Interview: Shawn Ryan Shares Why 'Chicago Code' Is Unique
If you haven't heard the name Shawn Ryan before, you're probably living under a rock. He's the driving force behind some of the best television in recent memory, whether it was The Shield or Terriers for FX, The Unit for CBS, or his stint as executive producer for FOX's Lie To Me during what I'd call its best season. Now he's brought us the best new show of the midseason, FOX's The Chicago Code. In advance of tonight's all-new episode, I sat down with Ryan to talk about what makes the series so good and what the chances are that one of my favorite actors might turn up if there's a season two.
You're from Rockford, Illinois. So what made you want to set a show in your home area? Was that always an ambition of yours?
Obviously there’s the going-home kind of aspect that most people, I think, would have. But it was also motivated by [that] so many shows are filmed in Los Angeles in New York, placed in Los Angeles and New York. I'm a big believer in embedding yourself in a certain place and taking advantage of the distinctions and specifics about that place, whether it’s the San Diego beach community of Terriers or whether it’s the rundown area of Los Angeles in The Shield. Where your show is located really infuses an energy, and I felt that the Midwest had kind of been ignored by Hollywood, or at those times it wasn’t ignored, it had been misinterpreted.
Even though I haven’t lived in the Midwest since my early 20’s, I was born and raised there and was infused with everything that came from being a Midwesterner. The people are different. I’m not saying they are better or worse, but they’re different. The culture and community is different. I just hadn’t really seen that portrayed in any kind of meaningful widespread way in movies or television. It was just great to go back there, and my father being able to drive in from Rockford, and go in to the set and see it was pretty cool.
But I think the important thing was it allowed us to have different kinds of people on a TV show than you’re used to seeing. Most of the guest cast came from Chicago. They weren’t LA and New York actors. We’d [have] a few LA and New York actors in a given episode, but the vast majority were local hires from Chicago, and it just feels different as a result. It was an opportunity where I felt that there was something missing. You’re always trying to do something different and unique that cuts through, and this was the opportunity to try to do something different in an area that I actually knew something about. So that was the main motivation for going there, along with the history of Chicago, which, considering the kind of story I wanted to tell, was right in the wheelhouse of what I wanted to do.
I assume you've been getting all sorts of feedback and probably the occasional correction from locals?
I think there’s some things you want to and need to fictionalize. We also don’t have a Mayor Daley on our show. So there are certain things that you want to keep real, and there are certain things that you want to fictionalize. there full-time. We do our best. We do all the research we can. We have our scripts vetted by a current homicide detective in the Chicago PD, a guy [who] grew up in the city
and was raised there. So we do our best. I’m sure that there will be some little mistakes along the way, and if people want to let that derail [them] from enjoying the experience, there’s probably nothing I can do.
But I think our batting average for getting it right is higher than most shows. That would be my guess. Someone could do the math o that and see, but my guess is that our cops behave more like Chicago cops do than CSI cops in real life [compared to] that show. But we’re trying hard to get it right, and I like it that people care enough that they’re going to point out the few occasions that we get it wrong. We’ll pay attention to those and try to correct them going forward.
You've also mentioned that you enjoyed a great relationship with the city of Chicago in the production of this series.
From the very beginning we talked a great length with the Illinois Film Commission and with the Chicago city officials about filming there. They were incredibly cooperative and really promised us a lot of assistance and really came through, the whole series.They wanted to make Chicago an inviting place to film, and they really did. I have only great things to say about the city and the state in terms of being a great place to film. It just adds a huge element to the show that you don’t tend to see in cities like New York and Los Angeles that are filmed constantly. We were invited in by that city in a pretty spectacular way.
The real draw about this show to me is the fully three-dimensional characters; we see all of them, for better or for worse. Can you talk about the process of developing the characters?
As a writer you just have to start by using your imagination and come up with a few key personality traits, but then, far and away, the most important thing is casting. We were really brutal in the casting process, because I don’t believe that a character truly exists until you cast it. It’s just a figment of your imagination on paper. I’ve always taken the position of "I’m going to start the blueprint of who this character is on paper." In the casting process, I’m looking for someone to come in here and show me who this character is in ways that I didn’t even know. I’m not a good enough writer to fill out the character in every single aspect. It's when that actor comes in.
