"If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy." – Dorothy Parker

Part III


Neely:
So how did you stay connected to the law when you left New York and moved to Naperville?

Kevin: I have a lot of friends in New York as a result of my work there. It was mostly telephone calls, talking to them, visits. Anytime I went back to New York I went by the courthouse and the DA’s office. I went back for retirement parties. Every year there’s a dinner of ADA’s and I went back to that to see friends. And I read the New York Post everyday. It was my paper back then. Now, not that I think it’s well written or that I think the reporting is good, but there’s something very New York about the New York Post and that’s the one way I stay connected.

Anytime I talk to writers who want to know how to write about New York, I tell them that living there is great, but the next best thing is reading the Post everyday. The Post will tell you what is really going on in New York. It’s definitely slanted in the way they report things and it’s sensationalistic journalism, but it’s also very local. You can get a real feel for what New Yorkers are like.

Neely: When did you know that you wanted to write?

Kevin: 6th Grade. I wrote an essay (Neely laughs) in the 6th grade that I got positive reinforcement on. The teacher said great things about it and I remember thinking, “Wow! I love that.” So I always wrote. I remember writing all through high school, all through college, all through law school. I took creative writing courses in college and got some positive reinforcement. I dug that. In high school I got positive reinforcement for the poetry I wrote. But I didn’t see it as a career. I didn’t know any writers. I just saw it as a fun hobby to do. I remember in law school writing these, what I now look back on as ideas for television shows with character development and little stories. I would pass them around to my friends who thought they were funny and cool that I was writing.

But I still never saw it as a career; I was going to go law school and become a DA. That was my path. Once I got to the DA’s office I found that a lot of what you do as a trial lawyer is you tell stories. You take the facts and the evidence and then you tell stories to the jury. My opening and closing statements were all about writing stories. I loved all that. But I can tell you that my computers, no matter which computer I had at the time, were always filled with ideas, or short stories or ideas for novels or ideas for television shows or movies. But I never put it all together.

I began writing “Recovering Justice” the day after “The Sopranos” ended. My thought was that HBO is going to be looking for a new show and I’m going to write this show called “Recovering Justice” and I think it’s going to be great and I’ll figure out a way to get it to HBO. It was obviously silly, but that was my plan. I wrote it, I dug it, my wife read it and I probably had a friend or two read it; but I had nobody really to give it to. I had no idea of how the system worked out here so…

Neely: Were you in New York at the time?

Kevin: I was in Illinois. I mean, I didn’t think anything would come of it and then I met Jim Clemente who was the technical consultant on “Criminal Minds.”

Neely: Let me interrupt for a second. Once you had a script, to whom did you reach out?

Kevin: I didn’t know who to reach out to. I didn’t reach out to anybody. I obviously did some research on the internet and found out that you can’t sell anything until you have a lawyer or an agent. Then I probably started reading some books about the industry and found that it’s difficult to break in…

Neely: Sorry for interrupting. What were you going to say about Jim Clemente?

Kevin: I met Jim Clemente, who was in the industry. He was working as a technical…

Neely: But how did you meet him?

Kevin: I met him because finally one of my ex-law partners got sick of me talking about how I wanted to write in Hollywood and he told me that he had a friend he went to law school with, Jim Clemente, who was working as a tech consultant on “Criminal Minds” and that I should call him. And so, I called Jim Clemente… as you well know I have some chutzpah (Neely laughs) and can… Well to this day Jim and I joke about how when I called him I said, “Hi Mr. Clemente.” I tried to treat him with some respect and he thought that was very funny because we were contemporaries. We hit it off on the telephone. Jim was living in Virginia at the time and would fly out to LA to consult on “Criminal Minds” which he was doing at the behest of the FBI because “Criminal Minds” is a show about FBI agents. Jim had actually written one of the episodes.

Neely: Was Jim an FBI agent?

Kevin: Yes, he was. And he was still an FBI agent at the time. He wrote an episode the year that I met him, which is about three years ago now. And he started sending me his writing. He said, “Look here’s a script formatted in Final Draft.” And I said, “What’s that?” And he said that it was a software program you can get. (Neely laughs)

So then I started reading his stuff and other scripts that I could get my hands on. I sent him “Recovering Justice” and he said, “This is really good. Have you done anything with it yet?” And I said, “No.” And then he shared an idea with me that he had that we called “Take Out.” It was a cop show based in Little Italy, actually on the borderline of where Little Italy and Chinatown meet, an area I was very familiar with because that’s where the Manhattan DA’s office is and where my law office was.

