Interview: Psych creator Steve Franks on the season four finale, next season, and putting the show together

Posted by: Paul Little  //  March 10, 2010 @ 6:47am

Filed under: Interviews

A little over a week ago, I posted some Psych scoop on the heels of speaking with Steve Franks, the show's creator, writer, and executive producer. Well, that interview with Mr. Franks actually lasted nearly 40 minutes (apparently we were both really excited to talk about the show!), and spanned an array of topics including tonight's season finale (which airs on USA at 10/9c), what kind of things to expect next season, the writing process for the show, how the idea for Psych came about in the first place, and even the Olympics.

If you're not familiar with Psych, you better live in Canada (where the show doesn't air), or you don't have any excuse! But just in case you haven't seen it but are still intrigued, the USA Network show stars James Roday as Shawn Spencer, a psychic consultant with the Santa Barbara Police Department. He works alongside his lifelong best friend, Burton Guster (Dule Hill), who is in on the fact that Shawn isn't actually a psychic at all, but rather just has extremely keen observational skills. Together, they assist detectives Carlton Lassiter (Timothy Omundson) and Juliet O'Hara (Maggie Lawson), while getting occasional (if reluctant) help from Shawn's father, Henry (Corbin Bernsen), a former police detective. The show is first and foremost a comedy, especially the silliness between Shawn and Gus, but because of its subject matter, there is also mystery and a bit of drama in the mix.

Anyway, below is the transcript of my lengthy chat with the man behind my personal favourite hour of television. Steve was a delight to speak with, and I thank him for allowing me to have my first real conversation with someone about the show (I'm in Canada, where DVDs are the only way to watch it, and I don't know anybody else who does). If you're a fan of Psych, or even if you're just interested in what goes on to put together a television show, I hope you enjoy the interview. Also, thanks to Diana Kim for transcribing it!

PL: How much time a year do you end up spending filming up in Vancouver?

SF: Usually a couple months. Maybe the total I'll be up there is six to eight weeks. They let me direct episodes so I'm up there at least three weeks for prepping and shooting for those two episodes, and then I pop in occasionally. And our writers' room is down here in Manhattan Beach, so I travel. It's like we have two completely different worlds that exist.

PL: Yeah, it's kind of odd.

SF: Yeah, and we have to visit both of them, but it's fun. I love going up there. And I get to pretend like I live in the city for a couple weeks, which is really cool.

PL: And they couldn't work is so you'd be there during the Olympics?

SF: Uh, I don't think we wanted to be there. *Laughs* It was funny, when we were shooting the pilot it was like, "Vancouver 2010" and it was like, "Oh my God, that's so far away, we'll never make it that long!" And then, "Oh cool, we can go to the Olympics!" And as it's gotten closer each year, it's like, "Oh, they've picked us up again." And now it's like, "Oh God!" When we saw the plans that they had for how people were going to get around, it just looked like it could potentially be a nightmare. We just opened up our writers' room last week, but we don't start shooting until April, so we're all avoiding going up there.

PL: It makes logical sense to not want to be there during all that chaos.

SF: Yeah, exactly. It's much easier to watch it. *Laughs* But it's great 'cause we get to be the benefactors of all the great stuff that they've built. I'm all for that. I love that they have the train that goes from the airport to downtown. I think that's genius.

PL: Do find it frustrating in your six to eight weeks you spend up in Vancouver that you can't even watch new episodes of Psych, because no broadcaster up in Canada airs the show?

SF: Uh, it's crazy, you know? And I don't understand why they can't get our USA Network up there, but it's really funny. It does help us retain our anonymity up there, which is nice. James (Roday), who is a reluctant TV star, he loves that he can go anywhere and he just likes to blend into a crowd. So for him, he's happy. For me, I drive my wife insane because, when our show's on at 10:00, I cannot watch the episode before I go to bed just because I'll be thinking about it all night, of all the things I could have done or wanted to do or didn't get, or whatever. So I can't even watch the first cut of an episode, otherwise I'll be editing in my head all night.

