Want to know what a week in the life of the show Law & Order is like? Take a trip with the authors of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion -- this is a chapter (from a visit a year ago) which never made it to the book!
The Beatles classic, "Eight Days a Week", might make a fitting theme song for Law & Order, which shoots each episode in precisely that time frame. The company breaks for weekends but the work is arduous, with 7 a.m. as the standard call for a daily schedule that's likely to demand a minimum of twelve hours.
We visited the show in the fall of 1997 to observe one full cycle. Graciously welcomed to their nightmare -- actually one that moves with dream-like grace, despite the hectic tempo -- we could only marvel at the process. It unfolds here, with the appropriate title cards conveying the changes of location and date much as they do on the show:
CHELSEA PIER 62
WEST 23RD STREET
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 21
It's 8:21 in the morning and Constantine "Gus" Makris, Law & Order's cinematographer, watches stand-ins wait for lights to be adjusted in Lieutenant Anita Van Buren's office at one end of the institutional green police squad room. He is directing this episode, "Burned", while his usual cameraman, Christopher Misiano, handles the director of photography chores and periodically bursts into song. At one point, the ebullient Misiano offers a snatch of "Heartbreak Hotel."
At 8:33, a rehearsal with the actors begins, as Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) walks into the office to confer with his partner, Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach), and Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson). A makeup woman touches up Bratt's face as he perches on a squad room desk.
On the seventh take, Makris calls "Cut!" and asks Orbach if he's fluffed a line. The dialogue concerns someone named Deena or Dee-Dee. Between takes, Orbach improvises a Deena song.
At 8:50, it's all going smoothly. Makris calls out, "And cut! It's okay. Wooo! Nice. Print that."
On Merkerson's desk is an actual Lieutenant Anita Van Buren business card. Just outside, where the detectives sit, police reports, a lottery ticket and a take-out Chinese menu bring a subtle taste of reality. Briscoe's desk has a miniature pool table as a nod to the episodes (including the first Homicide crossover) in which he has picked up a cue.
By 9:15, scripts in hand, Van Buren and Briscoe rehearse another scene, during which they mistakenly pass by Curtis seated at his desk. "Hey, come back! I got news," Bratt calls after them with amusement. Makris is in a doorway, framing the shot with his hands.
While waiting for the scene to begin, Misiano emotes with dialogue from Inherit the Wind and sings a refrain of "The Things We Do For Love."
At 10:06, Makris makes a V with two fingers as a way of evaluating how the shot will look, as Curtis questions a witness and Briscoe stands nearby. In the interlude before the first take, Misiano sings a show tune, "All my friends are married, Every Tom and Dick and Harry...."
Orbach asks, "This is one in the morning, right?" And, reaching for a fatigued look, he musses his own hair. Orbach's locks are then given a professional once-over by hair supervisor Roberto Fernandez.
At 11:30, an annoying fire alarm goes off, one of many such false warnings that take place throughout the day.
It is now 2 p.m.. For a scene in the property clerk's office, Briscoe and Curtis are seated at a table arrayed with plastic bags full of evidence. The glare of lights on the plastic creates some problems. Then, two more false alarms.
At 4:20, a lab technician gives Briscoe and Curtis the scoop on audiotape evidence. Afterwards, with a mischievous smile on his face, Orbach tries to tiptoe away but Makris wants a fourth take. "Okay, pretty good," Makris says on take six. "But I want to do one more." Misiano quips: "Absolutely...adequate."
"Let's not put our foot through a Rembrandt," Orbach jokes.
CHELSEA PIER 62
WEST 23RD STREET
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 22
At 8:23 a.m., prosecutors Jack McCoy and Jamie Ross (Sam Waterston and Carey Lowell) are at a conference table in his office, that of a New York City executive assistant district attorney. The walls are decorated with a degree from the University of Chicago, an archival photo of Wrigley Field, a woodcut that looks medieval.
