Tuesday, October 09, 2007


I can't remember the last time I read a book. I used to read at least one or two every week, sometimes more. But once you get into the habit of writing six hours a day and producing, where your every minute is dominated with reading scripts and budgets and notes and memos; the thought of curling up with a good book isn't atop your list of favorite recreations.

Back when I did read, one of my favorite authors was Joseph Conrad ("Heart of Darkness", "Lord Jim", "Nostromo"). Conrad was an interesting guy, didn't learn English until he was 20, spent half his life as a merchant seaman and still created a writing style and body of work that would influence virtually every major writer of the 20th Century and especially Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, William Burroughs and Jerzy Kosinski.

The first time I was asked to lecture on screenwriting, I went looking for an explanation of the craft and found it in Conrad's description of what he did -- "My job is to make you see."

That wasn't how I saw what I did when I started writing. My first scripts were purely mercenary and primarily ego driven. I was an actor repeatedly cast in roles where I was either going off to war or losing my virginity (sometimes both). I wanted to do something different, to stretch, to show off my talents (either real or imagined).

I had the good fortune of doing plays with some of the most talented writers in Canadian and American theatre. I also had the cutie pie looks that kept me busy on an endless stream of television and film material written by complete hacks.

During theatre rehearsals, I experienced the rewriting and polishing process as the playwrights sweated out the daily agony of hammering their work into performance shape. And on film sets, I had the down time to look at the day's pages and think, "Fuck, I can do better than this!"

And so I used the experience of the former combined with the ease of the latter to forward my own career by writing a couple of films to exhibit what I felt I did best.

Joseph Conrad felt he truly became a writer while serving as the captain of a Congo steamboat, the Roi des Belges. His experiences and the insight he gleaned into human nature evolved into "Heart of Darkness", his most acclaimed novel.

I think I became a writer by riding around in a police car.

When I was hired to write the pilot for "Top Cops", I knew very little about police work and I didn't like cops that much. The few I'd met had hassled me for having long hair, searched me for drugs, wrote tickets for speeds I wasn't traveling or pulled guns on me on lonely country roads.

I looked on cops as a necessary evil, bigoted or societally blinkered, power drunk and prone to throwing their weight around or outright bullying.

But I liked the show concept, the money was great and I had an offer to do something better before the summer was over. Luckily, I knew enough about drama to get the show on the air and vamped my way through a few more episodes learning what made the network happy -- and how much I didn't know about the world of cops.

Then one hot July night, I was driving home at 3:00 in the morning and pulled alongside a Toronto police cruiser at a stop light. My windows were open and so were those of the cop car. I glanced over at the two young constables. One nodded back as the other ignored me, listening to a call crackling over their radio. An instant later, their toplights and siren kicked on and they rocketed away.

I sat at the light, suddenly realizing that I didn't have a clue what those guys might be feeling at this moment. I could write that scene. Cruiser at night. Toplights. Siren. Destination unknown.

But I couldn't put myself in the shoes of the characters. And that meant I couldn't put the audience there either.

"My job is to make you see".

The Executive Producer of "Top Cops", Sonny Grosso, was a former NY Cop made famous when one of his cases was turned into a film entitled "The French Connection". Sonny made a couple of calls and a day later, I was in New York, scheduled to spend a weekend riding along with cops patroling the most crime ridden precinct in Harlem.

Sonny always believed you jumped in at the deep end.

I turned up at the precinct dressed, as instructed, in jeans, T-shirt, sneakers and baseball cap. The Black desk Sergeant took one look at my Toronto Blue Jays cap and sneered, "You tryin' to get shot?"

I was outfitted with a kevlar vest, given a quick briefing on what I was supposed to do in an emergency ("How fast can you run?") and signed a paper saying the City of New York wasn't responsible for my sorry ass.

My first night was in an NYPD cruiser. I was introduced to the two cops I'd be shadowing and informed that my first duty was to pay for coffee.

We got coffee and parked on an overpass overlooking evening rush hour traffic. This was their first assignment of each night shift, a half hour in which they could catch up on wants and warrents while remaining handy for one of the inevitable fender benders. I'd barely cracked the lid on my coffee when the radio dispatcher snapped off a nearby address along with..."Man with a gun, shots fired". Their coffees went out the window and mine went all over my vest as the cruiser took off.

My first thought was, "We're not going to this..."

But we were. And my second thought was, "I'm not ready for this..."

Then I wondered how they could be. One minute, complete calm and a casual coffee. The next, siren screaming, weapons drawn and a crime scene coming on too fast to think about what you were going to do when you got there.

