Shawn Ryan is a writer, producer, and showrunner responsible for helming five major television programs since 2002. His work focuses largely on the gray areas of morality, exposing “facts” under the spotlight of doubt. He also has an affinity for the anti-hero. When he brought these two elements together, the result was The Shield.
The Shield garnered Ryan an Emmy nomination in 2002 for his writing on the pilot episode. The program itself was regularly nominated for Emmy awards and was both a critical and ratings sucess. It was also one of the first programs to draw notable film actors to television (Glenn Close and Forest Whitaker, among others).
Ryan has since acted as showrunner for The Unit alongside David Mamet, as well as Lie to Me and Terriers. He also created the recent crime-drama, The Chicago Code.
The Days of Yore sat down with him in his Sony Studios office between pilot pitches. In an industry often full of frantic showmanship, Ryan has the unique ability to be the honest calm in the middle of the storm.
So, who are you?
I am Shawn Ryan, and I was born and raised in Rockford, Illinois. Currently, I consider myself to be a television writer. Other people would call me a producer as well or a showrunner, but I mostly and primarily consider myself a writer.
Was that always the case?
No, I really was not a writer until I was in college and had no interest in writing prior to then. I did have some interest in theater. I had participated in theater in high school and started to in college, and when I was in college I discovered playwriting. But no, I grew up much more a jock than a theater person or a film person of any kind.
I took sports very seriously, especially hockey and soccer. I started playing hockey when I was four and soccer when I was five. I played on competitive travel teams in both those sports.
I was a pretty good student, especially in math. I was able to get in to some good colleges. I ended up going to Middlebury College and started playing on the soccer team there. I was an economics major when I started, and over the next two years I discovered playwriting, got involved in the Theater Department, and ended up quitting the soccer team after my sophomore year to focus more on theater. I changed my major. I became a joint economics and theater major. I had taken enough economics classes that it would have been foolish to abandon the major, but I added theater to it. My last two years in college, most of the classes I took were theater; either writing classes, directing, acting, or scene study – things like that. There was a big shift, I would say, during my sophomore year in college when I became really interested in that.
Do you remember the tipping point? Any specific experience that stands out to you as one that changed your direction?
Yeah. I had taken a theater class my freshman year where we all had to write a short scene, and at the end of it the professor came to me— Doug Anderson was his name— he came to me and said, “I really liked that scene. I think you have some talent. I’m teaching a playwriting class next year. You really should take it.”
So, I took it. I wrote a play. Mine was one of five plays in the class that he decided to produce the next semester. And so that second semester of my sophomore year a play that I had written was produced. Seeing a live audience watch something that I had written, being able to work with a director, work with actors on the script was all kind of pretty great. That, I would say, was the tipping point for me where I felt like, I’m enjoying this more, and I feel like I’ve got a talent for this. This is really what I want to be doing, probably more than playing soccer, which was certainly something I loved, but I knew that soccer was never going to be a profession. I knew it was something that I would play recreationally for as long as my body would allow me to, but it wasn’t something that was going to dominate my life. There was something about theater and writing that sparked a passion in me.
How did your soccer buddies feel about it?
Oh, fine! I was no star on the team, so it wasn’t like I was screwing over the soccer team [laughs]. I had played JV my freshman year. I had been on the bench of Varsity my sophomore year, so I would have come in and tried to compete for playing time, but there was no guaranteed I would have gotten it. It wasn’t like Michael Jordan stepping away from basketball, or anything like that.
So, why TV writing? How did it all start?
I had always been a heavy TV watcher as a kid. Both my parents worked, so my brother and I would get home from school with a couple of hours to kill before my parents got back. This was when young kids could be left alone in homes, which doesn’t happen so much anymore. I’d always be watching those syndicated sitcoms. The Brady Bunch or The Partridge Family. All that kind of stuff, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, after school.
Having grown up in Rockford, Illinois, they had movie theaters obviously, but they didn’t have art theaters. You didn’t see the best of the independent movie world back then, and so TV was the dominant art form for me.
