Monday, July 27, 2015

#JennAtSDCC: Roundtable Interviews (Cast & Producers of 'Limitless')

Press room interviews, featuring EPs Craig Sweeny, Alex Kurtzman, Heather Kadin, director Marc Webb, Jake McDorman (Brian Finch), and Hill Harper (Spelman Boyle)

I'm slowly making my way through transcribing our San Diego Comic-Con CBS roundtable interviews. (I'll be working on coverage from SDCC for the next few weeks, it seems like.) In case you missed our first interviews and transcriptions with the cast of Scorpion, you can listen to/read them here!

I absolutely loved sitting down with the cast and EPs of CBS's new fall series Limitless (loosely based on the movie of the same name). We were treated, as I mentioned in my Thursday recap, to a screening of the pilot which definitely exceeded my expectations and solidified a place on my watch-list for the fall. The pilot is beautifully directed, the cinematography and integration of graphics is stellar, and the acting is fantastic. (Though I'm really a sucker for anything and everything Jake McDorman-related after watching him for years in Greek and Hill Harper was my constant high school TV companion in my days of CSI:NY obsession.) Below, I've linked off to the audio of our interviews via Soundcloud, as well as transcribed them.

Enjoy and be sure to check out this new series on CBS in the fall!

REBECCA: So do you have to know the movie to understand the show? Is it necessary?

CRAIG SWEENY: Not in any way, shape, or form. … When you watch the pilot, you can experience it as totally its own thing. You’ll understand a few things about the movie by the end of the pilot, because it intersects with that world in a few ways, but… I don’t think there would be even a moment’s confusion.

JENN: As someone who didn’t watch the movie, I can attest to that. [laughs] I was not confused.

REBECCA: It’s been so long [since I’ve seen the movie] that I don’t know if I need to go back and watch it again before the show.

CS: Only if you want to see the movie again, because it’s good.


MARC WEBB: I think seeing the movie might reward you in some sense because you’ll get a sense of Eddie Morra’s character a little bit, but it’s certainly not necessary.

REBECCA: So how does the series expand on the world of the film?

MW: Well, it sort of hits it and spins it around. It’s really its own world to begin with and we take on another character. Of course, there is an overlap with Bradley Cooper’s Eddie Morra. But it’s a … world unto itself.

MALE INTERVIEWER: Do you work a lot of science into the science-fiction of the show and try to weave it in as much as possible?

CS: Yes, we do. I mean, we do research … I draw on my own background – I studied Biology in college. … We use it to augment what we’re doing which is a genre, fictional pretend-science concept. We would never want to pretend we’re selling a real piece of science with the show. But we want it to be as grounded as possible. It’s a show that lives … six inches off the ground.

MALE INTERVIEWER: Is each episode going to be a contained procedural? Will there be an overarching storyline? Or a bit of both?

CS: A little bit of both. It’s a hybrid of serialized and standalone storytelling. … Throughout the process of pitching the show, script, and now describing it to people, I always draw analogies between Limitless and series… that are not similar to it in tone or content, but use the model we want to use. Which is one, overarching serialized story that begins and ends the season set against the backdrop of standalone shows. So if you look at a season of The Shield, or you look at a season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you go: “Oh… season two, that was the year they took down the Armenian money train,” even though that was probably three out of the twelve episodes in that [season]. Say, season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that was The Mayor. Even though that was probably five out of 20 episodes.

So it organizes things and it makes it feel, in retrospect, like you’re looking at chapters of a book. So I think it’s a really good model for large order storytelling.

REBECCA: Why was Jake [McDorman] the right guy to lead the series?

ALEX KURTZMAN: Jake… there’s an inherent likability about him. And the thing about this show, that I think defines it and separates it from other procedurals is that he’s a total fish out of water. If you go to any other cop show or FBI show, everyone is there because they’re an agent and they trained to be there. This is a guy who, never in a million years, thought he was gonna be an FBI agent. And what that means is that he’s essentially an “everyman.” As Jake said, he’s playing two parts: he’s playing the Brian that existed before NZT and playing the Brian that sort of evolves. And we… in many ways, have to see the world through his eyes but we also have to feel torn because he’s in a bit of a vice. In that, he finds himself in circumstances in the pilot having to be an FBI agent and also having to lie to everybody around him. It’s a very trick dilemma. And to take a drug he’s not even sure he should be taking.

So we need to sympathize with that guy. We need to feel his struggle. And Jake is just so likable and his range is really wide. He can play very goofy and funny and he can play very serious. Which is really [evident] when you see him in scenes with his father … You really felt this tremendous sense of bonding. And, you know, he throws himself into this dilemma to save his dad. If that storyline doesn’t work, the whole thing falls apart. And he did it beautifully.

REBECCA: What’s the tone of the show? Is there an overarching tone?

MW: I think it’s… you have the mystery. You have the clues you have to follow every episode. There’s puzzles to be had. But it’s really playful. And it’s really funny. And that’s one of the great blessings of Jake is that this guy… he’s hilarious. He’s improvising all the time. There’s a levity to that character that doesn’t subvert or undermine the emotional reality in the scene. And that’s a very difficult line to walk and he does it beautifully. And that allows us to explore a lot more complicated nuanced, fun kind of storytelling. I think it’s what separates … great TV shows from something that’s just sort of filler. And I think audiences really sense that and it’s one of the things we actually discovered … shooting it was the playfulness of this character. You want them to have fun.

There’s a whole sequence at the beginning where he’s on NZT for the first time. He’s playing chess, he’s playing guitar and he’s giving people advice and there’s a warmth to that character.

CS: Anything else he does?


MW: There’s a hot dog vendor named Cecil who will have his own series next year. [laughter]

CS: Played by me.


MW: Played by Craig Sweeny, an actor, who also writes on the side. [laughter] So there is that playful sensibility which I think makes it just fun to spend time in that world.

CS: When you look at adapting a property, it’s not just like, what are the logistics of how we interact with the plot? It’s also: what’s in the essence? What’s in the spirit of it? And I think when you look at the movie Limitless, it has enormous style and it’s mischievous and it’s fun and I just think it would be totally missing a bet to not import those qualities into the series, you know? They’re really baked right into the heart of it and are really important, for me.

JENN: Kind of piggybacking off of that: is it difficult – having seen the pilot, there’s an impeccable balance as you said of comedy and fun and emotional heart with his [Brian’s] father. Is it hard to strike that balance between “Okay, how much science-fiction does there need to be? How much heart do we need to [have] in there?” Or does it more organically just develop?

CS: No, it’s HARD. Very hard. [laughs] Thank you for asking.

JENN: [laughs] You’re welcome!

AK: You have to layer that up in the right way. There’s a specific sequence to the ordering of those things and that if – at the core – you don’t understand or believe in or root for why he’s doing what he’s doing, then it stops right there. But because he’s trying to save his dad, and because you’re going on that ride, it allows you to funny, it allows you to be dramatic, it allows you to be scary. The central motivation is the foundation for everything. And then you build on that.

TIFFANY: What, initially, do you think will hook viewers into your show? What’s going to be that first thing?

HEATHER KADIN: I think it should be the fact that – because we were asked a question on our panel which I thought was really smart: “How is our show different from other shows where there’s someone solving cases at the center?” And what’s great is that this is a person like any one of us, so you’re gonna see the duality of him on the drug and him off the drug. And you’re really rooting for him. You’re gonna see how he stumbles and how he succeeds. And how he takes two steps forward and one step back. I think that’s the fun of the show: this character and watching all those ups and downs.

AK: There’s also a wish fulfillment to it that’s wrapped up in a really complicated moral question. And I think that’s very specific. That’s very different than any other procedural, you know? Because we all want to believe that there’s some magic pill that will enhance our ability to, be you know, be ten trillion times smarter … all the time. The question is really the price tag of that. And when you take that pill, are you… YOU? Or are you the pill? And so that’s a very interesting moral dilemma. And yet, it allows [the show] to have fun. I can’t think of another show that allows you to do that and our hope is that THAT will get people right away.


REBECCA: When you were first approached with doing a show based on that film – which was fantastic – what was your reaction?

JAKE MCDORMAN: Well, first of all, the fact that everyone involved with the film is involved with the show kind of made it stick out. Because if it was something where it was like: “Oh, we’re going to remake that movie into a series,” it’s … a bit of a different situation. I think looking at it, saying: “Wow, there’s been this great world that’s been created with the same exact people – all the way to Bradley Cooper acting with it – are going to now transpose it into television and hours and hours of TV into this expanded universe” is one of the first things that I was attracted to. Also, Marc Webb directing was awesome. And I think originally it was supposed to be Neil Burger, who directed the movie. So, I mean, it was down to the tee the exact same creative team from the film. And then last minute, they swapped for Marc. And I mean, I love Marc… (500) Days of Summer, both Spider-Mans. It was great. So the creative aspect … put it in a category that you could trust.

HILL HARPER: And the pedigree, for me… you just look at the pedigree of the show and what Jake was saying. Bradley Cooper is a huge star. He doesn’t HAVE to be involved. And it always gives you an indication… HE decided he’s going to not only executive produce, but also be in the show as his character? That shows you they’re shooting for top, top quality. It’s not just like… there could be some projects where some star throws their name on it and says: “Send me some tweets that I’m gonna copy and paste about it.”

JM: Right.

HH: Clearly that’s not the case in this situation. So everybody is reaching for something great. And you’ve got talent. By watching the pilot, it’s so good. Jennifer Carpenter is fantastic. He [motions to Jake] is fantastic. Every character’s great. The directing’s great. Cinematography is great. So who knows? We hope people are gonna watch it, but at least we can be proud of what we’re putting on the screen.

JM: Yeah. And honestly, like, as exciting as it is [to see everyone who is involved], those are just the things you notice on an appointment sheet before you actually read the script. And then you read the script and you realize that it’s coming at the story from a real creative angle. It’s not just recreating the movie and saying: “Oh, here’s how we can get the most mileage out of that idea.” … Craig wrote a really awesome script and for an actor, that was really fun to play. And … that was kind of one of the things in Bradley’s pitch to me, like: “Dude, as an actor, this was one of my favorite things I got to do. You get to play two characters: there’s a duality of who you are before you encounter this pill and then who you become after you take this pill.” And then it’s kind of a Venn diagram: the guy that you are now, having experienced a life you never thought was possible.

So it’s a real cool journey – as he explained it was for him – for anybody who steps into the role of someone who takes NZT.

JENN: I was going to say, it was really interesting at the panel to hear about the differences in the directing and the clothing which I didn’t notice.

JM: Yeah.

JENN: … You kind of said that it feels like you’re playing two separate characters. Is that something that was difficult, playing two different versions [of the same person]?

JM: It was kind of the funnest part, because I think they kinda wanted there to be a similarity between how anyone acts on NZT, no matter your background. Whoever you are, when you take that drug, you all go to like, a certain level of enlightenment. And these are like, all the notes that Bradley gave me from the movie. He’s like: “You stand up straighter, you talk deliberately, no gesture is wasted. It all has a purpose, [make] a lot of eye contact. So technical notes of NZT. Then, when you’re off of it… just have fun with it. You can slouch, be a totally different guy.” Someone compared Brian off NZT to The Dude from The Big Lebowski, [laughs] which I thought was awesome.

But no, I mean it was challenging but in the best ways. That’s kind of what you hope out of anything you do – that it’s a healthy, creative challenge. You don’t want to just coast through it.

TIFFANY: What was the scene or moment or line of dialogue that hooked you into that first script that you read?

JM: Like, a scene or a line of dialogue? Well every action sequence is written pretty awesome. But I think the first part of the script that I was really like: “This is gonna be great,” was when Brian first takes NZT. It’s before it kind of develops into a procedural [where he’s] being chased by the FBI to prove his innocence. Because there’s such a wish fulfillment part. Like, the part of the [Limitless] movie where Bradley[’s character] is speaking Italian and going to nice restaurants and giving people stock advice… the guy is riding high on the effects of the drugs. We do that in the show, where [Brian’s] going around and giving people business advice and [he’s] all of the sudden incredible at the guitar, you know?

I was like: “That’s gonna be great.” Because if that can be the thread and there’s such joy associated with it, that’ll set it up … to be a really fun series, but also ask the question, like: “This dude’s high?” Your main character is high. Like, he’s an addict. It’s weird. Where is that gonna go? How are we gonna talk about that? And I think it’s a really interesting dark side of the show that’s gonna unfold in the first season, second season, and beyond.


HH: For me, you look at what he just said: this NZT is like a performance-enhancing drug. And we see it in athletics with steroids. There are side effects to that and there are side effects here. There are ramifications and it’s like… let’s be clear: if we’re offered a pill that says: “You can take this to lose weight,” people take the pill. If you’re offered a pill that says: “You can bat 300 or lift more weights or look better,” people take that pill. If you’re offered something that says: “You don’t have to sleep and you’ll be more focused and you’ll be able to retain more information,” people take that pill. And often times, we take it without thinking about what else is happening to us or our body. And I think that the show can entertain those questions as well.

And also characters like my character – an FBI agent – interacting with someone who’s taking the pill, how much does my character now want to take the pill? How much does he feel challenged or threatened by someone who’s better than him, ostensibly, because they’re on a chemical, not because they’re inherently better or smarter? And so it’s almost like a synthetic advantage. What does that mean? Is there jealousy involved? Is there envy? Does that mean my character wants to take it despite the side effects? It’s very interesting stuff.

TIFFANY: Pretty relevant today.

HH: It’s totally relevant to right now!


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