|Hitting The Beat
the apocrypha interview with scriptwriter I.C. "Chuck" Rapoport
From "Precious" to "Pro Se," I.C. Rapoport has provided some of the most memorable of Law & Order's scripts. (He's also written for other TV shows, including Baywatch!) But as he points out here, in this 1999 interview done shortly before he left the show, the whole process is very much a group effort -- and sometimes they have to work overtime to make sure the cops don't sound dumb....
What's the process of writing for Law & Order like? You mean how do we write an episode? Okay, well, we first come up with the idea, and there are a couple ways of doing that. One of the ways is that the boss, Rene [Balcer, former Executive Producer/Script Editor/Writer] has an idea for us, and says, "Why don't you guys think of this," or we have our own ideas -- that usually just comes from perusing newspapers and magazines. Most of the ideas I've come up with have come out of magazine articles, and I'm not even thinking about the show, I'm just reading an article and it just suddenly hits me that whoa, this is part of a Law & Order. Because none of our shows are ever written from one story. They're always combinations. So once we get the idea, we clear it with Rene, and he says, "Okay, do it, and we start beating out the story. "Beating it out," it's a beat sheet, it's an outline. Each scene is a beat of the story, and we have like 40 scenes in a show, 4 acts, 40 scenes, so it's about 10-12 beats per act. And knowing that in advance and how long they usually run we can pretty much outline a show and know we're going to be in the ballpark for time. So we start to break the story. It takes a long time, it takes us about 3-4 times as long to break the story as it takes to write the script. What takes so long? Our stories are very complicated. They don't lay out in a logical manner, like a narrative. So we have to first of all understand what the story is about, and that can take some time. We're all pretty bright people at the show, but we can be a week into our story and still not know what the story is really about. First, we have a theme, and then from the theme we go to what the story is about, and sometime around the first or second week of breaking the story we come to realize that the story is about a son's obsession with his mother. That didn't take off until we started to develop the characters. When we talked to Dr. Park Dietz, who is the show's medical/forensic consultant, he said you sometimes call him up to say this is the result you want, what behavior would create that. There was a show about a son and his mother sleeping together -- That was my story, I wrote that show with David Shore. We got that idea from our own heads, and then called up Dietz and said this is what we're dealing with, we're dealing with incest, and it's a taboo subject on the networks, so what we have to do is write it so it's acceptable. It's taboo usually when it involves a child, but we're now talking about a 28-30 year old man. So it has a different connotation, even though it is the same thing, and even though historically the the mother started abusing him when he was a teenager. It just never stopped. So we call him and we ask him for behavioral signs. It all leads to interrogation and investigation and testimony. That's the only way we can get our story out, by answering questions. They either answer questions of cops, or of lawyers. Keep that in mind, because it is a very important aspect of our show. People don't analyze our show, in fact I've talked to many writers in this town who haven't really given it that much thought. They'll ask me, "Why is it your scripts and shows are so good" and they haven't really figured it out. And we figure it out when we write it, and it's the toughest show to write. What makes it the toughest show to write? We don't have the luxury of having these interpersonal scenes where character and story can develop in an organic way. Everything is in this Socratic method, of the cops coming in and saying "Who was here, did you see this," just keep asking questions and getting the story. The story has to come out, has to be pulled from people, and sometimes they don't know the whole story, so they only give you a piece of it, and this is the difficult part of writing the show, this is why when we tell you and I'm sure you've heard it from other people, we go over and over and over our stories, draft after draft, it's not because we don't know what we're doing, it's because we're figuring out better ways of telling the same story, so that by the time we're done, which is usually a day before we start shooting, the story unfolds in an incredibly interesting way, so that the viewer is not -- we don't trick them. We don't play tricks on them. What we do is we give them as much information as our cops and our people have, and then they make connections. Sometimes our audience is with them, or a minute ahead of them even, but we try to keep that from happening, because the audience will get really pissed off if the cops start looking stupid. They like to feel smart at the same time the cops do.
We have interviews with witnesses, and interrogations of suspects, and then we have -- our standard form is what we call a "walk and talk," which comes right after some of these scenes where the cops review. And we have these walk and talks, usually they're walking down a corridor, or to their car, or coming down the stairs, just exiting from the last place, and we have these walk and talks when we have to let the viewer in on what they're thinking, so it doesn't come out of left field. So they'll come out of an apartment and they'll say, "Well, if she actually saw this guy do A, and didn't that professor say B? And if you put A and B together, maybe we should go back and talk to so-and-so," and the audience goes, "Oh, yeah, right!"
