June 21, 2014 9:00am PT by Bryn Elise Sandberg
TNT's 'The Last Ship' Showrunner on Michael Bay's TV Brand and Navy Collaboration (Q&A)
The Last Ship is TNT's latest attempt at a summer blockbuster.
In what The Hollywood Reporter's chief TV critic Tim Goodman calls "explosion-filled eye candy," showrunner Hank Steinberg orchestrates the story of a ship carrying U.S. Naval officers, led by Captain Tom Chandler (Eric Dane), who are among the last survivors in a post-apocalyptic world following a global pandemic that wipes out 80 percent of the population. Onboard scientist Dr. Rachel Scott (Rhona Mitra) believes she's found a cure, but her quest to save humanity becomes complicated, with lots of things blowing up in the process.
The series takes place mostly aboard a 505-foot-long operational naval vessel, a product of executive producer Michael Bay's close ties with the Navy. The high-budget drama will be entering a competitive summer landscape, including Halle Berry (CBS' Extant), Justin Theroux and Liv Tyler (HBO's The Leftovers) and John Malkovich (NBC's Crossbones).
THR caught up with showrunner Steinberg, whose past credits include CBS' Without a Trace and ABC's The Nine, ahead of Sunday's The Last Ship premiere. The conversation ranged from how the Bay brand translates to television, the advantages of being on a cable network and a plan to attract female viewership (hint: it involves Dane).
TNT chief Michael Wright has been making a push for more bold and ambitious programming. How does the The Last Ship play into that strategy?
It seems to me that this is the heart of Michael Wright’s strategy. The book was sitting on his desk for a long time and was one of his favorite concepts that he was trying to develop. We were able to make something worthy of the Bay brand, which, of course, is big in scope, ambition, size and visual effects. And we got all the financial support that we needed from the network in order to make the show deliver on the promise of their very aggressive promotional campaign. You often see pilots that have a lot of money thrown at them and then they downshift into smaller episodes and the audience gets disappointed. It was at the forefront of our minds not to do that. By the same token, I think that you’re going to come to know and love the characters and the storyline. Hopefully what we have is a really good hybrid of an old-fashioned heroic blockbuster in the vein of Indiana Jones, and at the same time smart storytelling. Michael Wright likes to say it’s “smart popcorn,” with an emphasis on smart.
Michael Bay is known for big blockbuster movies. How do you translate the size and sensibility of a Bay project to television on a cable budget?
As I said, TNT was generous with their offer to begin with, more so than you see on most cable shows. The first thing we did was bring in Jack Bender, who had done all those years of Lost, who knew how to manage a show of that scale. Jack really brought something special to it, which was to allow it to have that scope, size, character and action, but make sure that it had a heart, too. In a $200 million action movie, you have an action sequence that might go on for 35 minutes. You pick your spots in television, and you have the action be organic with the storytelling. Then you surround it with characters and try to develop suspense. You try to make sure that whenever you do an action scene it means something to the story.
What kind of involvement did Bay have in the day-to-day of this project?
He was integrally involved in the pilot. He read all the drafts of the scripts, weighed in on casting, and was integral in recruiting John Mostow to direct the pilot and getting Eric Dane to agree to do the pilot. He brought in his visual effects supervisor to make sure that the visual effects were as first-rate as what’s in his movies. He was, of course, helpful in opening up all those doors to the Navy. They have an inherent trust in him that they’re going to be portrayed accurately and in a generally heroic way, and that was a very, very important factor because we needed the Navy to provide access to their ships, which is an enormous part of the show. Battleship spent three days on a destroyer. We spent three weeks on a destroyer during the pilot, and three to four weeks throughout the series at the 32nd Street naval base in San Diego shooting on their ships.
The show features a tremendous amount of action sequences. How do you balance the need and desire for action with character development?
We believe in revealing character through story. In the first three episodes, the stories are really big and the characters are up against big situations. Their characters are revealed by how they respond to those situations. In subsequent episodes, we will dive even deeper, but again you just pick your spots. If you look at the third episode, for example, there’s really one big action scene at the end of the episode, the climax, and you feel like you’ve earned it by the time you get there. Before that, it feels a little bit like the intellectual cat-and-mouse game that you would see in The Hunt for Red October, where you have a lot of suspense and some darker moments. We make that one really big action scene feel earned and feel climactic.
