It was a bittersweet night for writer/executive producer James Duff. THE CLOSER, the series Duff created starring Kyra Sedgwick as Brenda Leigh Johnson, a Southerner who comes to Los Angeles to be Deputy Chief of the LAPD, finished its seven-year run last night on TNT. Immediately afterwards, the new series Duff created, MAJOR CRIMES, headed up by Mary McDonnell reprising her CLOSER character of former Internal Affairs operative Sharon Raydor and featuring much of THE CLOSER’s cast, had its series premiere on TNT.
The Paley Center for Television in Beverly Hills is having a special event to honor its exhibit featuring the history of Warner Bros. Television dubbed THE TELEVISION OUT OF THE BOX EXHIBIT. Duff is here as a guest, as Warners produces both THE CLOSER and MAJOR CRIMES. Duff takes time out from examining the many costumes, posters, lunchboxes and more to talk about the end of one show and the beginning of another.
ASSIGNMENT X: At what point in the life of THE CLOSER did you know that you wanted and/or needed to do MAJOR CRIMES?
JAMES DUFF: The day after Kyra said she was going to leave. And I didn’t have that realization – that realization was had for me by Steve Kunin, who is the head of Turner Creative. Kyra told us all that she was going to finish her contract and that she was not going to do any more episodes, and Steve Kunin, our fearless leader at Turner, called me and said, “Listen, we have a great cast and you have a great show, and I think we can go on doing it. We’ll call it MAJOR CRIMES with Mary McDonnell in the lead. And we’ll make it more of an ensemble show and see how you feel about doing that. Is that okay?” [laughs] And I said, “Well, sure.”
I called my boss Peter Roth, and he was like, “Wow, that’s an amazing offer.” And it was a big challenge. I don’t know of anyone who’s had that kind of opportunity handed to them by their network. A spin-off usually implies that you take characters and you start over again with another idea entirely. And we didn’t do that. We took the same characters on the same set, we built one extra set, and we just basically continued the story.
AX: Was Mary McDonnell originally brought in because you were grooming her for the spin-off?
DUFF: No, actually, Kyra and Mary met at an indie [film] party several years ago. Mary had just come off of doing several years of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, and Kyra knew I was a great big fan of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. She talked to Mary and said, “Why don’t you come and do our show?” And Mary said, “I’d love to.” So Mary came in, contacted me and said, yes, indeed, she would like to do the show. So I wrote her a part and then she said, “No, I don’t like it that much.” And I said, “What don’t you like about it? Come in and we’ll talk about it.” So she came in and we talked about it. I worked on it some more and I collaborated with her and we found the right path, and she guest-starred three times that year, and then she came back the next year and she guest-starred I think five times and ended up getting an Emmy nomination [for the role] that year, and the next year, after Kyra made the announcement, and we’d already had [McDonnell] in so many episodes, and she seemed like a logical choice.
It offered me a great opportunity to take someone who had been an antagonist and turn her into a protagonist. So I was actually operating two journeys at the same time. I was taking Brenda’s exit and managing Raydor’s rendezvous with protagonism. And Kyra gave us that opportunity. She gave us Mary and she gave us the opportunity to end the show by telling us she wanted to finish up in Year Seven. It was an awesome opportunity that we took full advantage of. And collaborating with Kyra was one of the greatest professional experiences of my life.
AX: Can you say what it was that Mary McDonnell wanted changed from the original concept of her character?
DUFF: What Mary wanted, I think, was a stronger point of view for the character. She wanted to make sure that the character was right in her own way. And I think in the first draft, the character was so lost in her own vision of the justice system that she lost a bit of her edge. And Mary quite rightly said, “I feel like some of this is a little bit of a straw dog. Are you interested in removing the straw dog? I don’t want to tell you how to do [the show…]” “No, I am, I’m absolutely interested. Let’s make it better.” And she did make it better. Which she does. She makes things better.
AX: So she wanted to make Raydor’s point of view …
DUFF: More legitimate. And she did. We were very careful after that to really work to make sure that Sharon’s point of view was as legitimate as Brenda’s. And that’s what made her such a good adversary.
AX: Now, J.K. Simmons, who has played Assistant Chief Will Pope, is also leaving the show, at least as a regular. Did he want to leave as well, or was that dictated by the changes between THE CLOSER and MAJOR CRIMES?
