Tag Archives: CBS Television Studios

Talking Bull

After 13 years investigating crimes in US juggernaut NCIS, Michael Weatherly swapped the navy police for the courtroom with Bull. As the legal drama begins its second season, the actor discusses both CBS series, auditioning for Steven Spielberg and why procedurals still have the ability to satisfy viewers.

For 13 years and more than 300 episodes, US actor Michael Weatherly was best known for playing special investigator Anthony DiNozzo in CBS’s long-running action-crime drama NCIS.

Now, however, he is preparing to return to the screen for the second season of Bull, a legal drama from the same network inspired by the early career of TV personality and psychologist Dr Phil McGraw.

Weatherly plays Dr Jason Bull, a brilliant, brash and charming legal expert who runs a jury consulting firm, using his skills and those of his investigating team to select the right jurors for his clients and then help his clients’ lawyers to win them over.

Bull’s US debut in September 2016 drew more than 15 million viewers, and a full season order quickly followed. The show was then among 18 CBS series to earn an early renewal in March, two months before CBS unveiled its full 2017/18 schedule. Season two debuts in the US tonight.

Counting Steven Spielberg among its executive producers, Bull is produced by CBS Television Studios and distributed by CBS Studios International. Season one aired in more than 200 countries.

Weatherly was a special guest at the New Europe Market television event in Dubrovnik in June this year, where the actor spoke about leaving NCIS, his first meeting with Spielberg and revealed his thoughts on the battle between episodic and serialised television drama.

Michael Weatherly (left) alongside Mark Harmon in NCIS

After 13 years on NCIS, Weatherly still embraced his character but knew when it was time to move on…
I was very happy to be typecast and known as another character’s name – what a privilege. I never got tired of it. It reached a point with DiNozzo when I thought I’d aged out. He’s supposed to be this overgrown, adolescent, fun, ebullient, hyperactive guy, and I have an aspect of myself that is like that. But I did get to the point where [I thought] if I’m too old to play this guy, I better leave before they ask me to leave.
I talked to CBS for two years about how I was leaving and I wanted to give them enough room to make that possible. Then they came to me with Bull. I’d prepared two other projects I was ready to go on. One was a remake of The Persuaders, the other was a book I optioned, Thrilling Cities by Ian Fleming. Both of those were international properties and were things I thought would be a lot of fun to make.

Bull was brought to the screen by an eclectic group of producers…
When we were getting ready to make the show, I sat down with Dr Phil at Steven Spielberg’s compound on the Universal lot at [Spielberg’s production company] Amblin Entertainment. Bull is a very strange show because you have the guy who wrote Donnie Brasco, Quiz Show, House and Homicide: Life on the Street [Paul Attanasio] and the guy who directed In Treatment for HBO [Rodrigo Garcia]. Then there’s Dr Phil, Steven Spielberg and the guy from NCIS [Weatherly himself] – that’s a weird soup.

Weatherly had forgotten he auditioned for Spielberg for a role in hit sci-fi movie Minority Report…
The first thing he said was, ‘I liked your audition for Minority Report.’ I thought, ‘I never auditioned for Minority Report.’ Then I thought, ‘He thinks he hired someone else. How to do I play this, because I’ve got the job [on Bull]? I don’t want him to unhire me.’ We tend to remember things that are good that happen to us, or things that are so putrid, horrible and bad that we never want to do that again. But things that are minor disappointments in life we just throw that away because it irritates you if it’s there all the time. So I have discovered I totally screen-tested for Minority Report and I forgot about it because I didn’t get the job.

Weatherly’s character in Bull is loosely based on a young Dr Phil McGraw

Like most TV dramas, Bull simplifies timelines and practices to tell the most compelling story…
On NCIS we were all doing the pilot episode and we had our technical advisor, who is a former federal agent, a former marine NCIS agent for 20 years, and we’re doing a scene where we’ve all got our guns out, bulletproof vests on, and we’re going to go through a door and get terrorists. [NCIS lead] Mark Harman turns and says to the tech advisor, ‘When you’re doing this in the field, and you’re storming a room, what’s the proper procedure? Who goes in first? What do you say?’ The tech advisor took a very long beat and said, ‘I’ve never drawn my weapon.’ So it’s television.
When you think about a TV show like 24, what happened for 24 hours that you had to stay awake and save the world every season? That’s a lot of coffee. That is really what it’s like with Bull. We have compressed timelines and we have a lot of fudged and simplified truths. But we try to stay away from too much simplification, and some of the things I have learned from doing Bull have blown my mind. They’re not tricks. It’s psychology and understanding why we make the choices we do. So understanding where people are, how people think… that’s why it’s a great show for me. I get tired, but I don’t get tired of making the show. It’s fascinating to figure out what’s going to happen next.

