Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Kaitlin Fontana

Promotional poster for LAW & ORDER: SVU.

Kaitlin sits down with Warren Leight to discuss his career from stand-up comic to playwright to showrunner of IN TREATMENT and LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT, running a writers room, how to shift the focus of a show with such a powerful legacy, the importance of having your work – and your writing team – reflect the real world, and much more.

Warren Leight got his start in the entertainment industry with credits on features like MOTHER’S DAY and THE NIGHT WE NEVER MET (the latter of which he also directed). He also wrote for the female stand-up comic quartet the “High Heeled Women.” From there, he eventually moved to the stage, penning plays like MAYOR and the Tony Award-winning, Pulitzer Prize finalist SIDE MAN.

Warren joined the writing staff of LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT for its second through seventh seasons, when he left to be the showrunner for the HBO series IN TREATMENT. He returned to the LAW & ORDER roster in 2011, when he became showrunner for LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT. He worked as showrunner for SVU for its 13th-17th seasons, and is returning to the helm for its 21st.

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT chronicles the lives of the Special Victims Unit in the New York City Police Department, a squad of detectives who investigate crimes of sexual assault, child abuse and domestic violence. The NBC series – which is now the longest-running live-action television series in the United States – will premiere its 21st season on September 26, 2019.


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OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, East. Season Four of the podcast is hosted by Kaitlin Fontana. Mix, tech production, and original music by Stock Boy Creative.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Kaitlin Fontana: You’re listening to On Writing, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America East. I’m Kaitlin Fontana. In each episode, you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news and new media, discussing everything from pitching to production, from process to favorite lines and jokes, and everything in between.

Kaitlin Fontana: Warren, thank you so much for being here, for the podcast today.

Warren Leight: Thanks for getting me out of the office.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. You were saying before we got on air that you’re right in the thick of it, right now, with production.

Warren Leight: Yeah, the summer’s a funny time, because none of the episodes have aired, yet. We shot episode one in late June. We’re shooting episode six today and tomorrow. We’re prepping episode seven soon. This is the time of year where you have 10 to 12 episodes in your head. That’s not good.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: You kind of want to start burning them off. By episode 17, you’re shooting something that’s going to air in eight days, and the next episode’s not written yet, and that’s a different tension.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right, right. When you’re right in the middle of it, there’s problems before, problems during and problems after that you’re looking down the barrel of?

Warren Leight: That’s exactly right.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. I know that you started out as a playwright. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey from playwriting to SVU?

Warren Leight: By the way, if anybody thinks this is a career arc to follow, I don’t advise it. I just got out of college and wanted to be a writer, so I just booked whatever writing jobs. I started out writing ads for college textbooks. I don’t mean to brag, but that was my first professional thing. Then, I’d run into people, and there was a guy in my apartment building who said he was a producer, and he was looking for a horror movie writer. I said, “Oh, I can do that.” I wrote corporate speeches. I wrote a His column for Mademoiselle. I wrote an all woman cabaret act called The High Heeled Women. My credit was, the girls write all their own material. I ghost wrote for ghost stories. I had to make $600 a month, and I would book whatever job would come up. Whatever it was, I would say, “Oh, yeah, I’m a big fan of horror,” or, “I love corporate speeches and the People anniversary industrial,” or whatever it was. You figure it out.

Kaitlin Fontana: That sounds to me like the old, have you ever heard about the old Brill building way of doing things?

Warren Leight: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Kaitlin Fontana: Where there’s a musician sitting in a room, and someone goes, “Hey, are you available to write a jingle? Hey, are you available to-”

Warren Leight: It was like that, but more on Canal Street.

Kaitlin Fontana: Not, up in Times Square? You were down in the-

Warren Leight: I was everywhere. I did standup at the West Bank Café. That standup started to evolve into what became my playwriting, oddly enough.

Kaitlin Fontana: Okay.

Warren Leight: I was always writing sketches and comedy and things. I was going to be a comedy writer. I’m not sure what happened.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: I don’t know.

Kaitlin Fontana: I think SVU’s pretty far from comedy writing, for the most part.

Warren Leight: You get a one-liner for Finn in, every once in awhile.

Kaitlin Fontana: I was going to say, yeah. I said that before you walked in, actually. I was like, “I think Ice T is your-”

Warren Leight: He’s my go-to guy. You don’t give him big chunks of exposition.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: But if everybody goes on and on about the perp did this, the perp did that, the perp did this, then you give Finn, “So we’re looking for a dumb guy.” And then, you’re out of the scene.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. That’s a button line. So you are still a comedy writer, in a certain sense.

Warren Leight: I still like to, yeah. But you can only get away with a few buttons in an episode, of that nature.

Kaitlin Fontana: Sure. Sure. Tell me about landing at SVU, then, and how that came about, for you.

