The two stars and the executive producer talk about the new NBC series
Southland premieres tonight, Thursday April 9 at 10 PM ET on NBC and three of the big factors on this new series are stars Ben McKenzie, Regina King and executive producer John Wells. We were in on a conference call with this trio from the freshman series and here's what they had to say.
So watching the pilot last night it's obviously, you know, it's pretty dark and it's pretty gritty. I'm sure all of you would say it's realistic but for each of you can you tell us sort of what attracted you to such a heavy series?
Ben McKenzie: All right so for me the pilot script was very, very strong. I read the pilot - was sent the pilot by my agents. I wasn't necessarily looking to get back into TV quite so quickly after doing the OC. But I really fell in love with the pilot; the writing is very intricate, the dialogue is somewhat sparse but there's always a lot going on underneath. Ann Biderman has a really great feel for character and she's able to write all sorts of characters from Regina's character to mine to John Cooper to - she really has a sort of wide assortment of colors to paint with. And she's a phenomenal writer, and the script was just phenomenal. I also thought the idea of setting a cop show that's not a procedural, that's more about the lives of the cops was a fascinating idea. And setting it in LA is something I haven't seen for quite a while, really making LA a character, really allowing the randomness of LA and the strangeness of LA to play a large role in the series. It's gritty because LA can be gritty. LA is kind of like - LA is kind of like America personified, 21st Century America with its obsession with money and fame but also extreme dire poverty living up next to extreme extraordinary wealth. So that's what attracted me to the show. Regina.
Regina King: Yeah, I'm near almost everything that Ben said and feels regarding the show. I think for me personally being born and raised in Los Angeles it's always a welcome opportunity to be able to do something that actually has been - it captures LA honestly. You know, so many things are shot here in LA that don't necessarily take place in LA but they're shot here. And then every now and then you'll see a project that is supposed to actually description-wise take place in LA but you don't feel that; you don't actually see that. And I think Chris Chulack and the rest of the crew are doing an outstanding job of actually using LA as like a - I'll say ninth character since there's eight of us - in this project. And for me I kind of wanted to get back to TV because I have a 13 year old son and, you know, those - these teenage years are upon us and I felt like I didn't want to have to keep turning down work because I needed to be here. And when I shared that with John Wells he was like, you know, that's - family is one of our number one priorities and if you talk to any of the people that work on ER or The West Wing they'll tell you that we truly run our show like an ensemble cast - it's an ensemble show - it's not that one person shines more than the other. And when you go back and look at the shows, you know, of course people have their favorites but, you know, everybody is a necessary part to make the machine roll in an exciting way I guess to say.
Yeah, that's a good point. And, Ben, I was going to ask you that too because, you know, obviously with the OC and now much more with Southland you've worked with some pretty large casts so what do you think is the key to keeping everyone, you know, involved and engaged in the storylines?
Ben McKenzie: Well, I think the key, number one is good writing. And - which we are absolutely blessed with on this show. I know that you haven't been able to see future episodes because basically we've just shot them and we're still putting them together. But I feel very - I feel certain, absolutely certain, that the episodes that follow the pilot will be equally as a strong if not stronger and more - and allow us to branch out into all sorts of different areas. What you saw on the pilot I think is a terrific introduction to the world of the show. But because it's a pilot it needs to do a lot of things; it needs to introduce a lot of characters very quickly. And what you'll see in subsequent episodes I think is you'll spend an episode with let's say two or three particular cast members - particular characters and really get to know them a lot better. Then you'll switch over and you'll spend the next episode with two or three others. And so it really fully takes on that true ensemble feel. And the great part about it is that we have - I mean I couldn't dream of a more - a perfect cast for this show; everybody is an actor, they're not a - there's no sort of gimmicky TV casting choices. Everyone is absolutely right for their part. They all - I have the briefest resume of anyone in the cast. But everyone has an extensive resume. And for me jumping back into television, which I was a little hesitant to do, you know, the reason I did is because, you know, I don't have to carry the show and because, you know, if you're going to be involved in a television show this is the best possible scenario to put yourself in where you're being supported by terrific scripts, excellent direction and production quality and a cast of actors that are only going to make you look good because they're doing their part. So, you know, if we all end up hating each, getting back to your original question, if we all end up hating each other it's only because we're all jerks.
