"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“Last Resort,” premiering tonight, is ABC’s high-concept drama about an American nuclear submarine captain and his crew, who ignore suspicious orders to nuke Pakistan, find themselves at odds with the U.S. government, and hole themselves up on a tropical island.
It’s the creation of Karl Gajdusek and Shawn Ryan, the man who made the stellar “The Shield,” as well as the shorter-lived “Terriers” and “Chicago Code.”
On the eve of the series premiere, Gajdusek and Ryan spoke with Salon about “Last Resort,” its politics and its relationship to “Lost” and “Homeland.”
How did this come together?
Gajdusek: My father had paperback novels, from the World War II era, all over the house, and I had been a submarine junkie as a young kid. After seeing how effective movies like “The Hunt for Red October” and “Crimson Tide” were, I thought there was something to the submarine story. And then I started looking into what the modern submarine was and how these machines really carry so much power that anyone who can claim ownership of one can basically raise a flag and say we’re a first-world nation. The idea was that these nuclear ballistic missile submarines carry so much firepower, and are so stealthy, and so self-sufficient with nuclear reactors, that they are the necessary arsenals to call yourself a nation, to call yourself independent on the first-world international stage.
That was the nugget that I brought to Shawn. That’s what we both started to work on. What’s the story? Who are the characters? What would cause, in the course of a pilot episode, this to happen? For a group of patriots who are not having a crisis of conscience or are not secret rogue defectors, what would be the story for them to be separated from their homeland, and turn against their homeland to some degree, by the end of one hour of television? So we worked very, very hard on the plot gestures that would separate them and cause them to question the command that would be believable, dramatic — and not about a crew that just didn’t want to fire nukes one day, even though that’s what they signed up to do.
Were you careful to make sure the show didn’t feel like it was tipping in either a liberal or conservative direction?
Ryan: I like shows where the characters have some politics, but you don’t necessarily know the showrunners’ politics. This is a story more about the executive branch and its power more than about its political leanings. One thing I would say that we are very vigilant about is that I think there is a certain kind of person, in general, that enters the Navy. There’s a specific kind of person who signs up to be in a submarine, a specific kind of person who commands a submarine, and those are not necessarily peacenik types. So it was important to us that this not be a show about people who have a crisis of confidence about pushing a button that fires nuclear weapons. These people are trained and prepared to shoot those weapons when they have valid, proper orders. One thing that Karl and I spent a lot of time with was, well, why did these guys not fire? It’s not because they are secretly peaceniks, it has to be because there is some issue with the order that calls into question the validity of the order. We weren’t trying to make a comment on the peace movement.
Gajdusek: We don’t have a gong to bang, or an ax to grind. We really wanted to make sure the show wasn’t on a political soap box. It was born of a political situation that’s growing in our country, but it’s an epic, and somewhat romantic story of what warfare does to people. It takes into account the current headlines, but it’s not ripped from the headlines. We are not reacting to what happened in China today. But the show is political, obviously. It is about what happens, what could happen, when extremes in a nation stop talking to each other and start to suspect each other. I don’t know if you heard anything about that recently, but it seems to be happening. In that respect the show is political, as much as it posits what could happen if that sort of dialogue goes unchecked in a nation — in our nation.
Shawn, you said at TCA that you didn’t think of “Last Resort” as a political thriller, week in and week out. So, what is it?
Ryan: I think it’s an emotional character drama with incredibly high stakes. And so in that regard, it is a political thriller at the base of some of the scenes. I’m doing a piece on my all-time favorite war movies in advance of the show, so I’ve been thinking about that. And what I’ve realized is a lot of the movies I’m picking aren’t straight-up war movies that are all about shoot-’em-up, blood and guts. They’re about what happens to specific characters in the time of war, under the pressure of war. Think “Casablanca,” think “Dr. Zhivago.” These are movies that deal with characters’ personal lives and the turmoil created by a world in strife. And so the political thriller thing is an aspect of it, but ultimately where I think our show lives and where its heart beats is in the emotional lives of these characters.
How far along are you in mapping out the stories? I don’t envy anyone who is making a show like yours that has a lot of plot mystery because we’re all like, “Do you know how it’s going to end?”
Ryan: I guess the only thing I can say is that I feel that I’ve successfully navigated that challenge once before with “The Shield,” where we did seven seasons. And one lesson I’ve learned there is that it’s much like holding a bird. Hold it too loose and it flies away, hold it too tight and you crush it. You have to know places you’re going, and yet also allow yourself the freedom to change course along the way, as you discover things. So, to answer the question, Karl and I have some long-range places we know we want to go with some of the characters, we’ve sketched out the first 13 episodes, we’ve broken the stories for the first 10, we have scripts for the first eight, and we’ve filmed the first four. So we’re down the road on this, and fortunately for us it’s not been a problem coming up with stories. I know some people watch the pilot and think, “Wow! I really love that but you can’t do that every week and this should’ve been a movie not a TV show.” I heard that criticism in a couple places. But I can tell you, having spent time in the writers’ room the past few months, that it has not been hard to find story engines to make these episodes go.
“The Shield,” like “Last Resort,” was a show about a rule-breaker, though Vic Mackey was a less honorable guy than the characters on “Last Resort.” Shawn, is that just a coincidence or is rule-breaking a theme you’re interested in?
