'Crisis' Creator on Wrong Turns, Production Halts and Maintaining Shock Level (Q&A)

Rand Ravich, whose last series "Life" lasted two seasons on NBC, laments the difficulties of staying one step ahead of the audience: "It is a challenge to keep twisting characters without twisting them so much that they become deformed," he admits to THR.
Vivian Zink/NBC; Chris Haston/NBC

NBC rolls out its latest scripted effort with the action-thriller drama Crisis.

From Life creator Rand Ravich, Crisis follows a group of Ballard High School students, attended by children of high-powered Washington, D.C. elite, top-tier CEOs and major political players -- including the president's son. But things go awry when the Ballard High bus is ambushed and brought in as hostages, spawning a national crisis. The genesis of the 13-episode series, premiering Sunday at 10 p.m., came during research for another project that fell through years ago.

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"My partner Far Shariat had done a pilot for [Jerry] Bruckheimer that did not go [at ABC in 2011]. It took place in the world of Navy SEALs," Ravich tells The Hollywood Reporter. It was his discussions with numerous D.C. players that led him to notice a common topic of choice. "I was meeting all these people and what they always talk about were their wives and children. That became the most interesting part," he recalls. "Even though these people have high-octane lives, they all have families. So I started to think: You can do a big action thriller that has its core question about family relationships, parents and their children. It rolled on from there."

Ravich talks to THR about the challenges of moving from a case-of-the-week format with Life to a mythology-centric show, the difficulties of maintaining a plot with many moving parts and how he's maintaining the shock-and-awe factor on a weekly basis.

Was there a particular aspect to this story that proved challenging to you? 

It was a big reconfiguration for me. The last show I had had a mythology, but it was episodic television. There was a crime of the week in which the character revealed themselves in that story of the week. It was very close-ended. This is a very different animal. This is true serialized television but the kind of television that should give you satisfaction at the end of the episode. You use those 42 minutes and 30 seconds to tell a complete story within the episode while continuing the serialized element. Without the structure of a hard crime every week, that was the biggest challenge for us -- how to shape a story that as a writer you will feel satisfied if this were the only episode. That was the biggest thing to get our head around. It's not one that drags itself out. The promise of something on the line, but has something satisfying in every episode.

Just from the pilot, a lot of mysteries are being set up and there are a lot of moving parts...

There are a lot of moving parts.

How do you keep track of that? A lot of arrows on a white board?

There's a big board. A lot of index cards, a lot of Sharpies and a lot of dry erase. It's difficult. Sometimes you feel bad that you can't service these characters and give these actors as much work as you want because there are so many moving parts. It's a full-time job. There are a lot of people around here keeping track of who's doing what, who did what, who did what with whom. A lot of arrows, as you say.

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What changed from initial conception to screen? 

It changed only in that it developed. It never really deviated from the main kernel. You go in to pitch a story, you talk for 10 minutes, they have a lot of questions, you talk a little longer and then it's the excitement of the potential that hopefully gets everybody on board. Really that's just a seed and you need to grow. The idea never really took a sharp left turn at any point. It was always going down the track from that central conceit of "What will you do for your children?" And also as an emotional [trigger] "What do you do to your children as a parent?" Those are the two questions that got me thinking as a parent about the show. That's where the story was going naturally as we got deeper and deeper into it. Luckily everybody was on board with going in that continued direction. 

How much creative freedom did you have with the network and the studio, especially since the show revolves around kids?

Far and I knew what the audience was and what the network was. We're going in to pitch not a cable show, we're going in to pitch a network show. The exciting thing about working within the parameters of what network television is what kind of stories you can tell and what you can't tell, what you can show and what you can't show. We watch network TV and within those parameters we firmly believe we get deeply and emotionally involved with the certain restrictions that network TV has. As far as creative control, because we all kind of emotionally shake hands in the room when we decide what kind of story we want to tell when they bought the pitch, it was never a situation where I was like, "Guys we have to go much further, it has to be bloodier, darker," because that's not the show we wanted to do from the beginning.

Production temporarily stopped over the course of filming. What were you doing during the break?

Production stopped for two episodic cycles which is 16 days. Although it's not a lot of time we had, luckily we had the support of the network, because it is a big serialized show, to take a break. Everybody felt that we had started to wander a little too far in one direction and it had gotten a little closed in. We wanted to take a break to backtrack three steps and open it back up again and have more fun with it. Having come from a show [Life] that was airing while it was shooting -- having the opportunity and the support and the time to take a breath and go back and say, "You know, let's go back." We went back and put an episode earlier in the order than had been originally scripted because we realized we wanted to say things earlier on. Now that we were further down the line [with Crisis] we realized we should have and we had the opportunity. "OK, we're seven, eight episodes in, we wished we'd had an episode earlier on that did this." Because we weren't airing live while we were shooting we had the opportunity to go back and do an episode earlier on.

What do you mean by closed in?

It's not episodic where you really reboot every episode -- in episodic television, you come back fresh every week with a brand new story that somebody brings you as a doctor, a lawyer or a cop. With a serialized show, you have to continue down the road you went down last week. If you make a left turn, you have to keep going in that direction or go back. We had made a slight turn and we were not happy with the direction it was going so we went back.

On paper, Crisis has similar DNA to CBS' Hostages, which centered on a family held hostage. How is this different from that show?

I actually never saw that show — I saw the billboards. When you work in TV, you don't get to watch a lot of TV. Crisis had been conceived about two and a half years ago. I had been living in this world with these characters for that long. I can't really speak to the similarities or differences to the other show. I actually watch a lot more Phineas and Ferb and Ben-10 with my 9 year old.

What are you watching?

I binge watch like everybody else. I binge watched True Detective. Because I work for NBC I watch their shows. That's the world, this is my audience.

Could this continue for a second season with a new cast, a new story arc?  

Absolutely. Because I had been burned by serialized shows where I get really into the first two episodes and I don't know where it's going, I pitched the last episode of the first season, which we're editing right now. Then I pitched the first couple of scenes for next season. You use this crisis, you use this event to open this world with all its power and all its connections locally, nationally and globally. We meet all of these characters and we will find another story for them next year. We will do a reboot -- another incident. The goal is to have these characters believe erroneously that they have achieved some kind of emotional stasis after this incident and then turn them upside down again. 

So you're hoping to use the same cast but a new case?  

Yes, absolutely.

Viewers are now trained to expect big twists and cliffhangers for premise-based shows such as this one. How difficult is it to maintain that level of surprise and shock?

It does [make it difficult] because I, as an audience member, love twists. I love a twist that has to do two things. One, I don't want to see it coming, but, two, it needs to make sense. I have to say to myself, "Boy I didn't see that coming, but I don't know how I missed it." It's all there, which is to say there has to be a twist but it has to be grounded in a character. It is a challenge to keep twisting characters without twisting them so much that they become deformed. I do like twists but it needs to be character based. It needs to be challenging but hopefully worthwhile.

What are your plans for Sunday night?  

My plan is to watch it with my wife. My older boy is away at school. My younger boy will be tucked in bed because it's not appropriate. It's not about good parents. I don't want him to think that it happens. I will be watching in the quiet of my living room with my wife.

Crisis premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on NBC.

Email: Philiana.Ng@THR.com
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