‘Limitless’ Showrunner Craig Sweeny on Balancing Serialized and Procedural Drama

     September 28, 2015


Based on the feature film, the CBS series Limitless is a fast-paced, action-filled drama about Brian Finch (Jake McDorman), who discovers the brain-boosting power of the mysterious drug NZT and then finds himself working with the FBI to use his extraordinary abilities to help solve complex cases for them. Able to use 100% of his brain capacity, Brian is more effective than all of the FBI agents combined, which Special Agent Rebecca Harris (Jennifer Carpenter) is trying to use to their advantage. But unbeknownst to anyone, Brian also has a secret relationship with Senator Edward Morra (Bradley Cooper, reprising his role from the film), a presidential hopeful and regular user of NZT who has plans of his own for his new protégé

Collider was invited, along with a handful of other press outlets, over to the edit bay where we were given a glimpse into just what goes into the making of this show that’s part procedural and part serialized story, with stunts and effects layered throughout each episode. Showrunner Craig Sweeny spoke to us afterward in a small roundtable interview about wanting to be a bit experimental with this show, how the procedural element works to their advantage, furthering the serialized story, how intertwined Brian Finch and Edward Morra are, keeping Morra’s motivations ambiguous, Brian’s evolving relationship with the FBI, and what director Marc Webb brought to the show. Be aware that there are some spoilers.


Image via CBS

Question:  Did you always want to be a little bit experimental with this show?

CRAIG SWEENY:  One of the benefits of adapting an existing property is that you can point at it and go, “Hey, an existing property!” And the movie is a little bit weird, especially in its third act when it goes to some strange and high-concept places. The weird thing is that I carved out this little specialty that I was definitely aware of carving out, which is that I do write whatever the weirdest thing on procedural TV is, at any given moment. Medium was very strange, and Elementary had some very high-concept episodes, as well. I know how to inject that into a show. Now that I’m doing my own show, I’ve just pushed that a little bit further. There was a talking fetus in the pilot and nobody said, “Take out the talking fetus.” We have people breaking the forth wall and singing in the second episode. They’re not telling us to take it out. They’re saying that they like it. So, for now anyway, they’re letting us have fun. Honestly, they respond to it within the context of the larger procedural drama.

At a time when a lot of shows are doing smaller amounts of episodes with season-long story arcs, how does doing a police procedural work to your advantage, in this kind of storytelling?

SWEENY:  Good question. These big orders are taxing to the creative people on the show because it’s that many more story ideas, and it’s taxing to the actors and crew because they work a minimum of 12-hour days. There’s no doubt that it’s tough. It’s a marathon, for sure. What I like about the procedural model, and what I really enjoy about the previous two that I did, is that the idea of a self-contained case gives you a lot of highs and lows in any individual episode. The happy effect of that is that it allows you to write the character stuff at a very real level because you don’t have to push for the next big development, or who’s going to betray who. The advantage for me is that these crazy things are happening in cases and it lets you let the characters’ lives develop in a way that’s more organic than the typical short-form cable series.


Image via CBS

In terms of structuring the season, do you feel pressure to make sure that you’re also contributing to the over-arching narrative and not just the weekly case?

SWEENY:  Between the pilot and the second episode, we were really encouraged into a serialized direction by CBS. The serialized stuff is a part of every episode, and it’s a becoming a bigger part of every episode, as we go along. It’s a bigger part than I would have thought. We’re servicing that, every week. It gives you something to know is out there, like a star that you’re sailing toward, but you have to stay flexible, too. If they call and say, “Hey, Bradley Cooper can be in this episode,” then you have to re-jigger everything based on that. You have to maintain some flexible for when things don’t go exactly the way that you planned.

You’re in a unique position with this show, where it’s more of a sequel to the movie and you have Edward Morra there, as a part of the story. How much do you have to think of both Eddie Morra’s and Brian Finch’s character arcs, and how they’re going to intertwine with each other?

