|All The News That's Fit To Script
the apocrypha interview with scriptwriter/producer David Black
David Black started out as a journalist -- and it shows in his writing. For those who love early Law & Order episodes such as "The Reaper's Helper" and "God Bless The Children," you'll know what makes a great Black script -- tension, drama, and not too much good guy/bad guy stuff. As he says in this interview for apocrypha, what keeps things interesting is when you turn the script into an argument with yourself over an issue you're conflicted on. And, he notes that there's a lot to be said about the influence of Three's Company....
How did you get involved with writing for Law & Order in the first place? I did nine out of the first 13 [episodes] the first year, and seven out of the first nine the second year, and then the third year I left the show to make myself rich. I created The Cosby Mysteries, and a show with Tom Fontana, and some features, including The Confession, with Alec Baldwin and Amy Irving [and a small role with Chris Noth -- ed.]. Did you know Alec before you wrote the episode "Tabloid" with him? Yeah, I've known Alec for years and years and years. I came back to the show [in 1998], just to continue the history, as a consulting producer. In the first two years there was not so much of a problem working out of New York, and a lot of places like you out [in L.A.] where they can look at you. I find, for a number of reasons, including the fact that I've got a son here I'd rather stay in New York, but for the sake of a show like Law & Order, if you're constantly walking around the streets of New York, first of all there are details, verisimilitude, you can put in, even if you come from New York to see changes year by year, and I get probably a good third of my ideas for either plot or character or location from New York, and also you just pick up dialogue on the streets. I remember the first year I did a lot of scripts with Robert Nathan. And at the beginning of that year, the first year of Law & Order, he said, "I don't know how to write street dialogue, I'm a middle-class kid" - actually we'd gone to college together, and also I'd gone to college with Ed Zuckerman who at one point was on the show [and] was an old old friend, from journalism days, so I brought a lot of people in. Is that your background, journalism? Well, I'm a novelist who did a lot of journalism to survive. I did maybe 200-250 articles and short stories, and now I'm up to ten books, I just published a new novel, but then when I went on Law & Order it was up to eight. And had a Pulitzer nomination for a book based on a series of AIDS articles I did for Rolling Stone, and I thought great, now I'll make a little money, and didn't, so... Was that the about the origin of AIDS? It was called "The Plague Years." It won the national magazine award, and the national science writers award, and I thought great, I'll make a little money and I didn't, so...I went to Hollywood. So I remember Nathan saying "I don't know how to write street dialogue," and I said, "Well, take two days off and ride the subways. Listen." And he came back and ended up writing some of the best dialogue on the show. Also, you should talk to Mike Struk, and Jerry Giorgio, who are two ex-homicide cops in New York. I had done a book on the "Murder at the Met" case with Mike and Jerry and got them both involved in the show. Jerry drove around with Chris Noth night after night after night and Mike vets all of the scripts, and both of them - a lot of the quality of the show comes from the attention they have given the show, because the show - I think any show like this, if you just do research, the show will get better and be better. A lot of people who write for TV and movies don't do research, or do perfunctory research, they don't - you know how much it takes to research an article. You can stick your hands all the way in or you can skim the surface. And I think if you stick your hands all the way in and you really research whatever you're writing about, it makes it more interesting because you can't make it up. There are details which have become commonplace on cop shows that have come from Law & Order because we did the research. I remember being at a crime scene with Jerry Giorgio, and having them fry up coffee grounds to kill the [death] smell, and now that's on - you see it on 100 TV shows a year. That really wasn't part of TV before the show started. No. And one of the things Law & Order has done, because of the reality, the research we do, is we've created hundreds of new conventions for the form - a reference to DD5s, a lot of coptalk stuff. And so I think - and it all comes from research and people, Bill Fordes out there and Mike Chernuchin, and a lot of the people on this show have backgrounds as lawyers. I don't think any of us have backgrounds as cops, but I was a police reporter for years and years. And I think also being in New York gave me an advantage, because New York is made up of many many worlds, Los Angeles is made up of somewhat fewer worlds. Little fiefdoms, all connected by the highway. [Laughs] But in New York you walk down the street and you know when you're moving from world to world because you're moving from music to music, and there's different music. So the mysteries that we did on Law & Order tended to also be explorations into subcultures and worlds. Since you helped establish the show's format (outside the law/order template) by writing so much of the first few seasons, did you ever get told by Wolf or others "this is how we want to do the show, and write to this" or are you more or less responsible in a lot of ways for the structure of how the show works today? Well, Dick had the original structure, the split