James Duff strikes you in conversation as a bit too easygoing to be running an hour-long television drama series with all its demands and pressures. But the creator and executive producer of the hit TNT hour The Closer says he doesn’t see any real need to be a jerk, particularly when he’s surrounded by a crew he respects so much. Yet Duff also will tell you that as his show winds through its third season, which premieres on June 18, presiding over the weekly grind doesn’t get any easier.
It was in 1992 that Duff had his first taste of TV success as a writer on the much-praised Fox made-for-TV drama Doing Time on Maple Drive, which featured a young Jim Carrey in a serious role as the troubled son of a profoundly dysfunctional family. He also wrote and produced the 1996 feature The War at Home, which was directed by Emilio Estevez and starred Estevez, Kathy Bates and Martin Sheen.
Then in 1999, Duff was a staff writer on the late and acclaimed WB hour Popular that also helped launch fuel the career of Ryan Murphy, creator and executive producer of FX’s Nip/Tuck and who served as one of Popular’s writer-producers. He followed that up by creating and executive producing the tragically short-lived ABC drama The D.A. that failed to click in 2004 despite a cast that included Felicity Huffman, Steven Weber and Sarah Paulson of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip fame.
With The Closer, however, Duff has struck gold. It debuted in June 2005 with an astounding 4.8 household rating from Nielsen, making it ad-supported cable’s most-watched original series telecast ever. The numbers have remained strong ever since, with the series earning plaudits for star Kyra Sedgwick in her role as LAPD Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson, a toughie skilled in delivering confessions from the bad guys. It earned Sedgwick a Golden Globe Award for lead actress in a dramatic series in January.
Duff took a few moments out from his insane schedule to talk with Below the Line about life on the set of The Closer and how none of it would be possible without the peerless assistance of people like director of photography Brian Reynolds, production designer Michael Miller, costume designer Greg LaVoi, and composer Jimmy Levine.
Below the Line: So let’s talk about your relationship with The Closer crew. How do you think they’d describe you as a boss? Tyrant? Pussycat? Tyrannical pussycat?
James Duff: (laughing) Oh God, I hope you don’t ask them. I’m not sure I’d survive that assessment. No, but in all honesty, I like to think I have a good relationship with everyone on this set. And I think that begins with the fact I have a lot of respect for each of them or they wouldn’t be here. I like to think of all of them as part of the producing team and try not to affix anyone with a label, because I find labels are simply too limiting.
BTL: Oh c’mon, you’re just saying that. I can tell you’re one of these guys who puts people in a little box and refuses to budge.
Duff: If I really believed that, this show wouldn’t run nearly as smoothly as it does. Our crew and actors and production staff mix really as equals. If you’re doing your job and really bringing it every day, you’re treated like somebody important – because you are. When we have our end-of-the-week party every week, everybody’s there: props, makeup, hair, editors, craft services. We’re all just people, not titles. There truly isn’t a hierarchy to how we do things on The Closer.
BTL: Wait a second. Did you say you guys have a party after wrapping production after every episode?
Duff: Yeah, we do. It’s a great way to bring everyone together and keep things positive and just unwind from an awful lot of hard work. But the motive is also a little bit selfish on my part.
BTL: Selfish? How so?
Duff: At those get-togethers, I find that I get really good ideas from people. I mean, sometimes it happens during shooting, too, but especially during the parties our crew members will come up to me and point out logistical problems in the script, say, or discuss something that may not be understandable. That’s a fantastic open dialogue to be able to have. We encourage everybody to share their point of view and bring their creative spirit to the table.
BTL: No, no, I think you’ve got this thing all wrong. Your line is, ‘Hey, just shut up and do your job!’ I guess you don’t find that quite as effective, huh?
Duff: No, not nearly. But it’s also not like I have to humor any of the people around here. They’re really smart. I mean, our DP Brian Reynolds is a genius. The reason we always get this show in under the wire and in great shape is because Brian knows what he’s doing. He knows how to light and get the show. He knows where the shot needs to go, how the camera should be telling the story. And the director leans on him in a very profound way to get the job done.
BTL: What would you say is the most important thing that you as a showrunner can do to help your crew do their jobs as effectively as possible?
Duff: It’s not brain surgery, you know? It’s just all about communication. If something isn’t going right, I figure it’s because I haven’t conveyed it right to my people. Take my production designer, Michael Miller. He’s just amazingly good at what he does. But if he doesn’t understand the episode’s theme, then he’s not going to design it properly. And if that happens, it impacts every other piece of the production puzzle and all other thematics in the show. I try to send subconscious signals for what our theme is all the way through the shoot.
