BY now, John Wells, one of television’s producing giants, knows a thing or two about the number of script pages it takes to fill an hour’s worth of episodic drama on a broadcast network.
Then why did his new show, “Smith,” come in 20 minutes longer than what is acceptable? And why was CBS, with its conservative reputation, so willing to reportedly spend $7 million on the pilot alone and work around its length?
One reason is the in-demand Wells, who hasn’t written a pilot since he co-wrote “Third Watch” but has been busy running “ER” and “The West Wing” for several years. Then there is an ensemble cast headed up by Ray Liotta and Oscar nominee Virginia Madsen. And, thirdly, a network that ranks as the most popular but still yearns to be among the most talked about.
“It’s a great way to work and a luxury I don’t expect to have often in my career,” said Wells, referring to the atypical creative process that allowed him to develop a drama about criminals that isn’t really about crime.
Premiering Tuesday at 10 p.m., “Smith” has already impressed critics as it follows the double lives of five master thieves whose ringleader is Bobby Stevens, played by Liotta, starring in his first TV series since he started on the daytime soap “Another World” in 1978. Bobby’s band of specialists includes his lieutenant, Tom (Jonny Lee Miller of “Trainspotting”); firearms aficionado Jeff (Simon Baker of “The Devil Wears Prada”); transportation expert Joe (Franky G of “The Italian Job”); and master of disguises Annie (Amy Smart of “Crank”). Bobby is also a suburban married father of two and Madsen (“Sideways”) plays his intriguing wife, Hope. “Smith” refers to the name FBI agents give the elusive Bobby.
“I watch a lot of television and I noticed that we were catching all these criminals but we weren’t getting to know much about them,” Wells said. “I started thinking that maybe we could do a show that focuses completely and wholly on the criminals and what makes them tick and how their lives work.”
As Wells started to flesh out his lead character, he thought of someone he’d been trying to persuade for a year to work in the medium. With only a sketch in his head, Wells met with Liotta, who had won an Emmy for a guest role on “ER” in 2005.
“It wasn’t really a concrete idea but the fact that it was coming out of his mouth was enough for me to trust that it was going to be classy, inventive and a different idea just based on his track record,” said Liotta, taking a break while shooting a scene at a warehouse in Lancaster recently. On this hot summer day, Lancaster posed as Tucson and the thieves were at it again, stealing an armored car and reconvening at the warehouse where Bobby inexplicably threw away the cash in a dumpster. The robbery, it turned out, was only a minute part of an intricate scheme, one that involves the use of the truck -- but not the money.
“I had been approached for a while about doing a series and I saw that the landscape of the business was changing a lot, where movies are getting safer and safer and television is becoming more interesting,” Liotta said. “I also liked the fact that the character was a leading man where I’m usually playing some wacko. I didn’t have to gain weight, put crazy makeup on to make me look older or drugged-out.”
THEIR VOICES IN HIS HEAD
WITH Liotta’s consent, Wells sat down to write. But other actors kept popping into his head: Would Madsen be interested in TV? Would Miller, whom he’d been courting for a while, take to this idea? Would Franky G, the star of Wells’ failed Fox drama “Jonny Zero,” want to work with him again? Would the all-American girl-next-door Smart want to play a bad girl for a change? Wells approached each of them with his ideas and they all agreed to be in it, provided, of course, that the script lived up to its billing.
“He told me the basic outline and it sounded very adventurous and something I hadn’t done before,” Madsen said. “John writes so beautifully for women and, frankly, that’s hard to find on whatever size screen you’re working in. It just sounded delicious to me.”
The informal casting meetings also helped Wells develop his characters and their story arcs, making it easier to write the story for the pilot.
“The show is a little unique to me because I was able to write each part specifically for an individual actor, except the part for Simon Baker, who I didn’t approach because I had approached him so many times in the past and he’d always told me to get lost,” Wells said. “I had specific notes for each character and then every one of the actors gave me input into who they are and their background. All of those things got worked into the characters.”
When he completed the script, Wells got a surprising phone call from Baker’s agent. Sitting in his trailer after finishing the warehouse scene, Baker, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his work on “The Guardian,” grinned at the suggestion that he had played cat-and-mouse with one of TV’s most celebrated producers.
“I was a little skeptical of getting involved with something because it just seemed that there was a wave of procedural TV shows and I didn’t want to do something like that,” Baker said. “And I had a yearning to move back home to Australia because I constantly battle with quality of life versus commitment to career. But network TV is changing, and John Wells has the clout and a depth of work behind him, and this show doesn’t fit it into any category. Those things piqued my interest.”
Although many TV critics have already picked “Smith” as one of the year’s best pilots, they also wonder if viewers are weary of the genre, considering the failure of NBC’s “Heist” and FX’s “Thief” to attract audiences last season.
