Q&A: Shane Brennan
Empty"NCIS" was a hit for CBS when Shane Brennan assumed the showrunner position in Season 5. But the show has since become a consistent leader in the Nielsens. The wild-haired Aussie then conceived, developed and launched this season's breakout spinoff "NCIS: Los Angeles." He now presides over TV's top-rated drama and the No. 1 new series.
The Hollywood Reporter: Here we are in the seventh season of "NCIS" and its audience has grown rather than shrunk. What's the secret?
Shane Brennan: The first is, the show went on the USA Network in rerun marathons, and so a lot of college kids started watching. Eventually, they realized it wasn't just another police procedural. It had a lot of humor in it, quirky, interesting characters and the twists and turns of a procedural. The other is the very hard work that was done in the first four seasons: A lot of seeds were planted, stories and background outlined. So when I took over the show, it was ripe for us to start answering those questions.
THR: How did the spinoff come about?
Brennan: I had a development deal with CBS-Paramount and I was about to pitch a series idea to (CBS Entertainment president) Nina Tassler. I was with (studio president) David Stapf in the foyer of Nina's office and there happened to be an episode of "NCIS" screening. I said to David, 'That was the best episode we did last season.' He looked at me and said, 'Do you think we could do a spinoff?' And I said, 'Sure, I've got one.' And after he collected his Blackberry, which he'd dropped to the floor, he said, 'Tell me about it.' I gave him a thumbnail of the idea, and once that was presented to Nina, it very rapidly went from zero to a hundred.
THR: It looks like you've tilted away from forensics toward more action and mystery.
Brennan: I wanted viewers to experience another facet of the "NCIS" world. And by moving it to Los Angeles, it instantly opened it up to the whole West Coast world of defense contractors and aeronautical companies, what is happening down in Mexico and what may be happening out in the Pacific.
THR: You commute between the two sets. How do you divide your time?
Brennan: The great thing about "NCIS" is it's a well-oiled machine. We've got these people who are very enthusiastic, incredibly good at their jobs, and that's what makes it possible. "NCIS" is shot in Valencia and "NCIS: Los Angeles" we shoot on the Paramount lot.
THR: So they drive you back and forth. What do you do in your car?
Brennan: I actually drive myself. So I spend the time on the telephone and I find it very relaxing to drive. It's a problem-solving part of my day.
THR: What role do you play in the writers room?
Brennan: I just do everything twice. I'm involved in breaking the story, I'll give writers story ideas, I'll give them revisions on their outlines. There's not a script on either show that I don't do revisions on. And I'm involved in casting choices on both shows. I do what every showrunner does, I just do it twice. We're still finding these characters, so I'm more heavily involved on the writing side of "Los Angeles." In fact, I think I've written three of the first seven episodes.
THR: Do you have any interactions with Don Bellisario, who created the show?
Brennan: I feel I talk to Don every day, because of the way he set up those first four seasons, with all of those seeds that he planted for the different characters. I'm enjoying the fruit of those seeds. He doesn't have any input in the day-to-day running of "NCIS," and "NCIS: LA" is a totally separate show, so he wasn't involved in the development of that in any way. But I do have great respect for Don because of the enormous work he's done over the years.
THR: The Linda Hunt character on "Los Angeles" makes me think of Abby, Pauley Perrette's character on "NCIS." She seems to be the quirky but key character that keeps all the guys in her orbit. Is that fair?
Brennan: Linda is part Gibbs, part Abby and part Ducky, and she's also her own character. I think the audience, if they watch the episodes coming up, if they haven't already fallen in love with Henrietta Lang, they are about to.
THR: American dramas are very costly. What are your thoughts about the return on investment on these shows, including your own?
Brennan: We're actually doing pretty well in terms of handling the budget side of things on "NCIS." Each week we shock ourselves because we really deliver an action-packed show that looks fabulous, and we're hitting our budget. Every time you shoot an action sequence, you're burning another $50,000, and sometimes a whole lot more. So it is difficult to get the balance right there.
THR: Does the international market figure in your calculations as you're thinking about the show?
Brennan: I think you've hit on my secret ingredient. I've always been a great student of American politics and history. Having said that, I do have an outsider's perspective, and I bring that to both shows. I'm very aware of the fact that we're sold in 190 markets. I sometimes do things perhaps other writers wouldn't do, in terms of clarifying a little something that an American audience takes for granted because it's a part of their culture. So we often find a twist or a different take on a story. At the same time, it is about making the best show you can make for the audience.
THR: How about another "NCIS"? CBS must want one.
Brennan: I'm sure CBS would love to do another show in this franchise. Whether that will come to pass, time will tell. Are there other "NCIS-es" out there? Absolutely. I can think of two already. More than anything with "NCIS," it's about the characters. And we have a tone and humor that other shows don't seem to be able to inject into their procedurals. To do a third show has to have those two ingredients: interesting, fun characters and that special, whimsical tone.
THR: I think of showrunners as hard-charging individuals. What do you do to get away from this?
Brennan: I'm very laid back. You get the best people around you and you do your best job and you move on. As crazy as this may sound, I'm not doing any work this weekend. There is a way to do this and it's about knowing when to stop and walk away. It's also very important for me to not put other people under pressures that they don't need to be under. There's enough pressure that comes with the work they do. So I try to get people to have a working environment where they give their best and that way, if their giving their best is only 80% of what I want, I accept that.
THR: "NCIS" has never been a hip show or an awards contender. Does that bother you?
Brennan: Well, everyone likes to get accolades, but at the same time I'm sitting here smiling, because for six seasons, 14 million people every Tuesday night have sat down and watched "NCIS" and said to their friends and their family, 'You really should watch this show.' I love that people have embraced it and they're getting their reward now. And this goes to all of the cast and crew as well: The reward is, we're No. 1 -- and the numbers keep going up.