Regina King: You know, I highly doubt that. And I just want to add on to what Ben said is something that was really like great for me as well as Ben just said obviously is that being around a cast of people who really respect what we do as an art form...
Ben McKenzie: Yeah.
Regina King: ...it just really creates an environment that's just so much more pleasant to work in because in production you're going to run into like huge speed bumps or little speed bumps but if you have a group of people that really understands the necessity of every single person being involved 100% and wanting to be involved 100% that - knowing that that formula has a outcome of success. If you have everybody understanding that it's just pleasant to come to work everyday. I can't even begin to say how excited I am to come to work.
Ben McKenzie: Yeah, that's absolutely right. And jumping on Regina's point, you know, for whatever reason John Wells and his company with Chulack and - they tend to hire really good people like good actors who happen to be, you know, stable sane individuals, which is not always the case with actors. You know, they're either, you know, people that care about doing a good job and they also want to treat people correctly and it really, you know, it's kind of a dream job.
Regina King: Yeah.
Ben McKenzie: Hopefully it'll last forever.
All right great. Thank you guys for your time.
I wanted to know, you know, with all the cop shows that are out there like the Law & Order's and even CSI, you know, the characters relatively stay the same over the course of the series. Are we going to expect something different with Southland where the characters are really going to develop and change over the course of the series?
Regina King: Yeah, you know, I believe so. I believe, you know, just because of the - because we have Ann Biderman as the writer and creator I don't think that she is the type of writer that is interested in playing the same beat over and over again. That's not saying that those other shows aren't good because they're highly successful shows and interesting shows but I just, you know, from the four episodes that we've done the way they - we don't even get the script until like the end of the prior episode, one, and two, we really don't even know - we don't know what is to come of our characters. So just as actors we're kind of having even more fun with it because it is somewhat of a surprise. So, you know, at one point we thought that we were all working in different divisions and then, you know, by episode two we find out, oh, okay, you know, Ben's character, my character actually are in the same division. So it's constantly - the beauty of how they're approaching this cop drama is that they're really trying to be as realistic and as honest as possible to law enforcement in LA. And in LA cops change precincts; they decide to be a different type of detective. Some black and white might decide I don't want to be a black and white anymore now I'm ready to be a detective. You have so many different levels of places that you are in the career of a police officer and I know from all of the officers that are around us - real officers that are around us and information that Ann is gathering there's no way that she could want to continue this show without showing the growth or even the turmoils that an officer goes through within their career and families.
Ben McKenzie: And I think what's been set up really nicely in the pilot is that every single character - well it's a little hard to tell because the pilot had to be cut down a lot for time reasons. But every single character has some sort of secret that they're not - that they're keeping from the people that they work with on the job, right?
Regina King: Right.
Ben McKenzie: You know, my character comes from a wealthy family. It'll get into that what is that about; why does he become a patrol officer? Why did he start at the bottom level of law enforcement? You know, Regina has, you know, is a single mother living at home, you know, with her mother; what is that - what's going on there? Tom Everett Scott, you know, married but maybe unhappily; what's going on there? Michael Cudlitz, you know, has his own back stories. There are sort of - what's really nice about the series I think is that - and it separates it from the Law & Order's and CSI's is that the plot lines are (arced) for the characters. They will grow, they will change and you will set things up in earlier episodes that will pay off - and they may not even pay off the next episode or the episode after, they'll pay off, you know, three, four episodes later. And so I think that it will hopefully attract a broad viewership but also a committed viewership that people will stay glued to the TV thinking, you know, having to pay attention at all moments, you know, because something's going to pay off that happened in episode one it'll pay off in episode four.
Regina King: It might not pay off until next season, you know, who knows. Like, you know how like you work at a job and you've been working with this person for three years and then you find out you had no idea that they had been fighting cancer for the past, you know, five years; this is kind of like how people are like real people. We are real people.
I thought that the pilot looked great and so did the cast. But Ben, I was really intrigued when you touched on this a little bit about how your character does seem to come from a wealthy family and does seem to be that guy who joins the Marines as a, you know, an enlisted man because he eventually kind of wants to be a senator or something like that. What's your sense of what his ambitions are or is he really just I want to be a patrol officer beat cop?