form. The one thing - every writer on a show like this has a strength in bringing something - it's like a big stew...without the onions and the carrots and the celery it wouldn't taste as good. The two ingredients I brought to the show to make it tastier, one is just something that interests me in terms of the kind of drama I do, and I'm not saying I'm the only person who did it, but something which I tended to do heavily, I like crimes that grow out of conflict of realities. If you look at a lot of the scripts I did, like Pro Life/Pro Choice, the abortion clinic bombing - Or the Mayflower Madam? Well, yeah, there are two realities there. She has her version - it's, the world of sex for hire. There are certain moral choices, of her moral universe, which is different from the universe of the people who think you should police it. Reaper's Helper, assisted suicide - there are people who believe this is morally wrong, there are people who believe it is compassionate, and there's an episode I can't remember the name where - and there are a lot of episodes where even if your name is not on it you do journeyman work on it. But I think this one...there was a religious couple who...where their religion didn't allow them to get medical help for their child, and when they refuse it the child dies - Isn't that "God Bless The Child"? Yes, probably, and it was odd because when I was doing that, for me the drama came when people who believed in the reality of the immortal soul come up against a legal system which does not believe in the reality of the mortal soul or finds that irrelevant to the death of a child. And that creates conflict, which can create crime. I remember how the hair was split on that, too - she was guilty because she didn't believe. And my objection on that, and some of the struggle that you have when you have a show which finds realities coming into conflict and creating a crime is that you hit hot button issues, and I know on that episode if I had directed it, I would have made the parents more sympathetic. They were made to look a little bit crazy, and I remember in discussions I was saying that they're not crazy, someone said well, of course they're crazy, they believe more in the soul than in the body, and I said as a matter of fact, throughout history, the millenniums, more people have believed that there is an immortal soul than have not. And the same thing on the pro choice/pro life abortion clinic bombing - the drama was heightened if you can make the pro life people - give them a credible case. Whether or not I agree with their case is irrelevant, but you don't have to be crazy to say look, I believe there is a case to be made. I think that's a unique perspective for a lot of TV drama: We're trying not to take a stance on one side or the other. Well, it shouldn't be. But I think it's honored more in the breach than the observance, because I think people find it hard to get over their prejudices. The one I did last year on the militia, "Nullification," I had to work hard to get inside the heads of the militia guys in order to experience what their vision of the world, as being truly patriotic, rather than making them stick figures who are crazies. Did you speak with militiamen? Yeah. And I think true drama comes from the conflict - it's not white hats versus black hats, it's when people profoundly believe in their vision of the world and it comes smack up against someone else's contradictory vision of the world. One of the episodes of Law & Order which I liked best are the ones where I was able to do that. That's one of the ingredients I brought to the mix. One of the other ingredients I brought to the mix was I like big issue shows like "Nullification," where some hot issue in the culture is able to be vented through the drama of the show. I've not tended to do a lot of heavy mysteries. [Ed] Zuckerman and Rene [Balcer] and 'Nuch [Chernuchin] - Zuckerman, I think especially was wonderful at doing mysteries. Rene and 'Nuch - I called them the Lennon and McCartney of Law & Order and Rene and 'Nuch have been the backbone of the show for years and years. They each bring a quality to it that is very - a tone which is very special. I think Ed Sherin, who is one of the smartest guys I've ever worked with, he's able to tease out of the moment, out of a moment which might be just informational, he's able to find and push the writers to dramatize a moment full of high drama, old fashioned drama. But the show, having identified a lot of these ingredients, the remarkable thing is Dick's vision for the show. From the very first day there was some pressure on Dick in the early two years of the show to "warm it up" and make it more of a soap opera about cops. Pressure from NBC? I don't know where the pressure came from. I was not party to the discussions, all I knew was I would talk to Dick and Dick would be absolutely true to his vision of the show, which is it's modern Dragnet, and Dragnet is just the facts ma'am. That said - there is not a lot of canon on the show, but in "Nullification" some canon was allowed to you to flesh out McCoy's history - do they say you can write about these characters and give us this information, or do you just put it in. You mean about their home lives? Or what they did in their past. Increasingly, we've been able to use that, but from the very beginning it was stuff that was betrayed during the investigation or the legal maneuvers. In other words, in "Nullification" the fact that the home life information that Sam Waterston had been an anti-war demonstrator is directly germane to the story, as opposed to a kind of cop story where you've got the investigation and then you go home to your son or daughter who's having trouble with their math test. L&O