21CF Chats: ‘Lethal Weapon’ exec producer Matt Miller on making a successful reboot, casting difficulties, forging a new path

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Let it be known that FOX’s new TV series “Lethal Weapon” is not your typical reboot. Matt Miller, the show’s executive producer, isn’t here to rehash the beloved action film franchise – he’s interested in making a show that will introduce a new-yet-familiar duo whose weekly journeys will be filled with humor, action and subtle themes that will resonate with audiences.

I recently spoke with Matt to hear about his hopes for “Lethal Weapon” (Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on FOX). In the process, I learned about why it was so hard to cast Riggs, the pros and cons of doing a reboot, the foundational theme running through the show, and more.

Congratulations on the series premiere. Can you talk about the journey from the pitch to the pilot for “Lethal Weapon”? How did it compare to the process you had for other shows?

It was an incredibly smooth ride. For me, the process of pitching it, writing it, notes – it couldn’t have been any smoother. And pitching it to [Fox Television Group chairmen and CEOs] Dana Walden and Gary Newman, [President of Entertainment for FOX Broadcasting Company] David Madden, [Executive Vice President of Drama Development and Programming for FOX Broadcasting Company] Terence Carter, and everyone at FOX development – they were brought into a room and we were off and running. Making the pilot, obviously, always has a fair amount of stress attached to it.

What was difficult?

We knew that casting the show was going to be the most difficult part of it, and it was super difficult finding the [Martin] Riggs character. Damon Wayans came on for [Roger] Murtaugh very early. Then when we found Riggs, all the pieces kind of fell into place, so the actual execution of the pilot and then handing it in and everything else honestly couldn’t have gone any smoother. The pilot was a tough shoot – doing a big action show in Los Angeles was extremely challenging. But everyone was very supportive of the show the moment they saw it, and it’s been great ever since.

What made it more difficult to find the right actor to play Riggs?

Danny Glover and Mel Gibson played both those characters so iconically and had amazing chemistry, and I needed to find people who were going to forge their own paths and not make you think of the original two guys. So having one piece of that with Damon solved that. I knew that people wouldn’t think of Danny Glover necessarily but would only think of Damon Wayans because he has so much presence himself. Then with Riggs, everyone was sort of subconsciously doing a Mel Gibson imitation on some level, even if they didn’t realize they were doing it. And we found [Clayne Crawford], this guy on a farm in Alabama who had a southern drawl, his own sort of interesting charisma and an approach to something that was very unlike what Mel Gibson did. That was what made it so hard: Because Mel Gibson played it so iconically, it was very hard to find people who weren’t just doing their best Mel Gibson.

Damon Wayans and Clayne Crawford in an episode of “Lethal Weapon.”

Photo credit: Darren Michaels/FOX

What aspects of the films do you want to preserve? What aspects do you want to bend or take to another place? How do you strike a good balance?

I think the trick with doing a reboot is not feeling compelled to keep anything from the original. I have the names of the characters – Murtaugh and Riggs – and the dynamic is the same in the sense that one is a slightly older cop and one is a guy who is suicidal. We kind of decided to slightly reboot their backstories, making Murtaugh someone who has recently come back to work after a triple bypass and has a young baby and a wife who does very well financially, so he’s not compelled to work and he’s a little afraid to die. So it’s about why does that guy do it. That’s juxtaposed with a guy who’s actively looking to die. That central conflict was what I wanted to focus the series on, and that’s what the show is about.

What compels you to steer things in a different direction than the films?

I actually tried not to do things that they did in the movie franchise because then it becomes fandom as opposed to carving your own path. Even looking at the TV series that have been made out of features, the ones that get into trouble are too reliant on the concept and the title and think that their work is done at that point, as opposed to ones that take the spirit and soul of what the movies were and then forge their own path. To me, the best versions of that are “Fargo,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Bates Motel.”

As a producer and writer, what aspects of your work change the most when working with an existing franchise as opposed to forging a brand new one?

It’s interesting because I think what’s happened in today’s climate is there’s a little bit of backlash. The virtue of doing a title or property is that in a world of there being so many shows on right now on streaming services and cable channels, there’s name recognition. At the same time, there’s a lot of cynicism out there surrounding the idea that Hollywood is remaking more things. So it’s a bit of a catch-22 because there are benefits to it, but at the same time there’s definitely some negative pitfalls you have to avoid, and you have to work really hard to make sure the show stands on its own two feet so that people say, “This is worthy no matter what it’s called.” Creating your own show, you don’t deal with any of that baggage.

Going back to the strong connections people may have with the original Murtaugh and Riggs in the films: How do you tackle that challenge and get audiences to make that personal connection to these new-yet-old characters?

I think there are certain people who are going to say, “I’m not interested in seeing these beloved characters redone on a television show.” And that’s fine. People are entitled to have that opinion. But for people who are open to that notion and want to watch it, it’s just about making as good of a television show as you can make. A good television show is something that surprises you. On this show, we want to make people laugh, we want the action to work really well. I think what we hopefully do well is – there’s really a strong emotional component to these episodes and they’re a little bit more traumatic than people might anticipate. But that’s television. Television is not a movie where you go on an hour-and-a-half or two-hour ride with a character – maybe you do it a couple times if you have a successful movie. We’re looking for something that’s going to last for a long time here, and in order to make that happen, people have to really fall in love with these characters and want to go through the day-to-day experiences with them, live week in and week out through their evolutions and their arcs. The only thing I need people to take away from the pilot episode is: I love those guys and I’m ready to go on a journey with them.

I think most people would call “Lethal Weapon” the TV series a buddy-cop show. What do you think of that label, and how do you approach it?

It’s definitely a buddy-cop show – that’s what it is. You try to elevate things in your mind so you cut down to what it’s really about. For me, to a certain extent, with these two guys it’s about what it means to be a man, and they’re both confronted with that. For Murtaugh, he’s in this place in his life where he doesn’t have to work, his wife makes more money than he does, he’s had some health problems. What does he want out of life? For Riggs, here’s a guy who’s had everything taken away from him and doesn’t want to live anymore. What does he want? Is there any value in life for him? That’s the underpinning of the show, but yeah, it’s a buddy-cop show.

After Season 1 is over, what do you hope people will be saying about “Lethal Weapon” the TV series?

I hope they’ll be saying, “Give me some Season 2.”

Of course, of course.

We planned out a really nice arc for this season and we have a cliffhanger element to it, so hopefully they will be left on the edge of their seats and feeling like they’re ready for some more.

Lethal Weapon” airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on FOX.