Shawn Ryan, producer of The Night Agent, at the Netflix premiere.

The Night Agent’s Shawn Ryan talks creating the perfect Netflix thriller

Shawn Ryan is a master of TV drama. From The Shield helping put FX on the map to his underrated series like FOX’s The Chicago Code, he knows how to create stories that keep the audience on the edge of their seats. That remains true with his new Netflix show The Night Agent, which serves up everything viewers would expect from a thriller.

Ahead of the series premiere, I reconnected with Shawn to discuss how he became acquainted with Matthew Quirk’s novel, all of the pieces that went into bringing it from page to screen, and the one part of the project that he feels people aren’t talking enough about. Check out what he had to tell me below before you stream the entire first season on Netflix now.

Brittany Frederick: How did you become involved with The Night Agent originally? Had you read the book and taken an interest in it, or did someone bring it to you and say, “This would be a good fit for your talents specifically”?

Shawn Ryan: I met with Jamie Vanderbilt, who’s a very celebrated screenwriter and producer himself—a guy I admire. [His company] had the rights to this book and they said, “Are you interested in reading it to see if it’s something you’re interested in adapting?” That was the last meeting I had before COVID hit. Suddenly I was in lockdown and had plenty of time to read, and I read the book and just fell in love with it. It kind of melded together well with a Secret Service idea I had been working on independently. There wasn’t really enough in the book to fill out an entire TV season. But I thought, “Well if I combine it with this other idea I’d been working on, I think there’s a way to integrate these stories together and I think that would fill a whole season of TV.”

BF: What was it about the book that you found compelling?

SR: I fell in love with Peter and Rose as characters. I fell in love with the idea of a man who has these unanswered questions about his father. That was something that was very personal to me. My father died kind of suddenly back in 2015. And in cleaning out his house, I found all sorts of things that made me curious about his life before I was born and things he had never talked about. And of course, I knew that I would never get to talk to him about those things. So Peter and his uncertainty about his father—what he may have done in his life and whether he was a traitor or not—really resonated with me and gave me the idea, because I wasn’t interested in doing a straight by the numbers political thriller. To me, you have to have really compelling characters. And the book made Peter and Rose, and Diane also, all really compelling characters that I wanted to bring to life.

The Night Agent official trailer. (Video Credit: Courtesy of Netflix.)

BF: How did you approach writing Peter? Because he’s a competent FBI agent, obviously, but then you also have to write him as someone who’s a fish out of water in this new situation he stumbles into, and that’s a fine line for a character to walk.

SR: That’s a classic underdog story. He’s good at what he is good at, but that doesn’t always apply to the situation he finds himself in. And in many ways he becomes an avatar for people like us, who wonder what we would do in these situations. So I think he’s an extraordinary competent guy who nonetheless is in this extraordinary situation that almost anyone would have difficulty with. And Rose is the same way. She goes from being the CEO of a tech company to being on the run and having to scramble with Peter to figure out why people are trying to kill her.

There are a lot of great shows and movies that center on undestructible killing machines, whether it’s the Bourne movies or the John Wicks. I was really interested in someone that occasionally fails. And when you fail, are you capable of getting up and still going and still trying again? I think that’s much more true to the human experience. Peter’s got to be careful not to find himself in a fight he can’t win, and that takes some work to do. I loved the idea of telling an underdog story in the political thriller space, and that’s what this is.

BF: All of your series, from The Shield to The Unit, have been masterful in balancing their action with those strong character arcs. Did any of the past shows you’ve worked on help you mold the tone or the creative approach of this one?

SR: I would say my experience on The Shield was most apt. The Shield had always had these interlocking stories going. It was a very serialized [show]. What happened in one episode was very relevant to what would happen in a future episode. In this case, we are trying to tell a 10-episode story. This is a series that hopefully will be ongoing and we’ll have future seasons, but it was important to us to tell a self-contained story each season. All the questions that get asked in the first couple episodes, they will be answered by the final episode. So I would say my experience of having to balance the multiple characters, the different storylines, [and] how best to integrate them in The Shield was probably most pertinent to this show.

BF: Your supporting cast includes quite a few people who’ve played political or government figures in past shows. There’s Robert Patrick from The Unit, DB Woodside from 24, Enrique Murciano… How much did it help to have people who were specifically experienced in this genre?