By the time we covered the two blocks to the scene, we were back up to two officers who already had a man spread-eagled on the sidewalk, a Saturday night special with a duct taped handle firmly under the foot of one of the uniform cops. Two other cruisers rolled up right behind us.

The perpetrator was taken away, the other cops ribbing the arresting officers. Much of their night would be spent doing the necessary paperwork to charge and arraign their arrest. That meant more turf to cover for the remaining radio cars.

As I watched these guys goof with each other, I realized they were no different from the other tribes of which I'd been a part, sports teams, bands, theatre companies. Black guys, White guys, Asians and Hispanics, united by the uniform they wore and defined by their job.

Our next few calls were domestic disputes. A drunk husband at the first, a mentally disturbed wife behind the second and at the third, a young Black man I will always remember.

His girlfriend had just broken off their relationship and he had resisted her request to leave her apartment, certain he could change her mind. Unbeknownst to either of them, her mother had called the police. The two cops and I now stood in the apartment as it was explained that he could either leave on his own or come with us.

To the pain of his heartbreak was added the humiliation of a couple of cops giving him the bum's rush. He wavered for a long time, fighting back his hurt and embarrassment, edging toward that line where the choice would no longer be available. His girlfriend glared at her mother, angry that she hadn't left well enough alone. I could see that both officers hated having to be part of this ridiculous and unnecessary drama. But it was their job and they did it.

Four hours later, they spotted the kid in a coffee shop and went in to sit with him for a while, assure him they knew he wasn't what his girl's mom thought he was, that they'd lost girlfriends too and unfortunately, it wasn't fatal.

An hour earlier, we'd chased a crack dealer into an abandoned tenement, losing him in the rubble and the darkness and finding ourselves walking on a carpet of broken syringes and discarded needles. It was a shooting gallery. And at the height of the AIDS epidemic, we were ankle deep in detritus that was a pin prick or glass shard away from infecting all of us.

We cursed a lot, silently accepted our predicament and walked out like soldiers navigating a minefield.

An hour before that we'd found a lost kid and then assisted another of 12 as she was loaded into an ambulance in the final stages of labor. The father hovered nearby, high on something and insisting she shouldn't be allowed to come home unless she had a boy who could play for the Knicks. Scared to death, she promised her mother she would, perhaps hoping that would also make life easier for mom, who was the father's real girlfriend.

We went for lunch after that, talking about abortion laws, wondering how many Pro-Lifers would feel that way after seeing a 12 year old in labor. We talked about a lot of things in the half hour we had to down Arbie's sandwiches and Snapple. They wanted to know about making movies and TV -- not from any desire to be part of that scene, but because they'd both just read "Nobody's Fool" and thought it would make a really good movie.

They talked about other best sellers they were reading, how one of them had gotten the whole Times crossword last Sunday, how hard the Yankees sucked and how difficult it was to understand 14 year olds, especially when they were yours.

After lunch we took sandwiches to a rookie, who like all rookies was assigned to stand at a post (a street callbox) all night for his first week, learning to watch and listen and understand the ebb and flow of the neighborhood. My Ridealong cops tried to coax him into doing things that would get him into trouble, shared spooky stories on their own rookie nights on a post and otherwise made the kid feel like he was already a part of the tribe and they'd be there for him.

Our last call of the night was a rain drenched race to that post to rescue the same rookie after somebody started shooting at him.

A little after midnight, my first ridealong was over. It would take me until dawn to record all the experiences, in the process realizing I didn't know a damn thing about cops, and neither did anybody else who had been raised on a diet of TV cop shows or what was most often said about police officers in the various media.

First thing next morning, I called to pass on that "better offer" that was waiting.

Over the four seasons of "Top Cops", I did several hundred ridealongs in just about every major American city. I hung with narcotics squads, gang units, homicide detectives and beat cops. In the process, I realized that the world was a whole lot bigger than it appears on television, and to be "good" on television you had to take the audience somewhere they had never been or give them an insight they'd never had.

"My job is to make you see".

Writing for television is as simple (and as complicated) as that.


blueglow said...

Nice column, sir. Like you I was, at best, ambivalent about cops until I did four years of a cop show and spent a lot of time in similar circumstance to your ridealong -- behind all their bravado and politically incorrect observations (although the best of them spare no one, no matter what race, creed or colour) they did demonstrate incredible empathy at exactly the right moments.

wcdixon said...

Love the pic at the top of the post.