There have been a lot of movies turned into television series as of late, most of which have (justifiably) crashed and burned. A surprising exception has been Lethal Weapon, ironic considering that its announcement probably elicited more derisive groans than all the others combined.
Taking the Mel Gibson/Danny Glover iconic buddy cop films and turning it into a series starring relative unknown Clayne Crawford and Damon Wayans in the roles of, respectively, suicidal cop Martin Riggs and desperate-to-stay alive Roger Murtaugh, seemed like a no-win scenario. But damn if the show — under the guidance of executive producer Matthew Miller (The 100, Forever) — hasn’t pulled it off. Miller shares with Empire the concept’s journey from cinema screens to television.
Lethal Weapon: In the beginning
I was talking to Warner Bros. about properties that they had that they were interested in me working on. I said to them, sort of off-handedly, "You know what, guys? The only thing you have that I would be interested in is Lethal Weapon," thinking that that would be the end of the conversation, just because it's such an iconic, fantastic title. I was told no right off the bat and I said, "Great. I totally understand." Then someone else, a producer that I knew, had knowledge of certain inside pieces of information and knew that the feature department would be willing to let it go. Anyway, long story short, they were able to get the rights for me before I even had a take on the material.
They were definitely big movies for me when I was a kid. The first one really resonated the most with me; it was a little bit more about this broken guy in Riggs that just suffered the loss of his wife and was suicidal. The drama and the emotion of that was most appealing to me in terms of revamping the series. While we still have super-fun action sequences and all of that stuff, I like the idea of telling this story about a guy who really wants to be dead. That was, I think, what kind of drew me to it. Also, those great buddy action comedies of the eighties. I'm talking about not only Lethal Weapon, but 48hrs. and Midnight Run. It felt like there was a lot of them, and it's not something that's done that often anymore in features. At the same time, it's certainly not done in television. There's obviously a lot of cop procedurals on TV. They're very, very heavy and they're generally not character-driven and they're generally not funny.
Just What Is A Lethal Weapon TV show?
The next thing I know is, like, "Okay, you want Lethal Weapon? You got it. Now, what's your show?" Then I had to figure out how you would actually take the franchise and turn it into a TV series that people would want to watch week in and week out. For me, the core of the show, and this is why it's really appealing, is not necessarily the police procedural element, but because I always saw the movies, and the TV show now, as a character piece. We still solve crimes and do all of that stuff, but at the core of the show is the great bromance of our time. It's about these two broken guys. They kind of need each other to become whole.
The most important element to me is capturing that tone. It's not that you're replicating the movies exactly. Fargo is a great example of a film where they took the TV show and they said, "Okay, we're not going to copy that plot, but we're going to capture the tone of what it felt like." That is a very good template to work off of. I think maybe that some of the TV shows based on features that have tried to replicate the original have gotten into some trouble. It's ones where you just sort of say, "Okay, well this is the soul of the original one." I want to keep that and then just sort of go down our own path.
Lethal Weapon 1.5
In a way, we’re kind of filling in the gap between the first two films. By Lethal Weapon 2, Riggs was actively out there dating, and he had sort of moved on from being a guy who is suicidal to a guy that was just kind of wacky. Then they obviously gave it the shot of adrenaline by bringing the Leo Getz character into it and a number of other things. They were sort of playing upon the humor and the banter more than necessarily the emotion and all that, which I get, because what's the next movie?
For us in TV, you're looking to live in the space for a while longer. I feel like there was a lot more story to still tell of this broken guy who had just lost his wife and is trying to pick up the pieces of his life without having to have him make a big emotional leap. Because those movies came out every couple years, you need to reset it a little bit. So we do want to live in that space between the two movies. Hopefully he gets to a place where we evolve him a little bit, where you do feel like he can start to date or do these things, but then the rug will get pulled out from under him.
The Journey Of Martin Riggs
It's very difficult, because you don't ever want him to be completely on firm ground. What we've done in season one is we really mapped out a very specific, detailed arc for him through the course of the eighteen episodes. So what happens is he's not always the guy that's, "Okay, I'm going to take this gun and put it to my head." He's a guy who's able to function and do things, but then he'll have triggers. He'll have things that, for whatever reason, draw him back into that darkness. Then he'll have a couple episodes where he feels a little bit of the wind at his back, and then something will happen again that kind of brings him down. Episode thirteen was an episode where he goes a little bit further down the rabbit hole and kind of touches rock bottom. Then we started to build him up for a few episodes before we pull the rug out from under him and send him back down. What's interesting is watching an evolution and a character that's undergoing change. If he's constantly existing in one state or the other, it's not as interesting to watch.
Hey, What About Murtaugh?
We tried to do a couple things when we started the season, one of which was we could kind of give Murtaugh somewhere to go as well. Preceding even the first episode, he had had a heart attack. He was dealing with some health issues. Also, another reset that we did from the series is that his wife is an extremely successful attorney, so they live in a fairly affluent way with a nice house, and they have things like that. So Murtaugh's being at work is not something that he has to do. It's a choice that he's making. Being paired up with Riggs, a guy who's looking to die, and Murtaugh, a guy who's very cautious and afraid to die because of his health scare and other reasons, that felt like a really ripe, good pairing for us. We've played with that through the course of the season.
