Mystery Writers Lust After Hollywood

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I came to Hollywood for the health insurance.

That’s right. I lusted after cheap meds, not fame and fortune, when I migrated from Miami to Hollywood 17 years ago. And why not? A doctor’s visit costs ten bucks at the industry-subsidized Bob Hope Health Center. I quickly learned, however, that writers pay their dues in many other ways. Even mystery writers.

Before I traveled west, I thought Hollywood writers rolled into work around 11 a.m., scribbled for a couple hours, drank their lunch at Musso and Frank’s, then cracked wise with starlets the rest of the day. Like Bogart, who came to Casablanca for the waters, I was misinformed.

mystery writers strike
Mystery writers don’t go on strike. Unionized television writers do. (With Larry Moskowitz and Randy Anderson, bringing Disney to its knees).

I quickly learned that television scribes are skilled craftsmen who work damn hard, sometimes all night while cameras roll. The writing itself is tougher than it looks. One-hour dramas employ the same three-act structure as plays and novels. Yes, it’s still the dramatic form advocated by Aristotle. Act one is exposition; act two is complication; and act three is resolution.

HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER: “Aristotle said that? Get me his agent.”

An overriding factor in television writing is the restraint of time. Want to craft a one-hour drama? After commercials, you’ve got 43 minutes to tell your tale. Stream-of-consciousness writers need not apply. Mystery writers who are strong on structure fare better.

I came west in 1999, sneaking into TV at such an advanced age that the Christian Science Monitor dubbed me the “oldest rookie writer in Hollywood.” I had already been a newspaper reporter, a trial lawyer, and a novelist, so I have a track record of either taking on new challenges or being unable to hold a job, depending on your point of view.

mystery writers jag credit
Unlike mystery writers working on novels, television scribblers get immediate gratification (or sorrow). It’s just weeks from script to air.

I began doubting the sanity of this latest move my first day on the Paramount Pictures lot. My dungeon of an office in the Clara Bow Building overlooked a dumpster behind the commissary, and my window air conditioner whined like an F-14 taking off from an aircraft carrier.

Mystery Writers Are Their Own Bosses. TV Writers Not So Much.

Years earlier, as a lawyer, I enjoyed a view of Bimini from the penthouse of a high rise on Miami’s Biscayne Bay and lunched on stone crabs and passion fruit iced tea at the Bankers’ Club. Later, as my own boss, I wrote eight novels at home in Coconut Grove, parrots squawking in a bottlebrush tree outside. Now, with kamikaze horseflies from the dumpster smashing into my window, I was low man on a staff of six writers. As well I should have been. When I got to Hollywood, I didn’t know a smash cut from a cold cut. How did I get here, anyway?

I’d been bitten by the Hollywood bug in 1995 when the late Stephen J. Cannell produced an NBC movie-of-the-week that was adapted from my first novel. I began dabbling in Hollywood long-distance. I wrote an action-adventure feature for Cannell’s company. Think Die Hard in a missile silo. I wrote the first draft of The A-Team feature screenplay that likewise went nowhere. I penned a computer hacker pilot for ABC. Five similar pilots were commissioned by the networks that season; none got on the air. I wrote a miniseries for CBS, which also was never produced. I was beginning to learn of a world where writers were unionized and got paid even though their work was shelved — literally — stacked on shelves with hundreds of other dusty scripts.

I also free-lanced two episodes of JAG, the CBS military drama. When they aired, I had the novel sensation of listening to actors read my words aloud.

Mystery Writers Wondered if I’d Sold Out.

Then Don Bellisario, the creator of JAG, offered me a staff position. I considered the alternatives. Stay in Miami with the mosquitoes and no book deal. Or go to L.A. and get a paycheck plus that free health insurance. Goodbye mosquitoes. Hello coyotes. (The four-legged scavengers, not Hollywood agents.) My friends among the mystery writers watched from afar with alarm. Had I sold out? Would I be eaten alive?

mystery writers on deck
Mystery writers seldom land on the flight deck of aircraft carriers. “JAG” writers did.

