LL Cool J is Special Agent Sam Hanna and Chris O'Donnell is Special Agent G. Callen in NCIS: LOS ANGELES - Season 5 - "Exposure" | ©2014 CBS/Monty Brinton

LL Cool J is Special Agent Sam Hanna and Chris O'Donnell is Special Agent G. Callen in NCIS: LOS ANGELES - Season 5 - "Exposure" | ©2014 CBS/Monty Brinton

NCIS: LOS ANGELES, now in its fifth season on CBS, Tuesdays at 9 PM, is one of the most successful scripted series on television. One of its few peers to enjoy even greater success is its progenitor, NCIS, now in its eleventh season on CBS, Tuesdays at 8 PM. To no one’s surprise, both have been renewed for next season.

Shane Brennan created NCIS: LOS ANGELES while he was still the show runner on NCIS, following the departure of that series’ creator (with Don McGill) Donald Bellisario. For the first few years of NCIS: LOS ANGELES, Brennan was show runner on both series; while he is still an executive producer on NCIS, he transferred show-running duties there to Gary Glasberg and is now on NCIS: LOS ANGELES full time. The show stars Chris O’Donnell as G. Callen and LL Cool J as Sam Hanna as top agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Brennan, who originally hails from Australia, is at a cocktail party that CBS is hosting for its creative producers and the Television Critics Association. He’s happy to talk about where NCIS: LOS ANGELES has been, where it is now and where he envisions it going.

ASSIGNMENT X: For awhile, you were show-running both NCIS and NCIS: LOS ANGELES. What made you decide to be show runner solely on NCIS: LA?

SHANE BRENNAN: It was something I always intended to do. I had a great time running NCIS, and when the opportunity arose to do NCIS: LOS ANGELES, I knew there was a transitional period. That’s why I got Gary Glasberg in. The great thing about Gary is that he and I share a very similar attitude and a way of handling people. And it was very important that when he moved in, that it felt very comfortable to everyone. But it was always my intention, if I got something into development, to move on. And that’s fundamentally what’s happened. Gary does the day to day stuff. I do the day to day stuff on L.A.

AX: Were there different pleasures for you on each show during the time you were running both?

BRENNAN: There’s a great satisfaction, because on one side, you’ve got this cast upon the mother ship, you’ve got this good cast of people who have worked together for so long and who know each other and the way they’re going to react in a scene, there’s a shorthand between them, and there’s a magic there. On the other show, it’s all new and it’s fresh. Now, for me, I wasn’t there at the beginning of NCIS, and I came into the show when that magic was just starting to blossom. So for me, [it was] seeing the potential of where NCIS: LOS ANGELES [could] go. It’s very rare to be at both ends of the scale.

AX: Has NCIS: L.A. shaped up as you expected it would, or has it mutated in any way?

BRENNAN: There’s an organic aspect to it, but there’s also some magic, and we got that magic in NCIS: LOS ANGELES, where a lot of things came together, and what you end up with is something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts, and so yeah, it’s exceeded my expectations. And what that does is, it gives you great confidence when you’re moving forward.

When we create these shows, from the start, when we first bring the characters together and the situation that they’re in and the stories that they might be involved in, we have a vision of that. And the thing about a successful show is that that vision has to change as you do it. If it doesn’t change, the show stagnates and the characters stagnate. If you take Episode 113 and look at it alongside Episode One, all the faces are the same. There are certain elements in each of the characters that are the same. But the journey has changed everyone, because the characters have become engaged emotionally in the stories that they tell, that they become involved in, and as a result, they change. If you don’t have your characters grow and change, the audience can’t grow with them. So is the show different? It’s definitely different, and that’s something I’m actually delighted with.

AX: You made some changes early on, bringing in Eric Christian Olsen as Marty Deeks in Season 2 …

BRENNAN: Well, because it’s Los Angeles-based, and it was something I hadn’t actually thought a lot about, but we began to realize that it would be really cool to get access to some of the stories of Los Angeles that are not related to the Navy and not related to the Marine Corps, but where there’s some crossover – where you get Marines dealing with drug dealers in Los Angeles, or gangs, or that sort of thing. And I realized that we needed to have some sort of L.A. connection, and then it really became a very simple process of putting together a character who could function as a detective – not an agent of NCIS, but a detective of LAPD who had to interact with them on a regular basis. It was almost a no-brainer.

AX: With so many stories involving the Naval Criminal Investigative Service under everyone’s belt on both shows, is it hard to come up with new stories, or does the background actually help you come up with variations?

BRENNAN: We’ve never had any shortage of stories. There were some who maybe were concerned that we may not have enough stories to service two shows, but the reality is, the two shows are different enough, and the characters are different enough, that you can take a very similar story and give it to both shows, and they will turn out to be two entirely different takes on it, because of the characters, because of the location, because of the style. So it’s never been a problem. In fact, having the two shows back to back focuses attention on them. The audience watches the first hour and then they’ll watch L.A. and the stories are different, and they will always be different.

AX: In your opinion, what’s the major difference in tone between the two shows?

BRENNAN: I guess NCIS: LOS ANGELES is kind of in the fast lane. It’s big city, a lot of action, there’s a lot of movement in the show, which is intentional, and it runs at a different beat, and it’s a much faster beat. We have a lot of shows that take place in almost real time sometimes, so we create this energy. And that just makes them different for the viewer to watch.

AX: On a physical level, is it easier to do NCIS: L.A., in that you’re shooting in L.A., so you don’t have to dress it up to look like not-L.A.?

