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Damage Report: Talking with the Creators and Star of FX's "Damages"

Damages is set to return tonight on FX and viewers' curiosity about the serpentine legal thriller seem to be at an all-time high. (For a sneak peek at the first two episodes, click here to read my advance review.)

Perhaps that's to do with the fact that Damages took a longer-than-expected hiatus between its freshman and sophomore seasons due to last winter's writers strike... and to the fact that on Damages, which tantalizingly fuses courtroom legal drama with a taut thriller plot, truly anything and everything is possible.

I had the opportunity to listen to series lead Glenn Close and creators/writers/executive producers Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman speak about Season Two of Damages.

So what did this group of uber-talented people have to say about the challenges in creating Damages, playing Patty Hewes, the non-linear format, and, oh, the life and times of Arthur Frobisher? Let's dive in.

What's the one thing that the audience should know going into the second season of Damages?

"To us the whole show begins with the relationship between the two leads, Patty Hewes and Ellen Parsons, played by Glenn Close and Rose Byrne," said writer/executive producer Daniel Zelman. "So I think the one thing they should know is that that storyline that we started at the end of last season, with Ellen going to work with the FBI as an informant, is going to be ultimately the spine of this season as we watch that relationship evolve and come to a climax in the final episode."

The season premiere shows Ellen interrogating an unseen person in a chair six months after the events of the main storyline. So, can we assume that Patty is her intended victim? And will we have to wait until the end of the season to learn who is actually sitting in the chair?

"What we did in the first season was [have] the mystery solved by the end of the season," offered writer/executive producer Todd Kessler. "And one of the kind of mantras that we have over here is that we don’t like to repeat ourselves, so that’s probably an answer by way of not answering in that it will be revealed before the end of the season who is sitting in the chair. But events unfold in very much unexpected ways."

For Glenn Close, setting the action of Season Two so soon after the traumatic events of Season One is a smart move, especially given Patty's reaction to her complicity in Ray Fiske's suicide and a murder attempt on her protégé.

"I really like the fact that we really begin where we ended," mused Close. "And the truth is she’s been highly, highly traumatized. I think the Ray Fiske suicide spun her into a place that she’d never been before; she lost control, she put a hit out on Ellen, there’s a lot that she regrets, and you have to take that into consideration. People do not easily recover from that, and it actually, informs, I think, the entire second year."

So is Patty more or less unpredictable in Season Two than she was in the series' first year? "I think she’s unpredictable maybe in people’s eyes," said Close. "I think she regains control and, if anything, is more fierce in her commitment to bringing down people that she thinks are bad."

One of the many reasons Damages' first season stood out was its non-traditional use of differing time frames, with the action unfolding in non-linear fashion. What was behind the producers' decision to keep the non-linear narrative?

"At the end of the first season, or really in between the two seasons, my brother Glenn, who I created the show with along with Daniel Zelman, we all got together and thought about what we really liked about the first season, and figured that this was very much kind of a signature to the first season of having these two time frames and that no one else is really quite doing that in storytelling right now," said Todd Kessler. "And it’s something that continually challenges us and inspires us to work in two different time frames. So what started as a way of just telling stories in the first season in a significant way has emerged as a signature to our storytelling for Damages."

Glenn Kessler agreed. "Certainly the three of us had internal debates coming out of the first season about changes we may like to make and what might be asked of us from a network point of view in terms of ratings and moves that could have been made to enhance viewership of a certain demographic," he said. "And as we started to have those conversations and talk to the studio and network about it it became clear that that really wasn’t their agenda. So the flash-forwards are there, and instead of bringing in a troop of beautiful 25-year-olds in order to try to bring down a demographic of viewers and get some young people instead we went out and we got Academy Award winners. And it was thrilling to recognize just how everyone involved in this project is on the same page and that there are other places to go on network television for other kinds of stories."

"But we were not being asked to change and we were not being asked to modify what we’re doing in order to get the mass appeal that a network show is required," continued Kessler. "In order to succeed a network needs to deliver a certain number with their shows, and it’s different on cable. And it’s been thrilling and gratifying to be able to stay the course and continue to do the kind of work that we’re interested in doing."