Moving forward, we're going to get into some things that will affect him, not just with Riggs, but he's obviously greatly affected by Riggs' fluctuations of character, and his wife and her career. Things may happen that would make his decision to work not as much a choice, but a necessity. If he does have to work because of things that have happened in Trish's life, is this the guy he wants to be paired up with? Is this the life that he wants to be living for the next fifteen, twenty years? So we've got him on a sort of similar course, without getting into too many specifics, leading towards the end of the season.
But Are They Bonding?
In the first film, they kind of bonded by that Act Three set piece where Murtaugh’s daughter was kidnapped and all of that kind of business. It was, like, “All right, we’re together now.” On the show, these guys, they get along very well, but I think that even in a contentious marriage or something, there's things about the other person that aren't going to change. You get to that place where you say, "Okay, can I live with these things?" I think Murtaugh is more contemplative of that than Riggs. Riggs is just sort of like, "Yeah, whatever." I think Murtaugh's constantly asking himself, "Is this a deal breaker for me? Can I actually live with this guy?" Riggs really pushes that and we build towards a season finale that I will tell you, really more than anything else — beyond bad guys and mythology, comes down to Murtaugh versus Riggs.
Clayne Crawford And Damon Wayans
Damon was the first person cast in the show. He and I sat down and had lunch at the very beginning and I talked about what I wanted to do, but he hadn't even read it yet. At the end of the lunch, I slipped him the script and said, "Here you go. Tell me whatever you think." I got a text from him at 6:00 am the next morning that just said, "I'm in." Then, because he was in so early, I was able to read a lot of people with Damon, because the chemistry is sort of everything. We saw a lot of people in L.A., New York, Canada, England, Australia. We literally scoured the globe, and we could not find the guy for Riggs, because it's a very difficult role to play.
You have to, on the one hand, believe that this person is the lethal weapon, right? There's got to be a physicality to the role. Then, additionally, they have to be able to play a little crazy, be a really good actor where they're able to find out that their wife was just killed and fall apart and weep; and able to play the banter and the comedy. There's a lot of boxes being checked there. Also problematic is the idea that the guy, who at the time was the biggest movie star in the world, and who played the role very iconically, was Mel Gibson. You also have that baggage. I think most actors that came in, either consciously or unconsciously, were doing a Mel Gibson imitation.
One of the places we hadn't looked was Alabama. Clayne was living in Alabama at the time. He had been working on a series called Rectify, which shot in Atlanta. The role was written for Riggs to live in Texas, obviously, so I wanted someone who had a little bit of a drawl, a little twang, so he felt a little bit like a fish out of water in Los Angeles. Clayne just has his own rhythms and his own patterns that are so different than Mel Gibson's. Of all the things that he does so well as Riggs, I think actually the most meaningful and impressive is that he was able to carve his own path with this role in a way that didn't feel derivative. I’ve got to say, I think we got very, very lucky, because I'm not sure how many guys could play that role. He just plays it and you believe him, because you believe that he's in pain. Clayne's able to play that very well, and he's able to play things not just when he's speaking, but with his eyes and his body language. We're very lucky that we were able to get someone so talented.
Okay, okay, okay….
We had Thomas Lennon guest star as Leo Getz, the part played by Joe Pesci in the films. It’s just one episode this season, but ideally we would bring him back. Those were big shoes to fill as well. We didn't want to do that same thing; in the same way that we didn't want Clayne to play Mel Gibson, we didn't want Thomas to do a, "Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay." You know, nervous energy. Thomas is an incredibly gifted comedic actor, so we just talked about the part and who the guy was going to be. He read it, and I think it just clicked for him. He plays sort of an ambulance-chasing attorney. Thomas brings his own flavor to it, but he's absolutely hilarious.
We're trying to just do our own thing at this point. There may be action beat moments which we would try and make as sort of homage-y to the films for people that are hyper-fans of the films will recognize and know. But I think for the most part, the people that are watching the show every week right now are invested in this version of this story. They're not watching it looking for comparisons. People are pretty locked in to these actors as the character. I think at the beginning there was probably a big eyeroll that, "Oh, Lethal Weapon," you know, another movie becoming a TV show. There's certainly been a lot of them, at least this season. And in the last couple of seasons, so you have to overcome that. You have to build an audience's trust, which is to say, "Hey, this is its own thing, and we think it's very entertaining and enjoyable, and hopefully you watch it and give it a chance." The people that have watched it have stuck with the show, because they're just engaged by these characters. It's not about comparisons to the original or anything.
Speaking To The Unwashed Public
For me, if you were a fan of the original movies, I think you should watch it, because obviously it's a genre and a tone that's not represented in features or TV right now. You can get your eighties fix of action-comedy here. For people that that maybe wasn't as appealing to or they don't even remember it, I think the show is more dramatic and emotional than people think it's going to be. There's a lot of emotion between Riggs and his dead wife and the Murtaugh-Riggs bromance of it all. It's not always played for laughs. That's the thing I think surprises people, but I think it's also what distinguishes it from the movies a little bit, where as they evolved the movies, they became more comedic and Riggs' death wish was sort of disposed of. We live in that space. It is, I think, a surprisingly emotional show.
Lethal Weapon airs on Fox in the US at 8E/7C, and ITV in the UK