Ben McKenzie: Yeah, well my take on it has always been - and this is quite frankly something that I'm sort of projecting to be completely honest because we've only shot about three episodes in addition to the pilot thus far. But I've always related to the character of Ben Sherman because I've always thought of him as someone who is incredibly ambitious, who is incredibly focused and wants to leave his mark but is also - and you'll find out more about it in - again in subsequent episodes. He very definitely chose to become a patrol officer. He chose to start off in law enforcement at the street level, the bottom level in order to - in order to go his own way. His father is doing something that is almost completely antithetical what he is doing. He is a high powered defense lawyer. And what is that about? Why has he chosen to go about it this way? He could have very easily gone to - he's a bright guy, he could have gone to college, he could have gone to law school, he could, you know, become a prosecutor if he really hated his father that much. But what about him motivated him to do it this way and he knows enough of himself to know that he is naïve; that he doesn't know everything. And he has a lot of sort of classroom experience and he was probably a pretty damn good recruit at the academy. But he has no real-world experience, certainly not in the neighborhoods that he ends up patrolling with John Cooler. He's dealing with people and situations that he's never had to deal with before. And so for me the overall journey of the character, I hope, is eventually one of him understanding what it takes to be a man. And to interact in the world that he lives in not the world he wishes he lived in.
I was wondering did you guys get to hang out with real LAPD officers?
Ben McKenzie: Yeah.
Regina King: I did the last one...
Ben McKenzie: We've hung out a lot. We've hung out a lot with cops. Our technical advisor, Chick Daniel, is ex-LAPD, ex-SWAT. His wife is also ex-LAPD. She actually used to teach classes at the police academy in the LAPD. So both of them - Chick is on set all the time every day to answer any questions we have at the moment. But they put us through - Chick and his wife, Sheila, put us through a week-long boot camp before shooting the pilot and then another week long boot camp before shooting the series. And, you know, walked us through all sorts of things, you know, handcuffing, we went to the gun range, fired the weapons that are appropriate for our characters. And we've also had the opportunity to do, you know, as many ride-alongs with cops as we want basically and all over LA from the Valley to Hollywood to, you know, southeast and south-metro LA. And so we've had a lot of interaction with cops. And another nice aspect is that any extras, any cops who are in the background, are real cops. They are constantly on set we've, I mean at this point I've met dozens of cops. And again it helps - it helps sort of - for me it helps relax me into the part because I think one of the things that is kind of obvious in retrospect but kind of surprised me is that cops are just like regular people. There's a broad, broad range of personality types, of educational levels, of, you know, all kinds of things, of physical sizes, I mean, you know, they're just regular people; there 10,000 of them they've all got to be different. And so you don't have to pretend to just be the macho, you know, cowboy stereotype cop, you can feel free to alter it and change it to you - to who you are or who you think the character is. You don't have to sort paint - not all characters are painted with the same brush. So I've had a great time spending time with cops and they tell phenomenal stories. And it's been a real treat to get to see what they do on a daily basis.
Now Regina, how do you think the show will be received by the LAPD? Do you think they'll like it or...
Regina King: Well, we're hoping that they do. We're hoping that they feel that we're giving an honest portrayal. But what I will say is that I think they're anticipating it to be something that they'll be proud of because the support that they've given us has been just absolutely amazing. You know, it's - they really are embracing us. And I think part of it is because, you know, when we talk about the other cop dramas that are on TV, you know, I mean and I could be wrong, but the last time there was a law enforcement show that took place in LA was like CHiPs. So they're like, you know, the LAPD is just like ready for us to be represented and for them to be represented well. And, you know, the fact that the LAPD is probably one of the best first - I could have the statistic wrong but I'm going to say one of if not number one as far as a first response team. And it's absolutely amazing that they can carry that title in a city that - compared to other cities of pretty - excuse me - a pretty broad - it's a wide city that the - the square radius - mile radius of LA city is much bigger than a lot of other cities. And we have less cops to cover more space. And with that we still have the best first response team in the country. That's pretty amazing. And I think as officers they're very proud of having that title so they feel like, okay, well now we should be represented. And hopefully we do them well.
