The rich and powerful, they take what they want. We steal it back for
you. Sometimes bad guys make the best good guys.
Leverage Design: CT
I love this and my little guys. Designing them took FOREVER but TOTALLY WORTH IT!!! All of them have something I am super-proud of. Elliot’s luxurious hair. Hardison’s orange soda. Sophie’s shoes. :DDD
Also YOU SHOULD TOTALLY WATCH THIS SHOW. Thanks @crinoline-gremlin for going on and on about it until I caved! <3
Honestly the scene in “The Stork Job” where Parker’s first instinct is to shield the bus full of orphans from machine gun fire with her body, as in full on turns her body TOWARDS the gunfire and extends her arms and legs to take as many bullets as possible just….it gets me every time. And it comes on the heels of her telling Harrison she doesn’t want the kids to turn out like her? Because she thinks there’s something wrong with her?? And I just?? She was good long before Nate turned turned them into the ‘good guys’.
Anjelica Huston won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in PRIZZI’S HONOR (‘85), but in my book her performance in THE GRIFTERS (‘90) – for which she received a Best Actress nomination – is the one that should also have taken home the gold. She lost it to Kathy Bates for her role in Rob Reiner’s MISERY (’90), which was admittedly a tour de force. Let’s just say it should have been a tie and agree that it was a hell of a year for the femme fatale.
As recently as five years ago, Huston described her performance as Lilly Dillon in THE GRIFTERS as the most challenging role of her career. Given the bleak and harrowing narrative curve of the film it’s easy to see why. Any film based on a book by Jim Thompson, who is famous for chronicling the lives of losers and psychopaths with nihilistic aplomb, is bound to deliver on grim gut punches that spare no prisoners and provide cautionary tales that are not for the faint of heart.
In the case of THE GRIFTERS, the tragedy that Jim Thompson unravels combines obsession with money on par with something out of GREED (‘24) as he fuses them with family dynamics that carry that horrible unease you get from reading a play by Sophocles. Tossing a love triangle into the mix in no way ameliorates the feeling that disaster is inevitable.
The two other corners of the triangle are John Cusack, playing the part of Lilly’s son, Roy, and Annette Bening as Roy’s new girlfriend Myra Langtry. Threesomes always get sticky, but when all the players involved are con artists you can count on it getting overly complicated and maybe even a little bloody.
Cusack, still in his early twenties and still freshly known to most filmgoers as Lloyd Dobler in SAY ANYTHING (‘89) successfully brings real pathos to the table. It was a good career choice that announced his range could go far afield from a John Hughes comedy. It probably helped that Cusack was a huge Jim Thompson fan. As vulnerable as Cusack’s performance is, it’s Annette Bening who bares all in completely fearless fashion. BUGSY (‘91) would follow the year after and make a mark, but for me that mark starts here.
Stephen Frears was an interesting choice to direct. The studios originally wanted Martin Scorsese to do the job but Scorsese ended up being the producer of the film instead. Frears had proven himself with quality social dramas and arthouse hits, such as MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (‘85) and SAMMY AND ROSIE GET LAID (‘87), but it was probably the box office success of DANGEROUS LIAISONS (‘88) that landed him the job. After all, DANGEROUS LIAISONS also had two women and one man caught in erotic webs of intrigue and duplicity.
As to the genesis of the project, I reached out to Bruce Kawin who gets special thanks in the end credits. I took classes from Kawin when I was a student at C.U. Boulder and remember him using THE GRIFTERS in his screenwriting class. Here’s what he had to say about how he got the ball rolling:
When I was at Bob Harris’s Images Film Archive looking for stills to illustrate my textbook How Movies Work, Bob asked me if I knew any relatively unknown novelist whose books would make good movies. I told him about Jim Thompson and suggested three of his novels, including The Grifters. Bob and his partner, Jim Painten, decided on The Grifters and helped me as I wrote the first draft of the script. We took this script to Martin Scorsese, who made many suggestions for the rewrite. I took his advice when I rewrote the script, and that became the official first draft. Marty produced, working with Bob and Jim. Eventually Marty chose Stephen Frears to direct the picture, and Frears decided he needed an American noir novelist to write the shooting script; he chose Donald Westlake. Westlake got exclusive screen credit for the script, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Marty thanked me for bringing the novel to his attention and said he’d be glad to listen to any further suggestions I had about novels to adapt; I received a screen credit thanking me for my contributions to the project.