I ended up writing 20 episodes of JAG and also co-created with Bellisario First Monday, a drama set at the Supreme Court. The show, which was based loosely on my novel 9 Scorpions , this year was named one of the “ten great Supreme Court novels” by the American Bar Association Journal. It is now available as an ebook, retitled Impact. First Monday gave me the opportunity to work with James Garner, Joe Mantegna, and Charles Durning, three terrific actors. In fact, the entire cast was fine. But we, the producers and writers, failed when we tried to jazz up the stories.

James Garner, Chief Justice mystery writers
Chief Justice James Garner and our fictional Supreme Court.

In reality, most of the drama at the Supreme Court takes place in the Justices’ minds and is difficult to dramatize. Still, we might have been a hit, if not for our dead-on-arrival demographics: most of our viewers were between Medicare and the mortuary. After 13 episodes, we were buried in the slag heap of cancelled shows.

So was the Hollywood experience all bad? As the junior officers frequently said to the admiral on JAG: “Permission to speak freely, Sir?”

Actually, there were many satisfying moments. While TV writers remain anonymous outside the industry, an actor’s compliment on a script or several warm and fuzzy e-mails from viewers mean that someone has noticed your work. The very speed of the process — weeks, not years — from page to screen, makes the medium more intense and immediate than publishing. Then there’s the knowledge that 15 to 20 million people are paying various degrees of attention to a story you created out of a thin air. (Moments later, of course, your story vanishes into thin air).

mystery writers credits
Television credits fade into thin air in just seconds. So do many shows.

Something else, too, something I never anticipated. Writing for TV sharpened my prose skills. I believe my writing is leaner, my plotting tighter, my dialogue zippier. And let’s not forget those regular paychecks plus pension and health benefits.

I have returned to the excruciating yet exhilarating task of storytelling with only the written word. Since Hollywood learned it could exist without my services, I’ve published four courtroom capers in the Solomon vs. Lord series. One of the books, The Deep Blue Alibi, was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe award. I’ve written three more novels in the Jake Lassiter series. Last year, I brought Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord together with Jake Lassiter in Bum Rap, which was briefly the number one bestseller in the Amazon Kindle store. In June 2017, Bum Luck, the second in that new series, will be published by Thomas & Mercer.

There’s even renewed interest in Hollywood in Lassiter as a television series. No, I’m not interested in writing the show. I’ve got my health insurance — and my sanity — and intend to keep both.

Fargo TV Series a Hit: “You Betcha!”

Fargo TV Series

By Paul Levine

The ten-episode Fargo TV Series, based loosely on the Coen Brothers darkly comedic feature film, went out with a bang — several bangs — and fans can finally let out a deep breath.

HUGE SPOILER ALERT: Hit man Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) is dead.

PAT MYSELF ON THE BACK ALERT:  Several episodes ago, I told my wife Marcia that meek cop-turned-mailman Gus Grimly, not protagonist Deputy Molly Solverson, would kill Malvo. Dramatically, it  had to happen that way. More on why below.

Meanwhile, a lawyer friend asked last night. “Okay, what’s it all mean?”

Well, where to begin? The Fargo TV series was many things. On the surface it’s a serial killer story with the usual question: Will justice be done? But that’s the issue in virtually every cop show in the history of television.

Fargo TV Series: Malvo
Fargo TV Series: Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) was one icy killer.

Just as “True Detective” (another many-layered serial killer story) was deeply rooted in the psychological traumas of the two main characters, much was going on beneath the surface in the Fargo TV series:

* It’s a father-daughter story. Two stories, really. Lou (Keith Carradine), the retired and wounded cop, fears for his daughter Molly, (Allison Tolman), the deputy-who-should-be-chief. And widower Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) fears that if he’s killed, his daughter will be an orphan.

* It’s a story of two sociopaths, though one doesn’t know it in the beginning.

* It’s a story of two cowards, but one really isn’t.

* It’s a story of redemption for the coward who was really a hero.

* But most of all, it’s a story about a very smart female cop whose talents are ignored by her donut-chomping male superiors until the very end, where she prevails, just as the former chief had foreshadowed.

Fargo TV Series, Molly
Deputy Molly Solverson is frustrated by the incompetence of the chief in the Fargo TV Series

Fargo TV Series: In the Beginning, a Shocker!

Let’s go back to the beginning. All is well with the world in little Bemidji, MN. Vern, the nice guy police chief, recognizes Molly’s superior intelligence and dedication and expresses the hope that she’ll be the next chief. Then, BOOM! Hit man Malvo kills Vern in a scene of shocking violence.

