Television

'It is important to find plots that drive characters forward' : Dr Neal Bear - 'Law and Order' executive producer

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A father screaming at his 14-year-old daughter for undergoing an abortion! An HIV afflicted nurse who gives hope to patients! Cops getting high on steroids! These are some of the stories through which US broadcaster NBC shows ER and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit merge crime, medicine and entertainment.

And one of those driving the creative vision of these celebrated shows is Dr Neal Baer. He is the co-creator of the medical drama ER, a show he worked on till 2000. Now he serves as the executive producer of the police drama Law and Order: SVU Which deals with cops trying to solve sexually related crimes. Baer serves on the boards of numerous organisations related to health care, including Children. He first worked on television in 1989 when he did an after school special for ABC.

Baer was in Mumbai to attend a seminar that was organised by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Heroes Project that dealt with how media can more effectively communicate the message about the menace of Aids.

Indiantelevision.com's Ashwin Pinto caught up with Dr Baer who provided his unique insights into what went behind these critically acclaimed productions.

How did the concept of 'ER' originate?

Author Michael Crichton created ER when he was a medical student at Harvard in 1970. He wrote a script for the screen which was bought by Steven Spielberg. It was kept in a trunk and was found after 23 years. It was made into a series in 1994. At that time I was a medical student at Harvard.

I had been writing before that. I was asked to return to Los Angeles to work on the show. It was the first time that an American television network used a doctor to write a show. Before that doctors were just consulting and adding a few medical lines here and there. That is what makes ER so unique. It is not from the patients' point of view. It tells stories from the doctors point of view.

 
Fresh from medical school were you initially hesitant or nervous about returning to write for television?

No! I was excited as I had so many experiences as a student. I kept spewing out those stories in terms of what had happened to me and the challenges that I faced. I wrote on the issues that I dealt with. The early stories of ER were very personalised.

One aspect of the show that I appreciated was the

meticulous attention to detail. Could you talk about

the amount of research that went into making sure that

the show does not deviate from reality?


We talked to a lot of doctors and nurses. The time that is spent doing medical procedures is certainly longer than on ER. So we took dramatic license there. But we used the proper medications and proper terms. We did not say that something uncurable could be cured. We spoke a lot to experts at the National Institute of Health.

For instance we did an episode that involved blood transfusions of a rare blood type. So we spoke to the top experts in the field. We also get actors to speak with experts. For instance now in Law and Order Sally Field guest starred as a woman with a bi-polar disorder, I got her to meet a nurse from UCLA and therefore Sally Field was able to meet patients who suffer from that disorder.

Alan Alda played a man who suffered from Alzheimers disease. He was able to meet people who suffer from this condition without of course invading their privacy. These are great actors and getting to meet real life people made their performances more affecting.

One challenge a writer for network television has to face is that the environment is very competitive for ratings and ad revenue. If a show does not pick up after say five episodes there is talk about it being dropped. Was this something that you were conscious of during the early days of 'ER'?

At the start the network did not like the show. They felt that Chicago Hope would do better in the ratings. ER however turned out to be a bigger hit than we expected. It got a 45 share which was unheard of back then. I do not think that it will happen again due to the fragmentation in the television landscape. There are too manyc choices.

The network at the beginning was not confident since we were telling too many stories. In one episode there would be six to seven storylines running simultaneously. Sometimes one storyline would start in the middle of an episode. Another storyline would not end until several episodes later. There was the fear that the viewer would not be able to keep track of them all.

One of the challenges of a long running show is never losing sight of who the characters are. How did you manage to do that?

For ER it was not difficult for the first five years as the original cast was there. Once George Clooney left everybody started to leave. Julianna Marguilies and Tony Edwards left. That created a huge vaccum. The storyline that involved Clooney and Marguilies is the second most popular storyline on ER according to a poll. New people came on.

There is a good and a bad side to this. New characters allow you to tell new stories. It is also one way to keep the audience coming back.

What is the work schedule on 'Law and Order SVU' like?

It was the same with ER. It involves eight days of preparation. The director comes in and preps the show. It is a question of making sure that the director is on the same page as a writer and producer. Then there eight days of shooting. Editing takes two weeks.

Writing for a show varies from a couple of weeks to maybe a month. On ER we would spend three to five hours three times a week in the writers room telling and breaking the stories. On Law and Order: SVU we are more individually writing the show because it is not as serialised.

'New characters allow you to tell new stories. It is also one way to keep the audience coming back'

Do you have any favourite episodes?

For ER I was nominated for two Emmies for writing. One favourite of mine is an episode called Hell And High Water where George Clooney saved a kid from a storm drain as a storm is coming. Another favourite episode featured a 17-year-old kid. He wants the right to die as he suffering from cystic fibrosis. On that same episode Eriq La Salle is operated for appendicitis by Noah Wyle. On Law And Order there are so many that each new one is my next favourite.

Could you talk about how ER evolved over the years in

terms of the characters, storylines and the technical

side?


On ER from the very beginning we had two doctors on the set. One does the odd number of shows while the other does the even number of shows. They make sure that it is technically accurate. They show the actors how to sow, suture, put tubes in. So everything is made to look real.

The challenge for ER now is to not run out of medical stories because so many have been told. We had three dryer numbered erase boards. On the boards we would write the character arcs so that we could track of what we were doing for the year. So in episode Eriq La Salle's character finds out that his son is deaf. By the end of the season he should have decided whether or not to get a coclear implant for his son. It is an effort to arch through a whole year. The boards also help keep track of each episode.

Did big drug companies like Pfizer ever approach you

in terms of having their product featured?


The network does not allow it. Advertisers pay huge money to get their products advertised during the commercial breaks. Rules do not allow a drug to be promoted during a show. Product placement is not there even for Law and Order. It happens only for reality

shows.