canon is very different than most shows; it's interesting how you make it work. No matter what show you go on, if you go on Seinfeld there's a certain high irony, and if you try to write a different kind of comedy it won't work. And Dick really fought for that vision, and it took three years for the show to really develop its audience, and there I think Dick was incredibly courageous in saying no, this is the show, and win lose or draw we'll stand or fall on this vision of the show. And I think whenever you break new ground in TV or in anything, whatever is new until it becomes popular seems to be wrong because it's different. The show gets a lot of credit for being so strongly-written and not pandering to the audience it's writing to. Do you find, based on your other TV writing experience, that that's unique? I think if you take a look over the last 10, 20, or 50 years of TV, the best shows have always been smart shows. I think the audience is smarter than anyone ever gives them credit for being. St. Elsewhere, Hill Street, Seinfeld, Simpsons, NYPD Blue, Law & Order, Oz, I mean, you go through the list of the shows over the past - over the history of TV which have done well, and they've always been smart shows. I think The Simpsons is the smartest show on TV. And I think sometimes the smartness is disguised as vaudeville, if you go back and look at - there are two shows in the history of TV which were really slammed when they came out, one was Three's Company, and the other was The A-Team. Three's Company is the best vaudeville that has ever been performed in America. And if you think about it, it was a little bit of sexual titillation with slapstick humor. And it was very smart. We can wax nostalgic about the great era of vaudeville with the great clowns like Bert Lahr and Phil Silvers, and they were great, but in vaudeville you could do the same material year after year after year as you moved from theater to town, theater to town. In TV you have to come up with new routines every week. Three's Company was a brilliant show. And The A-Team, for all of its people used to say it's a cartoon, it's this or that, if you go back and look at the characters, they are extraordinary, they're larger than life. Mr. T, where did that come from? The characters are wonderful. What works on TV - it's very simple. And I don't understand why, we all in Hollywood, not them, but we because I have trouble too, we forget that our job is to be interesting. And if you're interesting, and you tell a good story, people will watch. But it may take three years or so, and will the executives wait? With the exception of ER, every show which has become a classic in our lifetime has taken three years, from Miami Vice to Hill Street Blues, to St. Elsewhere to Homicide to Law & Order - go down the list, it takes three years to develop an audience if you're doing something new. And what works is something new and interesting. When ER came on the air, everyone said if you got a 20 or a 21 [rating] you were a hero. Everyone said because of the fragmentation of the media you will never get numbers like you did in the '50s and '60s TV. ER came on the air and got a 40. If you do something interesting, people will watch. And the trouble is we find it hard to remember, so instead of trying to do interesting show, someone does a show like Friends, and everyone says Oh, the reason people are watching friends is they want to watch shows about young people who hang out together, so they do 100 shows about young people who hang out together which are dull, uninteresting and lousy, and what they didn't realize is that the reason people watch Friends wasn't because it was a show about young people who hang out together, it was a show that was well done. And if you do Law & Order, people say the reason people watch Law & Order is that it's a cop show with a law element. No. The reason people watch L&O is it's interesting. And all you have to do is stay interesting. You said you did police reporting, but did you have to know specific cases when you started the story, or did you find cases to fit the story? It depends. Each writer works differently, and an individual writer will act individually on individual episodes. Sometimes you start with a character, sometimes a theme. I do it differently, too, but generally - about half the time there will be thumbnails. At the beginning of the years they'll say "okay, we want to do a Mayflower Madam case, we want to do a case based on Bernie Goetz," and as a writer you raise your hand and say I either know something about that area or I'm interested in learning about it. Or you can come up with - you read something in the newspaper and you think Jeez, you know, what do I know about the militia? My wife came back from a trip where she ran into two militia guys who were very scary. And I started thinking, "Boy, these guys are scary." And I read something where an analysis of culture and freedom and apparently all through history the greatest democracy has always occurred when the most powerful weapon had suddenly become cheaper - the longbow brought in the Magna Carta, the repeating rifle - there was almost anarchy in the Wild West, there was so much freedom. But if the government has a gun and we only have bows and arrows, a government can become more authoritarian or totalitarian. If we all have guns...and if I was working on the show today, I've been struggling with trying to deal with second amendment issues and gun control. Part of me says - and I'm an American assimilated Jew, and none of my relatives died in the Holocaust, but I've become very interested, or I feel compelled somehow recently to deal with the Holocaust, but part of me says that if the Jews in Germany had had guns in 1933 