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Write On

Archive for May, 2011

What Do You Get When You Put Writers in a Room…

“So, do you guys all sit around a table and write the scripts together?”

Writers Diana Son and Charlie Rubin

Diana Son and Charlie Rubin (Law and Order: Criminal Intent)

People used to ask me this and I’d wonder where they got this idea. “The Dick Van Dyke Show”? It couldn’t have been farther from our reality on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”. Not only did we not have a table around which we could all SIT, let alone write scripts together —we didn’t even have a writer’s room. That’s right. No room at the inn. Our showrunner believed in his writers’ abilities to, well, write and that’s what he wanted us to do. It requires a completely different skill set to be able to pitch ideas out loud, respond to other people’s ideas spontaneously, and to cobble together story lines in your head or on a marker board than it does to write. Not to discount that method, many writers do excel at it. Some have reputations for being “great in the room.” I have heard some shows rely on the writer’s room so much they even have exercise equipment in them! But Rene Balcer was not one to have his writers toss out motives for murder while sweating it out on the elliptical.

Instead, each writer met individually with Rene to break story – based on an idea we brought to him or one that he offered to us. Sure, L&O shows are “ripped from the headlines” and we often came in with articles from newspapers, magazines, foreign newspapers we’d found online, etc. But the headline story would serve the purpose of setting the episode in motion. It was just a jumping off point. We couldn’t surprise, unnerve or reward the viewer if we merely added dialogue to stories whose endings they knew. We would twist the story away from the original headline story.

For example, Marlane Gomard Meyer’s episode “Happy Family” was loosely based on the murder of investment banker Ted Ammon. He was found bludgeoned to death in his East Hampton home while in the middle of a divorce and bitter custody battle with his wife. In the end, it was his wife’s plumber-boyfriend with the mile-long rap sheet who was ultimately found to be the killer. We would never do that. In Marlane’s script, the estranged wife’s boyfriend is looked at as a suspect, but so is the nanny, and the wife herself, but the killer turns out to be one of the couple’s adopted sons, who’d been brainwashed by his mother that when she died (she has terminal cancer), their father would send the boys back to the Ukrainian orphanage they’d come from.

Meeting one on one in Rene’s office we would spend hours talking about who the characters were so we would know why they did what they did. Characters that only appeared in one or two scenes still had complicated back stories. That’s what distinguished “Criminal Intent” from the other shows in the franchise. We were to explore the psychological motives of everyone involved. Even the red herrings had plausible, complicated reasons for killing the victim – even though they didn’t. After spending around two weeks breaking story with Rene in his office, we would go off and write our drafts. And when I mean off, I mean off-campus, off-site, off to wherever it was we were most comfortable writing. For some people it was home. For me, it was The Writers Room in the Village, a non-profit urban writer’s colony where writers of every persuasion – novelists, poets, journalists, etc — share a loft space partitioned into, one must say, rather attractive carrels. I discovered it in 1997 and have written every play, and just about every screenplay and TV script there ever since. It is my writing home. I’d email my scripts to Rene from The Writer’s Room and he’d fax the script back with notes. Meanwhile, he’d started meeting with the next writer “at bat.” That’s how I started to think of it. We were batters in a lineup. And it remains, several shows and years later, my favorite way of working.

But after 5 years at “Criminal Intent,” including 2 years under the showrunnership of Warren Leight, the friend who first mentioned the job opening to me so many years ago, I decided to leave. I took a year off to hang out with my kids – including newborn twins – and work on (and not finish) a spec pilot. By the time I was ready to go back on a writing staff, I was to find out that getting on a show in NYC was not going to be as easy as running into a friend on the 1 train.

How a Nice Playwright Like Me Starting Plotting Murder

I am often asked to speak to early career playwrights who, this day and age, accept as fact that they will have to write for TV or film in order to make a living. It’s not even sad but definitely true.

Jessica Hecht and Sandra Oh in "Stop Kiss" at The Public Theater Credit: Photo © Michal Daniel, 1999

The year that my play Stop Kiss premiered at The Public Theater, extending three times, making it the longest-running straight play produced at the theater since A Chorus Line – I made less money than I do in one month as a writer/producer for series television. And when the play finally closed –my income stream ended. I had been working as a freelance copywriter prior to the play’s opening. The day the reviews for Stop Kiss came out, prompting my phone to clatter off the hook with friends telling me “You’re the toast of the town!” (not to date myself but my phone looked like this), I was hurriedly writing the last of the Star Trek trivia questions that were due for the SyFy Channel website – a job that I had fallen behind on during rehearsals. Wanting to take advantage of the steam misting off of Stop Kiss’ successful run, I went to L.A. for a week and packed in as many meet and greets with studio and network execs as I could. These kinds of meetings can feel pointless at the time, the writer’s equivalent of kissing hands and shaking babies, but you never know what they will eventually lead to. For me, it was an offer to work on the recently picked-up series “The West Wing”. My husband and I sublet our one-bedroom East Village walk-up and rented a small house in West Hollywood so I could see what it was like to be part of a writing staff. It was, shall we say, a unique experience, not only for me as a neophyte TV writer but for the more seasoned writers on staff, many of whom were playwrights too.