Recently one of the episodes of 'ER' was shot in real time like '24'. Is this something we can expect to see more of on American television?

I think that it was just a way of keeping it fresh. It involves a lot of work to do it regularly. I remember that in 1995 we did a unique initiative by broadcasting an episode of ER live. Live television for drama had not been done for 40 years.

Could you talk about how 'ER' and 'Law And Order SVU'

integrate a social cause like Aids into a storylne

without sounding preachy?


A show should do it through a character's point of view. It should be something that is affecting a character's life that the viewer cares about. You can get out a lot of information without being preachy as viewers are interested in that character when they are

dealing with a problem.

For instance in an episode of Law and Order the cops were told that a girl who was found murdered was HIV positive. The doctor was taking them through the morgue and saying that this is a problem because one of three American teenagers has a sexually transmitted infection. You get information out better in this manner as the detectives were interested in what is going on with this girl as opposed to just being given a lecture.

When George Clooney left 'ER' was it difficult to find

another actor who exuded as much charm?


ER never found anybody to replace George Clooney. It is impossible. Noah Wyle left last year. So only Sherry Stringfield is left from the original cast. ER's ratings have gone down over the past couple of years. On Law And Order SVU I would not want to work without Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni. It would be hard to do without them. They are so identified with by the viewers. Those two characters are the show. Fortunately they are on for the next two years.

ER has the advantage in that it is an ensemble you can kind of get away with one or two actors leaving. We brought in Maura Tierney's character. She was interested in Noah Wyle. There is a whole romance there. We brought Sally Field who played Maura's mother. When a character is popular his/her fee goes up. An episode costs $ 2 to 4 million dollars.

In what way is Law and Order SVU different from the

other versions of the show?


Law and Order is plot based. On the other hand the SVU spinoff is more character driven. You will find out much more about Mariska and Chris. Hat affects them, how they feel about key issues. It is not just a procedural drama. Though the storylines of SVU are

ripped from the headlines we show how the characters react to them and how they are affected.

For instance in an upcoming episode of SVU Ice T who plays a cop visits a gay bar in New York. There he finds his son's name on a list. The scary thing is that through research we found that gay bars in New York do not leave condoms on the counter. So he is left to wonder as to whether his son has been infected with HIV. He also has to come to terms with the fact that his son is gay. The stereotypical perception among viewers would be that it is not possible for Ice T who is such a huge rap star in real life to have a gay son. It is important to find plots that drive the characters forward. In another upcoming episode we look at cops buying steroids across the counter. That is because the drug company manufacturing and selling those drugs has close ties with a senator. That allows us to examine the political nature of the story.

Apart from the Aids menace what are the other social

issues that are being addressed by on SVU?


I am interested in stories that provoke, pro and have no easy answers. So far we have not been told by the network that a particular issue is off limits. I hope that it will stay that way. We have dealt with abortion, teen pregnancy. I would say that two thirds of the show deals with a social cause. One issue that

will be looked at is whether juveniles should be tried as adults. One argument is that if their brain is not as fully developed then are they fully be held responsible for their actions?

In one episode a schizophrenic woman is sexually assaulted. Amanda Plummer is quite brilliant there. We went through a 100 pages worth of newspaper research. This enables us to come up with interesting little details. In another episode an alcoholic woman who is pregnant wants to keep her baby. Chris character is dead against it as the foetus will get damaged. It is a clash between women rights and a women reproductive rights. We recently did one on whether the media should release the names of rape victims. Another episode with Kyle Maclachlan dealt with whether a child who is a sociopath can ever be treated. We did a really interesting episode about whether video games promote violent behaviour. Of course Japan also has violent video games but its people do not act in a violent manner. The kids in the show in their defense said that Grant Theft Auto was the inspiration for them to kick someone and then run him over with a car. Should we allow video games whose objective is to kill someone?

One episode in the future that I am excited about deals with a girl who gets kicked out of Catholic school because her mother is a lesbian. This true story caused a sensation in the US. We take sides through the points of view of the characters. At the end the audience should have the freedom to make up their own minds.

Very often episodes of Law And order SUV are shot by different directors. How do you go about selecting them?

We try to use a pool of six to seven directors who do maybe three to four episodes a year. This way they are familiar with the material. You do not have to train them everytime.

You have concept meetings where you go through the script and talk about each scene and what the wardrobe is. You do a read through with the actors. You also do a tone meeting. Each scene's tone is discussed. On our show we have a director producer Ted Kotcheff who is always there. He makes sure that the directors are giving the proper voice to the show.

Detectives dealing with sexually oriented crimes is a difficult and sensitive topic. Does the shoot sometimes become difficult with that amount of intensity kicking around?

Sometimes it does. However we try not to get gruesome or titillating. What happens though is that actors get so wrapped in their roles that they become one with the character. Mariska went through rape crisis counseling. Because her character on SVU is into rape copunseling she gets hundreds of mails. She gives advice to people in real life.

As a doctor do you feel that there is room for improvement in the way the mentally ill and suicide cases are portrayed on television and film?

Yes! Most mentally ill people do no kill other people. We have to be more cognizant of that. There are many ways in which mental illness presents itself. We have to try to be more open to presenting them as fuller characters. Even the movie A Beautiful Mind could have presented Russell Crowe’s character who suffers from schizophrenic better. The filmmakers left out the interesting parts of the book in terms of his sexuality.
What is next on your plate as far as television is concerned?

I will be doing some pilots. Right now I am not sure what they are. I have worked on pilots in the past. I did one called Outreach which was about a community clinic on venic beach. I also did one called The Edge which was about bio ethics.

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