Interview with Exec Producer John McNamara from In Plain Sight

John McNamara, an Executive Producer for USA’s In Plain Sight, recently took the time to answer some questions for the media. This is one of my favorite shows, so this was a thrill, as it has been to talk to several people from the show recently. 🙂

Can you tell us how you started to work on In Plain Sight?

J. McNamara – Slowly, with a lot of humility, because it’s a show that I really, really liked a lot. And so I want to be very careful not to come in and change things that were working and things that I was a fan of and I wanted to make sure that that was not the mandate. Because I would have had no interest in coming in and just like making them into like super spies or talking gorillas, or the future, whatever kind of changes one makes in a show that can be really dismantling to the show, I just wanted to make sure that USA didn’t want to make those changes and they did not. They really loved the show the way it was. They just wanted everything to be as good as it had been. If there were areas where it could be better, make it better. That was kind of how I started to work, if that’s an answer to your question, was to really look at what worked, which was most of the show.

The main reason I joined the show was Mary McCormack. I really love her as an actress. I think the character is like a handmade suit fit for her. So a lot of my work initially was to get to know her character, drill down deep into that character and the other characters to try and make this as character based a show as possible, given the fact that it’s also sort of a procedural, sort of a comedy, sort of a drama and then to figure out how, with the other writers, to balance all of those various elements. So the work began carefully and is now, of course, proceeding in a breakneck pace since we’re shooting.

More of the interview after the jump!

Were you asked by someone to join the show, though?

J. McNamara – I was, by USA.

You’ve worked a lot of the shows that I like, so I was curious, I know you did Lois & Clarke and also Jericho. Can you talk a little bit about that?

J. McNamara – Both really good jobs, both fun, both great people to work with, the writers of both those shows, very few similarities between those shows, Lois & Clark and Jericho. Jericho was a much wider canvas, much more a show about humanity pushed to the very edge of how would you behave if all the … of society were suddenly gone. Lois & Clark was much, much, much more of a childhood wish fulfilled. Somebody once said the definition of happiness is a childhood wish fulfilled without fear. That was one of the best jobs that I ever had because I love Superman. I have never really outgrown Superman. So the fun of that show was to look at Lois & Clark, the Superman mythology skewed through the lens of romantic comedy.

I do think that there’s some echoes of that in In Plain Sight, not literally, but the idea that you could take something like a very tough, almost….U.S. marshal concept like the show, but remember that you keep skewing it through unique characters who have a really unique point of view that sometimes is that they’re at odds with each other. And that’s Marshall and Mary. Even though that’s not per se a typical love story, whereas Lois & Clark really was, you knew they were going to end up together eventually, this one is I think less defined and maybe a little bit less archetypal. It’s still the same skill set of don’t go for the cliché, go for the character and go for the humor. Don’t go for the shtick or the gag. Go for the humor that comes out of character. That was the real fun of Lois & Clark was trying to mime the character in a way that you’ve never seen before.

In stepping into the series, what were some of the most key changes that you wanted to make in terms of writing and the world of witness protection, say, in what worked and what had to go?

J. McNamara – I think almost everything worked. I think the key was to streamline the storytelling somewhat to allow the characters to really—I mean not that they didn’t before. The characters had a huge life beyond the case. That’s what makes the show really terrific is how full a picture you get of Mary Shannon. And what I wanted to do was maybe just keep pushing in that direction. So certainly a key episode for me when I came in was the episode two when Mary met Marshall to go back in time and see how they met, see what they were like back then, see why it is their relationship has lasted for seven years, even though they’re opposite and even though a lot of relationships don’t go the distance. They did. So the fun was just not change what was working, but to go deeper into what was working.

I would say the major change I made with all my partners, that made the show a little bit better looking, was to change the director of photography and to switch from 60 millimeter film to high definition tape, which is a much crisper, cleaner, more … look. I think the show looks a lot better this year.

After to speaking to Liz Phair about the music, I wanted to get your thoughts about what type of musical parameters that you worked within for the sound of witness protection.

