|The apocrypha interview with Producer
William N. Fordes
Want to know the man in the know over at Law & Order? Other than Rene Balcer, few have as much inside know-how as Bill Fordes. Since the show began, Fordes has served as Legal Consultant, later as Staff Writer and Story Consultant. He was promoted to Producer last year. Fordes has co-written numerous episodes of the show, including "Sanctuary," "Family Values," and "Tabula Rasa." His other TV credits include writing for Mann & Machine, New York Undercover, Feds and Homicide: Life On The Streets. He consulted on films, including Presumed Innocent. Before he dove into TV work, however, Fordes worked as a real-life Ben Stone, as an ADA in the New York District Attorney's offices from 1979 through 1986, in the Appeals Bureau. In 1983, Fordes was assigned to the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor in New York, whose five-borough jurisdiction permits New York County prosecutors to investigate and prosecute narcotics-related offenses across the five counties that comprise New York City. He resigned from that office in 1986 as Deputy Bureau Chief. He gave up the full-time practice of law in 1993. But that's just the basic stuff. How about some nitty gritty details?
So is it true what I hear -- they can't run the show without you? [Laughs] Yeah, sure. You can fire the rest of the staff, but you can't get rid of me. They ought to know that. What makes you so crucial? I understand better than anybody how the legal aspects of the show play out in the back half of the show. And as I said to my agent, you could hire the best criminal lawyer in the country, he's not going to be able to give them what they need. They need somebody who can say "here's how the scenes play out: They go here, they go to the grand jury, the grand jury does this, the defense attorney does this..." which is unique to our show, because as Dick Wolf has said, the law is the fifth character. There has never been a TV show where not just the technical accuracy of courtroom procedure, and who stands where and who says what [was so emphasized]. When I first started, I was still practicing law in NY, [and] those were the questions: "Where does the defense attorney stand? Which side of the room do the tables go on?" Now, the questions are "Well, jeez, in an Article 78 proceeding, with a cross-motion by a non-criminal defendant does....blah blah blah." It is amazing. If you put somebody - just beamed somebody into one of our story meetings, you would think [we're] five attorneys. Rene is not an attorney, but he knows so much law now, he may as well be. We have a full law library in our offices. We have Westlaw. Is that so unusual? Doesn't David E. Kelly have the same thing? To give you a legal response: it's sui generis, which is Latin for "a thing unto itself." It is unique not only at this time, but unique in the history of TV shows. Why is technical accuracy so important? Dick Wolf simply said, "I want an accurate, fully-thought out legal show." And I'm sure that Dick, although he has an incredible grasp of where he's going with his shows, I'm sure he didn't have any idea that the show was going to run 11 or 12 years. I'm sure he didn't imagine the complexity of the legal issues we would get into, but it sort of steamrolled from, "I want it to be accurate" to now [where] we've used a lot of the easier legal issues, and now in order to come up with original stories and in order to come up with original legal issues, we dig deeper and deeper and deeper. So we no longer take one story from the headlines and just run with it, it's usually a combination between two and three. And we no longer do a very simple legal issue, it's now things like, "What's the statute of limitations on a second degree kidnapping case," as opposed to a first-degree kidnapping case. That's a legal issue! And that supports the structure of the back half of the show. You have to have some courtroom stuff, you have to have a scene shift, you have to have a defense attorney in there somewhere, with rare exceptions, and because of the preordained structure of the show, you've got to fill it up with something. It's not action, and it never is, and that's the nature of the show, but the legal argumentation becomes more and more important. Just by sheer happenstance. And we're so accurate that we get calls all the time from practicing attorneys, law schools [asking] "Can we use your tape as an instructional device?" We had a bunch of visiting Russian legal scholars four or five years ago, and they watched a half dozen Law & Orders to get a feel of how courtroom procedure is in NY. I've lectured at the national college of District Attorneys, the American Bar Association ... not because I have any depth of legal knowledge, but people are interested - especially the non-lay public - are really interested in how the show works. Every case we cite is accurate, and every case is cited for the right proposition. Is that hard to do, or is it more fun, figuring out how to be accurate and tell a story? Fun? Hmm...it would be intellectually dishonest, and it would be dishonest to the show, and it would be cheating our audience [if we didn't]. Even if some of our audience wouldn't know, we're not going to take the chance. We really trust our audience. For example, there's a phrase in New York Criminal Practice when a defendant is being arraigned, it's called ROR - and it's shorthand for "Released on his own recognizance." But ten years ago, nobody knew that phrase. But about a year or two into the show, we said, "Nobody says in the courtroom 'released on his own recognizance,' they say 'ROR, your honor,' " and we just decided that we were going to trust our audience enough to trust us, and we've educated them enough that we don't need to explain what is going on any more, unless we're breaking new ground, and then we do. And that's a lot of fun - how do you have a legal argument, make it dramatic, make it short, make it concise, and fit into the show properly. And when people say "You're not 100% accurate," I say, "You want 100% accuracy, tune into Court TV, have a nice nap." It's not the O.J. case every day, if it was, everybody would be glued to Court TV. Your run of the mill criminal case, I've tried dozens and dozens of criminal cases, and your run of the mill criminal case, there's nobody in the audience watching except the mother of the defendant and the brother of the defendant, and the press isn't there, and the issues aren't glamorous, and the legal complexities aren't there, and when Court TV picks the best of the cases and they're still boring, it's basically because they are. Not long ago, the prosecution table moved to the other side of the room. Was that a mistake? There are a lot of things that are not set in stone. There are dozens and dozens of courtrooms in