It's a show that you can't just leave on in the background. You really have to be on top of it. But back to Park -- so what happens is when David and I were writing the incest story, we told him what we wanted, and what we needed was a series of behavioral patterns which were not only real, but interesting. So we interviewed Park and we said, "Imagine this scenario: You have a 28 year old guy who is balling his own mother," and then we gave him the whole complicated story. That in itself is a story that could be on Lifetime as a movie. But for us that's just a small part of the story that we're doing. Because not only was this guy sleeping with his mother, but the two of them had plotted to marry other people and to kill these other people for their fortune. The mother killing the son's wife and the son killing the mother's husband, and with nobody knowing they were mother and son or connected, so it would make it that much harder for the police to solve the crime. Because as you know most crimes are solved because people are involved prior to the crime. When strangers kill other people, it's much harder to solve that crime. So that was their plan that would have gone along perfectly well, except things got out of hand.
So what happened is the son came and shot at his own mother apparently, only it wasn't his mother at all, it was his wife. So it was a real complicated story. Once we started planning the story it got very complicated for us, so we had to take a step back and start paring away complications and lay the story out. So as complicated as it is, it would be understandable and not confusing to the audience, and the big surprise coming at the end when you find out that not only are they not lovers -- which is our first thought. Our first thought is this young guy is screwing this woman on the side. He married this other woman, and now he's making it with this other woman, and he likes older women. So we say Romeo, we know what's going on here, your wife was shot at this thing -- your lover was shot at this thing because you've been messing around with her. That's what we think, but then lo and behold, we realize they're not lovers, they're a son and a mother, that's why they're hanging out together. But then we find out there's a double exposure there, because we find out not only are they mother and son, but they are lovers! So when we told Park this, he laughed and said this is a great story. And we asked is this possible? We wanted to know if we were barking up the wrong tree, and he said yeah, sure there are cases of adults and siblings, he named a few cases in fact. There was a case of a young man who was sleeping with his mother and he was married. A real momma's boy. He really couldn't separate.
So that's one of the main challenges -- making sure it all fits? To make sure it all fits, to make sure it's believable, to tell it in a way that no fact or piece of the story is repeated. Everything that pops up is new, so that the audience is taken on a long stroll through storyland and every corner they turn they see a new picture and nothing is every repeated. It's very hard to do that, and sometimes we have to repeat, but it's very rare. One of the big problems we have is: Do you want to give this away now, or do you want to hold it for the trial? Do you want to pop this up, can we talk about this now and at the trial, and if we can how much do we give away now and what do we save for the trial. Because if a person gives us a great interview and gives us a lot of information in the first half, or even in the third act, which is already the lawyers' part of the show, but before the trial, then when we have a trial -- can we put that person on the stand. We don't want them repeating exactly what they told the cops. Sometimes we break that rule, because we need to have that person on the stand, and there's nothing else for them to tell, so we allow them -- you've noticed if you've studied the shows, those incidents are very abbreviated. We cut into the scene and they'll say -- they'll answer two questions very similar to what they gave the cops two acts earlier. So you almost have to create the story twice -- what you can tell in the first half, and what you can tell in the back half, but it still has to create the same story. But what you give in the back half has to be different -- has to give us new information, not the same. It's got to be new. This is why we have such problems when we write our stories and Rene beats us over the head, and we beat ourselves over the head, because when you try to hold something back and then you bring it up in the trial and somebody smart, [producer] Bill Fordes or your writing partner or Rene looks at you and says, "What, are the cops stupid? They never asked the same question? They had the person right in front of them, why didn't they ask that question?" And you go, "Well, I was saving it for trial." No, no, we can't do that. We can't make our cops look stupid. There's got to be a reason why the cops didn't ask that question, and that usually is because they needed another piece of information in order for them to go the next step. And if they don't have that piece of information, they cannot be held responsible for not having asked it. Which is why the DA's always do a little bit of investigation, also. Right. And I always felt a little uncomfortable in some instances on the show where the DA seems smarter than the cop. They look at all the stuff the cops did and then they sit back and say, "Well, wait a minute, if the guy didn't go to Pittsburgh, where was he?" And I'm always saying, "Don't you think the cops could have asked that question, too?" That's the process. When we're not in the big grind, time pressure, it's earlier in the season where we don't have the same time pressure, it takes about 3 weeks to 4 weeks to beat out the