Exclusive Interview: SUITS Creator/Showrunner Aaron Korsh
By Merrill Barr on June 23, 2014
With the new season of USA’s hit drama, Suits, now in full swing, the big question on everyone’s mind is, who will win in the battle between Mike and Harvey? In truth, there’s only one man that knows for sure, and that’s series creator and showrunner, Aaron Korsh. In an exclusive interview, Korsh spoke with us on what lead to Mike leaving the firm, how he and writers try to walk a fine line with Louis, and where they get all those awesome pop-culture references from.
Nerdist: So what led to pitting Mike and Harvey against each other this season?
Aaron Korsh: It goes back to last year when we were breaking the last six episodes of the season. The notion of Mike kinda coming up against this glass ceiling at the firm was posited by some of the writers and we really liked that notion, and having Mike come to grips with — what does a long term future at the firm look like for him? This notion that the higher he goes, the more likely the more spotlight is going to be drawn to him was intriguing to us. We thought that could ultimately lead to him wanting to leave.
I didn’t want him to have an opportunity to leave for a job offer from someone else unless he was going to take it. That question was: If he is going to take it, what does that look like for us as a show? We were pretty sure he wasn’t going to take it because we didn’t know how to keep him in our world, and I didn’t want him to be leaving our world because I felt like that was too radical a shift for the show.
So I asked them to explore what ways for Mike to leave the firm and take a job and still have him be in our world. What would that look like? The nugget that the writers kinda came up with was, “Well, he could leave but still be our client.” That kind of was where I wanted to hang my hat on.
Then they come up with a bunch of individual stories with Mike as our client working side-by-side with Harvey. When I heard those specifics, they just didn’t feel that satisfying to me. So then we thought what if there was something that could kinda put them at odds with each other? That just felt much more compelling to me. I don’t remember the specifics of how it came out, but we were thinking about it and we remembered last year one of the writers had pitched we do a one-off episode where this guy that we’d laid in Rachel had had an affair with comes back as a client of the firm and Mike has to deal with him. We thought what if Mike and Harvey were going against each other and the new client happens to be this guy that she used to have an affair with? Somehow that coalesced into a good logline for a season.
N: At the end of the second episode of the season, there’s kind of this look on Harvey’s face — does Harvey want Mike to beat him?
AK: [Laughs] That’s a good question. We wrote that look in. We definitely wrote that look in — that he’s proud. I don’t think he wants Mike to beat him. There’s the scene with Harvey and Jessica where Harvey is not happy, but he had to kind of introduce Mike to the fact that he can’t hang with Harvey. That’s the scene with Jessica. He feels bad that he’s got to kind of wipe Mike out. Jessica tells him, “Some people like to kiss butt. Others don’t. And if that’s who he is, then it’s better to find out sooner rather than later.” Then when Mike comes back and kind of says, “I do like to kiss the butt. I’m tougher than you think,” I don’t think Harvey wants Mike to beat him, but he’s proud that Mike is more formidable than he had given him credit for. So I think he’s happy about that aspect of Mike. But no, he definitely doesn’t want Mike to beat him.
N: You’re now on Season 3 of a ‘law show’ and, typically, law shows can run as long as you want because they are basically like cop shows. But you found a way to make Suits more compelling than your typical procedural. How you continue to find that level of drama in a show like this?
AK: I will say it’s tough. I think about this all the time. First of all, I feel like we’ve gotten… a large part of what makes Suits this compelling is that, that field is compelling. A large part of what makes it so compelling to fans is our cast. Our cast is amazing. They work so hard to find moments of realism and just to add humor, drama, pathos, whatever it is to any scene. They work so hard to make it as good as they can. I think that’s a huge part of it. I was actually just telling Patrick today that the cast that we have makes me seem like such a better writer than I really am.
One way we make it compelling is we try to cast well. The other thing is, look, I think about it all the time. The challenge is to take, I think, bold steps that are maybe unexpected or somewhat paint ourselves into a corner without the full knowledge of how we’re going to get out of it. You never know when you are going to paint yourself into a corner that, “Uh-oh, it’s over. We’re not credible anymore, or we’ve jumped the shark or we’ve taken it too far.”
But what I do know is if you just keep doing the same exact thing over and over again, you will definitely get boring. So you just have to try and make these decisions that you think are going to keep up the excitement and hope it doesn’t push you in a direction that is too beyond the pale or whatever you want to call it. So yeah, it’s tough. I worry about it all the time. [laughs]
N: I want to spend a moment on Louis. It always feels like you are walking a very fine line with him and his smugness where, if you step over this line, he’s going to become unlikable. Is that something you’re thinking about often? Where is that line?
