Here is a letter written in support of leniency for Marc Henry Johnson, a fellow producer on “The Deuce” who was involved in the tragic overdose death of a woman in New York last year. The letter was written to the sentencing judge and is part of the court record, and I post it here out of concern that certain news outlets, including the New York tabloids — which did a poor and imprecise job of covering the original incident — are now quoting it piecemeal. As it is addressed to a presiding court, it would be inappropriate to comment beyond the letter itself, but I am going to link to it here so that a full, contextualized argument is available to those concerned or curious about my reasoning:
Archive for category: Commentary
I wrote this up some months ago, at the time that the “Show Me A Hero” miniseries was broadcast on HBO, but then held the essay back for the simple reason that viewers were still acquiring the narrative. After all, nothing is more distracting to the viewing of any edifice than to stumble through a side door and be confronted by all the interior scaffolding, if not evidence of an architect’s early mistakes and lesser intentions. But as the miniseries has now been airing for six months — and as the DVD release of “Show Me A Hero” is slated for tomorrow — I’m guessing that any little extra attention to detail can only be a good thing. And, oh yeah, SPOILERS:
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Most of the time, writing for film or television – if the writer retains a producer’s title on the set – is a straight, simple negotiation: Here’s the page. Say the lines. Yes, like you mean them, as a good actor would. You’re a good actor, right? Of course you are. That’s why we wanted you. So, you talented, photogenic prick motherfucker, say the fucking lines the way they were fucking written and then we can all go to the bar pretending to be friends.
Okay, so it isn’t quite that totalitarian.
And yes, the actor has to believe in the pages, and yes again, he or she is entirely correct to raise questions when a line or a scene bumps, when something seems emotionally inconsistent or implausibly plotted. Good actors live in those characters, or at least reside in the general vicinity; if they aren’t comfortable in the skin of their intricately created personas, then yes, perhaps, there’s a scene or three that needs rewriting.
Filmed narrative is intensely collaborative. And the script is just a script; until you film the sonofabitch, it doesn’t actually exist in a form that matters to anyone. So it makes sense to stay reasonable, and to open one’s ears to any actor who is thinking carefully about character, or perhaps even story, especially when the questions are selfless, and sincere, and in service of the greater whole. Every now and then, the actor is right.
It’s quite annoying when this happens.
And not because I hate to be wrong any more or less than the next man. Though I do. I hate it more than the next man because the next man is usually not right, and quite often he’s astonishingly and epically incorrect, which is, of course, why he’s The Next Man. If he were right, he’d be this man – me. Which would make me, I suppose, the next man – and if I was that ignorant rube, then okay, I’d shut my pie hole because I’d fucking realize that as The Next Man, my weak-sister argument is no match for this keen-witted fellow who is savaging me intellectually and rhetorically. Understand, I say all of this with the humility of a gentleman who wants at all points to be agreeable and kindhearted, to be yoked in tender harness to any and every soul in our divine human comedy. Seriously, I’d love nothing more than to agree with my Next Man brethren at every point possible. I would. But then we’d both be fucking wrong.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that the thing about me letting an actor be right is he damn well better be right. When he makes a choice to go off book or omit some element of the storytelling, he better be servicing not just his character, but the narrative to which that character is in service. He or she better be so sure of the decision and its effect on the entire story that directors and film editors and producers aren’t sitting in a dark room months later cursing some Hobson’s Choice in a scene that is missing the necessary elements. I’ve been there. And rest assured, it will not be only the Hobson’s Choice that I’m cursing.
On the other hand, the good actors do know their business. And their business is something so ineffable and extraordinary that when they completely understand a role and the purpose of that role in the context of a story, an argument or two about some dialogue or action is probably unavoidable.
And with that preamble, I’d going to tell a story on myself and a couple of actors and a director because, hey, I’m not sure they ever get around to teaching this stuff in film school. Maybe they do. I wouldn’t know having never been within rock-throwing distance of a film school. Regardless, it strikes me as a pretty good primer for anyone interested in the inside baseball of filming. What follows is a bit of how we actually do.
The actors are Oscar Isaac and Winona Ryder and the director, Paul Haggis. The project is the “Show Me A Hero” miniseries recently broadcast on HBO. And the scene in question is the culminating, confrontational moment of a storyline involving the characters played by Isaac and Ryder, the ex-mayor of Yonkers, Nick Wasicsko and his longtime political ally and friend, Vinni Restiano, respectively.