Guest stars Bob Dishy and Robert Vaughn, playing a typically over-confident defense lawyer named Lawrence Weaver and his client Carl Anderton, come in for rehearsal of the next scene. "Very, very nice," Makris says after take four of a meeting with the prosecutors. Between takes, Waterston and Dishy discuss real-life jury duty.
"I've played Lawrence Weaver four or five times before," Dishy recalls between takes. "I don't think he ever won a case. People stop me on the street and say, `Boy, you've done a lot of Law & Order.'" How does he account for the character's smarmy attitude? "It's all in the wardrobe," Dishy suggests, pointing to his snazzy three-piece pinstripe suit with a red handkerchief in the breast pocket. "He is kind of smug sometimes."
At 10:47, with the camera on Waterston, the take is cut short when Vaughn coughs. Misiano sings a Tom Waits song. A plane rumbles overhead and Makris says, "Oh, darn." But, moments later, the take is successful. "Very, very good. Very, very nice. Nice work, everybody," Makris tells them.
At 5:20, Makris requests, in some sort of improvised accent, that the cameraman, "Shoe me something. Shoe me a pitcha. Shoe me a closer pitcha. Ooo, maybe too close a pitcha."
Makris confesses that he does not yet know how to approach a climactic scene in which the very wealthy, very well-connected, very haughty and very bi-polar Anderton has a nervous breakdown. "I have no idea how to direct that," Makris says. "I call it the conniption fits. I'm sort of treating it like a dinner scene. I just cannot imagine what the guy is going to do. We'll see what he comes up with. I'll create an environment where Vaughn can do what he wants to do."
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 23
At 10:21 a.m., Waterston and Lowell do their best to stay warm during a brisk fall morning of shooting outdoors. It's a pivotal scene in which they try to convince the second Mrs. Lawlor, the daughter of Carl Anderton, that there's mental illness in her family.
Lowell has difficulty getting her mouth around a complicated list of medications. "I kept rehearsing that," she wails, then teases; "I'm so riveted by Sam's performance."
About ten minutes later, Makris says, "Very nice." Waterston sings -- a bit optimistically -- a snatch of the Beatles tune, "Here Comes the Sun."
At 10:49, it's Waterston's turn to mess up. He repeats the offending lines like a mantra, then groans: "It's all going out of my head."
APARTMENT OF STAN KAMINSKI
425 RIVERSIDE DRIVE
At 5:35 p.m., shooting has moved indoors for the "teaser" scene at a tiny apartment where a red herring character lives. Passing by in the lobby, a genuine tenant and her small daughter stop to witness the action. "It's the one show I actually watch," says Marge Kennedy. "I never make other plans."
ST. AGNES BOYS' HIGH SCHOOL
555 WEST END AVENUE
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 24
It is 3:49 p.m. and take six of a scene with Briscoe and Curtis interrogating Ray Lawlor (former son-in-law of Carl Anderton) at his apartment, actually that of this Catholic school's caretaker. The phone rings unexpectedly. "I'll get it," Orbach adlibs and the crew roars.
Airplanes flying above create interference. The camera needs reloading. During a take, Makris mimes using a pencil eraser to wipe away whatever it is he does not like seeing on the monitor. Church bells ring. "They're deep enough in the background," reports Sound Mixer David Platt.
In the school library, Ross meets with the former guidance counselor of Terry Lawlor, grandson of Carl Anderton. A nearby flushing toilet can be heard during a take. "Nobody flushes on our watch," says Second Assistant Director Stuart Feldman.
CHELSEA PIER 62
WEST 23RD STREET
MONDAY, OCTOBER 27
At 9:16 a.m., with Ross following behind, McCoy and Weaver walk with a judge played by Anne Jackson. "We're going to go one more time," Makris tells them, as he does a little jig. While lights are being set up for another scene, Dishy walks by and points out, "I've now got my briefcase."
