Somewhere in Hollywood the lights dim in a screening room and a projector whirs to life. A producer finds a seat among his colleagues and looks up expectantly as his first movie starts to run.
Cut to the end of the film. The producer is in shock. It was horrible — unwatchable even. How could this have happened? He had a top-notch script, an enthusiastic investor, a supportive studio exec and a seasoned executive producer who showed him the ropes.
He storms out, and Adam Arkin — director of this television episode — yells, "Cut!" Chris O'Dowd reenters. They must set up now for the next scene, in which O'Dowd — as the producer, Miles Daly — will charge back in to the room to have it out with his director.
And so, the story is set in motion for the second season of Get Shorty, debuting August 12. The Epix series — loosely based on Elmore Leonard's 1990 novel of the same name — stays true to the author's style while bringing a fresh take to his work, thanks to creator–executive producer Davey Holmes.
Both the book and series follow a low-level gangster who — while in L.A. collecting money for his boss — comes across a movie script and tries to get it produced. Tonally, the show veers closer to the book than the 1995 film starring John Travolta, though Holmes has changed some key elements of the novel to support the longevity of a series.
In the first season (available on iTunes), protagonist Daly and his associate steal their script from a burgeoning screenwriter, murder him to cover their tracks and convince their crime boss to become an investor. Then they persuade B-level executive producer Rick Moreweather (Ray Romano) to make the film and blackmail an executive into taking it on. And, you know, there are funny bits, too — to paraphrase a line from the show.
One of the most notable changes is that O'Dowd's Miles Daly is a lot less cool than his inspiration, Chili Palmer, of the novel Get Shorty — and its appropriately named sequel, Be Cool. As Holmes points out, if Daly is cool, "it means that the stakes aren't quite as high. So I thought it might be fun to have a lead who really desperately wanted to get a movie made and who desperately wanted to get his wife back."
Daly's desperation to not only get his movie made, but have it be good is another distinction from the book and film, and it propels the character in season two. It also provides a wellspring of humor. And for a show with a body count easily reaching double digits, the series still manages to land as a (dark) comedy — and was submitted as one in this year's Emmys race.
"It's a genuinely funny show," Epix president Michael Wright says. "And this kind of comedy is so hard to pull off. There's a great sense of irony that's sophisticated and entertaining."
Wright previously served as CEO of Amblin Entertainment and, before that, as president of TBS, TNT and TCM. When he took over the reins at Epix last November, Shorty was already on the schedule. "I didn't develop it," he says of the series. "I'm not bragging when I say this show is amazing. I'm like anybody else. I'm a fan that discovered it … and I just felt so fortunate that it was on our network."
Though it nearly wasn't. In 2014, MGM — which owns the Get Shorty film and television properties — brought the show to Holmes for development. But the showrunner — whose credits include ABC's Pushing Daisies and Showtime's Shameless, was then working on several other projects, so Shorty languished. In December 2015, Holmes turned his attention back to the series and began writing the pilot. (He has since inked an overall deal with MGM Television.)
When it came time to pitch, MGM was only a part owner of Epix, so there was no guaranteeing the show would end up there.
But in May 2016, Shorty landed at the premium-cable network with a direct-to-series, 10-episode order. And in April 2017, MGM paid $1 billion to its partners Viacom and Lionsgate to purchase Epix outright, ultimately keeping it all in the family.
Wright relishes the network's upstart status. "'We're young, scrappy and hungry,' to quote my favorite [Broadway] show, Hamilton," he says. "That's our attitude. I believe that premium networks are defined by their original series. And there's a point at which you reach critical mass and people begin to really notice you."
He intends to get there by building upon Get Shorty and Berlin Station, another original Epix drama, now prepping its third season. "Two really good shows, truly premium series," he says. "That's hard to do after [only] a couple of years. So we have a high bar to clear." Wright took a run at that bar on June 17 with the premiere of the espionage drama Deep State, and again later this year with the revived boxing competition series The Contender.
Meanwhile, with Get Shorty, Holmes and director– executive producer Arkin are helping build the Epix brand. And, fortunately, with a property that has an established fan base — something Arkin knows about, having directed episodes of another Leonard-inspired series, Justified, which ran for six seasons on FX.
