Dean Devlin defined a lot of young minds as the writer of the blockbuster smash “Independence Day,” but he’s worked consistently in both film and TV since, especially as part of the creative team behind cult favorites like the caper series “Leverage” and TNT’s incredibly successful “Librarian” films, starring Noah Wyle.
Devlin is now director and executive producer of the “Librarian” spinoff series “The Librarians,” which features the ongoing adventures of a smartypants team attempting to keep the world safe from mystical artifacts. Below, Devlin tells Indiewire why he loves making television that’s fun, and how his attempt to create something that would bring young men to TNT instead became the network’s incredibly successful family-friendly franchise.
So, first off, I really loved “Leverage.”
Aw, well then you’re a genius!
I mean, I feel so. I just don’t understand the Emmys, is the problem.
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[Laughs.] Me neither.
So, I know exactly where “The Librarians” came from. But when did the idea of creating a show around the concept come together?
We actually wanted to do it for a long time, but it was really just trying to find the right way in, the right time, the right way. I think at TNT, they came to me a little over a year ago and they said they really thought it was time to do it and they were ready to commit to going directly on the air with it. And it was such an amazing show of support for the concept and, frankly, support for us, that we couldn’t turn it down.
Where are you in terms of the production cycle? Is it all shot right now?
It’s all in the can. We’ve delivered, I think, six of the 10 episodes. We have four more to go. I could not be more proud of that series. It’s literally my dream series. I’m not sure if the rest of them will love the show, but for me this is my absolute dream TV series.
How would you define that? I mean, when you say “I want to make my dream series,” what are the words that follow that sentence?
There are three things that I’m addicted to when it comes to entertainment. In no particular order, One, I’m addicted to the cheer moment. “Librarians” has plenty of them. Next, I feel that life is hard and I want my entertainment fun, and “Librarians” is fun as a Christmas party. And third, I like to be moved. I like to get emotional when I watch my entertainment. “Librarians” is surprisingly touching, in a lot of ways where it’s not expected. And to get all three of those things on a show with actors that I’m absolutely crazy about, with a crew that I think is the best in the world, it’s a remarkable situation to be in.
That’s actually something I was really excited about speaking with you about, the idea of making entertainment fun. We were joking about the fact that a show like “Leverage” is never really under Emmy consideration, but do you feel like that’s because it fell into this category of entertainment?
Maybe. I think there’s a lot of factors that go into the whole awards thing. I’ve never been that big a fan of it. I think that we went through a period where it became incredibly fashionable for entertainment to get really dark, and I’ve got nothing against that. It can be very compelling entertainment, but it doesn’t interest me creatively. I still like to have a good time when I watch my entertainment. I like to have fun. When I saw “Guardians of the Galaxy,” I was on cloud nine. That, for me, is my kind of entertainment. When I watch “Doctor Who,” I feel that way. When I see these shows that just tickle me and inspire me and get me happy and make me laugh, yet still make me cry, that’s the kind of stuff I’m really interested in.
It’s so interesting because our show is going to debut literally to the day of the ten-year anniversary of the first movie coming out. And we’re on at Sunday night at 8pm. And for someone my age, that’s the “Wonderful World of Disney” spot. That’s what I grew up watching television with my entire family. So, to be able to produce a show that is for the entire family that goes on at 8pm on Sundays — for me, it presses all my nostalgia buttons.
I hadn’t even put together the whole element of the family viewing, but that is something that seems to be lacking in a lot of today’s entertainment.
That’s how the whole thing kind of came together, which was really interesting. When I was first approached by TNT to do “The Librarian,” the idea was to bring younger males to the network, because at the time it was not a demographic that was moving upward on the channel. To our surprise, when the show was finished, we tested equally well in all four quadrants. They were very surprised to see the people that were watching were grandparents with grandkids, parents with their children. It was all over the place — men, women, young, and old.
It really made us feel like the definition of family television can be redefined now, and we feel like we’re the only ones out in the marketplace. Because everyone else needs to be so targeting to such a narrow audience to try to capture those eyeballs, it’s nice to do something where the whole family can gather together again. You don’t have to worry about if your kids are seeing it or if the grandparents are gonna get bored or if you’re gonna get bored. It’s the kind of thing that seems to be vanishing, and we’re excited to try to bring it back.
So when you initially set out to make the first “Librarian” film, the idea wasn’t at all to make something family-friendly?
That’s right. It was one of these situations where the audience told us what we made, as opposed to the other way around, and I think that’s always the most organic. We sit here in these offices trying to figure out what people want to see, but the reality is people tell us what they want to see. If we listen, we can make a lot better product.
What do you feel like you’ve gained from listening to the audience in this way?
People who like this kind of entertainment, people who became addicted to “Leverage,” they wanted to have fun, but they wanted the show to be smart and they never wanted it to be so much fun that it became silly and lost its ability to move you emotionally. So, our focus was things back home, not feet off the ground, not grounded, but just about three inches off the ground — where we can have a while lot of fun, the fun train can run at full speed, and yet it doesn’t get so over the top that you can’t be actually be emotionally moved by what’s happening to the characters.
It’s also a really interesting message for kids, the idea of celebrating intelligence.
Well, that’s where it began. We thought, let’s make a superhero movie where the superpower is actually just learning. I remember when we first put the film together and I wanted to call it “The Librarian,” there was enormous resistance to the title, but I said no, no. We’re gonna change the way you think about that word Librarian. We’re gonna turn it into a magical word, a superhero word.
