Wondercon 2014: The Last Ship interview

Laura chats to the creators and cast of TNT's apocalyptic series adapted from the novel by William Brinkley, The Last Ship...

This June, TNT premiered their new series The Last Ship. Based on William Brinkley’s novel of the same name, The Last Ship tells the story of the crew of the USS Nathan James, a US Navy Destroyer on a mission to save the world from a deadly pandemic. At this year’s Wondercon, we got a chance to talk with Executive Producers/Writers Steven Kane and Hank Steinberg, as well as actors Charles Parnell and Travis Van Winkle about the show.

There have been a lot of post-apocalyptic stories being told recently. What is going to make this one really stand out?

Steven Kane: We don’t think of the show as post-apocalyptic; we think about it as apocalyptic. Some shows, they will say, “It’s fifty years after the great war,” or “Two years ago, the lights went out.” With this show, it’s happening right now. So this is “How do you deal with it in the moment?” And we’ll get a taste of how America and the rest of the world is dealing with at the moment as well, so it is a really interesting examination.

It’s science fiction, I think, in the purest sense, in that science is based is based in reality, in the reality of a virus such we’re seeing in MERS in Saudi Arabia or the discoveries in the Arctic. And it’s about the reality of how societies would deal it these catastrophic situations.  Then you get into the philosophical questions about “What does it mean to be human?” and “What does it mean to be civilized?”

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So as opposed to saying the world is over and now we’re looking at it later, it’s going on right now and is happening in the moment. So it’s apocalyptic, not pre-or post-apocalyptic.

Hank Steinberg: There’s a line from the second episode, right in the first three minutes, which is, “Every day we don’t make it home with the vaccine, another half a million people die.” That is a very different paradigm than other action/adventure shows with Cruise or in space.  [In The Last Ship], they have a particular mission and they can save the world. There is a ticking clock, and there is an urgency to everything they are doing. So each episode of first season is its own episode with its own theme with a beginning, middle, and end. But the trajectory of the whole first season is one serialized story of “Are we going to get the vaccine and the cure, and if we do, are we gonna get home?” and “If we do, what we going to find when we get home and was going to be the next thing?”

So what makes it different is that they have a mission and they are the last hope. And if they have that vaccine or are developing that vaccine, that vaccine is the most coveted commodity on the planet, in the history of the planet. And so who’s chasing them, and who wants it? All those things give our show a different level of urgency. Also, it has motion. They are on a ship, moving from place to place, having adventures, both internal and existential ones on the ship and also many adventures off the ship.

The trajectory of the season has an incredible drive, and I think it’s going to be both the kind of show people can’t wait to watch week-to-week and have a cliffhanger, but it’s also going to be a binge-watch experience where people are going to want to inhale four or five episodes at three in the morning. Their wives are going to be saying, “Honey, come to bed!” or vice versa. I think it’s really a show that is fit for modern audiences.

Kane: (Gesturing at Charles Parnell and Travis Van Winkle) These guys lived – I’ll should let them speak to it – but they had lived as actors playing sailors around real sailors, and there was a moment when we were filming in San Diego, filming on a real ship, the USS Dewey, where the commercial for The Last Ship came on while we were in the dining area and we all cheered together. We were so excited because it was their ship and our crew, and in that moment, we were all shipmates. And we learned so much from them about what it meant to be a sailor, what honor, courage, and commitment are, and these guys [Parnell and Van Winkle] have brought it to life.

And so to answer your question again, different kind of heroes than you’ve seen before, unlikely heroes in some ways because they didn’t ask for this, they didn’t sign up for this, but also highly trained heroes. So we hope, when people watch this, that you think, if a plague ever comes, “I would want to be on the ship, with these guys.”

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Actor Charles Parnell.

What can you tell us about your characters and what makes them stand out as military men and heroes?