Ryan: It’s probably not a coincidence. It’s probably an area that I’m interested in. I do have the cover this time of Karl being the originator of this thing. I worked with David Mamet for four years on “The Unit,” and one of the things he always said was that great drama wasn’t the choice between right and wrong, great drama was the choice between two wrongs. And in many ways that is the pilot episode of “Last Resort.” You have the submarine crew who have a valid order coming through a channel that it shouldn’t be coming through. Is that an order that they should follow, or not? When they call for verification the answers they get aren’t very satisfying; should they fire or not? There’s an argument that they should and there’s an argument that they shouldn’t. And, to put those characters in a position where they have to make a choice between two wrongs is great drama. There were similar choices that I think Vic Mackey had to make, similar choices that the Delta Force team on “The Unit” had to make. So in a way that’s a thread to rescue myself, but I also think it’s a thread of great drama going back to Shakespeare’s time.
In the pilot, I found myself sympathizing with the two sailors who decide against firing the nukes. Are they our heroes, or is their characterization going to get more complex?
Ryan: It’s an interesting question because, I think first of all, not everyone is going to have exactly your reaction.
I’m sure that’s true.
Ryan: Some people are going to have some questions about what they did, and that’s fine as well. But of course you want everyone to fall in love with these characters and we’re working our asses off to make sure that happens.
Gajdusek: This is a situation, this is a story about power, and the people who have it, and people who don’t have it, and what it’s like to have power on this island. Power does things to people. It will change over time.
Andre Braugher plays the captain of the sub, Capt. Chaplin, the man in charge, who talks about being “crazy enough.” Is he crazy enough, or just actually crazy?
Gajdusek: We talk a lot about Chaplin being George Washington or Colonel Kurtz. That’s one of the mysteries of the show: Can this guy lead these people to be some sort of great new symbol of one of the most righteous choices in the world, or will he spiral them down a path they can’t back out of into something dark and not good? And that’s one of the pulls of the show to us.
Shawn, you’ve had shows canceled after their first seasons: “Chicago Code” and “Terriers.” Does that make you nervous about this one?
Ryan: I would say that it makes me feel the opposite. First of all, I had the great fortune of the first show that I created running seven seasons, that we got to choose when the show would end and we ended it on our own terms. I knew at the time that that was a very rare occurrence and, in a way, “The Shield” gave me carte blanche to fail. I’ve made good series, and they’ve been canceled, and I’ve seen some series go on TV that I wasn’t impressed with that have done well. The lesson I’ve learned is you shouldn’t leave anything in the locker room. You should really go for it, and be as audacious as you can possibly be, because there may be only 13 episodes of this show we ever make. So why get conservative and worry about it? Make it as well as you can, and that gives the show the best chance to succeed, because the more original it feels, the more daring it feels, the more likely I think audiences will gravitate toward it.
In a way, it would almost be really daunting right now if someone from the future would come back and tell me, “Hey, guess what, Shawn? This show is going to run eight years.” I’d be thinking about Episode 85 more than I’m thinking about Episode 8 right now. It’s good just to be able to focus on these 13 episodes, and say how can we make these 13 episodes as truly great as they can possibly be? And I find that invigorating, and somewhat digestible, in a way that if somebody told me I have to make eight seasons right now it would be intimidating, and that would scare me a little bit.
Was there anything you had to tone down for the show to be on network television?
Ryan: No, we didn’t have any issues. I’ve worked in the cable universe, I’ve worked in the network universe, and you know what the rules are. I don’t think we’ve had any battles with ABC Standards & Practices. We know which words you can say and what you can’t say. We know how much skin you can show, and how much sex you can get in your sex scenes. And this is a show that I think belongs on broadcast TV. It doesn’t require F-bombs and strippers to tell it. So I have no problem with that at all.
Is that all that makes something a cable show, F-bombs and strippers?
Ryan: I don’t want to say that is true in all cases. But I think there are some shows on some premium-cable networks that utilize that kind of stuff simply because they can, more than it is necessary to tell the story.
Are there shows that you guys had in mind while you were making this?
Ryan: After we had made the pilot, and after we had broken the first batch of episodes of the show, I went and watched Season 1 of “Homeland,” which was really great. So I can’t say that that was an inspiration because we had already made the pilot and we were already into the first batch of the episode. But that’s a look into a very specific corner of a government universe, a high-stakes terrorist universe, that really impressed me. I would say it certainly set the bar that I would love to be able to reach on our show.
Gajdusek: We’re aware of the comparisons to “Lost” from where we shoot, and we have some people kind of stuck on an island. So we work to make sure we are not treading the same waters. Someone also pointed out that we were in the sort of formation of “Battlestar Galactica.” It’s a group of people on their own, up against the world, and they have to figure out the rules of staying alive, and what happens when you’re under that kind of pressure to stay alive, and what happens internally. And I thought, “Well, that’s kind of true and that’s great, because that was a great show.”
Ryan: And I’ve watched all the episodes of that. It’s more like these shows set a bar, and you want to reach them. There was a moment in the writers’ room the other day where an idea was pitched, and I was like, “Well, they did something kind of similar to that on Season 1 of ‘Lost,’ so I don’t think we can do it.” We have to remain unique. There is a little bit of “Lost” DNA in our show, there is a little bit of “Battlestar Galactica” DNA in the show. I bring a little bit of “The Shield” DNA. And yet “Last Resort” ultimately has to be its own thing, distinguishable from all those others. So in that sense it’s useful to watch something like “Homeland” and say, OK, that’s how good TV can be, let’s try to do that good or better, and yet stay away from the things that they did.
Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.More Willa Paskin.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)