“Your kung fu is strong, and your magic is powerful…” NCIS: LA, Cheo Coker-style

Watching Collateral, Cheo Coker’s first episode for NCIS: LA, is an inspiring experience.

His former show, SouthLAnd, was all about character, and only about the plot and the crimes when it related to character. SouthLAnd has never been about solving the crime; it’s about understanding the character. Whereas, NCIS: LA is a plot juggernaut, a procedural freight train that requires its characters to deliver high volumes of exposition as its multi-layered crimes are uncovered. Coker has proved himself the master of deep character revelation through minimalist and fiery dialogue; what would he do with a show that demands huge blocks of time devoted to the procedural details?

Turns out, a tremendous amount.

Writers of TV scripts, movie scripts… hell, whatever kind of writer you are, Coker’s episode contained some invaluable lessons.

1. Character.

In a heavy procedural like this, the majority of the 42 minutes running time is taken up with blocks of discovery, exposition and payoff. That’s the point of the show, and NCIS: LA delivers that with style. What Coker did was fill those brief interludes between procedural necessities with a furious flurry of character-revealing dialogue and banter. He added depth and soul, where many shows would settle for “we’re here, and now we need to go… there.” His riffs on LPs and cartoons allowed him to create a fast-moving, warm dynamic between Callen, Nate, Nell and Hanna. The lesson: every moment, every line and beat and reaction, is a chance to deepen your characters and their relationships. Don’t waste a second of your screenplay. 

Taking every opportunity to deepen relationships

2. Seriously, Character.

But Coker didn’t stop there. Even during the more mechanical components of the plot, he was reflecting character, taking each opportunity to shine a light into the team, showing us what makes them tick, what makes them work well together. For example, even a quick comment about grandstanding partners (along with the reactions in the room) added to what we know about the team and how they feel about each other. The lesson: exposition can be a bitch — so make it fun, vivid, naturalistic… and make it reveal something about your characters as well as the story. The facts of the case are best served up while they are also telling us more about the speaker and the listeners. If your plot point is also a character point, you’re winning.

Exposition alert! Coker makes scenes like this just pop

3. Pop Culture.

Damn. Coker is the true master of the pop culture riff. No one is doing it like him. He emptied clip after clip of pop culture into his SouthLAnd scripts (“Where’s Optimus Prime when you need him?”, riffing on James Ellroy, or Sonny Chiba), and he stepped up again in Collateral, firing off ongoing bits about Hong Kong Phooey vs. Underdog, Isaac Hayes and vinyl LPs vs MP3s, James Bond blu ray box sets, video games… the list goes on. The lesson: keep things LIVELY. It doesn’t have to be via pop culture — that’s hard to pull off naturalistically unless you have a genuine love of and feel for your references — it can be via snark too — but keep the dialogue cracking, multi-dimensional and, above all, revealing. It’s a blast when characters face off about pop culture in the middle of a crisis (a great example of this is Quentin Tarantino’s “silver surfer” rewrites in Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide). It’s also a blast if your characters can talk in snark-tightened one-liners, even as they are discussing plot. Make each line do at least two things. Bring the swagger.

Swagger just out of shot

NCIS: LA is a cool show, with a quick-moving format that can handle cases that broaden their scope as the investigation progresses. Coker’s script was an exceptional example of how to accomplish procedural heavy lifting and character/relationship revelation on the fly, while having an awesome time doing it.

If you can tell stories like that, your viewers/readers will stay with you to the end.  

Californication: “…the truth is what you need to finish this song…”

In Love Song, the sixth episosde of Californication‘s fifth season, creator and showrunner Tom Kapinos wrote a soulful, wistful and melancholic look at missed opportunities, love and authenticity.

Samurai Apocalypse (portrayed with insane style and panache by RZA) ordered his Santa Monica Cop screenwriter Hank Moody to write lyrics for budding songstress Kali. As Hank forced Kali to delve deeper into her memories, he got lost in his own, giving us black-and-white flashbacks to the moment when Hank and Karen first decided to stay in L.A.

(Whenever Kapinos shows us Hank and Karen’s past, he writes scuffed and dirty emotional riffs that move you. These episodes are rock-n-roll ballads, bluesy guitar solos, romantic, whiskey-soaked tales of all that could have been, and all that might yet be, if no one f**ks it up.)

As Hank re-lived this moment in time, while drawing lyrical inspiration from Kali’s increasingly painful memories, the theme became abundantly clear:

What makes your writing truly yours, what makes it really sing… is you.

Your soul. Your authenticity. Your truth. Nothing less than the absolute revelation of what you really, truly, need and want. Getting to the truth of who you are and why you do what you do. What drives you, what do you dream of? What makes you want those things, and what will you do — and give up — to get them?

Find the truth about who the f**k you are and how you fit into this world. Because you do fit into this world, even if you don’t know how yet. Some people know right away. Some take thirty years, some fifty or more. It’s OK. Your life is all about you, m***erf***er. Act accordingly.

Nothing you write will be good until you inject yourself into it. It’s what Dave Grohl talked about at the Grammys when he said music isn’t what happens inside a computer. He wasn’t ranting against technology itself, against any of the tools of making music; he was ranting against soulless music, which can just as easily be made with a guitar as an iPad. And the flip side is true: soul will always come through, must always come through, however you make your art.

Consider two extraordinary and seminal albums: The White Stripes’ Elephant, and Massive Attack’s 100th Window. The first made only on equipment dated pre-1963 (it’s a Jack White thing), the second made on laptops and in digital worlds, with songs and textures that couldn’t exist before 2003.

Both have beauty and soul, in different ways: Elephant is rough, heavy, pounding and wild, while 100th Window is hypnotic, evocative and dreamlike. Both are true and truthful, and it doesn’t matter how they were recorded or how we listen to them: the souls of the people who created them shine through, make them real; making them connect.

Whether you write poems, stories, novels, songs, or scripts, you need to make them yours, write them your way. Quentin Tarantino kept getting told that True Romance wasn’t written properly, that this wasn’t how scripts are done. He said, f**k you, because this is me and this is mine. Then he made Reservoir Dogs, and Tony Scott shot True Romance, and then came Pulp Fiction. Tarantino-esque became its own literary style and took over pop culture. All iconic & unique writers do.

Ultimately, being a writer, being any kind of artist, is all about you being authentic. That will shine brightly; the rest will follow.

So find your truth and finish your song.

Then let the world hear it.

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.