Aaron Korsh, the creator and showrunner behind Suits, spoke with USA Network this week about the shocking season finale (warning: episode spoilers ahead), including a drastic last-minute rewrite of Mike and Rachel's wedding -- along with other examples of changing the story based on what the characters would do.
Here are excerpts from the conversation, including where Suits fits into the current TV landscape, why it's important for writers to take risks, and how to have your characters fight convincingly.
USA Network: What a great turn of plot for the end of this season. Does it feel to you like it's risky or does it feel like this is where the story had to go?
Aaron Korsh: Well, I would maybe say both. Risky? I tend to talk more about that It's frightening; it's scary. You never know when you do something like this what it's going to do to your show. It could take you into a territory that is not good, but I don't think it's going to do that. We've been in the vicinity of things that scare the sh*t out of me before. It was lesson I learned at the end of season one. We had Trevor go to Jessica and basically tell her Mike's secrets. That could have destroyed everything.
I think that's how you make compelling television. You just have to keep doing something that will surprise fans. [Know] that you might not be able to figure a way out of it and hope that you can -- have faith that you can. That's sort of how we deal with risks over here in Suits Town.
USA: You strike me as the kind of writer who lets the story find you sometimes. I hear that a lot from very talented writers -- that they write the world and they write the characters, but even they don't always know what their characters are going to do.
AK: That's true in large measure. I mean, you create these beings that you feel in your gut have characteristics. When a situation arises, sometimes you don't want them to behave the way that your gut is telling you they would behave. Maybe I don't want one of these people to make this decision or that decision, but I think they would. Unless I really can come up with some compelling reason why they wouldn't, we're going to have to go that way.
I think that happens a lot, but that's not always true, because sometimes you can bring in an outside event that will shatter everything -- like Mike getting arrested didn't have to come when it came. To a large degree, you have to be open to what the story wants to do. Also you have to be open to changing your mind. Many times, we're going down a path and we get there and it doesn't feel right. It just doesn't feel like this is what really should happen, so we change course.
USA: Are there any recent examples of that? Where you were going down a road and then you said, "Wait a second. I know we're shooting in a day, but we should change this"?
AK: I'll give you a couple, one of which was, I think, in season four. We had a particular episode that we were going to call "Guns Down" with Harvey and Mike, when they were in their battle for the takeover. It was going to be a whole episode about Clifford Danner getting arrested -- and, ironically, Clifford Danner has a big impact on the last two episodes this year -- and they stopped their fight to take this case.
It was great in theory and in concept. Even when I say it now, I'm like, "Man, I'd love to have seen that episode." At the time, when we got there, it felt like, "This does not feel real. It feels like we're putting the brakes on so that we can do this," as opposed to how it actually would happen. Instead, we rewrote the entire episode. It was the one that ultimately ended up having Donna and Louis and Shakespeare... with Rachel going to the hospital. That ended up being a 'guns down' sort of scene with having Rachel faint and Harvey and Mike going out to dinner. It was a scene about that, rather than a whole entire episode of that.
This year, Mike and Rachel were actually going to get married in the finale. Talk about changing your mind. We started writing that episode with maybe two weeks left before it was going to shoot. When we started writing it, it was my intention to have them decide to get married and then have Mike sort of do what he did -- sort of call it off at the last minute.
By the time we got there, two things happened. One was I was lobbied by a couple of the writers to not call it off because they wanted some happiness in the episode along with the sadness of Mike going to jail. Then, more important than that, I wasn't sure we'd earned the change of heart in terms of inside the episode because it was tricky. You had to have them both decide to get married and then decide not to get married.
Then, when we got up to Canada, Gabriel Macht had mentioned to me that he thought they shouldn't get married yet, and another director who was up there mentioned to me she thought they weren't going to get married, and I thought to myself, "Wait a minute, I didn't want them to get married!"
Then I looked and I remembered that we thought we hadn't earned it. I read the script and I'm like, "No, I think maybe we have earned it." Literally, the night before we shot that scene, we rewrote it. I didn't want to pull one over on the network and the studio and shoot a different scene. We were trying to get them on the phone and make sure they were good with it and they were. That was a last-minute thing.
USA: With the TV landscape how it is right now -- the story arcs are longer, they have more twists and turns -- it seems that what happened in Suits this season is really in line with what people are expecting from good television these days. And it reflects how the medium lends itself to this kind of storytelling. You're not confined to the two hours of a movie. You can take your characters in all kinds of directions and know that the fans are happy to go with them.
