Written By January 2012 : Page 24

Written By Louise FArr PortrAits By toM KeLLer Killing the Messenger V Veena sud’s investigative team dramatizes a new style of murder. eena Sud says she has “a real superstitious thing about mojo.” When the executive producer of AMC’s The Killing went on hiatus after the murder mystery’s suc-cessful first season, she didn’t want to erase or move the sto-ry boards in the office building where she and her staff had worked. Now, with the writers back for a second season, the boards sit in the same place in their room that looks out over downtown Glendale. The writers and Sud are in the same place too: unswayed by the end of season fireworks that lit up online message boards like the Hudson River on the Fourth of July. The is-sue? A finale that offered no answer to the ad campaign ques-tion, Who Killed Rosie Larsen? The show gained six Emmy nominations, including an Outstanding Writing for a drama series. And while some viewers admired The Killing’s ambigu-ity as it followed the investigation into the murder of a teen-age Seattle girl, others were frustrated by a cliffhanger ending that posed more questions than it answered. Comments, as Internet comments will, turned nasty, sex-ist, and even racist: What were those writers up to, anyway, with all the red herrings and dwelling on the Larsen parents’ grief? Would the series have been better off with a man at the helm? And maybe, one wacko suggested, Could Veena Sud be a Muslim woman with an agenda? “It’s insanity. I should wear a hijab around my neck for press photos,” says Sud, amused and, for the record, not a Muslim. Small-boned, dark, intense, she actually grew up, half-Indian and half-Filipina, in the suburbs of conservative southern Ohio, where she rebelled by wearing black, dye-ing her hair, and hanging out at 16 with the vice squad to research her first screenplay, about prostitution. Like the other writers, Sud is surprised by the vehemence of viewers’ response. “Our intent was not to mislead or be-tray,” she says. “We talked about it. How could you not? We talked about the fans, and their passion, and all of the stuff 24 • WG AW Written B y j anu ar y 20 12 that was being said on the Internet. But the bottom line is, we close the door and we’re a bunch of people in the room, and our job was—and continues to be—to tell the story that feels right by us.” Scene of the Crime After Sud decided to set The Killing in Seattle, she traveled there for her first research visit. Walking its damp, gray neighborhoods, she became aware of the city’s Somali popu-lation, targeted by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI—amid protests from Somalis—as having con-nections to Al Qaeda. AMC picked up the pilot about the fictional murder of Rosie Larsen, its impact on detectives and Rosie’s devas-tated family, and the resulting local political fallout. Then, as writers gathered to work on the series, an outburst of Islamophobia erupted over plans to build a mosque near the World Trade Center site. The controversy spurred Sud and her staff to expand the Danish drama’s Muslim element and explore further the suffering of Rosie’s teacher, Bennet Ahmed, a Somali wrongly accused of the killing. “We were very interested in all these racial and religious aspects to a crime,” says Sud, relaxing in a Montrose coffee shop. “To pretend we live in a post-racial society is not true, especially with this type of crime that may have a sexual ele-ment to it. We spent a lot of time in the writers’ room say-ing, ‘How would a community that already has a very tenu-ous relationship with the Somali community react? What would the backlash be if Bennet were associated with the crime and politicians used that to their advantage?’ ” Pulling from news concerning FBI interest in Seattle’s Somali population, the writers also created an attempt by the feds to thwart enigmatic and troubled lead detective Sarah Linden’s murder investigation. “The FBI created a new obstacle to Sarah, which we thought was interesting,”

Killing The Messenger

Louise Farr

Veena Sud’s investigative team dramatizes a new style of murder.