MCTV Exclusive: Lights! Camera! Action! On Set with James Duff

By M. Sharpe

It’s a warm June day in Hollywood, and Executive Producer James Duff is being pulled apart.

Not literally of course, but as we are invited on set to interview Duff and watch the filming of an upcoming episode of Major Crimes, all plans for a traditional sit down with the executive producer/writer/creator of the show seem to go out the window when we arrive to find him and the cast and crew at full speed in the middle of production for the 5th season, premiering tonight at 10pm/9c on TNT.

As the day progresses, the scope of just what being in the middle of the episode order really means becomes more and more clear. Bits and pieces of all seven of the season’s first episodes are in different stages of progress at the same time, all on the same day, and each piece has to be perfect.

The cast is down on the soundstage filming the second-to-last day of episode 506. We first catch up with Duff when the cast takes a break to do the table read for episode 507. The read is running about 45 minutes late–the filming on the soundstage ran long. The actors are released from filming and start arriving, and the big conference room we’re in suddenly begins to feel very small as it fills.

The mood is jovial as Duff introduces himself and the episode’s writer and director to the guest cast that has joined the group for episode 507. The newcomers then introduce themselves and the room erupts in applause, welcoming them into the Major Crimes family. The regular cast introduces themselves and their characters, then Duff takes back over, introducing the dozens of other writers, producers and key crew members who have all joined for the reading as well. He rattles off an impressive list of names and titles of everyone present from memory, then they begin.The read-through is timed, in order 501- buzz flynn provenza raydor tao lrto get an idea of how long – or alternatively, how short – the episode may run when completed, so that edits can be made. Throughout the process, the writer, director and crew members are frantically scribbling notes in their script – this is their one chance to hear the story read aloud before filming begins, their one opportunity to make adjustments to their own parts of the production before tomorrow.

As quickly as the read-through begins, it finishes, and as the actors head back down to the soundstage to continue work on their episode, we’re whisked into a van with Duff and a second unit crew. Our destination is only a few blocks away from the studio, and is quintessentially Hollywood. On the way, Duff explains that he’s shooting two different scenes at this location tonight, both for Identity, Rusty Beck’s (played by Graham Patrick Martin) video blog. This season, Rusty will focus his vlog on Buzz’s investigation into the perpetrators of his father’s murder.

Although Major Crimes has a full staff of writers and directors, Duff himself writes and directs each episode of Identity. Duff concedes that this additional content is a lot of work, but is passionate about his reason for doing them: to give back to the fans who have supported the show for so long. “I’m doing it solely for the audience. I’m not doing it for any other reason. The audience has been so good to us; amazingly good to us. They deserve added content, and a more immersive experience.”

As the television world continues to change, with “new media” and platforms like Netflix, Hulu and others now becoming mainstream, Duff acknowledges the importance of creating and fostering audience engagement past simply watching each episode. Beyond Identity, he plans to continue the weekly Facebook chats with various members of the cast and crew that have become ubiquitous on Monday nights before the episode airs. Looking further forward, Duff is hopeful that, as has happened in the past, Major Crimes viewership and fan engagement will speak for itself when it comes to potentially expanding the episode order for this season, and ultimately for a much hoped-for sixth season.

It’s just after 4 o’clock when we get to the location, and immediately work begins on the first scene, which will be part of episode 503. While the scene itself will be filmed once night has fallen, Duff takes advantage of the daylight to block out the action, so the actors know how the scene is going to go. The stunts that will eventually become part of the scene are simulated, and after about 45 minutes of rehearsal, the actors are sent back to the studio to be prepped for filming.

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Phillip Keene and Graham Patrick Martin in the final version of one of the scenes we watched film for Identity,

Just as the actors in the first segment are sent back to the studio for final preparations for their scenes, another van drops off Graham Patrick Martin and Phillip Keene, who are there to film the Identity segment for the season premiere. Again, time is taken to block the scene for the actors, and ensure the best possible frames are being captured. Though Identity is only posted online and not aired as part of the episode, it’s abundantly clear that the cast and crew take these segments just as seriously as the rest of the series.

