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Lethal Weapon: an exclusive inside look with McG

Image for Lethal Weapon: an exclusive inside look with McG

Lethal Weapon is the latest in a wave of creative properties that are being rebooted or reimagined from feature films to television (this season alone will also see the return of MacGyver and a TV extension of 1973's The Exorcist). Not surprisingly, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover are out as, respectively, detectives Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh, with Clayne Crawford and Damon Wayons stepping in for the camaraderie, snarkiness, mayhem and larger than life action.

McG, who serves as executive producer and director of the pilot, and who is well represented on the small screen with Shadowhunters, The Mysteries Of Laura and Supernatural among others, sat down with Empire to share his enthusiasm regarding the project and his awareness that there are many people likely to avoid the show out of their love for the Lethal Weapon film series.

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There seems to be such a wave of these remakes and reboots. Was there any sense of trepidation over taking on Lethal Weapon given that fact?

My first response was, "Oh, Lethal Weapon. Wow. Where's the new idea? Where's the original idea?" But then I responded to the script. Simply, the archetype of the characters. I think it would be a mistake to hold something against a remake. I like every iteration of Scarface. I like every iteration of A Star Is Born. There's room to do it. I don't want to see Hamlet just once; there is room to ingest and redefine. At the same time, you just need to be very careful. At the end of the day, it's got to be great on its own, with or without remembrance of the original. I think that, if anything, it's a strike against you to be going into one of these big IP titles. But who knows? They continued the story with Star Wars; JJ [Abrams] did a great job. There's certainly room to perpetuate story and do well with it. It's no shoe-in. If anything, I think that the audience can roll over on you before you prove them wrong.

The JJ Star Trek films cover the spectrum of that. Both the 2009 film and Star Trek Into Darkness did very well at the box office, but with Star Trek Beyond all of a sudden people were, like, "You know what? We don't want this now."

I enjoyed the last picture. I've always made comments that there's got to be a wormhole somewhere in the universe with JJ Abrams controlling both Star Trek and Star Wars. I thought it's just a matter of the take and the way that it's done. In regard to television, look at how great Fargo turned out. I would have thought that would be impossible.

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Obviously you're one of the architects of bringing Lethal Weapon to TV. So what is the procedure? How do you watch the movies and say, "Okay, this would be great for the TV show and here's where we have to depart from the movie"?

You've got to identify what's essential. To me, what's essential is the one-hundred and eighty degree polar separation of the two characters. Matt Miller, who wrote the script for this television expression of Lethal Weapon, really did that well. You've got the Riggs character, he's dealing with a little PTSD. Then, in our show, he loses his wife and his unborn child. As played by Clayne Crawford, he's seeking death and he's not kidding. Hopefully, that came across. He really wants to be reunited with his wife in the afterlife should there be one. He can't take his own life, just yet, because she'd be ashamed of him if he did so. Then, on the other hand, you've got the Murtaugh character who very much wants to stay alive. Matt built in that Damon Wayans' portrayal of Roger Murtaugh just had heart surgery. A big quadruple bypass, so he cheated death. He's got two teenage kids and, strangely, a newborn child. All of which makes him want to come home at night, desperately so. He cheated death and actively wants to stay away from it.

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Now, you've got these two guys out there in the Michael Mann streets of Los Angeles. That makes for compelling character study and fun and everything I like from the first time I ever saw Lethal Weapon all those years ago. We tried to honor that. Then, we needed to do something to add to the originality to make it work for today. I talked about some of those things as far as, the specificity of the loss of the wife story for Riggs and the heart procedure for Murtaugh to further illuminate their characters. Then grab the kind of action that people thought we wouldn't be able to do on television and prove them wrong.

I just did my best to honor all those influences from Lethal Weapon and beyond and put it into this new expression of the idea, and hopefully it feels very new and original for it. The greatest gift we've gotten so far is that those who have seen it aren't hung up on Mel and Danny, which I thought would have been impossible. Those guys are those guys. They embody Riggs and Murtaugh and I never thought I could get to a place where Clayne is Riggs and Damon is Murtaugh, but we did. I don't think we look at it and go, "Get that Clayne Crawford out of that Riggs position." I think we go, "Hey, this guy's doing a good job. He's got bravado. He's got crazy. He's from the south. I don't think he's any stranger to NRA sensitivities." He's goes into a house of the Murtaugh character and his high powered wife, who's an attorney and very conscious in the world of the rights of society. It's all these things that just give you interesting points of view as you get into any conversation.