The only thing that bums me out is that our crew never gets to see what they've done. Every once in a while we'll screen an episode for them and they're like, "Oh my gosh! This is what the show is!" So it's always hard. And we always name characters after people on our crew, or I named a park after Jeff Pleckus, one of our crew members last year, and that episode was just on. I'm like, "Oh, all his friends don't get to see that we named a park after him."

PL: Well, I mean, there are DVDs.

SF: There are. You can get the DVDs up there.

PL: Friends of mine, I keep trying to tell them, "Hey, watch Psych!" It's personally my favourite show on TV, so I tell everyone, and they're like, "I've never heard of it," so I have to keep lending DVDs out or telling them to go buy the DVDs. That's the only way that they can go watch it.

SF: Oh, that is so funny. That's so hilarious. It's like "Okay, well, what is this show?"

PL: Yeah, exactly.

SF: By the way, I love that we made your list last year.

PL: Oh, I'm sure you'll make it this year as well.

SF: We just watched next Wednesday's episode, which is our Jaws episode. I wanted to do Jaws since the first season. And I co-wrote it. And I was actually inspired by my own episode. *Laughs* This is so lame, I'm so embarrassed, but I'm all pumped up to write my own -- well, see, I'm writing the season premiere.

PL: Yeah, well I guess the timing is good because you're just getting to...

SF: Yeah, last Tuesday is when we all came into the office to start writing. I do something a little different than other TV shows, I think. I don't know, maybe all other shows do this. But at the end of the season, when we're all done, I add two weeks to the end of the season and we come back and we break stories for the next year. And it's just like "karate", and then they go into China Town, and they go to the bad dojo. Whatever we come up with, and we try to come up with as much as we can. And then, during the two months that you have off, you can start thinking of ideas for that. And some people come back with full-on outlines. We've had people come back with scripts, which is fantastic. So we hit the ground running. While most other people, other shows, are just putting their stuff out on their desks and setting up their pictures, we are already halfway done our stories. It's been really great. This year was great because we broke, like, six stories and then we came back, and then I'm like, "Well, gosh, these aren't like, big, giant, event-type summer episodes," so we've actually broken three more stories this week. And so it's like, "Okay, car racing! Okay, that's cool." So we have a lot of stuff ready to go so early.

PL: You've got half your season already.

SF: Well, more than half our season. It's like, all of a sudden, slots are filling up. I want to do this episode and this episode, and I want to have this character come back, and it's like, "When am I going to be able to do that?" So it's been a great first week. And who knows, at some point we might get burned out, but not yet.

PL: As far as your ongoing storylines, the show is generally pretty episode specific. Things can be contained, people can pick up an episode here and there. But you do have the overlying storylines more relating to Shawn's life, and that sort of thing. Do you kind of plan, for the entire year, how you think things will play out?

SF: Absolutely. We knew where we wanted to get at the end of the season, and we knew where the upcoming season (was headed) way more than ever before, because we're going to move a lot of things forward this season that we've been sort of playing around with. But last year I had, I like to call, "mini-arcs", where it's like, "Gus will do this for these three episodes, and this'll be something that Shawn's dealing with." And we did about half of the stuff that I wanted to, and then the episodes become too full and it's like, "Well, push that back to next year." So there's a lot of stuff from last year that I wanted to do that we're actually going to do this year.

We don't ever want to be a serialized show, where you have to see last week to understand what's going on this week. But I do like those little personal stories that keep it going. And we're doing something to fold Henry into Shawn's life a little more next year as well, which actually takes a lot of attention and a lot of work. The reason I don't like to serialize it too much is that I want people to be able to tune in, but I also want to be able to move an episode that doesn't work as well into a spot that puts the more exciting ones up to the front. But next year it's going to be a lot harder to do that, because we have things that happen in rapid succession that influence the next (episode).

PL: Right, you put those out of line and people get confused.

SF: Yeah, exactly. And you know, we're a detective show, and detective shows should be self-contained every week. But you know, I always look back to Magnum, P.I. as my template. Magnum, P.I. always had something that was ongoing and they would hint at it every few episodes. That's what we like to do.

