June 23, 2011 12:21pm PT by Philiana Ng
'Suits' Originally Set on Wall Street Before Getting Retooled for USA, Says Creator
USA's latest entry Suits, formerly known as A Legal Mind, centers on two men who couldn't be more different on paper.
First there's Harvey Specter, played by Gabriel Macht, a successful, cutthroat Manhattan lawyer at a top corporate law firms. Then there's Mike Ross, played by Patrick J. Adams, a lazy, but intelligent twentysomething who passed the bar exam without attending law school. Much like its network counterpart White Collar, Suits relies on the dysfunction between its two protagonists. With production well under way (they are finishing episode seven and gearing up for eight; 12 episodes will air in Season 1) in Toronto, Suits is gearing up for its summer run, receiving a solid lead-in with veteran drama Burn Notice.
First-time showrunner Aaron Korsh, who spent most of his career working in the half-hour realm, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter less than 24 hours before Suits' series debut, revealing how (and why) he changed the original premise (set on Wall Street) to its current concept (set at a top New York law firm).
The Hollywood Reporter: Suits is very different from Everybody Loves Raymond and Just Shoot Me in terms of concept and format. Why did you decide to jump from half-hour to an hourlong drama?
Aaron Korsh: I started out wanting to be a comedy guy just because that was – at the time – those were my favorite shows. That world seemed so amazing to me. I never made a conscious to jump from half-hour to hour, but after the strike was over, I needed to write a piece of material to get staffed. My last show had been Notes From the Underbelly, which unfortunately got canceled during the strike. I wrote a spec piece that I originally intended to be a half-hour Entourage-type based on my experiences working on Wall Street, but as I wrote it, I started realizing it wants to be an hourlong show.
THR: Was USA was the only place that the project was pitched to?
Korsh: It was written as a spec script and my agent and I took it out to a bunch of production companies. We were going to potentially go with Universal Media Studios, but they were going to take it everywhere except NBC. It was odd to me because their biggest network that they sold shows to was NBC and that was the one network they didn’t want to take it to, for whatever reason. Separately, my agent had a relationship with [executive] Alex Sepiol at USA, and my agent told Alex, “Listen, you’re going to really respond to these characters. It’s not a procedural, it’s not what you do, but you’re going to like these characters.” Alex responded positively and we had already decided to go with Hypnotic who had a relationship with Alex and USA also. We went in and pitched to USA how we would take these same characters and put them into the world of law. They bought it after that pitch and we never pitched it anywhere else.
THR: How much retooling was done to the script?
Korsh: The first half-hourish is pretty much, with small tweaks, was as it was then. He (Mike) didn’t take LSATs for people, he was just a super smart guy. Through when he gets hired, it’s basically the same. It was interesting because when it’s Wall Street, he was only faking going to Harvard, he wasn’t faking a law degree. To work on Wall Street, to be a mathematical genius, there is no degree you need to have whereas to practice [law], you need to pass the bar. We decided to embrace and use it.
THR: It’s early on in production, but have you had to abandon any storylines or characters yet because they weren’t working?
Korsh: We haven’t really abandoned anything. What happens is you lay out the season and you have all these things that you want to do and as the season progresses, there isn’t enough time to do them all. You realize that maybe there are more things that you wanted to do that you just aren’t going to get to do yet.
THR: Did you have to change anything?
Korsh: The first few episodes, we had to rework the outlines several times. The challenge is, you’ve got a corporate law firm but you don’t want your clients to be hateful. The challenge was to figure out how to credibly give us sympathetic clients without making it seem unrealistic that this type of law firm would take those types of clients. It took us a couple of cracks how to do that. Sometimes we had to abandon how we constructed the first couple of episodes.
The other thing was trying to find the right balance between procedure and character. One of the lessons we’ve learned is certain shows do there or four cases in one episode and that doesn’t leave as much room for character beats, so we now try to do at most two actual cases in an episode. That’s at the most. Sometimes we want to just do one case. For example, in an early episode there is a story where Mike has to host a rookie dinner for all the other associates. Another early episode is Louis has a little bit of a battle for Mike’s soul with Harvey. That was the fourth episode we filmed and it was meant to air third. We all loved it so much, we moved it up to second.
THR: When you decide to change up the episode order, does that affect the story in any way?
Korsh: There were things you gained and things you lost in it. Moving the second episode to third, we don’t see some of the less major characters in every episode -- meaning Trevor and Jenny and Mike’s grandmother. It pushes [it] later when you’re going to see them again. It’s better because it’ll be awhile until we see them a third time. We gained that in switching it. We had wanted [a specific scene with Mike in the second episode] to be a little bit later because the longer it takes him to do that, the better, but it’s very impactful anyway. Writing in general is about making choices and creating a show is making choices also – every choice you make could be wrong. You have to make one and hope that it’ll work out.
THR: The cast that you’ve lined up is filled with industry veterans, from Gina Torres and on.
Korsh: I read a review of the show that said, “It shouldn’t be as fresh as it is but it is fresh and we think that’s because of the cast.” I’m a writer, I can be a harsh critic of my own stuff, but I am so proud of the cast that we’ve put together. Gabriel Macht, Patrick Adams, Gina Torres, Rick Hoffman, Meghan Markle and Sara Rafferty, they’re amazing. I feel like they elevate whatever they do.
THR: What can viewers expect in the first episodes of Suits?
Korsh: In the second episode, Harvey and Louis will battle over Mike’s fate and it’ll test Harvey and Mike’s bound of loyalty to each other. Thematically throughout the season, loyalty is a big theme. Secrets and identity are themes because Mike has a big secret. Who really is he? We try to reinforce the theme in the first several that Mike is more about caring than Harvey is. But also, Mike is learning to be responsible in the corporate world so Harvey’s teaching Mike about [that] and Mike is teaching Harvey to develop more of a empathy for people and clients. They do balance each other out and the way we looked at it when we first started thinking about it: You’re wondering what’s going to happen to Mike and from Harvey’s perspective, you want to wonder what has happened to Harvey.
THR: On paper, Harvey is an unlikable character.
Korsh: The Mike character is much more accessible to the world and to the viewers. The Harvey character -- I have love for him but I see his potential for unlikability -- underneath some of the bravado and some of the arrogance and some of the seeming not to care is a definite moral code. What I love about Gabriel Macht, what he really brings to that role especially the longer you watch, he gives humanity to this character and lets us believe that underneath, he is a good person. I don’t ever think Harvey is mean on purpose to someone, he might do things that people might view as mean, but he isn’t trying to be. He’s just calling things like he sees them.
THR: This is your first show that you’ve created. How was it jumping into showrunning?
Korsh: [Laughs] Interestingly, there is a showrunner training program that the Writers Guild has and I went through that while we were starting working on this. You take bits and pieces of people’s styles and philosophies but one of the things that they start out is: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” You get better at it but the job gets harder as you go through the season but you’re forced to keep working.
THR: What is the challenge you’re facing now?
Korsh: As you progress in the season, you get less and less time to come up with another story and write another episode so we’re coming upon the end of our first 12 episodes and we are starting to hand in scripts closer and closer to when they’re going to prep. Our challenge is to finish breaking these last three stories and get them written with enough time for our people to do a good job with prepping. I come from originally half-hour world and in the half-hour world, people tear down the script and rewrite it all the time. But in the hour world, it’s more difficult to do.
Suits debuts Thursday at 10 p.m. on USA.