story. And that's coming in at 9:30 and leaving at 6. By the end of the season we're coming in at 9:30 and leaving at 10 and working weekends. As opposed to the rest of the industry? I've written for shows where we literally beat out the story in an afternoon, four writers in a room sit down and we go over it. In the average drama, like the Don Johnson show, Nash Bridges, those kinds of stories have 7 beats to an act, 6-7 beats to an act. Let's say they've got 26 beats to the hour, which is really only 45 minutes. We have 40. And ours only last a page, a page and a quarter, that's as long as our scenes go. And it's jammed with dialogue, a lot of questions, we get a lot of information even in that minute and a half. You take the average drama, and what they have is the luxury of playing off a scene for three pages where they get one piece of information where we deliver four. We deliver four in a page and a half and they'll deliver one in three pages. But the other thing they have is they develop their character, the characters are talking about personal events in their lives, they're driving and talking about something, they have a lot of drive-ups and drive aways. We have none of that on our shows, it's taboo. Never, never, never do you see an establishing shot. And we start every scene from the middle. We have broken these rules, but we almost never have a scene where somebody says, "This is Detective Briscoe, my name is Detective Curtis, we're from Homicide" -- we almost never do that. When the cops are talking to somebody, and they say, "And who would know that woman was home that night," and the janitor says, "Well, she lives with her aunt." And then you cut to this old woman sitting in a chair and she's saying, "Well, Margaret was here that night, and that's the way it goes." The setup is the scene before. She lives with her aunt. Bing! You're talking to the aunt. And she's answering the question when you come into the scene. You don't see that on Nash Bridges or in these other places. If they had a scene where they say, "She lives with her aunt," you'd see the two guys driving across the Golden Gate Bridge and they'd be talking about -- "I had an aunt once..." Exactly: "I had an aunt once, and I went roller skating. Do you know they have these new inline skates..." And then they'll ring the doorbell, and the woman will come: "Yes, may I help you?" And he says, "Hi, I'm Nash Bridges, this is my friend and we'd like to talk...." So all of that stuff takes time, all to get the same information, because the stories are smaller ultimately. Do you find yourself getting burned out by doing these scripts?. Yeah. I got burnt out. I think Rene should be getting burnt out by now. He's only written 140 of them. Maybe 60. The thing is, he's involved with every script. Those are just 60 he's done by himself. He sort of collaborates on everyone else's scripts. No script has been written on Law & Order for the last three years without Rene coming in and looking at it on the board and saying I don't understand your act 2, change it. So it's back to the drawing board. So if it's that difficult to write, what's the great joy you get out of doing it? Survival. Finishing it. No, I'll tell you what I loved about writing for Law & Order: Dealing with issues. There are very few shows which even make an attempt to deal with an issue. And one out of four of our shows is a really good issue show. Then we'll have 3 shows that are sort of mediocre as far as issues are concerned. But if we're lucky, and we can get an issue show by Rene and the network -- although I've got to tell you that the network almost never interferes. Especially with a show about incest. Well, they didn't know, you see, until they read the script. They don't approve the beat sheets, so they don't know what we're doing, and we don't give titles to our show like, "Boy Humps Mother." We don't do that. That show is called "Venom," because when we first started the first notion David Shore and I had when we wrote that was it was a young couple, not a mother and son, but a husband and wife, both of them 30 years old who go off and marry other people, and then they kill each others' spouses, and they were going to be like spiders. Venom. Black widow type thing. And then when we started to outline it, it was actually Rene who said, "Why don't we change it to a son and a mother? And the reason that came up -- there was a story floating around Law & Order for about three years, called "The Walker." And that came from an article in Vanity Fair, or maybe it was New York magazine. It was about these wealthy -- they're not escort -- they're usually gay men who are established, designers, decorators, art critics, and they become available to "walk" these wealthy women like Jackie Kennedy and different women to society events. Because there's no sexual tension. A lot of the women are married, and their husbands don't want to go to these bullshit things, so they say, "I'm not going to that," so the women say, "Do you mind if I went with Perry Ellis?" Calvin Klein, Barry Diller ... these guys are all known gay men, and nobody would associate any talk with them, no: What, is Jackie Kennedy making it with Barry Diller? Not likely. And these guys, what they get out of it is, the Barry Diller and Perry Ellis types, they have an opportunity to hobnob with people who are going to buy their products. So it's a good deal for them, too. There's a lower echelon group of men who are not as successful as the people I just mentioned, but they need a leg up so they might be interior decorators, and what they need is to meet lots of rich women, so their escort would say, "Have you met Rex? He's a fabulous designer, he just did my bathroom," and the other woman says, "I was thinking of redoing my kitchen can you send him over here next week?" So it's a way to make