Ext. Kingsbridge Road, the Bronx – Night
It’s late. Retractable metal gates cover the storefronts of most businesses. Everything’s closed up for the night, except –
From inside, we hear the tail end of Sinatra’s “New York New York.” And we hear singing, loud drunken singing. Over this we hear a voice born and raised in Da Bronx.
Ed: (V.O.) At about the age of 4 a kid is posed his first true existential question: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Int. O’Tooles Bar –
A classic local joint. It’s packed with rookie cops, guys and girls, mid 20s, right out of the Academy.
The Bar: New Yooooooooooooooooooorrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrkkkkkkkkkkkk.
The camera moves through the fresh faced rookies as they holler and shout, crashing beer bottles, celebrating. Sinatra fades out, giving way to hard rock and roll.
Ed: (V.O.) A cop, and why not? Your first prized possession? A toy gun. You get shot? No big deal. You wait five seconds and you get up. Who needed Kevlar? “Fro men may come and men may go, but I go on forever.” Right?...
Camera stops on Ed Conlon.
Ed: (V.O.) We were four, what did we know?
He’s handsome, 20’s, his face nicked from boyhood scars and late night brawls. He’s cool. 45 beats per minute cool. He drinks a beer, while next to him –
A group of rookies are crowded around an electronic bar version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” They’re stumped.
Rookies: Conlon? “How were Confederate officers below the rank of brigadier chosen?”
Ed: (no hesitation) Elected by the troops.
They click on it. Slap high fives. Next question.
Rookies: “How many different combinations of dots are used in Braille?” What?
They click on it. More high fives. Almost at the million.
Rookies: “Who did Honor Blackman play in the Bond movie “Goldfinger”?”
Ed: Honor Blackman? Pussy galore.
Right, of course. They go crazy, but Ed couldn’t care. He glances down at the opposite end of the bar at a girl.
Colt McDowell, mid 20’s, hot, athletic, a ski bum gone straight. She’s as drunk as the rest of them. She glances at Ed, and would probably look more were it not for –
Bobby Moran, 20’s, buffed, a Brooklyn boy, short, almost handsome, leans in with his cell phone flipped open. Working Colt, he shows her pictures of his pride and joy… His car.
Bobby: 74, Z-28 Camaro. Rebuilt 428, dual overhead cams, nitrous boost.
Colt: Wow. Sounds…
Bobby: Powerful? You have no idea.
Colt smiles. Will she go for it?
Colt: Look… Bobby? Twelve hours from now, you’ll be walkin’ the beat. You’ll have a badge, a gun, and… (emphasizing) Handcuffs. That’s power. (lets it sink in) You’re a cop, now. I think it’s time you update your rap.
Bobby processes. Finally gets it.
Sofia Pujols, 25, Dominican, small, with piercing ‘don’t even think about it’ eyes, leans in with a bowl filled with cash.
Sofia: Pool’s up to $500 for the first collar. You guys in?
Colt throws in a $20, smiles at Bobby and walks away… Bobby watches her… If only… -- Sofia shakes her head.
Sofia: You’re drooling.
Always to the point, she moves on. She continues towards –
Andre Crowder 26, African-American, poised, confident. He sits with two women, clearly not on the force. They dig him. He holds their hands.
Andre: Some people like to wear a tee-shirt under theirs? I like to feel the Kevlar right up against my body.
Girl: I’ve never even touched Kevlar.
Andre: Would you like to?
Hell yes, they would – until Sofia leans in.
Sofia: You two little badge bunnies actually buying into this crap?
Andre shoots Sofia a nasty glare. And as she smirks back. Loving it …
No Meaner Place: The action-packed nightmare that opened the NBC pilot was a perfect grabber for a procedural series. This, the original opening, is all character. In one short, brilliant scene, Tolkin introduced us to everything we will need to know about these characters and their future interactions. He had me at “Fade In.”