That shooting came hard-on-the-heels of Malvo killing the town bully in a whorehouse, and meek insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (the incomparable Martin Freeman) splattering his wife’s brains with hammer.  A true coward, Lester has learned from Malvo that having no conscience can get things done. You can kill your nagging wife, frame your irritating brother, lie to the widow of the town bully and have sex with her, then finally set up your second wife to take a bullet intended for you. All with hardly a second thought. It was Malvo who brought out Lester’s sociopathic tendencies, though I suppose there was always an underlying narcissism.

Fargo TV Series: Gus Grimley’s “Desires” and “Needs”

Midway through the season, we discover we have a co-protagonist. It’s widower-cop Gus Grimly, who takes a shine to Molly, marries her, and gets her pregnant. But there’s a “ghost” looming over him, to use the screenwriting term. Early on, he freezes up and lets the murderous Malvo go, after stopping him for speeding. But if you recall, it was Gus’s fear of leaving his daughter an orphan — not cowardice — that prompted Gus’s action…or inaction. Still, that left Gus despondent, and after a second screw-up, accidentally shooting Molly in a white-out blizzard, he’s canned from the force. Now he can pursue his real dream…becoming a mailman. No, really.

Fargo TV series
Killer Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) and reluctant deputy Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) in the Fargo TV series.

Gus might not be cut out to be a cop, but neither is he a coward. In the finale, he sneaks into Malvo’s hidden cottage to await his return. Logically, Gus should have called the cops, right? Wrong! As wife Marcia pointed out while we were watching the show, Gus knew that his wife, the pregnant Deputy Molly, would rush to the scene, directly into harm’s way.  Gus was protecting her with his seemingly illogical action.

Another reason, too. Let’s go back to film school (a place I’ve never been). In screenwriting, they talk about a character’s “desires” versus a character’s “needs.” On the surface, Gus desires a peaceful life. A family. A pleasant drive through the countryside delivering the mail. But his “need” is interior, perhaps even unconscious. He needs to prove to himself that he is not a coward. He needs to protect his wife and daughter. (In this regard, he is just like Molly’s father Lou, who sits on the porch all night with a shotgun to protect Gus’s daughter from harm). In short, Gus needs redemption. That’s why it was clear to me, early on, that Gus will kill Malvo. And boy, was it satisfying! Seldom is a shooting in cold blood so damn well earned.

Fargo TV series lester
Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) takes his lumps en route to becoming a killer on the Fargo TV series

Hey, speaking about redemption, let’s say a word about the knucklehead police chief Bill (Bob Odenkirk), who, as another observer pointed out, is “not the sharpest blade in the woodchipper.” He gains redemption by recognizing his weaknesses and Molly’s strengths and retiring so she can become chief. In an unusually introspective moment, he admits to not being up to the job in an era of cruelty and inhumanity:

“I used to have positive opinions about people. Used to think the best. Now looking over my shoulder — an unquiet mind — that’s what the wife calls it. The job has got me staring into the fireplace, drinking. I never wanted to be the type thinking about the nature of things. All I ever wanted was a stack of pancakes and a V-8.”

I think that was intended to pay homage to the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” where Sheriff Tommy Lee Jones  bemoans the passing of simpler times. Here’s a truncated version of that monologue:

“I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five years old. Hard to believe. My grandfather was a lawman; father too. Me and him was sheriffs at the same time; him up in Plano and me out here…Some of the old time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lotta folks find that hard to believe…The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand.”

Sharp observers might remember a couple weeks back, Malvo told the story about the bear who chewed his leg off to get out of a trap, then died in a stream, but on his own terms. Then Malvo gets his leg broken in Lester’s bear trap…leading to his own death at Gus’s hands. No biggie. Just the screenwriter showing off a bit.

Finally, there is the wonderful ending of the Fargo TV series. On a comfy sofa, preganant Molly, Gus and Gus’s daughter Greta are watching television. Gus is a tad embarrassed that he’s getting a citation for bravery for taking down Malvo. Says he thinks Molly should get it. “Nope,” she says, “that’s your deal. I get to be the chief.”

(Paul Levine is the author of the “Jake Lassiter” and the “Solomon vs. Lord” series of legal thrillers).