Screenwriting: Solving the Mystery of the Defective Detective

A couple of years ago, visionary director Marcus Nispel suggested I adapt a true-crime story from the mid-80s. His primary rationale was that I understood the world the story is set in better than most writers; the fact I had zero experience writing crime was irrelevant to him (but not to me). Even though I remembered the case vividly—and was throughly creeped out and appalled by it, to the point I immediately recoiled from the prospect of scripting it—it was the kind of connection I would never make for myself, but seeing patterns where others don’t is a small part of what makes Marcus visionary and electrifying to work with.

My immediate reservation was that the process of adaptation, of hitting the right beats, of deploying the tricks of the crime genre effectively was literally a mystery to me. I would have to learn as I went along.

Fortunately, this was true crime. The plot was laid out for me. I didn’t have to look for clever whodunits that would keep the audience riveted and guessing. To do that properly, from scratch, you need to think like a criminal, and my mind doesn’t work that way even the slightest bit, but I envy those that do: they are the cleverest brains in storytelling.

The scripting process was nevertheless a brutal hazing. There wasn’t just one crime, there were four, with three of them overlapping—they needed to be woven together in a compelling way that keeps the viewer engaged. The story’s timeline spanned forty years. It was the most arduous, insanity-inducing experience of my career; at a certain point, I looked up and realized my workspace looked like a mosaic of clues that Carrie Mathison might spin together on Homeland during a sweaty, sleepless manic phase when she just can’t get to the bottom of the problem and has gone off her meds to see the connection clearly.

I took a picture of my workspace and posted it online, of course, partly to show off how grueling this experience was and how macho I was for tackling it, and also as a record of my struggle to untangle the mystery of scripting crime.

When producer Howard Rosenman came on board, one of his first questions was whether there was a heroic counterpoint to the villainous, unsavory Svengali title character, someone on whom the audience could pin their hopes and aspirations. Howard knew the real Mr. Svengali very well back in the day (when people say “Howard knows everyone,” one glance at his Facebook feed testifies that the cliché is completely true in his case), and rightly feared his actions were too repulsive to anchor a film or a TV series, no matter how innately charming the actor who plays him needs to be.

My work space while scripting the true-crime piece. It got crazier.

“Yes. The lead detective,” I replied immediately.

After Marcus and Howard approved the outline, I went on to script a feature. The four separate crimes—murder, rape, tax fraud and kidnapping—intertwined with a rags-to-riches backstory that is almost too wow for fiction. And too cumbersome for a two-hour time frame. The page count on the feature script ran to over a hundred and fifty pages. There was no way for me to pull it back under the standard hundred and twenty without compromising the strongest, most shocking parts of the story and character development, so I expanded it into a six-episode limited series.

An expansion of that scope means you need as many eyes on the teleplays as you can get, or you risk not putting your best foot forward. I brought in a screenwriting teacher from Columbia University as a consultant, someone I’d never met before who wouldn’t have any personal bias toward me and my work, and gave him the mandate to rip apart the scripts mercilessly, as if he were foul-tempered, hungover network exec with crippling debt in the throes of an acrid divorce, whose sole purpose was to find artful ways of saying “No.”

One of the notes that stood out was that the Hero Detective was too bumpkin, too gosh-golly-gee, too sane. My argument in defense of my decisions for the character was that the real-life person was just that: After Mr. Svengali’s associate was convicted of the murder, the Hero Detective went on to become a prosecutor and then a judge, inspired, I surmised, by the fact that Mr. Svengali was never even indicted for the murder, much less tried for it, yet another case of a rich and powerful, super-connected O.J. Simpson-type getting away with murder. (He was also acquitted of the brutal rape case, but served time for tax fraud and attempted kidnapping.)

No sooner had I uttered the words, “But the real-life person was just like that,” than my script consultant played the part I hired him for: He savaged my logic. And I did know better that to offer the but-he’s-based-on-real-person excuse: The truth should never stand in the way of better drama. Is the viewer really going to read all the source material while watching the show and understand that you’ve adapted the character faithfully, at the expense of making the story more dynamic?

An adaptation is a translation of sorts. As the somewhat misogynistic Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko famously put it, “Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful.”

The same can be said of men, of course, regardless of whether or not they’re beautiful. In fact, infidelity is by no means confined to beautiful people of either sex, but there I go quibbling with a poet, again. Never a good idea.

The script consultant was correct: my Hero Detective wasn’t flawed enough; he was too good to be human. And if you follow the pattern of just about every current TV crime/legal/forensic drama that I have seen recently, the detective—and by that I mean any character seeking to uncover the truth or solve a mystery, regardless of whether he or she is actually a law-enforcement professional—needs to be downright unhinged.

In a blog her blog post “The Conventional Character Traits of the Fictional Detective,” April Brady somewhat tautologically lists a number of attributes fictional detectives must have, which are mostly variations on “They suffer from some sort of physical, mental or psychological challenge.” I’m ignoring that ‘mental’ and ‘psychological’ are synonyms; that’s just part of Ms. Brady’s tautology and why she’s hitting the point home through repetition: The detective as portrayed in entertainment, whether on the screen or in print or on radio, needs to be fucked up, messed up, screwed up. All of the ups.

About a year after I started development on the true-crime series, I was commissioned to script a feature about a badass Chinese ninja female coroner (stay with me) who takes down a nefarious American scientist who is using CRISPR genetic-engineering technology to create a new race of transhumans that will destroy the current model of homo sapiens. Believe it or not, the seed for this was also a real-life character, the first female Chinese coroner, but for various very good reasons—namely that it’s almost impossible to make an engaging, commercial movie about a Chinese government employee and China’s judicial system and still have it pass censorship—we moved it to America and co-created a story that has little bearing on real life other than the fact it’s within a (very slim) margin of plausibility.

