'Law & Order' Writer Turns Headlines Into TV

Some of Law & Order's most memorable plot lines are literally "ripped from the headlines." Executive producer Rene Balcer explains how he divides "headline" episodes between Law & Order and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and how soon is too soon to recreate a real-life murder.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

If you tuned into the season premiere of "Law & Order" last Friday, you probably thought the case and a couple of the episode's characters looked a little familiar.

The episode began with a murder that was reminiscent of a shooting of an alleged marijuana dealer at Harvard in May and then quickly morphed into an examination into torture, with the defendant apparently modeled on John Yoo, the lawyer who wrote the Bush administration's legal defense of enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding.

Well, we shouldn't be surprised. The program proudly proclaims its stories are ripped from the headlines. Well, if you want to know how "Law & Order"'s writers turn the news into crime drama, if you're wondering how soon is too soon, give us a call, 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Rene Balcer, the Emmy Award-winning writer, executive producer and head writer of "Law & Order" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," is with us from our bureau in New York.

Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. RENE BALCER (Television Writer): Nice to be back, Neal.

CONAN: And I've said ever since we started to talk to you, I keep reading about or hearing about these cases. And I said, you know, I wonder how long it's going to be before that's on "Law & Order."

Mr. BALCER: Well, this past weekend actually were three stories that basically comprised our first three episodes. Of course the torture memos and the investigation by the attorney general, the arrest of - and breaking up of several terrorist plots. That's going to be an episode coming up, not this week, but next week through turning on an informant.

And you know, the unfortunate Yale case, which kind of reflected something that we had already shot earlier this summer.

CONAN: You anticipated that one?

Mr. BALCER: Well, that one is really tragic. I mean, we didn't really anticipate necessarily that murder, but certainly a victim that seemed to have some parallels with Annie Le in Yale.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BALCER: Yet, that story is one that - I mean, there's some interesting aspects of it in terms of the town versus gown aspect of the lab technician on one side and then this graduate student. But it's way, way too soon if ever it will be, you know, timely to do an episode about that. I think it's - you know, it's a story that I find just unbelievably tragic.

CONAN: It is a tragic story. And we still don't know all the - and may never know…

Mr. BALCER: Yeah.

CONAN: …indeed what happened there. And in fact some of these cases you do never know exactly why somebody did something. And your story may turn on some of the facts of the case - for example, that town versus gown aspect of it, but the case itself might be quite different. How do you decide? Are there meetings where writers get together and producers?

Mr. BALCER: Well, on my show there is meetings I have with myself and then there's meetings that I have with - it's rather an informal process and it's basically whoever dibs it first. And you know, we look sort of beyond the headline, we try and find something that's interesting about the case. Does it bring to life certain issues, social issues, political issues, even issues concerning human nature, human psychology? And you know, for example, we have an episode coming up two weeks from now about the arrest of terrorist plotters.

And the issue there was the police's reliance on an informant and - in fact, in the case - the real case that they broke up this past weekend, there's an imam who was a past informant and they talked to him and suddenly he turned around and sort of alerted one of the conspirators that the police were onto him. So suddenly this informant kind of turned into…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: A conspirator.

Mr. BALCER: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah, interesting. It's interesting also, you used the word dibs - and I'm going to pull back the curtain a little here. At NPR, all the different programs, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, MORNING EDITION, TALK OF THE NATION, the various weekend programs, well, we're all in competition for certain guests, certain books or certain movies, and there is something called the dibs list.

Mr. BALCER: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: And this is a sort of sixth-grade way that we all work out which show gets which guest. You guys have three shows in the "Law & Order" franchise. Is there a dibs list that - oh, no, no, that one goes to "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" or that one goes to the mothership?

Mr. BALCER: Well, for example, "Law & Order: SVU" - I always mispronounce. I always (unintelligible)…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALCER: …the letters SUV. So "SVU," their franchise is rather narrow. So any story that involves children, sexual crimes tends to go to them. And you know, we stay away. The difference between "Criminal Intent" and the mothership, the "Criminal Intent" ones are stories that tend to rely on the psychology of the offender. So if there's an interesting psychology there, then, okay, that seems like a good "Criminal Intent." You know, "Law & Order," sometimes it'll be stories that rely on the psychology of the offender. Most often, whether there's a social issue, there's a good legal issue for the - we call the back half, you know, quite often it's the tail wagging the dog, even if the crime itself is not the most the interesting crime ever committed. But it gives rise to interesting legal issues, then, you know, we'll do it.

