|ONE grim gray morning three weeks ago, two homicide detectives strode into a small Manhattan apartment and gazed up at a petite young woman dangling by her neck from a ceiling pipe rigged with a homemade nylon noose. “It’s about time,” grumbled a dreadlocked medical examiner. “You have any idea what it’s like being stuck in here with a swinger?”|
Objects in the room told the story of the dead woman’s promising career. Near stacks of videocassettes, the walls were decorated with posters for independent films featuring images of the young woman, an actress turned director who had been renting the apartment as an office.
If the details of the crime scene called to mind the death of Adrienne Shelly, the 40-year-old actress and director who was hanged in her Greenwich Village office in November, what happened next did not: After two police technicians cut the body down from the pipe, the corpse, played by a 40-year-old stuntwoman named Jennifer Lamb, headed into a nearby room to nurse her 4-month-old daughter.
“Law & Order” was at it again, ripping a gruesome crime from the headlines and transforming it into an hour of fast-moving, plot-driven television, which in this instance will be broadcast Friday night at 10 on NBC. Although the use of such raw source material is common on the program, this particular real-life victim had an eerie way of returning to people’s minds during production.
Less than 24 hours before the “Law & Order” crew filmed the hanging scene, Ms. Shelly’s latest directorial effort, a quirky comedy titled “Waitress” that she also wrote and acted in, had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, where it met with both acclaim and tears. She was gaining recognition as a gifted filmmaker at the very moment a scene modeled on her death was being shot in the Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood.
The stuntwoman, Ms. Lamb, was one of many in the New York acting community for whom the death of the Queens-born Ms. Shelly, who left a 3-year-old daughter, had a personal resonance. While the camera was rolling and Ms. Lamb was hanging limp from the ceiling pipe by a steel harness, she said later, “I was thinking, ‘Here’s Adrienne Shelly’s little apartment, and here are her film posters, and this is how it ends.’ ”
Truth, With Twists
In reality, barely a New York minute passed between the moment Ms. Shelly’s life ended and the moment it became fodder for prime-time drama.
After Ms. Shelly’s body was found hanging from a shower rod on Nov. 1, investigators initially suspected suicide. But a footprint in her bathroom led the police to a 19-year-old Ecuadorean illegal immigrant named Diego Pillco who had been doing construction work in a downstairs apartment, and the police determined that they had a murder on their hands.
On Nov. 7 and 8, the morning newspapers were filled with macabre accounts of the crime, as pieced together by the police. According to the authorities, Mr. Pillco had struck Ms. Shelly in the face and, suspecting he had killed her, then faked her suicide by hanging her from the shower rod with a bedsheet. The police said Mr. Pillco admitted that Ms. Shelly had complained about construction noise and that after their confrontation grew violent and he pleaded with her not to call the police, he had hit her and then hanged her body, in an apparent effort to conceal his crime. The city medical examiner later ruled that Ms. Shelly had died not from a blow but from “compression of the neck.”
The story had all the earmarks of drama and sensationalism that make a successful “Law & Order” episode, and Dick Wolf, the creator of the show and its sister series, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” was hardly the only one to take notice. The morning the faked-suicide story broke, three people, including Mr. Wolf’s barber and the counterman who poured his coffee at Dean & DeLuca, brought the story to his attention as material for a new episode.
“It just screams it,” said Mr. Wolf, who reads a half-dozen newspapers a day, in part to stimulate story ideas.
Over the next few weeks, Mr. Wolf and the program’s writing “show runner,” Nicholas Wootton, batted around ways to take the apparently straightforward footprint-leads-to-the-killer story line and give it the whiplash-inducing plot twists the show is known for.
“We steal the headline and not the body copy,” Mr. Wolf explained. While the story’s jumping-off point would not change, he said, “the internal construction gets us into a vastly different area because the front half is a murder mystery, but in the best episodes the second half-hour is a moral mystery.”
Mr. Wolf’s early conception of the episode involved not one but three suspects linked to the footprint at the crime scene. In this retelling, three people in the victim’s building had identical footprints because several pairs of size-10 sneakers had fallen off a truck nearby. Two of the suspects were, like the real-life suspect Mr. Pillco, illegal aliens doing construction work. A third was the 22-year-old ne’er-do-well American-born son of their employer.
