Written By November/December 2010 : Page 18

Written by Louise Farr portraits by tom keLLer NCIS showrunner Shane Brennan juggles TV’s top two dramas. Run, Shane, Run “The unluckiest writer in town,” Shane Brennan’s Hollywood agent used to say. In his native Australia, Brennan churned out 15 to 20 hours of script a year— procedurals, medical and legal dramas, sitcoms, even kiddie shows—but here he couldn’t get anything off the ground. Lord knows, he kept trying. Beginning in the late 1990s, he flew into LAX on his own dime several times a year and stayed for a fortnight to pitch mov-ies that were optioned but never made. “My agent would jam me into those two weeks. I would do dozens of meetings, and because I was an unknown Australian writer, I’d get the development guy who’d just come out of the copy room,” says Brennan, 53, maneuvering a golf cart across the Paramount lot, his wavy graying hair lifting in the breeze, an ear stud glinting in the sun. “You can die of encouragement in Hollywood,” he goes on. But rather than a cruel industry game, he believes the smiles and handshakes were a hedging-their-bets necessity for executives. “They encourage everyone,” he says. “Because the next time I walk in, I might have a script under my arm that becomes the thing that propels their career.” To say Brennan’s luck has turned in the more than 10 years since he began visiting L.A. is an understatement. And the word luck features prominently in his conversation, whether as a way of minimizing his own contribution to his current position or as a bow to the gods of timing. True, he still has no movies in production, but he showruns the two dramas that consistently pulled in television’s highest Nielsen ratings last season: number one was NCIS, with Mark Harmon leading a quirky Naval criminal investigation team; second highest was its fall 2009 spin-off, NCIS: Los Angeles, an action-packed buddy show starring an enigmatic Chris O’Donnell and charismatic LL Cool J as undercover partners who banter their way around the city’s atmospheric back alleys and landmarks in pursuit of terrorists and other evildoers. The two shows remain in the top slots. Success has brought Brennan a massive, oak-paneled office with adjoining pub-like din-ing room, a suite formerly the domain of Joseph Kennedy, Howard Hughes, Lucille Ball, and Tom Cruise. “Guess who doesn’t belong?” Brennan asks rhetorically, referring to him-self. A man with a wry smile, dressed in jeans and shirt with rolled up sleeves, he projects an air of self-effacing amusement. This formal Olde Englishe space, shoehorned as it is into a casually furnished studio building, is no less startling than the notion of an Oz-born writer heading up television 18 • WGA W Written By NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2010

Run, Shane, Run

Louise Farr

<b>NCIS showrunner Shane Brennan juggles TV’s top two dramas.</b><br /> <br /> “The unluckiest writer in town,” Shane Brennan’s Hollywood agent used to say. In his native Australia, Brennan churned out 15 to 20 hours of script a year— procedurals, medical and legal dramas, sitcoms, even kiddie shows—but here he couldn’t get anything off the ground. Lord knows, he kept trying. Beginning in the late 1990s, he flew into LAX on his own dime several times a year and stayed for a fortnight to pitch movies that were optioned but never made.<br /> <br /> “My agent would jam me into those two weeks. I would do dozens of meetings, and because I was an unknown Australian writer, I’d get the development guy who’d just come out of the copy room,” says Brennan, 53, maneuvering a golf cart across the Paramount lot, his wavy graying hair lifting in the breeze, an ear stud glinting in the sun. “You can die of encouragement in Hollywood,” he goes on. But rather than a cruel industry game, he believes the smiles and handshakes were a hedging-their-bets necessity for executives.<br /> <br /> “They encourage everyone,” he says. “Because the next time I walk in, I might have a script under my arm that becomes the thing that propels their career.” To say Brennan’s luck has turned in the more than 10 years since he began visiting<br /> <br /> L. A. is an understatement. And the word luck features prominently in his conversation, whether as a way of minimizing his own contribution to his current position or as a bow to the gods of timing. True, he still has no movies in production, but he showruns the two dramas that consistently pulled in television’s highest Nielsen ratings last season: number one was NCIS, with Mark Harmon leading a quirky Naval criminal investigation team; second highest was its fall 2009 spin-off, NCIS: Los Angeles, an action-packed buddy show starring an enigmatic Chris O’Donnell and charismatic LL Cool J as undercover partners who banter their way around the city’s atmospheric back alleys and landmarks in pursuit of terrorists and other evildoers. The two shows remain in the top slots.