Being a producer on Bull has also informed Weatherly how expensive television drama is…
We shoot in New York City because we’re incentivised by a tax rebate. That starts to be a very important thing. NCIS: New Orleans doesn’t take place in New Orleans by accident. New Orleans is actually a very productive town for a lot of movies and television shows because they incentivise productions to come there. Producing television isn’t just smoking a cigar and saying, ‘Show me what you’ve got, kid.’ It’s really about taking off your blinders and seeing the totality of everything.

Bull also features Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Eliza Dushku (right)

In the age of serialised storytelling, he believes procedural dramas are still extremely satisfying for viewers…
One of the terms I heard [describing] the closed-ended single-episode format was ‘evergreen.’ That’s so interesting, not just for purposes of syndication and rebroadcast but for the purposes of storytelling. The one-hour closed-ended story can be extremely satisfying from a viewer experience. When you watch Stranger Things or Game of Thrones, that arc can carry you on and on, and one hour leads to the next hour and the next hour. But sometimes you just want to watch an episode of Magnum PI and at the end of that, you’re like, ‘That just makes me so happy.’ That’s what CBS does really well as a studio and as a force in television, and I think that’s what I’m able to contribute to them. I don’t freak out that it’s not some hugely sophisticated, complicated story arc. I always find them slightly unsatisfying when I get to the end of Lost or something. So I like a series that’s closed and has layers that add on season after season. Mad Men was a show where if you just watched one episode of season four, you don’t know what the hell’s going on. That’s not a satisfying experience to me – and I loved Mad Men.

It’s taken a while for US broadcast networks to warm to the miniseries format…
Eleven years ago, a friend and I were trying to pitch a six-episode thing. We went to talk to some very important people in Hollywood but nobody understood what it was. I was like, ‘It’s like Prime Suspect from the UK. It’s just a shorter version. Bigger than a miniseries but smaller than a regular series.’ Everyone said there’s no way to monetise it, and that was the big thing back then. America has always just said, ‘We make 22 of them, here’s what it is.’ So it’s taken a while for all of this to fracture and get everyone thinking competitively. Look at what’s happened to music – the last 17 years has just been revolutionary. If I want to listen to something, there’s a hundred different ways to find it.

But Weatherly still enjoys the grind of making a 22-episode season…
Because I grew up with it and it’s comfortable for me, I love the thing I do. I wouldn’t make Bull if I didn’t enjoy it. It’s a crushing schedule, to be picked up at 04.45 to make television all day until 20.00. I’ve been making one-hour television non-stop; this is my 18th year. That’s a long time. Ask [Bones and SEAL Team star] David Boreanaz! There’s not a lot of us that have just been crunching it out. I have a great deal of understanding now of what it takes. A lot of people burn out and a lot of people have different expectations. But I love making 22.

tagged in: , , , , ,

ATX Festival welcomes top US writing talent

The Shield starred
The Shield first aired in 2002 and starred Michael Chiklis as Detective Vic Mackey

The TV industry’s annual calendar is packed with great events – though not all of them have a high profile outside their domestic market.

A good example is the ATX Television Festival, which has taken place in Austin, Texas, over the last few days. For those not familiar with ATX, the organisers say: “We have the functionality of a traditional film festival with screenings followed by Q&As from cast and creators; panels focused on industry related topics; and an array of events that includes parties, live music, meet-ups and social media events. Unlike traditional festivals, however, we celebrate the history of the medium as well as the future. We spotlight classic shows, never-aired pilots, cancelled-too-soon series, cult favorites, current hits, and premieres of new series.”

Significantly, ATX gets plenty of support from big hitters in the US TV industry. At this year’s event, there were panels with the likes of Betsy Beers (Grey’s Anatomy), Noah Hawley (Fargo), Beau Willimon (House of Cards), Tom Fontana (Homicide: Life on the Streets), David Simon (The Wire) and Howard Gordon (Homeland).

There were also sessions exploring the depiction of the LGBT community in scripted TV, comic book adaptations, the way faith and religion are tackled, the role of the director in TV drama and the secret to making a successful fantasy series for TV.

One of the most interesting sessions saw writers from FX’s iconic series The Shield (2002-2008) meet up to discuss how the show shaped their respective careers.