What's interesting, too, is Murtaugh wants to stay alive, and at some point would want to leave the force, but there's probably a magnetism of Riggs that draws him in. The bromance that Muraugh's wife should get jealous of.

It's so funny you should say that: that's plucked right out of the writers room. That's where we're going. She's simultaneously jealous because Riggs does bring out a virility and a purpose in Murtaugh's life. I think that that is a big part of it. You could see how a spouse, or a partner, would raise an eyebrow. Furthermore, Riggs introduces a danger, which the Trish character is saying, "Hey. Is this a good idea? All these years on the force, you never got a scratch. Now, you're running around with this Riggs character and I'm worried you're not going to come home at night. We've got a lot to lose. We got a good thing with our family, our three kids." They have enough money. They have a life well worth living. Now, he's living very dangerously riding along with Riggs.

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Which would seem to be Murtaugh's journey, in a sense, but what is Riggs'? Is it learning how to embrace life again?

Yes. I feel like Riggs wakes up every morning, at best, fifty-one/forty-nine in favor of staying alive. At best. I think that that depth of sorrow is, sadly, something a great many people can relate to. This story of finding a reason to put one foot in front of the other is very interesting. I think what keeps Riggs going is that if he took his own life and he were to see his wife in the afterworld, she'd be ashamed that he took the easy way out. She would regard that as blasphemy and not honoring her and not honoring their unborn child. He has to keep putting one foot in front of the other, but just barely. Should he go into a bank being robbed as a faux pizza guy, placing him in a far more dangerous situation than he should, and should that end with a bullet in him, a he'd be quite content with that. Then, he could have his cake or pizza and eat it, too. And he could therefore see his wife again, but not by the grace of his own hand. That's an interesting character to watch navigate the police world.

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If you go back to the first two Lethal Weapon films, initially Riggs is a suicidal guy working alone, but then you're watching him regain...not sure if sanity is the right word, because Riggs isn't quite sane. But he's a guy who, because of the influence of the Murtaugh family, is becoming more rooted in the world again.

Right, and that was one of my biggest concerns with the final shot of the pilot: When Riggs walks through that door of the Murtaugh residence, I didn't want the air to come out of the balloon in regards to the audience saying, "Okay, he's now surrogate of the Murtaugh family. Riggs is going to be okay." That's something that I really challenged Matt Miller with in the second episode, and of course through the body of the season. He had to keep it dangerous; I've got to believe that Riggs doesn't have it together and at any time the wheels could come off. It's got to be believable.

Not to harp on the films, but they did that in Lethal Weapon 2 where he's doing his wash at the Murtaughs, he's having dinner with them, he's part of the family. Yet when the Patty Kensit character is killed and he finds her body underwater and freaks out, he rips down the house on stilts and looks to have gone completely nuts.

I found that second picture very satisfying. Listen, I made a lesser-than sequel in the Charlie's Angels sequel. I was very proud of the first one. There's a reason why you and I can count satisfactory sequels on one, okay maybe two, hands. There have been thousands of them made, but very few are up to snuff. I love that second Lethal Weapon picture. I think, again, you nailed one of the engines that made that work was that just as Riggs lets his guard down and opens himself up to love again, it's taken from him. That reignites his crazy and his world view is that life isn't fair. "If I ever let myself get close to anything, I'm going to get hurt."

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I think Matt's intention there is to mine for story. We'll see if the death of the wife was as innocent as originally portrayed. I should leave it at that as not to blow any secrets. But I think he does have designs. We've talked about making that a little bit more complex than you may have originally imagined. It's shown in the pilot to just be an unfortunate traffic accident. We may find out a little bit more about the driver of that truck.

We've talked a lot about Riggs and Murtaugh, but why were Clayne and Damon the right guys to bring those characters to life?

