Bruno Heller and Chris Long try to explain the magic behind 'The Mentalist'
The producers of the hit crime drama chat about a number of aspects of the series, from working with star Simon Baker to being one of the last shows to shoot on film.
On working with Simon Baker:
Heller: It's one of those things they always tell you don't write a show where the lead character's in the title. But with Simon, we were incredibly lucky to get Simon, and I think a great part of the show's success is directly due to him and to the fact that he's both a great actor and a great entertainer and has very sharp instincts, both for his own performance and for story and how he comes across on screen. So I very much listen to what he's saying, and we collaborate a great deal in terms of how the character develops and how the character works. I think he's a genuine TV star. He has a charisma that really pops on screen. People want to watch him.
On how getting to know Baker’s talents changed the way the role was written:
Heller: On a day-to-day basis, Baker's a great, great performer, but Chris has to work very closely with him on stage because he's always coming up with ideas and ways to play things. From a writing perspective, certainly. More at the beginning of the process, as soon as Baker was the guy and as soon as we saw him working, the character becomes much more -- he's not driven by the actor, but my and the other writers' sense of who that character is is driven by Simon, and he's much more charming and light on his feet and kind of joyous than the original character I had in my head, just because he is. When he walks into a room, people kind of smile, because he's a very handsome, charming guy who is giving in that way. So he brings that -- he brings that in spades, and it would be foolish to write a sort of gothic character against that. And I think one of the reasons the show has popped as it has is that no one had really seen that essence of Simon Baker as an actor. You have seen little snippets of him doing his stuff, but where he's had time and a big canvas to do stuff, he's always been in slightly more dour parts or more sort of restricted parts. This allows him to blossom, and that's what you get.
Long: I think he loves his character. I really do. He comes every day and he wants his character as good and fun and great as we can make it, so he's always interested. He's always active. He's always got a lot to say about the blocking in a good way, in a collaborative way. But, I mean, he owns Patrick Jane.
Heller: Yeah. But that's the thing. A lot of actors deal with that. When they own a character, they get kind of possessive and it becomes about the expression of some inner whatever. He's a very giving actor. Very much old-school, like he's there to -- in any scene, he's thinking of, "How will this play with the audience?" which is subtly different from, "How can I make this true?" A lot of actors will simply try to make something true whereas in the best possible way, he's playing to the camera. He's playing to the audience. He's drawing the audience into what he's doing. Even if it's something grim or dark, he brings the audience along with him because that's what he feels is his job. That's why it's a great joy to work with and write for him because you know that whatever you do, he's going to try and take it to the next step.
Long: He's very aware of where the camera is. Very understanding of the camera. He's directed and brings much understanding of staging where the camera's going to be, which pieces we will use and won't use, and often we'll be in taping, "Oh, you won't be there for that."
On “The Mentalist” being called a “light” drama:
Heller: I think when people talk about lighter drama, they tend to use that term, not derogatorily, but "lighter" means sort of less to a degree, but if you're an actor, light drama is often mistaken for easier drama. I suspect if you were to ask Baker precisely what he would object to, it's the fact that whatever the popularity of light versus heavy drama, it's actually much harder to do this kind of show for an actor than a show where there's serial killers popping out of the cupboard every five minutes, because to hit the notes he has to hit and to keep the show on its toes in the way he does, it's actually very difficult.
Long: "Criminal Minds" -- no disrespect to it -- is a really great show, but it's in the mold, cookie-cutter every week. The crimes are the same. The tone of the show is the same. Which is why those kind of shows have much more of a style imposed on them, "CSI," "Criminal Minds," all really, really, really well done, but it's not -- "The Mentalist," we tend to pride ourselves that we can swing around between the heavier episodes and the lighter episodes.
Heller: Because I think he has those qualities in him. He has a kind of Cary Grant charm and performance, which is a very -- it's not purely easy. It looks very easy, but it's actually a very technical performance he brings every week and works very hard at. As you see, he's also a contrarian person. He has darker impulses underneath. He is a genuine, tough man, so he brings both those qualities to it. Personally, I like those moments in the show where we see that kind of hard edge underneath the lightness, because it's there, and when it pops out, it can be nicely chilling.
