Interview with Michael Sardo from Fairly Legal

There’s a fabulous new show premiering on USA network Thursday, January 20th, called Fairly Legal. The show centers on Kate Reed (Sarah Shahi), a top litigator who became frustrated with the endless bureaucracy and injustice she witnessed on a daily basis and decided to become the ultimate anti-lawyer: a mediator. Using her knowledge of the law, along with intuition and a whatever-it-takes approach to resolving conflict, Kate finds the middle ground for a wide variety of adversaries — from Fortune 500 corporations to bitter divorcees. After the death of her father, she finds herself at odds with her new boss, her stepmother Lauren (Virginia Williams)…and in bed with her soon-to-be ex-husband Justin (Michael Trucco), himself a lawyer in the DA’s office. Helping her keep all of this chaos at bay is her trusted, geek-chic assistant Leonardo (Baron Vaughn).

Back in August I got the chance to visit the set and chat with the cast, and more recently I had another chance to interview the creator Michael Sardo. He is the genius behind this great show, and let me tell you from the screeners that I’ve seen, you’d have to be crazy to miss it! Jump with me to see what Sardo had to say about his new show and why you should be watching.

I was wondering if you could just tell us a bit about coming up with the idea for the show and the development process?

M. Sardo-Coming up with the idea for the show. Let’s see, I tend to approach my TV pilots from a feature writer’s perspective in the sense of letting them find their own way. I started writing fiction and then gradually came to television, so this particular idea the genesis of it began six years ago. I had a number of friends getting divorced. All of them would start off very amicable, “You know we’re just going to divide up the stuff; there’s really no problem here.” Then somehow or another in the process, once they got lawyers, it was war. Then I saw a couple friends go through divorces with a mediator, and they just talked it out and found a solution, little bumps along the road, but it was fine. I got interested in what was this thing, this mediation thing.

I developed a pitch for a half-hour comedy about a male mediator, a divorce mediator who at heart was a hopeless romantic and spent more time trying to put the couples who came to him to break apart he was trying to put them back together instead of getting them apart. Pitched it this producer, Gavin Pallone, and we didn’t sell it.

Cut to four years later. I was developing a movie and it wasn’t going so well. I said, “I really love that mediator idea.” With the executive, we broke what I thought was a great movie about a divorce mediator who runs into the woman of his dreams during this mediation. We pitched it to the head of the studio, who didn’t buy it.

Still the more I researched the area the more I thought it was great fodder for drama, because essentially you take two people in conflict, put them in a room, and then send someone else in. I thought who is that other person, and gradually over the course of the next couple months Kate Reed kind of came to me. I have a sailboat I use for my office, which is why Kate lives on a boat and kind of conjured her up there, but who would it be that was comfortable in that environment with that much conflict and how would that work.

I spent a couple months working it out, and talked to some friends about it. They said, “Oh, it’s a good idea. Let’s pitch it.” I said, “I’m just going to write it.” So I sat down and wrote it, and we went out and fortunately, USA bought it, and that’s it.

What can you tell us about the casting process and finding the leads on the show?

M. Sardo- The casting process, to me, is always see as many people as you can, because things always appear very differently on their feet. I used to perform with the Groundlings, an improvisational comedy group in Hollywood, and it’s amazing; writers don’t always know what changes from script to speech.

So the first we looked at maybe 90 women for the lead, and some great actresses, did a really nice job. Every one of them when they auditioned the robbery scene at the beginning of pilot when the robber took the gun out, which at this point was just the casting director moving their finger, every one of the 90 women did the exact same thing at that moment; they went whoa and they stepped back. Sarah Shahi came in, and as soon as the gun came out, she went, “Whoa, hey,” and she moved in toward the reader just instinctively. That’s who Sarah is as a person, and that’s who Kate is.

It was right then I knew that she was Kate, because you cannot solve conflict by moving away from it. That’s what most of us want to do intuitively, the counterintuitive thing for the person who is Kate Reed is to move toward it, because you solve it by getting in close to the people and to the problem. Right in the audition, it was apparent to me right at that moment that she was Kate Reed, and I’ve never had a doubt about it.

Can you tell us about some of the guest stars you have this season?

M. Sardo- We’ve been really fortunate; we’ve had a lot of great people. Gerald McRaney, who plays a judge on the show, he was in the pilot, who we’ve had back several times is just such a fine actor and a joy to have. He’s the kind of actor that you can say, “Gerald can you make that three degrees warmer,” and he goes, “Yes, sure.” “Could you move it half a beat to the left?” “Yes, no problem,” but such a clear characterization of the character.