Given that Close has now been playing Patty for two seasons, how much of her character's secretive backstory has she learned? Not everything, apparently.

"There are certain aspects of my back-stories that I still don’t know about, so the absolute core why I still do not know," admitted Close. "I don’t know if there was some defining event that set her on her path or if it was an accumulation of certain events. So I’m learning about the why’s of what I do along with the audience. It doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in them, but I know they’re there."

As for playing Patty, Close said that she feels much easier portraying the abrasive litigator this season. "I’m much easier with the process; I love the process that we go through," said Close. "It’s very, very challenging, it’s very collaborative, and very intense. Just technically speaking I feel that I’m more free in it. It’s a lot of fun; it’s hard work and it’s intense, but it’s fun. And I think that kind of informs Patty in a way. It’s just such a great character to play. And I feel I’ve lived in her skin for a year, and coming into it for a second season I feel more comfortable in her skin."

One of the reasons Close may feel more at ease this season is her on-screen reunion with actor William Hurt, who plays Season Two's Daniel Purcell.

"It was kind of a gift to have a character introduced that Patty actually has a past with and for me, as the actor, to also have a real past with Bill," she admitted. "We started out in New York together in theater and then, of course, our big connection was doing The Big Chill and that bonded us for life. So to have him come back, and he’s such a fantastic actor, it was like skating on very smooth ice. I loved it. And I have to give it to Bill because, again, the process is very demanding and we work very fast. And because our writers are not writing in any kind of formulaic way it’s a very organic process, so a lot of times you’ll get something the night before or even the day of that’s been refined. And even sometimes on the set during the scene the writers will come down and will refine stuff. And for Bill, who is used to having a little bit more time to prepare, it was a hard thing to get used to and it was very difficult. And I really understood, because it was something that I felt last year. But to see him ultimately embrace it and start to really have fun in it was kind of an extra perk for me."

For the writers, it meant bringing in a new character that would have to be markedly different to Ted Danson's Arthur Frobisher, the main villain from Season One, but still be strong enough to stand up to Patty.

"William Hurt’s presence this year is very different from Ted Danson’s, because he doesn’t enter the story as a pure adversary of Patty’s," said Daniel Zelman. "He enters sort of the opposite way where he has a past with Patty and Patty actually starts the season trying to help him. And it was important for us to have a different dynamic in that regards, but at the same time William has a lot of scenes with Glenn; a lot more scenes with Glenn than Ted had last year. And so it was even more important for us that we have an actor who really can hold his own in scenes with Glenn. We certainly received that with William, who is incredible. But the dynamic between his character and Patty’s character this season is quite different from the dynamic between Patty and Frobisher last year."

As for Ted Danson, was there always a plan to bring back Arthur Frobisher or was his shooting at the end of Season One meant to be fatal?

"The life and times of Arthur Frobisher is something that is endlessly fascinating and entertaining to Glenn, Daniel, and myself as writers and creators of that character," joked Todd Kessler. "One of the challenges, of course, of working with phenomenal actors is that they’re in demand. And we only had a one season deal with Ted, and so we weren’t sure whether we would be able to bring him back in the second season. But it was always our hope to, if possible, have him come back. And it turns out that it worked out well; Ted was busy doing other work, but we were able to work it into his schedule so that he’s back for, I think, it’s four episodes this season."

"Where we left it with him being shot in the field we intentionally didn’t say that he had died or showed him dying; we wanted to leave it open ended for the possibility of Ted coming back," said Kessler. "But these things are never known until literally the week or two weeks before we’re filming an episode of whether he might be available. So in the end, by allowing it to just be what it would be and not answer the question of whether he was alive or dead, our hopes were kind of granted that he was able to come back and join us for four episodes in this second season."

How far in advance do the writers plot? Given that they already have a Season Three order at FX, did they break the story as sort of a three-act plot?