Neely: That’s where “Kojak” was…

Kevin: Exactly.

Neely: …and “Barney Miller.”

Kevin: “Barney Miller.” I miss that show.

So we came up with a TV show. Jim said, “I have a good connection with Mark Gordon. He really likes me and maybe we could pitch it to him.” Sounded good to me, although I didn’t even know who Mark Gordon was at the time. Over the next couple of weeks we came up with characters and ideas. So we decided to go to Santa Monica where Mark’s office was and we pitched him “Take Out.” Mark was very excited about it. We left and I laughed, “That was kind of easy.” And Jim was like, “Yeah. I don’t think most people get that kind of response. This was pretty amazing.”

So Jim took me to his agent at UTA and they said they’d represent me through this process. The next thing you know, we were told that Alexandra Cunningham was going to be brought in to be the writer/showrunner and that we would get “story by” credit. We met Alexandra; she’s a really great person, really nice, very giving, very generous. And we worked with her on the script.

Then we went to pitch to ABC Studios, which is where Mark’s has his overall, and they got on board. Channing Dungey was the executive at the time. We were told that ABC Network had passed on it because they didn’t want a cop show, so instead we went to Fox. It was the first time I ever heard the term “sold it in the room” because we went into the room at Fox and we pitched it to them – Jim, Alexandra, myself, Deb Spera from Mark Gordon’s company and Channing Dungey – and they said “Okay!” And I asked what that meant and they said, “You guys sold it in the room.” What does that mean? Well Fox bought it so now they’re going to let us get paid for any of the work we’ve done. And we’re going to write a script.

That was a Friday and I flew back to Chicago. I got a call from Deb Spera when I landed who told me I had to come back on Monday because ABC network wanted to hear it because they heard that Fox bought it. I got back on a plane, on my own dime, and came back out and pitched it to ABC because ABC took the position that it was never formally pitched to them. Under Mark’s deal they were entitled to a formal pitch, so we formally pitched it to them and they bought it. We wrote the script, well actually Alexandra wrote the script, and we helped as much as we could. ABC decided not to go forward with the pilot.

Neely: What prompted the move to California?

Kevin: After the pilot didn’t get picked up, I thought that that was it for the industry. I felt like we had tried and we had had some success but to be honest with you, the financial burdens of flying back and forth equaled the amount of money I got paid. I wanted to make money for my family, obviously, so I thought that this might not work. When I was really set to wrap it up, I got a call from Frank Military, who I had met on one of the trips through a friend of a friend. Frank’s pilot “U.S. Attorney” had gotten picked up. He asked if I would do technical consulting work for his pilot which was being shot in Toronto.

I talked to my lawyer, Sean Marks, and he said I should do it because it was a good way to stay in the game. I talked to my wife who pointed out that I’d had a good experience, and even though it didn’t make us any money, if I wanted to continue to try, then good. So I went up there and I fell in love with the set. I’d never been on a TV or movie set and I really started loving the whole business from that side. I knew the creative side, I didn’t know the production side. I sat with Mimi Leder who was the director; she was incredibly generous and let me ask a lot questions. It was a real high to be on that set.

Neely: You’re represented by CAA, which is pretty heady for a novice writer. How did that come about?

Kevin: When I came back from Toronto, my lawyer suggested that we send out my material to other agencies because he thought I could be better serviced. He said it would probably take a couple of weeks, but by the next week he called to say that CAA would like to see me. I flew out because a couple of other agencies wanted to see me also and my lawyer had set up other meetings for me. I went to see CAA in the morning. They made a great presentation and said they wanted me; so I cancelled the other meetings and went with CAA and have been with them since then. They shepherded me through the process.

