Geoffrey Thorne: Writing the Wrongs That Propel LEVERAGE

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I first encountered Geoffrey Thorne when his prose won second place in the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds VI competition. Unbeknownst to myself, I was to later follow his writing through television episodes of the hit TNT series, Leverage.

Now well on his way in the world of novels, television, and comics, we spoke with the author as he prepared to make the journey to the hip and happening San Diego Comic Con, where he'll be presenting his all-ages sci-fi adventure, Bigger Than Giants, as well as... Well, why don't we just let him tell us about it?
 


So you're heading off to the SDCC?

I'm on my way down tomorrow morning. Like, about 4am. I really love this stuff -- I've done it every year since... 2004, 2005, something like that. My partner and I are a new pulp fiction, and our first project has gone into trade paperback -- so we'll be hawking that and doing signings and all that. There's also going to be a Leverage fan panel, and most of the writers will be down there -- and most of the cast as well, which is a really nice tidbit that we just found out!

So how did things change professionally for you after placing in the Strange New Worlds competition?

Professionally it was interesting, because I had a hard time getting random producers to read my scripts as a fledgling screenwriter. But suddenly, now that I was a published prose writer, all of a sudden I was "real," and therefore my scripts started getting read. The first and best upshot of that was that I started getting more of a professional name for myself in my primary profession, screenwriting -- but secondarily, I was able to... The community of Star Trek writers is just the salt of the earth; they're probably the best bunch of people I've met in a collective group of people in forty years. They didn't know me from Adam, and I hit up a couple of them for advice about certain things. Not only did they give me advice -- storywriting advice -- but also things like, "Contact this editor. If you want to contact him, contact him this way. Don't be upset if he doesn't get back to you right away." There was no sense of competitiveness or treating me like the newbie who got second place in one little contest while they're all big time. It was like, "There's plenty of room, the more the merrier. Here's what you do."

So I did contact an editor, Marco Palmieri, and that relationship more than any other professional relationship changed me from a 'talented amateur' to a 'professional writer.' Marco's just like the greatest editor, ever. I thought it was a silly and huge loss that Simon & Schuster let the senior editorial staff go, including Marco, because they're all fantastic. He gave me a shot at a real anthology, Prophecy and Change. I just kept getting to write more short stories, which culminated with me writing a Titan novel. I had actually been in the process of contracting to write a Voyager novel, and then something happened editorially where they were scrapping all of the Voyager projects for that year -- they were taking a new direction or something -- so Marco came back to me later and said they were starting up Titan and he'd like to have me pitch for it, because he wanted the writers in that series to be sort of ideosyncratic; he wanted each book to stand alone and each writer's style to be different from the previous. So I pitched him a whole bunch of different books as I always do with Marco -- my pitching to selling ratio with Marco is abysmal (laughs). For every 150 pitches, he'll buy one thing. I'm not even exaggerating, it's crazy high like that.

So we did Sword of Damocles together, which was my first published novel. It had it's flaws -- I'd love to go back in and do a quick edit and minorly rewrite a couple of sections, but for a first novel it was reasonably well received. The critical response was exactly what I wanted. There was a certain split between some of the fans -- some of them found it confusing, and were angry I guess because I was intentionally confusing them from their point of view. But I was, like, "It's a time travel story, so it's going to be a little bit odd."

So that's my publishing career. I've sold a lot of shorts to various magazines, and just kept rolling with my film career, trying to get things going which proved in some ways to be easier because of my prose career sort of going well, but also harder because now you're really competing with other people. And here I am on Leverage after Criminal Intent for half a season and now Leverage for a full season, and hopefully I get to come back to Leverage. I really like Leverage a lot!

How difficult is it to write a Leverage episode? I imagine you'd have to be pretty up on different confidence games.

We have an advisor, a confidence man, Apollo Robbins. If we get really stuck, we can call him for ideas. He actually appeared in the episode "The Two Live Crew Job." He is a bona fide mountebank, and he helps us with a lot of that stuff. And the actors certainly call him about tricks on pickpocketing and things like that.

But largely, a lot of the scams that we come up with are scams that have been done. Which is actually kind of scary. What's even scarier is that a lot of stuff we have our bad guys doing that people think is just outlandish and just us taking potshots at Corporate America, are just minor versions of what really happened. We have stacks of magazine articles and newspaper reports and tv documentaries about all manner of heinous behaviors of people. So the hardest thing about Leverage is trying to come up with things that don't duplicate or step on things that were done previously on the show. There's never a shortage of criminal activity to pull from. It's a heist/con show; those tend not to last very long, because they tend to become repetitive. So it's been amazing to me as a fan of the show that that hasn't happened, and doesn't look like it's going to happen next year -- presuming we get picked up.

Knowing now that you're a comics fan, and that you wrote "The Inside Job" episode -- which is now all the scarier, since you've said you're pulling that stuff from things that actually happened...