I’d like to give special thanks to Bruce Kawin for many reasons, but one of those would be that it was because of him that I got into Jim Thompson’s novels back when I was a student in college. Whether you read Thompson’s books or see movie adaptations of his work, he provides a white-knuckle ride through the underbelly of society that you won’t soon forget.
Imagine the disastrous results if other professional jobs followed Trump’s example and let their unqualified (unelected) child do their job for them. How do you think that would work out? Surgeons? Pilots? Attorneys?
Donald Trump and his entire family of greedy grifters are dangerous national security threats to America. Let’s hurry up with that impeachment.
Any advice on how to write a heist story something like oceans Eleven?
Well, you can start by watching Ocean’s Eleven, and Ocean’s Eleven, and then Leverage, and then Burn Notice, and then The A-Team, and then Mission: Impossible, and then all the other heist stories like The Italian Job or Heat. Watch, read, uncover as many stories about criminals as you can from fiction to nonfiction to reading security analyst blogs. Read the spy memoirs, the thief memoirs, the fake ones and the real ones. Check out magicians, hypnotists, card tricks, and sleight of hand. Watch the making ofs and director’s commentaries looking for clues behind the thought process of these stories. The hows and the whys as you look into the research they did. Burn Notice, for example, is famous for using stunt props and technological rigs that work in real life. Like using cell phones to create cheap bugs on the go.
The worlds of criminal fiction and spy fiction rely on being able to present (or convincingly fake) a world which feels real. A heist is all about exploitation. So, you need a world with security structures to exploit. You’ve got to know how things work before you can craft a way to break them. Social engineering, hacking, and every other criminal skill is about breaking the systems in place. So, you’ve got to get a baseline for how law enforcement and security analysts work. What security systems are set up to look like. The ways we go about discouraging thieves. Better yet how people behave. Real, honest to god human behavior.
So, you know, pick somewhere in order to start your research. Get an idea of what you want write about stealing, then learn everything about the object, the museum, the city, the country, and its customs as you can.
If you’re setting a heist in a futuristic or fantasy setting then luck you, you get to make all of it up.
Learning the plot structure and conventions of the heist genre is the first step. This means watching lots and lots of heist movies, shows, and reading books. Over time, as you become better at critical analysis, you’ll begin to see specific story structures and character archetypes emerge.
The Heist Story is a genre. Like every other genre, it comes with its own structure, cliches, archetypes, plots, and genre conventions which necessitate the narrative. The better grasp you have of those, the better you’ll be at writing a heist.
For example, a heist story like Ocean’s Eleven relies on a collection of thieves rather than a single individual. The character types are as follows:
The Pointman- Your planner, strategist, team leader, and the Jack of All Trades. Can also be called the Mastermind. They’re the one who can take the place of anyone on the team should they fall through. They’re not as good as a specialist, but they’re very flexible. Narratively, he plans the cons and subs in where he’s needed.
The Faceman- Your experienced Grifter, here for all your social engineering needs. These guys talk their way in.
The Infiltrator - Your cat burglar or break-in artist. Basically, the conventional genre thief.Your Parker, Catwoman, Sam Fisher, or Solid Snake. The stealth bastards, they’re all about silent in, out, and playing acrobatic games with the lasers.
The Hacker - The electronics and demolitions specialist. Usually this is the guy in the van overseeing stuff remotely. Your Eye in the Sky. Their skill set can be split up and swapped around as necessary.
The Muscle - The one who is good at fighting. They’re combat focused characters, usually with mercenary and special forces backgrounds. Though, that’s optional.
The Wheelman - The one who handles the getaway. They’re your often overlooked transport specialists. It’s not just that they can drive, they’re skilled at getting lots of people around, figuring out how to move your valuables, and exiting hostile cities or countries undetected. They get the team in and they get them out.
For an example of these archetypes, I’m going to use Leverage. Nathan Ford, The Pointman (technically, he’s written like a Faceman). Sophie Devereaux , The Faceman. Parker, the Infiltrator. Hardison, the Hacker. Eliot, the Muscle. They all take turns being the Wheelman.