Totally different in regard to one versus the other. Damon had been thinking about coming back to television after, I don't know, ten years away from My Wife And Kids. To me, that really satisfied a must have for Murtaugh. Murtaugh's got to feel like the return of an old friend. I think Damon does that with the path he's walked in his life. We've known him since In Living Color. He's a great comedian. He did Last Boy Scout. He's been around. He's played into different genres. Then, been away for a while. Now, in returning I thought, "You know what? I think that's going to have that warmth and invitation that is central to the Murtaugh character." So I'm feeling good. I've got half the puzzle. We've got Murtaugh in a good place. What are we going to do to fill the immeasurable boots of Mel Gibson at his creative peak?

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Mel was so good in Mad Max and so good in Lethal Weapon. Obviously, done a great many other things, but these are seminal roles for him. How can we fill those boots? I didn't want some Hollywood wimp pretty boy. There would, obviously, be a lot of pressure to do that. I was passionate that it couldn't be. We searched every single guy in town. Every single guy that was available. Every single guy you might imagine. All the lists that you could imagine. Then, this indie picture, Baytown Outlaws, comes across via the casting director. This guy Clayne Crawford's in it. I'm like, "I kind of remember that guy. He was in A Walk To Remember." He's was kind of like a shiny new thing for a minute there with that Nick Sparks movie. He's been away for a while, doing a little on Rectify, but not much. I said, "I want to meet this guy. I think he's got the moves" as far as the masculinity. The trustworthiness. The overt disregard for Hollywood. That, to me, is Riggs.

To his benefit or detriment, that will be for history, right? Mel certainly embodies that. He speaks his mind and he'll accept where that lands him. That's Riggs, too. Clayne's a lot like that. Clayne's living on a farm in Alabama. He doesn't want to be in Hollywood. He quit acting for a while. He really wanted to focus on the work and be an actor's actor. He felt that the choices he made as a younger man, and the path he had walked, had led him away from what he originally signed up to do. I'm like, "Oh. Wow. This guy's interesting. I've got to know this guy." Just barely we got him to get on a plane to come out and meet. He really didn't want to do it. We really talked about what he liked about Riggs, with the Mel Gibson expression. What I liked about it. We had a lot in common there. I really appealed to him to do it with everything I had. He had to go to the mountaintop and think about it. Reflect on it. Look into the faces of his three kids. Talk to his wife. He really didn't want to do it. But he was truly on a list of one of who I thought could do the role in a satisfactory capacity. For me, it was Clayne or nothing by the time we got to the end. In the end, Peter Roth at Warner Brothers and Dana Walden at Fox thought the same way. We got Clayne Crawford and we're very thankful we did.

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And what's the connection between Clayne and Damon?

It's authentic. Damon Wayans is an African American guy. Born in New York. Raised in LA. Fast lane. Eddie Murphy. Running around Hollywood doing his thing. Incredible life. I make a joke about Rick James, Damon sends me a picture of him and Rick James. He's lived it. He's done it. He's walked it. He's earned it. That is a different path than a white dude from Alabama. And there's so much respect between Clayne and Damon in regard to the path they have each walked, that has led them to this place. There's congeniality and respect. You can't get away from the fact that they've had two spectacularly different life experiences. Not to mention, at the end of the day, Damon's a performer. Damon's a comedian. I love working with actors with that pedigree. Clayne is an actor is an actor is an actor is an actor. He's all about character and doing the work and diving deep into choices. All those things. It's all of those differences that create a whole that is so much greater than the sum of its parts. We're very lucky to have two guys that are fundamentally coming from two different places in the universe. That's what makes it interesting.

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What is it that really works and should connect people with this show?

Heart. I think that's the irony. Again, I ask you. Don't listen to me. I'm in the business of trying to get people to tune in and give it a chance. I really believe that the surprise of the show is the degree to which there is heart. You get emotional. You invest in these two characters. No matter what I do as a director, or no matter what's on the page, that's for the magic of the performers. They have to cross through that proscenium and make it happen and do it on stage and do it on camera. The action's great. The humor's dynamite. I think what makes the world go around is the heart, and that's the power of the show.

Lethal Weapon airs on FOX in America and will be airing on ITV in the UK