I sat down with John McFetridge - novelist, screenwriter, and one of the writers behind Investigation Discovery's Real Detective to talk about true crime TV and the ways it's evolving and changing - and the way it has helped him evolve and change, too. He started by kindly explaining to me how TV writing works, as that's a topic that's always been interesting to me (writing with other people?!) and how Real Detective was a different experience - since they were working off police reports and interviews with, well... real detectives, and not in a traditional writer's room.
At the beginning of
these shows, before they start, it says “Hey, some of this stuff has been
changed.” When you’re writing these is there a certain amount of pressure to
change certain details if they don’t necessarily fit a clean narrative or do
you have a little bit more leeway to put the facts out and just make them make
The writer is part of the crew. So a writer
gets hired the way a grip gets hired and you’re told “we're gonna lay some
dollies on a track right here, make it level” and the writer is told “we’re
gonna make the scene between these two people – write it.” So you’re clearly
the first of many people who are going to go through this material by the time
it gets onto TV. You know going in, I don’t really have a lot of say in how
this is going to work out in the end. But you do at least get to have your say.
This is how I think it should go, this is how I think it should be. The claim
is always that we want to get as true to the spirit of it.
For example, in one of the episodes that I wrote one of the
things that was just left out was that – the crime happened in Van Nuys, CA in
the early 90s and it was at a time when there was a lot of murders. One of the
things that kept coming up in the interview with the detective, and it even
came up in some of the reports, was that these detectives would get three or
four murders a week – usually on the weekends – and then they’d clear them in
about a week, and usually either have enough evidence to hand it over to the
lawyers and have a charge or they hit a
roadblock where they probably weren’t going to get any further. The one that
got pulled out was one where a detective felt that they weren’t going to get
anymore and they probably weren’t going to get any further, but he just didn’t
want to let it go because the victim was a nineteen or twenty-year old woman
who had been homeless and a drug addict, and she was working as a prostitute,
and he really just thought that for the end part of her life – nobody cared.
And he didn’t want it to go out like that. When it came time to write the
episode, one of the notes was: don’t mention prostitution. And then one of the
notes was: Don’t mention the drug addiction.
And I said “well that’s kind of a big part of the story,”
but in the heat of the moment you get talked into the idea that it’s
really not the most characteristic thing about her. There’s was an awful lot more to her life then the way it
ended and the last couple years of it. I thought, well that’s true. Because at
first I though, “No, no, you gotta put that in because it’s important!” But the
network didn’t want that in. I kind of came around to it, to be honest with
you. I kind of came around to the idea that it’s maybe not the aspect of her
life that we should dwell on so much.
I agree that you
don’t want to focus on maybe the worst parts of a victim’s life but it’s
interesting that it would be “don’t mention it at all.” Do you think that comes
from a certain amount of – they know who the audience is, they know that the
victims have to be sympathetic and certain elements will take away from that
sympathy for the casual viewer?
Probably. One of the other things though, is the time
constraint. The episodes are pretty short. It’s not a lot of time to get in
there. When you start to raise things like that, and you don’t have enough time
to really deal with them, they can kind of take over.
The network itself is pretty conscious of who it’s audience
is, and they definitely pick, of all the true stories out there to dramatize,
they pick ones that they really feel their audience will be interested in. I
have to say, they know more about that than I do.
A follow on to that:
When you’re sitting down to write this story – the people are real, the
names for the most part are real – do you feel any responsibility or weight
when you’re doing that, knowing that the majority of people who see this
episode are people who never knew the victim, never knew the killer, never knew
these people in real life – and what you’re putting out there is going to be
everything they get.
Yes. I certainly do. I think that it is a responsibility. Of course, I
couldn’t help it, after the episode aired I went online to see what people were
saying about it. A lot of the comments I saw on the webpage about the show – I
thought “gee I’d like to jump in there and explain to them more of the
backstory that they didn’t get.” They are just using the information that was
in the show as the basis to have this big conversation. A lot of the
conversation would be different if they saw more of what was going on.
One of the things I found interesting about Real Detective
was the interviews with the detectives. Most of them were retired so they were
able to talk about the cases fairly openly. And the cases were all closed and
from a while ago, usually. But they also felt a real responsibity to the
victims, to the families, to the people who were actually involved. It was just
nice to have just one more layer of care on it.
