In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
The logic behind the current trend of adapting movies into TV series is clear: It’s smart business to leverage existing intellectual property. But the creative process of turning a film into an ongoing series is often murky, with many shows never seeing the light of day, and those that make it struggling to become a sustainable series while retaining what made the film successful. One bright spot for the trend, however, has been CBS’ Limitless, which has transformed the 2011 Bradley Cooper thriller about a man whose life is transformed by super-drug NZT into a stylish and surprisingly fun comedic procedural that builds on the film’s world—including a recurring presence from Cooper—while forging its own identity. To learn how the show—which returns Tuesday, February 9—has navigated this creative challenge, The A.V. Club spoke with executive producer and showrunner Craig Sweeny about turning a 100-minute film into what CBS hopes will be a 100-episode series.
Craig Sweeny: There was an entire iteration of this that had nothing to do with me—I don’t even know the name of the person who did it. Somebody wrote a script, and it was taken out on spec, and did not sell. And after that happened, the rights came loose.
I got involved because—just to start this on the happiest note possible—in the summer of 2014 my mother passed away. And I was on Elementary, and happy, and it was the best job I’ve ever had, but I was looking for maybe a little something to distract me, I guess. So I told my agent I just wanted to hear what was out there. And I had lunch with an executive from CBS, and she mentioned Limitless and I actually hadn’t seen the movie at the time, but I knew the plot device was similar to a television idea that I had had. So I just jumped on it and preemptively said, “Yeah, I’ll do that.” I watched the movie and enjoyed it, and there was about a six-week period where we were waiting for the rights to switch, but I already started to work informally on the project while that was happening. And then sometime around October of last year, CBS formally got the rights to the show, and I was off to script.
AVC: When you sit down to turn a movie into a television show, what’s your first step?
CS: What I did was identify what I wanted to keep, and what I responded to in the movie. That didn’t necessarily have to be plot, it didn’t have to be characters—what overall elements did I respond to? And for me, it was this story of a guy whose life is totally reversed by this magic pill, and I thought the movie had such wit and panache and was a little bit subversive stylistically. Those were the two elements that I wanted to bring in.
AVC: It seems like there are two potential roads to go down: either “rebooting” the film’s storyline and retelling the story of Eddie Morra, or developing the show as a sequel using the film as a backstory. How did you end up deciding on the latter?
CS: We started off knowing that we wouldn’t retell the story of Eddie Morra. It was a really easy decision, just because Bradley Cooper was involved, and there was the potential to have him reprising his role but obviously not as the lead of a weekly CBS show. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it anyway, but it was sort of done for me because Bradley was there and involved.
From the get-go, we were sort of locked into the idea of exploring where this pill comes from, who has access to it, what are their plans for it, etc. This was a really important ongoing serialized element of the show for us.
AVC: Given how open-ended many of those questions are in the film, were you ever made aware of any abandoned plans to do a film sequel?
CS: You know, I have no idea! I have no idea if they ever developed a sequel. There are so many factors in play there that I don’t know—Bradley feels very close to the property, but maybe for whatever reason he didn’t want to do a movie sequel, so I don’t know how it got from the realm of movies to TV.
AVC: The ending of the movie in particular leaves a lot of open questions—there are still fans talking about the ending now as it relates to the show.
CS: It’s one of the things that I really liked about the movie. They go to some quite insane places, so I don’t know to what extent some writer had sat down to try to plan out the mythology forward from there for a movie sequel, but I’m just glad I got to do it for the show.
AVC: Once you figure out how you want to adapt the film in general, you have to go about building it into a network procedural. What went into turning a feature film into a CBS crime drama?
CS: The elements that are common to all CBS procedurals are common to all CBS procedurals, so in a way that was sort of the easiest part. The hard part was creating a character that I could imagine myself wanting to write in January 2016 even though it’s the 17th episode of the show. And I went back to my own history, and a lot of what Brian Finch is dealing with in the pilot is my own past. I had the exact same temp job he had in the pilot, taking a form and sticking it into every single human resources file of people who are skilled and have money at a time when you’re sort of confused and lost. I had a sort of “wandering in the wilderness” period like Brian did in my late 20s in New York, and I started building the character from that.
AVC: While Morra is more or less an antihero in the film, Machiavellian to the point of corruption, Brian is very much the opposite of that. What made you shift so far away from the film’s character type?
CS: I think you’re right that Eddie is an antihero—the first thing he does on NZT is sleep with somebody’s wife. Plus, he’s a writer, and watching the film as a writer I was struck by the fact he so eagerly drops his writing career, as though the one thing the pill could do is allow him to shed himself of writerly ambitions. [Laughs.] Although you want a fully developed and nuanced character who’s not perfect in every way, on weekly television—especially in a network model—you want to be tuning in to watch somebody you can sympathize with. I was interested in writing a character who is flawed but essentially good and kind. And so I think the differences between the movie and the TV show all started with the differences in character between Brian and Eddie.
AVC: Those differences have become a key part of the show’s mythology, with Cooper now reprising his role in multiple episodes. Have you felt any concern over making Eddie’s backstory such a key part of the show when you can’t know if people have seen the film? Having not seen the film myself, his most recent appearance—in “The Assassination Of Eddie Morra”—made me feel like I was missing a piece of the puzzle.