PL: Now, when you came up with the idea for this show, was it shows like that that kind of gave you the idea initially, or was is something else completely?

SF: It was Magnum, P.I. -- it was my show growing up, and the show that most influenced me. And what a dream world this guy lives in: living in somebody else's giant house and driving somebody else's car in Hawaii, and has this great life and goes out. He has a friend with a helicopter and they solve crimes. I'm like, "That's what I want to do!" So for me, it was that wish fulfillment kind of thing. And the other thing is that my dad is a police officer, and he used to work security on movie sets. And, when I was growing up, he used to work on Moonlighting a lot. So I used to go down and I used to go see him on the set of Moonlighting, and so I sort of grew up on the set of that show just watching them. And it was so fun, and so funny, and they were so totally unhinged at points and so completely out of control and having so much fun. I'm like, "This is what I want to do with my life." So, those are the two shows that I always wanted to do something like. I'd never done a one-hour show. I'd never done a detective show. I'd never done anything with cops. So it was funny, you know, "Your dad's a cop, how could you never have done anything about cops?" I don't know how to do a regular cop show, so this is about how much I know about cops.

PL: And the psychic thing came from...?

SF: It was a role for our guy not to be a cop but get to act like a cop. He didn't have to go through the training and come up from the ranks. He was a consultant, and he's just a guy who's really good at observing who should have been a cop, who should have done all those things, and chose not to because he and his dad had a falling out. So for me, it was the best of both worlds. You could have the cops and you could also get the guy who still gets to ride his motorcycle and wear jeans. And most importantly to me, it was something different that I've never seen on a detective show before. For me, it's always about -- there's just got to be one thing that makes me say, "I've never seen this before," and then I get excited.

PL: The finale I've heard ties into last year's finale.

SF: Yes, it's the second half of "Mr. Yang". And it's not even the second half, it's a planned trilogy, and it's really intense. It's the most intense thing we've done. Even "Mr. Yang", at that point, was the darkest thing we've ever done. I think this just might outdo it. But James directed it, and it was our way to do Hitchcock, which was also on my board. We want to do a Hitchcock thing. So all the clues relate to Hitchcock in it and it's very exciting and it's really cool, and leads us into a springboard for next season, which is great. And then we'll probably finish off the "Ying Yang" trilogy next season.

PL: Does Cybill Shepherd return in the finale?

SF: Not in this episode, but she's coming back next year. I hope she's available because we have a lot of stuff for her. *Laughs*

PL: Now you mentioned that James directed the finale. He's great on camera, he's written episodes, he's directed episodes. He's clearly multi-talented. Why isn't he a superstar yet?

SF: That is one of the great questions of the world. The thing about James is that instead of going out and doing a movie, he's doing a play this year in New York. He's been trying to get this movie that he wants to direct off the ground. He's not interested in being Matt Damon. It's really funny. He follows his own drummer, and I think he just feels that he puts so much of himself into this show -- it's amazing. You know, I can't write an episode without him being in just about every scene, and I apologize to him all the time. But he gives so much as a producer and as a director, an actor and a writer, and it's such a great team effort between us, that I think by the time we get to the end of the season, he doesn't have the life in him to go out and get the new Ben Stiller movie or whatever it is. But I think when the show ends, that'll probably be his time to move on. But he really does bury himself in the show.

PL: Well as we said, in Canada nobody watches this show, but in the States people watch the show and it's got a decent cable audience. At some point I hope that everyone knows who he is and gets to see him work.

SF: Well the thing is for me, there's no doubt in my mind that's going to happen for him. It's just a matter of when he chooses to make it happen. We've been talking about trying to put together a movie this season. And then perhaps that avenue will be the vehicle that gets him out to the public beyond the USA audience. But I know he just hits a home run in everything he does and he's the funniest person I've ever worked with.

PL: I also wanted to ask about the other person that plays Shawn on the show, Liam James. You went through a couple different kids at the beginning of the series and then you settled on him, which turned out to be a great find, as far as I'm concerned.