<br /> <br /> Success has brought Brennan a massive, oak-paneled office with adjoining pub-like dining room, a suite formerly the domain of Joseph Kennedy, Howard Hughes, Lucille Ball, and Tom Cruise. “Guess who doesn’t belong?” Brennan asks rhetorically, referring to himself.<br /> <br /> A man with a wry smile, dressed in jeans and shirt with rolled up sleeves, he projects an air of self-effacing amusement.<br /> <br /> This formal Olde Englishe space, shoehorned as it is into a casually furnished studio building, is no less startling than the notion of an Oz-born writer heading up television Shows set within the American military. Indeed, Brennan thinks the CBS suits took a risk when they okayed him first as a CSI: Miami staff writer and later as NCIS showrunner. He landed the CSI gig in 2003 immediately upon leaving home in disgust after an Australian network rejected his co-written spec pilot about a cold case unit. “The network said, ‘Phhht.<br /> <br /> What a load of rubbish. Who’d watch that?’” says Brennan, who not long after saw the U.S. Cold Case (unrelated to his pitch) become a hit. “At that point I was like, ‘Why bother?<br /> <br /> It’s time to go away.’” CBS Television Studios president David Stapf disagrees about any risk factor in Brennan’s hiring. “He had so much experience, and we felt like we were tapping into—I don’t want to say a bargain,” Stapf cautions, about Brennan’s landing the CSI: Miami spot. “But we were able to get somebody on a show that, although he was new to American television was not new to television, and that was very clear by his ability to craft shows.” Now Brennan juggles two series, casting, writing, revising, supervising editing, driving himself 30 miles north of Paramount to Valencia, where NCIS shoots, and handling concept meetings with the Valencia crew via closed circuit TV.<br /> <br /> He also makes research trips to the Camp Pendleton Marine base and meets with Pentagon and Navy brass.<br /> <br /> “I don’t know when he sleeps,” Stapf says. “I don’t know that he does sleep.” Brennan insists he sleeps seven hours a night. But when he writes, he works for 18-hour stretches, and on one recent flight to L.A. from Australia he outlined an NCIS: Los Angeles episode and wrote the script the following week.<br /> <br /> “I write very quickly and that helps enormously in the pressure-cooker world of showrunning,” says Brennan, who Began as a deadline-focused print journalist and traveling to 1970s danger zones, including Afghanistan and Iran while the Shah was falling. “Probably lucky to be here. All grist for the writing mill,” says Brennan, who believes writers should Get out more often and experience actual life.<br /> <br /> From print journalism, he switched to TV news and then, in 1981, to screenwriting. Australia’s freelance system meant not knowing for more than a few weeks at a time what he’d be writing next, and he never said no when the phone rang.<br /> <br /> “That was great training for showrunning, because at any one time you had to carry a number of stories in your head. I’d be plotting one show, writing the outline of another, having just delivered the first draft of another show and doing the polish on another.”<br /> <br /> <b>Shane-iac!</b><br /> <br /> This has been a typical morning. Earlier, on the lot’s Avenue P following an NCIS: Los Angeles production meeting, he was pulled aside for a secret confab by Linda Hunt, the diminutive and sonorousvoiced actress who runs the show’s Office of Special Projects. Rapper-turned-actor LL Cool J also pounced on Brennan, grabbing him in a bear hug while crying, “Shane-iac!” Of course, referencing the word maniac is a joke. Brennan is soft-spoken, and his management approach laid back. “It’s a style that a lot of writers are not accustomed to because it’s not a tyrannical ‘my way or the highway’,” says writer and co-executive producer R. Scott Gemmill.<br /> <br /> NCIS: Los Angeles’s other co-executive producer, John Peter Kousakis, left Glee to work with Brennan. “There are producers who may be, dare I say, younger than us or more novice than we are, and they may not feel as confident, so they need to feel like they’re doing something more,” Kousakis says. “They will create problems to make it look like they’re solving a problem. We don’t do that.” NCIS first aired in 2003 and was in Season 4 when Brennan began working with the show’s creator Donald P. Bel-Lisario, who left in 2007. (By that time, Bellisario’s NCIS co-creator Don McGill was off executive producing Numb3rs.)