<br /> <br /> Veena Sud says she has “a real superstitious thing about mojo.” When the executive producer of AMC’s The Killing went on hiatus after the murder mystery’s successful first season, she didn’t want to erase or move the story boards in the office building where she and her staff had worked. Now, with the writers back for a second season, the boards sit in the same place in their room that looks out over downtown Glendale. <br /> <br /> The writers and Sud are in the same place too: unswayed by the end of season fireworks that lit up online message boards like the Hudson River on the Fourth of July. The issue? A finale that offered no answer to the ad campaign question, Who Killed Rosie Larsen? The show gained six Emmy nominations, including an Outstanding Writing for a drama series. And while some viewers admired The Killing’s ambiguity as it followed the investigation into the murder of a teenage Seattle girl, others were frustrated by a cliffhanger ending that posed more questions than it answered. <br /> <br /> Comments, as Internet comments will, turned nasty, sexist, and even racist: What were those writers up to, anyway, with all the red herrings and dwelling on the Larsen parents’ grief? Would the series have been better off with a man at the helm? And maybe, one wacko suggested, Could Veena Sud be a Muslim woman with an agenda? <br /> <br /> “It’s insanity. I should wear a hijab around my neck for press photos,” says Sud, amused and, for the record, not a Muslim. Small-boned, dark, intense, she actually grew up, half-Indian and half-Filipina, in the suburbs of conservative southern Ohio, where she rebelled by wearing black, dyeing her hair, and hanging out at 16 with the vice squad to research her first screenplay, about prostitution. <br /> <br /> Like the other writers, Sud is surprised by the vehemence of viewers’ response. “Our intent was not to mislead or betray,” she says. “We talked about it. How could you not? We talked about the fans, and their passion, and all of the stuffthat was being said on the Internet. But the bottom line is, we close the door and we’re a bunch of people in the room, and our job was—and continues to be—to tell the story that feels right by us.” <br /> <br /> Scene of the Crime <br /> <br /> After Sud decided to set The Killing in Seattle, she traveled there for her first research visit. Walking its damp, gray neighborhoods, she became aware of the city’s Somali population, targeted by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI—amid protests from Somalis—as having connections to Al Qaeda. <br /> <br /> AMC picked up the pilot about the fictional murder of Rosie Larsen, its impact on detectives and Rosie’s devastated family, and the resulting local political fallout. Then, as writers gathered to work on the series, an outburst of Islamophobia erupted over plans to build a mosque near the World Trade Center site. The controversy spurred Sud and her staff to expand the Danish drama’s Muslim element and explore further the suffering of Rosie’s teacher, Bennet Ahmed, a Somali wrongly accused of the killing. <br /> <br /> “We were very interested in all these racial and religious aspects to a crime,” says Sud, relaxing in a Montrose coffee shop. “To pretend we live in a post-racial society is not true, especially with this type of crime that may have a sexual element to it. We spent a lot of time in the writers’ room saying, ‘How would a community that already has a very tenuous relationship with the Somali community react? What would the backlash be if Bennet were associated with the crime and politicians used that to their advantage?’ ”<br /> <br /> Pulling from news concerning FBI interest in Seattle’s Somali population, the writers also created an attempt by the feds to thwart enigmatic and troubled lead detective Sarah Linden’s murder investigation. “The FBI created a new obstacle to Sarah, which we thought was interesting,” explains consulting producer Aaron Zelman, who wrote an episode depicting the aftermath of an army of FBI operatives thundering into a warehouse to tackle Linden and her partner, Stephen Holder. <br /> <br /> Terrorism plots aside, co-producer Jeremy Doner, like Zelman a Damages writing alum, suggests we’ve entered an era, both in life and on cable television, in which clear answers have turned murky, in which the lead characters’ morality in Breaking Bad, Weeds, and Damages, for instance, might once have been too questionable for TV. <br /> <br /> “The good guys and the bad guys are getting pretty blurry,” Doner says, mentioning Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. “I don’t think it’s a reach to say that what’s been going on in cable TV is the flourishing of work that takes place in that gray area of America where there’s been a willingness to examine how difficult it is to find emotional and moral clarity. The Killing fits into that.”