Other examples like Burn Notice: Michael Westen, the Pointman. Sam Axe, the Faceman. Fiona, the Muscle. They all take turns with explosives, Michael will invariably take all the roles during the course of the show.
Ocean’s Eleven has multiple variants of these archetypes, all broken down and mixed up.
You can mix and match these qualities into different individuals or break them apart like in Ocean’s Eleven, and more than one character can fill more than one role, but that’s the basic breakdown. For example, your hacker doesn’t need to be a guy in a van overlooking the whole security grid. One guy or girl with a cell phone can sit in the lobby of a building with an unsecured wireless network and crack the security. Welcome to the 21st century. The skills don’t necessarily need to take the specific expected shape.
What you do need is the basic breakdown: You need someone to plan the con, you need someone to be your face or grifter, you need someone to break in, you need someone to watch the security/electronics, you need muscle to back you up, and someone’s got to cover the getaway.
These shift depending on your plan, but this is the expected lineup for a heist narrative. The first step of a heist narrative is not the plan because we don’t have one yet. We’ve got an idea. Pick your target. Maybe it’s a famous painting. Maybe it’s a casino. Maybe it’s a rare artifact from a private investor’s collection loaned to a museum for a short period of time. Maybe it’s art stolen by the Nazis during WWII. Whatever it is, figure it out.
The next step is simple. If you want the thing, you’ve got to find a way to get it. This is a big job, your standard thief won’t be able to pull it off alone. So, you gotta go recruiting. Get your team together. Make sure to establish the goals of the different members for joining. Who they are. Their pedigree. One might be an old flame or an old enemy. This is where we lay out some character driven subplots.
When everyone’s together, we’ve got to lay out the plan. Before we have a plan though, we need to establish where the object is and the issues in getting it. Why this has never been done before. So, what are the challenges? Invariably, an object worth a great deal of money will have a lot of security protecting it. Figure out what that security is, who the item belongs to, what sort of retribution do the thieves face beyond what they might expect. Lasers, pressure plates, cameras, security, other career criminals, mob bosses, the rich and powerful, whatever.
After that: How do you get it? Then you’ve got to plan the con, while taking everything into account.
Then, We prep the Con. There will be steps to take before the con can be put into place, your characters taking their positions in plain sight. Stealing whatever pieces you need to make it work. Casing the joint. Etc.
Then: Run the Con. This is the part with the actual stealing. Better known as the first attempt. Things go well, there may be a few mistakes, but things are going well and then we…
Encounter Resistance. While running the con, something goes wrong, pieces fall apart, the thieves come close to success but the object gets moved and they suddenly need a new plan. New information may pop up, it may be one of your artists was running a con of their own separate from the rest.
If there’s a double cross in the works then this may be when and where it lands.
We’re ready now, so it’s time hit up: Steal the Thing, Round Two. Your characters put their new plan into play and get about thieving the object of their desire.
Lastly: The Get Away. This is the part where your thieves make for the hills with their stolen treasure. This can be short or long depending on the kind of story you’re telling and other double crosses may occur here. It could be the end of the story or the beginning of a new heist.
Heist stories are like mystery novels. They’re all about sleight of hand and misdirection. You’ve got to keep just enough information on the table to keep your audience on the hook, and just enough information off the table to surprise them later on the twist. Yet, when they go back to re-read the novel again, they’ll find the answer was there all along. They just didn’t see it coming.
If anything, learning how to write a well-done heist or a mystery or any kind of novel in this genre will teach you a lot about how to manage your foreshadowing and create superb plot twists. Like any good con, you need to lay out all the conflicting pieces where people can see them, let them draw their own conclusions, withhold the critical context, and then hit them with the whammy.
Like lots of audiences, new writers (and even some old ones) can get distracted by the shock and awe. They see they’re impressed by the conclusion, not the lay-up. If you want to write any kind of fiction, you need to learn to see past the curtain and pay attention to the critical pieces leading into an important moment rather than the moment itself.