Over the course of the episode, the main suspect would change three or four times, so that in the final 15 minutes neither the characters nor the television audience would be certain whether the defendant on trial was the guilty party. The surprising plot twists were also intended to make viewers question their preconceptions about different kinds of suspects. “What is our knee-jerk reaction when we hear that an illegal alien is involved?” Mr. Wolf asked. “What is our knee-jerk reaction when we hear that a rich white kid was involved?”
Layers Upon Layers
It fell to Mr. Wootton, an executive producer, to oversee the writing of a two-page synopsis by Richard Sweren, a former defense lawyer and the only “Law & Order” staff writer based in New York rather than Los Angeles. What intrigued Mr. Wootton most about the killing was that the victim was a filmmaker. He quickly had the idea of fictionalizing her story by folding in another “ripped from the headlines” narrative: that of Theo van Gogh, the Dutch director who was murdered in 2004 by an Islamic fundamentalist after making a film critical of the treatment of Muslim women.
Mr. Sweren’s synopsis sketched a portrait of an immigrant suspect who had worked on the victim’s as-yet-unreleased film and was angered by its subject.
Mr. Wolf, however, wanted more twists and turns. Mr. Sweren responded by layering the story so the investigation could keep unfolding throughout the episode, as Latino, white and Pakistani suspects each came to the fore. As he developed the story into a teleplay, he added more and richer detail, depicting the Pakistani character, for example, as an educated Muslim immigrant who had worked as a sound technician on the victim’s film, a documentary about repression of women in the Muslim world.
The great challenge, Mr. Sweren said, was making the twists and turns organic to a story inspired by the Shelly murder. “I didn’t want to exploit the life of Adrienne Shelly by portraying her as having some illicit secret life, which is one way to create twists,” Mr. Sweren said. “Shelly is a pure victim.”
The Mad Dash
For the cast and crew of “Law & Order,” the process of bringing the words on the page to life moves at the same breakneck speed as the stories themselves. During the television season, the production side of the show’s operation rolls out a 42-minute episode every eight days, requiring only postproduction work like editing to make it broadcast-ready. The morning after the shooting of one episode wraps up, the next one begins.
After 17 years and nearly 390 episodes, production typically rumbles along with assembly-line precision. For each episode, the tasks of location scouting, casting and rehearsal occur over eight days, followed immediately by eight days of filming. For the faked-suicide episode, which by then had been titled “Melting Pot,” preproduction’s mad dash began on Monday, Jan. 8.
The first order of business was a location meeting to begin deciding what would be required of the series’ most photogenic star: the city itself. Of the roughly 45 scenes in each episode, about half are shot in four days at Chelsea Piers, where the crew has built sets for recurring spaces like the squad room and the courtroom. But 22 locations must be found elsewhere.
According to Matthew Penn, an executive producer, the first question asked at the first preproduction meeting for each episode is: “What are the four toughest locations to get?” For “Melting Pot,” the trickiest location was probably the victim’s apartment, primarily because the opening scene called for her body to be spotted from an apartment across a street.
To find a pair of apartments with the right “Rear Window” relationship, members of the location department dove into their file cabinets, which contain dossiers on 23,000 locations in the metropolitan area. They came up with three promising pairs of apartments, two on the Upper West Side and one in Inwood. After checking out all three locations, the scouts settled on the Inwood choice, a co-op whose vacant apartments could provide locations for ancillary scenes.
But the decision presented a problem for Jean de Segonzac, the director of the episode. According to the script, the two teenagers who spot the hanging body do so while they are playing strip chess, and Mr. de Segonzac envisioned them as prep-school students living in a more upscale building than the one in which the victim was hanged. While scouting apartments in the Inwood co-op, however, Gary Weist, the production designer, assured Mr. de Segonzac with a chuckle that he would dress up the prep-school girl’s room “with the appropriate lacrosse equipment.”
That was enough to satisfy Mr. de Segonzac. “You land with almost 100 people and a few tons of equipment,” he explained as he headed downstairs to inspect a gutted apartment that he hoped could serve as another location. “So it’s better to have it all in one place.”
In any event, Mr. de Segonzac said, he was excited about how the casting was going. The previous afternoon at Chelsea Piers, he had seen a young Latino actor named Reza Salazar who he thought would be excellent for the part of Julio, an illegal alien who admits to having fought with the murder victim.
“He had this tremendous feeling of vulnerability and confusion,” Mr. de Segonzac said. “We want to show that he’s done this terrible thing out of desperation, and if we cast a guy who looks like some kind of thug, it diminishes it.”
