Starz series Boss, which recently aired on More4 HD and More4 in the UK, has just been released on DVD by Lionsgate. To mark its first home entertainment outing on disc, here is the chance to hear from the show’s star Kelsey Grammer and executive producer Farhad Safina about what it was like to make the series and its links to William Shakespeare.
Kelsey Grammer: We just started talking about a mutual love for Shakespeare… tragedy. The general feeling was that I should try a drama. And then we explored; we both spouted about King Lear a little bit
Farhad Safina Yes, you started quoting King Lear to me and I was pretty impressed that you knew King Lear that well.
KG But what’s interesting is the Lear metaphor kind of carried on into the construction of the show and it just became, I guess a touch stone for us.
KG The very first thing we shot was the political rally speech for Mac Cullen. Pockets of Potawatomi Indians…
FS That’s right. Such a hard thing to say.
KG (Laughing) One of my favourite things (to say).
FS Sometimes we would give Kelsey things literally that you cannot say, unless you have a motor in your mouth and it’s being operated by someone else off stage, because they were literally impossible to pull off… and you did.
FS We had a bunch of different options for the city.
KG For a while we were doing real estate, Washington D.C., retired Senator. We had several ideas, but then it somehow just all meant Chicago. Chicago kind of has a mythology of its own. I started to think about this magical kingdom that rises out of the Great Plains, you know, and can take on the identity of a single man.
KG That’s the kind of location that that kind of character can live and breathe in.
FS What’s brilliant is that we threw this idea of Chicago around and then what’s really exciting, what’s really fun about this aspect of making a show or a film or anything, is once you start digging into the research and then you realise…
KG It’s better.
FS You’re thanking all the Gods of creative writing because you just think there is nothing I could do or say that could make it better than what the reality is. You look back on the history, as Kelsey is saying, of that city and the great characters who sort of tread the boards over there, both in politics and crime and business and so on, and you just think to yourself, there is a lot I can steal from. I can literally go to town.
FS The main thing that we wanted to do is… we knew what the central character was. We knew who this guy was. What his dilemmas were going to be. The kind of life he has, and so on.
KG Lewy Body (Parkinson’s Disease) was one of the first things we actually touched on. That is basically a device that starts the meter running; turns the stakes up a little bit.
KG It’s obviously a disease that affects people and it affects them seriously, and there are people we have encountered since that have dealt with it, and are actually very pleased that we’re bringing it into some kind of consciousness. Little is known, so it affords us a dramatic license of sorts.
KG To accelerate and decelerate the disease itself for the sake of the story we want to tell.
FS The central problem for a politician, a public figure with Lewy Body is that you want to control the physical manifestations… the shaking and so on. You need to go on certain drugs, and those drugs cause the loss of mind to a certain degree. Hallucination can occur and so on, so it’s a catch twenty-two.
FS You look back at our entertainment over centuries; the speech has been a great centrepiece of, not just communicating expositional information to you, to the audience, but also revealing how a character thinks and what they’re trying to achieve in that moment and who they are. So when you see Mayor Kane (Kelsey Grammer) in those moments, his manipulation and his ability to control people through language, through rhetoric, through strategy, through manoeuvring people around you see him at what he’s really good at doing.
KG Those speeches are… the style of this piece.
FS That’s right. We’re not going to have car chases in this show. We have these speeches and they’re going to be shot and delivered by some of the best actors around and they’re going to be shown like our action pieces. They are our hallmark. The key is, that because we’re set in the world of politics we’re dealing with characters who are speechifying for a purpose.
FS Kane uses his speech, sometimes softly, sometimes with anger, sometimes in a blustery fashion, sometimes in a quiet, frightening fashion because as a politician, he’s a performer.
FS When you have the luxury of having these professionals do their job at the peak of their powers, like they do, you can actually ‘not’ cut and there’s an impact to that, and you don’t even realise it as a viewer – necessarily – you don’t know why you’re so frightened of that man in this moment. Part of it has to do with the fact that he’s actually doing it right there in that moment, on camera, without us moving or cutting. That really achieves a subliminal, subconscious effect that we couldn’t have done had it not been for the performance or the rest of the set up.