On the growth of the show’s secondary characters:
Heller: It's funny. When you start a show, as writers, we say make it gritty. Make it real. We want real people that look like cops, et cetera, et cetera. So there's a certain element of that when you start. And then as it goes on, wardrobe and makeup have their way, and everyone starts looking more and more beautiful. And not just Amanda, but I think all of the characters. That tends to be one of those things that happens in TV.
Long: We had a second year retread. Like everyone -- as Nina Tassler said at CBS when she saw the last episode, "Everybody's got second-year hair." It just sort of happens that way. We looked at things like "Five Days," which was the British thing, and a very rich [inaudible] and stuff like that and looked at things that we liked that we felt came from England that were real and gritty, and it gradually just forms itself into something that's slicker because the nature of the way we make television over here.
Heller: It's also a certain point where everyone is looking gorgeous. It's very difficult to go into the makeup trailer and say, "Can you make everyone here look a little less good than they did?" But all those storylines, it's very much about -- I was about to say it's all bait and switch. But it's not that. It's that they come to the foreground and then they step back again. The technical term is B stories. We don't think of them as B stories. There's no B stories in real life. They're all A stories. But it's kind of -- what we try and do is make those things happen at the pace of real life as opposed to the kind of supersonic speed that you normally get on TV drama where by at the end of the season, everyone has slept with everyone else, and they're already going on their second round of affairs. With this, it's a smaller office, and it's more like the pace of real life because I think that's one of those -- I think that's a kind of a more English drama thing. Stuff happens slower.
On shooting on film vs. digital high definition cameras:
Long: We are one of the last one-hour dramas in television to shoot film, and we want to hang onto film because we think it looks beautiful. So much of the HD can look good, where it does still struggle in the exteriors. So, therefore, you know, we shoot a lot of exterior. We want to see California. I guess we have a love affair with California, so we are sticking to film cameras. HD will come to us eventually, because eventually the studio will make changes for us, three, four years down the line, as we literally become the last show on film. I don't think there's one other drama that's a pilot this season that's being shot on film. It's us and I think "CSI" is shot on film. Everybody else has changed to HD. HD does look great. No problem with it. But I think our show does look -- contrast the rich and expensive partly because it's shot on film and partly because of the places we're choosing to shoot.
On where the Jane/Lisbon relationship is headed:
Heller: I think that relationship -- again, Chris deals with it on a moment-by-moment basis, and to that degree, it's a moment-by-moment thing. Like real life, they don't know where or what that relationship will turn into. But I think where we try and keep it is keeping it -- those questions open, because it depends on the audience member. Some people see that as a very sort of intense but cryptic romantic relationship. Other people see it purely as brother and sister. And I think we leave it to time and the audience to play that out and the chemistry of the actors.
Long: Interestingly, they're really, really good friends, and they are like brother and sister. I'm not sure if we're being guided by that as we bring the show forward, but they behave like brother and sister. You don't feel there's any sort of sexual tension between Robin Tunney and Simon Baker. They really like each other a lot as friends, so I'm not sure if it's part of that that's driving us that we don't see them making out or in a romantic relationship.
Heller: And also, those things, again, like real life, those two people can work in an office context like that for years and years and then suddenly discover, despite their brother and sister relationship, that they love each other. That's the thing. They do love each other on screen. And that sort of transcends any potential sexuality, and I think to that degree, it would be an entirely secondary thing if their relationship was ever consummated, but for me what great TV does is it creates kind of not substitute families, but kind of larger families, and the shows that last, that people are fond of, have relationships imbedded in them that are like relationships in real life, good ones. They go on for years and years and years, and they change subtly. It's not kind of big, melodramatic changes. It's just the familiarity and comfort of people you know, you know?
Long: And we try to shake up their relationship a little bit by putting Hightower in the middle of it. Hightower's character introduced this season sort of gives Patrick Jane a bit of a free pass while putting the pressure on Lisbon to watch out for his behavior, which is a new dynamic that Minelli didn't bring.