SF: Yeah, Liam's fantastic.

PL: Now, there have been episodes that have more heavily featured the flashbacks, but I was curious -- has there ever been any thought given to the idea of doing an episode that maybe starts in the present but flashes back and mostly takes place in the past?

SF: We've done a little bit of that. We did that this season in "Shawn Takes a Shot in the Dark", where we kept winding back to Henry teaching Shawn something that was helping him survive in the present. My favorite thing we ever done with Liam is in [season two's] "And Down the Stretch Comes Murder", where James gets to have a scene with Liam where he's sitting there watching his own flashback to his childhood and he's sitting behind him at the desk, and Liam's saying, "Is that what my hair looks like in the future? Cool." And I love that kind of stuff. Our network gets a little bit more nervous about when we start mixing it up. "People won't understand!" You know? So for us, I try to work those guys in as much as possible. And we've been playing around with the flashbacks too, so we could see a lot of different things, flashback-wise, not just Corbin in a really terrible wig. *Laughs* I just came up with the first flashback of the year, just this morning. And so, it's always a challenge. We always have to start the episode with it, and you want to hit the ground running, you want to see the case and the murderer and the crime or whatever it is. Where as, it's (also) fun to see the sort of underlying lessons of the past that are going to relate to the episode.

It's a fun idea (though) -- just take an episode that starts modern and go back into flashbacks. That could actually help James, too, in terms of production-wise. It wasn't until the Juliet episode this year that he had a day off because we had a whole big section with Juliet and so he was totally grateful for that.

PL: Speaking of Juliet, the feelings that Shawn that has for Juliet almost came to a head a couple weeks ago, but they were interrupted a couple times there. You could kind of tell that Juliet knew what he was going to say. Will that play out at the end of the season?

SF: Well, there's something... no, no. But you may find that happens in the summer. You may find there's definitive progress that happens in the summer. To me it was always like Moonlighting ended the day Maddie and David got together. And I thought Friends became a lot more interesting when Ross and Rachel got together. So, we just wanted to see how many ways could we keep them apart before we actually let it happen. Shawn's just broken up with a girl who essentially dumped him, so you can't get in there too quick, but that time is rapidly approaching. We'd like to say that we maximized it out. And the great thing is that coming as a creative force on this show, I was also notoriously slow, my progress, with girls that I liked. So this seems totally natural to me.

PL: Right. Four years, five years, whatever.

SF: *Laughs* You have those girls that you're friends with and you'd like something to happen, and one moment isn't right, the other thing isn't right. And she's with somebody, you're with somebody, and then finally the stars align. So we're hoping the stars align soon.

PL: So next year we won't see Rachel Leigh Cook coming back?

SF: She's not in the immediate plans, but she's out there. She's in the ether. She could come back.

PL: Because she said it wasn't forever.

SF: Yeah, exactly. And the fact that Rachel Leigh Cook just got a FOX pilot, that also...

PL: Oh okay, that effects things too.

SF: Exactly. She could come back. She could become a distraction. But we're realizing too that the story doesn't end if (Shawn and Juliet) get together. There's a lot of things that could happen once they do.

PL: You kind of touched upon how the finale this year is the "darkest episode" you've done, and certainly last year's finale was very dramatic -- definitely light on the comedy and heavy on the drama. Do you find it difficult balancing the comedy, the mystery, and the drama elements of the show, or does it all come out organically for you?

SF: I think it's a tightrope walk all the time because it's not just in terms of action and comedy. There's a tightrope episode to episode. People might watch one episode that might lean more towards the drama and they're like, "Oh my God! What's happened to Psych?" Well, watch next week. I'm mostly proud of the show in that we're the only show I've ever seen that's done Shawn and Gus at a sea lion funeral, and Shawn says the sea lion's been murdered. No one's ever done a sea lion murder! And for me, I don't think we'll ever repeat ourselves, but we live and die by taking the risks that we do. When we do a female roller derby episode or we do an American Idol episode, it could shoot off in any direction. That's what we think is the charm of the show. But it's such a challenging balancing act, and it's hard when we bring a director in to say, "Okay, Shawn's really funny, but everybody else is serious. The cops are real cops, but this guy is crazy." And sometimes they want it to be pure comedy or they want it to be pure drama, and it's finding that right mixture. Those are the great episodes and those are the ones that make the show the most worthwhile.

