Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

Mad Dogs: TV's hot new crime caper

The men behind Mad Dogs talk to Russell Baillie about surviving the tropical crime caper
A luxury launch trip turns into the holiday from hell for  (from left) Romany Malco, Steve Zahn, Ben Chaplin and Michael Imperioli.
A luxury launch trip turns into the holiday from hell for (from left) Romany Malco, Steve Zahn, Ben Chaplin and Michael Imperioli.

Getting on a boat with Billy Zane clearly has its risks. There was Dead Calm, where he played the psycho menacing poor Nicole Kidman on a yacht. There was Titanic where he played the rotten cad vying for the affections of Kate Winslet.

Now in the first episode on Mad Dogs, his rich guy Milo takes four friends out on a luxury motor launch, all part of having invited the old mates to his lavish seaside villa in Belize.

The nautical jaunt is just the beginning of a nightmare for the 40-something quartet played by Steve Zahn, Sopranos star Michael Imperioli, Romany Malco and Brit Ben Chaplin.

So you and boats, huh? Always a problem ...

"Just add water," smiles Zane. "Instant chaos."

That chaos lasts for 10 episodes involving - in no particular order - a dead goat in a swimming pool, a small gun-wielding figure in a cat mask, some Swedish drug dealers, much male bonding amid constant panic, a large bag of money and plenty of tropical scenery.

Zane is holding court at a press junket for Mad Dogs in a Los Angeles hotel alongside his fellow cast members and the show's creators, Brit Cris Cole and American producer Shawn Ryan.

The 10-part "farce noir" has been made for content-hungry US streaming service Amazon Prime (it will screen weekly on Sky's SoHo in New Zealand, then on Sky Neon) and provides an interesting case study into how shows are made and delivered in 2016.

Mad Dogs is a remake of a series Cole created for Britain's Sky Television in 2011.

Marney Hochman, Shawn Ryan, Cris Cole of Amazon's Mad Dogs. Photo / Getty Images
Marney Hochman, Shawn Ryan, Cris Cole of Amazon's Mad Dogs. Photo / Getty Images

That show - influenced by the 2000 Brit gangster movie Sexy Beast and the films of the Coen Brothers- started off a four-episode one-off.

With decent ratings on the pay TV channel, it was renewed for three more short seasons. Its stars included Chaplin in the role Zane now plays.

When Sony Television purchased the British production company behind Mad Dogs, Left Bank, Coe and Ryan (a Hollywood television powerhouse who created cop show The Shield and special forces series The Unit) were thrown together.

The idea for an American remake of Mad Dogs eventuated.

"My first instinct wasn't 'let's remake this' my first instinct was 'who's the writer? Is it someone we can talk to about other ideas?'" says Ryan.

For Coe, recreating the show as a 10-parter allowed him to develop the story in ways the original four episodes hadn't allowed.

"The British one was commissioned as a four-parter and the idea was it was never going to go any further. So it was a very contained story. After that they wanted more and so we had to keep sewing these stories together where we had to play a bit fast and loose with the plot.

"Whereas with this, knowing you are going to do 10 hours was a privilege because you could work out a 19-part story which was a little bit more satisfying, a little more realistic and more dramatic."

In the US at least, viewers can binge-watch their way through all 10 episodes of the first season on Amazon. Ryan says the show is yet another one rewriting the rules of television in the age of Big Streaming.

"British television has had a tradition of these short orders but American television, if there wasn't a plan for at least 100 episodes at the beginning they wouldn't do your story. This is not the kind of show that can handle 100 episodes. It opens up this world of stories where you can put these characters into extraordinary situations and get out of it before it feels too silly."

US remakes of British shows do bring to mind the comedy series Episodes about English writers coping with Hollywood politics and casting choices.

"I think there were some Episodes moments," laughs Ryan. "Hopefully Chris was unsurprised and decently prepared for them.

"There is a layer of bureaucracy, even at a place like Amazon. There are levels and protocols that you have to go through that are not always pleasing to the artistic mind, that you kind of have to put up to tell the story you want to tell.

"There were a few moments when I sheepishly felt embarrassed for the American system - I saw Chris' frustrations and I was like 'yeah I know, I know - I'm sorry'."

Still, it retains much of the original show's set-up - and Chaplin, who says yes, it was strange being cast in the remake as another character.

"It's the weirdest thing I've ever done. I don't know what precedent there is for an actor and going from a show in one country to going to a reinterpretation in another country ... I enjoyed the British one so much that I just thought more of it would be a fantastic thing to do.

Though there's a crime caper plot, the story has an undercurrent about guys reaching middle age and starting to regret how their lives have turned out against those of their peers.

Ryan: "We settled on the mid-40s as the best age group for these characters - that's the moment where there is still a glimmer of hope left in your life but it is fading fast.

"To me this is also a show about the uselessness of the American middle-aged man ... these are men who have hit a ceiling, who aren't going to achieve the things they were dreaming about doing when they were 20 to 25, who have all sorts of crushing disappointments in their life."

Zane: "The way it is set up it might look like a brawny kind of thing but there is a vulnerability with each character that kind of speaks to anyone."

Coe says his American characters are more talkative more than his original British ones.

"British men don't talk.

"They tend to internalise everything and American men seem to externalise it more.

"I think American men are more in touch with expressing how they feel with themselves and each other. They'll verbalise that in a way British men won't - [Brits] stare at each other in silence for much longer.

It sounds like the cast earned their money on the Puerto Rico shoot.

Zahn came down with dengue fever, Chaplin tore a ligament, everyone sweated buckets for weeks on end.

"It was one of those things," says Zahn.

"You read a script and you just think about the character and then you get there and you start thinking: 'Ok there's boats, there's mangrove swamps, there's a body. This is going to be f***ing hard. And a one-hour drama is a brutal schedule. You start at six in the morning on Mondays and you are working Saturdays. You are constantly being pushed to the limit and it really hit us in that first week."

Chaplin: I have done physically harder jobs like [WWII movie] Thin Red Line when I was 27-28 years old. But we're the wrong side of 40 to be doing something this physical. If you stood on your feet for 14 hours in that heat, any human being would be f*****.

"We are doing that emoting, physically running, staying in a constant anxiety and fear -that's a very very taxing thing to do."

Zahn: "It was brutal. It really was."


What: Mad Dogs
Where: SoHo
When: Monday, 9.30pm

- TimeOut

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