Cornered at the end of his political career, Wasicsko has decided to run against Restiano for the Yonkers council president, and Restiano, finding him alone at a bar, confronts him with the betrayal.
“I gotta ask you,” Restiano says angrily, “do you actually believe in anything other than yourself?”
After which, in the script, I wrote a line for Wasicsko, at the bar alone, after Restiano has stormed away: “What makes you think I believe in myself.”
It is an overt line. Too much so. And as Haggis pointed out when we were contemplating the script prior to filming, no one actually talks to themselves aloud in a bar in such fashion. Nonetheless, I was determined to hang on to the line – at least through the filming of it. Why?
Because – and here we come to the spoiler, so read on only if you know the end of the story or don’t care to watch the series – in a few subsequent scenes, Nick Wasicsko will take his own life. And singularly among all of human behavior, ending one’s own existence, absent, say, a clear and required act of martyrdom, is a choice that affronts and repels viewers. The compulsion to argue against even a careful established narrative construct for suicide, with all the requisite tells and clues, is so powerful that any story that concludes with a willful act of self-destruction risks a corresponding backwash of disbelief and disconnect by the audience.
The solution to Paul’s very valid note was to rewrite the moment so that Wasicsko delivers the line directly to Restiano in reply: “What makes you think I believe in myself?” In such a reading, the line is delivered without belligerence, as a wry attempt to parry the insult with self-effacing humor, to convince Restiano to sit and share a drink and maintain the friendship in spite of all. A line-read such as that is plausible, and while it doesn’t reveal fully the depth of the self-loathing required to take one’s own life, it feeds the storyline by speaking the words aloud and leaving them there to be slowly absorbed by the audience, and to remain in evidence as the tragedy takes its final turn.
Having contemplated the whole of the story for months with great care, Oscar Isaac was nonetheless unconvinced even by this sardonic reading of the line and after revisions were published, he mentioned his concern, to which I replied, with all the manipulative and false equanimity to which an executive producer is entitled: “Okay. We’ll get it both ways.”
Behold, the ultimate argument against committing too early to either a writer’s or actor’s choice. Why decide now? Let’s wait for the close coverage of a line or action in question and then film it both ways. Yours and mine. Then, when film editing the whole of the narrative later, we can assess the storyline and our execution of it, and make the proper choice.
The only problem from the actor’s point of view is, of course, he has to trust in the wit and taste of the director and producer; he won’t be in the editing room to participate in the final decision on which take to use. By offering the variations in the first place, he’s opening the door to differing outcomes. What if the writer is unwilling to kill one of his writerly lines, even if it impairs performance? What if a director is unwilling to kill a more dramatic moment, or worse, a pretty shot, for the sake of a real or authentic one? What if someone’s special, blessed baby needs to be murdered in the crib and no one has the stomach to do the deed?
As seasoned and as talented an actor as we have, Oscar Isaac was working with Haggis and myself for the first time. Trust goes only as far as it does in such circumstances, and on the day of filming – at the rehearsal of the scene, in fact – it became clear enough that he did not want to give up the line.
Paul came to me with the actor’s adamant objections.
“I think we’ll get it in the performance,” the director offered, trying to ameliorate the standoff. “I don’t think we’ll need the line.”
I couldn’t be sure. A subsequent scene involving Wasicsko’s further breakdown as he returned to his home and sat alone with his own thoughts – this had yet to be filmed. Therefore, I couldn’t yet know what Oscar was going to bring to that moment. Would there be enough in that scene – which offered little in the way of dialogue – to convey Wasicsko’s deep rage and loathing, as well as his final resolve? If I walked away from this barroom scene without even a passable read of the overt line, would I be cursing Isaac and Haggis later, trying to vindicate the narrative without all the necessary assets? Get your choices now, or go without them forever.
I went over to Oscar to make my pitch.
“You may be right. I may not need it,” I argued, “but suicide affronts an audience as few other things do. How are they going to be reconciled to the character’s choice if we aren’t explicit enough?”
Oscar showed real irritation with me for the first and only time in the long weeks of filming: “How?’ he said. “Acting.”
