just sometimes you have to hit the person you’re negotiating with several times.”

When TNT aired the season out of order in the hopes of capitalizing on the episodes they thought would hook viewers, the dynamic amongst the team came across as a little uneven. The most obvious instance of this was that the team seemed to be a cohesive unit by episode five, “The Bank Shot Job,” and devolved the following week in “The Stork Job.”  According to his blog, Rogers hopes that the episodes will appear in order on the DVD, which will better illustrate the arcs the characters travel.

“‘Bank Shot’ is the one where it swings and now they go from they might walk away to they’d never walk away,” Rogers said of the episode that was intended to air eighth. “The normal way you construct for a show like this is you have one honest man who makes the thieves around him better.  What happens is the thieves around him actually become a family, and Nate gets worse and worse over the year.”

He was referring in particular to Nate’s drinking problem, which was his way of coping with the death of his son. Though the show was pitched as fun and light-hearted, Nate’s ‘functioning alcoholism’ could get grim – and unfortunately it doesn’t look like sobriety is going to help him much.  Rogers said that Nate was right in “The Twelve Step Job” when he suggested he’s a bigger bastard sober than drunk.  “He’s going to try to find where his sense of justice lies now that it’s not just fueled by revenge.  And that will occasionally be unpleasant. You see why Nate Ford is scary, and why all of them were at some point scared that he was chasing them.”

As for the other insurance investigator who caused the team so much grief, Rogers promised we haven’t seen the last of Mark Sheppard – he’s the one ‘bad guy’ they will never defeat.  “Sterling never loses – the worst Sterling ever gets is a tie.”

The second season, said Rogers, will take inspiration from the current financial crisis. “As the economy falls apart, the world of piracy and black market violence, and the world of legitimate finance are crossing over more and more, and I think you’ll see that next year when you see more and more the fact that what you would consider white collar crime has a dirty sort of ‘McMafia’ international crime underbelly to it.”  Expect to see corporate kidnappings and “the Maddoff Variations,” plenty of Ponzi schemes to go around.  And when all else fails and the writers run low on scams, they can always resort to the Hundred Cards of Crime board.

“We sat down and we brainstormed out: what can you steal, how can you steal it.  The board is the safe place, no idea is too stupid to go up on the board.  Stealing bull semen – fine!  Put it up there.  Bull semen is worth a hundred thousand dollars from the proper bull, that is a legitimate fiscal crime.”

When asked at what point he stopped worrying about fans poking apart plot holes, he said almost immediately.  While he answers fan questions on his blog and maintains an interest in the fandom, he keeps himself apart from it and doesn’t let fan opinions affect his judgement, but he has nothing but admiration for those who devote themselves to discussing Leverage.

“If you love something we make that much – God bless you. If you want to take time out of your busy day to promote my show – go!  Absolutely.  I couldn’t be happier.”

Though filming doesn’t start until April, there’s no rest for the writer, and he headed off to the writer’s room to start breaking the next season’s stories.  Rogers is a writer who it seems has written just about everything: television, film, comic books, even role-playing games.  So what’s next?

“I kind of want to do video games,” said Rogers.  “I really think video games is a new medium we’re comfortable with in our living rooms, and the story telling aspects of it are directed in infancy – but it still can be powerful.”

Leverage returns to TNT this summer.

-written for Starpulse

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