A Cog In The Well-Oiled Machine
the apocrypha interview with Criminal Intent Co-Executive Producer Fred Berner
By Kitteridge
It's not easy to start a brand-new production that also has connections to a show with a 12-year legacy, but this year, Fred Berner (who had never helmed anything in episodic television before) was given that task with Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Berner's background has focused more on Hollywood and independent film (he produced the Oscar-winning Pollock), but he came in a bit of a back door, as a producer for the ill-fated Rene Balcer project Hopewell. But his real strengths have been in working almost exclusively in New York -- Berner's an old hand in the Big Apple, and it shows in the production. For now, Balcer's (who is now back in the L&O family with Criminal Intent as a writer) loss is Law & Order's gain.
What's good about filming in NY?
Well, it always sounds like sales drivel, but it's the truth: I think the best actors in the world live and work here. And I think that the city is always changing, so the backdrop is similarly always changing. And lends itself to great drama. The crews are amongst the most seasoned and energetic in the world, which is a rare combination. Seasoned and enthusiastic is really a pretty great, workable combination. People who still like what they do. And I live here. So that always helps. There are parts of the story -- we tell stories that are on the page, and then there's the part of the story that's a real life composite in terms of what unfolds as a backdrop to the words, which is very rich and a little unpredictable. So you always get something extra for your money.
Had you been doing L&O before?
No, this is my first foray into episodic television. And I love it. It's a little bit different than Law & Order in that the point of view is equally from the perspective of the criminal. So there's a delicious body of crimes and criminal minds that we get to explore within the fabric of the city. It's major case law, which takes it's cue from the major case squad here in NY at One Police Plaza, which investigates crimes that are high-profile and very often upper strata, big time kidnappings, art fraud. Our guys are known as the "chief of detectives' detectives." It's these very high end crimes with fairly sophisticated criminal minds that Vincent D'Onofrio [Det. Robert Goren] and Kate Erbe [Det. Alexandra Eames]? Investigate. Utilizing forensic psychology as much as procedure. That's what differentiates it. So in a way it's also an opportunity to utilize the city as a backdrop not just for its grit, but for its elegance. And that's typically -- New York is typically associated with its edge and its grittiness and while that's still certainly exists and we explore that occasionally, the focus of our criminal pursuit tends to be a little more uptown. Which is fun, and also sells a different part of New York to the rest of the world.
You're in a unique situation: You've got a new show, but it's connected to a 12-year old franchise. What's that like?
The Wolf Organization is a well-oiled machine in NY, so it's actually for me other than the trials and tribulations of coming up with a new story each and every week, which is equally difficult regardless of the longevity of a series, in some ways it gets even harder because you feel things have already been done, so you're trying to do stuff that's original and entertaining. From a production point of view, the fact that the Wolf Organization is a well-oiled machine is a help. People are used to seeing us around town. There's a lean efficiency to the way things are done. I'm happy to say that my predecessors L&O and SVU have left a pristine trail of locations ahead of us, which makes it easy for us, for the most part and within reason, to go back to locations and neighborhoods. So there's a respect for the work that's been done by the Wolf Organization on the streets of new york and also the crews as being treated with respect and fairly and as an extended family that really serves our show well.
Have you encountered any difficulties or negatives about being in New York?
No. The answer is a resounding no.
Does that surprise you?
Not really. The New York versus LA or New York versus Toronto or New York versus any other production center debate goes on through the years and through the special issues of The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety. I'm happy to make movies anywhere, but making movies in New York is where I come from and I'm delighted to still be able to do it here. In fact it seems to enjoy a vitality now that's associated with all of these successful TV series that are shooting here. It feels very much that series television is experiencing a renaissance that draws on all of the same production variables that so many great feature films have.
So where are you shooting the interior sets?
We have a stage space that's in the old New York Post building down on South Street, where we spend three days per epidsode, approximately. We have our major case squadroom, which is essentially a -- it ostensibly exists within One Police Plaza. And we have a couple of small swing sets, for a Riker's island holding cell, or the occasional itinerant apartment, small swing sets we modestly construct in the same building. The only thing we don't have to date and I suspect we'll look at it if we're picked up with a more aggressive eye is the possibility of constructing a courthouse of our own, like our L&O brothers have.
Do you share any L&O sets?
We haven't actually, for no reason except that it seems more convenient to be elsewhere than to juggle the schedule. Ultimately it would be nice to all be consolidated and work out schedules in such a way that it worked for everybody, but at the moment, we're an independent startup. And the courthouse component to us is not that integral to the whole show. Whether it's an arraignment court, or a federal court or a state court is essentially has to do with the specifics of the script. And because we're a little more focused on whether a particular case gets to court, i.e., the commission of the crime and the pursuit of the bad guy and the examination of the criminal mind, and the intelligence of that pursuit with our detectives, our psychologically-oriented detectives, we tend to wind up in court not nearly as often. Our show is the commission of the crime, the investigation, the pursuit and very often whether it's a plea or it may go to trial but seeing it go to trial is not necessarily the focal point of criminal intent the way it is on L&O and SVU.
Was the Post building already a set, or did you convert it?
It was never a stage set, it was some offices of the old New York Post, it's that real life out the window, specifically the Brooklyn Bridge and the Williamsburg bridge. It's right out your window, it's gorgeous. Out our windows is some of the most gorgeous trans life that you could imagine. So we took the offices that were here. There was a series here called Deadline, so we essentially ripped out the newsroom and gutted it and constructed the major case squad room and installed it here. So in a funny way, it's a glorified stage space with very low ceilings that we decided to make work for us by gutting the deadline newsroom and in an ultimate stroke of irony, in the last episode we needed a newspaper newsroom, which we had to go outside to find in another location. Which we did and it was great, but we all laughed at the notion.

whaddya think?