My first staff job on a television series was story editing the popular, if not exactly highbrow ABC show, “MacGyver” back in 1987.
I was pretty surprised when, on my very first day on the job, the show’s executive producer Henry Winkler waltzed into my office on the Paramount lot, introduced himself to my then-partner and me, and proceeded to write a single word on the whiteboard:
I suddenly feared that word of my critical snobbishness had leaked out to my bosses, and they’d already sent the Fonz to straighten me out. Luckily, he was only there to share what he considered his most important advice on writing: Whatever else a scene is intended to do, it must also give the actors something to play.
Motivation. Spin. Attitude. Something’s got to be there, beneath the surface of all the dialog and action, for an actor, and later the viewer, to feel engaged.
It’s an important lesson for all writers, and one sparklingly practiced this week by our newest contributor, Marvin Wolf.
Marv jumped into “Right of Way” with Napolitano and Celeste headed for questioning at LAPD’s downtown headquarters. His recently posted pages, 71-75, not only lend clarity and authenticity to our main characters’ complex legal situations; they do so with style, adding color and depth to their flawed personalities.
So when movie star Celeste is taken into a room and questioned about her role in a kidnapping and blackmail scheme, she seems less concerned about that than the possibility that her interrogation video might end up on YouTube.
And with the mayor’s career and even his freedom on the line, he rails against his arresting officer, Chief of Detectives, Walter Hoovler, with whom he has some interesting personal history.
And while all that’s going on, Marv fills in the scorecard for the game that’s been unfolding in our pages:
Detectives Deland and Gallardo: suspended.
Celeste: arrested and released to her high-powered attorney on her own recognizance.
Mayor Napolitano: arrested by LAPD, then freed when a high-ranking supersheriff pulls jurisdictional rank.
Marv, a four-time past president of the Independent Writers of Southern California, obviously knows his way around a police stationhouse. He’s written often about law enforcement in his 15 books and countless magazine articles, and he’s also racked up some firsthand experience, being arrested by Hermosa Beach’s chief of police for the heinous act of selling encyclopedias.
His familiarity with the LAPD’s Parker Center interrogation room comes from another real-life incident: It started when he interviewed a source in a Valley restaurant for his book “Platinum Crime.” (That book later served as source material for the USA Network TV movie “Ladies Night,” which he co-wrote with partner Larry Mintz.)
His restaurant companion was a private eye who claimed to be keeping a police captain on retainer to provide him with inside information -- a situation Marv has cannily set up for a possible future installment of our script.
When someone in the restaurant overheard them and reported their conversation to police, the department’s Internal Affairs Group tracked Marv down and demanded he take a polygraph.
“Knowing how unreliable these were, I refused,” Marv said. “They kept asking; eventually I realized that I was being offered an opportunity most writers never get.”
Marv relented and was taken to Parker Center, where his pages for this week’s developments take place.
“When they strapped me into the polygraph, my pulse started to race. And when interrogators accused me of being the one who bribed a police captain, I had a panic attack. The styluses tracing my bodily responses all but flew off the paper. I was judged untruthful and given a chance to repent my sins through confession.
“I had nothing to confess,” Marv says, “except that I had accepted Internal Affairs’ invitation out of purely opportunistic motives. But not until I yielded to the pull of ‘Right of Way,’” Marv says, “was I able to put that experience to creative use.
“If a writer lives long enough, nothing in his life goes to waste.”