Ben, how would you describe the relationship between Cooper and Ben? Like it's not like a Training Day kind of for TV is it?
Ben McKenzie: I mean it is and it isn't. It's not in the sense that he is not some corrupt, you know, evil, you know cop. It's only similar to Training Day in the sense that it does take place on that first day and it is the newbie being schooled by the older, more seasoned veteran. But after that I think the comparisons sort of start to fall away. And I think actually the comparisons are somewhat illuminating because like Regina was sort of mentioning, you know, there hasn't been a show set in LA about cops since CHiPs. And I think we're doing a little different show than CHiPs, slightly grittier, although, you know, let's see maybe... where we're in the short pants on the beach in Malibu. I look forward to that.
Regina King: I do too.
Ben McKenzie:Reno 911! baby, we can do this. But there hasn't been a show set in LA about cops in a long time except maybe something like the Shield which is kind of similar to Training Day in that it's exploring the corruption in the police department. Well we're not making that show, you know, that is a terrific show but we are making a show that is much more I think sympathetic to the turmoil that officers experience on a daily basis, the way that they're tested on a daily basis that we are trying to - we don't want to make it sappy, we want to make it as realistic as we can but we also want to acknowledge the fact that fundamentally the vast majority of these people are good people put in extremely trying situations all the time. And I think that will help us be embraced by the LAPD. Hopefully they will realize that, you know, we can't - we can't do a completely realistic examination of cop lives because it'd be a documentary; you have to amp the stakes up a little bit more to keep it an entertaining TV show. But we can look at them with a sympathetic eye and try to understand what make them tick and understands their faults as sometimes relating to the terrible stuff that they have to see on the job. They are affected by it in many ways because what they see is so troubling.
Regina, this is a very direct view of Los Angeles, a very downbeat in a lot of ways. And you mentioned you grew up in Los Angeles, first of all, what part of Los Angeles did you grow up in?
Regina King: I grew up in the area called Windsor Hills. That's, oh, I guess you'd say West of the Crenshaw District and South of (Vallwen U)
What kind of neighborhood was it when you grew up? Was it middle class or...
Regina King: Middle class, middle class neighborhood and middle class predominantly black neighborhood.
And when you watch this - because at least in the pilot film, you know, it's just very, very dark portrait of people's lives, you know, in all the parts that we see here. Is that just because it's in certain neighborhoods or has Los Angeles turned kind of downward since you've grown up there or what's your view?
Regina King: Well I think that, you know, that's just the pilot. And, you know, you're going to see a whole lot more of LA and the different - the different crime scenes in different neighborhoods. I think a lot of the same crimes are going on in different neighborhoods but the reason for which - the crime went down changes. You know, for example, you know, there's an episode where, you know, someone is killed and it's because the person is a - they're a really rich person and they, you know, kill someone else. And the reasoning behind it - the reason for that happening - I'm trying to tell you without giving it away - has to do with, you know, almost having too much success and feeling that you are beyond the law. And then you go have a murder that happens in South Central and it happened because of a lack of having (things) available to you. So I really don't feel like they're painting the picture of crime - we're painting the pictures of crimes that only happen in the quote/unquote darker parts of LA. I mean, that is the thing that makes LA so unique. And I hear people that come here to visit so often say this, you literally can walk four blocks and visually the neighborhood will change four times. You know, you won't know that you are actually in like a hard-core area just because the lawns are manicured.
It's kind of disturbing when we see the kid at the very beginning who is just trying to stay out of trouble and gets shot anyway. And that kind of gives you that thing of oh, man, you just can't win. What's your view overall of Los Angeles and its future and what direction it's going in?