<br /> <br /> It does indeed. Muslim Bennet Ahmed turns out not to be the killer that detectives, and the audience, at first believed him to be. Apparent good guy councilman Darren Richmond is actually a sexual sleaze arrested for Rosie’s murder. Rosie’s devoted father is revealed to have an organized crime past, and by season finale, the erratic yet likeable Detective Holder looks to have framed Richmond. As for the women, Rosie’s mother Mitch and Sarah Linden neglect their kids—Sarah obsessed with her work and Mitch because she’s grieving. <br /> <br /> “I guess a lot of the focus of season one was on the personal and what happens in any murder, “says Sud. “You look at the people closest to the victim: the boyfriend, the teacher, the father, the uncle, any males that might have been around this young girl. But having introduced the idea that there was a purposeful frame-up at the end of season one of Darren Richmond, we have to go back to what we may have suspected from the very beginning, that there might be bigger forces that led to this girl’s death and not just the personal motive of jealousy. We’re opening up the lens. There’s a reason why we’re talking about the puppet masters of a city and the power brokers of Seattle.”<br /> <br /> Perp Work <br /> <br /> By now, The Killing history is well-known: After NYU, Sud had bounded up the Hollywood ladder from directing the MTV documentaries Real World and Sorority Life to five years on Cold Case as writer, story editor, and showrunner. After that series ended, she began searching for deeper, darker material to develop for cable. While she was hunting for ideas among undercover cops in Compton, her agent alerted her to Forbrydelsen, a popular television mystery in Denmark. She immediately responded to its multistranded story. The mother of a teenage son herself, and a single parent for a number of years, she was drawn to its tenacious, silent detective and distracted mother. <br /> <br /> “It was so refreshing to see a woman being strong and professional and not running around looking as if she borrowed her 14-year-old daughter’s clothing,” Sud says of the Danish series. “It seems to be getting more bizarre,” she adds, about the latest female appearance requirement. “Bigger lips, an inability to talk, and an overt sexuality about everything. It’s shocking to me that this has happened. I continue to be dismayed, over, and over, and over.” <br /> <br /> So it became important for her version to portray a real working woman, torn between job and love for her kid, unlike the perfectly coiffed mothers on the American screen, always managing to put breakfast on the table. Sud was sending her son off to school with a granola bar, and so were the other parents she knew. <br /> <br /> There were other things on her mind too that included not “overselling” the story, as she puts it. “I wanted to tell The Killing with the rhythm and tones of everyday life, the hesitations, and the silences, and the not-knowing-what-to-say. The messiness and unstructured way of people that I think sometimes we aren’t encouraged to do in TV. We are encouraged to connect the dots with straight lines, and not take detours or go off on tangents that are messy and nonlinear.” <br /> <br /> The Killing was her first adaptation. Feeling a responsibility to the Danish series, she still wanted to bring her own vision, tempered by her primary influences: David Simon’s writing on The Wire, Tom Fontana’s on Homicide, and Linda La Plante’s Prime Suspect—“Writers who were economical, and smart, and never pandered to an audience.” <br /> <br /> She and Danish series creator Soren Sveistrup began an email correspondence: “I realized that a lot of his intentions were the same. He was interested, again, in a woman who was real, ambitious, and driven, and not weighed down by her makeup.” <br /> <br /> Sud cast the flame-haired actress Mireille Enos, and used Forbrydelsen’s pilot as a foundation to which she added small moments: Rosie’s parents, Mitch and Stan, disagree over whether Rosie should go to college; this blossoms later in the series into Stan accusing his wife of forcing her dreams on her daughter and the revelation that Mitch once had dreams of her own that might not have included this family. <br /> <br /> When it came time to assemble her writers’ room, Sud followed the example of Cold Case executive producer Meredith Stiehm, who had advised her to never go for safety—a writer who knows a show’s format, which can always be learned—but to find those with something they felt compelled to express. “My strategy with my staff was to find writers that were truly original, and edgy, and dark, and whose dialogue just sang,” Sud remembers. <br /> <br /> In addition to Doner and Zelman, her team included co-executive producers Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin, Writers Guild Award winners for The Education of Max Bickford; Soo Hugh, a visual artist and experimental filmmaker; novelist Nic Pizzolatto, new to television; and former journalist Lynda Burstyn, who had been story editor on NCIS. Writer’s assistant Dan Nowak wrote a first season episode and has turned writer for the second. Playwright Wendy Riss, a Hung story editor and writer on The Riches, has joined the group, as has Rubicon writer Eliza Clark, recommended by AMC and whose play Edgewise Sud saw at New York’s Fringe Festival and admired for its apocalyptic vision and