Their working relationship draws strength from their shared vision for Shorty. Arkin credits Holmes as being "the most collaborative and interactive showrunner I've ever had the privilege to work with. I have no problem understanding who's the boss of a show," he continues, "but I also wanted [to work with] somebody who could rely on me to use my own instincts and my own taste, to help create the environment of the show."
Together they defined the series' visual aesthetic: a contrast between the desert palette of Nevada and the polished glamour of L.A. Another contrast came with Holmes's idea for the film within the series — The Admiral's Mistress, a sweeping costume drama. "Just the idea of gangsters making a period film …," he says, trailing off and smiling.
Some of the day-to-day of production also figures in the series. When the characters need a tax rebate to meet their budget, they end up in Nevada — because production on Get Shorty also took advantage of a rebate. Life, in turn, imitated art when real dust storms — which had already been written into the script — became an actual difficulty during filming.
Budgets and weather aside, Holmes's greatest challenge may have come during pre-production, specifically during casting. He had reshaped Get Shorty's protagonist, unafraid to make him less sympathetic in the eyes of viewers.
"Chili was sort of a low-level Italian mobster," Holmes says. "And our guy actually runs with murderers and a different kind of criminal organization. We thought, 'Let's have more fun with the fact that he's our hero, but he also really gets his hands dirty.'"
Finding someone who could be likeable while doing loathsome things proved difficult — until producers came across O'Dowd. The Irish actor had the charisma needed for the part, but he was better known for performances in straightforward comedies like Bridesmaids and This Is 40. "I very rarely play people who look like they can beat anybody up," O'Dowd says. "Unless they're going to hug someone to death."
But the actor proved he had the required menace. "He's surprisingly very intense when it's called for," Romano says of his costar. "He's got to project danger. It just blows my mind, the way he pulls it off."
O'Dowd prepared physically (by boxing) and mentally (by reading Leonard's other works). He was ready to play Daly as an American, but once he was cast, Holmes adapted the character, incorporating the actor's nationality and his idea for a backstory — that Daly's love of movies stems from theaters being a safe space from the Northern Irish "troubles."
Casting Romano — best known for nine seasons on Everybody Loves Raymond — was another coup. Holmes had briefly worked on the HBO series Vinyl, and came out of the experience an even bigger fan of Romano's. With that series, NBC's Parenthood and the feature The Big Sick, the actor had also proved himself capable of roles that walk the line between comedy and drama, though he still sees himself as a comedian.
"Maybe if they submitted this as a drama, I would think I was a dramatic actor," he says jokingly. It's that self-deprecating humor and melancholy that make him so well suited to play Moreweather, the forlorn producer. O'Dowd adds that his co-star must also balance the "despicable nature" of the character. "It's really hard to play, and he does it so beautifully," O'Dowd says.
"I try to find the sadness in a character," Romano notes, "how he feels a little bit unfulfilled." It's an aspect of Moreweather that Romano extended to his character's hair, which is worn in tall spikes (inspired by mega-producer Brian Grazer). "I borrowed an A-list producer's hair to play a B-minus-list producer," Romano says.
He also brought ideas to Holmes for his character's backstory. "I put in this element of his father being an esteemed director, who he could never live up to. There's always a father element," he says, smiling. "I've said it before: if my father hugged me once, I'd be an accountant right now."
Holmes likes to think of Get Shorty as a universe in which the original characters exist. Where everything that happened in the book has happened in this world, too. Though he says he doesn't plan on introducing Leonard's characters into this series, he does reference Chili Palmer once, when a Mr. Palmer is waved through the gate of a Hollywood studio.
It's a wink to fans of the novel, as is Holmes's answer to the question: Who is Shorty? In the novel, the term refers to a diminutive actor whom Palmer wants to star in his movie. Here, Shorty is a loving nickname given to Daly's daughter Emma (Carolyn Dodd).
Daly's love for his wife and daughter, his desire to keep them out of harm's way — and to provide for them through a legit career in entertainment — are all points well established in season one of Get Shorty. But they make season two that much funnier.
"We keep telling the audience that he's only doing this because he wants to make sure his family is safe," O'Dowd says. "Then when it looks like the movie is going to be a bit shit, he doesn't really care anymore about whether they make their money back, or whose lives are in danger. He's like, 'I need to make a movie that's beautiful .' Which is kind of a glorious outcome from where we started."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 6, 2018