Neely: You’ve had a career in both film and television, which is quite unusual. There’s usually very little opportunity for such cross-over. What do you view as the biggest difference between film and television?
Neil: I think the greatest thing about TV is speed. That’s it. Get over it. I’ll tell you a funny story. I had been in features my whole life and I was used to my (film) agents and who they were. I’ve only had two agents in my film career and I had a great relationship with them. Then I got a TV agent who’s a great character - really aggressive, really foul-mouthed and in your face, but fantastic - Paul Haas. So anyway, I’d written this real estate pilot and again, it went down to the wire between my show and this other with (Kevin) Reilly picking the other show. It was really devastating. We had worked really hard on it; it was a great piece and I really loved it. I was on the phone with Paul and I was feeling really bad and he said, “Get over it, bitch!” I put the phone down, fuming mad. What the hell was that!! So I called him up and we had a confrontation. I had never had a confrontation with my film agents. But now Paul and I totally get each other. Now I get him and he understood where I was coming from. But, honestly, that really is television – “Get over it, bitch! The season’s over. But the good news is that in five months from now you can go at it again.” That’s television. You can just keep going after it. No one had ever talked to me like that but it was really the truth. And that’s the way Paul is and I’m grateful for it sometimes; and other times… whatever.
Neely: What was it that appealed to you the most about Blue Blood?
Neil: For me it was the swing between the comic and the tragic. On one page you could be reading a story about a baby that was aborted and left in a bucket of ammonia leaking through the bucket into the apartment beneath it. On the next page you’re reading about Conlon in the emergency room handcuffed to a perp who’s trying to fix him up on a date with the nurse. The insight and the humor and the tragedy are so great. Cops are cool, sexy heroes, and at the same time very flawed.
Neely: We touched on this very briefly, but you had done an adaptation before?
Neil: I did an Ethan Canin short story called “The Palace Thief,” that became the “Emperor’s Club” with Kevin Kline about a teacher. Ethan Canin was a completely different kind of experience than Ed. I never even spoke to Ethan. The thing about these two guys is that they are incredibly skilled writers, brilliant writers. I sent Ethan Canin the script and I remember waiting to hear from him. He was effusive and loved certain things that I’d added. He was kind; these guys know how it works.
I adapted another book called Everybody Pays by Maurice Possley and Rick Kogan which I’m working on with a director named Kerry Scopeland. It’s about a really dramatic witness relocation case that takes place over 25 years.
Neely: Can you tell me a little bit about your process when you’re reading the original material? What is your process in trying to determine what stays in, what stays out? Do you just look at it as a rough outline?
Neil: I think that the hierarchy is that you want to find great character and great character moments. Then you need plot. You may have to make up a good portion of the plot or push plot in a way that services great scenes that are in the book. You read the book over and over again until you get a sense of how you want to tell the story – with flashbacks or maybe cutting in and out. It’s hard. I think the first time you go through the book you’re very faithful to the book and then you read it and go “Hummm, this may not work the way it is here.” And then you start to mess around with structure.
Neely: Where were you going to take “Blue Blood” and how were you going to get there? Who else were we going to meet?
Neil: Coming from the screenwriter’s point of view, there is no bigger fear in the world than episode 2. I literally could not even conceive… I would write notes about what the second episode would be, but I could never conceive of it. I don’t know how you can write 22 episodes of anything because I come from the arena where it just ends at the end. So whenever anyone asks me “what do you think the next episode is going to be?” It gave me incredible anxiety. We eventually figured it out; but from a screenwriter’s point of view there is no more frightening question than “what’s episode 2 going to be?”
Neely: That’s interesting because the vast majority of writers that I talk to are TV writers and when I ask them that question, they have the whole 5 year arc already worked out in their heads.
Neil: I’m better at it now, but when I first started it stopped me. When someone would say, “So what’s the arc of the series?” I was usually thinking, “Well someone else will figure that out.” Your thinking usually goes along the line of “a lot of really talented writers are going to figure that out for us, but I just don’t know.” It’s really scary, really intimidating; but it’s also beautiful. The speed is just great; TV is an amazing place right now.