At the end of “The West Wing”’s first season, I decided to return to the East Village. To best convey my rationale, I offer this analogy from real life – that year in L.A. my husband and I attempted to get pregnant, but to no avail. The minute we returned to New York City, our first son was conceived. For the first two years of my son’s life, we continued to live in that one-bedroom walk-up while I wrote two pilots for CBS and adapted Stop Kiss into a screenplay.

One day, when I was on the 1 train headed for the theater, I ran into Warren Leight, the Tony Award-winning playwright of Sideman. Warren was a friend of Eric Bogosian, who was married to Jo Bonney, the director of Stop Kiss. We’d met at a dinner party. Warren told me that he had taken his first series TV job, and was writing for the latest “Law & Order” spinoff, “Criminal Intent” and that they might be hiring a new writer. Maybe I’d be interested? I said “Sure,” thinking that a cop show was about as far out of my range of abilities as platform diving. But a couple weeks later, I got a call from Warren that he’d given Stop Kiss to showrunner Rene Balcer to read, and that Rene wanted to meet me. My agent sent me a stack of scripts to read. I read a dozen of them within a couple days.

There was something powerfully addictive about these stories, as viewers of CI and all the shows in the L&O franchise well know. But even more than the mothership and SVU, I found that the CI scripts stayed so far ahead of you, misdirecting you with such sharpness and outrunning you with such agility, that I couldn’t wait to turn the page. Suspense was not my strong suit and I wondered how I could ever write for this show. But my meeting with Rene went well and weeks later I was offered the job. I was going to be able to live in the city of my choice while working on a broadcast network TV series with a foreseeable future. I would later realize I had no idea how good I had it.
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Diana SonDiana Son is the author of the plays Stop Kiss, Satellites, BOY, R.A.W. (‘Cause I’m a Woman) and others. She has also been a writer/producer for TV series including “Blue Bloods,” “Southland,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” and “The West Wing” in addition to writing pilots and the occasional feature film. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and 3 sons.

One, Two, Three – Jump!

I was terrified when Elana Levin contacted me to write four blogs for the WGAE website. I’m used to scribbling words for a group of characters played by actors so talented they made every word so much better than it looked on paper. It was great hiding behind them, but I don’t have them to protect me anymore, so I said yes.

I am not a risk taker by nature. I don’t drive anymore, I’m not athletic, and I’ve never bought a lottery ticket. Swimming in creeks or rivers where fish (or even minnows) might be lurking scares me. We rented a house upstate for years. When we walked home from our neighbor’s house after dark I was sure the bats fluttering above were waiting to swoop down and nest in my hair. My husband had his hands full helping me co-exist with nature. I’m from two edgy and wonderful cities, Detroit and New York and I am very comfortable in both places. But nature…yikes! I’ve made some progress, thanks to my husband Tony.

Being uncomfortable is good, sometimes. My high school drama director cast me as science prodigy Tillie in “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” – dyed my hair mousy brown, wore polyester and baggy knee sox as I cradled my dead rabbit at the end of the play. My mom’s best friend didn’t recognize me. Great moment for the girl usually cast as the ingénue. My college boyfriend Michael was determined that I get my license. He taught me to drive. Yes, I did drive for awhile. Grace Bavaro sent me from the restaurant to the TV studio. My friend Nancy Williams Watt generously encouraged me to add my voice to the voices of the Guiding Light characters. Super bosses Paul Rauch and Ellen Wheeler would often call me in on Friday and tell me I’d be doing a very different job at Guiding Light on Monday. I always lamented the fact that I never had time to “train” for any of these jobs. My husband watched me freak out and then witnessed my wonder when I realized how great it is to learn something new. Not that I mastered every job, but it’s so exciting to go into a dark, scary place, turn on the light and see that it’s not so scary after all.

Children play with dog

photo by Tony Hurst

And it’s fun to help someone else get over their fear. Our landlady upstate asked us to keep our two big dogs Scout, a curly coated retriever, and Annie, our beautiful German Shepherd, on leash when we walked the road – turns out our two little neighbor girls were terrified of dogs. We kept the dogs in check, but the girl’s curiosity outweighed their fear. They were frequent and welcome visitors. At first they yelled “Put Pointy Ears (Annie) in the house” as they came up the road. But after a short time, they reached out their little hands to pet curly Scout. Finally they got to know old Pointy Ears. Little girls and big dogs became fast friends. Eventually they got a dog of their own!

I know that it’s time to challenge myself. I wish I would have prepared in certain ways – learned to type, kept my license, finished my degree…but then, maybe the ride would’ve been different. More sensible, but less fun… Truthfully there’s very little I would change about my experiences.

I’m grateful to the people who thought outside the box when I couldn’t, who gave me a little push. I’m glad I took a breath and said yes to this writing assignment. I learned that I want to take more chances! Thank you for having me here for the last few weeks. I had a really good time.