Christ. He was offended by the suggestion that he might not be able to convey the interior of his character’s disjointed and desperate mind — either in the last look of this bar scene, or in the soon-to-be-filmed sequence in the Wasicsko home. I was doubting him. Trust, it seems, runs both ways.
“I’m not saying that line,” he declared with finality.
I went back to the video monitors, frustrated and angry. Haggis tried to carry water for me, going to Oscar and asking for a take or two with Oscar’s best read on the line, if only in the spirit of compromise. But the actor was still ambivalent.
To this point a bystander to the debate, Winona Ryder found me at the monitors and immediately registered my mood.
“Do you think you need it?” she asked of the line.
“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “Maybe not. But this is suicide that we are trying to explain, and if it isn’t selling and we leave here without it, we can never come back for it, can we?”
Winona is as much a pro as Oscar; at this point, she’s had nearly three decades of this stuff. So being as good as she is at her craft, it’s entirely likely that she saw right through what I did next. But hey, maybe not. Because while I’m not an actor by any means, I was, in a previous life, a pretty good newspaperman; ergo my skill-set of honed, manipulative, shit-eating gamesmanship is not inconsiderable. I have talked sealed grand jury reports out of federal prosecutors and story confirmations out the most tight-assed FBI agents. In a pinch, I can get a Northern District desk sergeant to log on to the computer and pull a half dozen full criminal histories of private citizens.
I commenced to pout.
“I don’t know why the fuck I’m even here in Yonkers,” I vented to Ryder. “I might as well be back in Baltimore if the script isn’t the script and if I’m here to be ignored. I mean, why am I even up here every fucking day sitting here at a monitor if this is what it is.”
There’s an old saw that I use on actors about all of this, an easy parable about how we’re all just tools in the box – the writer, the actors, the props, the camera lenses – that none of us actually matter unto ourselves, that it doesn’t matter if one doorway is perfectly plumb, or if the mantle is beautifully trimmed, or the balustrade elegantly finished. What matters is the house we’re building — the whole of the house. It’s all that ever matters.
I threw some of the house metaphor at Winona. She nodded politely and quickly; she’d no doubt heard it before, perhaps from me earlier in the production, and certainly elsewhere in her time wandering the vast diaspora of filmmaking. The house talk isn’t original to me; not even close. I forget where or when I acquired it, but no doubt it was cribbed it from some other ink-stained screenwriter.
And yet I fired that old chestnut up and then, in a manner that probably conjured for Winona Ryder some of the most amateurish thespianism this side of dinner theater, I looked away from her with what I imagined was a look of wounded, self-loathing commensurate to what Oscar would soon be summoning for this scene. I tried my best to play as wrecked and tortured a writer as might exist.
Winona then went back to Oscar, arguing with her fellow actor that he could find a good, throwaway reading of the line, that it could work, that he could trust us not to use the take if it didn’t. She later told me that she even started to invoke the house-building metaphor, but Oscar looked at her with the weariness of a combat veteran: “Not the house speech,” he said, rolling eyes.
He also chided her for switching sides, with a remark that she later admitted was guilt-inducing: “So now you’re playing for the other team, huh?”
Later, I would find myself amused and a little surprised to hear the dynamic acknowledged so explicitly by an actor, but I’m not really sure why. Every screen or television writer I know tells tales in which the actors are ever portrayed as the Unreliable Other. Why should actors think differently about these games within the game? In any event, Winona Ryder had wandered across the neutral ground, advocating selflessly for the scribblers and shot-listers, and therefore, to some extent, against her own colleague and calling. Learning as much, I felt wrong for having done my backhanded best to enlist her, but here and now, at least, I’ll credit her last, gentle appeal to Oscar with having achieved the outcome.
Because after devouring several takes that omitted the dialogue in dispute – ending each with a look of such deep shame that there could be no mistaking his character’s lethal despair – I found myself startled to hear Nick Wasicsko throw the line back at Vinni Restiano on a read that worked beautifully. It was wounded but flippant, a retort that clearly and credibly sought to make light of a deep insult and maintain the normalcy of an old friendship. The extra line even worked without punching holes in Winona’s opposing and equally marvelous performance; though Restiano had to contain herself long enough to wait on Wasicsko’s reply to her question, her fury at the flippant answer fueled a savage, visceral exit. Oscar’s read of the line and Winona’s reaction to it both made actual sense, and in giving it up, Oscar had granted me an honest choice.