Neely: There’s nothing like the adrenaline of working in television. What about you? Are you still going back and forth between the two media?
Neil: Sure. I just sold a pilot yesterday about a Chinese Buddhist cop (think “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) who comes to America and is hooked up with an obnoxious headstrong Los Angeles detective. It’s about their relationship; it’s about the Buddhism and how it affects his life – East meets West.
Neely: What prompted you to jump to the television from features?
Neil: I think I was always thinking about it but I knew that I didn’t want to be a staff writer. I always knew that I could work as a screenwriter; I knew that I wanted to create something but I really never knew what that was. I had always been able to generate my own ideas for the big screen, but never been able to do it in TV. I had dinner with Gina Matthews and she said “What about real estate?” I like to write dark/funny, dark with humor. I like that people are experiencing life and that there’s tragedy as well as comedy. So I said sure and I started researching. I sat around with real estate agents and drove around with them for weeks. The research was a blast and I loved it. That experience led to Ed Conlon and that led to the next one and then that led to the next one. It’s fun and I’m lucky.
Neely: Let’s go back to that fear of episode 2. In general, the one question in a pitch meeting that they’ll ask you is “what are your 100 episodes?”
Neil: I’m ready for that question now. I know how to describe the arc, the 100 stories. You give them a concept where even they can see the 100 stories in the pitch. Years ago, I remember sitting with Jeffrey Kramer, who was a Fox executive at the time. I pitched him an idea and he said, “What’s episode 55?” I’m like, I have no fucking idea, and that was the end of the conversation. “I don’t know what happens in episode 55!” That was the first time that someone made me aware that it wasn’t just about one. It was intimidating.
Neely: You have several films in development. Are any of them close to a greenlight?
Neil: No. I have… no.
Neely: Are they dead? Or are they in that Never Neverland?
Neil: Not entirely. I wrote one in 1995 that they’re still hiring writers on. I think they actually hired someone last week. Unbelievable. 1995! It was originally titled “Rupert and Murdoch” about a cat and a mouse. Originally it was about a cartoon mouse like Jerry who witnesses a gangland slaying in Cartoonland. The mobsters come to the cat, who’s like Sylvester, and say “You chase the mouse. You know where the mouse is. You find us the mouse or we’re going to kill you.” The mouse gets witness relocated to New York City as a human and ends up running to Wisconsin because he sees a cheese billboard. The cat chases after him. The mouse decides to stay because he realizes this is a better life than being banged on the head. He also realizes that, unlike Cartoonland, there’s mortality here, but at the same time the pleasures of this life are worth it compared to the world he came from. But the cat goes back.
Neely: Goes back where?
Neil: To Cartoonland. They end up in America as humans, they become men, and then the one character goes back to Cartoonland as the cat he was. The mouse stays with his new found love and knows someday he’s going to die. At one point Ron Bass was supposed to write it – I did a draft with him – and then… That movie should have been made a long time ago.
Neely: How extraordinarily creative.
Neil: It’s a fun idea; that’s why it’s still being worked on.
Neely: Writing is writing, but the features world and the television world are so different. Do you have a preference?
Neil: I don’t know. Right now I think I like TV more. I just like that in TV you can create characters and you don’t have to arc them out in one episode. You don’t have to see them change in one episode. You can just experience who they are and what they’re going through; you can toy with them and you don’t have to, like in a movie, make sure that by the end of the movie they change. That’s really refreshing because oftentimes in a movie I find it kind of phony how we make our characters change. You really don’t get to know them as well as you can in a TV show. And I just love the speed of TV – there’s an urgency to it that doesn’t exist in film.
Neely: Do you approach the two in different ways?
Neil: No, I think the same. You look for a story, for some kernel that’s going to give you action or speed or interest. You go for a great story and you run with it.
