|Law & Order: Criminal Intent returned this season facing an uphill battle: new night, new timeslot, and new cast members. If fans were nervous about all of the changes, just imagine how executive producer Warren Leight must be feeling.|
Fortunately for us, Leight took time out of his hectic schedule to give MeeVee.com an exclusive interview. He reveals everything you're dying to know about the cast changes, what's coming up in weeks ahead, and how in the hell the show snagged Liza Minnelli as a guest star.
Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview, Warren. You're talking to the biggest Law & Order: Criminal Intent fan you can find.
Good. Great. What a relief! (laughter)
The episode "Masquerade" is amazing.
I'm very happy with it. Isn't she [Liza Minnelli] great?
How did you get Liza on the show?
It's a long story. About 16 years ago, I was set up on a blind date with her. That wasn't going to necessarily work out, I don't think. But it was how we first met. A friend, Kevin Aucoin, a great makeup artist who passed away, knew us both. So I met her originally a long time ago. Word had gotten to me over the last few months that she was a fan of the show, and she would be interested in doing something on the show. When you hear that, you think, "What would be the right part for her?" I had in the back of my mind, "She's great, but you have to find the right part." You don't want to murder her early on; you want to see her all the way to the end of the episode. So I kept that in the back of my mind.
When [John Mark] Karr surfaced in Thailand a couple of months ago, it reopened the whole JonBenet Ramsey case. I thought, "We have something." I thought to write the part for Liza. You don't know if you're going to get her, but it's there if you do get her. We've never done that on the show before, written a part for a guest star. I thought, "Write it for her. If she can't do it, you've at least created an interesting character." But she jumped on it, which I was thrilled about.
I was going to ask about all the references, from Karr to Thailand, and how you recreated the story step by step. Why?
The original news conference [with Karr] was chilling. I thought how we're changing our openings; our openings are a little different this year. In the past, you never saw the detectives in what we call the teaser, the opening before the first commercial. I thought it would be kind of interesting to see that. I think that's the first time in the history of the show that we've seen them in that first part. It's sort of fun. I knew the guy who plays Fife in the episode - he's an actor that's done some readings for me awhile back in New York. I ran into him when the Karr story broke and said, "We may be doing something [on the Karr case].”
You don't want to say based on, but "ripped from the headlines." He said, "I'm obsessed with that guy." Now he's doing a play in L.A., and we flew him in on his two days off to shoot. We flew him in from LA and flew him back on a Saturday; we did that twice to keep him. Bill Irwin, who I've also done some play reading with, plays Nate, the father. He's just great. There are two Tony winners in the cast: Bill Irwin and Liza. The kid who plays Jamie was on Broadway this spring. It's a very strong cast, I think.
To be honest, fans were a little anxious going into to this season with all the cast changes. How does that affect you as a producer?
I think a lot of people were. (laughter) Well, I'm aware that the fans of the show are loyal and very dedicated. It's scary to think things might change. We're doing a little more delving into the detectives' personal lives. We're doing things differently, and we more or less have to. The show has to change or we'll disappear at the end of this. I think we all understood that. We were a late pickup last spring and we didn't know what our status was. We're in a very competitive slot, against shows like The Unit. Now House is up against us, as is Dancing with the Stars. It's a little bit of a high-wire act this year.
Dick Wolf is notorious for voicing his opinion about NBC's timeslot changes. Were you nervous about the new competition, even though Criminal Intent has a large fan base?
Oh, sure. Last year, The Unit was the most successful new show by the end of the year, and House has an incredible fan base. I didn't even know about Dancing with the Stars. But I didn't know I was going to be a producer until mid-June or so. Rene Balcer, who ran the show for five years, calls it a battlefield commission. At a certain moment, it just didn't work out between NBC and Rene. I was like the guy standing in the foxhole next to him. It was like, "Okay, you're on."
Normally we go into the season with four episodes in the tank, and maybe three months to develop some episodes. We had six weeks before we started shooting. On the bright side, I haven't had time to panic. It's been a lot of 19-hour days, back to back to back.
Are you still working on this season's episodes?
Oh sure, we're still filming. We get a little hiatus at Christmas, which will give me — I hope — the chance to get just a little bit of a cushion between when we finish writing and when we begin shooting. (laughter)
Criminal Intent seems to fly under the media's radar, except when there's a change in casting or reports questioning Vincent D'Onofrio's health. How does that affect the show?
I think it suffers a little bit. I don't know why, but I have my theories. I'll put the show up against anybody's show this year. I wouldn't in years past, but this year, we're doing things and taking more chances. We've had Rip Torn and Brooke Shields and Liza on the show. In the next Goren episode, we have Fran Drescher and Rita Moreno. We're beginning to catch a little, and people are beginning to become interested in appearing on the show. It's another good way to get attention for the show, because these are such good actors.
The addition of Eric Bogosian gives Criminal Intent an especially strong cast.
Eric Bogosian is doing a great job. He and I go back; he's probably my oldest friend in the business. I've known him since both of us were in miserable apartments in the Lower East Side when we were both starting out. I think he's done a terrific job; I think everybody misses Jamie and Courtney, but Eric has really stepped in. It also gives you a chance to write about what it's like when there's turnover in your workplace.
There's a lot of animosity and tension between Goren and Ross.
They're feeling each other out. It's tricky. If you're the boss of both Logan and Goren, it's not easy. Those are two good, sharp, talented cops (and actors), and they don't define compliance.