SWEENY:  We have to think a lot about it. Bradley’s character essentially controls whether or not Jake’s character can stay at the FBI and keep taking the pills because he has this booster shot that he can give or withhold. We’ve developed ways of advancing the storyline without necessarily having to have Bradley in each of those episodes. He has somebody who works for him that comes and talks to Jake. That storyline is a major part of the season. We get into why he wants Brian in the FBI very early. He’s going to ask him to do things that are not the things his boss wants him to do. Dramatically, the tension feels very rich. Brian has got this relationship with Rebecca, but he’s beholden to this other guy with a completely different agenda. It’s fun stuff.


Image via CBS

Did you always want to keep Edward Morra’s motivations so ambiguous, or was that something Bradley Cooper wanted?

SWEENY:  At the end of the movie, I really did have a sense that he’d almost become a post-human type of character. He can take this drug, all the time, and it’s a little bit like a Doctor Manhattan perspective on people. Their concerns seem smaller than your concerns. He has a different vantage point on humanity, and I wanted to communicate that. We built in some flexibility, as far as will he run for President, and why would he do that? I do know, for the moment, in my head, what he wants, what his ultimate plan is and what he needs Brian for, but it will probably shift and adjust as time passes. But, we wanted to be vague with it in the pilot.

You’ve essentially taken the protagonist of the movie and shifted the perspective. 

SWEENY:  It’s weird, it was not a controversial thing. Everybody just assumed that that’s would Eddie would be like now. Bradley and I have always talked about that. The differences between Eddie Morra and Brian Finch are the differences in tone between the movie and the TV show. Eddie was an anti-hero. He takes the pill and the first thing he does is sleep with somebody’s wife. I think this is consistent with the character that you saw in the movie. And we want Brian to be a complicated, dimensional character, but he’s a traditional hero who wants to do something good on this drug.


Image via CBS

What was it about Marc Webb, as a filmmaker, that made you want him to be the one to establish the show’s aesthetic?

SWEENY:  Neil Burger was going to [direct the pilot], but then he was tied up with his Showtime pilot Billions. Marc’s was the first name that my producing partner had brought up to me, after Neil had dropped out. I didn’t know him, at the time, but I instantly thought he was great, for a very specific reason. I hadn’t even seen the Spider-Man movies he did – I’ve seen them since – but I had seen and was a big fan of (500) Days of Summer, and the fantasy sequences in that movie, and the panache and irreverence of those, spoke in a direct way with what I wanted to do with this show. That moment when Joseph Gordon-Levitt is doing the dance routine in the park really stuck with me. That’s a touchstone cinematic moment. I thought it was great. But, I didn’t believe he would ever do it. I was like, “Sure, Marc Webb would be great!” And then, I went back to making lists of directors who I thought we could actually get. But then, he signed up that weekend. Everything that I had hoped, when the name came up, bore out in the way that he directed the first two episodes. It was a very happy collaboration.

Do you think he’ll be able to come back and direct more episodes?

SWEENY:  I’ve told him that he has a home here, anytime he wants. He’s always welcome. He’s bizarrely interested in the day-to-day life of the TV scribe. He seems to really just want to be a story editor on a TV show, and I told him that he could be that, if he really wants to be.

How will Brian Finch’s relationship with the FBI evolve? Will he become more useful to them?

SWEENY:  Yeah, for sure. When you have a psychic or a Sherlock or NZT Brian, you strain the credibility, if people deny their extraordinariness for too long. Even in Episode 2, he goes a long way toward proving his ultimate utility to the FBI. He becomes an active resource within that context. But, we’re more concerned with still having him be Brian. Being at the FBI is a way for him to get the NZT and he can do some cool things. People acknowledge that he can do incredible things, but it’s always uneasy because of his character. He doesn’t know if he can trust them, and to them, he’s always a wild card. He’s not willing to round off his corners.

Limitless airs on Tuesday nights on CBS.


Image via CBS