Shane Brennan: showrunning NCIS, remembering his Australian roots.. by: David Tiley
Screen Hub Wednesday 19 January, 2011
Now showrunning the number one and number two scripted series on American television, with audiences of twenty million, Shane Brennan is happy to acknowledge his roots - for both good and bad. As he said, " You canít have success from every opportunity, but you can have an education from every failure."
Shane Brennan still has that confident, slightly anonymous voice he first revealed as an ABC journalist in the 1970's. He sounds both focused and laid back - but he also manages to run both NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles at the same time.
"Showrunner is a multifaceted job," he said. "Every which way you turn thereís someone asking you to solve a problem or give them an answer on something. Its unrelenting in that sense. Making sure you deliver a quality show for the money is something I used to do back in Australia, but on a fraction of the budget they have here."
He will fill the room when he comes back to Australia for the Screenwriters' Conference on February 16th to the 18th on Phillip Island. I was offered a ten minute conversation with him in Los Angeles, and the audio does indeed run for precisely ten minutes.
He is now running a huge operation, with a budget of $US3m per episode, with hard taskmasters in an intensely competitive environment. "But I felt really confident", he said, "once Iíd started doing it, that at the end of day I was doing what I had always been doing for 22 years. It doesnít matter what colour we are, what language we speak, we all have the same emotional core and so when it comes to writing and telling stories, itís a universal language."
"And I think that was the first thing I realised Ė that the stories I wanted to tell, I could tell them here or anywhere for that matter. That was exciting, but it was incredibly challenging to sit on that plane and leave Australia to face the unknown."
By 1981, Shane Brennan had abandoned journalism for television scriptwriting. He has early credits on Special Squad, Prime Time, In Between, Embassy, The Flying Doctors, Altogether Now and Ocean Girl.
From the mid Nineties he worked on American cable shows shot in Australia - of which Flipper is the only named example in IMDB. That gave him exposure, friends in the US and an agent. As he said, "I started travelling backwards and forwards for about five years Ė usually four or five times a year, coming for two or three weeks at a time, doing lots and lots of meetings, all at my expense."
His agent encouraged him to try working full time in the US, but he still had young children, and a happy marriage. But he was becoming increasingly disenchanted with Australian television. "By 2003 Iíd reached a point where I was incredibly disappointed with the networks, the network system in Australia," he said.
"Iíd had a couple of projects that hadnít got off the ground, for no apparent reason so I got very frustrated with it. One of the things that happened Ė another writer and I got a pilot script and I pitched it to the network and they read the script and they said no-one would ever want to do this. What makes you think anyone would want to watch a show like this? You guys should just stick to writing, why do you want to produce this kind of program? They basically just dismissed it out of hand."
The show was about a police unit covering cold cases. A year later, a version of the same idea was on the air in the US. "So at that point, I just got very frustrated, because to me it was a great idea, the networks couldnít see it was a great idea, and werenít prepared to take that risk ... and it wasnít the first time. It was the last straw, and there was a bit of a downturn in 2003 and I decided to come out here and try my hand."
The day he arrived, he was offered two jobs, and had to choose on the spot. McLeod's Daughters and Stingers were replaced by CSI: Miami and then Summerland, and then that fateful move into NCIS. The shift from culture to culture took all of eight days. He admits it was challenging.
But he had an enormous amount of writing experience, and was lucky to slot into the new shows as what he calls "number two". Eventually, he "was in the right place at the right time, and when the showrunners position became available on NCIS, CBS Studios, to their credit and my gratitude took me on the strength of it. They tried me out, they gave me a shot at it, which was very generous and exactly the opposite to the experience Iíd had in Australia. You grab that with both hands when it comes along."
He has a reputation for enormous concentration and focused energy, which propels him through a production process driven by detail and endless decisions. I asked him if that is true.
"ErmÖ Iím very conscious that weíre only here for a certain time, on earth, and Iím a great believer in not letting the grass grow under my feet. Iíve got lots of ideas, Iíd like to keep moving, and my wife says of television shows, once Iíve worked on them, you wonít stay long or you will get bored. And I do, I get bored so muchÖ I want to achieve and then I want to move on.
"Iíve always been that way Ė Iíve taken every risk under the sun, and I guess sometimes those risks have paid off, and sometimes they havenít. You canít have success from every opportunity, but you can have an education from every failure. And once youíve been through a few things and a few failures, and you taken a risk and it hasnít worked, you push on from that and you try again and you do it slightly differently and Iím a great risktaker, and a great believer in taking risks. Life is too short not to."
So what did he learn from Australian television?
"I learnt to write very quickly, and very cheaply Ė and that translates very well over here. Not because they make cheap television, but basically because Iím in charge of two shows that have a combined budget of around $150m, so youíve got to know how to spend the money and put it on the screen youíve got to be very budget conscious Ė you have to be able to deliver a show that meets all the requirements of the network but is on budget.
"Writing quickly is incredibly important when you are running a show because you constantly are writing, and you donít have the luxury of that being your only job. If you can write quickly, itís a great skill, and itís a prerequisite, to be honest, to being a showrunner."
With Shane's assiduous LA assistant telling me that I had time only for one more question, I figured it had better be substantial. If you could reform Australian television, what would you do? With your experience now?
He paused, but only for a second.
"I look forward to the opportunity of coming back and giving something back, and with my experience, Iíll throw it out there and people can try and change things or listen to me and add their own thoughts and end up with a hybrid because you canít recreate the US system in Australia because of the market size.
"I would love to come back and have writers more involved in what they create. We sit down with a blank sheet of paper and we create characters and stories, that the networks want to run for years, and so we do that, we create these wonderful stories and wonderful characters and wonderful settings and then we hand them over to others to produce and the vision is very quickly diluted.
"Often its shifted and it sometimes fails and its the writerís failure, not the producerís Ė it never is. As they say here, the director gets the credit, the producer gets the money and the writer gets the blame.
"Thatís very much an Australian saying. Thatís what Iíd love to see changed Ė Iíd love to see writers take responsibility for their own material, and produce it, and take the vision right through to the end product. While that scares the networks, they will end up with a better product Ė without a doubt.
"Writers need to step up, they need to educate themselves to be able to do that. Itís never easy, but youíve got to have the networks on one side and the writers on the other, working together.
"Thatís what Iíd bring back, thatís what Iíd change."
You can catch a glimpse of him here, crisply cut into the American landscape of hype and fast cutting...
David Tiley David Tiley is the editor of Screen Hub, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, 03 8616 9375, or 0434 214 002.