Oh yeah! That blight, that people thought we made up? That's real! And five or six companies really do control the world's food supply! It's pretty scary!

There was some fan chatter about some of the "Easter Eggs" that were dropped in that episode, like Sophie and Alec using the aliases "Peel and Steed." Was the security system, the STERANKO, a reference to comics creator Jim Steranko?

Absolutely! I'm a huge fan not only of foreign comics, but Steranko in particular is a personal favorite of mine. He only did twenty-nine comic books, and he managed with only twenty-nine comics to reshape how the medium was approached, and what could be done. He created all sorts of tropes that had never been done in comics, without probably realizing it at the time, just doing what he felt as a good book. His stuff, probably moreso than any of the old guys' stuff, actually holds up as competitive right now -- that's how good it was back then. So it was about time somebody mentioned him in pulp media, because he's one of the fathers of modern pulp media. I like him.

You also list Neil Gaiman as one of your influences. I imagine you must think lately about American Gods when writing Leverage stories, because at its heart it was also a complicated nest of confidence games.

I love Neil's stuff. My non-Star Trek prose work... What I like about Neil is that he mixes things up: he mixes con games with the existence of magic; he mixes a hardboiled plot with a sci-fi or Lovecratian twist. That's the kind of thing that I was trying to do anyway in my other work, so I was happy to see someone functioning at such a high level, doing it and saying, Yeah, it can be done this way. Granted, there's a bunch of other guys doing it, but I would say he's still top shelf.

As a comics writer, has there been any talk, or have you pitched the notion, of adapting Leverage into a comics medium?

Absolutely. We've talked about it extensively this year. It's not really mine -- I'm such a low totem on the staff there. John Rogers and Chris Downey... even though on paper, there's a certain hierarchy -- staff writer vs. co-producer vs. executive producer -- while we're writing the show, it's very egalitarian. It's just, Best idea, no egos involved, get the best show together we can do. So we talked about a lot of stuff. There's been discussion of some media tie-in novels, maybe. Comic book stuff. It's just how to do it, when to do it, why to do it -- what kind of stories would be told in a comic book medium that aren't being told in the primary medium? And then, how much would it cost, who to get to do it -- would the writers of the show do it, because some of us write comics. Christine Boylan writes comics. M. Scott Veach writes comics. Obviously John Rogers writes comics. Or would we farm it out like other shows do, where we get a bunch of talented show and have them write the books?

Those aren't my decisions to make, but I'm happy that presenting the idea of comics to them isn't one that they hadn't not only thought about themselves, but one that they were not against. With Electric it's always timing and what's the best reason and time to do something. So it's definitely on one of the back-burners, I just don't know if they'll get to it in the time available.

I mentioned in a previous review that it looks like Leverage is becoming the evil guest-star magnet that the old Batman series used to be.

(laughs) We had a lot of fun with bringing in people. The people that we got -- we got pretty much everybody we wanted to get. There were a couple of people that we were unable to get, just because of scheduling conflicts, that maybe we'll get if there's another season. But this season, John basically came in -- and I hadn't worked with the guy before, so the only people I knew there were John himself and Christine Boylan -- but this year John really wanted the show to be about family, and different aspects of family. In doing so, that sort of automatically lent itself to delving into the personal backgrounds of the characters in a way that had never specifically been done before. And in order to make characters that would relate to those backgrounds valuable, they had to come in with a certain amount of built-in weight. So when you're grabbing a Richard Chamberlain, for instance, as soon as he turns around and you see that it's Richard Chamberlain, there's much we don't have to write into that relationship; he simply says a couple of sentences and your brain fills in the blanks because of the gravitas that he brings to it.

And then there are people who just dug the show. There were actors who just wanted... and we were like, "Wow! Really? Yeah, let's get them in here!" But I don't know that necessarily will be the same situation next year. If there's another season, it will probably... it will certainly be different than this season in terms of tone, because there will be a different overall theme to whatever we're trying to do.

But in terms of stunt casting, we really didn't look at it that way. we just asked, "Who's the biggest and best for this really plum job?" We got Tom Skerrit in this year. We know next week Clancy Brown is coming up. I'm not allowed to say who the big guest stars are for the finale. There are also actors we got that the average audience member might not say "Oh, that's a big actor!" -- maybe a British actor from one series, or a really good character actor that we just really dig.

We've got Wil Wheaton back this year. We got John Billingsley from Enterprise. There's a bunch that are sort of locked into the season finale. Who else... Oh, James Frain! That guy is awesome. He's currently on True Blood as this crazy evil vampire. He played Cromwell in The Tudors. He's fan-tastic!

Oh, and John Schneider! I didn't even mention him! That guy is amazing! He was on just this last week. He's like Captain America, that guy! He's turned 50, he looks like he's 35 years old!

And also Bill Engvall is in one coming up. He's a comedian who's turned out to be not a bad dramatic actor.