Neely: What you say about the change at the end of a feature is interesting, but in really good TV writing, in episodic, the development is ongoing.
Neil: But it’s very subtle.
Neely: You see gradations. The development is a gradation at the end; that the character has learned something.
Neil: Insight. That’s the point of the episode.
Neely: Insight as opposed to major change.
Neil: Yeah. I look at screenwriting as just telling a story and you have to make the characters change. I read this great interview with Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver”) who said that if you’re telling someone a story and they look away, it’s a boring story. The same thing with screenwriting. You gotta keep the story going. But TV’s fun because it engages; it’s more manageable.
Neely: I know so very little about the process in the features world. How did you break in?
Neil: How did I break into features? I submitted articles to National Lampoon. I was going to NYU. I went for a year in a sort of bogus but fun continuing education film program. But at least I was in New York. I was trying to write for “Saturday Night Live” and “David Letterman” and I was submitting stuff to National Lampoon and I finally got in the door. I wrote a big piece in National Lampoon called “Me and my Colleague.” It was originally ‘Me and my Pecker” but they changed it. Somebody from LA read the piece and said “Have you ever written anything for film?” And I said, “No.” And he said “Would you like to try?” And I said “Sure!” He asked what else I had written and I sent him a piece I’d written about lying – about a kid who lies to his parents. In there it catalogued how many lies a kid could say in one night to get laid. So the guy looked at one of the lies and said it could make a good movie. The lie was about a guy who lies about getting his license, which became “License to Drive” which was the first thing that I did. That’s how I got in the business – Luck. That’s the fast way. It was torturous to go that way but I’d rather go that way than pay my dues for 20 years.
Neely: Which is probably more normal. So how do you think you break into the features world today?
Neil: I think it’s always great writing. I think you’ve got to write a great spec and then you have to know somebody who can show your script to someone and then it’s easy. It’s a lot harder than it was 10 years ago. It’s not the lottery that it used to be but it’s still a case where if you can write, you can write and you’re fine.
Neely: Television has what could be considered an apprentice program. You start as a staff writer, or even if you can’t get in as a staff writer, you start as a PA and try to find someone who’ll read your stuff.
Neil: I would have loved that and every now and then I say to myself, “Screw this. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll take the lowest job on the show so I can see how it’s done so I can learn how to do it.”
Neely: And instead, you’re in a position where you can just do that as research. Pick any show you want and just sit in that writer’s room.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
Neil: Well, I didn’t really want to be a writer pretty much any time. My family was in it. My uncle Mel Tolkin was a head writer on “Your Show of Shows.”
Neely: Mel Tolkin was your uncle??!!
Neil: My cousins are Michael (“The Player”) and Stephen (“Brothers and Sisters”) who are excellent writers; they’re still writing. They were already here before me but I never really wanted to be a writer. I knew I liked creative stuff. My dad had a business but my mother kept saying, “Don’t go into his business. Find something else.” I just didn’t know what that something else was going to be. I played basketball in college at McGill and I liked that but then I hurt my back and couldn’t play anymore.
Neely: Are you Canadian?
Neil: Yeah, I am. Anyway, the only way I could stay and hang out with my friends on the team was to become the sports writer for the college paper. That’s how I started and it got me going. As for going into show business, I was a bit older, about 25 and I knew I didn’t want a job getting coffee for people. I had done a backer’s audition on Broadway for something called “The Great Gottschalk” and I was videotaping it for someone. I felt great about myself because it was my first job and the director, I think it was Tom O’Horgan – he directed “Hair” – took a break and came to me and said “Can you do me a favor and get me some coffee?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” I walked away and I still remember my footsteps walking down the stairs, walking down towards the coffee place on Waverly Place or wherever the hell it was and saying to myself, “I don’t want to get coffee. I just don’t wanna get coffee. This is not what I want to do.”
Neely: Did you get him the coffee?
