Sunday, February 3, 2008

Salute to TV writers: ‘NYPD Blue’

You know I had to slip one of my own scenes in here, right?

I wrote ten “NYPD Blue” scripts between 1995 and 1997. One of my favorites was a Season 3 episode titled “Head Case,” which begins with detectives Simone and Sipowicz at a gruesome crime scene: A middle-aged white man has been murdered in his apartment, with his decapitated head left in his lap.

The facts of the crime were drawn from a real-life case; Bill Clark told me about it. He even showed me the videotaped interrogation of the mentally ill murderer.

The interrogation scene I wrote for “Head Case” is one that I recall most fondly... for a peculiar reason. It’s seven pages long. “NYPD Blue” interrogation scenes usually topped out at three pages.

Earlier that season, boss David Milch had written a very long interrogation scene, and it worked like gangbusters. I wanted to see if I could stretch out like that.

I was also pleased to make use of some newspaper reporting from 1986. While covering Hands Across America for the Washington Times, I interviewed a homeless man who tried to convince me that he was God, and that he had unlocked the secrets of “omnipotent pyrotechnics.”

I never forgot this guy, especially the “omnipotent pyrotechnics” stuff. I had that interview on audiotape, and I drew from it.

The role of the psychotic killer (“Rodney Wellstone”) was difficult to cast. We auditioned a whole lot of young black actors, including Terrence Howard. I had written it with Roger Guenveur Smith in mind. But none of the L.A. actors rocked the audition... not even Mr. Smith.

You see, with a scene that damn long, it was crucial to find an actor who could drive it. Mount that dialogue and ride it to the finish line. Otherwise, the scene seemed endless; it didn’t work at all.

Our New York casting director found the right guy: Monti Sharp.

I’m streaming audio of that 7-minute scene. Click here to hear it. (Original air date: February 27, 1996.)

David Milch’s palmprints are all over the finished scene. (He decided to have the Assistant District Attorney videotape the interrogation. And he crazied up Rodney Wellstone a bit by having him vow “four years and seven months” of silence.) So I won’t pretend every word is mine.

But I am quite proud of lines like “I give you consciousness of self...”

By the way, since it’s all about me today, I’ll let you know: I co-wrote tonight’s episode of “The Wire” with David Simon. (I know, right? Super Bowl night. Maybe y’all can catch it on a rerun.) Don’t forget to check in a few days for DeAngelo Starnes’s episode analysis.


Beth said...

That's so cool you co-wrote on The Wire. That show is simply amazing. I'm watching season 4 on dvd now and am sad to have to wait for season 5 to be on dvd, but I'm not up to paying for HBO anymore. I'd put The Wire in my top five tv shows of all time, along with Buffy and Deadwood.

Anyway, just a comment to say howdy, I'm reading along these days.

Undercover Black Man said...

Thanks for commenting, Beth. Welcome to my spot.

Anonymous said...

That's one of my favorite "NYPD Blue" episodes, both for that interrogation scene and the late, great Anne Haney's terrific performance as Mrs. Reese. Even though I've watched this episode countless times, I always tear up during the scene at the end of the episode when she finally realizes that her son is dead.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Thank you, zoz. I did not know Anne Haney had passed. She gave a fantastic performance.

Mon-sewer Paul Regret said...

Now that we can finally talk about your Season 5 Wire episode, there's something I've been wondering for awhile, and your salute to NYPD Blue just makes me want to ask even more. You mentioned Milch's palmprints on the finished scene. Those of us in the viewing audience hear stories about Milch, and I'd be very interested in knowing more about the process where a writer comes to a show that is already established, with I'm assuming a book that gives you the basic events that will happen in your episode. How much leeway do you have in writing under those circumstances? I don't mean to single out Milch ... I figure it happens on every show with a strong creator/show runner, whether it's Milch or Simon or Whedon or Ilene Chaiken. But nonetheless, there are clearly better and worse episodes, and eventually you realize the best ones have the same names listed as writers. So that I know The Wire will be great every week, but I also know when you write the episode, it will be especially good.

Longwinded, I apologize. But I really have been wondering about this for some time, the writing process for series television.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, UBM. :)

Anonymous said...

Long time reader, first time commentor.

Just had to give you props on your work on "The Wire." Not only was it a very funny and horribly tense episode, but it also included the longest Clay Davis "Sheeeeeeeeiiiit" yet. Thank you.

wanda loves... said...

You love yourself? Don't you David? hehe

Anonymous said...

So David, am I correct in assuming that it's not a coincidence that the two most stretched out "Sheeeeeeeeitttts" of the series have come from episodes that you wrote?

DeAngelo Starnes said...

I forgot to mention the five-minute "Sheeiiitt" in my piece. lol!

DeAngelo Starnes said...

Just getting to the audio. Good stuff, Dave. That actor who played Rodney drove the scene as you wished.

Undercover Black Man said...

Mon-sewer Paul Regret, thanks for your comment. Sorry it's taken me a while to reply, but I'm happy to shed a little light on the TV writing process.

Different shows are different. Some are totally driven by the boss at the top (Milch and David E. Kelley, for instance)... others, the entire writing staff has more of a hand in collectively developing all the stories ("ER," for instance).

But on all series, the process begins by outlining the episode... "beating out" the stories. So for a one-hour ep., you and the boss (or you and staff) will talk through the roughly 25 story beats that will constitute the episode.

Good way to work, because you don't begin on the actual script until you know for sure everything that's supposed to happen.

You turn in a first draft, then the boss gives you notes and you write a second draft. Then the boss does his rewrite.

Theoretically, there's some room for individual expression. But ultimately the boss -- the showrunner -- has the prerogative to rewrite. And that's what happens.

In the case of "The Wire," I can take no credit no credit for my individual eps. because Simon rewrote 'em both (including adding both of Clay Davis' "sheeeeits"). Simon hears that show very precisely, so the best I can hope is to get it as close as possible to how he hears it.

Unknown said...

I got this scene stuck in my head, and looked it up, hoping somebody else remembered it. Here I found the man who wrote it. Well done, sir. Well done. Much obliged for the streaming audio, it was great to hear that actor's delivery again!

Dave Morris said...

That scene is a fabulous piece of writing and a sensational performance. Is the whole show up to this standard? I've never seen it but I'm ready to book all the DVDs if you can recommend a good place to start. Wait - at the beginning, right? :-)

Undercover Black Man said...

Thanks for the comments, rev. dr. and Dave.

As for your question, Dave... I might be biased, but I think "NYPD Blue" really hit its stride with Seasons 3 and 4.