Interview: THE LAST SHIP Showrunner Hank Steinberg
By Merrill Barr on June 22, 2014
Earlier in the week, we gave you a tiny taste of our exclusive interview with The Last Ship co-creator and showrunner Hank Steinberg, but today, we bring you the whole thing. In his time with us, Hank discusses what it was like to work with Michael Bay, how often we’ll see the crew get off the ship and what role he would have in the event of a global pandemic.
Nerdist: One of the things I find most interesting about The Last Ship is – similar to the way Falling Skies feels very Steven Spielberg – I feel this way about Michael Bay’s name being on this show. It’s got that same level of excitement. I’m curious how much involvement he’s had in the show so far.
Hank Steinberg: Michael was extremely involved in the pilot from the beginning. I came to it because it was already something he wanted to do. I was fortunate enough to have my agents put me in a room with Michael and his producing partners Andrew Form and Brad Fuller, and they talked to me about the idea and I thought it was super cool. Michael was very, very involved. He was involved in all the casting. He was involved in the production plan. He provided us with his visual effects supervisor who did all the visual effects, which was super, super important. He shot second unit on the action sequence in the ice.
HS: Yeah. That huge shootout on the ice with the helicopters, Michael shot that.
N: [laughs] That’s amazing.
HS: Yeah. He was very, very involved in the pilot. It was very, very important to him. He has a deep and long relationship with the military and really wanted to make sure not only did he open those doors for us, but that we did everything correctly, that we have the military advisors he’d used on all of his other movies assigned to us to help us make sure that everything looked and felt real. One of the reasons I thought it was a great thing just to undertake was I saw the idea and I thought, “that’s a great idea and it fits really well into the Michael Bay brand. I see that, within that, I can bring what I do to the table, which is try to focus on suspense and characters and longer term storytelling,” which is obviously a whole different thing from making films. So when I was presented with the idea I saw there was a great opportunity.
N: With that long form storytelling, I’m curious, among other things, how often are we going to get the crew off the boat?
HS: The crew gets off the boat quite a bit. There’s a pretty good balance between the turmoil and the conflicts that happen on the ship with Captain Chandler having to hold that crew together and keep them believing in the mission, but then they’re constantly in need of resources, whether it’s food, and fuel, and supplies or it’s when Doctor Scott believes that she has a vaccine prototype that’s wroth testing; who’s she going to test it on? It’s not going to be on humans, so they have to go into the jungles of Nicaragua to find monkeys. What are the adventures and struggles they get into in going to do that? What happens if they get a radio call that there’s someone in distress nearby? What do they do about that? And it is a trap? Should they reveal themselves? Should they jeopardize the larger mission they have in order to go help someone who’s 20 miles away?
So there are lots of opportunities to get off the boat. I think probably in the first season I would say 50-60 percent of the action takes place actually off the boat.
N: Something else in relation to that: it feels like a very global show. I’m curious if you’ve run into any problems thus far shooting the first season with one episode we’re in Cuba, another episode we’re in Nicaragua. Do you have any problems recreating those environments, especially now that you’re past the pilot and have way less money to work with per episode.
HS: It’s a very global show. The premise is it’s a pandemic and we wanted to make it feel that it’s taking place around the world. But we were able to, I think through our really gifted line producers and production design team, able to go and find locations in LA. Not in urban LA, but one of the great things about shooting there is there are a lot of different environments. There are mountains, there are lakes, there are rivers, there’s even jungle. There’s plenty of water. There’s desert. All within a 45 minute to an hour radius from the zone.
So we were able to accomplish everything shooting there with the enhancement of incredible CGI. And again, we have Michael Bay’s visual effects supervisor who makes sure that everything looks real, because nobody wants to get that call from Michael Bay saying…
N: No one wants to get the call from the guy that made fighting robots look real that they screwed up.
HS: Exactly. Especially when it’s something like a helicopter flying through the air, or a gunshot, or just moving on the water when you’re on the ship. Nobody wants to get that call. That keeps everybody on their toes. The show, I think, looks totally and completely… everything looks real.
N: Regarding how far out you’ve thought this show through, how extensive is your series bible and how far have you planned out in terms of seasons?
HS: We [Steinberg and co-creator Steve Kane] had a very firm idea of what we wanted the first season to be. And then we had a very firm idea of how we were going to turn the series around at the end of the season and launch the series into a different direction and a different idea. That’s what we hope to do, God willing, the next 7, 8, 9 seasons. The story of how to save the world and how to get the world back on its feet is a story that’s got a lot of legs. And the world’s a big place. So we feel pretty confident about it as long as the audience falls in love with our characters, which I think they will, we can continue to sustain the idea and keep turning it in interesting directions.
N: When it comes to these characters, have you hit a point yet where you’re having a lot of fun writing one character over another? Have you picked your favorite one to write yet?
HS: They each have their own little flare to them. Obviously, Chandler is kind of the center of it all. There’s this new character we introduce in the second episode named Tex who’s a lot of fun to write because he’s unbridled and untamed and he’s just very out there. So that’s always fun to write. But it’s also been really fun to discover the new smaller characters that we start to introduce, the enlisted people that weren’t very heavily featured in the pilot, but who emerge through the series as kind of the heart and soul of the crew and the show. They’re the people that Chandler has to lead and who he’s fighting for and the people that he has to make sure he keeps focused and on mission. So it’s been fun to sort of find those newer, younger characters as we’ve emerged, as we cast really great character actors and supporting actors and then start writing for them. That’s the fun of writing for television, it becomes this fluid thing where you invent the role, you hire a really great actor to embody that role, and then all of a sudden a six-line part becomes someone that you go, “Oh, that’s going to be a six-episode arc.” That’s the fun and the fluidity of writing for television. It’s an evolving piece. It’s what makes it so dynamic, I think.
N: One of the main things the pilot teases is this threat of a possible nuclear holocaust. Without spoiling too much of it, a nuclear weapon does come into play. I’m curious if that idea of a nuclear threat is going to play into the future of the series as well, or was that just something you guys did where, “OK, we’ve done the pilot. The nukes exist, but it’s not something we’re going to focus on.”
HS: It gets revealed that was a Russian admiral chasing them and that’s who fired that at them in order to slow them down. We’re not headed towards a nuclear holocaust. One main problem at a time, being the pandemic, is enough. But what that nuclear detonation indicates is just how chaotic and crazy the world has become. people are willing to unleash a nuclear weapon as a tactical device or as a ploy. We alluded to, in one of the episodes, that the Chinese turn on their own people to try to quell the spread of the virus by turning their own weapons on them. That’s the kind of topsy-turvy world that we live in.
And yes, down the line if there’s loose nukes – I mean there’s loose nukes now in the real world in 2014 – so there are going to be loose nukes in an apocalyptic world where the governments have fallen apart. That will be, potentially, a big problem.
N: Last question: a deadly virus breaks out, what’s your role on the ship?
HS: What’s my role, like me, Hank Steinberg?
N: Yeah, what’s your job on the ship?
HS: I would become the journalist, I think, keeping track of the story.
N: You would be making the found footage movie of the virus.
HS: Yes. I’d be interviewing people and trying to keep a record and a log of everything that was happening for posterity. I don’t think I’d be out in front on the weaponry.
The Last Ship airs Sundays at 9/8c on TNT.