Regina King: Well, I mean, you know, honestly I love my city. I'm born and raised here and I love my city and I feel like the majority of the people that are in the city are people from other cities. So I think that LA sometimes might get a bad wrap because it's known to be so Hollywood-oriented and then underneath that you have crime. But that's really, you know, the case in pretty much any major city that you go to. I mean, I was just reading a report the other day, you know, as far as the worst places to live because of crime and New York nor LA were in the top five. So I think that a lot of times - I mean it's really interesting because we have a - once you get another episode that kind of deals with this a lot of times with LA law enforcement has to have a really close relationship with media relations because of certain things just like you asking this question. One thing can happen in 1982 and people still hold that this is what goes on in LA or something can happen in 1995; this is what happens in LA and it was just an isolated incident, you know. And I think that's the reason why media relations play such a close part with the LAPD because when these little things happen they immediately try to get on it so that it doesn't, you know, cause a forest fire an then the next thing you know all over the country oh you don't want to go to LA because you might get shot if you go to the mall, you know. So I think that some of the perceptions that come along when you say the city of LA and they come along with how people view crime in LA are unfair and I don't think that they are - crime is higher that New York or Chicago or, you know, Atlanta.
Ben, I just wanted to ask you - you mentioned that you guys did a lot of training with real cops and speaking to real cops and everything. And since you play a rookie patrol officer did you learn much about, you know, what rookie cops actually go through? I know there's a lot of like hazing and initiating if you're a rookie in the force.
Ben McKenzie: Oh yeah, they tell some great stories. You know, the LAPD is notorious for doing - well not the LAPD but the older generation of training officers let's say from the, you know, from the 80s on before were brutal on their trainees. And they tell stories of, you know, training officers driving around, probation officers sitting in the passenger seat, a guy asks where are we? The training officer says I don't know. He says well you got to know. He stops the car. He says get in the trunk. The training officer is like what? Get in the trunk. Literally drives around for the next - for potentially the rest of the shift with the probation officer in the trunk. And, you know, that'll teach you. You'll learn that way. There's some - there's a saying that I'm not going to get quite right but basically what's the ideal probationary officer? He has big ears, big eyes and no mouth. He can hear things, he can see things but he's not going to talk. Don't talk unless talked to. And that's one reason why my character is so quite in the pilot is that he needs John Cooper, his training officer, to approve of him. And the worst way to get him to do that is to talk too much. Shut up and take it. This guy is a little bit crazy. He seems to be slightly psychopathic in a certain way. But he, A, probably knows what he's doing because he's been doing it for a long time, and, B, regardless of whether he does or not I need him to sign my book at the end of the day. He needs to approve me. So it's a very - it's a pretty hierarchical system, you know, we're not equals, you know, he's the veteran, I'm the rookie, I got to shut up and take whatever he does to me.
So we can expect to see a lot of this rookie hazing, I guess, initiation and in the series and everything?
Ben McKenzie: Well yeah but except for the fact that at the end of the pilot, you know, mid-way through the pilot I save the day. So all of a sudden, and you'll see this I think kind of entertainingly in the next couple episodes, you know, all of a sudden I'm starting to get, you know, this is a big deal. If this were to happen in real life this would be a huge deal; a probationary officer in his first month on the job is involved in a officer - an OIS, officer involved shooting and kills a bad guy. That would be a big deal. So, you know, I start to get some praise and John Cooper is not particularly happy about that, he's jealous.
Yeah, I'm sure. That's a nightmare for the vets, you know.
Ben McKenzie: Yeah, the dynamic will evolve I think quite quickly. And one of the great things, Regina mentioned this earlier, one of the great things about Ann Biderman's writing is that we won't play the same beats over and over again. We will move quickly, very quickly in fact. Like sometimes you'll be like what happens to this, you know, how did we wrap that up? We didn't wrap that up; we moved on. And the characters will grow and change and evolve really fast because we wont' spend every episode with all the characters, we'll spend an episode with two characters, everyone will take a seat, we'll spend an episode with three others, everyone else will take a seat and we'll move in and out as they see fit.
And Regina I know earlier you were mentioning your son and everything and you said that he was 13 so I'm figuring 13 years old he's probably real into like the cop and detective dramas and movies and stuff. Is he real excited that you're doing the show? Has he seen it?
Regina King: Oh he's totally excited. He totally is digging that his mom is a cop, I mean, you know, I played a detective in another movie once before and they ended up - they kept - quite a few of the fighting scenes, but this one in particular that was his favorite where I had a fight in the bathroom and I had to kick some girls in a bathroom stall, you know, he's like, "Oh, God, that is just so cool." So when it didn't end up in the movie he was kind of bummed about it. So he told me don't tell him about any of the script beforehand just let him see it.