As dusk begins to fall, the scene is run several times for the camera. In between shots Duff is impatient, wanting to make sure they get it all just right before the daylight is gone. After multiple takes Duff is satisfied with what he has on film, and Martin and Keene are released for the day. As the crew waits for the sun to set so they can begin the night scenes, Duff takes a moment to quickly eat a salad, and discuss the theme of this season, balance, and how that can also bring change in both big and small ways.

Duff says that while change may be part of what is in store for many of the characters, it’s the rebalancing that happens after a major change that he’s most interested in exploring. He feels that last season’s format-changing five-part episode arc is having a lasting impact on the stories he’s looking to tell this season. “This is a season of rebalancing. Many of the characters are changing more than they have in the past, and that’s because the five-parter gave us a license to go where we have not been before. It showed a different side of Major Crimes. That gave us stylistic license that we don’t use a lot, so I feel like we have permission to go places that we haven’t really done before. And so we are doing that. And the change that we see is going to be both incremental and violent and unusual.”

It’s 8:45pm when filming begins on the second scene of the night, the stunt scene that was blocked earlier in the day. The actors are now back on set with costume, hair and makeup all ready to go, and filming begins. The scene involves a simple stunt and only one camera angle, but again great care is taken with each step. Duff is encouraging throughout, finishing each take with a positive word about the work even as he makes adjustments to get the scene exactly how he wants it. As we watch the scene unfold on a series of monitors in front of us, it’s clear when after several takes, everything comes together just right, and just like that, the scene is done.

We head back to the studio, where the first unit is still hard at work filming on one of the newer sets that was constructed last year for the five-part episode arc, that of ballistics expert “Firearms” Francine. Duff explains that another new set, that of the Mini RACR (Real-time Analysis and Critical Response Unit), has also become a permanent part of the Major Crimes world. While the digital command center has become part of many Police Departments across the country, including the LAPD, Duff also notes that the RACR allows the team to be more connected with the digital and virtual worlds. This also plays into the season’s theme of balance, as the team attempts to balance between real and virtual lives and crimes, and the expectations of what can and can’t be real, thanks to the internet.

It’s now after 10pm, and our final stop of the night is the writers’ room. The writers have gone home for the evening, but the evidence of their work remains – the walls of the room are all covered in white boards full of story notes, potential pitches, and even titles for episodes that don’t have a story to go with them yet, but may spark an idea all on their own. The writers all “break” each episode together on the boards, then the individual writer or writing team assigned to a given story will go off to write the episode. The process of planning a season is long, but if some of the story ideas on the board are any indication, a fair amount of fun is involved as well.

A note on the board sparks a question about the potential parallels between the relationships between Gus and Rusty, and Sharon and Andy, and how both those relationships might progress this season. Duff notes that it’s hard to avoid parallels, as both couples have had past relationships that make them wary about their current ones. And while he’s mum on how that might progress throughout the season, (especially when it comes to Sharon and Andy) there’s an indication in the season premiere that perhaps the patience of the fans for the slow burn of Sharon and Andy’s relationship may finally be paying off.

501- raydor2 mrDuff says he is also eager to explore more of how balance and rebalancing will affect Sharon in other ways. “I think that the story of a mature woman achieving power in a world where mature women are often not seen as powerful figures is to me an interesting story. And no one else is telling this story. The quiet strength Sharon exudes in this show – it was a choice of (Mary McDonnell’s) to have Sharon focus on what needs to be done, because that is what the strength of a woman is. I want to see how far that takes her this year. Where does power go, how does power flow. We’re going to create a vacuum. And we’re going to see what happens. And people are going to rebalance as a result.”

In a season exploring balance, Duff says, what good is it if people aren’t thrown off-balance, and then have to find it again? “Balancing your life is a full time job that never ends, and when people say you have to roll with the punches that’s true, but you have to get up again. That’s mirrored in physical life too. We’re not born walking, we’re born crawling and unable to even hold ourselves up. Our entire lives are spent walking from place to place is for sixty or seventy or eighty years as an acrobat. You forget that. We’re acrobats, managing to keep our balance and standing up despite what happens. People need to get knocked down and they need to stand back up, and that’s what we’re going to see this season.”

Major Crimes season 5 returns Monday, June 13 at 10pm/9c on TNT