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Location, Location, Location

My kids breaking story around the Southland writer’s table

My kids breaking story around the Southland writer’s table

For the 5 years I was on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”, whose stages and offices were at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan, my biggest complaint re location was that it was 4 long blocks to the nearest train. The Piers are as far west as you can go without needing a kayak and the closest street was the West Side Highway. After a long day at work, we’d have to walk two or more avenues before it was even worth sticking up our hands for a cab. And even farther to the A train. It seemed like such an inconvenience. Little could I have guessed that for my next job my commute home would be via the redeye from Burbank on JetBlue.

After my year off, I told my agent I wanted to staff again. With 3 kids, a stay-at-home husband and a mortgage, my personal hiatus turned out to be quite expensive. The job market in NYC for primetime dramas is intensely small. There were only one or two shows that had their writing staffs in New York, even though they were filmed here. This is the dirty little secret about shows set in New York. Most of them are written in Los Angeles. Current shows like “The Good Wife,” “Law & Order: SVU” (until recently), “CSI: NY,” “Gossip Girls,” “Royal Pains,” “White Collar,” “Castle,” etc may film on our local streets and avenues, but their writers are holed up in sunny offices on the Fox, Universal, Warner Bros or Paramount studio lots in and around L.A. “Mad Men” – so iconic in its portrayal of glamorous 1960-70s New York, is not only written but filmed on stages located in hardscrabble downtown L.A.

So, it became clear that I was going to have to take a job in that sunny city. Having lived in L.A. for that almost year I was on “The West Wing,” I knew it would always be a fun place to visit, but not where I wanted to raise my family. My reasons are completely personal to me and no offense to anyone who finds it a wonderful place to live. I just can’t deal with the idea of having two cars and driving everywhere. A cab ride home is a luxurious option on a lazy day, but no matter where I am in NYC I can always take the train. But when I was offered a job on the new NBC series “Southland” about the Los Angeles Police Department, I have to admit, I was thrilled. It was innovative, gritty, brash and totally compelling. I wanted in.

“Southland” had had a highly-acclaimed 6-episode first season and had been renewed for a second season with a “let’s give it a shot” 13-episode order and an option for the back 9. I watched the first season on my laptop in The Writer’s Room in Greenwich Village and was blown away. I then walked 3 blocks to meet “Southland” creator Ann Biderman at the Dean and Deluca on University Place. Ann is a longtime New Yorker despite spending lots of time in L.A., especially to research “Southland.” We had a great chat, interrupted a few times by Ann’s friends and neighbors saying hi, confirming plans to spend the weekend in the Hamptons. Two weeks later, I was sitting across from Ann in a conference room in John Wells’ office on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank. Next to me were Robin Green & Mitchell Burgess, the husband-wife writing team, whose Village apartment was just blocks from Ann’s, and next to them sat Nathan Louis Jackson, fellow playwright and my Brooklyn neighbor. The irony! Here we were eating Poquito Mas takeout in the Valley on a staff that consisted largely of New Yorkers! (There were 2 other writers who were Angelenos). And you know I fantasized about how fabulous it would be if we were actually in some dank and dingy office in Chelsea or even Greenpoint, Brooklyn instead of the swanky environs we had in Burbank. But we were there for a variety of good reasons which ranged from access to the cops whose lives we were chronicling — to L.A. is where the studio and network wanted us. Funnily enough, we rarely went to set because with such a small staff we just didn’t have the time to produce our episodes. We were always either breaking story, writing an outline or writing one of many drafts of our episode (neither Ann nor John took showrunner passes. I would put a heart emoticon here if I were the emoticon type.)

Kids discovering the best kept secret of any t.v. show – the writer’s pantry

Discovering the best kept secret of any t.v. show – the writer’s pantry

My family came and spent July and August with me in a furnished sublet in Larchmont, but come September when it was back-to-school time, they went back to Brooklyn without me. I would fly home on the redeye Friday nights and fly back to Burbank on the first flight out Monday morning. It wasn’t pretty, but it’s what we did. That is, until I got a phone call from Ann one Thursday afternoon while I sat in my friend’s backyard writing the second draft of my second episode. I thought she was checking on me, making sure I was on track to turn it in on time. And the truth is, I was behind. Would have to pull an all-nighter to get it done. But Ann had something completely unexpected to say.

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.
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.