Recently the numbers
came out that Investigation Discovery, specifically, the vast majority of
viewers are women, and people were really surprised by that. A lot of these stories revolve around
women, whether they’re the victims or they’re the women who discover their
husbands are horrible criminals. Women play a central role in all these
stories. But when you watch, say Law & Order, the woman is
there for the first five minutes and then she only exists in commentary from
From the ones that I looked at for Real Detective – because
I went through a whole bunch of possible ones – one of the things that came up,
and it wasn’t a directive from the network – one of the things that came up was
that these crimes are mostly family dramas. They’re people who know each other
and they’re people who are often intimate with one another. So on these crime
shows one of the things is the motives – you know they couldn’t do twenty four
episodes of Law & Order where every single motive was infidelity. Just
because the writers’ room – someone’s gotta be embezzling or somebody’s gotta
be doing all this other stuff. In reality, most of these kinds of murders are
people who know one another quite well.
You have to really
feel strongly about somebody to want to see them dead.
(Laughs) Yeah. A lot of times it is an accident though! But
certainly to plan it, and to think about it. To think about it more than one day. But what I mean is, in these
stories, they aren’t stories about hit men or like a lot of what we see in the
current noir/crime trends are – I mean, the network didn’t come out and say it
but they didn’t really want gang stories, and they didn’t really want drug
deals gone bad, they didn’t want that kind of stuff.
But essentially, the way they really got weeded out, what they wanted was the
case that was the most meaningful for the detective that worked it. The show is
called Real Detective, so when we’re interviewing detectives – they weren’t
that interested in the gang ones either. They weren’t that interested in the,
you know, a couple of drug dealers have a big fight and one of them kills the
other one. That didn’t change their lives. But one that disrupted a family. One
that was really involved in the intimate family moments. That was the one, for
most of the detectives we saw on the show, those were the cases that were the
most significant for them.
For a homicide
detective, it’s gotta be hard to care about the seventh bad drug deal of the
Yeah, and don’t get me wrong, the detective we were talking
to in Van Nuys, who worked a lot of those, he was affected by them. He had a
fairly lengthy lecture on the waste of human life that goes on because of
bigger factors and all that kind of stuff. He did see it repeated many, many
times, and that did seem to have an effect as well. But again, even in those
cases, if he wanted to, he could have picked almost any one of those other
murders, and if we were willing to lay the backstory down, and we were willing
to do the research into the family, they’re all that kind of tragedy. As bad as
whatever else is going on. It’s somebody, the family is still devastated.
One of the things
that came up interviewing James Queally was how the families are effected and
how that’s what stuck with him through the years. While what you’re saying
makes perfect sense – you want the stories with the familial drama – there is a
story behind every life that’s lost. Somebody cared about that person.
Right. The network definitely wanted to hit that “that could
happen to me” and most of their viewers are not involved in a lot of drug
deals. But anybody could date someone who is not what they think they are.
I think it does play
into a certain fear that a lot of women are raised with. That if you get in the
car with the wrong person, or you fall in love with the wrong person, or you’re
not on your guard – that you could end up dead. Or you could end up an
accomplice or living with somebody you don’t really know who they are. That’s
something I don’t think a lot of men understand until it’s laid out for them.
Do you feel like you have a better understanding for that kind of cloud that
hangs over the experience of women having looked at all these stories?
Over the time that I’ve been writing I’d say that has
happened, yes. And it’s ongoing. In some ways it feels like we’ve only recently
come to this point where we should have been here a long time ago. Now that it
is in the conversation. I was just talking to somebody – I don’t know if you
know The Tragically Hip, they’re a pretty big Canadian band, they have a song
called “Thirty-Eight Years Old” and it takes place in 1973 and it goes back 18
years before that. It’s about a rape and of course it’s one that never got
reported. I was thinking about it the other day and I made a joke, “Oh I’d like
to write a a screenplay based on that song” and the reason I thought of it is
because that story is still relevant. The line in the song is “My sister got
raped so a man got killed.” But the story is still the same that – she was the
victim but that got lost in the fifties. But also in the seventies and also
today! So it is, you’re right, going through all this stuff makes you more
aware, but still, it feels to me like we’re just at the very beginning of that.
Well, I agree. I
mean, it’s funny to me because this is a topic that I’m very interested in and
very passionate about. Intellectually, I think if you ask somebody, “If a
woman gets raped is that bad?” they’re going to say “Yeah, that’s terrible.”
But there’s that line that you have to cross with empathy and understanding of
how these things happen and what the circumstances are and why a woman might
choose not to report it. I think you’re right, we’re just starting to get to
the line and start crossing it.
It still seems like the issue around reporting and the issue
around the most very basic right and wrong is that it couldn’t go that way. It
couldn’t get reported the way a burglary got reported. It couldn’t get reported
the way any other crime got reported. It’s different.
We just had this really
huge media event in Canada where there was a sexual assault trial for a guy who
was really famous and one of the things that came up in trial was the actions
of the women before and after the assaults. I thought, twice in my life I’ve
been mugged and nobody ever said to me “yeah before you were mugged what were
you like?” It just never came up. I got out of the subway, I was walking to my
house, a guy jumped out, hit me over the head with a club and took my money.
