Yesterday, I was fortunate to have a few minutes to talk one-on-one with René Balcer, Executive Producer of Law & Order. As fans, sometimes we take for granted all the people who work to deliver each episode to viewers, and I jumped at the opportunity to talk with the man who I see as the brains behind the operation. (A note to fans: he is also featured on page 84 of the TV Guide Law & Order Collector’s Issue.)
As “ripped from the headlines” is a phase often associated with the Law & Order franchise, I was curious about what components of a real story are needed for a good ripped from the headlines story. Balcer explained, “What makes a good headline is one that gives us an opportunity to dig deeper and tell us something about human nature such as social issues or an issue of the day that’s of national interest. Just doing a celebrity-type story or crime story just for the sake of doing a crime story is not that interesting.” He added, “The whole "ripped from the headlines" is kind of a misnomer. Usually people say it like it is some kind of slam against the show. In literature there is a long tradition of our greatest novels being ripped from the headlines. Moby Dick was ripped from the headlines from an actual ship that was rammed by a whale off the coast of South America.” This was something that I did not know, so he went on to explain that someone wrote a book about the wreck of the Essex, a whaling ship out of Nantucket, that was rammed by a whale – not a white whale but a whale nonetheless. It made the newspapers of the day and Herman Melville ripped that headline. Balcer added, “There have probably been very few books written that have not been inspired by real events,” citing two other well known books that were based on real life events: “The Executioners Song” by Norman Mailer, and “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote. While “ripped from the headlines” is a tag line that has followed Law & Order, it’s not a technique that is new to writers. But Law & Order doesn’t simply lift the entire story. Balcer explains, “It’s not enough to just do a retelling of the story. Of course, we never follow the case anyway other than just the headlines. We take it and go in different directions because we’re interested in looking at other aspects of human behaviors than just retelling the crime. “
Since I’m not in the TV industry I was curious about how long it takes from the time an episode is conceived to the time it airs. Balcer explained, “It’s like college students - if you have six weeks to do your term paper, you’ll take 6 weeks and do it, if you have three days you’ll do it in three days.” The completion time can depend on how much lead time they have before the scheduled airdate. At the beginning of the season there is a lot of lead time, so writing the episode can take anywhere from three months to two weeks. After that is done, there is 8 business days of pre-production to prepare to shoot the episode, which includes finding locations, and then 8 days of actual shooting. Afterwards, there is the post production editing process which could take anywhere from 10-20 days.
When I briefly touched on the recent news and resulting turmoil about the mass exits at Law & Order Criminal Intent, and I mentioned that the “whole gang” was leaving he commented, “Well, we’re not sure if the whole gang is going to leave so who knows? One thing I have learned in this business is until the check is cashed and you put it in the bank and until the show airs, nothing is written in stone.” I am going to resist reading anything into that comment, only that it is an indication of how fluid things in the television industry can be.
As fans, I am sure that we never think about the enormous expense associated with each episode. Balcer brought up an issue that I know has been a topic of discussion with fans over the years – the desire for more crossover episodes. He explains that even if the actor appears in one or two scenes of an episode, that actor must be paid their full salary, which could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars for just a day or two of work. Crossovers are prohibitively expensive, and that’s why they are rarely done.
When I asked if the economy has affected their ability to keep up the quality of the show, Balcer indicated that they made changes with small things that the audience never sees, and these things can add up to reduce costs. “The one thing they may notice is we don’t have as many exterior night scenes because those are very expensive to shoot,” Balcer adding that lighting these night scenes is a big part of the cost.
Not only was I educated about the use of “ripped from the headlines” in classic literature, now I will be thinking a lot more about all the things that happen behind the scenes to deliver an episode of Law & Order to viewers. The next time you watch an episode, when the opening credits roll, say a big “Thank you” when René Balcer’s name, and the names of other producers, writers, and support people appear on your screen. Without them, your favorite Law & Order characters would never see the light of day.
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