Shawn Ryan Reminisces on The Shield

The creator of the landmark cable series talks about the new Complete Series DVD set, Terriers and more.

Back in 2002, a series aired that changed the face of television and became my favorite TV series of all time - HANDS DOWN - The Shield. For seven seasons I was absolutely riveted by the exploits of the Strike Team in the fictional Los Angeles district of Farmington, and that of their leader Vic Mackey, played to utmost perfection by Michael Chiklis. Sadly, the TV series came to an end last fall, with a series finale that is, in my opinion, the single best series finale in TV history (CLICK HERE to read my farewell piece to this amazing series) and now viewers can relive the TV magic with The Shield: The Complete Series, which hits the shelves in a massive 28-disc set on November 3. I was fortunate enough to have an exclusive chat with the man who started it all, series creator, showrunner and executive producer Shawn Ryan, about his magnificent series and the new boxed set. Here's what he had to say.

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Can you talk about the original inception of the show? I know it was originally called The Barn and I believe Fox was going to air it at one point. Can you talk about the whole ride that this took to being aired?

Shawn Ryan: Yeah. Look, I just wrote a script that was something that I thought would be interesting and I really didn't think anyone would make it. It was never going to be a Fox show, once FX read it and picked it up, it was always going to be an FX show. Maybe you're thinking, you may have heard that in Season 3 there was talk of Fox airing an episode, as a sister company, cross-promotional thing. Ultimately, there were just too many standards and practices issues with that episode (Laughs). I think the original report I got back was there were something like 82 things that we would have to change to make it broadcastable on Fox. So that never happened. I wish I could say that I had this entire seven-season story arc in my head when I started, but I didn't. I just had this pilot script and I was amazed that anyone wanted to make it. When we did get to make it and we got to make a first season, I just surrounded myself with really talented writers and we just went from there. What can we come up with this week? What should we do down the line? That's all we did. What I like about the show is that it feels like it has this grand scope. It feels like everything was planned, but a lot of that was just hard work after the fact, saying these are the things we've done and here's where we want to go from here. It was just one of those experiences where everything went better than you could've hoped.

I know in the first, I believe, five seasons, Scott Brazil was highly instrumental in the series' success. Can you talk about first bringing him on, since you had never ran a show before?

Shawn Ryan: He was the first person that I hired. At first it was just me, and then it was me and Scott. I had spent enough time in writers rooms on my previous shows, that I knew what I needed to do with the writers, in terms of stories, but I had no practical experience in running a show, and that's where Scott came in and where Scott helped me, where Scott took a lot of the burden off of me. After the first season, he really became our best director as well. I couldn't have done it without him, and he loved it. He really loved the show and working on the show. I think probably the saddest thing about the show, to me, is that he never got to see the end. I think he would've really loved how the show ended and when he passed away, we were not at the point yet where we knew what was going to happen in that regard, so he never got to know, which is sad to me.

Can you talk about finding Michael Chiklis and, also Claudette's character was supposed to be a male character as well.

Shawn Ryan: Right. Well it was a real guerilla casting effort. We took a lot of time casting, but during that period, FX was considered a bit of a laughing stock network. Even the people who read the script and liked the script, had no confidence that FX would be able to do it in any quality manner. As a result, we had a lot of actors who refused to consider the show, refused to audition for the show, that didn't want anything to do with the show or the network. So that was difficult, but it ultimately turned out to be the best thing for us, because what it meant was that everyone who really loved the script and passionately wanted to be on the show, came in and auditioned and they really wanted it. Every cast member we got, really really wanted that role, really really wanted to be on that show. I think that's one of the reasons why the show turned out so well. It was just a real passion project for everyone. As for Michael, we had seen people for two or three days in auditions and I was really questioning whether we would really find the right person. Then I started wondering if maybe the script that I had written wasn't as good as I think it is, because it doesn't sound very good as these people read it. Then Michael came it and read it and completely nailed it and I immediately said, 'No, I am a great writer' (Laughs). It was a lesson to me that there really is no great writing unless there is a great actor to say it. Sometimes a great actor can make your writing even sound greater than it is, so that was a case where the character of Vic Mackey really came alive when Michael grabbed it. He really took my dialogue and really made it sing. For that, I'm always grateful.

It's kind of ironic because you talk about the people who wouldn't do the show at first, and then you get into later seasons and you're getting people like Glenn Close, Forest Whitaker...

Shawn Ryan: Well, things changed after that first season (Laughs). The Emmy nominations, Michael getting the win, the show winning the Golden Globe for Best Drama, that certainly changed people's perceptions.

This last season was quite amazing, I have to say. You said earlier that when Scott had passed, you didn't have an endgame for the final episode. When did that actually come into effect, and did the writer's strike actually help with that, in that you had more time to prepare?

Shawn Ryan: Well, we finished all the writing just before the writers strike. In fact, the final episode we turned in three or four days before the writers strike hit. So, there was a deadline there that if we wanted to get that last episode filmed, we needed a script in before then. We usually approach things on a season-to-season basis, so I assembled the writers at the beginning of Season 7. We had a few returning writers and then we had a few new writers, which was good to get some new blood in there for the final season. It was a case where we just came in and said, 'OK, here's where we are. Where do we want to go?' One of the great things about working for FX, is they'll give you some extended writing time, probably a month longer than other shows would have. We would spend the whole month just sitting around and talking. What do we want to happen? Where do we want it to go?' It was in going through a lot of bad and mediocre ideas that we found the good ideas as well.

Can you talk about why you ended the show at seven seasons? I read something about the model of cable TV and how shows don't seem to be as successful after seven seasons or eight seasons on cable. What kind of thought process was that to having the show end after seven seasons?

Shawn Ryan: Well, there are two functions. One is just financial. Everyone is getting a raise every year and in a serialized show like The Shield, the ratings will start to decline at a certain point, which our show did as well, because it's hard to add viewers for seasons five, six and seven for a show like that. You're always going to lose some viewers along the way. In our case, some may have gone to prison (Laughs). The other concern, for me, was I felt this was the kind of show that deserved an ending. I felt that it was a show of enough importance to FX to allow them to give us an ending. It was really just a conversation with John Landgraf, the president of the network, about when the right timing for that ending would be. If I had told him that I wanted to end it in Season 6, I think he would've been all right with that. I told him I thought I needed one more season, he agreed to that. If I would've been asking for an eighth season, that might have been pushing it a bit. So, rather than find out if they would've canceled us, I decided to say that we were going to quit after seven seasons, to make it look like our decision, which it was, but obviously you can only go so far without them making the decision for you.

You were talking before about all the accolades the show received and now, you look at Mad Men, the first basic cable series to win Best Drama Series at the Emmy's. When you look back on the whole thing, does it feel that groundbreaking to you?

Shawn Ryan: Well, I try not to get a big head about it. I just thin of think of the show as it's own sort of beast. The show really did change things, but I also think that was going to happen, and if it wasn't us, it would've been someone else after us. Obviously the appetite was there, obviously the opportunities were there and we were lucky to be the first show to really jump up on that and say that not only can we be as good as network, but a lot of times we can be better than network. I'm always grateful for the chance that FX gave us, but I'm not egotistical enough to think that if The Shield had never existed, this kind of thing wouldn't have happened. It would've happened.

One thing I was amazed by was the amazing guest stars, some of whom are breaking out now. You had Derek Mears as Crazyhouse in Season 4, I believe, Kyle Gallner, I loved his performances in the last few episodes. I know there are a lot more too, so what has it been like just fostering all these younger guys and seeing where they go from there?

Shawn Ryan: It's always fun when we'd find an actor or an actress that no one knew. I mean, we gave Kristen Bell her first job on TV, in the season premiere of Season 2 and, obviously, she's gotten huge. We brought Alex O'Loughlin to American TV's, and he's had shows on CBS. We've used Michael Pena, he had filmed Crash, but it hadn't come out yet, and we had him on our show before that. To have people to break out from that is just great. Even Forest Whitaker. I mean, obviously Forest Whitaker had been a star for awhile, but we got him after he filmed The Last King of Scotland, but before it premiered and before he won an Oscar. All of the sudden, you have a guy who is an Oscar-winner on your show, so that was always fun. I think a key there is that we never went for the Paris Hilton type of casting. We always went for the really great actors that we could bump up against Michael Chiklis, CCH Pounder, Jay Karnes, Walton Goggins, and everyone else. That's what lead to Glenn Close and, she is a big name and it did seem like stunt casting but, to me, who's a better actress in the world than Glenn Close?

So what can you tell us about Terriers, your new series coming out next year? Is that a midseason pickup then?

Shawn Ryan: Well, it's for FX, so there is no midseason at FX. It's a year-round programming schedule, but they don't have an exact air-date yet, but I think it will in sometime in the summer of 2010. We're going to start filming our episodes in February. We turned in the pilot in August and got the show picked up and now we're going to have to make 12 more, which is going to be fun. It's a show that is definitely more comedic than The Shield. It's a show about two unlicensed private detectives played by Donal Logue and Michael Raymond James, who are great together, and it's very comedic. Ted Griffin, who wrote Ocean's Eleven and Matchstick Men, he wrote the script and it's really good. I can say that, since I didn't write it. Craig Brewer directed it and he directed an episode in our final season and he also directed Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan. Now we just have to try to make it a good series. I'm back to where I was on The Shield, where you have a pilot that people seem to like, but now you have to make a series, so that's what we're trying to do.

So, to wrap up, with this Complete Series set coming out, what would you like to say to the fans of the show about what they can expect from this new DVD set?

Shawn Ryan: Well, it's got every single episode and every single extra you can think of, but I would say the big difference between this set and previous sets that Fox put out as far back as 2002, these episodes are in widescreen. We always filmed in widescreen, but when they aired, we would air them 4x3. The DVDs were initially that way as well, but we had always filmed in widescreen. At the time, I just didn't think most of America had the TV's to justify airing it like that, but now, with the increase in big screen TV's and the improvement in DVD players, you can see The Shield in a different way than you first saw it.

Excellent. Well that's about all I have for you, Shawn. Thanks so much for your time and I'm just a huge fan of the show.

Shawn Ryan: Oh, thank you so much. It was a real pleasure to talk to you today. Have a great day.

You can see Shawn Ryan's amazing creation in its entirety when The Shield: The Complete Series is released in a 28-disc boxed set on November 3.