He's like I want to see mom fight again.
Regina King: Yeah. Right, right, you know, so I did actually make the mistake of letting him know of something that I'm doing in this week's episode and he's like all right, I changed my mind can I just come in and see that one part.
Were you both prepared - I know you mentioned the boot camp - for physical demands but how about the mental demands of the show, I mean, especially in the pilot there's some tough scenes that both of you were in, I mean, were you prepared for the, you know, mental, you know, stress of doing a show like this, very I'd say dark, serious scenes. I mean, were you both prepared for that?
Ben McKenzie: It was, you know, it's a challenge to go in there. You know, thankfully we have just about the best support we could possibly have in terms of the quality of the scripts and the direction and the crew and the other actors. You know, it's a challenge for everyone on the show because everyone gets pretty meaty stuff thrown at them. We are dealing with life and death situations on a pretty constant basis on the show. Challenged but I think everybody's rising to that challenge. You know, I don't know, Regina do...
Regina King: I think, Ben, you're putting it perfectly that I think we were challenged but I think that we were prepared to learn.
Ben McKenzie: Yeah.
Regina King: And I think that is one of the common denominators that the entire cast has, we came in here like really, you know, we didn't know what to expect but we knew to expect something and were ready for it. So as far as I can't really say that we weren't prepared but I can say that we did not know all that we'd be learning. And we are constantly learning new things almost every day we come to this set especially, you know, the fact that we have actual officers, you know, as extras, you know, we're getting, you know, some of these officers are extras but they're on call, you know. And they'll get a - like it's kind of a sad story but one of the officers, you know, was scheduled to, you know, come back to work the next day but one of the chiefs - he was killed and, you know, he ended up having to go to the funeral. So we lost a lot of officers that day because of that funeral. You know, and I don't know if you guys know but the way it works is - what is it Ben, you work four days and then you're off?
Ben McKenzie: Yeah.
Regina King: Like you can only work so many days as a detective or a patrol officer, you work four an then you're off what is it two, something like that?
Ben McKenzie: I think. I think it may vary a little bit but, yeah, something like that.
Regina King: So unless there's a humongous thing that happens in the city that requires all, you know, people to be present - all officers to be present, you know, we are - we are getting the benefit of those officers being here with us on their off days.
How do you folks feel about your show taking the time slot over from ER. I mean, just a week after that show concludes Southland is - move in. How do you feel about that? It's kind of humbling and probably an honor as well.
Ben McKenzie: Yeah, it's not intimidating at all, I mean, we're only replacing the most successful show of all time, you know, so it's totally fine. And we expect to do 15 seasons and make 300 shows, become a worldwide global franchise. That's what we expect, right Regina, something like that?
Regina King: Yeah, yeah, I think you...
Ben McKenzie: Yeah, no pressure, right?
Regina King: None at all.
Ben McKenzie: I actually think it's a great situation because the truth of the matter is no sane person would expect us to become ER, right, that would be, I mean, that's a one in a million chance. So instead let's just make the show we want to make; let's push some boundaries. And we will I think push the boundaries of network TV as far as we can push them and get away with it. And see if the audience responds. Hopefully they will but we've got seven episodes to leave our mark and I think we're on the right track.
Regina King: Yeah, I agree. I think that we can't - I think we have a wonderful opportunity like Ben said and if we, you know, approach it feeling like, oh gosh I hope people, you know, like us like they like ER we're not ER. But we do have some good things going for us. We're lucky enough to have the creator of ER that was not only successful with ER but with The West Wing, Third Watch as well. You know, so we got - we're lucky to have John Wells at the helm of this production.
Ben McKenzie: Amen.
Regina King: And, yeah, and we just know that, like Ben said, we got some good stuff to do and let's do it.
NBC has a long history of classic cops, you know, from Joe Friday right up to John Munch. Cops, we'll say, you know, they defined their times and - or at least reflected them. How do you feel your characters stack up against these classics? You know, where will you take them that will be different?