Parnell: “Hero?” I don’t know how to answer quite right, but as a military man, I play the Master Chief [Hugh Jeter] of the ship, which, in the big picture, is the third ranking behind the Commander [played by Eric Dane] and the XO, the Executive Officer, and is the highest ranking enlisted man. So, as a military man, I take the temperature of the ship, I take the temperature of the crew and let the captain and XO [played by Adam Baldwin] know how policies and rules are going over, if there is any dissension – if that happens – if people want to get off the ship for any reason. And I also take the temperature of the captain and XO and basically give everyone what they need in the human sense. While they perform the missions, I keep everybody going and check on people and gives temperature. So I help heroes; I don’t know how heroic I am, but I help them be heroes. I’ll put it that way.

Van Winkle: I guess, for me, I’ll the audience decide if my character gets to be heroic…

Parnell: Oh, you’re heroic.

Van Winkle: But as the Navy Seal [Lt. Danny Green], I get to do all the missions off the boat. So anytime we have a mission, whether it’s to get monkeys or go do whatever we do, I have to have my crew together come up with the plan together and then we go out and get our hands dirty. So it’s been a lot of fun getting to do a lot of action with the show, and it’s got Michael Bay written all over it so we have a lot of cool stuff that we have been able to do, and so I hope that it somewhat mirrors what the real Navy SEALs do in action. And with them working by our side, I think it’s going to be pretty damn authentic.

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Steinberg: The other thing that’s going on with Travis’s character, you know, is, in the pilot, he loses his closest friend, so his character is carrying a lot of the grief. We can’t cut to everyone crying about their families, you know. But he’s just lost his best friend, and so he’s carrying that going forward, and he is also carrying on this relationship with this other lieutenant is not supposed to, so I don’t know, Travis, do you want to talk about how that fills out your character? He’s just a very complex character.

Van Winkle: Yeah, there’s a lot going on with the relationships I have and the relationships I’ve lost. On top of that, we don’t know if our families are alive or not. And so along with the process of being on mission and having this extraordinary feat ahead of us, it’s definitely a pretty heavy experience to go through – my character goes through a lot of it – and it’s like how do you put all of that on the back burner and do the work and succeed in the mission? And I think there is a lot of struggle that happens with that dynamic, and it’s a pretty fun ride.

Parnell: Which is true for every individual character going through that, you know, what’s going on with my family that I can’t get to, and I don’t know what if they’re alive or dead are or how many of them survived or not. And also, we have this immediate thing in front of us, trying to save whoever we can, and it may not be the people we want to save, but it is still our brethren, you know, our planet.

Kane: The real gift to the show is that, in a lot of shows, you’ll have the guest stars come in from down the street. We pull from the ship primarily and we have 269 sailors and a couple of scientists, or whatnot, to pull from. So we get a chance to actually get into each person’s character in different situations when it’s right and get that bottom part of the iceberg and get their back story and develop a real knowledge of them. In the first episode, you get to see what [Parnell] describes, which is the sort of roving conscience of the ship in sort of the sage [Master Chief Jeter] and the fighter [Lt. Danny Green], but as it goes on, [Jeter] becomes a fighter, and [Green] becomes a sage. We learn about why Jeter’s in the Navy, why his devoted his life to the Navy, and what pains he’s holding down, so it’s a real chance for us as writers to sit around and say these are our players. So rather than just sit around to and wait for Detective So-and-so to give us a story, we can stick with our guys and learn more about them from the inside out. So we built this really large cast of young… you know, the Navy’s run by young people who are in their early twenties… so we have a nice cast of older, wiser, experienced [officers] and then the cast of younger [people] who didn’t know what they’re getting into in many ways, and we got a chance to really play with their characters and they become a family. It was just a real joy for us as writers and producers.

Parnell: And you know, we do meet new friends and enemies along the way…

Executive producer/writer Steven Kane.

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What exotic locations have you been filming in and how much of a character have those locations been?