“You won’t need it,” Haggis said again after we had the take.
And we didn’t. A week later we shot the ensuing scene in the upstairs bedroom and Oscar Isaac delivered an extended, agonizing nervous breakdown that culminated in a moment of grievous surrender. Everything we needed to make sense of a man’s choice to self-destruct was therefore evident without a scripted utterance. Later, in editing, I watched the alternate take from the bar scene one last time, listening as a great actor landed a clever but unnecessary line. A writer’s line. A beautiful, fatted, blue-eyed baby of a line.
Lose it, I told the editor.
I like to imagine that I’ll work with these fine actors on some future project, that every line and gesture in every future script will be butter, that we’ll go from scene to scene agreeing amiably on every single notion. But, no, that’s impossible and ridiculous. More plausibly, I’d like believe that by carefully enveloping and achieving a line that I actually didn’t need, two actors had earned enough of my trust that I might be more assured of their insight and sense, and too, that by discarding their gift to me once it was given, I’d earned their respect for my own restraint and taste. Next time, I’d like to believe, it isn’t going to be so fraught. Next time, we’ll all know each other better. Next time will be easy.
Yeah, no. They’re actors. You gotta keep an eye on those fuckers.
* * *
And congratulations to Oscar Isaac for his receiving a Golden Globe Award for his work in “Show Me A Hero.” No, really, I mean that genuinely. For real. – DS
For reasons too improbable and esoteric to explain, I was recently invited to a small coterie of vacation shacks in Thurmont, north of the city of Frederick in Western Maryland. Franklin Roosevelt christened the joint as Shangri-La — in honor of his “Lost Horizon” reference following the Doolittle Raid against Tokyo — and that name stuck until Eisenhower renamed it for his grandson, Daniel or Douglas or whatever.
Anyhow, the rule is that what happens at Camp Daniel stays at Camp Daniel. When you get an invite, they don’t want you to describe the place on social media, or to relate the goings-on. And the Marines at the gate hold your cameras and smart phones so there’s nothing visual I could or should post here.
It will have to suffice as humble-brag to say that I drank a couple shots of presidential Jose Cuervo and I played a game of presidential darts and tilted a presidential pinball machine in the game room. Then I threw a couple jumpshots into the hole on either end of the presidential ball court, then powered my way down the lane past an imaginary presidential defender for a graceful lay-up. For a finale, I put on a pair of presidential bowling shoes and rolled a game in one of the presidential lanes. I did not use the presidential ball, which was clearly labeled atop the rack. They told me that was a definite no-go, and, well, Guantanamo.
All in all, I was feeling pretty damn special — 118 ain’t shabby when you haven’t bowled in a few years — until I look up on the wall of the lanes and there is a photograph of President Obama, the slightest suggestion of a smile on his face, pointing wryly upward at the tabulated bowling score on the overhead projection.
In between every other mess with which he’s contending, Barack Obama came here to the presidential retreat one day and rolled a 213.
Two thirteen! The man is a beast.
Me, I’ve never been more ashamed of a 118 in my entire gutter-ball-rolling life. And now that weak-ass score, with my name affixed to it, is winding its way to the National Archives or some other federal drain-swirl of historical ignominy.
Anyway, I’m guessing that’s about as far as I can go in terms of discussing my day in the hills of Frederick County. I don’t wanna break the rules. But a cabinet secretary later told me that considering my negligible background and general reputation, everyone thought I behaved myself and my little talk on public housing policy went swell.
Armed with such assurance, I promptly went back to the bar and stuffed the small item you see below into my sweater and made good my escape. The Marines at the gate probably assumed my conquest to be a gift-shop purchase or some such. Hah! What rubes. As if any chump of a visitor can pull out a credit card at the Shangri-La bar and waltz away from the place with $32 worth of presidential bar gear. As if.
My late father-in-law, Ted Lippman, who specialized in presidential politics for The Baltimore Sun for much of his long career, would have been so damn proud to down a martini from this bad boy. After all, who knows which historical lips savored its chemistry: Ike, or Truman, or Jackie Kennedy; Brezhnev or Sadat or Begin.
