POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Nov 19, 2010
One would think that an assignment in paradise would be a balmy breeze, but that's just not how Peter Lenkov works.
The Waikiki sun was setting gloriously, the steel guitar slid into the jazzy opening of "On a Little Street in Singapore," the grill was fired up, a margarita's on its way ... and the executive producer of "Hawaii Five-O" was STILL working, finishing up one last cell phone set of instructions.
Even when he managed to take 20 minutes to sit down and talk, it's still shop talk ("I've got an exclusive for you: Al Harrington's going to be in Episode 12!" he confided cheerfully).
At least all the work has paid off in a hit show, the latest in a string of successes for Lenkov -- producer of "CSI: NY" and "24," whose writing credits include the film "Demolition Man." After convincing CBS that the time was right for reprising a TV classic from four decades past, he was off and running again, back and forth between the Hawaii set and his wife and four kids in Los Angeles (twin teenage daughters and two young sons).
Lenkov has seen a lot in his career, but Hawaii is something special. Much of "CSI: Miami" was shot in L.A., he said, which meant that in post-production the color had to be "goosed up" to catch that sunny Florida glow. No such trickery is needed in "Five-O," he said.
"You don't have to goose up Hawaii -- it already has such a good palette," he said, the sunset fading to silver behind him.
QUESTION: What kind of feedback do you get about the show?
ANSWER: You know, the thing that's so interesting to me, I hear a lot of people either who have been to Hawaii and now want to go back to Hawaii, or people who have never been to Hawaii and now want to go to Hawaii because of the show. And I find we've done this little travelogue in the 10 episodes we've done so far, that it really feels like we're exploring the island and doing what we had set out to do, which was make it a character, and people are responding to that. And I think what helps is the chyrons (video captions) on the show, which basically identify where you are, so people are trying to pay attention to those. And I also think the fact that we name our episodes, we give them Hawaiian names, people actually go and have that interactive experience by going online and trying to figure out what that means, and by doing that they actually learn a lot about Hawaii ... I did "CSI: NY" for so many years. I never heard anybody say, "Wow, it makes me want to go to New York." I never heard that. That was a crime show, Saturday night, in obviously a big metropolis. But I think people forget the fact that there's a crime story being told, and they just soak in this beautiful landscape. And I'm surprised that that's been a consistent response to the show.
Q: Did any of your previous productions prepare you for this one? Or are all the productions unique?
A: They are, but I think I took a little bit of everything that I've learned on all the shows I've been on to bring to this show. And I feel like this show is a little different from anything I've ever worked on because it has the action, it has stuff that I've done for so many years -- it's action, procedural stuff. But also it has comedy, which rarely do you see in these kinds of shows, so it's like a new muscle to exercise. ... It's an education for me, because I was familiar with Hawaii but I'm really sort of soaking it in, like a student.
Q: What is your experience with Hawaii?
A: Just a visitor. I have friends that have a house on the North Shore. So I used to come every year; we'd come down and just hang out with them, stay at their place ... but I never spent even any time in Waikiki. I'd usually just rent a car and go right up to the North Shore, and I'd bypass this whole area. And I always said that next time I come I'm going to actually go to Pearl Harbor. And I only got to go to Pearl Harbor when I was doing the pilot. But I've been to the other islands, I've been to Maui and I've been to the Big Island -- but like a tourist, like most people when they come to Hawaii. They do the helicopter rides, and they go to the rainforest to hike, sit by the pool.
Q: What distinguishes this show, in particular?
A: I definitely think location is a big ingredient. But what I think we're most proud of is our character work. Most procedural shows, it's plot first, it's casework first. And for us we always look at it as a character show first. And we look at exploring our characters and telling character stories in the world of a procedural show. ... And I think comedy, which is, again, rare in the genre, I think that's a big deal for us.
Q: To what extent are you guided by the original series, as opposed to wanting to depart from it?