I think the one that we do next week ("The Head, The Tail, The Whole Damn Episode") is a really perfect balance. Every character has something going on personally. Henry has a love interest. Shawn drifts a little bit to the background because it's a Lassiter-centric piece, but he's just as important to it. Because we're doing so many different things, there is no Shawn and Juliet romantic angle for the episode because there's just no room for it, and we'll get to it.

PL: You've done quite a few of these theme episodes, where the episode itself is built around a classic movie or television series or genre. How fun is it trying to fit in all the awesome pop culture references not just every episode, but then to feature episodes around certain pop culture events?

SF: It's my favorite aspect and for me, if you look at the episodes I've done -- I've done the mummy episode, I wrote the dinosaur episode, the sea lion episode. You look at our roster of episodes (and) you see what I gravitate to. And for me, what's also fun is that we've now done almost every ride they have at Universal Studios: we've done Backdraft, we've done a fire episode; we've done the Mummy episode; we've done Jaws; we've now done Hitchcock; even Jurassic Park. So we find our way on our little cable budget to do a fun riff on the summer popcorn movies. And I always approach the show as we're not doing a TV series, we're not doing Law and Order where there's a formula every week: this happens here, this happens at the 20 minute mark, and at a halfway point, this always happens. For me, I want each episode to feel different, to feel like a little summer popcorn movie. If there's a car chase movie, then we're going to do cars this week, and next week we're going to do a dark, scary, Shawn gets shot episode, and the following week we're doing sharks. And those are the things that I love, and (that) make it rich and fun. And it's kind of like wish fulfillment for us. "Oooh, what have we always wanted to do? Let's just do that!" Bollywood, (which) we did last year, was a thing that I thought we'd never crack. We had an Indian writer on staff and I'm like, "We're doing it. You and I are going to write a Bollywood Pysch episode." And that was so much fun because we get to structure it like a Bollywood movie and the "love conquers all" theme. It's different from every other episode we've done. I like it.

PL: You've had an amazing list of guest stars during the last four seasons -- like, pretty incredible, actually. Are there any dream guests that you'd still like to see show up?

SF: Every year we want to try and get David Bowie on the show. That's our goal. And it's so funny because they're always musical. We got really close to getting Chris Isaak last year, which was going to be a dream for me, but he was just getting off tour. And because the Chief is a crazed Phil Collins fan, we've always wanted to get Phil Collins. We have a list of musical people. It's interesting, the first year we couldn't get anybody because they're all like, "What? What? What cable show? What is this? This sounds ridiculous." And people have started to know what our show is, which is amazing to us. We actually started hearing from actors' agents, people that we love like, "Hey listen, they're big fans. We'd love to do your show," and we're like, "Are you kidding me? That's fantastic!"

PL: After pretty much the entire series making many references to Judd Nelson, to actually have Judd Nelson in an episode two weeks ago was great!

SF: Yeah, exactly. And the amount of references we've made to Billy Zane is off the charts. *Laughs* It's almost like we've referenced Billy Zane too many times so that he could never be on the show.

PL: I just wanted to ask a little bit about the business side and that for the first time, the second half of the fourth season, Psych is on its own. It doesn't have Monk as a lead-in, it's on a new night. Have you been happy with the way the show has stood on its own, or do you even pay attention to that kind of thing?