J. McNamara – Just to try really hard never to go for the cliché. Just to try to push against music that sounds too southwestern and to try to push against very sort of like—if the scene is sentimental, I try with Liz and then her partners, we try to say we want emotion here and tension, but maybe not the kind of lush overscored movies like you get in a big commercial movie. I think the thing with Liz’s music is it’s very spare. It’s very specific. It is really emotional. It comes from her heart, which I think is really the key. That’s why she got the gig. She really came in and understood the character really, really well. The character is not simple. The character is caustic and emotional and fun and can have her heart broken.

What do you think a series needs today in order to compete and have a shot at longevity?

J. McNamara – Boy, I have no idea, to be good and lucky.

You’ve been involved with several different shows that you were actually part of the creation of the show. But on this show you didn’t, you weren’t actually there for the beginning. How does this experience differ from those?

J. McNamara – It’s different when you come in from the outside. I’m trying to compare it to something and I’m coming up shy. It’s sort of like—maybe what it’s like to be an actor and you play all these original roles your whole life. And then someone says to you do you want to play James Bond. And you’re like, it’s a good part. God, a lot of guys have done that, and so how do you attack it? You try to attack it like it is probably going out of you organically no matter what because eventually it has to come out of you.

So when you think about how Daniel Craig attacked James Bond, I think he made everything personal and unique to him without shattering the conventions of the character that worked, like the tux, the cars, the women, the martinis, the violence. I sort of felt that was a bit of an analogy for me that worked or an actor who’s asked to play Hamlet. How many actors have played Hamlet? You’re like, how am I going to do that?

Similarly, I felt like there’s two years of really good material, these amazing characters, this really high standard of writing, this terrific network. And my thought was immediately how do I access myself and then get the writers to access themselves to make this personal. Because I think that when things are personal, they become universal. You can never for a second say to yourself I’m just going to try to do it like the other guy did it. That’s death. If someone was taking over one of my shows I would never want that person to feel like they had to imitate my style, my writing, my rhythms. You have to make it personal.

Along those same lines when you came into a show that had already been around, they all had been working together for a while, even with a few exits, did you find that you were walking into a tight knit group? Or did they really make you feel welcome?

J. McNamara – They made me feel very welcome from day one, both the network, the actors, the crew members who remained. Everybody was really welcoming and really open to shaking the tree a little bit. But again, I did not come down and say we’re going to chop down the tree and plant a whole new tree. I said we’ll just shake the leaves a little bit and see what comes out.

What would you say is the biggest challenge that you’ve had to face so far with working on In Plain Sight?

J. McNamara – Getting up at four in the morning to write everyday.

What do you feel it is about a show like In Plain Sight that resonates well with viewers?

J. McNamara – Mary Shannon feels real to people. She feels completely like a real person. Every person I’ve ever talked to feels like the world that she operates in, even though it’s slightly probably heightened from being a real U.S. marshal, that world is made I think believable more so, or to a great extent, rather, because she as a character is so rich and alive and full and has an incredible back story that’s amazing in her life. So I feel that’s really a huge part of it.

Someone just asked you what the most difficult part about working on In Plain Sight is. Can you talk about what the most exciting part is for you on working on the series?

J. McNamara – The most exciting part is when you finally figure out a story that you really want to write and you just get to dive into this, these characters’ voices and heads, it’s really fun. It’s really fun.

A lot of people say that working for USA is one of the best experiences of their career, so what would be the major difference for you working with USA versus other networks?

J. McNamara – They really know exactly what they want. They’re not in the let’s try it business, which can often then turn into the let’s not try it business. Like as you’re … sometimes a big broadcast network is trying a lot of different things at once will possibly get cold feet or will possibly change direction or change ownership or change management. Broadcast is not an easy business nowadays because it has to appeal to so many people on such a broad spectrum, and yet at the same time, that audience seems to be shrinking every year. It’s a very tough business, one that parenthetically my wife is in and she works for CBS, so I see very closely how hard a business that is for everybody.