How important is it to draw females to the action-packed series? And if it is important, how do you intend to do so?
It’s always important to draw females. They’re half the television audience, if not more. To me, it’s about having great characters and caring about the relationships between the characters. What we worked hard to do was to try to slowly reveal character through action. We don’t have a lot of scenes in the beginning where everyone is barfing out their backstories, but if you stay for the whole season you will see things revealed. It feels a little more like the layers of an onion in a way that I think will be very gratifying. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have Eric Dane if you’re looking for female viewership. That takes care of a lot of it off the bat.
As you wrote the show, who did you envision as your core viewer?
We think that the great thing about the show is that it will appeal to a really wide audience. There’s everything from the millions of people in this country that are serving actively in the military to retired military people to people who like summer blockbusters and action to people that love end-of-the-world scenarios to science geeks to the sci-fi crowd and people who love Battlestar Galactica to 15 year-old boys and girls that are into genre stuff. When I experience it, I feel like there are moments in every episode that hit my X chromosome and my Y chromosome, along with my inner 15-year-old kid and my 44-year-old that’s a father.
How does your relationship with the Navy influence the script? Were there stories you were able to better tell as a result of that partnership?
The Navy first and foremost helped us make sure that we were technically accurate, both the language that they were using and also with the dynamics that exist between the higher-ranking officers and the lower-ranking officers. As screenwriters who had been living in Los Angeles since we were 21, Steve [Kane] and I didn’t know a lot about how the Navy really operated. There were a lot of details in terms of what kind of punishment does the captain give someone when they do something wrong? How do they say certain things? When the executive officer disagrees with the officer, how does that get expressed? If left to our own devices, we might have gotten that inaccurate. The classic example is the executive officer doesn’t contradict the captain, like some of the other officers. So we are still able to have that conflict through two of our leaders, it's just that it has to be done in a much more subtle way. All of a sudden it adds that dimension. Instead of six people arguing around a conference table like you would see in a legal show or a cop show, what you get is flickering glances and cadences. You realize that the hierarchy is so important and fragile and it needs to be dealt with respectfully. The Navy helping us understand the codes and the rules around that was actually really helpful.
The Last Ship is based on a book of the same title by William Brinkley, which is set in the 1980s. You opted to make a contemporary show, so what were the challenges of adapting it into a modern-day tale?
When Steve and I first sat down together we said, “How are you going to update this? How are we going take something that was written in the Cold War and talk about a thermonuclear war, which doesn’t seem very relevant. How are we going to deal with this?” We knew we needed an end-of-the-world scenario that felt relevant and realistic. We pretty quickly came to the idea of a pandemic. What that afforded us that was really key to the series is the idea that there’s a scientist on the ship that can actually put a stop to it all. It becomes more than just a quest for survival or an existential story about how people survive in a post-apocalyptic show. It’s actually an apocalyptic show if they can stop the apocalypse. That gives the whole series a drive, a momentum, a ticking clock that we feel makes it different from many of the other shows that deal with end-of-the-world scenarios.
In the past, you’ve had shows on CBS and ABC. How would The Last Ship differ on broadcast?
You’re able to take more chances on cable, generally, creatively. Most importantly, the shorter order really helps keep quality. With 10 episodes, we were really able to see what the first season looked like right when we got to the writers room. We didn’t have to have any episodes where we were stalling, treading water, or drifting — no pun intended. There were actually episodes that we wanted to explore that we just left on the floor because we didn’t have time. They will reincarnate in other seasons hopefully. Not only can you see the whole trajectory of the entire season arc in a way that makes the whole season feel taut and lean and dynamic and exciting, but we went into production with eight of the 10 scripts completed. We really had a writing period and then we had a production period. It enabled us to prepare ahead of time so much better having all those scripts ready. We were really able to keep our eye on the ball. With a classic network schedule you’re doing six things at once, spread in so many different directions.