DUFF: I kept him alive, I just promoted him to be Chief. We hardly ever see the Chief on our show. It wasn’t that he had had enough, it was that he was ready, I think, to try for something else. He’s a very gifted man, a brilliant actor. He’s also a very good friend. I love him to pieces.
AX: What about the character of Fritz, Brenda’s husband, played by Jon Tenney?
DUFF: He’s still the liaison to the LAPD from the FBI. He’s had that job for two years. So there are things we need him for and there are things he needs us for, so he’s recurring now, he’s not in every episode.
AX: And is there going to be, “So how’s the wife?” from the other characters to Fritz regarding Brenda?
DUFF: There is one “So how’s the wife?” He says in THE CLOSER, “Let her go.” I can’t really answer that question.
AX: Back when you created THE CLOSER, what was the core idea, and how has the core idea changed with MAJOR CRIMES?
DUFF: The core idea of THE CLOSER was to get the confession, and the core idea of MAJOR CRIMES is to get the conviction, which is a slightly different way of looking at things. Convictions require district attorneys and plea bargains and some of the messier aspects of the justice system we’d rather not think about. And so we’re thinking about the mess. We are in the courtroom more often than we were in THE CLOSER. In THE CLOSER, we were in a courtroom maybe four times or five times during our entire run, and we will be in a courtroom four times our first season in MAJOR CRIMES. It’s not that often, but it’s often enough.
AX: Can you talk about the differences and the similarities between Brenda and Sharon as characters?
DUFF: Brenda is a much more personality-driven, impulse-driven, what-I-need-to-do, obsessive/compulsive kind of personality.Sharon is much more orderly and she is more like her conscience. Brenda is more like your desires and your wants and your conscious self, and Raydor is more like your conscience telling you what you ought to do. It would be appealing to think that we always followed our conscience, or found our conscience in some way attractive, but a lot of us would like to avoid it.
AX: Are there differences and/or similarities in the collaborative styles of Kyra Sedgwick and Mary McDonnell as actresses dealing with you and the writing staff?
DUFF: Gosh. Every actor has their own process and every actor has their own way with language and their own rhythms, and when you’re doing series television, you need to collaborate in several different rhythms. I collaborate differently with every actor on the show. I collaborate with J.K., I collaborate with G.W. [Bailey], I collaborate with Tony [Denison], and I have to write towards each one of them.
AX: So it’s no more different than the difference between either of them and G.W. Bailey?
DUFF: Yeah. I will say this. Brenda, because I wrote that character to be based mainly on me, was my way of thinking and my problems and my issues with the world, so I didn’t have to think as I wrote, and that was the gift that Kyra gave me, that I didn’t ever have to think about it. She and I went to a restaurant once, and we were looking at the menu, and we had both independently purchased the exact same pair of drugstore reading glasses. And we put them on and we looked at each other, and it was like, “This is ridiculous.” And we both have to have a fan to go to sleep. There are so many similarities, it’s ridiculous. But Mary and I have a really fun relationship. We went toNew York together, we went to the U.N. together. She’s an amazing actor. You don’t get nominated for two Academy Awards because you’re a dunce. So it’s been a very different process, but it’s been a very happy process.
AX: With the casting of Mary McDonnell, is there any playing off whatsoever that some of the audience may have in their minds, “This is the woman who played President Roslin on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, she killed Cylons, don’t mess with her!”
DUFF: [laughs] I don’t think so. I don’t know how much of THE CLOSER audience I share with the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA audience. I don’t know how much overlap there is. I know I thought BATTLESTAR GALACTICA was one of the greatest shows ever on television and [its co-creator] Ron Moore was a genius, and that was genius writing and amazing acting, fantastic direction. But it’s a different genre and the science-fiction genre and the procedural genre do not always overlap.
AX: Is there anything else you would like us to know about the end of THE CLOSER or the beginning of MAJOR CRIMES?
DUFF: We have done everything we can to honor both characters, to honor Brenda in THE CLOSER and to honor Sharon in MAJOR CRIMES, and we’ve tried to do things in a way that seems organic and legitimate. And we just want the fans to have a good time. I want the people who loved THE CLOSER to really love the finale. I hope I did right by them. That really is the thing that I hope the most, is that I did right by the people who watch THE CLOSER, and that they enjoy the last episode as much as they did the first.
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Article Source: Assignment X
Article: Exclusive Interview with MAJOR CRIMES and THE CLOSER creator James Duff