A: I was a huge fan of the original show, so I feel like there are a lot of elements I took or cherry-picked from the original show, that I thought there was no reason to fix them or change them. So I wanted to sort of carry on and keep that legacy alive. But I also feel like the audience today, some things work, some things don't. And I feel like if I just did a procedural story which, back in the day, that was a cutting-edge show, and it was really case-heavy, I felt you have to add some other element to it. And that's where the heavy character development comes in. But I feel like in terms of being guided by the original show, I just wanted to keep the spirit of the show alive, I think. That's key to me. In the DNA, just the idea of who these characters are and what they stand for and why they do what they do. If you keep that spirit alive, I think you're honoring the original show.
Q: So you'd say the support characters are more fleshed out than in the original?
A: When I saw Danno on that show I always felt like he didn't look like he belonged in Hawaii. So what's he doing in Hawaii? He just didn't look like he belonged there. I don't know why. ... So that's how the whole Danno thing came about, about giving him sort of an identity on the mainland and having to come here and justify coming here.
Q: Is there anything about Hawaii culture or lifestyle that was unexpected to you?
A: I don't know about unexpected. I'd always heard about this aloha state of mind, how friendly everybody was and how warm this culture was. I sort of expected that, and it exceeded my expectations. ... Even today I was getting a lift back to my hotel, and this candy company had sent over a bunch of chocolates to us, for some of the producers. So I was thinking, how nice is that? That never happens back where I am from, that they would just send you a gift and saying thank you for doing the show. Those things, it makes you feel that you're welcome and you're wanted here. That, to me, is unique.
Q: Were you surprised by all the chatter about localisms? The slippers-versus-flipflops thing?
A: I take full blame for the slippers. As much as I want to please everybody in Hawaii, and they really do come first, there's a whole other global audience that watches the show ... You go to any dictionary or Wikipedia, the true meaning of "slippers" is bedtime footwear. I knew it was going to alienate everybody. I knew that the island, they were going to be mad at me, but I had to think of the bigger picture. Because if Danny were to walk up those stairs and said to Scott, "You should have thought about wearing slippers," everybody's going to say, "Bedtime shoes?" So I take the heat for that. ... People are very protective, and I do not blame them, and I respect that. They identify with this show, and it's their show. So they have every right to complain, to grieve and compliment. So I'm not upset about it. I just wanted to know where it came from.
Q: How well is the film industry supported here?
A: You know, I think the expectation always is -- and it's not just Hawaii -- the expectation is when you go outside of L.A., you're going to have a hard time shooting something. It's just because the resources, and crew and all that. I didn't find that here. ... But when we came and we scouted the show, we were all very nervous because we thought, "What can we expect?" We knew they had done "Lost" and we knew there were other productions, but we thought because "Lost" was still in production, we would not get a capable crew -- because we thought, "Hey, small island, and probably all the best people." And we ended up actually having an amazing crew that happened to be available that was here and wasn't working on "Lost." That was sort of unexpected. Because you never think of this place as being a mecca for shooting, for production, but it turns out, it is. And it turns out the things that we don't have, it's easy to get from the mainland. But for the most part, resources and crew, we've been pretty successful. ... When we got out of the plane here our first trip and we were scouting, we were all nervous, we were thinking, "What if we can't find what we need here? Where do we shoot?" Because you can't do "Hawaii Five-0" somewhere else, it's just not possible. We were worried because we had got CBS so pregnant with the show, we didn't want to fail. So we were very lucky.
Q: How much do you want to depict beautiful scenery versus the grittier side of Hawaii?
A: If you watch the pilot and you really look at the pilot under that kind of lens, you'll notice that we don't go to any beauty places in the pilot, everything is gritty. There's no beautiful hotels, there's no luxurious settings like this. We go to a down-and-dirty Quonset hut, we go to this warehouse facility to find the people he's been transporting from China. So we go to sort of darker places in Hawaii because I felt that I really wanted to do something, especially in the pilot, to show the side of Hawaii that most people don't see. And then when we get committed to the show, then we'll show both sides.