WRITER/PRODUCER SHAWN RYAN
JOURNEY FROM COAST TO COAST
Shawn Ryan grew up in Rockford, Illinois. He lived a big chunk of his young life playing soccer, working his way onto select teams and competitions. In high school, Shawn was a soccer star. He spent summers at soccer camps and dedicated a large amount of time to his soccer game. After high school Shawn headed to the East Coast to attend Middlebury College in Vermont, where he majored in economics. Having been the high school star, Shawn continued to play soccer in college. Having headed into the game with a lot of confidence, he learned a valuable lesson, “Just because you’re great in high school, doesn’t mean you’ll be great in college”, Shawn said. “There were a lot of really good soccer players in college; I was no longer the star.” He continued to play soccer and forge through his economics classes.
Shawn always felt that math was his strongest subject, definitely not English. He never felt like he had strong writing talent. Shawn said, “I had always been a better math student than English. I was interested in economics but had done some theater in high school, so I took theater in college.” During his Junior year in college Shawn wrote a play called “The Gamesmen.” This was a very loose version of Shawn, his best friend, and their two girlfriends. Just a few 20 something year old kids trying to figure out life, friendships and relationships. His play got produced and a lot of attention. As a result, he fell in love with theater and switched things up. He changed to a joint major of economics and theater, quit soccer and focused his attention on theater, writing and his artistic pursuits. “I really had zero interest in writing for a living before that”, Shawn stated. “Having discovered writing and being encouraged by some really wonderful professors at Middlebury, it was really transforming for me. Not everyone gets to experience being enlightened about what you want to do with your life and be encouraged and supported by some incredible people to do that.”
By the time Shawn graduated college he had written three plays. His play, “The Gamesmen” was quite successful. It got a lot of attention, winning awards including what’s known today as the Norman Lear Playwriting award, which at the time was sponsored by Columbia Pictures Television. That award had a trip to Los Angeles attached to it. Shawn ended up moving to L.A by himself at 23 years old. He literally only had one friend in Los Angeles, Jay Karnes. Jay ended up playing the lead in a new play Shawn had written and eventually was cast in another show Shawn created and wrote for, “The Shield”. L.A wasn’t all positive at first. When he moved out there he thought he had a lot of talent. After hitting some road blocks and not finding the work he hoped for, he asked his manager to show him a script from another writer whose work was better than his. Well, that’s just what happened. He was presented with a script from a well employed writer and indeed it was better than Shawn’s. “Writers should be critical of their own work”, Shawn said. “A lot of times writers are enamored with their own work. They should be their own worst critic. When you write, you should put it down, then pick it up and read it like someone who hates you is going to read it and pick your work apart.” Shawn tells himself, “Okay, if someone who was rooting against you was reading this script, what would they find wrong with it?” A bit of advice Shawn gives to writers is don’t be a friendly reader of your own work. Audiences don’t have favorites. They watch things and it either makes sense or it doesn’t. Don’t set your work down when you are satisfied with it; instead give it another pass over once or twice to see where it really is.”
Shawn got his first staff writing job working on Nash Bridges T.V show. A popular prime time show starring Don Johnson. It was there he fell into some great writing mentors, Carlton Cuse and John Wirth. Shawn spent a lot of time with those two and learned a lot from them. He credits them both for having been a positive influence on him and his writing career. Shawn says that Nash Bridges had a very talented writing team, whom which he spent a lot of time with. He learned quite a bit working on that show. Shawn eventually left that show, spent one season on Angel and then created a new show of his own, “The Shield” which had a very long and successful run. During its’ run, the show landed 58 nominations and won 15 various awards including 2 Golden Globes. The Shield was a T.V series that followed the lives and cases of a dirty L.A cop and the unit under his command. The show had a consistent run from 2002-2008.