BRENNAN: Look, the magic of television – what the guys [on NCIS] do out in Valencia [in Southern California] in the desert, recreating Washington and the East Coast is phenomenal. It is very hard to do – after [this many] seasons, it’s like, is there any corner of Valencia that hasn’t been shot? So yes, it is easier to do Los Angeles. It’s NCIS: LOS ANGELES,Los Angeles is the star of the show, and it’s great fun to actually find those iconic landmarks and places around L.A. and use them. So it is easier. But that’s about as easy as it gets. When you’re dealing with a big city likeL.A., you have all sorts of other issues with permits and all sorts of issues of access. There’s nothing easy about what we do, whether it’s in Valencia or in L.A.

AX: You’ve ended at least one season on a cliffhanger, with big questions about the loyalties and fate of Linda Hunt’s character Hetty. Did you know you had the next season pick-up when you did that?

BRENNAN: Well, we would have been very surprised if we hadn’t been picked up at that point, but yes, it was always my intention to do a very big Callen/Hetty story. The relationship that Hetty has with Callen, it’s very special. It’s developed probably in a way that exceeds my expectation of the way that it would develop. So it’s been great. And that’s just the quality of the people you have in those jobs.

AX: Callen seems to have mellowed somewhat since the outset of the series …

BRENNAN: We were talking about this today in the writers’ room. Callen, when he first started, was very somber and was very much, “I’m an orphan, I don’t know my parents, I had this crazy childhood,” and that was very much who that character was. And what we’ve done by revealing more and more of his back story is, we’ve lightened his load. And each time we dig into his background, he sheds a little bit more of the load and it lights him up. And Chris has really appreciated this, because it’s enabled him to a) have some fantastic material to work with and b) expand the character, open the character up. Callen is a character who’s opened up like a flower. And he’s still in that process of opening up, but he’s much lighter now than he was, and that’s a great thing for the character.

AX: What can you say about the romance between Deeks and Kensi, played by Daniela Ruah?

BRENNAN: You never know with these things. When you put your characters together and you start thinking about their romantic potential, that can only come about, it can only be delivered, if there’s a really good chemistry between the actors. And so for us, finding Eric and Dani, when we see them onscreen and seeing that chemistry, we knew the moment we saw them together that there was potential. So then it was about, “How do we play this?” We want to make it a little different, we want to make it a little fresh, and what we did this season – well, we started it late last season – that totally spontaneous, unexpected kiss that we gave her, which they’ve both been circling for two seasons. That was the catalyst. So we set that up at the end of last season. At the beginning of this season, before they could actually talk about their feelings, he was taken hostage. Before they could talk about it again, he went through the trauma that he went through. Then they had that night together and before they could talk about that with the audience, she’s taken away to Afghanistan. So the journey for that couple – we tried to make it real. But it’s never as simple as, “Let’s sit down and talk about it.” Life gets in the way. And when you’re an NCIS agent, life gets in the way a lot. And so we’re playing that through the rest of this season. We’re blessed to have such great actors who bring that chemistry.

AX: Obviously, NCIS and NCIS: LA exist in the same universe. We know now that they exist in the same universe as HAWAII FIVE-0, because there was an NCIS: LA/HAWAII FIVE-0 two-part crossover. Are there other CBS shows that are in the same universe?

BRENNAN: With the new spin-off of NCIS [NCIS: NEW ORLEANS] coming up, that [is] part of it, too. But outside of that, I don’t know. I’m a great believer in creating all sorts of universes. You can’t always do it, because some shows just don’t have that kind of timeline and some shows just are not credible. I mean, you can’t have MODERN FAMILY and CSI together. But wherever we can, I’m a great believer in getting those worlds to interact, to cross over. Because that is a bonus for the viewer.

AX: How involved are you with NCIS: NEW ORLEANS?

BRENNAN: Well, obviously, as an executive producer on that show, I have that involvement and knowledge of the show. Once Gary took over as show runner on NCIS, it in effect became his vision. We obviously exchange material all the time to make sure the world works, but it’s going to be fascinating to see how the spin-off works in this world. Gary’s a great writer, they’ve got a great production team up there, and it’s always a very hard thing to make what’s called an embedded pilot, or a backdoor pilot, like this, because you have so many other things you have to deliver. You have to deliver what the audience tunes in to watch, which is the NCIS characters every week. You’ve got to keep the fan audience happy, you’ve got to introduce the new characters – it’s a very challenging thing to do a pilot like this.

AX: Do you have an episode of NCIS: LA that you’re particularly proud of or happy about that stands out for you?

BRENNAN: I’m going to be a little obvious and say I’m very proud of the hundredth episode [“Reznikov, N.”]. Now, I happened to write that, but I’m proud of it because we made a hundred episodes, we got there, which these days is hard to do, and I’m proud of it because it was some of Chris O’Donnell’s finest work, and he was astonishing in that episode, and at the same time, it gave us a wonderful piece of his back story, it was filled with action, it was a very satisfying episode, and it left the audience wanting to know more. And if that’s what we can do every episode, I’m extremely happy.

AX: Anything else you’d like to say about NCIS: LA right now?

BRENNAN: Keep watching it. This show just gets better and better, and it gets better because the cast is sensational. What you see on screen, the way those characters interact and have fun together, is what you see off-screen. They are the nicest group of people I have ever worked with, and if you can bottle that and put it on screen, that’s what people react to. They see it and they love to come back and watch. And we’ve got a great end of the season coming up, and we’ve started planning for Season 6.

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Article: Exclusive Interview with NCIS: LOS ANGELES creator/executive producer on Season 5 and beyond

 

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