Neil: Of course I got him the coffee! Of course!
Neely: So that was your moment of revelation.
Neil: It really was. It was a big moment. I wasn’t 20 and I didn’t want to run around and do that. I guessed I could write so I figured that that’s what I’d do.
Neely: When did you come to the States? Right out of college?
Neil: After I graduated from McGill I went to NYU for a year and I stayed. I did get kicked out of the country at one point – I got caught at the border without the proper Visas and identification and had to sneak back in.
Neely: So I assume you now have your green card?
Neil: I do have my green card and I’ve thought about getting citizenship but I’m probably too lazy and worried that I can’t memorize the Pledge of Allegiance, that I’ll fail the test.
Neely: Yeah, I think that’s a real possibility.
I was recently looking at your credits on Studio System, it would appear there have been some dry spells. What kept you going during those times?
Neil: That’s an interesting question but I’m not sure what that gap is. I was lucky enough to go through a period where I was able to sell scripts for a lot of money, so I never felt the pressure to just pump it out. I would write about a script-and-a-half a year and be able to sell them. When the TV thing came along, it was a much bigger hustle. When the economy tanked, suddenly there’s pressure to keep working. Right now I have a feature at Disney and this pilot at CBS, I think it’s CBS. I remember reading an interview some years ago in The New Yorker with Tom Hanks and he said something very interesting that gave me comfort. Most movie stars go up and then they come down and they have something like 5 years between their peaks. And if you think about it, I haven’t had a ton of movies made, but they’re made like 5 years apart, and all you need is one and then it doesn’t matter. So I’m still working and people still want to read what I write, so I don’t really know about the gaps. I’ve always kept working and I generate my own ideas. I’m willing to write anything on spec; I don’t have to pitch. As a matter of fact I can’t stand pitching and more than that I can’t stand assignments because they’re often very recycled and you’re competing with 20 people. I’d love to get the great assignments but I realized at some point that I’m not at that level. So I know I’m not getting those so I’ll make my own.
Neely: So you write and sell what you write. You don’t pitch.
Neil: I rarely do a pitch and write.
Neely: Even in TV?
Neil: No. In TV, I pitch. That’s more the norm.
Neely: Makes sense because it’s such fast turnover. When you’re pitching in the room you get an idea of what they really want.
Neil: I went to my producers three weeks ago with 15 ideas. They picked 4 and then we went to the studio and the studio picked 1, which was the one I just sold. Marty Adelstein and Becky Clements are producing.
Neely: Marty’s a great producer.
Neil: Yeah. But I don’t care who you are, if you don’t have a bulldog as a producer you don’t get anywhere. And I’ll say this about Gina Matthews, there is no bigger bulldog. She does not sleep if she can make something happen. What she did with “Blue Blood” was off the scale. What she did to keep it alive was unbelievable. A good producer is worth his (her) weight in gold.
Neely: Any mentors or supporters along the way?
Neil: Not really. In the very beginning I sent stuff to my Uncle Mel and I sent some stuff to Michael and got some feedback. And then at one point I wrote a script and I realized that I wasn’t going to show it to anyone – that this was the one. It was the one that ended up being “License to Drive.” I don’t really have a writers’ community, I just kinda keep to myself.
Neely: How about literary influences? Who do you read? Who have you read?
Neil: You know, I had to research that. I had to write some things down.
Neely: I love asking everyone that question.
Neil: It’s interesting because I’m renowned in my family for never reading a book. They always joke to me that the first book I read was a hockey novel called Scrubs on Skates. I actually do love to read. I’m like everyone else; I have like a thousand books on my nightstand and I’m about half way through every one of them (and then I give up). But I was thinking about the books that I love and the first book that I really loved, that made a difference to me was the Raymond Chandler Omnibus. That was the first time that I took a pencil and underlined lines and descriptions. It really influenced me in how I write. How I used to write, prose and screenplays – the descriptive stuff- I took great pride in being able to write great descriptions. And ironically, there was something in the way Raymond Chandler used his words that woke me up. It was really the first time that I ever read something that really rocked my world. I remember the first time I read “she had the kind of legs that would make a Bishop kick in a stained glass window.” I underlined that phrase! That was just great!
