There's no single person who knows both the story of Bob Lee Swagger and the immense challenge of turning it into TV better than showrunner John Hlavin. He's been with this project since inception, so we thought it a good idea to sit down with him and chat about Shooter now that it's over for the season.
USA Network: When did you first discover Stephen Hunter's books?
John Hlavin: I read Point of Interest in the nineties and have been through all of them since. I had consumed a lot of Tom Clancy, James Patterson, various military thrillers, and with Clancy, you get a lot of detail on ships and tech, but with Bob Lee you get all this detail on what it was like to shoot a long gun, the factors that went into making that decision to squeeze the trigger. Up until that moment, my experience was mainly movies and TV where the crosshairs settle over the person and the gun is shot. What I learned from reading Point of Interest was that it was far more technical and intellectual. And it was all inside the body of a character I found fascinating: a lone gunman living by himself, a Vietnam vet who had done his duty for his country, performed well above and beyond his grade and really just wanted to retire to himself. I thought that the idea of them using his patriotism against him and tricking him was fascinating. It's great writing and great action and real page-turning and every book has held that level.
USA Network: Do you relate to personally to Bob Lee?
John Hlavin: Only in the aspirational sense: the integrity, the sense of duty, the ability to do the right thing, to be able to be active, to defend your family. I named the character's daughter after my own daughter because I wanted to feel that connection to the family, to remember that that's always the most important thing in his life as it is in hopefully all fathers' lives -- your wife and your child or children should be where you're centered and where your power and strength come from.
USA Network: What was your primary intention in creating this show?
John Hlavin: My primary intention most certainly was to write an authentic hero and not an anti-hero. For me it was about going at it through character, holding on to that intellectualized take on shooting, holding on to his smarts, really leaning into his masculinity and the activation of him as a character. He's certainly not boring by any stretch, but he's not like other characters out there who've got these other issues -- you know, House is a genius but he's a Vicodin addict and a jerk. I just didn't want to strike that balance this time. I felt it was important to keep him as authentically heroic as I could within the bounds of dramatic television.
USA Network: What are some of the changes you decided to make in this iteration of the Bob Lee story?
John Hlavin: We got away from the lone gunman because it's 2016-2017 and that conceit didn't feel as fresh. The other major changes where twofold: first, I made Nick Memphis into Nadine Memphis because it just felt again, in 2016-2017, that it didn't make sense that all of the characters were men when women have come a long way in that regard. I also thought it was important to generate a female character who wasn't a love interest, but who still drove the plot forward through something of a partnership with Bob Lee. The second change is Isaac Johnson. In the book his name is Colonel Shreck, but I thought making Isaac Bob Lee's captain in the Marines Corps who ran his team of snipers would make the double cross more interesting, more personal. It also gave me more mileage with Isaac as a character. What were the events in his life that took Isaac from heroic Marine to someone who would betray the hero of our story?
USA Network: What's been the single greatest challenge in making this show?
John Hlavin: I've had nothing but success with the regular cast of this show. The production has gone amazing. We're very lucky to shoot in Los Angeles, which gives us a lot in terms of great craftsmen and artisans, and especially concerning our leads -- Ryan, Omar, Chantal, Cynthia -- that they can go home every night, from a morale standpoint, it just makes everyone come to work in a better mood. The biggest challenge is trying to jam all the action in, trying to pay for it all, trying to make it an action show on a limited budget, and still feel very character-heavy.
USA Network: What about the finale? How did it feel shooting that?
John Hlavin: There's 110 scenes in the finale, in 42 minutes, so it's an impossible amount. The finale is the biggest episode of the season. We weren't even trying to do that; we sort of just ended up there. And thankfully everyone showed up. Simon Cellan-Jones, who directed the pilot, also directed the finale -- as well as a number of episodes in between -- and I wrote the pilot and I wrote the finale, so there's a sense of we're completing the story in the same way that we started.
USA Network: Did the ending change much from how you originally envisioned it?
John Hlavin: A little bit for logistical reasons. The book gives you a really firm line to take, the plotting is there. I didn't have the Isaac/Bob Lee relationship or the Bob Lee/Nadine relationship fully baked in my head, so those things were a little bit of a voyage of exploration. And I didn't know the location until we landed on what it was. In the book, it plays out more like a thriller; it's sort of a tension ending. We moved that stuff around a bit and made the very ending the threat against his wife and daughter.
USA Network: Can you share any hints as to where you see Bob Lee in season two?
John Hlavin: Nothing's baked, but I will say that season two has a lot to do with brotherhood and a more detailed examination of his experiences in Afghanistan at war and events that occurred there that are now having a very direct impact on his day-to-day life as well as on the world politics of the present day. It's really interesting because in episode four when we were in Afghanistan, we all came away thinking, wow, we'd like to do more of that. And we have an opportunity in the second season to do that in a more detailed way. We're also going to try to make the show a little more international, maybe spend a little more time in Europe, a little more time on world politics on a global scale.
USA Network: In general terms of being a showrunner, what's your favorite task and least favorite task?
John Hlavin: It's the greatest job in the world for a writer because you kind of answer to yourself, but the studio pays for the show, the network broadcasts the show, and you want all of them to be happy as well, within the range of what makes you happy as a creative person. My least favorite task are the meetings, of which there are thousands. My favorite thing to do is to collaborate, not only with the writers, but with every facet of the production. I really do think you get people's best work when you empower them to do their best work. I don't need them to meet some rigid standard of where the bottle is on the table or where the camera starts and stops on this scene because I do think there's an organic nature to what we do. When you let things happen organically it arrives on its own. It doesn't always mean you get perfection, but it works more than not. My other favorite thing is being surprised in editing. I love watching dailies or a cut and saying, '"Whoa I didn't see that coming!" Even though I've been in it since inception. If you can surprise me -- Glenn Gordon Caron taught me that when I worked for him briefly -- he said don't do the first four things, do the fifth thing. The first four things you've seen a lot. The fifth thing is generally the thing you haven't seen before. Look, I've never gone to war, I've never been on the run, or falsely accused of something, so at first, your aspect ratio is the movies you've seen and the books you've read, but eventually you have to clear some of that away and make room for the new thing that you've made.