<br /> <br /> “You’re inheriting someone else’s show, so you treat it with an enormous amount of respect. You don’t want to be the guy that crashes it into the ditch,” Brennan remembers, now settled on a cream leather sofa a few strides across a silky rug from his surprisingly uncluttered desk.<br /> <br /> Instead of crashing, the show continued its steady Nielsen climb to becoming last year’s No. 1 drama. Syndicated in 195 countries, it actually hit the top spot in Germany and Italy before it did here.<br /> <br /> Brennan credits the growing audience to the show’s greater visibility upon syndication in 2008, plus what he describes as his “outsider’s perspective” on America that appeals to foreigners, and his deepening the characters that viewers already loved: Abby, the tattooed forensic scientist (played by Pauley Perrette); an eccentric medical examiner (David McCallum); uptight NCIS director (Rocky Carroll). Plus, there’s a gaggle of special agents: Mossad liaison officer (Cote de Pablo); the handsome De- Rizzo (Michael Weatherly); geekier Timothy McGee (Sean Murray); and Harmon’s father figure, Jethro Gibbs.<br /> <br /> “There’s a lot of loyalties. People look at you and say, ‘Can he do it?’” Brennan says, about being named showrunner.<br /> <br /> “They can’t see you as having changed or suddenly being someone who has grown two heads.” But Brennan experiences identical problems to those of any writer, he points out: “It doesn’t matter how many tens or hundreds of hours of television or features, or whatever it is you’ve written, you face the same insecurities when you’ve typed end of episode or the end—the insecurities of ‘Is this any good,’ after you hand it over and you wait for people to say it sucks or it’s acceptable. I may be the guy who gets dragged out of the room every five minutes because there’s a whole load of other crap going on that I need to solve, but I’m still a writer.” If other showrunners argue that audiences prefer characters to stay the same, he likes them to change, shaped by age and their experiences on the show. So his goal was to send NCIS in a slightly different direction by answering questions posed in earlier scripts. He brought in Ralph Waite to play Harmon’s father; Robert Wagner guest starred as actor Michael Weatherly’s con artist dad. This season he might explain why, in Season 5, Rocky Carroll’s NCIS director shredded a document from his personal file. “If you answer that question, you’d better make sure that in answering it you pose three more questions because you have to keep seeding the field.” Executive producer Gary Glasberg, Brennan’s NCIS num Number two guy, reflects that the show is not ripped from the headlines: “We look for ways to connect the storylines to the characters in the show and build the procedural elements around that. At the end of the day, this show is as much about these people and these characters as it is the crimes that they solve, and Shane’s recognized that from day one.”<br /> <br /> <b>Double Duty</b><br /> <br /> It was September 2008 when NCIS: Los Angeles came about. One morning, as Brennan waited with CBS Television Studios’ David Stapf to pitch an unrelated pilot to CBS President of Entertainment Nina Tassler, an NCIS episode was playing in the lobby of Tassler’s building. Casually, Stapf asked Brennan if he had a spin-off idea and was surprised when, on the spot, Brennan produced an almost fully formed buddy show about NCIS undercover operations.<br /> <br /> The other pitch went on the backburner, and before the week was over Brennan got the go-ahead for NCIS: Los Angeles. Within three months, he wrote, cast, and produced a two-episode pilot that aired in April 2009. In May, he heard that it was a go.<br /> <br /> “Most shows, when they pilot, you hire a producer and you’re putting your key people together, and your crew together, and everyone waits to see if the show’s going to get picked up. When it is, you roll forward,” explains Brennan.<br /> <br /> “Because we’d used the existing crew, when I got the greenlight in May that we were going ahead, I had nothing. There was me. So I had to start with a line producer and find people and crank the thing up very quickly. It was pretty crazy.” Not having worked long in the United States, he ended up hiring a writing staff—none of whom he knew. “I was looking for writers who had some experience in the world, who had traveled, who had an interesting take, a slightly different perspective, who had some humor,” he says. “Both Shows are hard to write because of the mixture of action and forensics and humor and mystery. The humor is a hard thing to find. There are some great writers out there who just haven’t got that little edge