How many years have you been with the show?
This is my fifth year. I wasn't there for the first year of the show, but came in for Season Two.
What inspired all of the changes in the show this season?
At times, the notion of Criminal Intent got a little bit lost, where we would focus on the arcane way the criminal covered up his crime. I like the episode we did this season with Martha Plimpton. That's kind of terrific, because you've gotten to know a little more about Goren because you met his mentor. At the end of it, I think you feel something for Martha Plimpton's character even though she's killed three people and kidnapped Eames. You feel compassion for her.
After five years, I've talked a lot to Katie and Vince and said, "Look at how your relationship has changed in real life; how you relationship has changed and grown over the years. Don't you think that should be reflected in the show? Imagine if you were cops covering real murders every week, how does that isolate you from your family and friends over time? Who can you talk to about this stuff?" Five years in, it's about time we let people in a little bit more on your process; on how you emotionally deal with this."
In Part II of our interview with Law & Order: Criminal Intent producer Warren Leight, we learn more about the surprises in store for fans during November sweeps. We also find out how Leight feels about recent articles charging the Law & Order franchise with excessive violence, and what goes into writing an episode of Criminal Intent.
Criminal Intent and the other Law & Order series are drawing heat this season. Some critics feel the shows have taken the level of violence too far, specifically the Elisabeth Hasselbeck case, where a character with a similar name was raped and murdered.
It’s funny; it’s something I’ve been talking about. I don’t know if it’s a shift in graphic violence. But to compare, and I’m not attempting to rationalize it, this show to what is on virtually every other show that deals with crime, we’re way behind the pack. We’ve done more stylized shooting with the teasers and we’ve faded to red where it feels more shocking than graphic. We have people who were upset that Detective Eames was kidnapped in the first episode, and then Detective Logan getting knocked around in a firehouse. You can’t sustain that sort of emotional intensity for all episodes. Episode One of this season was, in fact, shocking, but I wanted the audience to worry about Eames. I wouldn’t say it was gratuitous in any way.
Do you ever anticipate trouble with any of the “Ripped from the Headlines” stories you write?
I know when the lawyers are upset about something. They’re vocal. The first episode I ever did was “Suite Sorrow,” about a murder with Botox. The people who manufactured it were very upset. I’d spoken to a dermatologist about it. In order to do what happened in the episode, you have to take over the recommended dose. It was my first episode, and nobody gave me a warning on research or anything. I walked in and Rene (Balcer) said, “There are lawyers on the phone. I hope you have good notes.” I thought, “Shouldn’t you have told me that in advance?”
Do you have a favorite episode that you’ve done?
I like that one (Suite Sorrow) because it’s my first one. I liked “Cruise to Nowhere” last year. The nun one, “Attrition” is another one I like. I like the ones where you are more emotionally involved.
Has any episode generated more controversy than the others?
No, because I believe we’re always careful with what we use. We will use something as a jumping-off point, but we don’t strictly follow stories. I did one that borrowed from the Bernie Kerik story in “My Good Name,” that was with Deakins. I guess I’ve been doing it long enough that the stories are invented beforehand. What happened with (Elisabeth) Hasselbeck was accidental and caused a lot of trouble. I think it was fun when we took some potshots at Tom DeLay in one episode.
Who was your favorite guest star?
I know this is going to sound self-serving, but it was kind of great to get Liza (Minnelli) and Bill Irwin in the same episode just now; it was terrific. Sometimes it’s fun for me too, like in "Proud Flesh," where we were getting A Clockwork Orange imitations on the set (from Malcolm McDowell). I also like when we have a star and they’re not necessarily the killer, like Judd Hirsch. It’s assumed the big name is the killer. I love working with Lou Taylor Pucci, who was in “Cruise to Nowhere.” He was pretty terrific, and he’s a kid starting out. He’s genuinely talented. Almost every actor that I’ve done a play with, I’ve tried to get a part on the show one way or another. I’m cross-pollinating.
I’ve been very impressed with the attention to detail that goes into every episode, such as “F.P.S.” about online gaming. My gamer friends were impressed with that one!
The writer is really responsible for the information that goes into their episode. I just got off the phone tonight. The detectives, the lawyer, and the medical examiner - just for this rewrite for the last three hours. I went around the horn on some issue. We have a district attorney who helps out.
Is there anything coming up for sweeps you can let us in on?
Sure! Well, you know, in what I call the “Thanksgiving” episode we’re going to meet Detective Goren’s mother for the first time. That’s a good tease, right? Rita Moreno is playing her. It also stars Fran Drescher and Michael Biehn. That runs on the 21st, right before Thanksgiving. It’s called ‘War At Home.” We also have in sweeps an episode with Griffin Dunne. He’s playing a smarmy nightclub owner. He’s one of the first calls I made. There’s [also] an episode about a former child sitcom star…[that] hits the skids hard.
The Law and Order franchise has a habit of reusing people, such as Julianne Nicholson being cast after the end of Conviction. Is this a policy that filtered over from the original show?
It’s not something we are supposed to do all the time, but we’re very lucky to have Julianne. It’s hard to cast someone again if they’re a big presence in the show. If they were the murderer or something high profile, it’s very hard to use them again. Chris (Noth) is having a very good year on the show, and Julianne has been great. It’s interesting to write for two very different detectives teams. It’s like a checkerboard; it’s kind of nice. Goren’s process is much more inside-out; Logan’s is more outside-in. It’s fun to direct two different types of episodes.