Shawn Ryan seemed to have a knack for writing cop shows. When I asked him why he leans towards police shows, his response was quick and simple, “When I was working on Nash Bridges in San Francisco I went on some police ride-alongs. I witnessed and realized a lot of things that were going on that weren’t quite appropriate to write for Nash Bridges. I had stories that I was interested in and wanted to explore. At the same time, the Rampart scandal in L.A broke which really documented a special group of police officers who were doing a good job curbing crime but kind of became criminals themselves in doing it. As a new father I started thinking about all the dangers in the world that might befall my daughter. I started wondering what kind of police I would want if my daughter’s life were in jeopardy.” Shawn Ryan considers himself a Libertarian. He believes in following rules and regulations, but wonders, “Just how firm would my beliefs be if my own child was in danger?” Such thoughts in fact, were the inspiration Shawn needed to create his show, “The Shield”.
Shawn’s journey didn’t end when “The Shield” series ended. He continued his writing passion which currently translates to the T.V show S.W.A.T. Shawn had previously worked with the talented Aaron Rahsaan Thomas on a popular Netflix show called, “The Get Down”. Shawn became an Aaron fan and supporter. “Aaron is an incredibly intelligent guy from Kansas City”, Shawn said. We worked for months together on “The Get Down” before Aaron went off to New York and I stayed in L.A. Aaron had early conversations about adapting S.W.A.T into a T.V show. He approached Shawn about partnering up and as an added plus, Justin Lin was attached as director. A lot of early ideas that are still in the DNA of the show emanated from Aaron. We joined forces, flushed it out and worked together on the script. S.W.A.T is a very personal story for Aaron. He wanted an African-American cop who was intelligent and focused. A character who could portray a man who had one foot in the community and the other foot in the police community to help bridge the gap.” Shawn was really fascinated by this concept. He wanted to help Aaron tells those stories as best as they could.
Once the script was developed and sold, CBS made the commitment to S.W.A.T. Shemar Moore was mentioned as the possible lead for the show. Although Shawn had seen some episodes of Criminal Minds, he still needed to do his research. He sat down and watched some episodes of Criminal Minds. His conclusion was, “I saw Shemar had a lot of potential and was a great actor. I felt as though Shemar hadn’t necessarily been given the chance to fully show off his talents and skill. He’s very talented.” Shemar hadn’t committed yet. We wrote the script with Shemar in mind, so we sent him the script with a note about why we thought he’d be the perfect guy to play this character Hondo. The script spoke to him, he loved the character. We discussed what we wanted and what he wanted. The result was a marriage made in heaven. “I can say that there are very few legit, bonafide television stars in the world, Shemar Moore is definitely one of them.”
Shemar’s lead role (Hondo) was written specifically for an African-American man. When we met Hondo’s father in Season one he was African-American. His mother in season two is going to be African-American, although we met with Shemar’s mother Marylin Wilson Moore who is white. She’s a fantastic woman. We aren’t going to mirror too closely to Shemar’s personal history but more towards his character’s creative history.” It’s not a common occurrence to have an African-American male in a lead role on a prime time T.V series. That puts a lot of pressure on us to tell his story, and tell it authentically.
S.W.A.T tackles some very tough, current topics like immigration that get the point across without becoming too political. “We don’t shy away from tough and controversial topics; we try to be real”, Shawn said. “Our characters are first responders not politicians. We try to stay truthful to topics, telling stories that make people really think about situations. We aren’t here to create propaganda. I’m very proud of the fact that our audience is proven to be politically mixed; which isn’t true about all shows. No matter what their affiliation, they can sit down, watch the show, enjoy it and hopefully think about things. CBS has a very broad appeal.” I was raised to respect the opinions of people across all political spectrums. I don’t have to agree with them, but I do have to respect them. We are trying to make entertainment that can also make you smarter. We aren’t trying to indoctrinate people through the show. We are just trying to present real life situations that sometimes have a political bend.”