that makes their writing stand out and be funny.” Story editor Dave Kalstein, 33, had staffed on two shows where either the show or the staff fell apart before he could get a script on the air. “I was psyched because I was making a living on the one hand, but every writer comes out here to see his stuff produced,” Kalstein says. With his ultimate goal being a showrunner, and while up for a couple of Other positions, he met with Brennan who told him that on NCIS: Los Angeles he’d write, produce his own episodes, and be involved with everything from conference calls to casting, location scouting, props, and postproduction. “We’ll do it as a team,” Kalstein remembers Brennan saying. Kalstein’s agent warned him: “He says that now, but be careful.” Kalstein took the risk.<br /> <br /> Within a month he had a script in production, and Brennan fulfilled other promises. “He would point things out to me,” Kalstein says. “We would be in the editing room at 11 together, looking at a scene, and he’d pause it and say, ‘Dave, what’s wrong with this scene?’ And I would say, ‘I don’t know, but it looks like a good scene to me.’ And he’d say, ‘The props and the background, the furniture, are all beige. There needs to be color in that. Someone should have draped a red blanket over the couch to make it pop more.’ Little things like that I never would have thought about as a writer. I was able to learn through doing because I was making mistakes but having Shane support me.” It’s tough to get stories approved on the show, Kalstein says, because Brennan doesn’t go for the obvious. “It’s always the second or third iteration of an idea that seems to be the one that has the most life to it, is the most unpredictable,” Kalstein says. “A lot of our shows are based on twists or turns. I’ll think I’ve done a great twist or turn or act out, and Shane’ll say, ‘Well, what if we did it that way?’ And suddenly it’s, Oh, crazy, I never would have thought of that.” After their first meeting, Kalstein had stopped in the lobby to jot down a few things Brennan had said to him. Throughout the season, he continued this practice. Toward the end, in postproduction, when Brennan pointed out a goofy-looking actor and said, “Actors don’t look good in hats. You should remember that,” Kalstein wrote it down. “He looked at me and he said, ‘Are you writing that down?’ I said yes. He said, ‘Why are you writing that down?’ I said, ‘Shane, everything you say that I think is interesting I’ve got in a document.’” He showed the document to Brennan. It was long. “What are you going to do with that?” Brennan asked. Kalstein joked that in Seasons 5 or 6 he would write a book, Shane’s Miscellany, or whatever. Brennan gave him another look.<br /> <br /> “He said, ‘Seasons 5 or 6, you don’t know where you’re going to be; I don’t know where I’m going to be. And if I were you, I would just tell everyone that these were your ideas.’ At that moment, I was, like, you know what, that’s a cool guy.” When Brennan writes, he sits down twice, once to start an episode and a second time to finish. “You sit down and write and then you rewrite it. You stop and make a cup of coffee, you sit down again,” he says. “You read through what you’ve written. If that’s maybe 30 pages, you start again. If I’ve broken for any amount of time, 15, 20 minutes, half an hour, I’ll always come back and reread and make little revisions as I go along, so quite often the early parts of a script have had five, six, seven polishes, and as you get to the end of the script they’ve had less versions because you’re writing in this one, big, continuous flow of ideas.” Once chemistry between O’Donnell and LL Cool J became apparent, NCIS: Los Angeles shifted from the original pilot, leading to more buddy scenes and less undercover work in disguise, to enable the pair to play off each other. “You really don’t know what the hell you’re making until you make seven or eight episodes,” Brennan says. “And then you might realize you’re making the wrong thing.”<br /> <br /> On both shows, characters come and go, keeping viewers alert and actors presumably somewhat anxious. “We shoot someone in the cold open and our audience, they know that person might not be back,” Kalstein says. This season, potential heartthrob Eric Christian Olsen became a regular, playing undercover LAPD liaison officer Marty Deeks, replacing a rookie agent who had been conveniently kidnapped and killed. Brennan created Deeks as a working partner to glamorous Special Agent Kensi Blye (Daniela Ruah) and to offer more L.A.–story possibilities by opening a window into the city’s drug and gang worlds. He also added Renée Felice Smith as a perky, just-out-of-college intelligence analyst.