"In terms of moving from Season One to Season Two it was important to us in Season One to wrap up the three significant storylines so that the things that we proposed we actually gave an audience closure to, which was the Frobisher case, which you find the resolution for, we showed you who killed the fiancé, and we also showed you who was responsible for Ellen’s attack and why she was running through the streets bloody," said Glenn Kessler. "So although we came to a resolution on all three of those different story lines we also proposed a pretty huge story movement that led us into the second season, which was that Ellen was going to return to work really in an effort to bring Patty down. Ellen was going to return to work working as an informant for the FBI. We knew we were heading there in the second season, and that’s a very significant part of the second season in terms of what Ellen is up to within the firm and outside of the firm."

In terms of plotting out the case of the second season or the characters in the second season that was really something that we did in the hiatus between seasons," continued Kessler. "As Glenn Close is alluding to, there is a lot of collaboration. From our perspective we come up with a lot of kind of tentpole events that we’re interested in placing throughout the season, and then we give ourselves kind of a surprising amount of flexibility to improvise from script to script as we try to hit some of those tent poles along the way. And so there’s nothing rigid about the process and it’s a very, very fluid process, as the first season was as well... It’s really about surprising ourselves and surprising the other writers. It’s about keeping thrill ride that’s very important to us and the entertainment value of telling a story within the legal genre is very important to us, so it really is a pretty high degree of flexibility and improvisation as we move through the season."

One person who definitely doesn't know in advance what will happen during a particular season is Glenn Close. "I don’t know the beginning, middle, and end starting out," she said. "I still don’t know what’s in our final episode, which we will actually finish in January, but I like that. I call what we do making mega movies. I think they’re a different breed from the usual TV series, because I think they have the kind of sophistication, they certainly have the quality of writing, and for both seasons on this particular show we have actors who have done everything and many of them have won Oscar’s for it. So I think we’re making mega movies."

"As an actor it’s an incredible exercise," said Close of the process. "It’s a great mind game; I think all my brain synapses are in very good health. And it’s a great luxury to have a thirteen-hour movie where you can develop characters in a way that ends up being extremely satisfying and really good entertainment. For me it’s like living a novel; I feel like we’re kind of a 21st century version of Dickens... And so that’s where the excitement is; I think we’re on the cutting edge of this new art form."

So will Patty be portrayed this season as more heroic than she was in Season One, given that she's going up against some very bad guys?

"We very much approach it as Patty is someone who is an iconic figure who is living in a very rarefied life of being able to make her own decisions about what people she associates with and what cases she takes on and really what will be challenging to her," suggested Todd Kessler. "And so in this case it’s not that she knows it’s going to lead to a conspiracy or that she knows where it can lead, but there’s something that doesn’t seem right to her and she willing to pull the thread for as long as the thread will last. In this case it unravels to a pretty high degree level of conspiracy."

Zelman agreed. "I think that there’s a sort of guideline we go by with Patty, which is that the one constant with her is that she really genuinely hates bullies," he offered. "Her compass is sort of always attuned to where the bullies are in society, and she’s always looking to stand up for the weak against the bullies. That’s something that we feel is genuine to who she is and genuine to her experience in life; we never think of her as being heroic or not heroic. So I wouldn’t say that we’re trying to make her more heroic this season. To us what motivates her is what motivates her; it comes from who she is, and it’s a constant."

"And then one thing in particular in this season," chimed in Todd Kessler, "is that we’re going to see much more of Patty’s personal life, her relationship with her husband, Phil, and her relationship with her son, Michael, her relationship to Uncle Pete, who is played by Tom Aldridge, who is a man that probably she has known for longer than anyone else in her life. We’re going to explore all of that. When Daniel talks about what motivates her we’re going to get more insight into Patty Hewes this season."

To that end, the writers are extremely excited about exploring Patty's personal life and who she is as an individual and also with exploring Ellen as well.