NYC, specifically in Manhattan. The only rule is that the prosecutor takes a seat closest to the jury. Now, I'm sure that isn't statutory, that's just custom, and every once in a while I'll see something in a courtroom scene, for instance, an attorney who's remained seated while he's speaking to the judge. I don't like it, sometimes it gets by me, or I haven't watched the dailies, or some new director who should have been told - but those things happen. In real life, occasionally people speak from their seats. I know a lot of judges who will just ignore you until you stand up, but that sort of stuff - there's no hard and fast rule about where the jury box goes. As long as you have 16 or 18 seats for the jurors, counting the alternates, that's all that really counts. You said before the interview that you had some "great stories to tell." Anything off the top of your head? It's been such a wonderful experience working on Law & Order these years. I've been here since day one. I was practicing law in New York for the first two and a half years, then moved out here to work on the show full time. People ask how it compares. I say the money's better, the hours are better, and I go to work in a sweatshirt in jeans. I surf every morning. The big stress is do I want decaf or regular. As opposed to working 110 hours a week in law. It's just been a blast. There's no other show like it, in the sense that it's been on so long. And frankly - the numbers, the ratings are better than ever, it's one of the few dramas that holds its own every single week without fail. And NBC, I think, recognizes that fact. Whenever they have a slot that needs some boosting, they put a rerun of Law & Order in. And it's good for us, of course, we get residuals, it's good for the show, because it exposes more and more people to the show. Do you think it's educated viewers about the process of law? Absolutely. I spoke at the American Bar Association meeting in San Francisco last year, and the topic was "Changes in Media Portrayal of Attorneys and Law." It was just one of the lectures out of hundreds, and I said the two most important things in terms of education of the lay public in the last 20 years have been the O.J. trial and Law & Order. The O.J. trial because literally everybody watched it if they could, and Law & Order because it has percolated into the psyche of the American public in such a way that they understand much more law than they think they do. But not just the run of the mill, basic stuff that they used to know, but the really complex stuff. Everybody knows what a motion to dismiss is, everybody knows what a motion to suppress is, it's gone beyond the Miranda warnings. I've had lay people ask me was the discussion about the search and seizure in the park accurate, and if so, what about such and such a case, and I have to tell them I have to go look it up. It's certainly given viewers a crash course on first degree murder. When the capital murder statute came down, we got the same thing that was handed out to every assistant district attorney in Manhattan. And I still have plenty of friends there, and I said, "We're lost. This thing is so complex, is there something out there to clear this up?" And there are always memos circulated, whenever there's a new law, clarifying the law, usually written by someone in the appeals bureau, and I got my hands on one, and it was a great help - a big 100 page thing explaining how the law helps. When a brand new statute comes out of that size, complexity and importance, if you can make it easier...and also the more you understand it, the easier it is to use in the show. Of course, the show sometimes makes it look like you can get arrested for first degree murder if you sneeze wrong. It's a little more difficult than that. If you read the statute carefully, it's pretty clear you have to have intent up and down the line, whereas in the old days, it was a lot harder. Do you think the show's gotten more bloodthirsty over the years? No, as a matter of fact, we've had conversations with the cast, and they would say, "We think we've had too many first degree murder cases" and we tend to shy away from them, because we don't want to repeat ourselves, and if the cast isn't really behind it, it shows in the acting. And you know, sometimes - you need to keep sight of the arc of the season, and sometimes we'll sit there and say "Jeez, it would be really great if we lost this case, if the McCoy character loses the trial," and then we'll think: Let's see, have we lost? And we'll realize it's been 8, 9, 10 episodes since we lost a case. We don't want to lose too often - the average jury trial in New York County is won by the prosecutors about 75-80% of the time. And we're pretty consistent with that, whatever's organic to the story. Whatever makes the audience angrier about the issue is the right thing to do. The first capital murder cases the show did was "Aftershock." Was that completely accurate - would all of them really have been standing there watching it happen? Probably not. But there hasn't been an execution under the new statute, I can't really answer that! But with appeals, it would have taken 7-8 years for that guy to go to death row, right? Probably. We certainly compressed time for that. And every once in a while, somebody will come up with a great legal issue, and I'll say, "Well, that's all well and good, but there's no way to do it, give me five minutes and I'll figure out how it could play out in a story." In the last two episodes of the [ninth] season, there's a very complex sequence of legal arguments about the writ of habeus corpus, and what Rene wanted to do with it was literally impossible, the way he had thought about it. And there's no reason why even a well-educated lay person would know, but it's not...it's not impossible to do it if you compress a little time here, take a little poetic or dramatic license there, but still the essence of the law is accurate. And it's a blast, it's fun to do, it's like doing a really hard crossword puzzle. You want to do the TV Guide crossword puzzle, if you've got 3 minutes, go ahead. If you want to have fun and be challenged, get the New York Times on Sunday. And our audience is really intelligent. It's nice you don't need to worry about going over the audiences' heads! Well...sometimes we go over our own heads! Sometimes we'll sit around and say "What did we just say? Let's go over that scene again." Or we'll be arguing in a room about the legal stuff, and I'll say "that's enough, we've just written a scene." Our arguments about the law give something to the Carmichael's character, give something to McCoy, give something else to Schiff, and that's your argument. And then extend it into the courtroom scene, there's the rest of the argument. It's the real arguments that real lawyers would have about it.