<br /> <br /> Unflappable when faced with compromise, Brennan recognizes that the bulk of the audience is in Middle America, and it’s important to please them. Too, he believes the well is never dry. “This is not the last idea I’ll ever have. I’ll go to the grave probably with 30 things I want to make, so I’m never scared by that. You take the opportunity and adapt the material, as long as you’re making something that creatively and professionally satisfies you,” he says. “You’ve got to find something to love in the show instead of waking up every morning and thinking, I wish it was still that show I wanted to do.” Says Kalstein, “He’s not precious about the craft.”<br /> <br /> <b>Getting it right</b><br /> <br /> One morning a few weeks after the meeting in Brennan’s office, he’s in a small second floor editing room in a deco building situated between Paramount’s New York and Chicago street sets. Editor Edward Salier sits in front of a bank of monitors while, from his perch on a brocade sofa, Brennan watches an NCIS tease over and over. “It’s the last chance to get it right,” he says, about editing. He has notes with him from the episode’s writers. “It’s better for the writers to be involved, if there are going to be cuts.” A man pulls on his shirt in a bedroom, an attractive woman visible in the background. There’s a noise. The woman heads for a bureau drawer and pulls out a Glock. Something horrible is about to happen and Brennan wants to build atmosphere by adding a music spin and a small additional sound to catch the couple’s attention. “I write to moments and I cut to moments,” Brennan says. “I believe in giving the audience a chance to absorb what we’re doing.” He glances at Salier and another editor who takes notes on a legal pad.<br /> <br /> “I drive them crazy,” he says, going on to tighten scenes by cutting words: “Take out God or CBS will.” He adds lines to be looped later. NCIS: Los Angeles requires more looping, he explains. “Because it’s got a strong narrative drive, we often have to supplement the storytelling.” Removing an actor’s reflection in a microwave oven door will cost $1,000. “Dead money,” Brennan says. Not as much bang for the buck as an explosion. When there is an explosion, he wants more debris and flash, and, always on the look out to protect the actors and pump up their heroic moments, he’d like someone’s skin tone improved.<br /> <br /> Next stop is a smaller room where editor Lise Angelica Johnson works on NCIS: Los Angeles. Watching a scene in which a vaguely sinister businessman is questioned by the show’s heroes, Brennan spots a stout and distracting man in a loud checkered suit in the background. The suit looks like a picnic tablecloth and the fat man has come close to turning the scene into comedy. Brennan asks Johnson to find another take, and he asks for “foreboding, serious, you’re in deep trouble music” for an interrogation scene. The composer will come in later. He’s running a little behind. Wants to be done for a concept meeting at two, a casting, another edit session with Johnson later, and a notes meeting in the early evening.<br /> <br /> Last night he drove off the Paramount lot at 9:34 and was home in Manhattan Beach by a reasonable 10:06. “I like it there because the Pacific Ocean washes ashore in my country,” he says.<br /> <br /> In a few days he’ll head back to Australia for a brief trip.<br /> <br /> He’s a volunteer firefighter there, and as soon as he arrives he gets out his duffel bag, checks his equipment, puts new batteries in his pager, and notifies his local fire department that he’s available. There are similarities between fighting a fire and running a show, he says. “You’ve certainly got to know which way the wind is blowing. And there’s always a chance if you get too close to the fire you’re going to get burned. And certainly there are a lot of people out there who depend on you in the heat of the moment. And every so often there’s someone who’s setting a fire, stirring up a little trouble.” That’s all said tongue in cheek. And no, he’s not an adrenaline junkie, though his adrenaline does pump when he’s figuring out how to knock down a wall of fire or get out of its way. “As a writer, it’s interesting because you get to write about emotions that a lot of people for much of their life don’t get to feel,” he says. “I often call back memories of fires that I’ve been in where I felt that fear, felt that adrenaline rush.” But he’s been at this business too long to associate fear and adrenaline rushes with showrunning or writing. In fact, this is the longest he’s worked on any show. His wife keeps telling him he’ll get bored. “The trick,” he says, “is not to get swamped.”<br /> <br />

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