My creative partner Rain Li is set to direct. Every film we have in development for her to helm features a gorgeous, feisty, fearless, take-no-hostages Chinese female lead; basically, we graft Rain herself onto every lead character—she is all of those things and more. In essence, we’ve taken two real-life women and fused them into one. But one thing neither of the real women share is how mentally wounded the fictional character has evolved to be.

Director Rain Li

Rain Li isn’t your average director.

I have this image that in writers’ rooms all over Hollywood they begin building the detective character by asking, “So, what makes her really fucked up?” We never asked ourselves that about the ninja coroner; it was simply a natural progression, the way she needed to be. As of the current draft, she is a traumatized orphan—a terrible fate for any child, but even more so for family-centric Asians—whose only living relative, her beloved brother, is murdered in the beginning of the movie, blinkering her with an obsessive need for revenge. On top of this she suffers from grand mal seizures, which become increasingly worse as the story progresses, raising the stakes by hindering her chances of success.

I have to admit, the ninja coroner is much more exciting and engaging than the Boy Scout detective from the true-crime series. In fairness, she is the lead of her story, he the second lead in his; the truly fucked-up character is Mr. Svengali.

I had conceived of the Boy Scout detective as being the counterpoint, the angel to Mr. Svengali’s demon—it’s natural to steer a drama toward the struggle between good versus evil, rather than taking a more realistic approach and painting good and evil as nuanced and somewhat relative to subjective perspective. That may still be the more valid approach to the Boy Scout detective’s character. But I’ll try weighing him down a little with more personal challenges in a future draft and see what sticks.

It seems to me that the key to why hero detectives need to be messed up lies in the first trait that April Brady lists, one of the few that doesn’t relate to them needing to be damaged beyond repair:

They are usually brilliant people, with a particular gift or strength, “super power”, or amazing ability: eidetic memory, extraordinary deductive reasoning skills, the ability to read minds, or gifted with languages.

The first order of business when constructing a lead characters is to make them identifiable. As every Marvel writer knows, super heroes at their pre-transformation base need to be like us: flawed, anxious, goofy, beset by challenges and those vagaries of life that keep us essentially barely in control of ourselves and the world around us. Captain America is handsome, powerful and as wholesome as a Wold War II movie, but he’s perpetually lonely—he’s living in the wrong time period, and everyone he ever really loved has grown old and died. Thor may be the ideal of manly perfection on steroids (literally), but he’s also something of a bumbling blond bimbo, someone the average viewer can feel intellectually superior to.

There is a difference between having magical super powers and being super-gifted, however. The difference is plausibility. The more plausible the talent, the more heaping that spoonful of schadenfreude that will make the character go down needs to be. As Linus says in the lead Google image for ‘schadenfreude’, “Pain looks great on other people.”

It seems even real-life geniuses can make it to the screen only if they’re beset by enormous challenges. Per my definition, scientists are detectives in their own right, conjuring near-miraculous inventions or uncovering truths about the universe that propel mankind forward. I have never seen or heard of a biopic about Albert Einstein, by far the most famous genius of the twentieth century. This might be because he’s essentially dull character, a lovable schlubby professor with messy frizzy hair sticking his tongue out playfully. Nothing bad happened to him, nothing eventful other than monumental discoveries that nonscientists have a very hard time grasping. He’s nutty, he’s happy; there’s nothing to watch there. But both Stephen Hawking and Alan Turning, two scientific geniuses beset with insurmountable personal challenges, have received the highest level of cinematic treatment—they even competed against each other in the same awards cycle.

Teen detectives tend not to be encumbered by inherent issues; Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys are the first to spring to mind. I might be dating myself, but I can’t seem to find any contemporary YA hero detectives that face the same hurdles as their adult counterparts, with the exception of Christopher Boone in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, whose progress in his investigation is greatly hindered by his severe autism. (Having said that, …Dog in the Night-time, is also considered an adult book.) The common denominator with young detectives is they are compelled to step in when their adult-in-charge becomes incapacitated, or only they can save the day because there is no other adult around to do it.

It could be argued that some of the more successful fictional detectives, namely Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, were simply finicky and very eccentric, hardly attributes that were hindrances to their daily lives. Columbo would fall into that category. But I would argue that the fact they are so pointedly individualistic appeals to our innate desire to be seen as unique beings, and therefore counts as an identifiable trait.

The first fictional detective, Edgar Allen Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, was forced “by a variety of untoward events” into a common but onerous affliction for the 19th-century gentleman: impecunious circumstances, after being born into considerable wealth. His successor, Sherlock Holmes, had a major cocaine addiction, in addition to what would be diagnosed today as antisocial behavior disorder. He would also rank pretty high on the autism spectrum.

In this golden age of television, I’d be hard-pressed not to name a hero detective who isn’t miserably bogged down with personal challenges. Aside from the aforementioned Homeland, the list of shows lead by an emotionally and/or circumstantially challenged sleuth is lengthy: The Sinner, The Killing, House, Broadchurch, Sherlock, True Detective (season one), Fortitude, Monk, Sharp Objects and more.

Not all fictional detectives are messed up; without a proper statistical measurement, my guess is it’s about seventy-thirty in favor of balanced over messed up. But the trend in terms of the shows that grab awards attention seems to favor the latter. I bet we’ll be seeing more seriously damaged sleuths in the future.

James Killough

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