Steinberg: Well, we’ve been using the movie magic of being able to shoot in LA and San Diego and green screens and visual effects to create a lot of different worlds. So in the second episode… at the end of the pilot, the captain says “We’re going to Guantánamo Bay to get supplies,” so the next episode takes place on a naval base at Gitmo. And it will look like Cuba and will look like the ship is pulling in to Gitmo. We found a location here that was a really good image of that. There’s another episode where they have to go look for monkeys when the doctor thinks she might have vaccine that is worth testing, and we have to go into the jungle in Nicaragua. We were actually able to find a very cool lake here that we were able to shoot, making it feel narrow like a river with the amazing visual effects capabilities that exist now. It [would have been] a lot harder to do the show ten years ago.

And, of course, being in the Michael Bay family and camp, we have the best visual effects people to be able to enhance all that. And then, of course, we also go out to sea with real Navy ships and get shots of the ships out in the ocean during their manoeuvres, choppers landing on and off, so there’s a huge amount of production value in the show. The pilot was also shot in Canada, for that big sequence on the ice we went up to Manitoba, Canada.

Kane: But yeah, the ship really is the most exotic location because when the crew goes out to sea for a week, filming at sea, living with those people and filming it from above, just nothing compares to that real ship, doing its manouvres. It’s a pretty awesome experience.

Can you talk about working in the very cramped quarters of a Navy ship? It must not be very easy to get in there to film. Can you talk about what it was like to film and act in those environments?

Parnell: You kind of answered your own question. That was one of the main [challenges].

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Kane: It was method writing and method acting. We ended up building a few sets as well to help us out in the bigger spaces. The pilot, though, was shot entirely on the ship, which was great for us because we got to see the rhythm of the ship, how it really works. But it was also bad for us when we were trying to do a very important scene and suddenly the PA system goes off or a ship decides to pull in next to us that is three times our size, making a big sound like it’s belching and then you just have to wait for that to stop. There are just a lot of sound issues, and lots of camera crew and sound crew going up and down ladders with equipment. It was just a real military campaign.

But the thing is that these guys got to be on the real ship first before they got on the sets, so they saw how it really is. And what made me feel best is when the real [sailors] came to our sets, and they said, “Wow, this feels just like our ship.” So we knew we got it right, and we can recreate that feeling for these guys. And the Navy was amazingly cooperative, especially when we were out to see with the captain.  You know, it’s the captain’s ship when you are out to sea, and so we would ask, “Would you mind turning left really fast?” So they did a lot of stuff for us, and it was a great joy for us to work with the Navy and a huge challenge because they are not in the business of working for us – they are doing their mission; our job was not to get in their way. So we think it worked out really well, and the Navy was really happy with it.

Steinberg: I think it’s the most logistically challenging show that anyone on the crew had ever been through, and to a man and woman at the end, we had one person after another after another on the crew saying, “This is the most demanding job I’ve ever had and the most satisfying job I’ve ever had.” Because, first of all, we shot all the episodes aside from the pilot out of sequence, so episode four was last episode we wrapped with. And we were crossboarding scenes and episodes because of trying to consolidate work on location. It was really shot like one huge movie or miniseries where we didn’t wrap the final scene of the first episode after the pilot until five months later, and the actors, to their credit, were having to carry the storylines from nine different episodes in their heads and trying to keep in mind “What scene am I doing today?” So it was incredibly challenging but it also allowed the writers to be nimble in terms of our rewriting and ability to find things in episode seven and go back and put the scene in episode two or three that might change a whole dynamic in episode seven. It really gave us an ability to be agile in terms of storytelling…

Kane: …and develop the characters more…

Steinberg: Yeah, and so I think ultimately we are all exhausted, but we all feel really, really proud of what we accomplished and excited about what the audience is going to get to see.

Actor Travis Van Winkle.