Kurt Sutter (photo by Gage Skidmore)
Kurt Sutter (photo by Gage Skidmore)

Scott Rosenbaum, who has gone on to executive produce series like V, Conquistadors and Gang Related, said: “There was an immense amount of pressure. It was very, very competitive because we all wanted our ideas to get on screen and when we didn’t, we could be angry or petulant – but I think that’s what made it so great, this sense of competition.”

Aside from Rosenbaum, other Shield writers on the panel included Glen Mazzara and Kurt Sutter, who have gone on to work on both megahits and short-lived failures. In Mazzara’s case, credits include The Walking Dead and Damien, while Sutter’s post-Shield work includes Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard Executioner.

Also on the panel was Shawn Ryan, showrunner of The Shield. Ryan has gone on to create and produce a number of new series since The Shield including Last Resort, Lie To Me and Mad Dogs — with NBC’s new time-travel drama Timeless his next adventure.

However, he clearly still has a residual affection for The Shield and its central character, Detective Vic Mackey (played by Michael Chiklis). Quizzed on the show, he gave the impression that he could be persuaded to go back to the franchise if the conditions were right and he could call on some of the original writing team: “I have some ideas where Vic Mackey is, but I don’t know where Vic Mackey is until someone puts me in a writers room with a group of these people (on the panel) and some people who aren’t here and gives us a week to sort it out. Usually my first idea or instinct isn’t the right one, so I have some thoughts. I’d love to hear their thoughts and I’d love someone to pay us to sit in a room.”

The 1973 film adaptation of Michael Crichton's Westworld
The 1973 film adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Westworld, which is coming to HBO as a series

Rosenbaum also gave some insight into the psychology of working in the writers room of such a high-octane show. Recalling the addition of established showrunner Charles Eglee (NYPD Blue, Moonlighting) to the team, he said: “There was a proprietary feeling of, ‘This is our show. We’re the ones who did this. Why do we have to have a new person come along? We’re capable of doing this.’”

However, that initial resistance disappeared when “we realised we had someone really special. My first impression of him was that I thought he was one of the smartest people I’d ever met.”

Another ATX panel of interest was “Westerns: Then and Now,” which saw HBO give a sneak peak of Westworld. Co-creator Jonathan Nolan said: “It was Game of Thrones that made us feel like we could pull this off. The 30-second pitch for Westworld was that we were sort of making Days of Heaven and Alien simultaneously and then putting them together, which is kind of my dream project – exploring two genres and playing with the juxtaposition of both. It’s fantastic.

“HBO felt like the only place we could make this. And Game of Thrones was the inspiration for us. Game of Thrones has this commitment to practical production value, which is not necessarily what’s in play (elsewhere) these days.”

Elementary stars Lucy Liu and Johnny Lee Miller
Elementary stars Lucy Liu and Johnny Lee Miller

Meanwhile, still in the US, the creator of CBS hit series Elementary, Rob Doherty, has just signed a three-year deal with CBS Television Studios.

CBS has already renewed the show for a fifth season, but the new deal suggests Elementary will get a least a couple more runs yet – which is no surprise when you learn how much money it generates for the network. In May, CBS boss Leslie Moonves said Elementary made CBS an estimated US$80m in profit last year (the result of being a wholly-owned CBS property).

Elementary is Doherty’s biggest hit to date, though he has written and produced for a number of series, including Ringer, Medium, Point Pleasant, Tru Calling and Dark Angel.

Outside the US, the big story of the week is that Canal+ in France has renewed its spy drama The Bureau for a third season. Federation Entertainment and TOP will start filming the third run in September. This is the second piece of good news for the show, after its existing seasons were picked up by Amazon Prime UK.

Eric Rochant
Eric Rochant

The Bureau was created by Eric Rochant, who is also known for writing and directing movies such as Autobus, Mobius, Love Without Pity and The Patriots. In terms of TV projects, he also wrote and directed a number of episodes of Canal+’s Mafiosa, le Clan. Created by Hugues Pagan, this show also ran on Canal+ for five seasons (40 episodes in total) from 2006 to 2014.

Finally, coming full circle to the subject of interesting industry events, screenwriter and director Bill Gallagher (The Paradise, Lark Rise to Candleford) has joined the line-up for C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, part of Content London (November 29-December 1). Gallagher will discuss new work such as Sky1’s forthcoming eight-parter Jamestown at the event, as well as his approach to the craft and his role as a creator and writer.

Jamestown, about the first British settlers in America, is being produced by Downton Abbey and Lucky Man producer Carnival Films and is slated to air later this year on the UK satcaster.

Last week it was announced that writer/director Tony Grisoni had also joined the line-up for the International Drama Summit.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Staying Power: Courtney Kemp Agboh

With a third season of her show Power confirmed and the ink still drying on her overall deal with Starz, Courtney Kemp Agboh tells DQ about her transformation from ‘failed’ comedy writer into one of drama’s big hitters.