I was always interested in TV. There was a class at Middlebury, a January class that I ended up taking, where I had to write a TV script, so I always had a little bit of an eye on TV, but I certainly had no idea how to go about doing it having grown up in Illinois. I’d never been to Los Angeles. Hollywood was the farthest thing that I could imagine. I had no idea how to break in, and really I just got very fortunate that one of the plays that I wrote in college was entered into the American College Theater Festival for consideration, and it won a couple of awards. One of the awards brought me out to Los Angeles to spend a couple of weeks observing a television sitcom. Without that I don’t know whether I would have ended up in LA or whether I would have had the courage to strike out for it.
I always did have my eye on TV, not novels or something like that. For me, the writing, always whether it was plays or TV, what I liked was writing to be spoken rather than writing to be read. I felt I had an ear for dialogue and the way people actually speak, and that’s the kind of writing that I glommed onto, liked, and kept doing.
After you finished college, did you go straight on to Los Angeles? Were there any stopping points in between?
There was a stopping point. When I won that playwriting award, I didn’t find out that I had won until about eight months after I graduated [from college]. Graduation kind of hit me fast. I felt like I wasn’t really ready to leave yet, and so I found a job in Burlington, VT, about forty minutes away from Middlebury, working at a radio station where I wrote ads for the station. It was a small radio station, one of the bigger ones in Burlington, but certainly a small radio station compared to Chicago, New York, or LA, those kinds of things. They would have sales people that would sell ad time, but these were small companies that didn’t have their own ad agencies, so they would hand these contracts to me and I would call the people up and say, “Well, what are you trying to advertise? Oh, you’ve got a big sale on Sunday? What’re the things you’re selling?” Then, I would write these ads and send them to the companies for confirmation, and I would oversee the production of the ads with DJs that worked at the station.
For about eight months I did that, which was interesting. It was good to just have a regular job and start evolving beyond being a college student into a person who got a weekly paycheck and who had to pay rent and become an adult that way.
From a writer’s perspective, what was interesting was I was writing four, five, six, seven different thirty-second scripts every day, and I really became aware of the preciousness of time and how to say the most in the least amount of time. I look back and feel grateful that I went through that, even though it was kind of a low paying gig.
It also sounds like, looking into the future, you were writing and overseeing production of something on the smallest of scales. It seems like a baby step into who you would become.
Yes, and how to deal with clients in the same way that I have to deal with networks and studios now. You know, “What is it that you’re after?” You always try to find a way to get your own voice in, yet in a way that fulfilled everything they were looking for. I had to work with numerous people – the talent, the DJs, the salespeople because if you didn’t do things the right way they weren’t going to be able to sell ad time to these people anymore. So, yes, I had never thought of it that way, but I think you’re right. It was a very small microcosm of what showrunning would eventually become like for me.
You found out that you’d won the playwriting award after you’d done the radio job for a while. Is that the thing that pushed you out to Los Angeles?
I didn’t necessarily want to be writing radio ads my whole life [chuckle]. Part of the appeal in going to Burlington was that I still had a number of friends who were still at Middlebury, but they were all about to graduate a year after me, so they were about to leave. I hadn’t done a good job of making new friends or starting a new life in Burlington – it was really a job by day so that I could then go hang with my college buddies during the weekends. So no, I didn’t want to do that much longer.
When this opportunity came, it was one I couldn’t pass up. They were going to pay me a script fee. There was no guarantee it would ever get made, but they were going to pay me some money and—
That was part of the award?
Yeah, and so really it was the most ridiculous introduction to Hollywood you could imagine because I got treated like a king for two weeks and then got thrown back out into the real world. But for two weeks…
It was through Columbia Pictures Television, which is now Sony. The show was My Two Dads, and this was 1990, so this was a fairly successful show on NBC with Paul Reiser and Greg Evigan. I went in there and they put me up at this fancy hotel in Universal City. I got to drive onto the lot every day. I got to spend time and talk to them about what I should write. I ended up selling them a story idea that they used on the show, so my first official credit in Hollywood is a “Story By” credit on My Two Dads.