Regina King: Well, honestly I feel like that we're just - we're not that type of show. We're really honestly trying to depict law enforcement. And one of the things that you'll find common in any city of law enforcement or - I'm not going to say any - in most cities with their law enforcement is that they look at themselves - well let's just use LA as an example and you have the gangs in LA. Well the LAPD looks at themselves as their own gang; they don't take any sides, they're not black people, white people, Latin people. They really look at themselves as men and women in blue. So because we are portraying that I don't think it's really - there's any room in us as actors building our characters to think that we're building it to be that, you know, Baretta or, you know, someone individually specific that's saving the day. What we've been learning from going to our boot camp and everything is that, you know, it's really, you know, a brotherhood, the LAPD. And so I don't know, I feel like I can speak for my partners on the show but I feel like we just kind of are approaching it in a way that we portray exactly that, that our jobs are commitment, our choice to do this comes first.
Regina King: Speaking from a cop perspective.
Ben McKenzie: Yeah, I mean, I think that as you mentioned, you know, there have been many terrific cop shows some of which have been set in LA. And I think in a sense the show only becomes successful because it captures the essence of whatever is going on in society at that point and the cops, the law enforcement is an extension of that, right. I mean, they are responding to whether they're literally responding to whatever is happening crime-wise in the city. And hopefully, you know, this show will capture the kind of zeitgeist at the moment which is, you know, it is a little dark, we're in a tough time economically. LA is not immune from that. And LA has, in my view, the quintessential American city of the 21st Century and that it's big and crazy and wild and you have extreme wealth knocking up against extreme poverty, you have all sorts of ethnicities and cultures represented. LA is the perfect place to set a show like that because, you know, if it work people can relate to what we are seeing even though they don't know LA in particular and/or have never even been to LA. They can understand the problems that are going on because they relate to what's going on in the country I guess.
Excuse me, John Wells has joined conference. And the next question...
Regina King: Hello.
So I guess since John joined first reaction to the ER ratings last night, John?
John Wells: Wow, you know, it was very gratifying to see that many people show up and watch the final episode of the show. You know, but it's time to move on and do something else and so we're very excited about this one. And it was great that that many people showed up and watched the promo. NBC is doing a great job promoting Southland so.
Well, okay in the past few days many of us have written a lot about how ER when it first premiered how it was position compared to sort of traditional medical shows and how it sort of blew the doors off. How do you think Southland is positioned compared to traditional cop shows?
John Wells: Well I don't want to generalize too much about what a traditional cop show is just because there have been lots of different styles of shows. But I think recently the police shows have been - have been primarily procedurals. And that's really not what we're interested in doing. I came onto the call a few minutes ago and was listening to what Regina and Ben were saying and I think that's absolutely correct that what we're trying to do is to - is to show what cops' lives are like on a daily basis not really about the cases it's about the stresses and the camaraderie and the realities of trying to be a police officer and these kind of huge world cities like Los Angeles. So, you know, I think that we're very different than the police shows that are on the air right now which is the vast majority of which are really procedural shows about the cases.
Talk about the process of finding the name of the show. It went through a number of different temp names until Southland.
John Wells: We wanted to - we wanted to use the LAPD name but it's actually owned by the LAPD. And they did not want to grant it to us. And so it was Police for a short period of time only because I needed something to put onto the hats when we shot the pilot. And Southland was always one of the ideas that were excited about using. And but there was a change at NBC in the leadership at NBC and so we'd had sort of a tentative approval from NBC to do it and then the people who approved it weren't there anymore and we were waiting for about another month before we got the approval. It's - so it's a name that I'm really pleased with.
Regina King: I'm very pleased with it.
John Wells: Yeah, you're an LA resident so.
Regina King: Yes and that's like one of the things we've always heard growing up in LA whenever a radio newscast would come on or the anchor on the 11 o'clock news would always start the story off with, "Here in the Southland," so don't be surprised when you hear that.
I had asked Ben and Regina this question but I'm wondering from your perspective with a cast this large how do you sort of keep everyone involved? How do you keep everyone interested and how do you keep everyone sort of, you know, in good spirits amongst each other?
John Wells: Well, you know, honestly I think the trick is to not try and do too much. And by that I mean not trying to take care of making certain that every episode, every character has a lot to do because I think that's actually - that kind of broad ensemble where everybody's got a little bit to do is when it gets frustrating for people. And what we're trying to do is to tell large stories with individual characters or sets of characters in different weeks. So, you know, there are weeks in which one group of characters has a great deal to do and their stories are reflected with what they have to do. And other people are very - and other very characters are very small so - in that week. And it allows people to really feel like when they have something to do that they have something substantial to do.