USA is in a much different business. They’re in the very specific brand business of characters welcome and that is a totally specific destination for the audience. And if you can deliver that to USA, they are very confident that they can make that work for themselves. And that certainly makes the flow work between you and them incredibly easy if, as we are, thank goodness, we were on the same page from day one. That makes the work easier with them. It’s been a great experience so far, knock wood, knock my head.

Why do you think that other networks don’t adopt that type of attack for their shows? Why do you think that they don’t go that route as they see your—

J. McNamara – I think that TNT and FX both go that route. They have very specific brands and types of shows that the audience knows to get what they want they can go to that place. I think that the challenge for broadcast is they still have a business model that can make money and be very successful with a wide range of different kinds of shows.

Think about Fox is the home of American Idol and 24. That feels like two different networks to me, but it’s one network and both successful shows. I think that the trick for networks, the challenge for them is how do you show patience when something falls between the cracks of huge success and huge flop. How do you build an audience with a medium sized hit that can then grow into a big hit? I think that’s what USA slowly grew over many years of patiently tending the garden. Why did that work? I think they’re still broadcasters. They’re still trying to be in the broadcast business and some of them are doing very well.

CBS is doing great. I think Fox is doing really well. I think others maybe are transitioning or struggling. I think ABC has a strong kind of brand you can smell from a ways away. It’s kind of a sleek, smart, adult comedy, drama aesthetic. So I think the networks in a weird way are edging more toward that, but I do think that they still see the idea of being a dominant broadcaster as being still kind of an ultimate goal for them. But again, I’m way out of my league here talking about this stuff, seriously, like I’m a working man. I punch a clock.

What are you most looking forward to the fans seeing happening this season on In Plain Sight?

J. McNamara – I can’t tell you that, sorry.

What have you learned over the years of working on television shows that helped you make In Plain Sight an even better show?

J. McNamara – What have I learned? Get up early. Listen to everybody. Have a vision, but be open to other ideas. Work hard. Don’t panic when things are starting to unravel a bit. Everything can be fixed. No matter what, the show is going to be shot. The show is going to get on the air and do your best and tell everybody else just do your best. Bring your best game. Work hard, work long hours and we will all get there somehow, some way. Really, I’ve said this before, I’m probably starting to sound like a little bit of an echo, but this is a team sport. One person cannot do a successful TV show. It’s a team effort that requires a lot of communication and a lot of constant back and forth with people.

Now when you write an episode of In Plain Sight, how can you actually approach it and have you written any more that will air this season?

J. McNamara – I’m working on one now that I hope is going to be pretty good. But I tend to do a lot of rewriting on all of them and that’s not in any way to belittle or undermine the talents of the other writers, they’re a really good writing staff, but I tend to do a lot of writing without taking credit on shows. All show owners do that. You have to try to get one voice in the final polish. I feel like I’m writing all day, every day and some scripts more, some scripts less. But I’m working on one right now and I’m trying to figure out the season ender as well.

What is your process and how do you come up with your stories? Are they ripped from the headlines or do you have a backlog of ideas that you want to use and bring it into the show? Where do you get your ideas from? What’s your process like? That’s my first question.

And then my second question is you talked a lot about USA networks and you talked about the difference between working for USA and the major broadcast networks. Considering your experiences with shows like Jericho and how the network interference ruined Lois & Clark, are you scared that’s going to happen again? And then do you think the fact that it’s on cable, there’s a whole different expectation for the show beyond just the basic rating number?

J. McNamara – I want to, first of all, point out, I don’t think network interference ruined Lois & Clark. I think that the decision, a big decision by a lot of us to get them married probably was not the most brilliant decision of the century. You try stuff. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, lesson learned. But I wouldn’t blame any one individual or corporation for that decision. It had a good run. It was a good four year run that just didn’t quite get to that whatever, ninth year. But it was a really good show, and I’m real proud of that show.