It all seemed extraordinarily easy. I was twenty-three years old when I came out to do this. I got this paycheck for some money, and I thought, “Wow, this is the easiest thing in the world and Hollywood’s just going to roll the red carpet out for me.”
The worst part was that I had made some money that I could live on for a while, and I did think it was going to be easy, so I just kind of waited for Hollywood to come calling. Of course, it doesn’t really come calling. You have to go out there and earn it. I spent the next year waiting for success to find me, and it didn’t. My money ran out.
Where were you living at that point?
I was living in Hollywood, right on Beechwood Drive. You see it filmed a lot because you can see the Hollywood sign at the top of the hill along this wide street. I just had this little apartment there that was not a great apartment, but it did have a view of the Hollywood sign, which for this Illinois kid was a big deal.
It was after that year that I went through the process that most people go through: “I’ve got to get a job, support myself. I’ve got to get more serious about my craft. I’ve got to write more spec scripts.” It was clear that whatever success I had had a year ago was not in and of itself going to be enough to launch me.
What kind of jobs did you get to support yourself?
I got pretty basic jobs. I was answering phones at a law firm, and then I found a pretty good gig, at least in terms of being a writer. I started tutoring kids in math for the SATs. The great part about that job was that it was one-on-one tutoring, so I could set my own times. If I did get a meeting, I could schedule my work around that. It was a pretty well paying job by the hour, so I could work twenty-five hours a week rather than forty or fifty and make enough to live off of, and it gave me time to be writing spec scripts at night.
So, that’s what I did for three or four years. I ended up writing— I tried to count at one point and I don’t know that I ever came up with the exact number— but I wrote something like thirteen or fourteen spec scripts. For those people who don’t know, spec scripts are the scripts that you’re not paid to write, but you write them as examples of your work. For me, I was trying to get work in either comedies or dramas, so I had to write twice as many. I was writing four or five of them a year, cranking one out every two or three months.
How did you set yourself a work structure after that first year of waiting for it to happen? What did you change in your lifestyle?
I won’t say I changed too much. Like a lot of writers, I don’t necessarily love writing, but I do love having finished writing something. I like that feeling. [Long pause.] I didn’t want to be a failure.
I did know in my heart that I had some talent for it, and so I felt like if I worked hard enough, people would eventually notice the talent. I also had to get very serious about the scripts getting better and better. I really focused on how to write better scripts. I would read other people’s scripts that I had heard were good and try to compare them to what I was doing to try to raise the bar on what I was writing. I really do think that I became a better writer.
Looking back, I would say one thing that happened was that I became more mature. I became an adult, and I had more to say. One of the problems when I came out was that I was a twenty-three year old kid who had spent all of eight months working at a radio station. I really didn’t have a ton of productive life experience to draw from. My early writing was my attempt to ape and mimic the writers I liked, and through becoming an adult, having some interesting friends in my life who inspired me to write characters, and going through certain things in life, my writing suddenly took on more depth. But I did have to grow up to do it.
What was the first job you had that was not tutoring people?
I had written— this is really showing off my age!— I had written a spec script for Friends. I remember, I did it for the first season of that show. That script got some attention, and one of the places that read it was a company called MTM, which was Mary Tyler Moore and Grant Tinker’s company that they had started long ago. They had been a rather iconic TV studio. They produced Hill Street Blues and The White Shadow, a whole bunch of stuff. There was an executive there named Michael Lansbury who had read my Friends spec script and really liked it and just said, “Do you have any original ideas for pilots?” Most pilots are written by people who have been on the staff of shows for a while, and then they try to write a pilot, but he said, “Do you have any ideas?”