CS: It’s interesting that you felt at a disadvantage, I hadn’t thought of it in those terms. We wrote the early episodes very consciously self-contained premise-wise, and it’s easy to do. It’s a magic pill that makes you the smartest guy in the world for a while. So it’s not hard to sell that. With Eddie, we have Bradley Cooper, who likes the property and wants to come back, and I thought he was very effective in the pilot and in his cameo in the sixth episode in a more ambiguous role. But we knew those cameos could get repetitive.
So when we got to “The Assassination Of Eddie Morra,” I think I had in my mind crystallized the distinction between Brian and Eddie Morra, and I guess we wrote that episode not really thinking about whether the audience had seen the movie, and it was actually maybe the first time we were writing like that. I wanted to give Bradley something more to do than play this shadowy Oz figure, and highlight the differences between the two characters. What they talk about in their confrontation in that episode is essentially the difference between the movie and the show: Eddie wanted to leave himself behind, and Brian for whatever reason feels it is important to hold onto who he is.
So at that point did you go and watch the movie to find out the backstory?
AVC: I watched it a few weeks later, but I immediately skimmed over a Wikipedia summary to get the basics. The movie definitely reinforced the distinction between these two characters. The first thing Eddie does is sleep with his married neighbor, but Brian lets the woman at the bank take credit for his filing system and get a promotion.
CS: That was our conscious, pointed departure from the film. Although in the script of the pilot and in the pilot that we shot, Brian also sleeps with that woman. But it made everything feel very transactional in an icky way, and so we took it out.
AVC: Thinking ahead, do you see a point in the future where you want to break away from the film’s mythology?
CS: I do. We can’t continue to use Eddie in exactly the same way in season two that we use him in season one, and I think that will be just as true in season three. You’re always happy to have an actor of that caliber and level of fame that wants to do your TV show, and so I don’t plan to write him out of the series. But I like TV shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, or The Sopranos, or The Shield that essentially tell an entire story in a season and then move on to tell something new in the subsequent season. It’s my favorite model of serialized storytelling, and so I think Limitless is going to be very much like that. And so Eddie will be part of that—the character origin element of that story might be finished in season one, but the character will still be around in a different context.
AVC: Are there any other elements of the film you’d be interested in bringing into the series?
CS: I don’t know that we’ll transpose plot from the movie into the show any more than we already have, but you may see us deal with plots from the movie in a more direct way. For example, what exactly happened with the Russian model [who Morra is accused of killing in the film]? It’s a question that is completely unanswered in the movie, and we spend a lot of time talking about it. There are characters I think about bringing back from the movie as well. It’s logistically complicated, but there’s stuff that we want to address on a “What happened there?” level.
AVC: Do you feel that this will grow more challenging as you get deeper, as the show starts to become even more independent of the film?
CS: It becomes a bit more of a challenge, but if I at any point ever want to address this, I can’t see that ever being insurmountable. We have access to the movie’s footage, and I can imagine as a writer a way that doesn’t feel too clumsy to catch the audience up on that. But the further you go on, and the more you become your own thing, the harder it gets.
AVC: One of the big divergences in the show comes in the form of tone: While the movie is a thriller with an occasional joke, the show has settled into more of a comedic sensibility. When did you know this was the direction you wanted to take?
CS: My natural tone as a writer is a bit more playful than what they did in the movie. I responded to the playfulness that was there in the movie, and just by virtue of putting it through my filter it amplified. And then we wound up with a director, Marc Webb, who himself is a very playful guy, and he and I came up with a lot of things. We just enjoyed throwing things back and forth: “Well, they’re talking about the fetus, why shouldn’t we see the fetus?” There was a tremendous amount of “Why not?” banter between Marc and me in developing the pilot, and everybody who watched the pilot responded to it, and then Marc and I also collaborated on the second episode, and we just really amped those elements up. In that episode you have people singing to camera, and there’s a three-minute “oner,” and there’s a lot of what at the time felt like risks that ended up being what people responded to. And so it created a feedback loop where the more people respond to it, the more we’re leaning into it until eventually you have a talking dinosaur in Brian’s subconscious and you wonder if you’ve leaned too far.
AVC: That particular framing mechanism in the most recent episode—in which a Barney-like figure from Brian’s childhood convinces him to use friendlier words in place of gruesome ones in the FBI’s investigation into a serial killer—has faced some criticism along those lines.
CS: The thing is that there have been a number of episodes we’ve been working on this year where we’ve had moments working with the writer and it’s about to go out to the 200 to 300 people who have to produce it, and I’ve wondered on multiple occasions if we’re going too far. I wondered this about the Ferris Bueller episode, I wondered it about the “Headquarters!” episode. And so the cast and crew’s enthusiastic response to those episodes emboldened further experimentation, and we hadn’t done one where people were like “Hmm, I don’t know” until this episode. A lot of people enjoyed it, but we as a staff all sat down and talked about the response to it and our own responses to it. Is that the line? I think it will be very helpful with us in the future in terms of how much stunt is too much stunt.