Richard Dean Anderson comes on a little later in the run as a very interesting person in Kate’s life playing a character that you haven’t seen him play before. We have Ken Howard in the pilot, who just gives this very powerful, wonderful performance. Paul Schultz from Nurse Jackie who plays Eddie the pharmacist is in an episode that gives just a heart wrenching performance. We have now people going out, just as you asked people are going out of my head, my list of guest stars. But those probably the people that you would most know, but we have some just really, really fine actors. Now I can see their faces and not their names, because I got up at 6:00 to take my kids to school this morning.

**Warning Possible Spoilers about Pilot follow**

In watching the first episode you can see that Kate has somewhat strained relationships in her life, particularly with like Lauren and Justin, who are involved in both here personal and professional life. How important are those going to be to her character as the series goes along?

M. Sardo- Crucially important. Kate is someone who no matter how obtuse the conflict that someone may have in a mediation Kate can find a way to get to the center of it and to get people to see both sides of the problem and to join them in creating an equitable solution. What she struggles with is doing the same thing in her personal life. She’s such a passionate person that her passions overrun her when it comes to the relationships she’s closest to.

Her relationship with Lauren is a very complicated one, and we worked on the show, and with Virginia Williams who plays Lauren, very hard to create a character that I don’t believe we’ve seen before. On the surface, if you just looked at her stats, you would think she’s a trophy wife, but she’s not. She had true love with Kate’s father, and she’s a woman who believes in truth and justice as strongly as Kate does, she just approaches it very differently. She believes in the letter of the law and in following that, and that’s where all truth derives from. Kate believes in questioning everything. So they are on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of how you find truth and justice.

Justin, Kate’s ex-husband, who is an Assistant District Attorney for the city of San Francisco, is equally committed to the law, has a more obvious heart than Lauren in terms of his approach to the law, and a very open heart when it comes to Kate. But he also believes in the system itself, and Kate is always questioning the system. So her relationships with them and her breaking free from that system, because she was an attorney previously, she worked with him and one of the things that blew up her marriage was she kept questioning the law. Ultimately, the only person she could question it with at night was Justin, who took it as a personal indictment, and sometimes it was. How could you keep doing this, this system that I don’t believe is the best for people, and I want to do something else.

So those relationships, Kate’s relationship with Lauren and Justin, are actually going to define her as a person as she enters this new phase in her life.

[Note from Me: This show isn’t your normal legal show, and Kate isn’t a lawyer. She’s the best non-lawyer you could ever wish for. You fall in love with all of these characters from the moment they walk on the screen and you can’t help but want to see more.]

One thing I kind of noticed, obviously, is the Wizard of Oz theme with the cell phone. Can you talk a little bit about that and how that comes into play with Kate’s cell phone and the characters on there?

M. Sardo-Sure. At this point in Kate’s life, when we meet her as the series begins, she is very much Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz in that everything she knows, all her touchstones of her life, have been swept away from her. She was a lawyer at her father’s law firm, who is the towering figure in San Francisco, as well as in her life and in the firm. He just died, her marriage just broke up, she just left the law; everything she knows has been swept away.

Just sort of fancifully, without a lot of conscious thought, she doesn’t go, “Oh I’m Dorothy,” she just one day put in her phone she thinks of Lauren as the Wicked Witch. It just came to her one day. Then she started populating her phone, making her ring tones the rest of the characters of the movie, which just sort of fell neatly into place. At this moment when we see her, she’s Dorothy and she’s trying to find her way back to a comfortable spot.

That’s a lot of her evolution throughout the show and what we’re going to see from her. We don’t hit the Oz theme as hard every week as we do in the pilot, but it’s an idea that’s there so you get a sense of who Kate is when we first meet her. She’s very much far from what she thought of as home, and she’s going to make her way back and we’ll see how she defines that and where she winds up.

[Note from Me: The Wizard of Oz thing will make so much more sense once you watch the show. It’s not as cheesy as it sounds and it really fits.]

Now it’s time for my question!

Megan- I’ve had a chance to watch the pilot, as well as the season finale, and I have to say that the development of the relationship between Kate and Justin is really well done. Was it more difficult to write a romantic relationship for a couple that already had such a complicated history?