SR: It’s finding those pillars that you can build a believable world around. So between the three of them [and] Hong Chau, who it’s amazing—we cast this incredible actress, and then all of a sudden she’s getting nominated for SAG Awards and Oscars and everything, and it’s been so wonderful to see her ride over the last few months. [And] Kari Matchett, who plays the President of the United States. You have to build a believable world in that White House for all the things happening outside the White House to be believable as well.

Finding these people who fit into those roles as these ambitious politicians or government servants in the FBI or Secret Service, it’s really important that world feels authentic. And there’s great conflict. There’s great scenes between Hong Chau’s character and Enrique’s character where they go at each other in a way that, to me, feels very authentic [to] the way that people who don’t like each other in the White House would go at each other. It was really fun to write for them, and they helped pull off the White House portion of this world really well.

BF: Of course, no thriller is complete without a couple jaw-dropping moments, and The Night Agent is no exception. Without giving any spoilers away, were there any scenes that you had particular fun in writing or how did you get to those story beats where you knew you could genuinely surprise people?

SR: I think there are a lot of those. We tried to put a lot of those moments in the show. I don’t want to give away too much, but there are a lot of moments where how you understand the world and what’s happening changes as certain things are revealed or certain things happen. We follow two killers, a boyfriend girlfriend. We call them Dale and Ellen, although their names are never mentioned on screen, and I’ve said I don’t think those are the characters’ actual real names. There’s a scene with them at the end of the pilot episode that I think is one of those, “Holy shit, what’s happening here?” sort of moments.

We have different storylines going on and there are moments at the end of Episode 3 and Episode 4 that give you more clarity as how these storylines are connected. And those were great moments for me. There’s a slow-motion thing that we set up at the beginning of Episode 3 with the Vice President’s daughter, that I think you have this slow building dread about what’s going to happen that in Episode 5 pays off. It was really important to us that we have these moments that advance the plot, that illuminate character and that just make you go, “Oh my God, I want to find out what happens next.”

Gabriel Basso and Adam Arkin on the set of Netflix's The Night Agent.
The Night Agent star Gabriel Basso (left) and director Adam Arkin on the set of the Netflix series. (Photo Credit: Dan Power/Courtesy of Netflix.)

BF: The natural question with every adaptation is how closely it sticks to the book. Especially with those plot twists in mind, how would you say Netflix’s The Night Agent compares to Matthew Quirk’s original book? Should people read the book when they’ve seen the show?

SR: There’s a lot of stuff that’s different from the book. I’ve talked to some people who watched and then read the book, and they really enjoyed that experience—to read the book to see what we changed, to see what we kept. Matthew Quirk did a great job. I was just talking to him at our premiere party, and he’s seen all 10 episodes now. I was worried because we did change a lot from the book and he was so happy. He knows that so much of what’s in the book is at the center and core of the show. So they will be two different experiences, and hopefully people think the show’s great.

BF: What parts of the production stand out to you, looking back on it? Anyone else whom we haven’t discussed that you want viewers to know about as they dive into the show?

SR: Seth Gordon, our director, has had a really amazing career across the documentary space, comedy space and drama space. This is the first time I think he’s really sort of worked in the genre, and I think one of the things that elevates this show is his direction over the first couple of episodes. We really did get sort of a murderers’ row of directors. Guy Ferland, who’s directed a lot of my shows including The Chicago Code and The Shield, did two episodes. Adam Arkin, who I think is a really terrific director, [did] two episodes. Ramaa Mosley, who’s a really fascinating director, did two episodes, and then Millicent Shelton, who’s done some great work. She came in and did our last two episodes.

I think that’s one of the underrated things. You can have a great show, but if you don’t have the right guest directors coming in to do the work, the show’s going to suffer. So to have Seth do such an amazing job on the first two episodes and then have these four other directors come in to do two episodes each, we’re very fortunate. I really feel like we had just a top-notch “A” team in terms of directors. The show looks wonderful. It feels grounded and realistic and tense and beautiful, and I really appreciate the work that they all did on the show.

The Night Agent is now streaming on Netflix.

Article content is (c)2020-2023 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr and on Instagram at @BFTVGram.

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