A trial scene is rehearsed in Law & Order's Chelsea Piers courtroom set. Makris traces the monitor screen with his index finger, while discussing the next scene with Richard Dobbs, a camera operator who is taking over as director of photography. Misiano has temporarily left Law & Order to direct an episode of Brooklyn South in California.
At 3:13, yet another false alarm in the building is followed by take after take disrupted by the sound of an airplane. "And cut. Let's go one more time," Makris tells the performers, followed by: "And cut. Great. Thank you."
Jackson has trouble with some of her trickier lines. "That's alright, Anne. Let's keep rolling," Makris says. A few moments later, he tells her: "Let's try it one more time, Anne." When she gets it right, Waterston proclaims: "You just said a mouthful!"
At 7:16, Makris says, "Oops!" The camera battery has died as he's about to call, "Action!"
680 PARK AVENUE
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 28
It's 1:13 p.m. This classy interior with crystal chandeliers, miniature oil paintings set in the ceiling, marble fireplaces and oak walls will serve as the Anderton apartment. To personalize it for the character, the set decorators have added photographs of Vaughn with Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, a Reagan inaugural picture, a letter from Eleanor Roosevelt. In the script, there is a reference to a certain chair where Bobby Kennedy once sat. Makris mentions that he worked here as camera operator for Reversal of Fortune and a Law & Order episode called "Snatched" in Season Four.
Vaughn reveals that the Law & Order folks were hoping he could dig out an actual photo of himself taken with Bobby Kennedy but many of his possessions are in boxes because of renovation at his Connecticut home. "Ed Sherin told me he woke up in the middle of the night and said, `Perfect!' after thinking about casting me for this part," explains Vaughn, known for portraying Napoleon Solo on the 1960s NBC spy spoof, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. "This character is an exceedingly wealthy, right-wing fellow who wears three-piece suits and is drunk with power. He's not at all like me. I'm kind of a laid-back, country person."
His reference point for the upcoming scene of a manic depressive who falls apart is "when I played Captain Queeg in a college production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. There was a similar mental breakdown in front of other people."
Vaughn is a fan of Law & Order, which he considers to be "television's top quality show," because of its "very involved plots and writing that jumps off the page and trips off your tongue, which doesn't happen often." He told his agent he'd love to appear in the drama. "Lo and behold, ten days later they called because I got into Ed Sherin's dream."
The dreamer explains that, in the middle of the night, he said, "`Oh, my! I know who should do this: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'"
Sherin's nocturnal vision derives from the fact that "Vaughn has always had this kind of hauteur, a large sense of himself and of pride. He also can play a nut very well because he's so contained."
At 4:37, a take is interrupted when a fire engine races down Park Avenue, its sirens piercing the late afternoon. "Does everybody have to know it's a fire?" Makris asks rhetorically.
Steve Morgan visits the set. He is Dick Wolf's neighbor and the man whose voice introduces every episode with a brief description of the criminal justice system. He recites it live in a command performance for the cast and crew, who enthusiastically applaud.
Between 6:44 and 6:56, Vaughn and Steven Hill undergo several rehearsals as Anderton and District Attorney Adam Schiff, old friends now torn apart by the case. "Wonderful," Makris says to Hill after the scene is successfully completed. "Get outa here!" After another angle for the same scene is shot, he tells them: "Alright, now we're hitting the ball."
At 8:19, the end of yet another long day, Makris proclaims: "Very, very nice. Terrific. Any problems?" There are none. "Print that please."
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 29
It's 12:30 p.m. This is the final day of shooting for Sam Huntington, the sixteen-year-old actor from New Hampshire appearing as the troubled Terry Lawlor. His first movie role was as Tim Allen's son in Jungle to Jungle. "He looks so much better in a suit than a loincloth," suggests Huntington's mother, Christine.
When not in front of the camera for his first episodic television role, the boy studies the Italian renaissance with his tutor. "My character is a little bit schizoid but he can also act completely normal," he says. "I like parts like this I can really sink my teeth into."