As a result of being a technical consultant, I had a deal to become a staff writer on “U.S. Attorney” if it were to go to series. It did not go, although it was in the running until the last minute. In essence, CAA told me that they thought I had a career here and they would love to help me find that career, but in order to do that I would need to be out here. As they pointed out, I couldn’t really do it from Chicago. I talked to my wife about it and at that point we’d become very good friends, on a personal level, with the doctor and she told us that she could treat Killian remotely and that she came out to California a couple of times a year, so there was no reason for us to have to stay in Naperville. So my wife said we should go for it. So we packed up the car and moved to Bev-erly.

Neely: That’s quite a wife you have, by the way.

Kevin: I have an incredible wife who’s incredibly supportive and has always been. She’s always gone over and above whatever I could have imagined someone doing for me. We are partners in everything – the family household, in trying to find the best education for both of our sons, and in career. I’m extremely lucky and I know that every day. I think that we both believe that I do have career in this business. To take the risk and support me in doing this is something I think is, I hope, a smart business move on her part also. But mainly she does it out of love because she knows how much I enjoy creating.

Neely: You’ve come close on some other projects. What were they about?

Kevin: After “U.S. Attorney” did not go, I took a project called “King of Brooklyn” to Bender/Spink. It’s a cool project and we worked hard on it. We took it to the CBS cable division, where Bender/Spink has their overall deal, and CBS liked the project and got on board. Then we began the dance of interviewing and getting a showrunner in place so we could pitch it. We saw it as a cable show. In the middle of that process, staffing season came up. Before this, my agents had set me up with some meetings and one of them was with the folks from “The Whole Truth,” the Bruckheimer show, and, literally the week we were supposed to pitch to one of the cable networks was the same week I got the call that “The Whole Truth” wanted to hire me. My agents suggested, and I think rightly so, that I needed to get the staffing credit.

So we put “King of Brooklyn” on hold and I slid into a staffing job on “The Whole Truth” that began last May. It was another unbelievably new and cool experience. I kinda’ never knew what it was like to be on a writing staff. The staff was run by Ed Zuckerman, another Manhattan Beach-ite, and he’s just a calm, cool, collected “Law and Order” guy – comes out of Dick Wolf’s group. Ed’s a true professional and ran a very professional shop. I worked with some really great writers like Ian Biederman, who created “Shark” and is a very dear friend now. I just had a great experience there. I worked with Maura Tierney and Rob Morrow. I was so taken by how professionally everything is run on a network TV show, how hard it is to really churn out episode after episode – not just from a writing standpoint but from a storytelling and actor standpoint. I’ve never seen people work as hard as these actors do, especially the leads. The amount of work that they have to do on set was really surprising to me. I didn’t know that it would be such hard work, but then I suppose that’s why they get paid such big bucks. It’s endless. Eight days, boom, start another one, eight days, start another one, eight days…

Neely: It’s a movie every two weeks. But, you know, the actors do have some down time; the crew has very little and the director is there almost the entire time throughout the process. A lot goes into making a TV show that the audience never sees.

Kevin: It was a fun process.

Neely: Have you had any mentors in your nascent writing career?

Kevin: Alexandra Cunningham, Ian Biederman and Ed Zuckerman, definitely.

Neely: If circumstances had been different and you hadn’t moved away from your New York base of operations, would you have remained a lawyer?

Kevin: I would say that I probably would be a judge. That was the trajectory I was on – it was either to run for political office, which being so close to my father’s political game at the time and having done a lot of political work for other candidates also, I got a pretty good taste of what it was like to be a political candidate – and it just wasn’t…

Neely: …appealing.

Kevin: No it’s not. I mean, it is from the outside, but once you do it it’s not appealing. So I think that I probably would be a judge. Those are generally appointed positions and I think I probably would have been in a position to get appointed. I have friends who were my contemporaries at the DA’s office who are judges now, so probably that would have been my trajectory.

Neely: Where did you go to college and then to law school?

Kevin: I went to college at Fordham University in the Bronx. I commuted my first year from Brooklyn which was an hour and a half drive every morning in a 1973 Gremlin (Neely laughs) that my father bought for me. On a cold day, the heat would not come on until I actually got to Fordham Road, so I’d drive in gloves. After my freshman year, I lived on campus, which was a bit better. I bartended to pay a lot of my way through school. I come from a family of five kids, so it was expensive on public servant’s salary; we tried to help any way we could. Then I went to St. John’s law school, my father’s alma mater, and bartended my way through that. It’s where I fell in love with trial work. I was on the trial advocacy team and loved every second of that. I made a lot of good friends in law school and had fun; it was a great experience.

