Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Bonus Follow-Up Report!

So I actually did what I suggested yesterday. I transcribed one of the interrogations from the excellent Bio Channel show, “The Interrogators”, into screenplay format.
What I learned: a ton. First of all, it was great to force myself to transcribe how different people form sentences. Class and status really are embedded in every word. Another thing I noticed was how differently people describe things when they’re lying from when they’re telling the truth. As for the case, you would think that a real case would be much more mundane than anything on scripted TV. Nope, we have a quadruple homicide, with the bodies stashed in the sewers, rooms full of blood, etc. This is an intense case with multiple suspects and twists along the way.
Ways in which this real interrogation was unlike movies or scripted TV:
  1. First and foremost, how the cops dressed. Homicide detectives on TV always wear suits and ties (Homicide, NYPD Blue, Law and Order, The Wire, The Shield, every one I can think of. Is there an exception?). These guys were in jeans and sweatshirts. Frankly, it made them more intimidating.
  2. One mundane difference: the two detectives look too much alike. They only way you can tell them apart is where they’re sitting. We’re used to man/woman, black/white, old/young pairs. For that matter, one of the detectives has the same first name as one of the suspects, another inconvenience that you can avoid in fiction.
  3. There’s no conflict between the cops that we can see. In fact, they play off of each other brilliantly. If this were a movie script, you would be told that they guys sound too scripted and know too much about what each other are thinking. Those are supposed to be no-nos, but maybe that convention has less to do with realism and more to do with narrative expectations.
  4. Everything is less “intense”, in that nobody shouts at each other, but there’s still plenty of conflict. Over and over again on this show, people confess to violent crimes with an “aw shucks” grin on their faces. They’re not psychopaths, they’re just long-time criminals who have been playing the game too long to take it seriously, even when they’re throwing their lives away. It’s not the first choice an actor would make, but it felt very real and chilling.
  5. Unlike Sipowicz or Vic Mackey, these detectives never get angry at the suspects for confessing terrible crimes. Just the opposite. The detectives are jocular and encouraging when the suspects talk about any wrongdoing, because they want more of it. They only seem to lose their temper when the suspects try to be evasive.
  6. The detectives on scripted TV are focused on two things: finding out who did it and getting a confession. These detectives are equally interested in giving the prosecutor what he needs to get a harsh sentence. They’re constantly encouraging the suspects to say that the crime was pre-meditated, or that they were lucid, or that it wasn’t self-defense.
Surprising ways in which this story WAS like a movie or scripted TV:
  1. Good cop / Bad cop? That’s real. And these guys have it down. But this does lead to one humorous moment…
  2. In the interviews at the beginning, nice guy Det. Wells refers to himself as the bad cop in that scenario. When the actual interviews begin, it’s very obvious he’s the good cop, and the statement becomes unintentionally humorous, like something “Dutch” would say on “The Shield”. Don’t get me wrong, the guy is brilliant interrogator, but his partner is obviously the one putting on the screws!
  3. There’s an absolutely remarkable moment when the suspect starts talking about his past to the polygraph operator. These “humanizing moments” are hell to write because they always feel phony. But here it was: absolutely real and believable.

    Wow. The interrogator then moves on to his standard questions, but he knows that he’s made a connection. I’m going to be more forgiving of myself when I have to write little personal moments like this in the future.
  4. After this confession, the two bad-ass older detectives decide to ask the younger polygraph operator, who is not a detective, to press the suspect further, which is a great “TV moment”: the unexpected “trial by fire” for the younger, more clinical guy.
  5. They interview one suspect and decide that he didn’t do it, then get him to point them to a better suspect. They get that guy to confess, only to be shocked when he points out that his accomplice was the seemingly nice guy they already sent home. As Tracy Jordan would say: “Twist!”
  6. Most shockingly, the suspect not only confesses but he tells the whole riveting story of what actually happened right there in the interrogation room. On the original “Law and Order”, the suspects never confessed, which gave the prosecutors something to do in court. On “Law and Order: Criminal Intent”, meanwhile, they don’t even need a prosecutor because the suspects always confess everything right there in the interrogation room. The first show certainly feels more realistic to me and I always roll my eyes while watching “Criminal Intent”, thinking to myself, “they wouldn’t confess like that! They would call a lawyer!” But watching this show for a while has completely changed my opinion. The suspects have presumably been mirandized, but they never mention lawyers and, when cornered, they really do tell all. It’s pretty amazing (and, of course, disturbing).


Jeff Moskowitz said...

I really enjoyed this post -- Keep writing. I read your blog daily now.

Keith Popely said...

Wow. That's a great article, Matt. I learned a lot. Thanks.

LindaM said...

Wow. Great stuff. Thanks.

Duke of Earl said...


I have an idea for a detective story in my head and these tips should come in handy when the main character (a PI who specialises in relationship cases) interacts with the police. (A friend of his is a ranking officer, so he gets away with a little more than a normal PI would, for example getting a bug he planted in a client's house tossed back to him rather than being charged with an illegal activity, which would normally be the case)

Of course since is his own field is not "murder investigation" or the like, the police are the people he calls if he's a witness to such an event.

Like St D. Harry says, "a man has to know his limitations."


Unknown said...

It's disturbing for sure, but cops get people to confess to all kinds of things all the time. And Bobby's tactics are all legal, I think, even the morally squishy ones.

I mean, no crime show would dare write about this case, I don't think, it sounds too outrageous. Lawyers kept thinking it would be turned over on appeal. No, it was not.