But it's not really stunt casting -- it's much more in terms of Who do you think is best? Who's going to bring the right stature to a given part? There are other characters that were local hires -- regional actors -- who have created sparks in such a way that we're going to bring them back too. We really try to make the show the best we can, and we're shameless about what we'll do to make it the best we can.

You talked about the characters having a built-in past. When you wrote "The Inside Job" and we get to see where Parker lives, the first thing I flashed onto was a scene from the television series Profit with Adrian Pasdar, where this Machiavellian corporate climber has this opulent apartment but he sleeps in the corner in a cardboard box because of his past.

Yeah, I remember that show! Holy crap! I won't say that I consciously lifted from that, but... You know, everybody's saying that Parker's crazy. I never really believed in that. I think that there's a reason for even outlandish behaviors, so I wanted to get in a little bit about the way her mind works. And I always figured that she's just a person who doesn't care about the things that don't matter, at all. Unless it's part of what she's decided is important to her, there's no reason to have all these extra creature comforts. There's no reason to keep old family photos -- but she kept the stuffed bunny, because it's important! And I have to give it up to our set designer -- she went all out. She did things with that set that, even though it was fairly well described... Like, there are notebooks in that set that have Parker's diary notations in them! If one of the actors had actually decided to pick it up, they could have seen these. I was like, This is great! I could live in here!

I really love getting these pieces from each character's past, because... when the series first began, they were in it for the money. But now we're seeing these people who were thieves and bad guys, but who maybe didn't really want to be and now have a reason not to be.

Yeah, and you've got to take that back to John and Chris. What they're trying to do with this show is -- one, the primary thing is to have a lot of fun; we call it "The Fun Train" and we're not kidding, there's lots of things that we'll sacrifice for logic, or give little winks to the audience like the Peel and Steed bit. That's for the audience. We know in the real world we can't do stuff like that. But the Fun Train aspect is that these guys were all extremely talented criminals. They were perfectly fine being criminals, and would have been perfectly fine being criminals for the rest of their lives. They were successful at it. The first crime brings them together, Nate keeps them together, and it's now like the idea of being good works like a virus -- they're all infected, and there's no cure. So they're doing things now based on simply wishing to be good, to do what's right, rather than for any secondary profit motive.

But also, of all the characters, I would say Eliot is the one that was most likely to do that anyway, because his past was so brutal, and I think we talked about his kind of getting sick of it. So we've tried to show that a little bit this year as well, and there'll be a little bit more about that coming up in the next few episodes. Eliot really does not like innocent victims being harmed. And not just kids -- any truly innocent person. And we feel -- and Christian to some degree... we try to not step on the toes of whatever the actors have come up with to motivate themselves in different character moments. For instance, Gina [Bellman] chose her own -- she chose Sophie's name, her real name, whatever it turns out to be. And a lot of background stuff is coming out about her character this year. It's yet to come out, but it will. It was created by Gina, but in discussion with Gina things came out that she had incorporated into her back-story that John was like, "Hey, that's not bad! We'll riff on it." So we don't do exactly what they say, but we never want to step on their toes, either. They're our collaborators.

The point is that this year is about family -- them coming together, people finding out more about their pasts but also seeing the "good guy virus" taking hold of them in some way or another. Just as Nate is moving toward the dark side, saying finally, "I'm the thief," all the thieves are moving much more toward the position Nate was in when they met. Hopefully it will balance out somewhere in the middle.

What projects do you have outside of Leverage that are coming out in the near future?

Well, I'm going to San Diego Comic Con, obviously. I've got my comic mini-series that I've put together with my best friend and partner, Todd Harris, and our first project is called Prodigal: Egg of First Light which we're now releasing in trade paperback, premiering at the convention. It's being shopped around to Hollywood right now, and there's been a couple of very, very serious looks at it. We're very encouraged to the point where we don't want to jinx anything by outing anyone right now on that.

And then we're debuting our next all-ages project, Bigger Than Giants. It's hard to describe, but if you can picture "The Jungle Book" and James Cameron's "Avatar," you're sort of getting an idea of what we're doing with that one.

I'm writing a couple of features, and pitching some projects around town. But in terms of prose writing, I just haven't had the time so I honestly don't know. I'm hopefully getting geared up for season 4 of Leverage, I'd love to have that announcement come sooner rather than later.

And did you leave the fans on a cliffhanger with season 3, so that if you don't get picked back up, we can all scream?

(evil laugh) I'm not telling you. Let me put it like this: the end of this season makes the end of last season look like a love letter. It's gonna be crazy. They're shooting it right now and... it's hectic, I can't even describe it.

I can't believe they're actually going to take time out to come down for the convention. That's actually because our fans are so crazy rabid and we feel like we should give that back -- you know, having once been one of the crazy rabid fans? So they're literally going to fly down Friday night, do the panel, talk to everybody, maybe give some hints about what's to come, and then fly back up that night for work on Monday morning. But it's going to be worth it at the end of it, it's really going to be a fantastic double episode.