grasp of teenage vernacular. <br /> <br /> Patty Jenkins directed the pilot, and Nicole Kassell, Jennifer Getziner, and Agnieska Holland were among other directors. “It was the first show I’ve been on where I’ve been a minority, so that was fun,” Doner says. “There were moments on the set between the director, the writer, the casting people, the producer, where we had six women running the show.” <br /> <br /> Why? Sud believes she merely hires the best, and “they happen to be women. It would be great if the rest of the town became gender blind and color blind.” <br /> <br /> First, Do No Harm <br /> <br /> On her first day, Sud arrived at the Glendale, California, writers’ room super-prepared, having written back and forward stories for the characters, knowing the story arcs, and with a firm calendar. “A lot of what we do is pure art from our heart, but in order to have the latitude to go to those places, you have to have structure,” Sud believes. “It’s fair to the writers.”<br /> <br /> The calendar was a tactic she picked up first through WGAW’s Showrunner Training Program and then used on Cold Case. Yorkin, a Showrunner Program founder, had been impressed with Sud when she met her in the program’s initial 2006 class. Years later on The Killing writing staff, Yorkin’s even more impressed: “She had it completely scheduled out in a way I’ve never seen with another showrunner. She knew on what day we’d be talking about what character. She knew on what day, six weeks in the future, we’d be breaking what episode. She had it completely structured so there was no chance we’d ever fall behind or not have something ready on time. Having showrun ourselves, that’s a pretty daunting task.” <br /> <br /> Murder has devolved into too much of a popular entertainment and become “pornographized,” Sud believes. To depict the Larsen family’s story, she and her staff met with a support group of parents who had lost children. The writers also visited the morgue. “There’s no glossing over; there’s no lipstick on the body. There were so many moments in the morgue that were horrific but also told a story without clobbering us on the head.” <br /> <br /> One of those sobering moments involved viewing a young dead man who had been shot. His clothing, wet for some unexplained reason, hung in the room where they photograph bodies. “There was a pool of water just quietly dripping,” Sud recalls. “All of us were looking at it, with his clothing and the bullet holes telling the story.” That image transformed into Rosie’s hair dripping on the morgue floor and reverberated throughout the first season as an unspoken reminder of the teen girl’s death: Mitch’s hair drips over the side of the tub, in which she has tried to understand what Rosie experienced while drowning in the trunk of a car; Stan, Mitch’s husband, brushes her hair in an awkward attempt to initiate sex, and viewers can’t help but remember a fleeting image of a mortician brushing Rosie’s hair. It’s this spare writing, with drama unspoken but written between the lines, that sets The Killing apart from other television murder mysteries. <br /> <br /> Even the experienced Yorkin and Prestwich, writing partners for more than 20 years, pared back their style when working with Sud. <br /> <br /> “Nicole and I had never done a police procedural before, but we’d done dark, edgy, mysterious things,” Prestwich says. “We went very logically, and we felt we needed to indicate all the tests that were being run and all the results. I’m exaggerating, but we wrote too much. We put too much of that in the mouths of the detectives, and Veena just said, ‘Cut that way back. Unless we need that information, we can assume that they’re doing their job.’ Really, what’s going on between the cops is about their relationship and about what’s going on psychologically with Sarah: the tension, the pressure she’s getting, at home and at work. That’s our story. That’s the anti-cop cop show. She said it. We got it. Our next draft was totally different.” <br /> <br /> At the same time, they turned more evocative and descriptive. “At AMC, they see their shows as little features,” Prestwich observes. “You have to write with an eye to the visual, which is not something you usually do in television.” <br /> <br /> The characters changed too. The American Sarah Linden, notably withheld emotionally, is actually more expressive than her Danish counterpart. Forbrydelsen’s Sarah character had a mother, but here the mother figure is her one-time social worker, whose presence offers only a hint of Sarah’s own difficult childhood. “We were so invested in this idea of a single mother who has nowhere to put her kid and no mom to take care of things,” Sud says, “except this mysterious woman named Regi on a boat. Make it as uncomfortable as possible. As the season goes