"The first season ended with Ellen signing on to work as an informant for the Feds to try to bring down Patty," said Todd Kessler. "And Ellen is dealing with the aftermath of her fiancé being murdered, which she believes is attributable to Arthur Frobisher, Ted Danson’s character. So she is on a quest, really, to find out if she can prove that Arthur Frobisher actually was responsible for killing her fiancé, at the same time wanting to bring down Patty. And we have in Rose Byrne an actress who is very much coming into her own and really owing this character of Ellen. And so in the first season when we met Ellen she had just graduated from law school and was very much naïve to the working world."

"By the end of the first season Ellen was not only ahead of Patty in terms of going back to work for her because she’s an informant for the Feds, but she was also ahead of the audience," continued Kessler. "And this season very much, right from the opening frame of the first episode, Ellen kind of announces her presence, and yes, it’s in a time flash-forward, but the season itself we just see the emergence of Ellen. And the way that we’ve been thinking about it is that the first season, well overall, as Daniel mentioned earlier, the series of Damages rests on the relationship between Patty and Ellen. We have kind of realized that the first season in many ways was Ellen’s birth into the professional world and taking her up to kind of pre-adolescent, and this season we’ve come to realize it as potentially Ellen’s adolescence where she is rebelling against the parental figure or the boss in that of Patty Hewes. And so this season will follow a trajectory of that rebellion and then coming out of the end of the second season, heading into the third, our desire is to explore a more kind of adult relationship between these two characters as they are functioning together. Without giving away too much of what happens in the second season that each season will take a different look at the mentor/protégé relationship."

So are the seeds then being planted for Season Three before our eyes?

"We always think ahead in broad terms, but then we allow ourselves a lot of room for improvisation to change the details," said Zelman. "The theme, the core of the show is the relationship between Ellen and Patty, and that’s something that we’ve started to think about into a third season and how that will evolve and what that will be."

"In terms of the new case or the new antagonist in the show that’s something that we feel like we need to wait until we see how the second season plays out, and also sort of at the end of the season to take our own temperature on what we’re interested in telling next," he went on. "But also sort of see the temperature of what’s going on in the world around us, because the Frobisher case was very much inspired by Enron and the things that were going on around the time of Enron. It wasn’t like we wanted to do some kind of Enron expose or anything like that, but we were fascinated by the characters who were a part of that company and who were a part of that company’s collapse. This season we were very interested in what’s going on with energy and the environment. Glenn Close has a relationship with Robert Kennedy, Jr., who came and spoke to us because he’s an expert in that field, and he was very inspirational. So when it comes to that aspect of the storytelling we sort of wait until the season is over and then see what it is that’s inspiring us. But the Patty/Ellen aspect of it is something that we’re always thinking ahead on."

"We’ve really spent a lot of time, the three of us as creators, discussing that in a very real way the first season functions as a pilot for the entire series in that there’s a mythology that’s laid down there and the audience has experienced events with our characters, with Patty and with Ellen, that will forever shape them moving forward," said Todd Kessler." And as we get to learn more and more things about their past and what brought them to the place when we actually first met them we feel like nothing is done frivolously or for sweeps, so to speak. Life is an accumulation of moments lived, and that’s very much the formation of Patty and Ellen for us."

"It’s exciting to know that moving into the second season people know who Patty is, so even though she’s full of regret and even though she went through some very traumatic experiences they want her to behave a certain way, they’re looking forward to some of the things that she’ll do, and they’re never quite sure if they can trust her," said Glenn Kessler. "And that’s starting to bleed out to other characters as well."

Season Two of Damages premieres tonight at 10 pm ET/PT on FX.


Anonymous said…
WOW!! I am REALLY looking forward to seeing this season of Damages! That was a great article and am now hyped to see where it leads.
It was through your blog that first led me to seek out 'Damages' and what a find it was!!

It's great too that the BBC have bought the show and showing it next month.
Not that i will be able to wait till then... ;)
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the great interview! I'm really, really looking forward to Season 2 and can't wait to find out more about Patty's past (and Uncle Pete)!
Anonymous said…
I can't wait for tonight!

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