Neely: Which of his novels was your favorite?
Neil: I don’t know. I don’t remember if it was The Big Sleep. It was an omnibus so there were four of them in there. I read them all. I was sick and someone got me the book. I still have it because I just like to look at it and go “Wow.” I have to tell you, Conlon has a lot of Chandler in him in terms of how he sees things; his descriptions are tragic and funny at the same time. I’ve also read Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You. I’m always looking for funny books, books that make me laugh out loud. And that book made me cry laughing. I like Michael Lewis; Jonathan Franzen; and Dave Eggers is a genius. But I just bounce around. I’ve never read classics. I cheated on my English final in high school using the scene from Marathon Man where they chisel away at the door while he’s in the bathtub. I put it in my own composition and I got this great grade.
Neely: I always found it ironic that Chandler worked on the script of James Cain’s novel Double Indemnity. In his autobiography, Chandler complained bitterly of Billy Wilder’s interference on that script. I’ve always wondered how much of that script was Wilder and how much was Chandler because it’s the closest rendition of any of the Cain novels that made it to screen.
Neil: Chandler was just from another planet. Everything he wrote was an epiphany for me. Another book that I really loved was Bonfire of the Vanities.
Neely: I’ve read a lot of Wolfe, just not that one.
Neil: That book is amazing. When that movie came out it was a tragedy because that book was, top to bottom, characters, moments, humor… an incredible book.
Neely: There are so many layers to his writing and so deeply funny. I have to say that the movie of The Right Stuff got it right.
Neil: “The Right Stuff” is brilliant. It’s a genius movie. My dad was always reading. He was reading Tom Wolfe and the new journalists, and these books were all over the house. My father, who played basketball in the Olympics, never wanted me to be aware of that so he would never have pictures of himself in the house playing basketball or anything like that. He made sure that the bookshelves were stacked with books because he wanted me to become a reader. The irony was that I played basketball and I never read anything. But it was all there and I totally picked up on it and I saw the titles. He was a big reference book fan and I love reference books. He’s an amazing person, a great avid reader.
Neely: It must have killed him when he saw that you didn’t read at all.
Neil: I have no idea. He had his own issues. Early on, my Uncle Mel asked my dad to join him but my father felt he couldn’t take the chance.
Neely: On Sid Caesar?
Neil: Probably before that, but Mel said “I’ve got this gig for you. Why don’t you come and join?” My dad was a great writer. He wrote the plays at McGill. Shatner was in them. They were friends with Shatner growing up and Shatner was in them. It was a very intimidating house to grow up in because my Dad’s writing (he wrote for the McGill newspaper)… well mine was hack in comparison. He wrote incredible op/ed pieces. He also wrote the music for the musicals. He just had it all, but then he was offered this opportunity and he just…
Neely: So what did your dad end up doing?
Neil: He’s an exposition service contractor for conventions. He’s the guy who rents you your booth, your ash trays, your carpets and your chairs. And the lighting. My friends used to joke that “that chair there is putting you through college.”
Neely: So this guy who was incredibly creative in college takes a really…
Neil: …safe bet.
Neely: Was that a problem for you?
Neil: No. Because I never thought of it like that. I’ve thought about it since. The story, I believe, is that my mother’s father helped my dad get started in business and my dad felt indebted to him. It’s like… Let me tell you another story. It’s about taking a chance in Hollywood, about taking a risk. About 5 or 6 years ago a friend of mine who was a teacher’s assistant at NYU when I was there and became a really good friend, real soul mates, wanted to get into business out here in Hollywood. So he came and crashed on my couch and my floor for 5 or 6 months.
