‘NCIS: Sydney’ Creator On Drama’s Australian Setting, Local Actors & Naval Ships: “We Should Be Swinging For Fences On This”

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The Hollywood strikes may have wreaked havoc on the broadcast networks’ fall plans but it also paved the way for a Paramount+ Australia series to snag an unprecedented berth on CBS starting Nov. 14.

The creation of NCIS: Sydney marked the first time one of CBS Studios’ global drama franchises earned an international spinoff. Now, it’s giving CBS the opportunity to have original episodes of an NCIS show before the end of the year. The rest of CBS’ scripted series, including the NCIS mothership and NCIS: Hawaii, aren’t returning until February.

Here, creator Morgan O’Neill talks about the making of NCIS: Sydney, which follow a team of U.S. NCIS Agents and the Australian Federal Police (AFP), who are grafted into a multi-national taskforce to keep naval crimes in check in the most contested patch of ocean on the planet.

DEADLINE The first episode features some pretty impressive scenes of naval ships in the Sydney harbour.

MORGAN O’NEILL One of the really unique things about Sydney is that it’s one of the few big cities in the world with a naval headquarters, which basically controls the entire eastern seaboard of Australia. It’s right in the center of town. It commands the most spectacular views of the Sydney harbour and the Opera House and the harbour bridge. We have a terrific relationship with the Royal Navy, which allowed us access.

Was it a challenge, getting access to those ships?

O’NEILL I mean, you’re negotiating with the pointy end of the armed services. So there’s always a little bit of red tape to push through. But fortunately, we kept finding people who were massive NCIS fans, so they understand that the show has a really broad global reach. They want to be associated with that. It’s fun, it represents them really well. But secondly, there’s no harm in seeing the Australian Navy represented around the world in a really positive manner. So they came on board and they were massively helpful. In the opening episode, we have a Navy Seahawk helicopter flying above Sydney Harbour. That’s real, and it’s one of those things you can’t rent by the day. So either you get someone who has one who wants to play with you, or you just don’t do it. When I spoke to David Stapf at CBS Studios in the very early stages, I said,’ Look, my sense is that we should be swinging for the fences on this.’ And he said, ‘swing away.’ So we did. When we met met with a navy and asked for aircraft carriers, submarines, the entire base and Seahawk helicopters, we expected them to laugh us out of the room. But they just wrote it down and got back to us.

So is is there an NCIS office in Sydney?

O’NEILL There’s actually a few In Australia. There’s one in Perth, one in Darwin and the biggest one is in Sydney.

When you were tasked with adapting this format, did you get a bible of the franchise? Or did you simply watch old episodes?

O’NEILL When I got the green light to start working on this, I basically cleared my calendar for about a month, got on my comfy couch and watched hundreds and hundreds of episodes from all the different franchises to work out what that special sauce was that made the shows so successful. Ordinarily in my job, you’re coming up with stuff from scratch. I had 950 odd episodes to delve into. I realized there’s a shared DNA they have amongst all of the different franchises, which is that it’s actually a family drama. The members of NCIS, irrespective of whether they are in Washington or New Orleans or Hawaii or Los Angeles, it’s really a family drama set at work. It’s a combination of a workplace comedy and a family drama. You need to feel like the characters are bonding, which is not to say that they always get along. Sometimes they do. Hopefully they often do. But bonds will be tested and trust will be broken and repaired, relationships will fracture and they will get back together again. That’s what the show does well. What I also realized was that CBS Studios was very strategic in terms of how they built out that franchise because they never made the same show twice. So L.A. is markedly different to the mothership. New Orleans was markedly different from from Los Angeles and Hawaii is different again. What they were trying to do was make sure they expanded the universe without replicating it. It’s a police procedural with a wink. It’s kind of cheeky, and it has an underdog swagger to it. The location gave it a completely different flavor, iteration to iteration. And once I worked that out, it was really clear that Sydney could be its own very different show because we’re in a different hemisphere. We have different light, we have a very different cultural sensibility. We’re 9,000 miles from anywhere. Hopefully that comes across. For an audience in Australia, for instance, this should feel like an authentic Australian show. And then for an audience from around the world, it should feel like another NCIS expansion of the universe but a very different one.

Can you give an example of a story that wouldn’t work on any other NCIS show? Something that is unique to NCIS: Sydney?

O’NEILL One of the first things that you’ll notice is that it’s a blended family. The other iterations of the show are made up of Americans because they’re all set in America. In order for NCIS to operate in Australia, they have to partner with Australian law enforcement agencies in order to have jurisdiction. As soon as you turn on this show, you realize this is the first blended family in NCIS history where we have Australians and Americans working together. You also see them on day one. All the other iterations of the franchise drop into the show; the organization is already up and running, everyone knows each other and everyone’s working out each other’s foibles. We get to see this organization start from scratch. That offers a huge amount of fun because we’re building a team that doesn’t know one another. We also did a fair amount of anecdotal research in terms of how the world sees Australia. We could debunk a few things. Almost universally when people talk about Australia, particularly if you’ve not been here, the very first thing people say is, ‘how do you live? Everything can kill you.’ And it’s true. We we do have our fair share of things that will bite and nip and eventually put you in the grave. We have 20 of the 25 most deadly snakes in the world in Australia. I mean 80% of all venomous things on the planet live in Australia. We definitely lean into that.

Are the Australian actors you chose recognizable in Australia?

O’NEILL Very recognized. Especially Todd Lasance, who plays Australian Federal Police Sgt. JD Dempsey. He’s an Australian fellow from a little town of Gumly Gumly just outside of Wagga Wagga. I not making it up. I know it sounds like it but I’m not. He’s very recognizable to Australians and he also worked in America. William McInnes, who plays our curmudgeonly forensic pathologist, is one of Australia’s great television actors. He’s been the face of a couple of enormous shows out here. And it’s a very different role for him, which I’m really excited by because usually he’s kind of a warm lead.

There was some talk early on that former NCIS EP Shane Brennan would be involved in this. What happened with that?

O’NEILL Shane obviously has a massive pedigree with NCIS, being deeply involved with the original and then obviously with L.A. for many, many years. His involvement predates me, and I’m not sure how that eventually panned out. He’s a really beloved and a deeply involved member of the franchise internationally, and he’s now the head of our guild out here [in Australia]. He’s been enormously helpful. In terms of the last couple of years of running the guild, he’s injected a whole bunch of really interesting programs, and a lot of his own money to help fund young writing programs. I have huge respect for Shane.

So how did you find out that this would be airing on CBS?

O’NEILL We were actually at a publicity shoot. I think it was the day after we’d wrapped and I was watching everyone get dolled up. One of the executive producers walked in after getting off the phone with America. Execs looked at the first four or five episodes and apparently really flipped for them. Suddenly we were on CBS primetime. I believe we’re the first Australian show ever to do that. We’ve certainly had a conversation around how excited they are by the show. This is a big franchise. A show like NCIS isn’t really in the habit of just doing one season, you know. They want to expand the universe and keep expanding it.

NCIS: Sydney premieres Nov. 14 at 8 p.m. ET. It’s produced by Endemol Shine Australia for CBS Studios and Paramount Australia, and distributed outside Australia by Paramount Global Content Distribution.

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