on, it will drive her into a deeper and darker place where ultimately she’s starting to deal with her own demons.” <br /> <br /> Bigger changes happened when redefining Sarah’s partner, Holder, played on AMC by Swedish heartthrob Joel Kinnaman, who lost pounds and became sunken-eyed for his role. Denmark’s arrogant, married father, who constantly ribs the Sarah character, morphed into a streetsmart one-man chorus, delivering slangy nuggets of truth within the rhythmic word torrents Sud describes as his bla-bla. “I wanted to do something different, partially because I didn’t want the sexism to be overt. I didn’t want to have a male detective making period jokes. It just wouldn’t happen here today, especially in a city like Seattle.” In the new season, says Sud, Holder might become involved with Sarah in investigating the Native American casino Rosie visited on the night she died. <br /> <br /> That research with the Compton police didn’t go to waste: Holder turned into a recovering former undercover cop who had become meth-addicted on the job. “They’re chameleons, who have a very loose boundary in their lives between what’s bad and what isn’t,” Sud explains of the undercover crowd. “The cops I know don’t break the law, but they’re very slippery in that way that homicide detectives can’t be.” <br /> <br /> Sud started thinking, How interesting, because Sarah is so guarded, isolated, and private, never shows her hand, never expresses what’s on her face, but feels everything, coupled with a guy who’s physically and symbolically all over the place. “That’s how they first meet. He comes in and spills all her stuff because he has no boundaries.” <br /> <br /> Instead of sitting around a table commenting on other people’s first drafts, the writers were expected to write detailed, specific notes, including line and dialogue suggestions, which Sud then sifted through, picking and choosing. “We knew every Sunday night we had homework,” says Yorkin. “But ultimately, your second draft would come out of everybody else’s notes and Veena’s thoughts.” <br /> <br /> Some days lasted from 10 until six or seven, with lunch eaten in the office. Sud’s corgis and Yorkin’s pit bull (and even on occasion her alpha female Senegal parrot, Millie) sat in to provide furry relief and clean up food crumbs. “It was intense,” says Prestwich. “There were so many arcs that we had to track, and so many elements that had to be woven together, that it was exhausting. Thank God to have a job like that, to be able to go in and come up with story all day. But even that has its moments where, ‘Can we just go lie down and take a nap?’” <br /> <br /> Zelman, who wrote for Law & Order for four years, points out that on that show they could assign episodes to nine writers simultaneously, since no one episode affected another. “On these types of shows, there’s a bottleneck,” he says about Damages and The Killing. “If you change anything in episode two, it could completely obviate episode six, so that certainly is a challenge. It’s more collaborative too. You can’t go off in your own little world as much.” <br /> <br /> Shuttling between Glendale and Vancouver, where The Killing was filmed (“Gonzo filmmaking,” as Yorkin describes the tight seven-day shoots), Sud still had to find time to write. Running Cold Case, she had often doubled up, shooting simultaneous episodes because of delivery dates. “I thought, 13 episodes is going to be cake. But it’s so emotionally draining.” Sud laughs at her own naiveté, noting that she got by on three hours sleep a night for six months during the first season. When she learns that Prestwich has described her as “cool as a cucumber” throughout the season, she laughs again. “I felt like I was crawling across the finish line with bloody stumps, like in Stephen King’s The Long Walk.” <br /> <br /> Life was a giant blur from episode six on, she says, with postproduction happening as well as production and writing, and everything piling up as she tried to find time to think and not simply multitask. <br /> <br /> For a moment, Sud can’t even remember sitting at her computer to write her gut-wrenching “Missing” episode, in which Sarah Linden’s unhappy son disappears and the relationship between Linden and Holder deepens. Then it comes back: She would wake at 5.30 a.m., with a two-hour time block in which to write, eventually leaving Prestwich and Yorkin in charge so that she could steal a few days away from the writers’ room. The most trepidation she experienced was over a diner scene during which Holder and Linden are forced to sit and make conversation, revealing themselves in the process. <br /> <br /> “It was so much fun to write that scene, but I felt I was jumping off a cliff,” she admits. “I like the characters. They have to lead me a little bit along this road, because I have an idea, maybe, of where I would like them to go, but I’m not 100 percent sure how to get there, and I’m not 100 percent sure of what they’re going to say along the way.”