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November 8, 2001 Law and Order's René Balcer on inspiration, actors, and confidence



René Balcer

René Balcer

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by James Martin

In TV’s 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.

He’s 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 Sklar’s 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 aren’t 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.

“I’m responsible 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 Intent’s eccentric homicide investigator, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, 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 isn’t 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 they’re 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 can’t ignore it,” Balcer doesn’t mask his disdain for certain thespians he’s 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, it’s the writer’s job to “figure out what’s 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 “I’ll look at that,” no matter how inane the query appears to be (or, as is often the case, actually is).

Valuable Lesson #4: Above all, don’t 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 can’t do s—t without you.”