For someone who started her television career writing for The Bernie Mac Show, Courtney Kemp Agboh (pictured above) is under no illusions about her power to make people laugh.

“I failed miserably,” she admits. “I was not funny. Comedy is not my thing. I sucked. I was terrible. I’m just not funny.”

But comedy’s loss has become television drama’s gain: the showrunner is currently winning critical and popular acclaim with hard-hitting Starz series Power.

Omari Hardwick as Power's main character, James ‘Ghost’ St Patrick
Omari Hardwick as Power’s main character, James ‘Ghost’ St Patrick

The debut episode of Power’s second season in June broke viewing records for the US premium cable network by attracting the largest ever audience for a Starz original drama season premiere episode (1.43 million). It also became the most watched episode ever for a Starz original drama across its opening weekend (3.62 million).

The impressive ratings opened a remarkable week for Agboh, who signed an exclusive overall deal with Starz just days after the network commissioned a 10-part third season of Power for 2016.

And there was more good news to come. Season two’s finale, which aired on August 15, set a Starz record for an episode premiere, drawing 2.39 million viewers (Live+3). This was also up 51% compared with the first run’s finale (1.59 million) and up 17% on the season two average (2.03 million)

Set between the glamorous New York club scene and the city’s brutal drug trade, Power tells the story of James ‘Ghost’ St Patrick (played by Omari Hardwick), who must juggle his life as a club boss with that as a major player in one of the city’s biggest illegal drug networks.

Kemp Agboh, who created the series, is an executive producer alongside Mark Canton, Randall Emmett and rapper Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson. The show is produced by CBS Television Studios, Jackson’s G-Unit Film and Television, Kemp Agboh’s Mawuli Productions and Canton’s Atmosphere Television.

Kemp Agboh was first exposed to the television industry while working as a journalist. An article she wrote for GQ, titled How to Date a Black Woman, caught the attention of two comedy producers, but the project didn’t move any further. Undeterred, and now with a taste for the business, she wrote a script on-spec for The Bernie Mac Show, landing a writing job on the series in 2005.

“I was very fortunate,” she says. “I moved to LA with no car, no apartment and no job, but I had a husband who had a job in New York and an agent. I was very fortunate because I was able to go to interviews and meetings, and I got a job as a writer.

The Good Wife, which gave Kemp Agboh her first experience of running a writers room
The Good Wife, which gave Kemp Agboh her first experience of running a writers room

“I did all my assistant stuff and coffee-getting when I was working in magazines – I had that Devil Wears Prada experience – and because of that I had no attitude. I had been broken down in journalism. It really helped. Then I got in at Bernie Mac and failed miserably.”

With her comedy career put swiftly behind her, Kemp Agboh penned another spec script, this time for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which led to her joining the writing staff of In Justice, a short-lived police procedural run by married duo Robert and Michelle King. Credits followed on Fox drama Justice and ABC comedy-drama Eli Stone, among others, before Kemp Agboh was reunited with the Kings on CBS smash hit The Good Wife in 2011.

“That whole time I branded myself as a legal writer,” Kemp Agboh says. “I wrote legal drama for the most part. That helped me to continue to work. I worked every year and kept getting jobs. I was on The Good Wife for three seasons, and there I learned a lot about how to run a show.

“But I was always an action person, I was always someone who liked writing murders and death. The Good Wife isn’t an exceptionally violent show, so all this stuff was just busting out of me.”

It was when fellow Power exec producer Canton spoke to Jackson about doing a “hardcore, hard-hitting, music-driven show” that Kemp Agboh’s name was suggested, and after meeting Canton, she came up with the idea for the series.

She explains: “The main character became a mixture of 50 Cent’s upbringing – South Jamaica, dealing, and getting out of that life – and my father, who was not a criminal, but was a self-made man. He grew up with no money and made himself into this big advertising executive. It was a combo-platter of the two things.”

Kemp Agboh recalls pitching the series to Starz: “It was me and 50 and a ton of people, but I was the only one talking so it was quite scary. I don’t read a pitch; I only go in with cards with a few keywords on them. It’s a performance. You get passionate and excited about it and tell them the story. At the second meeting, 50 brought music so as I was pitching he was playing tracks from the show.”

Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson (right) and Joseph Sikora in Power. Rapper Jackson is an executive producer on the series
Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson (right) and Joseph Sikora in Power. Rapper Jackson is an executive producer on the series

Power launched in 2014, but despite the show now heading towards a third season, Kemp Agboh says she never anticipated its success. “I try to live my life one day at a time, so the whole process for me has been going in to pitch the show, they say yes; writing the pilot, they say yes; they want a second script… it’s just been piece by piece. As each episode was airing and the audience was growing, I was just trying to be present for its success at each moment and really trying to interact with the fans. I’m thrilled with the response, but I can’t say it’s what I expected. I had no expectation of it.”

What she did expect, however, was the stark difference between writing for a broadcast network such as CBS and a premium cable channel – the former reliant on advertisers and the latter free to flex its creative muscles with added sex and violence. Kemp Agboh says: “In the Power pilot, we start in a beautiful way. There are shots of the city, you see Ghost getting dressed, everything’s gorgeous and wonderful. Then within nine minutes you’re downstairs in the basement and someone’s getting shot in the forehead. That’s the kind of show it is.

“I wanted to show the audience that it’s never going to be what you expect. You are never going to be safe in this show – you can never relax. I’m always going to be pulling the carpet out from under you. I was trying to make a point about storytelling and what we can do on cable that you can’t do in broadcast, and how just because I came from that world, it doesn’t mean it’s the only writing I can do.

“Broadcast is way harder, and anyone who tells you different, I don’t know what they’re talking about. Twenty-two episodes with no real sex and no real violence – forget it. I have to do 10 episodes and I can go anywhere.”

Power marks the first time Kemp Agboh has brought a show to television, but it isn’t her first spell in charge of a writers room. That milestone came during her final year on The Good Wife, when she was able to apply the lessons she had learnt from mentors including the Kings, Jeff Melvoin (In Justice) and Greg Berlanti (Eli Stone).

“What I took from them was that there can be no sexism and no hierarchy in the room, and that the best idea can come from anybody. Those are my rules. I don’t care how many years you’ve been doing this, your idea could suck and a person who just walked into the room to deliver lunch could have the greatest idea of all.

“One of the things I stress is that I don’t pay writers to sit there. I don’t pay for their chair, I pay for their ideas, so I want them. I don’t care how bad they are, they don’t have to be edited. Say whatever. There’s no reprisal for a bad idea. When I interview people for writing jobs, I stress to them if there are areas they don’t like to discuss, such as sex, this is the wrong job for them, because we go there. I want people to have a good time at work.”

Together with Fox’s breakout drama Empire, Power is also notable for having a diverse cast, led by Hardwick, Jackson, Lela Loren, Naturi Naughton, Joseph Sikora and Sinqua Walls.

But Kemp Agboh says the show simply aims to reflect the modern world. “The world looks like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder; the world does not look like Friends,” she explains. “And when people put shows on TV now where everyone is white, it looks funny. That’s not what the world is. That’s not what America is. Nowhere is it all one thing, and if you’re going to make TV that’s going to be successful now, it needs to represent what the world really looks like.

“At one point we talked about doing Power in LA, but LA is way more segregated than New York and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted New York to be represented in all of its diversity. People are realising they can make a lot of money by making TV shows that look like what the world really is. At the end of the day, it’s not about black, brown, white, yellow, red. It’s about green. So as long as these shows do well, there will be more of them.”

But while racial diversity may be improving, Kemp Agboh believes it is still difficult for female writers to breakthrough as showrunners. “I believe it’s harder. I have had fewer experiences where I was the only person of colour in the room and more experiences creatively where I was the only woman,” she reveals. “People ask about race and showrunning, but what I think we actually need to pay attention to is women as showrunners.

“Most of the people I’ve worked with coming up the ranks have been men with stay-at-home wives. Most of the high-level writers I’ve met have been men whose wives don’t work, and the idea of trying to run a show and be a mummy – it’s so complicated and challenging because it really is giving birth to two things.

“I’ve decided I’m not going to have any more children because Power is my second child. I can’t do everything. Some people can do more than that, but I think there’s absolutely a trend. The world is full of women, so women have good perspectives on things and can write really well. People are now saying that if Shonda Rhimes can make so many billions of dollars for a network, maybe I can take a shot on this other chick and she might be good too. And that is absolutely happening.”

With Power set for a third run next year, Kemp Agboh is in no doubt that television will continue to tell great stories – at the expense of cinema. “We’re at a really great point in television drama, as there are more places to put content,” she says. “But I would also say it’s because the movie business got so weird. They stopped making middle-of-the-road movies. It’s all about blockbusters now and these very tiny indies. There’s nothing in the middle, so those stories that might have been told as features 20 years ago aren’t being told that way now. Right now, television is where those great stories are being told.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , ,