Like many other Hollywood heavyweights these days, producer Cathy Konrad ("Girl Interrupted," "Walk the Line," "3:10 to Yuma") has turned from movies to television. It's instructive how her new well-reviewed series "Vegas," which debuts at 10 PM Tuesday September 25, wound up on CBS.
It makes sense that, having spent her career producing character-driven dramas (a genre Hollywood has largely abandoned), Konrad should take this material to television. Writer Nicholas Pileggi was trying to make a feature film for seven years before WME brought the project to Konrad. But the market had "bottomed out," she says matter-of-factly. "Cobbling together a movie takes such energy and effort, and marketing it is so hard. The math doesn't work on small films. The odds are too slim. We want audiences to see what we're making. It's too hard to compete against the giant tentpole movies."
Gone are the days when companies like Miramax supported indie producers through thick and thin, allowing them to take chances. Konrad still remembers writing checks to the tune of $500,000 to cover the New Mexico prep on western "3:10 to Yuma" (released by Lionsgate) before Relativity came through with bridge loan financing. "The crew hung in there not getting paid through the first week of shooting," she recalls. "If we hadn't started we'd have lost Russell Crowe. If we had paused the movie never would have gotten made."
"Vegas," Konrad decided, "had a better shot as a TV show," she says. "It's where the best character stories are being told."
As soon as Konrad read the first page of Pileggi's scriptment based on the true story of 60s Las Vegas rancher sheriff Ralph Lamb (now 82), she saw the iconic western image of a cowboy on a horse grazing his herd under a clear blue sky –as a DC 6 roars low overhead, heading toward 1960s Las Vegas. She could visualize an entry into the beginnings of a familiar universe, as Fremont Street turns into the Strip, the east coast meets the west coast, and gangsters' self-interest collide with a tough western sheriff. "It was a rich stew," she says. "As a movie Nick couldn't crack it. There was so much life to fit into a two hour movie. He couldn't break it down."
Konrad, a fan of "Damages," "Breaking Bad" and the popular CBS series "The Good Wife," took the project to CBS president Nina Tassler, who bit immediately. That's because, post-"Oceans 11" and "Mad Men," this early 60s Vegas procedural is inherently commercial, and will play to the older CBS crowd. And it easily attracted the likes of real-life rancher Dennis Quaid, returning to TV for the first time since "Baretta" in the 70s, facing off against casino mobster Michael Chiklis ("The Shield"). Carrie-Anne Moss ("The Matrix") is the tough assistant district attorney who returns home to Las Vegas after taking her shot in the Big Apple. Jason O'Mara ("The Closer") plays Ralph's brother Jack.
"The Defenders" and "Without a Trace" showrunner Greg Walker knows his way around police procedurals. And Konrad, who has collaborated with her husband James Mangold in the past, persuaded him, as he was prepping a "Wolverine" installment, to direct the pilot and work with deep researcher Pileggi to create the series Bible. "Feature directors like doing pilots or finales to flex their muscles," she says.
CBS was willing to bank good money (about an average of $3.5 million per episode) on shooting on ranches and locations around Ventura and Granada Hills and building a $1.8 million replica of 60s Fremont Street at Santa Clarita Studios, complete with a casino, jail and sheriff’s office.
Thus Konrad got to learn the TV ropes–and go home at night to her husband and 7 1/2 and 4 1/2-year-olds. "I had no idea the machine that is TV," she says, "from the day the flag goes down to prep the first show. The pace is unrelenting." CBS ordered 13 episodes; as we spoke several weeks ago the pilot was done, two episodes were in post and a fifth was in prep: "You shoot these 55-page scripts in eight days. One page is a good day's work in the feature business. Here you shoot 10 to 12 pages a day, 40 set-ups, five different locations. The challenge is to make it beautiful, and not fall into conventions–master, medium shot– boring."
Konrad works with Walker and seven writers and brings in directors to shoot the episodes, such as old film collaborator Gary Fleder ("Things To Do in Denver When You're Dead"). Assuming the series succeeds, there's room to grow the story as Vegas develops through the 60s and 70s. Lamb was around for over 30 years and provides useful detail–from car wheels and fenders to how arrests were made back in the day. Lamb reminds Konrad of Johnny Cash, who she got to know making "Walk the Line." "There are so few of these characters left," she sighs.
And the producer is moving full throttle into more television: she's putting together a cable series based on venerable Miramax title "Copland," as a 70s New York/New Jersey cop show packed with the politics and mob dynamics of the period.