they would not have been in the camps in 1943. I don't trust any government enough to give them all the weapons. On the other hand, I also know - I come from old-fashioned liberals, and I believe in gun control. And that split in my feelings I would like to explore by writing a script. And I had the same issues with the militia, I had the same issues when I did the pro life/pro choice script. It's a way to have a dialogue with yourself about some issue that troubles you. And it could be a public policy issue that troubles you like gun control, or it could be a private - thank God nothing every happened in my family, but wait, there actually was something, one Christmas, my neighbor's son got a BB gun for Christmas and he shot my brother-in-law's dog with it. I was outraged, and I wanted to take revenge. But I knew if I took revenge, they'd take revenge, and I'd take revenge, and we'd end up burning each others' houses down, and that to me - how do you handle situations where - we went to the cops up there and the cops said it's a dog, the kid was excited, and deal with it. But what happens to justice? So the dialogue you have with yourself can be over big issues like abortion, or personal issues like revenge. A case where you get a father or a mother kidnapping a kid in a divorce case because they've been prevented from having access to the kid, that would make a great issue, so you start with something like that, either a sense of something that interests you, or a subculture you stumble into a world - as a journalist I hung out with street gangs for a while, and someone could do an episode about street gangs. The simplest thing is you write the shows you want to watch, and I think if you do that the people who are successful in TV or books or journalism is you've got to first engage yourself, because if you don't engage yourself you won't engage the audience. Do you find the show is different now than when it started? It's a lot more secure. The biggest change is that on a new show everyone scrutinizes you so much that you have to really struggle sometimes to write the stuff that you believe would make a good episode. And it involves language issues - the medium has loosened up since we did the first episode. Once you're successful, the outsiders don't scrutinize as much any more, but we have to scrutinize ourselves to make sure we're not dull. But now we've got almost all of the interiors are done on the soundstage, which makes it easier. I made a joke, I went back to the show and walked to the 23rd Street Pier and there was a woman walking around with a tray of glasses of water and I turned to Ed Sherin and I said, "God, you know when I was first on the show we couldn't afford water." But there are nice little benefits of being a successful show with its own momentum. Any changes in the writing structure? No. What Dick does and what Rene is doing - and when I was first doing the show Dick was much much more involved on the day to day aspect of the show, and when I came back to the show I worked with Rene more because Dick was developing other series, and what they both were able to do which is what a good producer should do is draw a magic circle around the writers and the actors and the director and protect them and make them feel safe so they can do the best work they're capable of. And any problems or comments are never directed inside that circle. Yes. And they protected you from the flak. And that is a great gift that Rene and Dick have and 'Nuch had when he was running the show. When you came back to the show, you hadn't written for any of these characters. Did they give you character sketches? No, you watch the show and you pick up different rhythms of their speech, and I'm a great believer in listening to the actors. Waterston and Orbach are very smart, not just about their characters, but also smart about the episodes and the stories. So if something doesn't ring right to their ears, they'll say - You'll sit down during the table reading and you'll argue, you discuss, you thrash out story points as well as dialogue. Are there any unique problems you've come across trying to write for the show? No, I'd say it's one of the most wonderful, creative experiences I've had. You're able to write at the best you can, and sometimes you write the best you can and it's not appreciated. On Law & Order you write the best you can and people know. They get what you're doing. Do you have a favorite script? I love the militia one. I love "Reaper's Helper." Were you writing "Reaper's Helper" before or after "The Plague Years"? After the "Plague Years." Those two stand out - the first two years we were writing so fast it was hard to think. "By Hooker By Crook" I remember loving writing when I was writing it, but I can't remember much of it now! When you were researching the soap opera stalker one, did you speak with soap stars? The one very early on where there was a guy who was stalking a soap opera star - "Starstruck."
Yeah, I went down, I talked to somebody. You do research. For me a lot of it is getting the language of the subculture you're writing about. So my experience of researching and writing it is you have continuing characters who sing at a certain tone, and then they move into different worlds where people are singing differently and so scene by scene, each scene is a different kind of duet. And once you find out the jargon of the subculture you've got the scene. Even if the scene is half a page, you should completely fill that world to somebody who lives in that world. So if they have to have one scene where they talk to somebody who's running a garage, someone who runs a garage should look at that scene and go, "Huh, the guy who wrote that must have worked in a garage once."