At one point he gets a job in Florida and he has to take it. It’s a shit job but he had to take it. He calls me up one afternoon and says, “Neil, I just saw something that’s going to change my life. I want to send it to you and I’m not going to tell you what it is but when you see it you’re not going believe it.” So I said okay and he sends it to me and I look at it. He says to me that 3 guys gave it to him on the set and they want me to look at it and see if I can help them. So I look at it and within the first second I go “Ohmygod! This is genius.” It was “The Blair Witch Project.” So he comes over and he’s sitting on the balcony of my front porch and says “You wanna invest?” I say, “How much do ya need?” “We need a hundred thousand bucks.” So what’s going through my mind now is that this guy sent me a black and white tape that I know is brilliant. But I’m not a gambler by nature and I don’t have the balls to put a hundred thousand down. I don’t even know if I had a hundred thousand at the time. And if I did, my wife would kill me and everybody, my attorney, everybody would tell me I was crazy and out of my mind. So he says, “What about 25,000?” And I sat there and went, “Kevin, look. I don’t know about that but I’ve got a brother-in-law who’s got a lot of money. Let me see if we can get the money from him.” And sure enough, we worked on him and got the money from him and he ended up making millions.
But the point is that my father was in the same situation. His brother says to him, “You wanna come out with a bunch of guys in a room? I know you can get a business going and make some good money and take care of your wife. Or do you want to come here and work with us?” You’ve got to move your wife; I mean what do you do? That’s the business. It takes balls to do it. Most of the time your back’s against the wall and that’s the only way you get into the business. I’ve thought about that $25,000, that $100,000 – I definitely would not be here right now. I don’t know what I would do but I probably would never have written another word after that. I probably would have said “Screw it. I’m done.” But I believe in one thing and that’s the only way you can survive in this business because you have doors slamming in your face all the time – one door closes and another door opens. For a reason. For instance, you asked me how I got into TV. It was the down times – it’s during the down times that you have to switch it up a little bit and that’s when I optioned “The Palace Thief,” which was my first time going into darker stuff. And that led to me doing more dark material which led me into television. Everything leads somewhere; I don’t even worry about it. I think if I couldn’t get a job tomorrow, I’d write something the next day.
Neely: So what comes next?
Neil: What comes next is the pilot at CBS and I’ve got some other stuff that I’ve written that I don’t know quite what to do with but I’m too busy right now to try and set it up. It’s fine. I feel good.
But there is one thing. I directed something a long time ago and it was lousy, but I’d love to direct again. I sit in a movie theater and I think that’s the greatest job in the world – directing. It’s the hardest but the best. I never wanted to write. Come on, I was lazy, I never read, I did bad in school. I got into it and I’m lucky. I actually wanted to work in sports.
Neely: Why haven’t you written a sports movie?
Neil: I have and it’s sitting on the shelf. Sports movies are tough. I’ve written a couple of them, actually, but they’re tough to get made.
Neely: It’s really tough to find a fresh way into the genre.
Neil: But the thing about it is, so what! Fresh way in? You’re telling me that “The Blind Side” was a fresh way in?
Neely: Oh god, no!
Neil: But it made over a $100 million.
Neely: They found a stale way in to a fresh book.
Neil: I tried to option that book. The book is genius. I’ve written a boxing movie, a real dark boxing movie with Nic Cage attached, but the producers weren’t the kind of bulldogs I needed so it just sits there. Did you see the Mark Wahlberg trailer for the boxing movie he’s in? It’s standard stuff. That’s the genre. You can try and reinvent it but in the end it’s about teasing you to the point where you can’t take it any more and then they give you the victory and you stand up and cheer. That’s all it’s about. So I’m not sure what reinvention is there – it is what it is and you just have to catch it and get lucky.
Neely: I can’t thank you enough for coming out. This was unbelievable.