KG You know what’s interesting is that it borrows again from live theatre, most people will tell you – if it’s a successful production – that live theatre has an impact that you just can’t duplicate anywhere, and so when you borrow the idea that you’re watching the action in an un-edited, uncut way, the audience is kind of given an opportunity to let it go where they go with it as well, and that is what happens in live theatre. That impact is something that you don’t really notice at first but I think as an aggregate, as a kind of snowball effect. It accumulates an impression that suddenly overwhelms you and you think ‘Holy s–t, what happened?’
KG An examination of the American political scene by an outsider, keeps it balanced and avoids that pitfall of like, ‘Oh, we have to take up this current issue, or that current issue’.
FS Absolutely. I’m so glad you’re talking about this because, to try and tell that story and not go into such things as the healthcare debate or the collapse of the financial system. It will immediately divide an audience based on their tribal instincts. It’ll make them not actually pay attention to the story you’re trying to tell was very much important to us. What has been interesting is that a lot of people have now seen it and reacted to it in different ways thinking that we were trying to do something very urban and political, or that we we’re trying to do something that was some kind of critique of today’s politics and so on. I hope that there is some of that in there, but mostly what we were trying to do is just tell a really good old-fashioned story with a King who’s falling from grace, and his court is conspiring against him and his loved ones are all aligning themselves away from him and what does he have to do, you know? Which is basically King Lear.
KG Intrigue. Court intrigue, you know. Shenanigans and betrayals. It’s always about sex and murder.
FS I remember you saying to me that you wanted this to be about a man who is faced with this kind of news of his impending demise, and he wants to try and find some kind of love. He wants some love connection.
KG Well, the end of the show, in my mind, is and this is why it parrots Shakespeare and tragedy as well is most of the lead characters in Shakespeare’s tragedies start out as sort of half human beings. You don’t give a shit whether they survive or not, but by the time they meet their demise, they’re fully realised human beings. And then it’s tragic.
FS We knew what the story was going to be for the entire first season. We mapped it and planned it like a film. It’s just instead of two hours we had eight. So we sort of knew everything that we wanted to do before we went to shoot anything. We wrote it all and we knew where the story was going to go. Clearly we knew what was going to happen at the very end.
FS Kelsey is sitting there like a rock, you know, but you can see the turmoil inside on his face and Martin’s (Donovan – Ezra Stone) just suddenly blooming into something you haven’t seen him be during the course of the first season. He’s been this dry sardonic, even advisor and now he can finally tell the truth about what he thinks.
KG And what I love to is this reveal of an idealist, in the midst of this world, who has been a functionary, everything jaded and calculated and superficial but when you distil him down, he’s still and idealist; the guy who believes in something. I think Kane’s that same guy, but the machinery of political thinking has basically corrupted them, on some level. It was great to have that message just float back in to consciousness.
FS If you look at that scene, it really is the pinnacle of the show, in a way. The lighting is so perfect and the camera is doing such as great job.
KG I’m just going to throw this in. Moonlight Sonata and the sort of rock version of Moonlight Sonata. I just thought, the son of a bitch that did Moonlight Sonata, second move.
FS I just told our composer Brian, who came and said ‘Okay, so you want a twenty two minute cue, for the last…’ and I said yes. It was his suggestion to go with Moonlight Sonata, and it works really, really well.
KG It’s just fantastic. What surprised me the most was how easy it was, on some level; to play. That’s great writing. People were surprised when I’d walk on stage, or set, and say, ‘What am I saying today? I’d have a look at like two or three pages of stuff and just know it. It wasn’t that I was good at memorising stuff; it’s that the writing was that good. It’s easy to memorise good writing, because it makes sense. It was just the finest.
Boss: Series One is released on DVD in the UK by Lionsgate.
Interview transcript supplied by Lionsgate UK.