M. Sardo- It was difficult, but it was fun, because so often you see a show you see a will they/won’t they sleep together, and I was just interested in they already have and what’s left when a relationship breaks apart. In seeing this relationship the middle parts of it, you saw the pilot and the season finale, have some interesting beats where it’s not the partner you expect who’s dissatisfied with the way things are going. They switch the expected roles several times in the course of what you’d expect from a man, what you’d expect from a woman; they switch several times in the course of the season.

Kate in general is not about neat, so I was interested in a relationship that wasn’t neat, because I’m always amazed when someone says I was married and now we’re divorced and we don’t talk. Wow, can you make that clean a break; do you think about her, do you think about him, do you want to be with them? So theirs is a complicated relationship, and it doesn’t work on some levels but on some very primal levels it works perfectly, and they struggle with that. I was interested in, I guess, the way I see relationships around me, and my own, they’re never neat, and Kate and Justin’s certainly aren’t. So it was difficult to write, but it was quite a lot of fun I think they play it beautifully the two of them.

Megan- Watching the show, I found myself tearing up one moment and laughing the next. Is it difficult to have such a great -balance of both drama and comedy?

M. Sardo- It is, because even in terms of finding the right directors for the show. When people talk about the hybrid form of drama now, of one-hour dramas, I understand but I don’t understand what they mean in the sense that if you’re writing from life in my life I never have an hour of straight drama or a half hour of straight comedy; it’s always a mesh up of both. It’s what we’ve all experienced when you’re laughing at the funeral because something just strikes you as funny.

A lot of times, what people are comfortable with is a scene of drama followed by a scene of comedy, and I was curious as to what would happen what if you had them both happening within the same scene. Again not being neat, if there’s no delineation of okay here comes our comic scene or here’s our dramatic scene that they just slam right on top of each other. I just find in life there are very few pure moments, and I wanted to represent that on the screen. So it was a challenge both to write and to bring it to the screen in the appropriate way.

Can you talk a little bit more about your decision to go with a mediator instead of just a straight up lawyer show?

M. Sardo- I was sitting in a coffee shop and these two lawyers, retired lawyers, they were gentlemen in their 60’s or 70’s, were talking about a legal show they’d seen the night before. They were furious, because on the show, the prosecutor spit at the defense lawyer and the defense lawyer was yelling, and he said you would be in jail for any of those things. They were decrying the fact that on law shows, in general, the boundaries have been pushed so far in terms of what could actually happen in the courtroom, because, of course, each new law show you’re trying to create drama that hasn’t been seen before.

Now I was just on jury in downtown Los Angeles and what you do there is very circumscribed and very controlled; there are no outbursts. The judge runs the courtroom very tightly. But again, we’re drawn to that arena because there are these really important moments in people’s lives that take place, there’s a reason why you go to court.

I was interested in this. When I stumbled on to this area of mediation a few years ago, I started talking to mediators and saying, “Well could you do this? Could you do that,” and they’d say, “Yes.” There are no rules; it’s all about the personality of the mediator. I thought that makes for very interesting drama.

I mean it’s scary in a way. As I said earlier, essentially the show is two people have a conflict, put them in a room, close the door, send in Kate Reed, and I just thought that was a great fundamental challenge for a dramatist of how do you make something happen with that. I also was interested in the fact that on a law show very often what you’re waiting for is that revelation that comes in act four when everything is stripped away and it’s pass the verdict of guilty or not guilty, and you find out what was really going on when those two people pass in the hallway. That’s the moment the whole show has been building towards.

I thought what if you could start with that—that moment where those two people are together and having to confront each other. Strip away all the artifice. In other words, I have a conflict with you, we go to court, someone speaks for me and someone speaks for you, and then the judge tells us what it all means so you’ve diluted all the conflicts between the two of us. I thought let’s just take that head on and find an interesting character to guide us through that process. I thought it would make some great drama and some great comedy, and I hope it -does.

What can you tell us about the title of the show, Fairly Legal wasn’t the original title. How did that change come about and are you happy with the final title?

M. Sardo- It’s a very interesting process. Titles are so difficult. You’re trying to encapsulate in a couple of words what this thing that you’ve worked hundreds, if not thousands, of hours on. Our original title was Facing Kate, which one of my partners had made a list of possible titles, and after a while, they all start to blend in. My son, who was 12 at the time, was going over the list with me and he said, “Dad, I think it should be Facing Kate.” I said, “Yes, why is that?” He said, “Well, because everyone has to face her to find out what’s true, and she’s also trying to face herself to find out the truth.” I thought well that’s a good reason, so we made the title Facing Kate. I’d like to say that I had more thought into it than that at the time, but that’s the truth. It seemed like a very appropriate title.