Good writing isn’t modular, you can’t just strip out pieces and run with them because you’ll end up missing the crucial, sometimes innocuous pieces that ensured the scene worked. Like the Victorian Hand Touch, every moment between the two leads and most of their scenes with secondary players are working for that singular instance of eventual, gleeful catharsis.
If you’ve got a plot twist coming in your novel, every sentence from the second you start writing is working towards it. You start laying out your pieces, funneling in your tricks, and playing with misdirection. You may have multiple twists, to cover yourself, divert your audience, congratulate them for successfully guessing your ploy, and reassure their initial suspicions before catching them again on the upswing.
The clever writer is as much a con artist as their characters. The only difference is the target of their con is their audience. The tricks in their bag are narrative ones, and they work with the understanding that it doesn’t matter if someone guesses the end so long as they’re entertained by the journey. A great story stays entertaining long after the audience has figured out all the twists.
So, don’t get caught up in Red Herrings and frightened about not being able to outsmart other people. Tell a good story with conviction and heart about a bunch of crooks out to steal their heart’s desire.
I will never tire of remembering things I love about Leverage but my fave are these:
Parker and Sophie’s dynamic : It honestly floored me how there was never a stereotypical or negative dynamic between these two. They were always supportive of each other, tried to understand each other, and honestly were a healthy friendship. Finding that without it being made into something outlier or strange is rare sometimes in shows, at least with this consistency.
Alec Hardison and his importance to the team : Even though it was Nate who formed the team, it was Hardison who brought them together with a proper place to be, not just once. He is cool but also emotional when needs come, allowed to be nervous, allowed to have hobbies and be so much more than a ‘typical’ geek, especially a black man playing a tech whiz, could be stereotyped as. Alec is the one who buys a pub and brews his own beer, gets excited over lasers in cooking, complains about things people would do in certain situations like insane stakeouts. He isn’t a crusader, isn’t representative of any mission, and isn’t an ideal. A human character and a great one at it.
Sophie Devereaux and identity issues: Right from the start we are told that Sophie has identity twists. She is not who she shows in terms of her official name or identity. But this doesn’t mean that she doesn’t show her character to her group. She is open about her fears and love but is allowed her secrets. When Nate asks for her name she says he has to earn it, which is such a wonderful moment because it shows the balance in their dynamics. Her name matters to her and her group respects it. Even when he proposes, Nate doesn’t use her real name because that is a secret but he is proposing to her and that is all that matters to both of them. It showed people and secrets and the importance of respecting those.
Parker and romance + intimacy : Again, this is shown right from the first episode. While Eliot and Nate are baffled by her in the beginning, and even Sophie is, the show never once makes us think that Parker is 'abnormal’ for having intimacy or emotional issues. Instead it shows the others learning to communicate with her and building their own ways to connect with her while her growing to understand their communicative styles too. Especially when Hardison and Parker show prospects of dating, Hardison is shown to learn her thought process and he is happy to learn but it’s not seen as something absurd. Parker learns about Hardison’s likes too and they share their likes by being interested and genuinely liking in each other’s company. Parker is an orphan who has been through abusive foster homes and never once does the group call her out badly on it or make her feel uncomfortable for it.
Nate’s alcoholism : The very first shot of the show is Nate getting a drink while a guy comes to offer him a job and manipulates him emotionally using his son’s death. Talk about a brilliant opening setting, because this is his entire history set within the first 5 minutes. Nate is an alcoholic and has deep trauma from his son’s death along with a lot of impulsive guilt inspired reactions. He is the leader of this group of cons. He is called out every single time he screws up but not mockingly about his past but more in frustration about his lack of taking help. There is an entire episode where a con is planned in a rehab centre and it backfires because Nate is shown to have a breakdown when he is withheld from alcohol. His issues are highlighted and he doesn’t get into a serious romantic relationship without understanding that he should work on them. Alcohol is not glorified here and being an alcoholic is not shown as mysterious or hot. He goes to frickin jail because he fails to get things under control and the show doesn’t shy out from that.