So, I went away and I came back to him a couple of weeks later with three different ideas, and one of them was something he really clicked to. It was really a story that came out of life experience, having a friend with an interesting background, and I sort of took that and fictionalized it a little bit, then blew it up into a story idea. He really liked the idea, and the next thing I knew he said, “Okay, let’s do that. We’ll do that.”
Then I was getting paid, I remember I thought it was the most outrageous amount of money ever. I got paid 30,000 dollars— and this would have been 1995— to write this sitcom pilot.
Whereas before, you’re getting paid for tutoring sessions and this is one chunk that’s basically a year of your life?
Yeah, that was more money than I was making in a year tutoring. I just thought, “Oh my God.” I remember, I worked really hard on it and Michael, justifiably so, was not crazy about the first draft.
I felt devastated because I felt like I had been living there feeling like if I just got the chance, I would do well. But the script was too long and bloated. He gave me some really honest tough love about that script, about what was working and what wasn’t. I went back and did the rewrite. He ended up being much happier about the rewrite, and then I felt much better about things [laughs].
That would have been in the summer of ’95. I had just finished writing a couple of spec scripts that I thought were the best things I had done. Those two scripts, one was a Larry Sanders and the other was an NYPD Blue spec script, really started getting me a lot of attention. So, in 1996 I started getting some more work. I got a couple of freelance gigs at different shows. I got another pilot from a company who read the first sitcom pilot I had written for MTM.
It was around 1996, probably in the middle of it, that I was able to start supporting myself as a writer. I was able to start phasing out the tutoring.
Then, in 1997, in the spring, I got my first staff job. It was on Nash Bridges, and I’ve been extraordinarily lucky because, other than a couple of months after the second season of The Shield when I was in contract negotiations, I’ve been employed in television ever since.
Which is pretty unbelievable.
It is unbelievable. It’s unusual, but I was lucky enough to get into a situation at Nash where I was there for three years, and I had great bosses who taught me a ton. I was obviously valuable enough for them to keep me around for three years. Then, I got offered a job on Angel, Joss Whedon’s show. I left Nash on a Friday, and I started working on Angel that next Monday.
While I was at Angel, I had written another pilot script that was the pilot for The Shield. We found out during the first, and the only, season that I was working on Angel that FX wanted to make it [The Shield]. So, as the Angel season was wrapping up I went to my bosses there, David Greenwalt and Joss Whedon, and said, “I have this opportunity to make a pilot, and I know I’m technically under contract for a couple more years, but this is something I’d really like to do if you’d be kind enough to release me.” And they were kind enough to release me.
So, I went straight from finishing up my work on Angel on a Friday to working on The Shield the next Monday [laughs]. I ended up making that pilot, and that obviously was the show that changed my life in many ways.
Did the idea for The Shield come from any people you knew? Was that a combination of using your life events and your writing abilities?
A lot of The Shield was based on research and current events. The Ramparts Scandal was a big deal in Los Angeles at that time. There were these cops who were running roughshod over this poor ethnic neighborhood, and yet they were effectively stopping a lot of crime. It was an interesting ethical question.
I did [use people I knew], in a couple of cases. I had friends who were actors. That was one of the things— I always tried to surround myself with artistic people. Not necessarily with a lot of other writers, but with actors and directors. I had a lot of friends who were actors, and some who, like me, were struggling but who I also thought were very good at what they did. So there were a couple of characters where I wrote the characters as if my friends were going to play them, which I think helped the scripts.
In one case, one of my friends did actually did end up playing the part. Jay Karnes, who is one of my best friends, ended up playing Dutch Wagenbach on The Shield. I think one of the reasons he got the role was because— he auditioned— but I had written it completely with his voice in mind. So, it was hard for other people to be better than him [laughs] at himself. He was a roommate of mine, a best friend, had acted in plays of mine. That was a case where I think the writing helped the actor and the actor helped the writing.
Over the course of The Shield you went from having the seed of an idea, to writing it down, to a pilot, then a season order, then a whole run of a show with a whole cast of characters from the beginning of their story to the end. Not many people, even those working consistently in the industry, have that experience. You’ve had the chance to see the long view of your story’s characters from beginning to end, which is a very unique thing. I’m curious about your thoughts on that.