CONAN: Rene Balcer of "Law & Order" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." 800-989-8255; email is talk@npr.org.

Nonnie(ph) is on the line from New Bern in North Carolina.

NONNIE (Caller): Hi. I just had a quick question. I happened to come across a woman on a message board once whose brother was a victim whose story had inspired an episode. And she was horrified when she saw it on TV. And I was wondering if you - do you normally notify anyone if you're going to be doing a storyline on them or on their family? Or is that just something that…

Mr. BALCER: No. And - you know, of course it pains me to hear that, and it's not the first time I've heard it. And you know, the - I think anyone who writes about crime knows that somewhere out there there's a relative of the victim or the crime that they are feeling or reliving the pain of the crime whenever the subject even comes up. So whether it's in a news story that revisits the crime or a fictionalized version on television or a book, it's obviously very painful for that family.

And you know, we have a job to do. And you know, I'm not saying we're curing cancer here, but you know, we - hopefully we can illuminate certain aspects of the crime through the show, maybe inspire some people to - if the crime comes out of some social inequality or some government policy that's wrongheaded, that maybe it'll inspire people to correct it. But you know, there's not a lot of consolation, you know, that I can offer to those people other than we are pointing the finger at the guilty party. So…

NONNIE: Right.

Mr. BALCER: And that, you know, that victim is not forgotten.

CONAN: Okay, Nonnie, thanks very much for the call.

NONNIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Going back to that last point, that episode last Friday about the torture memos…

Mr. BALCER: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: …that seemed to the New York prosecutor, Jack, took a definite political stand in that. Do you have to take that into account? There's going to be people responding negatively to that, I would assume.

Mr. BALCER: Well, the tradition of the show is that we offer balanced viewpoints. And you know, though if you listen to, you know, Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity, apparently we didn't offer balanced enough viewpoints. But we had a character in the show, the assistant district attorney, Michael Cutter, who kind of voiced the opposite view, which was anything - whatever it takes to protect us, the government should be free to do it.

What the show was advocating ultimately is that there is a legitimate need for us to investigate what was done in our name and that we need to air it and that we need to maybe develop policies that can be easily followed by people on the ground, and that the - you know, it's not disloyal to ask these questions. He wasn't necessarily advocating, you know, no, we shouldn't do this, yes, we should do that, but simply for our right to ask the questions.

CONAN: Let's go to Pat. Pat with us from Waltham in Massachusetts.

PAT (Caller): Hi, Neal. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.

PAT: Hi. My question was - has to do with - you know, I recall one particular episode that, you know, it seem to be about, well, - about Anna Nicole Smith or, you know - clearly to me to me it seemed that it was about her. And I wonder, do you have to worry, you know - is there somebody going to say that that story is about me or my family? And…

CONAN: Ah. Do you have to worry about legal problems? Yeah.

PAT: Yes.

Mr. BALCER: Yes. There's - NBC Universal has a whole department of lawyers who do nothing but worry about being sued…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I bet they do.

Mr. BALCER: Yeah. And you know, we sufficiently changed the facts. You know, we never followed the story, you know, verbatim anyway. So…

PAT: Right, right.

Mr. BALCER: But as far as portraying people, we, you know, change enough of the facts surrounding those people so that at least as far as the legal department at NBC Universal, we have plausible deniability on that case. And it's really not about portraying this individual or that individual. It's really about what - about the issues that the case brings up anyway. So it really doesn't matter to us.

CONAN: Hmm.

PAT: (Unintelligible) and I'm sure there's some episodes that, you know, quite a few people could - might think that, you know, that's about me or my family.

Mr. BALCER: Yes. Well, Neal mentioned John Yoo in the episode on Friday. Well, you know, there were four or five different Department of Justice lawyers who authored memos that, you know, one might find, well objectionable…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALCER: …depending on your point of view.

CONAN: Pat, thanks very much.

PAT: Thank you very much. Great show.

Mr. BALCER: Thank you.

PAT: Your show and "Law & Order." Thank you.

CONAN: Oh, I'm glad he likes "Law & Order" too.

Mr. BALCER: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's go with - by the way, we're talking with Rene Balcer, the producer from "Law & Order" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," also a writer on that program. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this is Shondra(ph). Shondra with us from Detroit.