connections. It's never money. So there was this article, and Dick Wolf had read this article and gave it to Rene and he said I want you to do a story with these walkers. And nobody could do it! Nobody really tried. You thought about it for about 20 minutes and you said, "Well, how are we going to do this, what kind of story is this going to be, some fag shoots another fag, or ..." the network has a rule about gay-bashing. They don't want any homosexual murder stories, so we're not going to do that. They have a taboo against incest, they have a taboo against abortion. I'm still shocked at some of the stuff the show gets across because it's lost in so many words, you wonder if everybody catches it. Well, our thing didn't pop up until the last act, and they said, "You were sleeping with her, weren't you!" Our Park Dietz character was the guy who was sitting with the young man [Skoda] and he says, "When did you last sleep with her." And he was the one who picked up on it, and that came from Park Dietz, because we said how are we going to find out about this, what kind of behavior is this guy going to display for our people, either the cops or the lawyers to pick up on and he said none, he said that was something a psychiatrist would know, interviewing him. So we said, okay, give us the interview. So he starts to give us an interview, he says, "Well, he could be talking to the guy, and what signs would the guy demonstrate." Well, he would be nervous, he wouldn't want to talk about it, he'd want to talk about something else, but not that, and how would you propose it, and he said sometimes I would just come out and ask him flat out. So he said Skoda would probably say, "Okay, I've had enough of you, I've had hundreds of guys like you, and you're full of shit. I'm going to sit down and write my report, you're not sick, you're a second-degree murder candidate, and that's that." And at that point, the guy, in desperation, would have to admit what's going on in his life. And once he starts to admit it, he leaps. Someone listening to him would allow him to spill his guts. What other episodes have you written? I'll tell you the ones I really liked that I was involved in. My first script for Law & Order was with Rene, and it was called "Precious." That was the munchausen-by-proxy syndrome? Right. Now there was an issue show. The second season of freelance I wrote two scripts with Rene, and both came from ideas I brought to Rene and he expanded on them -- the first one was "Blood Libel," which we won the TV award -- the Televimage Award for Jewish subject, and that was about a Jewish high school art teacher who was murdered in her classroom, and it turns out it was these Neo Nazi kids who went to school there. We ripped stuff out of the headlines from the guys up in Connecticut, who had a secret code in their yearbook pictures, where if you lined them all out they spell out a word which stood for "Kill all Kikes" and I read that in the L.A. Times. And both ideas were in one newspaper. I was reading the L.A. Times, and I read this little blurb which says NY City high school teacher brunt of Anti-Semitic letters, and it told this little tiny story, about two inches, about this Jewish high school teacher in New York, and these Puerto Rican students were sending her these anonymous letters about Hitler was right, they should have killed all the Jews, and it was a scandal, and they finally got all the kids who did it and one kid was answered the question, "What do you think would have happened to you if you'd been born in Nazi Germany?" And the kid says, "Yeah, I know I would have been in the gas chamber, too." And in the same issue, three pages later, it said a New York City high school teacher was indicted for selling grades. So we combined the two stories, and in that same season we did a story called "Pro Se." That was the schizophrenic lawyer. The crazy guy who murders the -- I brought Rene that idea, and I said this would be an excellent story, which was based on the Rockettes Case in New York, where a man slashed and murdered a former Rockette, a tall attractive woman in her late 40s. She'd been walking her dog, and some maniac came over and asked her for the time or money or something and she kept walking, and he took affront and went after her with a butcher knife and stabbed her on the street. When they caught him and arrested him they discovered he'd been arrested two weeks earlier for attacking his landlady with a knife, and the cops and DAs had let him walk. There wasn't enough evidence, so they let him walk. And I said, "You know what, the Colin Ferguson story which Rene and Michael Chernuchin had been trying to figure out a way of doing it," but it was almost impossible to do it straight on, because there was no front in -- the guy was caught on the train, so they never really got into it, but I said wouldn't it be great if this crazy guy defended himself and McCoy has to go up against this nut, like Colin Ferguson. And then Rene said there's this guy who was schizophrenic who went to law school and became a lawyer but he couldn't get a job because just as he was about to graduate his mind went and no one would hire him, because he was unstable. When he was on drugs he was okay, but not fit to work, and when he was off drugs he was really sharp but he was unstable. It was a tragedy. So what if we made that guy the murderer? We had to decide how unstable he was -- unstable enough to kill somebody -- but not unstable enough to not be able to represent himself. So when we first see him in the show he's a homeless derelict, and he's just murdered three people and wounded another, and then his sister gets him his drugs in Rikers, and after a few weeks in Rikers he's like everyone else, and comes in and does a really incredible job defending himself, because it turns out he was a really sharp lawyer.