Scriptwriting… SouthLAnd style

If I may get personal for a moment… I write movies and TV scripts with a writing partner, and recently was extremely happy to find out that our SouthLAnd spec script was a quarter finalist in the 2010 Scriptapalooza TV competition. SouthLAnd is a show that is dear to my heart. It raises its game each and every week, and it’s a show that I love deeply. Writing that script was in some ways my way of paying tribute to the show; it really is the perfect template for the best kind of drama. It’s inspired me in all kinds of ways in writing and in life. After writing the spec script, I wrote a drama pilot which, although set in the cop world, was very different from SouthLAnd. But I tried to adhere to everything I’ve learned from watching this show. If you watch SouthLAnd with a writer’s eye, you see how extraordinary the writing on the show is. Whether it’s Jonathan Lisco’s hyper-detailed situations and emotional precision, or Cheo Hodari Coker’s lively, wide-ranging pop culture references and genius for character work, all the writers on the show bring heart, meaning and an unflinching approach to emotionally devasting moments. Each episode of the show is a masterclass in how to develop characters, how to get into and out of a scene in seconds if necessary, while still giving it maximum psychological impact. The writers are masters of distillation, which all good writers have to be: it’s just that on this show, it’s taken to a whole other level. It’s inspiring on many levels. It inspires me to write, to fight for the dreams that fuel everything I do. It inspires me to learn more, and to push myself beyond my limits, because that’s where the truth is.

These kinds of recognitions form an incremental beauty. Whether it’s stories in anthologies, being placed in script competitions, or almost getting into script workshops, knowing that people respond to what you do, respond to your voice, is a powerful thing. As a writer, making that connection is vital. It’s what it’s all about, and whenever it happens, I feel grateful and inspired to do more.

And I have to say, after watching this week’s episode, Sideways, as a writer I’d be overjoyed if I knew that Allison Anders was going to direct something I had written. Just saying.

SouthLAnd: heart of darkness

Six episodes in, SouthLAnd isn’t letting up the pace: it’s only picking up speed.

Cop Or Not began with Lydia and Josie investigating a gruesome celebrity murder, while Cooper and Sherman and seemingly half the LAPD were forced to stand guard outside on a street full of celebrity addresses, warding off the paparazzi.

Cheo Hodari Coker delivered some of his finest writing in these scenes. He channeled his inner Tarantino by having the suspect, an actor, tell the detectives that he was starring in a Tony Scott remake of Shogun Assassin, and was being trained by Sonny Chiba. As a devoted believer in the fact that True Romance is the greatest movie ever made, I couldn’t help but love this. Sonny Chiba and Snoop Dogg references aside, this storyline was brutal, laying bare the dark glitz of Los Angeles, and showing us the reality of being a cop in the capital city of Celebrity. Cop Or Not was also notable for addressing the issue of Cooper’s sexuality for the first time since he came out to Ben: it did so in the subtlest way possible, just a brief shot of Cooper getting out of bed, leaving the man he’d spent the night with. The scene followed the SouthLAnd creed: no more, no less than necessary.

It was a strong, fast-moving episode. It hit the streets and ran hard, like Sammy in pursuit of his revenge.

“I’m back, m*therf*cker.”

There can be no doubt: this was Sammy’s episode, just as this is turning out to be Shawn Hatosy’s season.

From the early scene where Nate’s kid asks Sammy, “are you gonna get killed like my dad?”, it was clear that Cop Or Not was heading right into Sammy’s heart of darkness. As Sammy faced up to hitting the streets for the first time in six weeks in order to get the word out that he was back, we saw the terrible forces fighting inside him, thanks to Hatosy’s raw, De Niro-like stillness masking the struggle and conflict within. Or, as his ride-along partner put it, “you got that Sean Penn, crazy white boy thing going for you.”