SF: The funny thing is one of our other executive producers, Kelly Kulchak, she's all, "I'm gonna call, I'm gonna call and ask them what the ratings were." And I'm like, "No, no. Don't ask what the ratings are." Andy Breckman, the creator of Monk, called me before our pilot aired, and is like, "I can give you the best piece of advice I've ever gotten in this business. You have no control over the numbers. There's nothing you can do about the numbers. They will go up, they will go down. And they will go down for reasons that nobody can explain. If a basketball game goes into overtime, if there's a snowstorm in one town, if the power goes out somewhere. All these things, you can go insane trying to chart what works and what doesn't and when people tune in and when they tune out. Just know as a trend which way they go and just make the best show that you can." And that's what I try to do. I think the show for me, for my sense of humor, I've always wanted to see a show do a Jaws episode so I'm doing it. And hopefully, my passion and excitement translates to people who watch.

That said, we've always been really excited about the possibility of going to a night other than Friday because our audience is people who have things to do on Friday nights. Of all the people, the possibilities of people who are in their 20s and 30s, they've got things to do on Friday. We're one of the most time shifted shows on TV. So we have so many people recording and DVR-ing our show and watching it later that we're excited about Wednesday. It's like, hey, maybe we'll get a nice tune at night. Our premiere numbers blew away our expectations and we've held up pretty decently. Our Juliet episode was really high and we haven't been hit as hard by the Olympics as we thought we would be. Of course this year, we have to have the most popular Olympics in like, 20 years.

PL: Well, it's the Vancouver tie-in again.

SF: The thing is in the China Olympics, of course, every Friday at 10:00 it was Michael Phelps again, breaking another record. It's like, at 8:30, they're not showing any Michael Phelps. It was always on the Fridays, and it was always at 10. It's like, oh, we're gonna get hammered. And of course last night was skating. And I'm like, ugh, anything but us going against skating. So we couldn't have been up against the curling or anything like that.

PL: Hey, hey, hey. You're talking to a Canadian right now.

SF: I know, I'm just saying, they don't watch it! By the way, my favorite event is curling. I've started to understand it just the smallest bit, but it's the most fascinating thing I think out there.

PL: Well, if you manage to fit curling into an episode, I will be impressed.

SF: *Laughs* You know we probably could.

PL: There would be lots available nearby.

SF: Yeah. The only thing is how do we explain that occurring in Santa Barbara?

PL: Well, I just read an article recently about some Canadian who moved down to California. She used to be a good junior curler here and she started teaching it down there.

SF: Oh, that's so funny.

PL: I also read a story about someone on the San Francisco 49s who tried out curling a couple months ago. So you know, there's curling in that area.

SF: That's so funny. I just love all the, I love the hog lines. It's like, what?

PL: Is there anything that fans should know and expect for the final two episodes for the season?

SF: These are two of our favorites from this year. One of them is extremely funny, and one of them is extremely intense. And some things are set up for next year, and next year is going to blow everyone away. We always hope that each year makes the last one obsolete. The ideas that we have for next year are really some of the most exciting things we've ever come up with. So I'm really proud of these last two. TV shows, when they have seasons, they try to shuffle away the lesser episodes in the middle, and now we're in the home run episodes.The worst thing is they split us into two seasons, 'cause we're cable. So every third episode is a season premiere or a season finale. So it's like everything has to be an event. It's like season premiere, a couple episodes, season finale, season premiere, season finale, and four of those in one season. So for us these last two are really spectacular. We don't have anything dark or intense for next year yet. So it might be a lighter year next year, but no less fun and no less exciting. And certainly we like to occasionally have some big, bombastic action.

PL: Well hopefully people reading this will watch the last two episodes, and of course next season. And hopefully Canadians reading this will find the DVDs and start from the beginning.

SF: Yeah, and let's find a way to get us on Global or something.

PL: Yeah, well, I think that Global owns the rights officially. They just haven't aired it since some season one episodes years ago.

SF: Well they need to get on that.

PL: I agree.

Tags: Psych, Steve Franks, James Roday, Corbin Bernsen, Liam James, Maggie Lawson, Cybill Shepherd, Magnum, P.I., Vancouver, USA Network

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Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of ShowbizMonkeys.com. When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found at The Purple Room in Winnipeg, where he is Artistic Director. (@comedygeek)

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