The apocrypha Interview: Rene Balcer
By Martin Winckler

reprinted with permission from Generation Series magazine

From Rene Balcer's biography:

A native of Montreal, Canada, Rene Balcer began his career as a combat cameraman during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. He went on to attend and graduate from McGill University in 1975 and Loyola University in 1978. From 1977 to 1980 Balcer was a staff journalist for the Montreal Star and wrote freelance articles for numerous Canadian newspapers and magazines. In 1979 he became a documentary film-maker for the National Film Board of Canada, and in 1980 he relocated to Hollywood, California, where from 1980-1992 he wrote and developed a variety of feature films for Zoetrope, Columbia, Paramount and a number of other major studios in Hollywood.
Balcer has written two Movies of the Week for Hearst, "Out On The Edge" in 1989 which earned him a A.P.A. (Amer. Psych. Assoc.) Award for Excellence in the Media, and "Stranger in the Family" in 1991.
In addition to Law & Order, his other series television credits include Story Editor for "Nasty Boys" in 1990, most recently Series Creator for "Mission: Protection Rapprochee" for TFI-FrancelTransfilm.
Balcer has been with Law & Order since the first season in 1990 and has written over 50 episodes. This, the eighth season of Law & Order, is his second season as "show-runner'and Head Writer. In 1993 he won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America and has been nominated for the award a total of six times. Other awards Balcer has won include the Peabody Award, the Golden Laurel Award from the Producers Guild of America, and the Silver Gavel Award. Balcer is also a three-time Emmy Award nominee. In 1997, as Executive Producer of Law & Order, Balcer won the Emmy for Best Drama Series.
Balcer is currently involved in a two-year overall production deal with Universal Television.
Balcer is married and resides in Los Angeles.