I’ll use Jason Clarke as an example. Jason Clarke comes in and reads for Jarek, and he’s really good and giving a good read, but he and I sat down and talked a great length about who this guy was, what he might be. Jason had a lot of great ideas. Then the two of us sat down with Detective [John] Folino, just talking about things. Out of those conversations and seeing the way that Jason played it, spending a lot of time with Jason on the pilot, really affected the way that we wrote the character of Jarek going forward.
I always try to have an open mind. I don’t act like this character is all mine. I leave it open to who this character is, and I allow for growth along the way, and seeing a specific actor playing a specific role always inspires me to write them deeper. So that’s the way that we try to approach it, especially when writing staff comes into play. We take these characters, and we just try each episode to show different sides of them we haven’t seen before. I guess that’s the best way I can explain it.
You also have the challenge of setting up this layered series, where there's an ongoing storyline and episodic plots. Everyone seems to want their show to be like that now, but so many can't execute it. What's the trick to it?
It is a challenge in all TV, but I think especially in network TV. If you talk to the research people, they’ll tell you that even people who declare themselves to be big fans of your show will only watch one in four episodes of that show. So, especially with a new show, I really took the approach where I have got to assume there will be people who haven’t seen the preceding episodes. There is an ongoing story that we want to tell, but we have to tell it in such a way that it won’t be too confusing to new viewers. There is a way in [for] people who seem to watch the show and enjoy it, even if they haven’t seen the stuff before. I enjoy that balancing act—trying to figure out how to be inviting to viewers, and yet reward the dedicated viewers.
The Chicago Code is in a very unique position. You've wrapped all thirteen episodes before you even went to air. How has that been for you, as opposed to a regular series that's in production at the same time it's airing?
You don’t have the luxury of kind of reading the criticism or looking at research on the ratings and being able to do something different about it. There is something that makes you sanguine about just saying, “Well, we’ve done it, and we did it in a pure way, and we’re unaffected by all those things.” We just did artistically what we thought was best, and now we’ve got to live or die by it.
What’s nice is not having to go to set and worry about what the ratings were the night before. You don’t have to go and talk with the actors and there’s some review that came out, where somebody liked three of the actors, but not the fourth, and deal with the politics of all that or anything. We are able to make the show in a vacuum, which was really nice in the sense that all we had to worry about was pleasing ourselves and making as good of a TV show as we could. Then you hope that over time, that America will embrace it.
It’s really tough to launch a new show in this era. We’re proud of the episodes, and we’re in it for the long haul. I think the network is in it for the long haul.
Have you started to consider anything about a second season at all?
I think far ahead. I try to think far ahead. I don’t ever want to get too bogged down into notions that are too specific too far down the road, because too many things change along the way, but for the last month or so, I’ve really been thinking a lot about what some elements of season two would look like. There’s also the defense mechanism. You don’t want to spend too much time doing that until you have a good indication that there’s going to be a season two. But I’m sure at some point, part of our sales presentation to the network will be a pitch about what I think season two will be, so I already have a lot of ideas; I’m already thinking a lot on it.
I’ve had a lot more time to think about season two than I really did being about to think about season one, when we were making the pilot. Things were so busy and crazy during the pilot. We turned the pilot in less than a week before the network made its decisions on what to pick up. There wasn’t a lot of time to really think about what would come after the pilot. I was in a bit of a scramble, hiring people and thinking about that then. Now I have the luxury of spending a lot of time thinking about what season two would be. Ideas come all the time.
As a fan of The Unit, I do have to make one request: any chance we could see any of that show's cast members make an appearance? I'd bribe you if it involved Robert Patrick.
That’s a great idea. I have thought of that; a little Unit reunion would be good. Just like The Shield, I really love those Unit actors. Some of them are working and tough to pin down. I know Scott Foley has been spending some time on Grey’s Anatomy. Robert and I get along great, and Robert’s said to me on a few occasions that anytime I need him, he’ll show up, so that would be great. That’s a great idea. You’ve just [voiced] one of my thoughts for season two. Thank you.
My thanks to Shawn Ryan for this great interview. The Chicago Code airs tonight at 9 PM ET/PT on FOX. Stay tuned tonight for a review and continuing coverage!