Neely: As I’ve quoted many times before, “if you want to write, read.” What are you reading?

Kevin: Right now I’m reading two books. One is Decoded by Jay-Z, the life and times of the rapper Jay-Z; I’ve always been a huge fan of his and his book is amazing. I’m really enjoying reading that. And I’m reading another book called The Petticoat Affair by John Marszalek. It’s called The Petticoat Affair: Manners, Mutiny and Sex in the Andrew Jackson White House. I saw a history channel show about it and it was fascinating. It would be great for a movie, which is one of the reasons I got it and am reading it. It’s really interesting and definitely could be told from that time period or contemporary. It has a lot to do with one of Andrew Jackson’s cabinet members who had a wife who was not accepted by the Washington elite. This led to a crisis in his administration in which a number of Jackson’s cabinet members resigned and sparked a bitter feud between President Jackson and his Vice President, John Calhoun. It’s a political sex scandal that would make a great film.

Neely: There have been a couple of films about the Jackson era related to these scandals. “The Gorgeous Hussy” starring Joan Crawford dealt with just this issue, with Joan Crawford playing Peggy Timberlake Eaton, the focus of the scandal. The other film, a personal favorite from childhood, was “The President’s Lady,” in which Susan Hayward played the object of Jackson’s affections and later his wife, before the divorce to her first husband was finalized. Both were very popular films, although the accuracy of the storytelling was suspect

Kevin: I’m also reading every pilot for staffing season. CAA sends me the drama pilots and I read them. I tend toward the legal and the cop.

Neely: Any past literary influences?

Kevin: Joe Eszterhas? (Neely explodes with laughter)

Neely: You mean the guy who wrote one movie five times? Not entirely fair because there was “Flashdance” and “F.I.S.T.” I have always dreamed I would have occasion to reference the outstanding and gut wrenchingly hilarious review written by Joe Queenan in 1996 about Eszterhas’ book (one of only two book reviews I’ve ever saved in my archives – the other being a review by Garrison Keillor of Bernard Henri Levi’s American Vertigo). You should take a look at it: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/17/books/review/Queenan.t.html (cut and paste to your toolbar). But still… Seriously, how about literary influences?

Kevin: Sure. I’ve always been a fan of Dylan Thomas.

Neely: You’re so Irish.

Kevin: I know. His poetry has always been something that I’ve read since college. It’s the dark elements of his poetry; a lot of the stuff that I write is dark when I’m not writing for network TV. Robert Frost. I just love to read Robert Frost because I think it’s calming for me. So I go from dark to hearty, I would say.

I mentioned Joe Eszterhas because he wrote a couple of books that I read before I came out here. I kept his book on the passenger seat as I drove out here from Naperville, by myself, when I first came out. While I think his books are outrageous and the stuff he allegedly did or didn’t do is outrageous, I like the chutzpah he had, or at least the way he tells it in his books. He was just like, “I can write and I’m gonna write and I’m gonna sell what I write.” The one thing that I come back to every day when I sit down to write is something he said, and I’m sure he’s not the first one to say it, “if you want to write, stop talking and write.” Put your butt in the chair. That’s something that has helped me get going. I’m happiest when I’m sitting and writing. Before I get my butt in the chair, I feel anxiety, I feel nervousness, I feel “can I do this;” and once I’m there doing it, I love it. I’ll hear that in my head, “Get your butt in that chair and write!” To me, it’s my favorite place to be when I’m not with my sons.

Neely: Might I suggest, instead, the works by William Goldman.

What are you watching?

Kevin: I love “Boardwalk Empire,” which was really cool. I watch “Entourage” because it’s popcorn and I love popcorn for the brain because I laugh. I think being new to the business and seeing “Entourage” is kind of fun. I watch a lot of network stuff. I still like the “CSI’s;” I still like “Criminal Minds.”

Neely: Have you seen “Justified?”

Kevin: I like “Justified,” yeah. I never thought that I’d like a Western-type show, but I TiVo it.

Neely: See if you can get a meeting with Graham Yost. He’s one of the very best writers in TV right now.

Kevin: I would love to.

Neely: They film it here.