When Sammy found out that he was the father of Tammi’s baby (“I’m the dad”), it was a gut-wrenchingly simple few moments that floored the viewer. You could feel the immensity of the emotions (finally knowing he was the father, knowing Nate wasn’t there to share the news). The sheer impact of this scene was thanks to the subtle artistry of three men: a typically tight and raw script from Coker, minimal, edgy direction from J.Michael Muro, and, of course, Shawn Hatosy’s acting: emotions roiling up from within, rippling across the surface as he struggled to contain them. Too much for one man; too much for the viewer.

By the time Sammy returned to the scene of Nate’s death, he couldn’t hold it together, and neither could we. When Sammy described the things Nate had taught him, as gangsters appeared on all sides, we felt the beauty and sadness of the things he was saying fighting against the dangerous volatility building fast. Sammy is a bad-ass detective, legendary on the force, but he was coming apart, coming undone; the forces of loss were breaking him. As he faced off against Nate’s killer, cops pulling up on all sides, the emotion overflowed. It was raw in the way that only SouthLAnd can be. “I ain’t goin’ anywhere,” Sammy promised the killer. We can only hope that’s true of Sammy, and of the show itself.

Occasionally those passions explode: Southland, Punching Water

“Start with the truth.”

So screamed Shawn Hatosy ‘s Sammy Bryant, handily summing up the show’s mantra in the opening scenes of this week’s Southland, the thrilling, brutal, blistering and frequently hilarious second episode of the show’s new season. Phenomenally written by Cheo Hodari Coker, and directed by Christopher Chulack with an even surer eye for movement, detail, light and Los Angeles locations than usual, Punching Water was the series’ high point to date, eclipsing past career best eps like Phase Three and What Makes Sammy Run?, raising the bar even higher for the show, and for TV drama.

What made this episode special was the heightening of the show’s fundamental elements, and the way they were combined with such sure control. Every element was punched up: the tight narrative style, the dry humor, the raw treatment of violence, and making small moments count for everything. Impressively, considering the budgetary restraints faced by the show this season, the episode not only featured all of the main cast (Lydia, Nate, Sammy, Sal, Cooper, Sherman, Chickie and Dewey), but even managed to bring all of them together in one superbly written, acted and shot, highly charged scene that also delivered one of the series’ greatest moments to date: the sight of Lydia slapping down Dewey. This was the flash forward that opened the episode, with the accompanying voiceover describing what happens when you bring together a bunch of cops passionate about their jobs: “Occasionally those passions explode.”

Despite being driven by a brutal sequence of multiple retaliatory murders across the MLK weekend, this episode also managed to be the funniest in the show’s history. There were many comic moments: Nate and Sammy’s back and forth (“playa, playa”), the other cops’ jibes about Sherman’s new lady friend, or, my personal favorite, Cooper screaming off in the patrol car with Sherman, leaving Dewey behind with a none-too-thrilled Chickie. Throughout, Punching Water ducked and dived with the confidence and sure step of a pro, like Ali, knowing when to hit you hard, and when to dance around.

The theme that drives Southland is what it means to be a cop, and Punching Water advanced this further, with awesome levels of gravitas courtesy of Michael McGrady, in a welcome return to the show as Detective “Sal” Salinger. He rallied the troops to get out to the streets to find the killer of a four year old, the latest victim in the wave of murders. Coker wrote a great speech, and McGrady completely nailed it. In doing so, he anchored the scene, the episode, and likely the season as well. He also initiated a first for the show: a montage sequence, which also marked the first time (more or less) the show has used a soundtrack since it ended the pilot episode Unknown Trouble with The National’s Fake Empire (which I talked about here). It was a departure, but it worked perfectly.

Although everyone in the cast did classy work in this episode, it was McGrady that landed the killer punch.

And that’s what the show ended with: a devastating emotional killer punch that concluded the show’s underlying theme this week, as summed up by Sherman: “love’s a bitch.” Love or lack of it was the catalyst of everything that happened in the episode, and the final scene was the perfect example of how this show can devastate you in seconds. Like a high performance car, this thing can shift gears seamlessly and quietly. You don’t even know it’s happening until it’s too late, the tears rolling down your face. This episode was a full court press throughout, saving its best shot for last.

Damn, this show is good.