You start off with such humble expectations and hopes. You just want to write something and would kill for anyone to make it. Then, as you’re making it, you’re just begging and praying that they’ll like it and put it on the air, that you’ll get to make some more. Then, as you’re making the first season you’re just incredibly aware that you’re really blessed and that you have something special – these actors you’ve hired and the crew that are working on it – there’s something great. Then, you pray to the Gods that people will watch it. Then, when people watch it, and you’re picked up for a second season, only then do you start thinking, “Well, gee, how long can this go on for?”
The Shield was pretty successful from a critical and ratings standpoint its first year, so I couldn’t help but think, “Well geeze, I may be doing this for a little while,” at that point. But, you don’t really know how long and you know that audiences can be fickle, so you wonder…
You have to start thinking more globally. You have to start thinking, “Okay, what arcs are your characters on? What new characters are you going to introduce? What old characters are getting stale and need to be freshened up in some way?” I guess this is the one aspect where I feel like I could write a novel one day. You are juggling so many balls of what’s happening story-wise with all these characters. Literally, there were hundreds of characters on The Shield. Many of them were just one-episode characters, but there must have been eighty or ninety characters that spanned multiple episodes. That is just a ton of people to keep in mind and story to keep in mind. That’s where having a writing staff is indispensable because whereas I was the only person who was writing the pilot episode and working on the pilot— and I certainly shaped all the subsequent seasons— I did hire really talented people. There are just too many ideas you need to fill a television season to come up with them all on your own.
The writing becomes teamwork.
This is where TV is different than any other kind of writing. Any other kind of writing tends to be solitary. With television writing, you will go off to write scenes by yourself, but when you’re breaking the stories and coming up with what’s going to happen you do that— at least on my shows— you do that as a group. It becomes a very collaborative experience that some people either chafe against because they are used to the solitary nature of writing or other people, usually the people who I like to work with, really embrace the idea that maybe the best idea that we can come up with is the one that we come up with together. You might have some idea that sparks an idea that I have that causes someone else to say, “Well, that’s all great, but what about with this little twist…” Then, all of a sudden you have this idea! Who came up with the idea? Well, no one person completely came up with the idea. It started off with one person, and then it morphed through other people’s ideas. I always like that best.
When I think back on The Shield, there are certain things that I remember where I say, “Oh, I remember that I came up with the idea for that. Or Glen Mazarra, or Kurt Sutter, or Scott Rosenbaum came up with the idea for that,” But so many of the ideas, I really have no memory of who came up with what. I just know that it came out of an afternoon in the room.
You spoke initially about your involvement with sports. Do you feel like there’s a connection there for you?
I do, you know, I grew up playing team sports. Depending on what age group or where I was at, there were some teams that I was the star of. There were other teams, like in college, where I rode the bench. I always was raised to understand that the result of the team was the thing that was most important. You had to find your niche, and you had to find your own way to best succeed.
When I was on Nash Bridges, I was the lowest guy on the totem pole. I knew that when it was my turn to write a script, I just needed to write drafts that they could re-write easily, and that it was always going to be my bosses re-writing them and getting them in the voices they needed. I found that I was very useful in the Writer’s Room breaking stories. So, I found my niche and just contributed that way.
When I got on The Shield, and all of a sudden had an opportunity to write my own show, it was like, “Okay, now I’m the captain and the coach and part of my job is to get other people to do their best work.” The coach side of you has to instruct and make clear to them [the writers] what it is you’re after and what you need them to do. And you have to inspire them. I did take a lot of team thinking and applied it to television showrunning. Without a doubt.
I doubt everyone does that, in my position, but that’s how I best approach it, and always with the goal of: “Our job is to make the show as good as it can be. I don’t want you being competitive with each other where you’re trying to make your episode better than some other writer’s. It is all of our responsibility to make every episode as good as it can be. Our reputations will all collectively fall or rise on how good or bad the show is, overall.” So, I really did try to instill that thinking into people, and I think it benefitted things on The Shield.