SHONDRA (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good.

SHONDRA: I love "Law & Order." Thank you for taking my call. I'm wondering, when are you going to do a story on my former mayor? It has everything: sex, politics, everything.

Mr. BALCER: Yeah. Stories about mayors and governors, they seem to kind of repeat themselves. You know, (unintelligible) politics…

CONAN: Oh, well, this one had some unique aspects to it.

SHONDRA: Very unique.

Mr. BALCER: Just to refresh my memory, this is the one with the - there were some audio tapes and text messages and…

SHONDRA: Yes.

CONAN: That's the one. And the mother who's the congresswoman.

Mr. BALCER: Yes.

SHONDRA: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALCER: Well, we might put it on the schedule.

SHONDRA: Well, please do. And city council, I mean you'd get - the ratings would be off the roof.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALCER: Thank you.

SHONDRA: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Steven(ph). Steven with us from Denver.

STEVEN (Caller): Yes, sir.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

STEVEN: First off, love both you guys's shows. Just want to get that out of the way. I have a two-part question for you. The first one is, "Law & Order" is famous for it's ripped from the headlines stance.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

STEVEN: I'd like to know to what aspect does that relate to the characters in the show and their back story, such as Governor Shalvoy's misbehaving last season; Jack's estranged daughter, Lenny's daughter who was murdered by a drug dealer. And the second question is (unintelligible) actually part of the show, are the picture in the new DA's office, which actually used to be placard for the introduction with a lawyer pointing across the courtroom, and I'd just like to know if you can identify that as well.

CONAN: Wow. A very careful viewer.

Mr. BALCER: Yes. I think he's gotten some video caps that he's examined, like, very carefully. I don't know the answer to the second one. I think we'll - I might investigate it and maybe post on one of the fan sites. I'm not sure where that photograph came from.

STEVEN: Okay. Thanks.

Mr. BALCER: As far as your first question and the ripped from the headlines and the back stories of the characters - you know, the back stories are completely our invention. They're not - you know, they're based on things that we know about people or something out of our own personal experience. What is ripped from the headline is what you - you know, the crime that's - that kicks the story off.

You know, the other thing - the ripped from the headlines, sometimes people say it sort of derisively like…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BALCER: …basically, oh, it's ripped from the headlines. You guys don't do anything. Why don't you get - why don't you come up with your own stories? Well, you know, the ripped from the headlines has a kind of long tradition in fiction. "Moby Dick" was ripped from a headline. Certainly "Julius Caesar," the play, was ripped from a headline. So…

CONAN: Well, I wonder also if you feel that by fictionalizing real new stories you get to say things that, well, maybe we in the news business really can't say.

Mr. BALCER: I think you would be correct.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go - here's an email from Rebecca in Richmond. Are all of the laws represented on the show "Law & Order" actual American laws today?

Mr. BALCER: Well, they're actual laws in New York State. And the cases that we cite are actual cases, New York state cases, and quite often Supreme Court cases. You know, a lot of our story ideas come from minority opinions on some of these judicial decisions, where we think, well, what if the minority opinion on this case actually was the prevailing - was the majority opinion, how would that change the outcome of a case?

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. BALCER: And so that's - but we don't make up laws and we don't make up court decisions.

CONAN: We just have a minute left, but I wanted to ask you this, and sometimes too soon is too soon. Some things are too raw.

Mr. BALCER: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Yet after 9/11 there was no way a crime show set in the city of New York could not address that. And those must have been very difficult programs to put together.

Mr. BALCER: Yes. Well, we had one episode concerning - it was about - we were writing it at the time just in the weeks after 9/11 and we were about to shoot it. And it was concerning a soldier from Kosovo who was here and had kidnapped someone and he had a background of having committed war atrocities, among which was raping Muslim women and girls. And there was one executive on our stage, said, you know, cut that word Muslim out because really nobody at this point is going to care about whether…

CONAN: Anything else, yeah.

Mr. BALCER: Yes, about whether Muslim women or girls get raped. And you know, so there was a lot of raw feelings on that. And we kind of stayed away from addressing 9/11 directly for about six months.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, thank you very much. We appreciate your time.

Mr. BALCER: Okay, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: Rene Balcer joined us from our bureau in New York. He's an Emmy Award-winning writer, executive producer and head writer of "Law & Order" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

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