What's sort of going to be the setup of a particular episode like we'll follow Kevin Alejandro through a sort of day in his life or are we going to do a little bit of each of those eight characters in each episode? Have you thought about sort of that (braid) at this point?
John Wells: Yeah, you know, I don't know if you've seen the pilot yet but...
John Wells: Yeah, you know, it begins with that freeze frame technique of seeing Ben's character in a freeze frame in the line of dialogue which talks about what it is for that character. And that is the framework that we're using for every episode. So while other characters are involved in those episodes it really is an attempt to say all right, for this officer on this day or this series of days something happened that was really - which was really substantial. And we have - and we're going to follow them so that you know from the beginning who it is you're going to follow because sometimes you have that initial image and then you actually don't see that character again for five or six minutes in the episode.
Who is the voice - the ethereal voice making that declaration about what happened, it is sort of a (Dragnet-esque) voiceover or it almost seems at the moment of that - in the scene of the pilot I was like is that the photographer writing the caption in the LA times or what? Who is saying that?
John Wells: It is the photographer making a caption for his photograph. The idea for doing those actually came from a whole bunch of these old crime scene photos which we had seen in the process of research, Chris Chulack and Ann Biderman found them. Then we started saying, wow, those photographs are really beautiful. And it's also the kind of photographs that we use thematically in the main title which is why that's all just trying to make of a piece. So, yeah, it was meant always that the caption underneath the photograph because a lot of the old crime scene photos the photographer made notes on it which were really pretty compelling. One of them that kind of led to that was there was a trunk seeping blood that they found in Union Station. And the caption underneath was, "Officers found trunk - a bleeding trunk. Hope that it was a deer."
I had a quick question for John about the very subtle reveal about the Cudlitz character at the end of the episode. If I hadn't known - someone had to tip me off that that was coming I probably would not have caught on to that. How do you sort of plan to explore that character going forward?
John Wells: Well it's only that subtle because we were about seven minutes over in the first cut. And the thing that made it a lot less subtle was one of the ones that we ended up cutting simply because we had, you know ,we kind of cut back to what we could do to just make sure all the stories worked. But, yeah, he is a - he is a gay police officer on the LAPD. And again, you know, I think we're at a particularly - certainly at the LAPD where that's not an extraordinary event. So it will simply be a fact of his life and we'll see it and see his world from that perspective.
Are you - are you sort of happy now you had to make the cuts that it ended up being that subtle or...
John Wells: Yeah, because we are able now to kind of tease out the theme that we had written that got cut is actually going to show up in episode three now. So it saved us about a half day shooting. It was really well shot and Chris did a great job shooting it. So we're more than willing to continue to reuse our material that didn't make it through the first cut. And, you know, it's interesting, you know, the LAPD has recruited heavily in the gay community in West Hollywood and the gay and lesbian community. So there are a number of gay police officers in the Los Angeles PD.
I just had a quick question for Ben. I know you've alluded to some of your OC experience but I was just wondering like what specifically you took away from that that you were able to bring to this show?
John Wells: Well I spent a lot of time camera. Other than that we're making quite a different show clearly. You know, I'm very grateful for that experience and it was - I treat it basically as my graduate school instead of going to NYU for graduate school in acting I spent four years on a set in front of cameras. And I learned a lot quite quickly about all sorts of things. But the show that - Southland is obviously quite different from that show. I'm quite grateful that I do have some experience in television because - well in front of a camera because we move quite quickly on Southland. We're on practical locations at least three-quarters of the time. We are shooting on these digital cameras that, you know, never basically run out of footage so there's no - there's no sort of trying to save film stock, you're just rolling and you're doing it quickly and you're not lighting too much because the digital cameras capture so much of the available light. So it's - I'm grateful that I have the experience that I had because if I didn't I would probably in way over my head and as it is I'm in only slightly over my head.
Southland, which stars Ben McKenzie and Regina King, premieres tonight, Thursday April 9 at 10 PM ET on NBC.