During the jam-packed weekend that was Wondercon, a number of panels were featured that gave fans greater insight in the development and production of their favorite shows. One of which was HITMAKERS: From Script to Screen, featuring three of CBS’ top rated shows: Elementary, Limitless and Scorpion!
Project Fandom was invited to spend a few minutes with Elementary showrunner Robert Doherty and Limitless showrunner Craig Sweeny to learn about their personal experiences in overseeing two of network television’s most successful series.
Recently renewed for a fifth season, Elementary has been a consistent winner in the ratings for CBS. In their contemporary take on the world’s greatest detective (and equally perceptive partner), Robert Doherty crafts a rendition of Holmes and Watson that makes the pair more accessible and personable to a wider audience.
On establishing story goals during a season (and for the next)
Robert Doherty: Over the course of the season, the production just keeps catching up to you. You start with this window of time between coming up with a story and running the shoot. […] So the last few weeks have really been about wrapping up Morland’s (John Noble) story that we’ve been telling over the course of the season. Everybody will get a few weeks to clear their heads and hopefully we’ll be back at it again.
This is nothing official but the one thing I can say about next year is I’m trying very hard to bring Ophelia Lovibond back, who played Kitty Winter last season. She is a phenomenal person actress and we’d love to have her back. She and I have stayed in touch after her run was wrapped up, so we’re determined to find a little window of time that’ll fit for her.
How to accept criticism and comparisons with other versions of Sherlock Holmes
RD: It would be very naive of me to not see some of that coming. You gotta have an inner peace about it because it’s going to happen no matter what. You look away from it and tune it out. It’s totally understandable too. It’s amazing that Holmes and Watson have been able to pass through so many hands for so many years. There are so many different takes on the character and that’s one of the things I love about him! I’ve seen so many people play him, write him, write about him. At least in my lifetime, it didn’t seem unusual to me. I felt like I had a handle on how this works. […] Once you understand that and wrap your head about it, it’s really just making sure your version is as good as you think it can be. It’s not about “is it better than someone else’s” or “will it match up”. It’s how clearly you see your product or vision and how well you can execute it.
Whether there is a story or character that hasn’t been featured on Elementary on Doherty’s to-do list
RD: We’ve officially done everything and we’re going to start doing it twice. [laughs]
One of these days, I believe Moriarty will be back. That would be great! We miss Natalie [Dormer] very much. She’s a phenomenal partner and person and nobody gets it more than we do that she’s as busy as she is. In the meantime we have to hope that our schedules line up at least a couple more times before all is said and done.
There was a character named Shinwell Johnson… I want him on just for the name! He’s an interesting guy. He’s not quite a Huggy Bear, be he’s someone who was a prisoner, served his time, is out now and gets the word on the street. He’s someone who for having been a criminal keeps in touch with various criminal elements and is able to bring things to Sherlock. I think that’s the only time he appears in canon. But between the name and his backstory, he seems like someone I’d like to meet at some point.
The most gratifying development in running the narrative of Elementary
RD: It’s not the most fun change, but what’s been the most rewarding as far as writing the character every week… making Sherlock a recovering addict. It made his ongoing story richer and more relatable. The character we know from canon and comics and all of that is so much fun, but not super relatable. That’s why Watson tells the stories, Watson is us and we experience as Watson does and can only marvel at Sherlock. But on tv, it’s a little different. The screen needs to be shared. I think choosing to show that kind of Sherlock, someone who had crashed and burned and is now trying to get back to where he was, people do get that. You can relate to that. You don’t have to be an addict but you understand fighting your way back from something. Not the most fun, but it’s been a privilege to write that part of the series.
Three episodes until its first season finale, Limitless’ Craig Sweeny shared his enthusiasm for recently finalizing the finale script. Now that the inaugural season is nearly wrapped, Sweeny generously shared his time to recall his journey on developing the blueprint for the show and ‘calling audibles’ during the production, how to make an adaptation one’s own work, and imparted his wisdom on writing compelling television.
On adjusting things on the fly for creativity’s sake
Craig Sweeny: In a lot of ways the overall tone and feel for the show has stayed, for the most part, where I wanted it to be. Which was writing at the boundaries of a mainstream audience, doing things that you might not see elsewhere on tv and having fun and mix some tones, we sort of stayed true to all that. I would say the biggest difference in terms of architecture is when we sat down at the beginning of the season and plotted out the tentpole moments along the way, we initially pictured the season ending with Rebecca (Jennifer Carpenter) confronting Brian (Jack McDorman) about everything that he’d been doing with Senator Morra (Bradley Cooper). If anyone’s had a chance to see our most recent episode – even though there are three more to go – it ends there. So we called an audible along the way and decided there’s a lot more to tell after that, and pulled it up to the end of nineteenth episode. That was the biggest audible we called during the season.
How Sweeny found himself as showrunner for CBS’ latest hit show
CS: Just to answer on the happiest note possible, nearly two years ago now my mom had gotten sick and passed away. I was working on Elementary with Rob [Doherty], and I was very happy and it was a great job. But I was I kind of like “It might be healthy to have something to pour myself into”. I had written a lot of Elementary scripts at that point, so I had lunch with an executive who said the rights to Limitless were becoming available. It was actually quite similar to a concept I had independently so I jumped on it right away and said “Don’t talk to anyone else about that, I WANT to do that!” From there, it got into thinking about what elements I wanted to preserve from the movie and bring into the tv show.
For me, the two things that I identified were the story of a guy who takes a magic pill whose life has turned around 180 degrees. I thought the movie also had this sense of panache and visual wit, and I wanted to import that into the series, I wanted to elevate that into the series […] and that was really my goal. To find new visual ways of storytelling on tv.
On the gradual differences between the film and the television show
CS: It happens so organically that I only noticed it in hindsight. I think for me the big moment that delineates how the tv show differs from the movie – it actually has Bradley Cooper in it – it’s this scene at the end of the episode when he get shot at. Where he comes to Brian and says “I don’t understand why you’re trying to stay the same person you were before the pill”. Eddie Morra, as a character, wanted nothing so much as to leave who he was behind. He discarded his writing career, he became a completely different person. So in writing that scene, Brian’s quite the opposite. It really elucidated for me what the difference is in theme and tone between the movie and tv show.
The lessons Sweeny learned about running a show during his stint on Elementary:
CS: There’s a whole bunch of things, but the one thing I would really point to is… Lord knows there’s no shortage of television about a man or woman who is the smartest person in any given room at any given time. I would say the less ambitious way to write that is to make the surrounding characters dumb and have your character be as smart as somebody else. But on Elementary, we were always very careful to have the detectives, to have Gregson and Bell and Joan [Watson] be very intelligent and people who were capable to solve cases on their own. Which set the bar higher for Sherlock. You had to say “OK, a smart person would get here. Now we have to come up with a solution that goes over that bar.” That’s something I sat down with the writers at Limitless with and said “Here’s one rule for the show” from day one that I brought over from Elementary.