….of USA, they make money by getting a lot of people to watch their show. They want the most number of eyeballs on every show. That’s their objective. It’s the same objectives that any network has. They just have, I think, a slightly different way of getting there. They’re much more focused on what their audience wants from them specifically. That’s makes them a real pleasure to work with, I have to say, a real pleasure. They’re really fun because there’s not a lot of sudden changes in the how and the why of what they’re trying to do. They know what they want to do and as long as you want to do the same thing, you’re having a really good, creative dialogue with them.

The question about where do I get my ideas, I don’t know, everywhere. And yes, it’s newspapers. It’s my childhood. It’s another writer who has an idea or I have an idea and I give it to the writer or we sit in the room and just think about a character. Usually, this show to me starts with a character. The episode I wrote with Bobby Walberg was really about what would happen if a guy suddenly felt like his past was coming back to haunt him and yet he himself hadn’t done anything bad recently, but what would that guy’s life be life today? What would it force him to do, push him to do, what have you? It was about redemption and it was about loving your child maybe so much that you might even hurt or kill someone to defend that child. I’m a new dad, so that probably came out of that a little bit maybe.

And then my process, my process is a mess. My process is so messy and awful. I’m a very instinctual writer. I just try stuff and I just keep rewriting and keep trying and keep rewriting and keep trying. I generally can get a script in shape by the time it’s being shot. But I’m not like a super organized, like five scripts ahead kind of a guy. I wish I was, I really do. It would make everybody’s life easier.

Do you use any software tools, like Dramatica or Screenwriter?

J. McNamara – I just use Final Draft, which is a program for screenplays, just for exterior and interior, dialogue and all of that.

I was curious about the premiere. We had heard that it was going to be the original finale, but when it aired it honestly didn’t feel like a finale. It felt like it was spinning us forward very quickly into the new setup for the new season. I was wondering how much of it was rewritten and/or reshot after the change in focus was decided by the network or by you and whether there’s any plan to release the original finale for comparison?

J. McNamara – The original finale being the one that never aired, I think you’re talking about, yes? I don’t really know much about that. I just know that they were not happy with it creatively. They asked me to pick up the thread from the episode that aired, which is episode 215, where Mary is in a coma. They just wanted me to start from that point. That was an early decision that was made probably the week I started, we sat down. Even though, even before I started, we sat down and talked about what would be the best way to get us into a new season. Whether or not they’ll ever show or air or put that episode on a DVD, I have no idea. That’s a corporate decision way above my head.

Now with Brandy out of town, presumably with her being missing for a little while, we’re going to have a reduction in Joshua Malina’s character with Jinx off screen, Raph presumably gone-ish, plus the loss of Eleanor and Jimmy D., it feels like there’s a near complete changeover in the secondary characters. How much of that is going to take place and what might we see in there in terms of more secondary characters that recur over, as opposed to the witness of the week?

J. McNamara – I think you’re going to see a lot of the characters you mentioned are coming back, some of them with the same regularity they had prior to the earlier episodes of the season. Yes, in terms of new characters coming in to populate Mary’s world and remind us that she often is a most interesting character when she gets the most about a resistance or debate or drama from someone close to her, either physical proximity close in her office or emotionally close. So there’s a lot of characters that are going to come in for arcs or as semi-regulars, and Jinx is going to come back. I’m hoping to get Allison Janney back. That would be a great boon. I think she had a tremendous chemistry with Mary.

That was going to be my next question is whether we were going to see her return.

J. McNamara – Steven Webber is going to be on the show for a couple episodes. That’s going to hopefully also recur more. So the idea is not to eliminate—…to reduce the show to just the witness of the week, I think that would be a really bad idea. It would not be the show that we all like. I think that the idea was to try to expand the world that Mary Shannon lives and works in and by the same token, expand Marshall Mann’s world. We’re going to meet Marshall Mann’s dad in an episode. He may come back later on and maybe a little bit more about Stan, both inside and outside the office. The office will then also have new characters I don’t want to necessarily give away who are coming into, again, provide the necessary annoyances and challenges to Mary to make the show feel like what the show needs to be.