"Last looks," commands Stuart Feldman at 1:15 p.m., meaning a final chance to size up the shot. "Let's standby to lock it up with gusto." Five minutes later -- before a scene with Ross, McCoy, Terry Lawlor, Weaver, the Judge and Dr. Emil Skoda (J.K. Simmons, the new psychiatrist on the show) -- Feldman announces: "We're rolling!"
At 1:27, he says, "If the gate's good, we're going to rehearse scene 29," referring to the status of the camera. "Gates are clean," someone calls out.
From 4:48 to 5 p.m., there are more takes, finishing with Makris' trademark, "Very, very nice." He thanks everyone and they clap. "I just want to tell you that you did a great job," he says to Huntington.
At 6:02, the cast and crew are in another office, intended as that of the Bureau of Fire Investigation. "Okie-dokers. We're gonna do a little dollying," Makris says, circling behind the cops, his hands framing the planned sequence.
CHELSEA PIERS 62
WEST 23RD STREET
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 30
At 8:10 a.m., Makris has assembled his "dinner party." The second Mrs. Lawlor (Terry's mother) and Schiff are seated. Waterston stands nearby, as Ross comes in the room with Anderton and Weaver. "It's not necessarily cinematic," the director says, explaining what he has decided to do with the breakdown. "I want it as simple as you can get because one person dominates the scene. It's not to make him play powerful but to see how the other people perceive him."
It's 10:30 am. About twenty people attend a production meeting for the next episode, "Ritual." This is where all the nitty-gritty details must be worked out. Is the "body" that turns up in the teaser diminutive enough to fit in a very narrow space? "He'll fit," second assistant director Mary Rae Thewlis reassures Brian Mertes, who will be directing. "Tag the scene on someone pulling him out," he suggests. "That might be kind of gruesome and nice."
For an airport sequence, Thewlis says, "there will be twenty-five or thirty people processing through customs, so hopefully they'll have some colorful garb."
"With chickens?" someone asks, prompting laughter.
"Why don't we have the extras bring their own luggage? It's much cheaper that way," says the economy-minded Gould, before musing about whether or not a key suspect should have a beard.
"He's coming all the way from London and bringing two chickens," chimes in first assistant director Steve Wertimer.
When an Egyptian family sits down to breakfast in New York, Mertes wants them to eat an American meal: "Lucky Charms, sausages, cereal."
Back on the set at 3:34 p.m., Makris entreats Lowell, Waterston and Hill with, "Let's go one more time for the fun of it." An airplane intervenes. A second take is similarly interrupted. "The same plane -- can you believe it?" Makris asks, signalling a thumbs down to Platt, the sound mixer. Then, a door slams at the wrong moment and a plane is heard yet again. "Right on time, right on time," Makris mutters.
At 4:30, Makris is on his knees framing during rehearsal for a scene in which Ross and McCoy advise Schiff about Anderton's erratic behavior. The evening is winding down at 7:10. "The thing that makes it human is the people with whom you're sharing the experience," says camera operator Dave Tuttman of the inhuman hours required to shoot Law & Order. "We count on each other a lot. We're a perpetual motion machine."
At 7:40, the stand-ins are rehearsing. "Don't milk it, Ed," Makris tells one of them who lingers during a scene that requires him to walk out of frame. "Just move. There won't be time for you because we have to have that, `Awooo.'" He's referring, of course, to the howl at the end of each episode.
When the actors come back to do the final scene of the eight-day schedule for "Burned," Makris points at an image on the monitor, then snaps his fingers. "There we go, there we go. Let's do one more." At 7:58, Makris mimes playing a violin, perhaps indicating that someone is acting a bit maudlin. "Fine! Thank you," he says with a smile at 8:05.
"Gate's good. That's a wrap. Eee-haw!," Feldman says, as cast and crew exchange kisses and hugs. "Time of death -- 8:07."