Speaking of things that are magical, every time I try to explain “The Librarian” to somebody, as soon as I mention Bob Newhart they’re like “Oh! Okay.” They get that it’s something special. How do you keep bringing in people like Newhart and Jane Curtin and John Larroquette, who change minds?
They’re the gift that keeps on giving. It’s easy to forget how amazing these guys are. All three of them could read the phonebook and have you on the floor laughing. I mean, they’re absolutely remarkable talents. I remember it was actually Michael Wright’s idea to go after Bob Newhart for the first movie and I remember thinking oh, we’ll never get Bob. And after he agreed to do it, it was just an incredible thing, to have this comic legend on our set. I remember we were shooting the very first scene with Noah Wyle and Bob. Noah was nervous to perform with him. He was so excited to be on the same screen with him.
Why do you think Newhart got involved, aside from just liking the project?
I think somehow we must have had some Polaroids on some of these actors. I mean somehow we must have blackmailed them. [Laughs.] I can’t understand how we got them, but we did. John Larroquette in this series is so awesome. I honestly think it’s the best I’ve ever seen him. I would literally be at home watching dailies and he would keep improv-ing this amazing stuff into the show. Not just comedy — he really finds ways to make things touching and moving and he went for it. That’s the thing about these three. They’re not bought and paid for. They clearly do what they want to do. When they do the stuff they want to do, they do it with an energy and creative force that really only that many years of experience can bring.
You can always tell when someone is just cashing in the check and going home at the end of the day, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with the people you have.
Exactly. That’s the thing, you can’t buy enthusiasm. When you see it, there’s nothing like it. It was so great getting Jane back on Episode 1 of this. Literally, our first day of shooting, our biggest problem was I couldn’t keep the crew from laughing during the takes. Literally, I had to clear people off the sets. [Laughs.]
What’s the secret to getting an actor to be that engaged with a project, so that it’s not just a job for them — they’re genuinely enjoying the project?
I think it’s how you go about it. In other words, the approach to this is that we fall in love with it. There’s never a situation where we’re sitting there trying to figure out what would be a commercial project to make. It just doesn’t work that way. We’re all fanboys and girls at our company, so we’re trying to make the entertainment we want to see ourselves. You can tell when you’re working with actors who enjoy doing the same kind of things or actors who think they’re above it. It just is really important not to just chase the name, not to just chase the celebrity, but to chase the passion. To go after actors who share that love for what you’re trying to do. When they’re bought and paid for, you can smell it. It just hurts the whole thing.
It’s telling that you brought back Christian Kane [who starred on “Leverage”] as a series regular.
Yeah, I love that part. He’s a great kid and the thing that always blew my mind about Kane is how funny he is. It’s funny because Christian thinks his greatest asset is his fight scenes, and I keep telling him whether he does the fight scenes or not, I wouldn’t care. It’s his ability to make things funny and his ability to make things moving and emotional. He’s a much better actor than he gives himself credit for.
Is it because it’s working against type for him?
I think it’s one of these things that when something comes easily to you, you don’t appreciate it. So, he works really hard to get in shape and he worked really hard to learn how to do fight scenes and he’s really proud of that. But, he’s naturally a good actor so I don’t think he ever valued it. He didn’t realize that it’s that which was the most important thing he brings to the table. It came to him so effortless.
Is there other “Leverage” guest cast that we can expect?
Not this season, but coming down the road, you bet!
Why not this season? Just out of curiosity.
They were all booked! Everybody got work. I actually tried to get Aldis Hodge to do a cameo in the feature I’m doing here, but I couldn’t get a day where he was available. As the daddy of the show, it makes you incredibly proud to see how in demand all these actors are.
What is the secret to finding that cast and avoiding divas, aside from talking to them as much as possible during the audition process?
To be honest, I call people. I like to talk to the last people they worked with and find out what they were like off screen, because you do spend an enormous amount of time with these people, not just when you say action and cut. So, you have be sure that your casting behind the scenes is as important as your casting on the screen. That’s true of the crew as well. I always try to get a sense of what kind of people they are. I’ll usually call two or three of the last employers and ask what it was like working with them. To em, that’s just as important as how talented they are.
If you had someone who blew you away in an audition, and then you got on the phone and made those calls and people were like ‘ehhhh, kind of a D-bag’…
I would honestly find someone else. I feel secure. You want to look back on your life and say you had a series of exceptional experiences. We can think that we made great art, but our life was horrible and I don’t know if that’s a great life to have led.
When you’re going about trying to sell the concept—you said you feel like you’re making this show for a large audience, but it does have a particular genre niche. How do you go about selling that to both the network and also to audiences? What do you think is the knack of explaining it?
Well, it’s like “Star Trek.” There are people who don’t like “Star Trek” and will never like “Star Trek” — it’s just not their cup of tea. And I’m sure that’s the same with both “Leverage” and “Librarian.” What we found with both “Leverage” and “Librarian,” the movie, is that an enormous amount of people who thought they wouldn’t like it ended up falling in love with it. The trick is just to get people to sample it and see if it is their cup of tea. My wife is not a science fiction fan at all, she’s not a genre fan at all. But, she completely fell in love with “The Librarian” series and she just absolutely loved it. I think that people who think well, that’s not my kind of thing — they might be surprised.