We did hear that Aaron Ashmore is coming on the latter part of the season as Mary’s half brother. Can you tell us a little bit more about that, whether we’re going to possibly see Mary’s father?

J. McNamara – I don’t want to give anything away. I want to be really careful about that. I think that there’s some good stuff coming up. That’s all I’m going to say.

We’ve been having a lot more high profile guest stars this season than we’ve had in the others. I loved seeing Rita Moreno last week.

J. McNamara – She’s great. I so want to get her back.

Can you spoil us on anybody who’s going to be coming in for the rest of the season?

J. McNamara – Aaron Ashmore, Steven Weber, I know I’m going to forget somebody because I’m just not very smart. …. is going to come back from season, I can’t say his name yet, who is kind of a big star. He’s kind of a big star, but we don’t have a deal yet. But there is one of these great characters from a previous season coming back, hopefully to join us for the season ender. Laura San Giacomo just got booked for episode nine and playing a terrific character, a guest star. That’s about all I can really tell you on the record. I want to get Rita back. I want to get Allison back. I want to get Steven Weber back. Pending schedules and all of that, everybody had a good time. Everybody likes the show when they’re on it.

How much, especially with the changes in the cast, how much trouble is it maintaining the same kind of balance that you had in the first two seasons? In the first two seasons it was really that balance between her professional life and her family that made the character do dynamic. How big a problem are you having finding other ways to strike that balance?

J. McNamara – I don’t look at it as a problem. I look at it as a really, probably one of the key and one of the key and most interesting challenges of the show and why I watch the show and like the show was because her family/personal life was always in conflict with or in some way echoed her work life. So for me I can tell when an episode script does not quite landing when there’s not enough of the personal and the case or the case and the personal. That’s hard. I’m not going to lie. That’s a really tough nut to crack, but it’s really worth it. It’s fun to try and get in there and figure it out.

Just on a personal request, can we please have Lesley Ann Warren sing again?

J. McNamara – I will make a note of that. She is coming back, so don’t worry about that. She’s a good singer, isn’t she?

So we’ve heard from the actor’s point of view before, but can you run us through what your typical day working on the show is like?

J. McNamara – It starts early and it ends late. It’s usually, there’s four or five elements. There’s …the episode that’s shooting right now, which can be any number of sudden things that come up on the set. And I’m in LA and they’re in Albuquerque. There’s then the challenge of there’s post production meetings. There’s an episode that was shot and we’re editing it and adding music and we have to look at that and figure out what to cut, what to add, what to leave in, all that stuff. And then there’s the challenge of the script you’re working at that very moment that’s probably going to shoot very soon. That’s on the docket for today after I hang up with you guys. That’s always intense. And then there’s the looking way ahead into future episodes. What’s going to really make a great episode down the line and how does that all feed into not only are you looking a great standalone case, but great standalone case that feeds into her personal life or Marshall’s or Stan’s. And then those then feed into the overall arc of the season and where do you want the season to end up and where do you want Mary to end up at the end of the season. So you’re thinking of all those things simultaneously as they’re coming at you and you’re trying to—they come at you and you try to come back at them. I’m not going to lie. It can be a long, full day.

What got you started in this business in the first place?

J. McNamara – Greed. No, I like to tell stories, that’s it. I’m just a storywriter and a playwright and I literally almost by accident fell into getting my first TV assignment based on a play that I’d written that someone saw and wanted me to write a teleplay. And that was a long, long time ago. But it started me down the path of working in television and then that eventually led to being on staff on shows. And that led to me creating some shows and running some shows, just a chain of the common thread in the chain, not to mix my metaphors, just a common alloy in the chain would be a love of storytelling.

I know you said that when you came in, you really didn’t want to change too much and all that. Is there one thing you would like to write for the show, if you could regardless of consequences or of changing anything, just like something that you would really love to see happen on the show?

J. McNamara – I’m pretty much what I’m getting to do is what I want to see happen. There’s been virtually no situation where I’ve said I want to try X, Y, Z, and they’ve said no. So I’m getting to live what I want to write. It’s kind of good so far.

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