Eliot and Cooking: How many times do you find this trope where a Manly Man™ guy loves cooking but still doesn’t get shown to be compromised from his role as a Hitter? Eliot is a guy who hits but he does not have anger issues. He does not seek violence. He does not like guns. He loves cooking and is serious about it. He is the guy who had issues with being a team in the first episode and he is also the guy who would do anything to protect his team. He’s the nurturer of this team who feeds them and is loyal to the core. His cooking has a past too and that rocks because he learnt it from someone he was supposed to target. It is his calming mechanism. This is a Hitter who would make a beautiful dish because he likes it and still beat someone if they hurt others. It’s not one or the other, it’s both.
Maggie, Tara, and every woman who played a supporting cast: Maggie is the ex-wife of Nate who is NEVER shown to be jealous or weird around Sophie. She doesn’t get back together with Nate or regret things but she also deeply cares for him. She is successful, has her own principles, and also helps this group con for revenge when she wanted to. Tara is a Grifter who is brought in when Sophie takes a break. She is thought to be a replacement and everybody hates her at first because they miss Sophie but they grow to respect and like her for WHO SHE IS and not for how she fills Sophie’s role. It’s not a replacement, as they realize. It’s a change and she brings her own dynamic with it. There are so many more like Ana who helped Parker when she had a broken leg, every single female client they had, Peggy who became Parker’s first friend outside the group and was starkly different. This show never made every woman the same because *gasp* they are not.
From hurt the bad to help the good: Usually this concept remains of hurting bad people and Leverage does do that. But the team grows and their motto shifts too. They grow from hurting bad people to helping the good and both go hand in hand for them. It’s not just about removing the problem but also about finding the solution for them.
It’s Personal: The group has one of the best team dynamics I have ever seen and it’s not just because they work well together. It’s also because they work with and for each other too. Each person has had personal cases on the show and even when the team thinks twice on certain things, they respect that personal aspect. The show portrayed the idea of 'I might not think the same way you do or make the same choices but I understand why you make them and I respect you’ with beautiful ideas. Be it Parker with Luka and the orphans in Russia or Eliot and the horse job; the team gives each other the benefit of doubt and trust when needed.
Platonic relationships: I cannot tell you how much I love the platonic relationships of this show. Be it the parents-wards bond of Nate+Sophie and the others or the Eliot-Hardison-Parker dynamic which I know many people see as Ot3 (highly possible); every platonic bond is valuable and no single character is graced higher.
Plot: Last but not the least, the plot. It came a full circle. The show finished its plots and had continuity of arcs. They started because Nate pushed them to find compensation for the past and the show ended with Nate pushing them to find their resource for the future. Every single character came a full circle by the end and we see growth in them.
I honestly wish we had more episodes of this show but I am really happy that we got what we did. To Leverage - the show that told that good is not who you are but what you do and choose.
Hi there! I love your blog! I've seen you mention a few TV shows and movies for research, and I was wondering what your opinion is on the show Leverage and it's accuracy for social engineering in potentially violent situations. I remember one character saying that "Thieves look for entrances, but grifters create them." They'll often use approaches like this to avoid violence.
If the question is: can you use social engineering in order to defuse or avoid violent situations? The answer is yes.
Grifters are conmen, and like spies, they don’t want to fight unless it is absolutely necessary. Whether they can fight or know how isn’t really the point: combat makes messes, big messes, and draws the kind of attention they don’t want/can’t afford.
As for the line, “thieves look for entrances, but grifters create them” the point of it is that grifters focus on people as the exploitative aspect to get what they want. After all, it doesn’t matter how good your security system is if your infiltrator is expected to be there. When someone opens the door for them, they didn’t have to break in.
It is worth pointing out though, being able to stop, defuse, avoid, or redirect violence via social engineering (especially when the character is the target) is very difficult and requires someone who excels at rapidly changing their story/manipulating under life or death pressure while also maintaining their consistency/re-establishing their innocence/regaining their target’s trust.
That’s masterclass social engineering. The average person, even the average grifter can’t do it. When we see Nate Ford, Sophie Devereaux, or Michael Westen on Burn Notice socially engineer their way out of potentially explosive and violent scenarios, we’re supposed to understand this level of manipulation is very difficult. You need a solid ability to read people, predict their behavior patterns, understand how to shift your role so you suddenly seem trustworthy, confuse them, and then redirect their anger somewhere away from you.