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Van Winkle: And I’ll say, just being on the ship and working on an active Navy destroyer, it helped really inform a lot of our characters. Really just walking around in those tight quarters, and being on the ship, and looking out onto the water, and feeling the breeze, and having to salute at five o’clock – oh, actually, you can’t salute! If you’re not wearing a hat or in the Navy, they don’t want you to salute. But just to be breathing in their life, it was a treat for all of us as actors because it just really made us feel like we got to really be in the Navy for a couple of weeks. And then we came to our set, to our stage that we built, you know, we had the real life experience of being on the ship, so I think it really allowed us to bring some real authenticity to it.

Kane: Yeah, 8 AM in San Diego, the whole base comes to a stop, everybody looks at the flag, life comes to stop, and everyone salutes or puts their hand to their chest, and they play the Star-Spangled Banner, and at sunset, they give you a warning, and no matter what you’re doing, you drop everything, and they do Taps, everyone facing the flag, and the crew of the show got into a rhythm with the crew of the ship and that really informed the way we all worked.

Parnell: But the tight space? You know, the tight space was the biggest help in the world in acting because your imagination, it frees your imagination – you don’t have to imagine anything about the ship because it’s real. It’s already there. All you have to do is you have to imagine your character in a situation and those acting things, you can just concentrate on those and it’s a joy to let that go and know that everything else is real behind you.

How does the geopolitical situation affect what’s happening on the ship?

Kane: The real-life geopolitical situation?

No, in the pilot, the stuff with the Russians, that sort of thing…

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Well, we are dealing with the reality of the world on the show. We’re not really going to go into what Putin is doing in the Ukraine, or stuff like that. But in the story, what we learn is that the virus and the pandemic causes chaos, both at a local level and a global level – a geopolitical level – and countries are not trusting each other and countries saying, “You’re hoarding the cure,” and “You weaponized this; this couldn’t have [happened naturally].” All this mistrust is going on, and in the middle of this, Rachel is sent on a secret mission to the Arctic with the Navy. This is the top secret mission mostly, because they don’t want to create panic back home or panic on the ship.

But there’s also an element of “This is our deal.” Now the Russians that are attacking in the pilot are not necessarily the Russian government, as the president says in the bunker. It’s a breakaway Navy [ship] from the Russian government who decided on their own, “You know, it’s better for us to not go home and risk getting infected, so we’ll stay at sea and we’ll go after that cure. We’ll be the ones in charge.” So we have a very big conflict, we have debate between the Captain, eventually, and a counterpart enemy who says, “The uniform doesn’t matter anymore. We will rule the seas.” And the Captain says “Whether mine is one of a dozen or the last ship of the U.S. Navy, I am a sailor in the U.S. Navy and I’m still honour that code.” So you get a sense of different ways of reacting to it. But we get a lot of the sense of the global-political stuff from the backstory, and also from this Russian angle. But then we also get this sense from what we’re hearing on our radios, from distress calls and from the different places we stop – [getting] information on how this pandemic is affecting different parts of the world, and hopefully, the audience will get the chance to see how it really affected America.

Parnell: And we don’t know how many governments are still intact, so we don’t even know if there really is a geopolitical situation.

Executive producer/writer Hank Steinberg.

Steinberg: That’s one of the fun things about the show is how isolated they are . That’s another psychological/emotional pressure that’s weighing on the crew and the Captain. I mean, they don’t have internet and there’s nobody answering their radio calls.

Kane: Imagine if you were in this room, and your phone doesn’t work and the lights go out. You don’t know: is it just local or is the whole city gone black. You can’t tell. That’s kinda of how it feels for them.

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Steinberg: So they don’t have a lot of information. And they’re gleaning from pieces that they pick up on radio and distress calls and whenever they stop and they extrapolate from what they see of the world from when they stop. And if and when they hit America, they have no idea what they’re going to find.

Kane: And they haven’t heard from the President and they haven’t heard from the bunker…so is there a country to go home to (shrugs). That’s the political side of it.

Steven Kane, Hank Steinberg, Charles Parnell and Travis Van Winkle, thank you very much!

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