Neil: Wait! Wait! I’ve got one more story to tell about Brett Ratner. Rat is a huge collector of memorabilia from “The Godfather” and Ed Conlon arranged for us to have dinner with Sonny Grosso in New York. Sonny was Popeye Doyle’s partner and an absolute legend. If you watch the scene in “The Godfather” where Michael Corleone goes to get the gun in the bathroom, Sonny Grosso was the expert cop consultant working on set. They needed a gun, so they took his gun and they put it up there – Sonny Grosso’s gun. Cut to us having dinner on the sidewalk at Ed’s favorite Italian restaurant – there’s about 12 of us – the Commissioner, bunch of NYPD detectives, myself, the producers, Brett Ratner, Ed and Sonny Grosso.
Brett, like I said, is this huge collector of “Godfather” memorabilia; he bought the wardrobe polaroids – he’s an amazing person. No matter what anyone says, you hang around with Brett and it’s a blast. Anyway, so he goes to dinner and he wants to buy Sonny Grosso’s gun off him for a 100 Grand. So he says to him over dinner that he wants to buy his gun and Sonny Grosso, who’s like 75 or 80 and not doing great, pulls out the gun, the gun from “The Godfather” and puts it on the table. Conlon is like “Holy shit! Is that loaded?” and grabs it from him and takes the bullets out of it. Needless to say, Sonny wouldn’t sell the gun. But it was a great moment. That’s the kind of stuff that happens when you hang around cops and you hang around Brett.
One of the things about the book that I loved so much was that it portrayed cops as heroes, as real heroes. You talk to Ed, he’s not about saying anything negative about a cop and you don’t have to. The book portrays cops as heroes fighting uphill who are wounded and sad and have troubled marriages and yet at the same time they are so tight with each other. This was another thing I caught. I was interviewing a rookie cop and he said to me, “It’s unbelievable how close I feel to this guys. I served in Iraq for two year and I come home and my marriage is great. I’m a rookie cop and in a year my marriage is over.” It’s just the camaraderie of being a policeman and that’s always what we were going to go after. My intention at the beginning was exploring these rookies, to discover who was Sipowicz before he was Sipowicz. How did Sipowicz become Sipowicz? That’s how we ended up selling the show to people. That was the plan. How do I get that guy to become a racist and how does this happen and how does the blue wall form? That was the master plan. But you know… the best laid plans…
Neely: So you’re going to do me a favor and you’re going to find out what’s going on with that option because you are clearly not done with this.
Neil: No. And that’s why I keep going back to cop genres. I just love the genre. Cops are just amazing; I just feel that it’s the toughest, most thankless job. You read it in the script, but there’s a line where he goes “You know that decision you take about firing your gun is a split second decision but they’re going to question you for the rest of your life about that.” It’s a hard job and yeah, there are bad guys in there but you go walk around the streets and deal with that.
Neely: I like the way that Wambaugh always signs off on things – “Semper Cop.”
Neil: It’s the brotherhood and when they let you in and they treat you like you’re respecting them, it’s … Well here’s something that happened to me. My son was involved with some fucked up people with drugs (he’s fine now). I literally called up the cops and asked if they could help me find out who the guy was he was dealing with. Everyone of them said, “We’d love to. Whatever we can do for you, Neil.” I mean, look, it’s intoxicating. Cops are intoxicating. I don’t know if you feel the same way but if you hang around and they let you in and you go to a bar with them and they tell you stories that blow your mind about people. You just have to ask – “How did you go back to work the next day?” I sat down and had dinner with Ed and five other cops and the stories were everything. The guys tell this story about when they were in the sexual deviants unit and they go to this guy’s house and find some videotapes. They are videotapes of the guy fucking his daughter. I mean, what do you do? What do you say?
Neely: I don’t know how you live through that. There’s a story of similar impact in Wambaugh’s book Hollywood Station. You really have to read it.
Neil: I definitely will.
Neely: Thanks again and why don’t we just sign off with Semper Cop-Writer.