When I reported it no one said “well what were you doing to make him take your
money?” It just never came up! My apartment got broken into and no one ever
said to me “Yeah but two weeks ago you left the door unlocked.”
...And you know one of the things I didn’t realize,
I gotta admit, I thought I was just naïve. I had no idea how many men live in
fear of the false accusation. I just didn’t think it would ever come up.
I don’t think we have
enough time to get into the layers of that particular one. I’d say 95% of the
men I know have no fear whatsoever of being falsely accused of rape, and I
think that’s probably due in large part to the fact that they don’t do things
that could be “misinterpreted” as rape. I don’t think the line is really so
fine. I worry about men who think the line is so fine that they have to worry
all the time that some girl is going to accuse them of rape.
I do too. I’m glad to hear, 95 is a pretty good percentage
there. That’s good to hear.
Well I’m really picky
about the people I associate with, I guess.
So, a lot of what
I’ve been doing is really critical of the true crime genre, but it’s
interesting, and enlightening to actually have this conversation with you and
think, “Well of course this is why women watch these shows” and “this is what
the people working on these shows maybe learn.”
And the other thing to keep in mind, and I wonder about this
myself, is the stories that become the most famous… when we were going through
the possible crimes, one of the things that came up was that, something unusual
often times in itself makes it interesting. So what you end up with are a bunch
of the stuff that gets dramatized or gets reported is atypical. But I think in
some ways, and I don’t watch an awful lot of true crime, but I am interested in
the way that they portray the characters. I do think because the network is
looking for the “it could happen to me” I think we’re getting a little bit less
atypical ones and a little more…
You know that whole, “dog bites man - that’s not a story. But man bites dog –
that’s something!” So for quite awhile we had true crime that was all man bites
dog. They were after ones that looked out of the ordinary. Now I think there is
a trend toward ones that are a little more in the ordinary. In a way that can be good because it can get
us a little deeper into things, if the superficial of it isn’t “Oh wow look at
I see what you’re
saying. On Investigation Discovery, a lot of these shows are about ordinary
families where something extraordinary happens. But when you’re watching the news, they’re still going for the super
sensational, crazy, “Oh it comes out that they were into weird sex stuff! It
comes out that he had a mistress!” They’re still really leaning on that
extraordinary crime, which is interesting because you would think that the entertainment
channels would be more focused on the sensational and the news channels would
be more focused on the stuff that actually happens every day and affects
Yeah. I did think about this a little when I read the interview that you did with the crime reporter
last week. One of the things I realized was, for the reporting, it’s really
immediate, and it’s ongoing, and it’s as the information comes out. I really
got that when he was saying you get the call and you race down and you get
there at the same time as the police and there’s a dead body there and you’re
writing about it and that goes out to the news. And I thought, that’s really
interesting – that speed. Because when we’re looking at these stories – one
took place in 1991 or 92, so there’s been a long time to reflect on that.
That’s one of the things about it, it’s just the time difference. The reporter
is really after the accuracy of facts and realty the immediacy. They’ve gotta,
they’re getting it out fast. And it’s good because what gets out first is often
what stays around. I’m glad they’re interested in getting it accurate and
getting it out quickly.
Then the line between entertainment and news that
really crosses on this, I mean everybody is pretty much accepting the idea that
“based on a true story” is based and
reality TV’s not really real. But it
is a whole separate genre on it’s own where it’s not – it’s not a grey area –
but we understand that it’s not raw footage. It’s been edited and it’s been put
together. So there is an entertainment aspect of it.
And that was one of the
things about working on the show that was a bit of a conflict – a bit of a push
and pull between the writer and the producers was the network is still a TV
network. So it still has the show divided into acts and it still has breaks in
the 48 minutes. So the most common note that I discovered you get in straight
ahead fictional TV and in Real Detective was “stronger act out.”
before we go to commercial, we want there to be some bump. So this kind of
naturally turns the show into a bit of a whodunit because just before we go to
commercial, theres a new piece of information. In a way that kind of skews the
story telling. In that case it’s clearly entertainment because now we’re trying
to do that cliffhanger, suspenseful moment that is more in the entertainment
world than in the documentary world. So, everything we worked on had four
pieces of new information that came to make for an act-out. So there was a lot
of discussion about what was suspenseful and what will keep people watching… It
was interesting to me to see that as more of these shows get produced, there’s
more variants on that kind of thing. It used to always be “We find out there’s
a mistress! Dun-DUN” But now it can be, it’s getting a little bit more subtle.
It’s a little bit more character than a piece of evidence. So there’s potential
for this kind of story telling, but it’s still a little bit – it’s not really
new, it’s been going for awhile – but it’s still getting worked out.
Read John's fiction HERE and look out for Real Detective on Investigation Discovery.