You started as a writer, and at some point must have recognized that writers become showrunners. As it was happening to you, and as you continued to gain more and more responsibility, what was your feeling on that? Did you just realize that that was part of the game? How did that transition work for you?
Well, I loved it because really everything else you’re doing is about protecting the writing. If you get involved, and you’re hiring the actors who are going to play the role, and if you’re hiring the directors and you’re prepping them on how you want things directed, and if you’re hiring the editors, and you’re going to the editing room to oversee the final cuts…This is all about continuing the vision of writing something.
This is a place where I feel like television is superior to film. Obviously film is a director’s medium. I think a writer’s voice [in TV] can be very important long after the script is written because how things are played, how they’re interpreted – when you’re in the editing room, I consider editing to be the closest thing to writing there is. Editing is a lot more like writing than it is directing, and yet in film we hand over editing responsibilities to a director and writers aren’t usually included in that process.
So, I thought it was great, and I did come up at a time when the term of “showrunner” started to gain increased importance and notoriety. That was nice, and having a reputation allowed me to do future projects that otherwise I might not have been able to do. It was also the first time that I realized that having a joint degree in Theater and Economics was a good thing because that kind of describes showrunning [laughs]. It’s half creative, half business.
I always say that, TV shows— there are so many things that can go wrong with them, and it only takes one area to screw up in to ruin the whole thing. You can ruin things on the business side or you can ruin things on the creative side. It’s a very hard juggling act, but when it works it is incredibly rewarding artistically.
Last question. A simple one. What advice would you give to young people as they develop their craft?
I’ve been asked that question a lot, and I’ve come up with a standard answer, but it’s one that I do really believe in. It is: If I had to do it over again, I don’t think I would have tried to be a professional writer at age twenty-three. I would have tried to live a more interesting life. Instead, I was just living in this little apartment in Hollywood trying to bang out spec scripts. It wasn’t until I did more with my life that I think I became a better writer. My advice is to lead as interesting a life as possible, to surround yourself with as interesting people as possible, to do as many interesting things as possible. You don’t necessarily need a lot of money to do those things. You can sleep on people’s couches. You can backpack across Nepal and eat Ramen noodles for a month.
I also really believe that you have to keep writing and work on your writing. You have to be, I think, more brutally honest about your writing than other people are. I read a lot of people’s writing now. I read a lot of things from young people who want to break in the business, and you can tell that they think they’ve written the greatest scripts in the world when they haven’t. Even if they have some good things, there are lots of areas for improvement. One thing that I got to be very good at, at a certain point, was really being brutally honest about my own work. What’s working? What’s not? I never wanted to think I’d written something great and hear it wasn’t really that good. I would be honest if I thought, “Well, it’s not quite there yet. It’s seventy percent there. It’s seventy-five percent there.” Then, do you have the discipline to continue working on it until it is one hundred percent there?
We are all— and I was certainly a victim of this early on— we are all very enamored with our own words. We’ve chosen them, so we obviously like them. And yet, we’re not always in the best headspace to know exactly which words we should be using at a given time. I’m a huge believer in rewriting.
I’m not the kind of person who can write four or five hours a day. I always admire those people who can do that, but I do have longer-term goals like, “I’m going to have a script done in a month.” I give myself a date. I’ll have a script done by then. Some days I work more than others, but I give myself that deadline. Okay, that script’s done. What’s the next thing I’m going to do?
I think a lot of people call themselves writers without doing a lot of writing. You’ve really got to do the writing. Be brutally honest about what’s good about it and what’s not good about it. Change what’s not good about it. Don’t be afraid to throw your stuff out. During that time when you’re not writing, are you living a life that is preparing you to write or are you living a life that is sucking your soul out and making the writing harder?
Interview by Evan Dumouchel
Photo courtesy of the artist