Wells shopped his script to all of the networks, but CBS, home of the crime procedural was enthusiastic about offering its audience something unexpected this season. This drama won’t be based on a crime of the week, said Nina Tassler, CBS president of entertainment.
Capitalizing on the talents of the cast, Emmy-nominated director Chris Chulack filmed the pilot entirely on location in the L.A. area, Pittsburgh and Hawaii, giving it the kind of range and pacing usually associated with movies.
“Action is action but some of the most interesting things in the pilot are how these people maneuver in the world and get through,” Chulack said. “They’re bad people and how they interact, their interior, is what interests me. With this cast, the most interesting stuff they do is when they’re not talking. As a director, you want to put the audience in the position to experience that.... with all of the fast cutting and the people talking, television rhythms today are all the same. I hope this show stands out because it is deafening sometimes.”
CONTRADICTIONS OF A DOUBLE LIFE
INDEED, the pilot episode of “Smith” is full of soft, quiet moments: Bobby playing the piano while Hope listens; Jeff enjoying the feel of a silky fabric and breakfast in bed; Tom looking longingly at Annie. It also features a complicated art heist of masterpieces from a Pittsburgh museum that does not go as smoothly as Bobby would have liked, and spectacular explosions when a truck and boat are blown up.
“Here I am planning and masterminding the theft and then in another scene, I’m sitting there by myself playing the piano or coaching my son’s Little League team,” Liotta said. “It’s a nice dichotomy in terms of what I do for a living and the fact that I want to keep myself out of jail because I love my wife and kids and that would obviously kill me. I just thought the scope and breadth of it was great.”
But what about the length? Even though Wells turned in an average-length 65-page script, which typically yields 42 minutes of air time (the rest of the hour is for commercials), the pilot was 62 minutes long. To his surprise, no one at CBS balked. In fact, executives did not even notice its length when they first screened it.
“These are all actors’ actors, so because of the cast, because of the way the stories are told, there is information, there are looks, gestures, subtleties and information being conveyed character to character that has story value,” Tassler said. “It deserves and merits screen time.”
Instead of demanding that Wells and Chulack, also an executive producer, cut 20 minutes out of the episode, they were asked to trim five minutes and CBS will premiere it with limited commercial interruption and only one sponsor, Martin Scorsese’s new film, “The Departed.”
Miller said he “freaked out” when Wells first called him with the idea of playing Tom, Bobby’s right-hand man who has just been released from prison when viewers first meet him in the pilot.
“There’s so much room in the writing for us to make the characters live a little more,” Miller said. “It’s not so overwritten. There are a lot of moments in there for us to play. Good drama, you know what I mean?”
The writing staff now does. They have learned to shorten their scripts to allow the actors to fill in the blanks with their performances instead of padding them with extra dialogue. The actors also have the ability to change and add lines when they feel inspired. In a scene in his auto shop, for example, Franky G’s Joe breaks out his Spanish as he walks away from a frustrating client.
“Here we are a little more free, like in the movies, where you’re a little more free with the lines in the sense of making it your own,” the actor said. “John watches you and listens to see if he likes what we might put in. And he does use what we bring.”
The cast also is racking up the miles on their cars and frequent flier programs because the series, like the pilot, is shot entirely on location. Instead of building sets on a soundstage, Warner Bros. Television, which produces it, has leased and dressed homes for all of the characters in the Los Angeles area. But for the heists, the cast has traveled to Reno for a future episode and will probably fly to Montreal and Miami later this year, Wells said.
“They really are not messing around with the size and scope of this thing,” Liotta said. “The locations always seem to be an hour or so away from home and I didn’t factor that in. But as I’m ... moaning on the drive in at 4:30 in the morning, when you get to the location, it all makes sense.”
Baker describes it as a “traveling circus.” And so far, he’s enjoying his impulsive character’s exploits: surfing in Hawaii (yes, that really is Baker riding the waves in the pilot), shooting a couple of surfers for kicks and stealing a motorcycle and riding it down the Venice boardwalk.
“When we went to Hawaii, that really proved to me that they are really committed to this show,” Baker said. “It’s candy. It’s a bit of fluff” -- but it informs the character, he added, and -- “that’s why the pilot feels like a film. It’s not all information, information, information.”
Although Jeff appears to be the group sociopath in the pilot, Wells warns viewers not to judge too quickly. Jeff has brotherly love and deep loyalty for Tom. Annie, on the other hand, cares about no one.
“She’s the kind of woman who would laugh with you one minute and shoot you in the back the next,” Smart said. “I couldn’t believe John Wells saw me playing someone like that and it was [even] better than I thought when I saw the script. I don’t feel like I’m doing a TV show, to be honest. I feel like I’m doing a fast film that keeps growing and keeps going.”