You can see another variant of this kind of social engineering on display in The Negotiator. Samuel L. Jackson’s character is a hostage negotiator. Deliberately maneuvering a man who’s taken a child captive around his apartment so he can be taken out. You can see him joking with the target, gaining his trust, distracting him, and guiding him off topic until he’s in a position to be neutralized.
The Grifter is not a fighter, they are a talker and their trick is getting people to move however they want. A skilled grifter can slip in, turn the best of friends against each other, and walk away without a care. Grifters don’t punch. They trick other people into doing the punching for them. When sitting down to write a Grifter, remember: their first instinct is getting others to act in their place, to create the openings they need, and be their fall guy.
On the whole, I’ve liked Leverage ever since the episode where Eliot pointed out that guns are ranged weapons, and the most common mistake people make is giving up the distance advantage by getting in too close. However, I’ve only watched the first season. I liked what I saw, it’s an enjoyable caper show in a similar vein to The Equalizer, Person of Interest, or Ocean’s Eleven. Not quite in there with the original Law & Order when it comes to accuracy (in this case for cops) but certainly better than White Collar, which uses similar techniques (though never, ever pay attention to White Collar’s usage of the FBI… ever). The X-Files, meanwhile, fudges a bit but it’s pretty good when you’re wanting to get a grasp of the FBI’s culture and what happens to someone who doesn’t come from a military/law enforcement background.
Of course, the patient zero for these types of shows is the original Mission: Impossible. The television show, not the Tom Cruise movies. Mission: Impossible is all about flipping people and manipulating them into positions to do what you want. The A-Team is its slightly more pulpy counterpart, but its a similar (though far less subtle) deal.
On the whole, Leverage tends to explain itself better, which is helpful when you’re trying to learn or take techniques from a television show rather than just absorb.
The reason why I often suggest Burn Notice and Spy Game is not necessarily just because they’re good, but also because they teach. The narrator on Burn Notice, especially in the first season will offer up a lot of helpful/beginner tradecraft for a variety of situations. This, ultimately, will help you more for taking pieces and creating your own characters than a show that’s trying for smoke and mirrors like White Collar. The same situation is there with Spy Game, where Robert Redford’s character is teaching Brad Pitt’s on how to be a spy. Ultimately, more helpful in the long run than just watching The Recruit. The Michael Mann films like Heat and Collateral are exceptionally good for learning tradecraft, but you have to know that’s what you’re watching/looking for. You’ll learn more by watching them together, rather than separately.The Borne Identitynovels are also very good at showing the tradecraft, while the Le Carre ones tend to be a little more hit and miss.
When you’re new, you want sources that are free with their information. Who are good at getting you to think, to take what you’re seeing and apply it to new settings. You may not ever figure out how to build a car bomb, but learning about how the thought process of a spy, criminal, or conman works will serve you better for your writing than a hundred other movies that only show.
After you’ve drawn back the curtain then you can turn to those other shows, novels, and narratives with new eyes. Once you see what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why when they don’t explain you’ll get more out of those other sources than you did before.
When you’re watching a well put together show like Leverage, start questioning character motivations. Not just whether the social engineering there works, but why the characters are choosing to go that route or which routes they prefer. Leverage gives you five characters with different specialties, four thieves and the guy who made a career catching them. They all think in different ways and have different approaches when it comes to problem solving. Leverage offers up a heist per episode, so you have lots of opportunities to see the characters in action. Evaluate their problem solving methods and you’ll come away with more than just questioning whether or not it works.
How and Why.
Then, go find a good video on YouTube where a professional magician explains pickpocketing. It’s the art of misdirection.
Once you understand basic theoretical underpinnings (whether or not you could ever actually pull the real thing off) then you can apply it to many different situations in a fictional context.
When it comes back to applying this to the combat arts, learning to see the big picture is the first major difference between trained and untrained. The untrained only copy surface level, singular techniques, while trained delves deeper to understand how these techniques work together.
My advice for when you’re wanting to pick and choose television shows for accuracy is to check who their consultants are/were, and what experts in the show’s chosen field say about it. That doesn’t always guarantee accuracy, but it will help you flip through the rave reviews.
If you want to watch more fun shows with Timothy Hutton or just like detective shows, I recommend Nero Wolfe.