by James Martin
In TVs criminal justice system, people are entertained by two groups:
the actors who play police officers, and the writers who feed them dialogue.
These are their stories.
Actually, this is just a story about writers. Specifically, René
Balcer, a Concordia grad (BA 78 Comm Studies) who recently returned to
guest lecture about the life of a television writer.
Balcer traded Montreal for Los Angeles shortly after graduation. After
10 years writing for the movies (he made a good living, despite not having
a single script produced), he moved to the small screen, spending another
decade working on the popular NBC crime drama Law and Order.
Hes now the co-creator and executive producer of the new spin-off,
Law and Order: Criminal Intent, seen Sunday evenings on NBC and CTV.
With salty language and dry humour, Balcer walked the students in Alissa
Sklars Advanced Scriptwriting for Film course through the writing
process behind Criminal Intent, offering several valuable lessons
along the way. The first such insight was perhaps the most surprising.
Valuable Lesson #1: Writers arent at the bottom of the TV food chain.
Hollywood is notorious for its fifth-banana treatment of creative minds,
but writers are crucial to TV especially if they can rise to the
rank of executive producer.
for 99 per cent of the creative decisions, he said. He oversees
everything from story ideas to script revisions to casting. He finds initial
story ideas from pretty much anywhere, including news headlines,
friends and family.
(Example: Criminal Intents eccentric homicide investigator,
played by Vincent DOnofrio, is partially based on a friend, the
well-known forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz.)
It can take anywhere from two weeks to three months to draft a single
script, depending on his deadline. (Rule of thumb: the later it is in
the season, the less time to write.)
Valuable Lesson #2: A script isnt finished just because the writer
thinks it is. At that point we start getting notes, Balcer
said, wincing. Everybody has an opinion too long, too
short, too many night scenes, too expensive to shoot. Which leads us to...
Valuable Lesson #3: Many actors think theyre writers. This
is how an actor reads a script: Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, my
line, bullshit, bullshit . . .
Even though he concedes that if an actor has a problem with the
script, you cant ignore it, Balcer doesnt mask his disdain
for certain thespians hes worked with he even admitted to
naming a Criminal Intent character after a particular Law and
Order actress. (The network was nervous about the cheap shot, and
made Balcer change it before the pilot was filmed.)
Nevertheless, its the writers job to figure out whats
bugging the actor, then revise accordingly. The script then goes
through additional read-throughs, which leads to more questions and more
notes. Balcer says his standard answer is Ill look at that,
no matter how inane the query appears to be (or, as is often the case,
Valuable Lesson #4: Above all, dont get defensive.
You need to have a very thick skin, Balcer concluded, before
giving one final Valuable Lesson to the aspiring writers: Be confident
in the knowledge that they cant do st without you.