As we developed the show and starting shooting episodes, it started to feel like it was a more limited version of what was going on. Because the show became bigger than that, the issues became bigger, and Facing Kate started to feel a little too it was about a woman’s self-exploration when that’s one tiny part of a much broader canvas that we’re painting on.

Ultimately I pitched the title Fairly Legal, and I said let’s have a cheeky picture of Sarah on the poster and have Fairly Legal because it encapsulates so much. It puts you in the legal arena, but you’re not quite there, you’re almost there. It says that she is fair, which she is. She’s fairly legal, in other words she’s working the legal arena, but she’s going to tilt it to be advantageous to the goal that she has. So I thought it hit all the things that we needed to hit, and I like it a lot.

But it’s a tortuous process to get there, trust me. I cut out a couple of months of thought process in there and a lot of work with the marketing people in New York and going back and forth on things. Just talking to friends and saying, “How do you react to this title; is it interesting, is it this?” Then ultimately, you want it to fit really what the show is; you don’t want the title to be something that the show is not. But I do think that this encapsulates our show very well.

The idea of the main character, Kate, living out on a boat, is really interesting, how did it come about?

M. Sardo- Okay, well I’ll give you the truly honest idea. So I’m sitting there on my boat, which I use for my office, with my computer on my stomach thinking what would be an interesting place for Kate to live. And I went through a couple and I looked around, and I said how about here.

There are a number of reasons why I write on a boat, but the most important one is I like the fact of being literally disconnected from land. I don’t get the Internet on the boat, I don’t have a TV on the boat, and there’s nothing on the boat that says anything about entertainment or television or film. So when I go to the sailboat I’m connected by four little ropes to the dock, but I can just sit there and say what’s a good story; not what’s a good story that will sell, not what’s a good story that the networks are looking for this year, but just what’s a good story. That’s how I like to proceed with my writing.

Kate, I thought it fit Kate not only because I was on the boat, that’s sort of a trite reason, but in thinking about it I wanted to show that she was something different. People who live on boats tend to be a different breed. She takes the ferry over to San Francisco, but she’s not part of it. She works at the law firm, but she’s a mediator. She was married to a lawyer and she was a lawyer, but she’s no longer that. It just symbolizes to me perfectly Kate’s otherliness, so she is not quite what everyone else is.

It just seemed like a very beautiful, interesting, unique environment to put her. As I said, as someone who goes down to his boat every day and writes when we’re not in production, it’s a pretty interesting breed of people who live in and around boats, so it seemed to really fit this particular character.

Are we going to learn more about Kate’s career as a litigator; how she became so disenchanted with the system and what made her transition to a mediator?

M. Sardo- Yes we are. We have some really good sections of speeches in the pilot, and I love to write speeches and I love to hear Kate give them. I wanted to make sure in this first batch of shows that we didn’t have a character that was looking backwards too much; I wanted to make sure we saw what she does and how she does it without referring to the past. I didn’t want her to feel stuck at all, because Kate’s not someone who would feel stuck for too long.

But we will see more of her talking about specific cases and specific things that happened. Because essentially, to give you the broad view, is to be a good lawyer there’s a certain amount of things that happen in any large system that you have to look at as just that 5% of things that don’t work; that conviction wasn’t a good one, but that law will be overturned so no one else will get convicted that way, or that guy was innocent but on appeal he’ll come out. So there’s a lot of ancillary damage that you accept as part of the practice for all the good things that you do.

Kate was someone who could no longer look past that ancillary damage; she saw that as the whole problem, and so that’s the thing that she’s trying to solve. But we will see a little bit more of her, get more of a sense of how she was a lawyer and the things that she knew there that she brings to the mediation to make her a more effective mediator.

That concludes our interview with the delightful Michael Sardo. This show is really worth watching. It’s the kind of show that makes you smile through the tears of the emotion. You won’t be able to help loving Kate, and of course Michael Trucco (Battlestar Galatica) is sexy as hell in it. Do yourself a favor tune into USA network Thursday night at 10/9 c for the 75 min premiere, you won’t be sorry. 🙂

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