BTL: Do you find that ‘subconscious’ sometimes doesn’t work as well as ‘spoken’?
Duff: (laughing) Actually, yeah. What are you inferring?
BTL: Oh nothing, just that maybe creative issues crop up on the show that aren’t really your fault.
Duff: That’s probably true, I just come from the school where if you’re in charge and something isn’t happening right, it’s probably about something you aren’t communicating. If I don’t explain myself in a clear way, the job isn’t done properly. And if I have to explain too much about what’s on the page, then maybe it isn’t written right. I have a hand in pretty much every script. So that becomes about me.
BTL: What else do you do to try and inspire the crew during shooting?
Duff: We have an Employee of the Day prize that gets passed around. We stop everything, make a big deal, give them a little trophy. It’s a nice little moment that’s become a great diversion for all of us.
BTL: All right, so your DP is a ‘genius’ and your production designer ‘amazingly good.’ Who else among the crew can you bestow with justifiable praise?
Duff: Our music guy, Jimmy Levine, is unbelievably skilled at maximizing the power of any scene on The Closer. He works really, really hard to get just the right tone and right idea across. I mean, some of our episodes are lighter than others. Some are pretty dark. Others are in-between. Jimmy’s task is to match that tone. And he’s amazing in the way he manages to do it.
BTL: Anyone else?
Duff: Well, our costume designer, Greg LaVoi, also happens to be a genius who always goes the extra mile. He uses wardrobe to match our theme perfectly and gets all of the unconscious symbols of what our show is trying to tell you in its dramatization without my having to say it. It’s a rare costumer who can do that stuff without being asked. And I’m schooled in how the job should be done, since I’ve done it before.
BTL: You used to be a costume designer?
Duff: I have a background in regional theater, so I had to do a lot of jobs: stage manager, script supervisor, costumes, lighting. You learn to do a lot when it’s all on you. And at the same time, it gave me a keen awareness of how important every one of those jobs is and how they impact the final product.
BTL: Do you think that’s why you work with your crew so well – because you’ve been in those same trenches and understand how it’s done?
Duff: Maybe a little bit. I mean, I’ve always felt that Ã¢â�
�¬Ëœbelow the line’ is just a term and not a definition. It’s a bit misleading. I mean, there is no line. That’s just something that’s attached by a union to determine pay scale. On our show, you’re not allowed to define the way you relate to people by what their paycheck is. Everybody is there to do good work. They’re also human beings. And they all seem to have tattoos.
Duff: Yeah, I’m not sure what the heck that’s about, but they have ’em. It’s good because it helps me remember who each of them is. It also reminds me that people are always more than what their jobs are.
BTL: Meaning that everyone should be treated equally on the set?
Duff: Of course. And the truth is it’s not just about being a nurturing boss. It also makes sense in getting the most out of your people. It’s such a huge job putting out a television show. Why wouldn’t you want to be treating your crew as a partner? It’s honestly the only way to get the best from everyone – and it also just makes good human sense. You’re just never served by being rude or obnoxious to your partner when you depend so completely on them for the quality of your work.
BTL: Does it ever occur to you that your attitude toward the crew might be unique?
Duff: I’m honestly not sure how other sets work. I’m just a writer, really, so I’m hardly ever invited. But I do know that people who work for us seem to be happy to be here. Take Stacey K. Black. She does the hair on our show. She’s also an incredibly talented singer, songwriter and filmmaker and wants to direct. If I didn’t look past the title, I’d never know any of that about Stacey. And that would be my loss.
BTL: So you really don’t think ‘This is only the person who cuts hair on my show. I’m going to multi-task while she’s talking because what she says isn’t all that important to me’?
Duff: I honestly don’t. Let me tell you, when I was growing up, I was taught that it was rude to ask what someone did for a living. Really. If someone volunteered the information, it was one thing. But that’s not who they are. It’s what they do. Who they are is something else. You have to think of everyone who works for you as individuals. That’s why we feel like we’re a tight-knit family, if not necessarily a well-oiled machine.
BTL: How does Kyra Sedgwick get along with the crew?
Duff: She really is just the best. The people on the show love her. She has that same mentality of treating everybody the same and feeling like we’re all in this together, without a pecking order. When you’re a good human being, as she is, people knock themselves out to make you feel good and make you look good. It’s not the motivation for why you act a certain way, but it’s a nice benefit.
BTL: And so what would make this show run like a well-oiled machine?
Duff: I think it might take a miracle. It just isn’t the nature of this beast. But somehow it’s a lot of fun, anyway.
Written by Ray Richmond