<br /> <br /> Going in, she knew that Linden would ask Holder about the origin of his Jesus tattoo, that he would talk about getting sober, and that Linden would tell Holder something about her life that she didn’t even want to acknowledge to herself. Linden ends up talking about a boy stuck in foster care after she put away his father for killing his mother. “’No one’s gonna adopt him. He’s damaged goods,” Sarah says. And there’s no need for her to say she believes she is damaged goods too. The audience knows. <br /> <br /> “When those lines came from her, I was, like, Okay,” Sud says. “And that is the root of why she does what she does as a cop.” <br /> <br /> Screenwriting is a funny process, Sud has decided: “You come into it thinking, and speculating, and wondering, and musing in the room with the writers. Then you start putting a little bit of a structure on the ideas. Then you go to script, and again that’s another kind of releasing of creativity. But then you have to home in again, because now you’ve got a script, and there’s no way in hell you’re shooting this script you wrote in seven days, so then you become the mechanic….who depends on very talented other producers and mechanics who are able to juggle and say, ‘Let’s flip that. Let’s pull this. Let’s combine these themes.’ And there’s always time, which is our enemy. And no show ever had enough money, especially not one as ambitious as this.” <br /> <br /> As for the Internet and its often angry message boards, Sud learned quickly. “I started to realize I shouldn’t read it, because I shouldn’t get swept up too much in either the very good or the very bad, because then it’ll start exerting maybe a subconscious influence on how we write, or the story direction. As a writer, at least I know for myself [that] you have to protect yourself, and we’re easily…” Sud hesitates, then decides to reveal more: “I’m easily hurt, or not good at taking criticism. So it’s better to be aware of things you can do better but not frighten yourself.” <br /> <br /> Ultimately, she insists, it’s not about being influenced by critics but about honoring the audience by telling the story she’s committed to tell: the story of the heartbreaking ripple effect of a murder that, like the vast majority of murders in the United States, is not solved in series time or that might not ever be solved. A killing after which life does not simply return to normal. Veena Sud smiles. “This is not a committee thing,” she says. <br /> <br /> For the record, who killed Rosie Larsen will not be revealed until the end of season two.<br /> <br /> Writing Between the Lines <br /> <br /> There were certainly times when we thought, Where are we going? Is there enough plot? But Veena was always good about having an internal clock. She knew the story she wanted to tell, and she certainly reined me back sometimes. <br /> <br /> There’s a big confrontation at the end of my “Stonewalled” episode where the parents face off. It’s only two lines that they exchange, accusing each other: <br /> <br /> “You were the one who let her stay home that weekend.” <br /> <br /> “If you weren’t so strict, she wouldn’t’a hid things from us.” <br /> <br /> It’s the first time we’ve seen that real crack in their relationship. The whole confrontation was two lines in outline. They weren’t my lines. But I took them, and I went to script, and I wrote a three-page scene with a whole big argument blowout. I looked at the scene again and again, and in the end, we just needed those two lines, and I cut everything else out. <br /> <br /> Another moment in that episode, Stan has a scene with Terry, Mitch’s sister, in the kitchen. He’s thanking her for all her help taking care of the kids since Rosie died and his wife has basically fallen apart and is unable to handle it. Terry wants to tell him that Mitch has neglected the kids so much that she nearly killed them by leaving them in the car with the engine running, and you can tell she wants to tell him something. I had written in a whole paragraph of description of how he touches her, and she turns and looks at him, and suddenly he realizes that he’s gotten a little too close. It was one of those things where we thought, Well, maybe they’ve had a history. They could have been together before he got together with Mitch. In the end we decided to tone that down and sort of not make anything of it. That’s another thing I love about the show. There are moments that we let hang and let sit, and we don’t explain or give an answer, and you can take away what you want. <br /> <br /> —Aaron Zelman<br />

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