AVC: While Brian is undoubtedly central to the series, its ability to function as a television show depends on the characters around him at the FBI, none of which are drawn from the film. What was your philosophy when you sat down to flesh out the cast with characters like his FBI “partner” Rebecca, played by Jennifer Carpenter?
CS: Once you have the main character, then you go into the characters that definitely have to check certain functional boxes: you have your one wild card, etc. But I wanted above all for the Brian and Rebecca relationship to be as close to equal as it could be considering he’s a guy who gets to take a magic pill every week. And so I invested a lot of time in developing her backstory and tying her into the main mythology of the series. That was our way when we were bouncing ideas around early on to tie the otherwise quite stock character into the mythology; it seemed to be the way to differentiate her from what you see out there on TV.
There are—lord knows—a lot of shows about people who are the smartest man or woman in the room, most being shows about the smartest man in the room. On Elementary we owed a debt of quality to the Sherlock Holmes canon, so Sherlock’s intelligence isn’t created by making the people around him dumb (which is the easy way out). We always tried to keep the supporting players smart, and force ourselves to jump over the bar and having Sherlock be just a little bit better. I brought that philosophy over to Limitless.
AVC: When you started to take these characters from the page to the screen, how did the casting process shape your understanding of the show and its tone moving forward?
CS: When I was trying to think about who the character of Brian was while I was writing, I pictured a specific actor. I can’t name him because he auditioned and went along pretty far, but this performer had a very specific energy and I had no idea who Jake McDorman was when his name came up.
The way these things work now is hard—it’s so hard to get young actors to read for a 22-episode CBS procedural because the dream job is to do a cable show produced by, let’s say, Martin Scorsese, and then do one of his movies in the six months you have off. It’s really hard to cast a lead actor in his 20s in a procedural; it’s kind of like luring a unicorn. But first a bunch of us sat down and met with Jake. I had seen some tape but when I met him I saw he has an energy that’s really interesting. There is a sincerity and boyishness that came across just sitting there having coffee with him, and then he read some material for me and Marc Webb, and from that moment on he was kind of Brian in my mind.
Obviously casting Rebecca was a priority, and a time-consuming process. Jennifer was an incredibly talented actress, and had a lot of what makes her right for the part, and she was very, very pregnant when she auditioned for the part. [Laughs.] She put herself on tape and said she was good to go, and the casting people were telling me about how Modern Family put a laundry basket in front of Julie Bowen, and so it became about Marc and I figuring out how to shoot this thriller with a lot of action scenes with an actress who is so pregnant the airlines won’t even let her fly.
AVC: You also ended up casting some minor roles that have expanded as the season went on, like Michael James Shaw and Tom Degnan as Brian’s bodyguards Mike and Ike.
CS: You really do find that as you go. With Mike and Ike, those two characters came up very early once we sat down as a staff after we went to series and knew we were making 12 more episodes. We started to talk about what’s going to be the world that surrounds this guy, because the pilot isn’t really the pilot. The second episode is the pilot in the sense that it shows you what a typical episode looks like. It became apparent that Brian would be under a high degree of scrutiny and create the potential for these characters. I don’t think we ever referred to them as anything other than Mike and Ike. We just called them Mike and Ike, and that’s what Brian would call them.
At that stage in the game when you’re casting, you’re offering actors the potential for a role that will grow as these roles have, so we were lucky in that we attracted two really good actors. And you can see the episodes where we sort of take each one of them for a test run to see how good Michael would be if we give him his own little speech, and how good Tom would be. And they’re both great, and comfortable leaning in and expanding the characters more and more. It’s often—in the best way—a happy accident.
AVC: There’s a certain cynicism about the creativity involved in turning a movie into a TV show, especially when the studios behind those movies are talking about a “multiplatform approach to creating quality content.” Has this type of attitude resonated as you developed the series?
CS: To be honest, once we became a weekly series? Not really at all. Any time you’re on a TV show, you’re dealing with your network and studio on a daily basis. In the pilot every decision is micromanaged to within an inch of its life because there are so many people involved and the thing doesn’t exist yet. At that stage, there was an extraordinary amount of people involved, from Relativity [Media] to the original writer of the movie [Leslie Dixon, who adapted Alan Glynn’s novel The Dark Fields] to Neil Burger, who directed it. There were just a lot of voices at the pilot stage that have fallen away either completely or partially as we’ve moved into series.
For us, above all our responsibility is to the audience, and then to a lesser degree to the people who are paying for it and who own the creative product. There’s not a lot of pre-scrutiny at this stage in the game—we’re more just making our show. I guess the cross-platform strategization stuff has either played itself out entirely or is playing out above our heads.
This sort of macro trend of movies being turned into TV shows—it’s odd, as I always feel like I’m questioned about them, and the question presumes that I experience it from the perspective of a thinkpiece writer. But in reality, I come to Limitless from the perspective of a foot soldier: I wasn’t aware of Minority Report, I didn’t know there was a TV version of Rush Hour, and I didn’t know this whole thing was about to explode. I was just responding to “Hey, magic pills, that sounds like a pretty good idea for a TV show.”