AK: My notion of Louis was to start out kind of hating him and have him be… I don’t know if I would call him necessarily a villain, but if you look back at the pilot, Louis is kind of a douche, for lack of a better word. He fires someone in front of Mike just to make Mike feel like his job is in jeopardy at any moment. And it turns out that’s what Louis does every year to all the associates because he wants them to kind of be in line.
And just as an aside, I got that idea when I was in college. I had a roommate that went to a fraternity. And he pledged and he came home one night and he was like, “Oh my god. One guy refused to do a shot and they yelled at him and they kicked him out right there on the spot.” And he was petrified. And it turns out that guy was a plant. He was like a sophomore, not a freshman, and they do that every year to make the pledges realize if they don’t do what they’re told, they could get dropped. So I kinda got that idea for Louis from that. That’s just an aside.
Anyway, to me, Louis is somewhat of an evil guy and my goal was… I thought about In Deadwood… I was a huge Deadwood fan. And Al Swearengen is this utterly hated character to me in Season 1. He’s going to murder a little girl for his own benefit. By the end of Season 2, maybe even the end of Season 1, he’s your hero; you love this guy.
So I didn’t think that Louis was as evil as Al Swearengen, nor does he maybe become as beloved as Al Swearengen. But my notion was to turn him around in Season 2 and really show what makes him tick and make us connect with him and kind of love him. To me, in the current time period of the show, like in Seasons 3 and 4, I feel like we like him a lot more than we used to. Because he’s so vulnerable and shows his vulnerability so easily, I think it makes it easy to kind of understand when he’s acting Louis-like in a very negative way and then also to have sympathy for him because he also…
What he does is he shows you his hurt. That’s what, to me, allows us to not utterly hate him. Also, separately, he’s just so quirky and can be so funny. I think those are the traits that kind of make Louis a… give people some ability to love him sometimes.
N: Your pop culture references are so on point — where are those coming from?
AK: [laughs] Most of them… I don’t know about most of them, that might be too far. But a lot of them come from me. I tend to take out the pop culture references that people put in that I don’t get, because I don’t get them. So I don’t like them. Either they come from me or they’re generated from the writers and I love them and I put them in.
What I try never to do is just have someone quote something and have someone else recognize it and be like, “Oh, I see your quoting Game of Thrones” or something. I try to actually… look, I’ve grown up my whole life…all of my friends, anybody I grew up with, we all quote movies. So if someone quotes a movie, you are going to try to pick a different quote of that movie to top them rather than say, “Oh, I see you’re quoting Stripes,” or whatever the movie is.
I think we also have a bunch of writers that are fans of movies and TV and they try to put them in there. I’ll try to either push it further or pare it back depending on if I like it or not.
N: The show is kind of set up in this structure where everything ends at the end of an episode run and then in the last scene of a run, you set up the next arc. But you’ve made a drastic, drastic shift for this season. Is this something you can wrap up by the end of this summer run?
AK: Well, I guess I’ll speak to kind of going into the season. My only thing that I wanted to do… and this has happened a little bit at the end of every season, this kind of gets back to what I was saying. Like, to keep it not boring you just have to take a chance and make a bold choice, such that like at the end of Season 1, the choice to have Trevor tell Jessica about Mike’s secret, I was petrified about that. I was like, “What are we going to do next year? How are we going to get out of this? How is he not going to be fired?” We just took the chance that we would be able to figure that out and hopefully have it work out well in the minds of viewers.
At the of end last year, it was a big risk to have Mike leave the firm. I mean it could ruin the show. There’s no doubt about it. There are certain people who could be like, “This isn’t my show. I don’t want to watch it anymore. But my only thing was with both of those things, Trevor telling Jessica and Mike leaving, I didn’t want to come back Season 2 and say, “Oh, Trevor didn’t really tell her,” or, he got hit by a bus one second before he got his real words out. We were going to follow that through.
With Mike leaving, in my head I was like, “Mike took the job. We’re not coming back next year and have it turn out he didn’t really take the job, or have it turn out after one episode he’s back.” So I wanted to play this kind of war between Mike and Harvey or, for lack of a better word, or competition between Mike and Harvey, I wanted to play it through and see how long it went. I didn’t want to wrap it up very quickly. That was my only kind of goal for the year, was not to undo it right away.
Right now we’re just kind of seeing how far it takes us. We don’t 100% yet know when it’s going to end or how it will wrap up or even 100% that Mike is going to end up back at the firm. He may, he may not. But we’re finding it, and what we just try to do is find… what we try to do is find up an organic end to something and then see where that takes us rather than plan how it must end. I’m not sure what the answer is yet. It may get wrapped up in the first 10, it may not. It’s possible it gets wrapped up before the end of the first 10. I’m not 100% sure.
Suits airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on USA.