Kevin: Where?

Neely: Way out in the Valley somewhere (one of the Valleys anyway).

Kevin: I’m really hoping to get some meeting with studios for the cables.

Neely: I understand you just finished production on an independent film. What is it about?

Kevin: It’s called “Intimate Madness,” a psychological thriller about a couple who have just lost a baby. We get a ringside view watching the deterioration of the wife’s mental stability. I would say that there are a lot of twists and turns, and what you see is not always what you think. That’s kind of the way I wrote it. I’ve had the script for over a year and decided at some point that I wanted to do it myself. It’s a one-shoot location and I wrote it as my directorial debut. I worked out a very tight budget and realized I could shoot it for about $50,000. I raised the money through my wife, family and friends. I put a casting notice out on the casting networks and got 2200 responses, which was overwhelming, for 4 roles. I cast one TV actor named Zack Silva who’s a very good friend of mine, and cast the other roles from running my own casting session at Film Independent. I rented a house in Malibu and we shot it in 10 days.

Neely: What were some of the difficulties you encountered?

Kevin: I would say that the biggest difficulty was not having enough money to hire proper production staff. My DP and Editor were just phenomenal. My DP was able to get the Red Camera at a very discounted rate so it would fit in our budget and everything would be beautiful. The production side was lacking because we really didn’t have a producer or an executive producer.

Neely: What would they have done that you missed?

Kevin: Not that I missed, but that I had to do myself. I had to deal with the investors myself all the time, every day, because these were people who were first time film investors and I wanted to make sure they were comfortable with the investment – they were my family and my friends. There was a lot of negotiating with all of the other people who worked on the project on a deferred basis. The actors all worked on a deferred basis. They all loved the script and all wanted to be involved, so that was easy. But trying to explain to actors how deferrals worked wasn’t easy.

There was no first AD, so I was on the set and with the actors at the same time and there was only one of me. I got around some of that by rehearsing the actors a lot in preproduction; so once we got to the set we knew exactly what we were doing and what we wanted to do. I also had my DP, someone I’ve worked with before on a short who knew how we worked, man the set for me when I couldn’t be on the set.  My DP was Ian Takahashi, an up and coming amazing DP who has worked with Coppola and I’m excited to get his name out there because he’s great. And my Editor is Cameron Lowenstein. Cam works with Ian on many of Ian’s projects and they’ve been friends since high school – they grew up in Napa together. They are just a great team – fun, good guys who were willing to take the ride with me; they loved the script and thought it would be great.

I’ve seen the dailies and they look beautiful; they look like any major motion picture, that’s how good it looks. The performances from these no-name actors, or rather actors without credits, were really inspiring; they lived in the characters. I think it’s a wrenching psychological thriller where the audience, at the end, will leave the theater with a lot of questions. That’s the type of film I wanted to make.

Neely: What’s the next step with the project?

Kevin: We’re in editing now. We have a deal with a financier who has agreed to pay for our post production costs as soon as we deliver a trailer to him. He believes, through connections he has and through previous experience, that he will be able to sell certain foreign rights on the basis of the trailer. And then, we’ll go into post. We have a very aggressive plan for post; we’d like to get the movie in the can by June and then have a discussion with my agents and figure out the best strategy after that. Do we try to sell it outright, or go to festivals. We think we have a real story to tell because, again, the product itself is going to be beautiful, it’s going to be a really nice package. I think the story holds up and the performances hold up, so I think it’s going to be a very good film.

Neely: What else are you working on?

Kevin: I have a pilot that I’ve written and submitted to my agents.

Neely: You still  have “King of Brooklyn,” right?

Kevin: I’ve still got “King of Brooklyn” and I still have “Recovering Justice.” “Recovering Justice” has been the piece that the agents have sent out…

Neely: Your calling card.

Kevin: My calling card. I’d love to do “Recovering Justice” because there’s a great series there, I think. I haven’t found the right producers to partner with yet. And then for a new piece of material, I wrote a police drama, at the suggestion of my agents. It’s called “Behind the Line.”

Neely: I’m really eager to follow your path. You join a long line of successful lawyer/writers in this town. You’ve kick-started your own career, running it like a legal case. I predict a long and successful career.

Quote

"Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision."

- Salvador Dali

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