Friday, May 13, 2016

Real Detective and True Crime TV w/John McFetridge

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 sense? 

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 other people. 

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 month.
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 na├»ve. 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 that!”

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 people.

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.”

Just 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.


Kristopher said...

Thanks for this great interview, Renee and John. I loved Real Detective and it is fascinating to hear some of the background on how this all comes to be.

seana graham said...

Yes, great questions and thoughtful answers.

Kristi said...

Wonderful interview Renee and John!