AK: I think television absolutely needs to have a more long-arc approach than it used to. I have always been compelled by serialized storytelling in any form, be it books, which is probably the ultimate form of serialized storytelling, or television shows that have more of that arc to them. Even when I was a kid, Hill Street Blues was a perfect example of a show that wasn't necessarily about the crime of the week. For people, you felt like you were getting glimpses into their lives. That's a 30-year-old show. It's not totally brand new.
I've always been drawn to things like that, so it has served me well they're having this resurgence now. I think television is just giving people a chance to have such specific shows aired for the person who desires serialized storytelling. Because audiences do get more sophisticated, you've throw things at them that show them that they can't just sit back and know, for example, that Mike is going to get out of this thing. I've read, "You know they're going to get out of it because that's what these shows do," and it really makes me say, "Well, this isn’t what we do."
I'd say Game of Thrones is a perfect example also of that, where they will kill somebody that you love. You better be ready because that's true to that world. I don't watch The Walking Dead, but I've heard a lot of great things about it and they just show you, "Don't get comfortable and think you know what we’ll do." That's probably the biggest challenge in the modern era of serialized storytelling. I think that we, hopefully, did it in some small way with Mike going to prison and say, "Hey, look, this can happen."
Game of Thrones did it at the end of season one with killing Ned Stark and just as an aside, I read this book, Pillars of the Earth, when I was in my '20s. It's like a thousand-page book and 300 pages in, your main character dies. It doesn’t happen in any book you're going to ever read. It just does not happen. It was basically the equivalent to Ned Stark dying. I remember reading this book and thinking, "Holy sh*t." I didn't put it down and never pick it back up. I read all thousand pages and it was great! You can do things that shatter the world and still be compelling -- and that's what so good about shows that take chances like that. It means that you can never feel comfortable knowing what's going to happen, and therefore it makes you really want to know what's going to happen.
USA: Story without conflict is boring, but you also have to serve your characters. Where do you find that balance as you go forward?
AK: That's an excellent question and in the last couple of years, one of the things that I tried to do was just keep an eye on the tone and the tenor of our characters' conversations with each other and remember that sometimes we can design a scene that's fully conflictual and that they have grievances with each other, but we have to remember that we love these people and they love each other deep down.
Sometimes it doesn't seem like we do that because you can see them yelling at each other so often. But we definitely try to remember that. There's a lot of fodder for them to yell at each other -- but if all they ever do is do that, they would never stick together. You have to remember that you've got to earn these moment of sticking together.
For example, the scene where Mike and Rachel decide to get married in the finale is another that I rewrote. It was originally going to be more romantic, where they decided to get married but they didn’t have sex. Less important than sex was that they didn't have their intimacy, and I was like, "We need to feel their physical bond that they have with each other. They need to really earn this moment of wanting to get married." I rewrote that scene in order to do that. And, obviously, it would have never been conflictual anyway, but it was more about deepening the intimacy and the bond that those two have with each other.
Then, for example, when Louis decides in [episode 515] not to turn on Harvey, you have the big scene where he’s sort of setting Harvey up, but then you also have the scene where you see the look on his face and he's torn. Or, when he goes to Jessica even, he doesn't yell at her and say, "We got to do this." He has a little outburst in the scene, but in the end, he begs her. He says, "We can protect each other." Then she says, "I'm not going to do that because I know Harvey would fall on his sword for us."
That's a scene where Jessica is standing up for Harvey in a soft way behind his back, which is great. That convinces Louis not to do it. Those are the moments you try to put it in there. Jessica says to Louis, "I know that if we're found guilty and they come after us, the second it's over, Harvey is going to take a bullet for us." She knows that about him.
Even the fighting in episode 516 -- when Harvey and Mike have a fight -- afterwards they make up and Harvey is there for him at the wedding and to take him to prison.
Here's another example: Robert Zane and Rachel have a pretty conflictual scene in 516. I love the moment in the finale when he walks up to put his coat on his daughter. It's just a small visual moment, but he's her father. He loves her and you see that there. We do try to find those moments. Sometimes those moments can be overlooked or lost.
We definitely triy to strike that balance and put in scenes that demonstrate these characters ultimately care for each other. They were all there for Mike and Rachel's wedding and they're all there whenever the chips are down and times are at their darkest. Ultimately, they come through for each other.
There's a scene in 513, where Donna apologizes to Rachel for yelling at her in the bathroom the episode before. We were a little long in that episode and it was bandied about to cut that scene to save time, instead of taking little trims in other scenes, and I was like, "I don't want to cut that scene. It's an important scene that Donna and Rachel repair the relationship like they would if they really cared about each other."
So, these are things that we try to be careful with, and we may be doing it to varying degrees of success? But we don't never think about it.
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