And, too, Ted would have been especially proud once I explained to him that they had renamed the entire camp in honor of my visit.
So that’s where it stands, Mr. President. You want this martini shaker back, you’re gonna roll me ten frames for it, double or nothing. And, to keep it fair, I’ll need a 70-pin spot.
In light of the frustration that many feel in the wake of this week’s mistrial in the first Freddy Gray prosecution, I thought I’d dig out an old newspaper clip. Written by veteran police reporter Roger Twigg and myself, it is an account of another Baltimorean who died in the back of a police wagon, and the early stages of an investigation that went nowhere once prosecutors, a city grand jury and police union lawyers did their business.
In this instance, now nearly a quarter century old, the sustained injuries were not to the victim’s spinal cord, but to his spleen and his ribs. In this instance, the prisoner was also clearly in distress and ignored. In this case, the wagon man rode the victim around Baltimore not for 45 minutes without medical assistance, but for a full hour. In this instance, the wagon man actually told other prisoners not to step on the prone victim, because, he said, the man had AIDS. And in this case, too, as with Mr. Gray, there was considerable discussion about the criminality of the victim, as if by diminishing his human worth and highlighting his failings, a police-wagon death was somehow deserved.
Robert Eugene Privett, 29, died in Baltimore police custody in March 1992. There was no uprising and no riot. Coverage of the death produced no civic outrage. And a Baltimore State’s Attorney also took the matter to a grand jury and emerged with no indictments — not for depraved-heart second degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. Not even for reckless endangerment.
It was death that just slipped quietly below the waves.
A police reporter for nearly a decade by then, I was certain it would. I knew it once I heard prosecutors and union lawyers both mitigating the outcome with talk of the victim’s enlarged spleen, his drug use, his HIV status, effectively constructing a legal hole so large that a truck could be run through the center of the case.
The greater truth is that Freddy Gray is in no way unique or remarkable. Not in Baltimore, and not anywhere else in urban America. He comes to us amid a policing culture debased by thirty years of open warfare on the city poor — a conflict that has allowed, if not actually required, officers to see a large share of the men, women and children they are policing as the enemy, as arrest stats, as very much less than human.
Mr. Privett was white, by the way. The desire to construct the Freddy Gray narrative along purely racial lines is understandable — Baltimore is a majority black city, and further, people of color are disproportionately represented among the poor, who are the specific, targeted cohort in the drug war — but it is nonetheless not an entirely honest construction.
Anyone who has watched drug prohibition applied in my city’s poor white or mixed neighborhoods — in O’Donnell Heights or Morrell Park, Pigtown or pre-gentrifying Remington — understands fully that the battle claimed against dangerous narcotics long ago morphed into a full-blown war on our most vulnerable and disempowered citizens, regardless of race. I recently happened to find myself the only white fellow on a New Yorker festival panel on race and I tried to make this point gently — to acknowledge that while people of color suffer police violence disproportionately, they are not alone. And that class warfare, as much as racism, now underlies our savage, repetitive reliance on law-and-order brutalities.
“Then how is it that we never hear about white people being victims?” asked a fellow panelist.
I told her I had covered cases in Baltimore, that I had seen the war on drugs play itself out against poor whites and blacks alike. She looked at me with disbelief and disappointment, as if I had obliviously blurted that all lives matter.
Make no mistake: racism is still good fuel for much of the brutality. Moreover, I understand the natural inclination to view the whole of the nightmare of institutionalized police violence through the prism of race. From that perspective, poor white victims are indeed less useful as martyrs for a movement that begins by affirming for black life. But America’s misuse of the drug war to overpolice and beat down its poor is simply bigger, and more complicated, than race alone. The hue of the six defendants in the Gray prosecutions suggests this. And the fact that the Robert Eugene Privetts of the world were going to their deaths in the back of Baltimore police wagons decades ago affirms as much.
I waited for a verdict in the first Freddy Gray prosecution before posting this. I didn’t want to add to pretrial foment or mangle the specifics of the present case with those of the distant past. But I’m writing now, in light of a jury’s inability to find any guilt whatsoever in the death of Mr. Gray in police custody.