Shawn Ryan is a genius writer, producer and showrunner. He is very humble and gives credit to those he works with. Shawn speaks highly of the entire writing team for S.W.A.T. “There’s a whole talented team of writers who work on the scripts along with me and Aaron Rahsaan Thomas. I don’t want to mention only some of them by name, because they are all talented and I wouldn’t want to accidentally leave anyone out.” “Writing isn’t an easy task. I think something actors might forget is that they are all handed a script to work with, writers are handed a blank page. It’s very easy for actors to find mistakes or places they want changed, but for the writers, they have to come up with the content. Writers aren’t really interpreting anything, we are originating something. That can be intimidating and terrifying. We do the best we can but I think a lot of times people just don’t realize the intense, crazy amount of work that goes into writing on that page.” Shawn Ryan is a very busy man. His job is definitely high demand. However, he prides himself in being a good father, husband, friend and boss. He made sure his office is only a short distance from his home so that he doesn’t have to struggle with the commute like most L.A people do. He believes in simplifying his life. For Shawn it all boils down to work and family. Shawn’s been married to his amazing wife Cathy Cahlin Ryan for 20 years and they have two beautiful children, one heading off to college in the Fall. Shawn credits his wife as the rock of their family. She takes excellent care of everyone while he is at work. “My wife is our rock. She’s amazing and she sacrificed her own career to be able to stay at home and raise our children.” Shawn speaks fondly and proudly of his wife, mentioning her T.V credits and own successes. “Cathy was an actress when I met her. She had a number of small credits on T.V”, Shawn says. “We had a role we needed on The Shield. They said we needed someone who would come back. I said I knew she would come back”, Shawn says jokingly. “It turned in to a pretty big role. She did amazing on that. She’s also done work outside of my show.”
Shawn Ryan is an all-around genuine man. A man who grew up loving to play soccer and hockey. Up until a few years ago, he was still playing hockey recreationally. Who knew? Shawn is also an avid wine collector. “I collect all kinds of really good wines. Unfortunately, I never have time to drink them. I just kind of stare at them sitting there. Maybe my kids will inherit them some day”, Shawn said jokingly. Shawn has a big heart. He loves his family, career and his friends. Right now he’s focused on having a successful Season two of S.W.A.T. Shawn has other projects he’s working on with other friends like Bob Odenkirk. None that he can confirm because as we all know, nothing is for sure in Hollywood until you get the green light. One thing that’s important to Shawn is to help other talented writers realize their own dreams. He wants to mentor other talent and help them become successful showrunners in their own right. Being a showrunner himself, Shawn knows what it takes to become successful. He wants to impart his knowledge and skills onto others. One of his friends, Eileen Myers is working on an adaptation of Amy Adam’s “Sunshine Cleaning” for a T.V version. She’s in the process now of writing that and Shawn is supervising her. “Having had the success I had, I want to help gift that to other talented people. I’m always looking for writers I believe in so I can help them launch their own writing careers and shows”, Shawn said.
As for Shawn Ryan’s own personal philosophy, he knows how privileged he is to have the job he has and the success that comes along with it. “Being a show runner can be a roller-coaster ride. I try not to be up or down. I treat it like a job I’m privileged to do. I never lose sight that I’m lucky. I still have to be one of the best, work hard, simplify my life and maintain balance.” One of the main reasons Shawn has his office near his home is so that he can keep that balance. He says that ultimately a lot of what you come up with as a writer is based on your own life. If you’re spending a lot of time in the writer’s room of a T.V show, you are quickly going to run out of things to write about. “I try to be a good husband, father, friend and boss. I do the best I can each day and then I move on to the next”. Very wise words from Mr. Shawn Ryan. It’s apparent from his strong work ethic, family base and success that speaks for itself, his journey from coast to coast was well worth the ride.
Make sure you catch S.W.A.T on CBS Wednesday nights starting October 2nd, 2019 at 10 p.m. PST/9 Central. For more on Shawn Ryan, visit his IMDB page to see all the wonderful successes he has accomplished and continues to work on.
Writer: Sue McGaughey
Photo credit: CBS studios
Previously published in City to Country magazine