As Mr. de Segonzac spoke, the “Law & Order” casting notice for the Julio character was being disseminated on two Web logs, Gawker.com and Defamer.com, along with withering criticism about the entire enterprise of making a television episode inspired by the Shelly killing.
Noting that Ms. Shelly had appeared in a “Law & Order” episode seven years ago (playing a porn star involved in a murder conspiracy), Defamer accused the show of exploitation and surmised that its producers would not have much trouble casting the victim: “Maybe they’ve still got a headshot on file that they can send out to agencies to help them pull together this sure-to-be-classy hourlong tribute to their onetime dayplayer.”
Andrew Ostroy, Ms. Shelly’s husband, did not respond to two phone calls and two e-mail messages seeking comment for this article. “He’s made a blanket statement that he didn’t want to comment on the upcoming episode,” said Lisa Valladares, who works with Mr. Ostroy on the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded after her death to support female filmmakers.
From Life to Art, and Vice Versa
The filming of the detectives’ arrival at the scene of the hanging got under way in Inwood the morning of Jan. 22.
Crammed into the little room with Mr. de Segonzac and Ms. Lamb, the dangling stuntwoman, was a subway car’s worth of people: grips and cameramen, stunt experts and stand-in actors. When everything was in order, an assistant director hollered for the “first team.”
The stand-ins made themselves scarce, and their better-looking, better-dressed doppelgängers arrived: among them Jesse L. Martin, who plays Detective Ed Green, and Milena Govich, who plays his new partner, Detective Nina Cassady.
In between takes, the actors and director discussed Sundance, where, within hours, Ms. Shelly’s film would be purchased by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Although Ms. Shelly had been little mentioned during preproduction of “Melting Pot,” she’d become a subject of conversation that morning, because her film’s bittersweet premiere at Sundance had put her in the headlines again.
For Mr. de Segonzac, separating life and art required some compartmentalization. “I happened to know Adrienne — I worked with her on ‘Homicide,’ ” he said, referring to a 1990s NBC series. “But this story, I have to make it my own and forget all that.”
Mr. Martin, who said he hadn’t known Ms. Shelly, took a similar approach. “I don’t put the inspiration story and the script together ever, if I can help it,” he said.
But on one occasion he had no choice. About three years ago, while Mr. Martin was acting in an episode inspired by the shooting of a city worker, the dead man’s brother showed up on the set. “The reason it hit me so hard was that he was visibly really, really, really upset, and no amount of explaining to him that we were not doing the same story could satiate him,” Mr. Martin said. “After a while he calmed down, and more than anything, I think, he just wanted someone to listen to him.”
‘The Child in His Face’
“Law & Order” has been around so long that the datebook in the office of the prosecutor played by Sam Waterston is embossed with the year 1995. But one new ingredient in the show this season, the casting of Alana De La Garza as its first Hispanic assistant district attorney, helped give the “Melting Pot” story both nuance and passion.
Throughout the episode, Ms. De La Garza’s character, Connie Rubirosa, sympathizes aloud with the plight of the immigrant suspects, particularly Julio. “We’ve created a marginalized class that has a lower stake in conforming to our laws,” her character declares at one point.
And in Mr. Salazar, the half-Argentine, half-Peruvian 21-year-old selected to play the crucial role of Julio, the show found an actor so in tune with his character that he had inadvertently researched the role months before.
When the news of the Shelly killing hit the newspapers back in November, Mr. Salazar, who as a teenager emigrated from Argentina with his mother, found himself deeply moved by both the pain of the victim’s family and the question of how a young, ingenuous-looking man like Mr. Pillco might be capable of such violence. Longing to learn more, he looked into Mr. Pillco’s background online.
“I remember the child in his face,” Mr. Salazar said of the photographs he found. And it was this sense of the man that ultimately helped him bring out the humanity in a character accused of a heinous act.
To Mr. Salazar’s way of thinking, the “Melting Pot” episode does a service in raising topical and probing questions about immigration. But does it also exploit a recent murder victim?
“It’s certainly true that we are right on the edge of this vexed issue, and I’m not surprised that somebody would object,” Mr. Waterston said during a break in shooting, his bushy eyebrows dancing as he pondered the question. “There’s an old saying, which might have been invented by me: Never let them shoot a movie in your house and never let them tell the story of your life.”