Fair-minded people can argue about whether sufficient intent was proven to justify a manslaughter conviction, or whether this particular officer was more or less complicit in what happened to Mr. Gray. But if, over the ensuing trials, our justice system determines that a prone, unresponsive human being can be legally ignored for nearly an hour by the authorities who have taken custody of him, well then, what exactly is the law saying to us as citizens? In a civilized republic, a law officer, in taking custodial responsibility of a fellow citizen, must do all he or she can to transport that citizen safely and attentively. If the law in the Freddy Gray cases allows otherwise, without sanctioning those who so abjectly fail that test, then our police wagons and jail cells will continue to be bodied for another couple decades.
Baltimore failed Robert Privett entirely. Again, there were no indictments for reckless endangerment as he rolled around Southeast Baltimore for over an hour, pleading for medical help and dying of a ruptured spleen. The wagon man made his HIV-status into a bad joke. The state’s attorney then failed him and the city grand jury failed him. His fellow citizens failed him as well, in that in 1992, the hue and cry against overpolicing, the drug war and mass incarceration wasn’t yet on the horizon. A series of articles covered the case in The Sun, but produced little reaction from any quarter. Privett was The Other. Some dope fiend. With AIDS. Fuck him.
And now Mr. Gray.
If Baltimore today can’t figure out how to legally hold accountable the law officers who failed for nearly an hour to secure medical assistance for a man in their custodial care — at least to the point of declaring that they failed in their duty and recklessly endangered a fellow citizen — then we will have stayed the course. And twenty years from now, amid some other wagon or jail death, someone else will be posting old Freddy Gray stories and explaining that there is nothing new under the sun.
Save for the image of a six-year-old Hungarian girl which I do not possess — these are the photographs of 10 of the 11 members of my family who did not escape from Europe in the critical prewar years, when the path for refugees fleeing fascism narrowed, then disappeared. Fear of these people — their otherness, their politics, their faith — was sufficient to close borders and deny safe passage to America and elsewhere. The first six photos are an extended family on my mother’s side lost at Auschwitz, the last four a branch of my father’s clan slain in the woods outside the city of Slonim, in what is now Belarus.
The facelessness of the hundreds of thousands fleeing our time’s great cruelty is in some basic way part of their undoing. In their anonymity, the Syrian refugees running from Assad or the Islamic State appear in our political discourse as mere numbers, abstract and enormous. Save for the occasional photograph of a child’s body on a beach or some video footage of an exhausted woman in a rail station, these lost souls exist for us as an amorphous collective. To our minds, they are a vast multitude of disordered humanity, victims and victimizers, terrorists and those terrorized. Sorting them will be exhausting and imprecise and burdensome. There will be costs. And risks.
And yet every time I begin to listen to someone explain to me the social or political problem of opening our country to this breaking wave of humanity, every time some sonofabitch summons fear or prejudice or uncertainty, I am steadied and restored by my own familial history. Yes, populations are vast, uncontrollable, threatening. Their swell and weight are great enough in our frightened minds to overwhelm systems, or resources. But people are people. Our precious singularity, when at last acknowledged, makes the cowardice of our worst politicians and the fear of those who respond to their rhetoric that much more craven and shameful.
For me, I just have to turn the page of the family photo album and stare at these faces. The people of my blood, the lost branches of my tree — Esther and Solomon, Fanci and Gitel, Leo and little Batia and the others — ordinary mothers and fathers and children who an entire world failed to see as completely and irreplacably human. They, too, were a feared and unwanted wave of chaos and risk, confusion and otherness. And they were butchered on the short end of someone else’s geopolitical equation.
Knowing that much, I can’t look at these lost faces and then succumb to the worst imaginings of a Trump or a Cruz or a Carson. It would be an affront to the memory of my tribal dead, and to the fortunate journey, too, of all of those in my mother’s and father’s family who got out, who got here, or to Palestine, or Australia.
This, now, is the same moment, with the same stakes. Soon and forever, many more families will have nothing left but names and photographs over which to grieve, just as the names and images of others — today’s Tafts and Coughlins and Lindberghs — will be stained and dishonored by what they say or do in this time. These are men and women who wish to claim the mantle of moral leadership, yet would trade innocent lives for any and all chance for an abject and equivocal safety, or worse, for some immediate political gain. Tether yourself to their ugliest fears and you, too, can embrace the shame that this moment offers.
Or be more.
But know for certain that the history that is happening today — right now — will judge us all.