You have been a writer on the show ever since its first season then script consultant and now producer. Could you describe this experience, and tell us what the show means for you as a writer and a producer. How did you get in the writing crew, then become more involved in writing the show and producing it ?
It's exciting watching how the show has evolved over the years in terms of story-telling--the psychological and emotional complexities of the characters and issues. "Law & Order" is the closest thing to an anthology show on television. We don't have character arcs to service- Each week we tell a completely different story from beginning to end. This allows us a great amount of freedom to address any issue, whether it's a political, social, or psychological issue?
How do you work on scripts? Do you work with a team of writers, or do the writers write on their own? Do you establish storylines for the season? Where do you get your ideas for a script? Do individual writers come up with a story then develop it, or is it team work? How does a writer get on the staff? Do they send scripts? What do you think are the necessary qualities to be a writer for Law & Order?
At the beginning of the season we choose our stories and then assign them to different writers. Writers either work alone or in teams of two. Our ideas for scripts come from everywhere: newspaper headlines, our own imaginations, from the back pages of newspapers, almost anything can become a "Law & Order" story. Individual writers can come up with their own stories, or I will come up with one and assign it. It works in many different ways. A writer for "Law & Order" needs to be a good writer, has to be a keen observer of human nature, has to be able to combine exposition and character development, has to be subtle in his or her writing and has to believe that less is more.
What are your current writing objectives for the season? How different (or identical) is character writing going to be, compared to the 7th season?
Our current objective for the season is to get through the season. There will be a greater emphasis on how the job affects our characters, but still the stories will remain front and center.
Many clues strongly suggest there was some kind of romantic relationship going on between Claire Kincaid and Jack McCoy during seasons 5 and 6. What purpose was it for? Was it just to make the characters more realistic, or did you and/or the other writers feel that it added to the complexity of the cases - and to the subtleties of the story ?
Yes, there was a relationship between Kincaid and McCoy. It was created for several reasons: To keep the writers and actors interested. It was consistent with the mentor relationship between McCoy and Kincaid. It gave their scenes together more juice. And I think it intrigued the audience. Keeping the audience from being bored is the writer's number one duty.
How would you describe the relationship between Briscoe and Curtis, as opposed to the relationship Briscoe had with Logan?
Briscoe and Logan were older and younger versions of the same character. And this created a problem for the writers and the actors. Curtis is completely different from Briscoe -- more conservative, more straight-laced, in some ways more naive. The relationship I would best describe as Curtis the reluctant apprentice, grudgingly learning lessons from a hard-bitten and cynical teacher.
Could you tell us about the two crossovers which were done with Homicide: Life On The Streets? How difficult were they to write and film? What, in your opinion, are the main differences and likenesses of both shows?
The difficult thing about the cross-over is coming up with a story that can, on a practical level, be played in two cities, but also a story that is important enough, with issues that are weighty enough, to sustain two hours. Both scripts must be written before production starts on the shows and the shows are shot as one large episode. It's a logistical nightmare for the crew.
In my opinion, the 6th and 7th season finales were VERY powerful episodes, each one in its own genre. Actually, they both had to do with death, and they both meant something very deep, which is that life is a very fragile thing and taking someone's life away isn't something one should do without some thought. The irony and tragedy of Claire's death at the end of Aftershock and the poignant decision made by Adam Schiff at the end of Terminal are very impressive conclusions. Do you consider those two stories as strong achievements for the show, or do you think that Aftershock was 'a mistake,' as (or so I've heard) someone on the cast said?
Yes, I consider both "Aftershock" and "Terminal" strong achievements. "Aftershock" was a bold and worthy experiment that provided a lot of character material that was exploited in the seventh season. "Terminal" was perhaps a more successful story and a very successful integration of plot and personal storyline.
What kind of stories would you like to deal with that haven't been told in the show ? Are there issues that you can't deal with on this show? If so, for what reasons?
The stories that I have thought about doing have all been done on the show; the ones that I haven't thought about haven't. We have no sacred cows on "Law & Order;" and no taboo subjects.
How do you feel, personally, about the American justice system?
On the whole it's probably the fairest system that anyone has thought of so far. Growing up in Canada, I had experience with the civil code of justice prevalent in Quebec and France. I also had experience with a British style of justice where, until recently, they didn't have the benefit of a Bill of Rights or of the protections afforded by the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th amendments of the American Constitution. Based on that experience I can tell you that though imperfect, the American justice system is, as Cinderella's Godmother said, "the fairest of them all."
How long would you like the show to last? Do you think it can go on for many more years? Would you like to stay in the production/writing staff in the future? Do you have any personal projects you would like to work on? I read on the Wolf Films Web Page that you co-created a series for a French TV network. Can you tell us about it?
I'd like the show to last for as long as I want to work on the show. The show, in theory, could go on forever as long as criminals keep committing crimes. The series I co-created for French television is called: "Mission. Protection Rapprochee," which is currently in production for TF1.
What are your favorite American TV dramas? What do you think of American television now? Do you have any hopes or fear for the years to come as far as writing and producing is concerned ?
I have great hope for American television drama, especially in the area of cable. American television is a writer's medium. At the moment it's the best conduit for story-telling, and the best canvas on which to examine the human comedy. One concern I have is that American television production, as far as the major studios are concerned, is being driven by foreign sales, that the foreign sales departments of the major studios are dictating which dramas and comedies are developed for American television. This could mean that shows like "Law & Order" and "NYPD Blue," "Hill Street Blues," and "St. Elsewhere" will be replaced by endless clones of "Hercules" and "The X-Files."
How did you feel about the Emmy for best Drama, two months ago? Did you think it was a late acknowledgment of the show ?
We were very excited and very surprised to win the Emmy. It felt like a vindication of everything we have been doing for the last seven years.
What do you think of the way the show's fans talk about the show's writing and characters on their internet mailing lists and/or their web pages?
We are gratified, bemused, and interested in what fans write and say about the show on the Internet. I log in periodically and take seriously the comments, critiques and discussions about the various episodes.
Could you describe how you felt about the show when it started (before you wrote for it) and how you feel about it now? What would you tell someone who doesn't know the show to make him watch it ?
The show as much as anything is a chronicle of our times. Everything you want to know about America can be found in the 180 episodes of "Law & Order. If a viewer wants compelling drama, exciting twists, intellectual and emotional challenges, unpredictable endings and controversial off-center views, if a viewer wants quick-paced, exciting acting and writing, then "Law & Order" is the show to watch. It's part cinema verite, part neo-realism, part narrative fiction. It's edgy, urban, and in-your-face.

(c) Martin Winckler, Generations Series

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