Warren Leight: TV came about through my playwriting. I ran into Theresa Rebeck, on 10th Avenue, about, must be 20 years ago, now. It was a time in my life where I had had a … my hit play, Side Man, had already won the Tony. I was solvent, but I was doing a lot of elder care for both of my parents. I ran into her, and was talking about that. She said, “You know, they’re looking for a writer on one of the new, one of the Law & Orders. Would that be interesting to you? I could introduce you to the showrunner.” I didn’t know anything about Law … I was the only person who had never watched the Law and Order. I can say that, now.

Kaitlin Fontana: You’re safe now.

Warren Leight: I didn’t know that it shot in New York. I remember asking, “What channel is it on?” I had not watched a lot of one hour drama, or any one hour drama. I was watching sitcoms.

Warren Leight: So, I went in and met the guy, and I looked at the 20 episodes. It was René Balcer, who’s now show running the new FBI. I came in, and I thought, if you’re meeting the guy, you have to have a whole episode, just like if I’m doing a horror movie. I went in, and I came in with a five act pitch, and I’d watched everything he’d done, and I said, “I think what you’re doing with this character is this, so wouldn’t it be interesting to meet D’Onofrio’s … find out more about D’Onofrio’s past, what drives him. I was overly assiduous. So, he took the episode and then they put me on, and I was in the wolf camp. I just tried not to get anybody angry at me. It was a complicated set.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. I’m sure. Great show, though, I think underrated, as far as the Law & Orders go, Criminal Intent.

Warren Leight: It was really difficult to plot.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: Because, the crime could only make sense at the end of five acts.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: And only the most brilliant detective in the world could crack it. This is almost pre- the ability to look up anything on the Internet. Well, how would Goren know that this perp had been a barber in prison? What would be a clue about that? You’d have to try and go on prison chat boards and things like that. It’s easier now. You can research so much more fluidly than in the dial-up days.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Sure, sure. You also worked on HBO’s In Treatment. That’s a different window into-

Warren Leight: Well, In Treatment, for me, was great, because it was much more like the theater writing I had done. Look, nobody would ever produce my plays in New York. So, they were always one act festivals. You could always get one acts done, because no one makes any money, and they’ll do eight one acts in a night. So, I loved writing one acts. If you want to get something produced, the mantra was, keep your cast small. So, you would write a two-hander.

Warren Leight: In Treatment was basically a half hour two-hander. Unfortunately, there were 35 of them in 70 shooting days. So, I was depleted by the end of it. I had a nice staff on that. They were basically half hour one acts. I was on Season Two. I think the only thing I tried to do was, instead of just tracking the story of the patients, I also horizontally tracked the patient stories, while tracking Gabriel Byrne’s character’s story, as well. I believe that was my first use of the potholder loom metaphor for the writing staff. Every time he sees a patient, it should trigger something about what’s going on in his life. Then, on day five, he sat down with his shrink, Dianne Wiest.

Warren Leight: The other challenge to that was, you have this great actor in Gabriel Byrne, and he’s sitting in a chair 13 hours a day. He has to say more than, “Can you tell me about that?”

Kaitlin Fontana: Right, yeah.

Warren Leight: What was similar to writing for Detective Goren, was a detective makes deductions and a shrink, at some point in a session, has to come to some understanding of the character that he’s dealing with, and say, “Is it possible that while you’re telling me this, what you’re really worried …” So, there was a … You have to crack the case.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: The difference, I think, is when I talked to a lot of shrinks for that show, they all told me they know what the deal is with their patients within one or two sessions. The trick is getting the… well, it’s getting the confession from the patients, essentially.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right, right, right.

Warren Leight: Getting the patient to accept it.

Kaitlin Fontana: That makes me totally afraid to go see my therapist now.

Warren Leight: Your therapist knows and has known from day one.

Kaitlin Fontana: What do I keep paying her for?

Warren Leight: I don’t know. You could just say, “Look, I know you know. Just tell me what’s going on.”

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: Try it.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. And then the season is over.

Warren Leight: Then she’ll say, “What do you think is going on?”

Kaitlin Fontana: Right, right, right. It’ll just be a volley back and forth.

Warren Leight: Yeah.

Kaitlin Fontana: So, this is a huge season for SVU. It’s the 21st season, which makes it the longest running prime time drama series on television. How does that feel for you as a show runner? What are you thinking is your-

Warren Leight: Well, it’s great to come back for that.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: I’ve been away from it for three years. It’s tricky to keep these things running. I’m grateful to the guys who held the fort, but to get invited back for this season, especially for Mariska, it’s an incredible accomplishment. She is James Arness. She is, right? She’s been on that show. She’s done 21 years straight of this show, and there’s no way it gets to 21 years or 15 years without her.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: So, we’re aware of that accomplishment. There’s a sense of pride in the crew. There’s a sense of a challenge. I put together a writer’s room that’s at least half new. I said, “I don’t really want episodes that could have been episode 387.” Our hope is that anybody tuning in years from now, as you all will, goes, “Oh, that has to be a season 21 episode.” There’s a little more pressure on us to make sure the episodes… maybe operatic is too big a word, but I want them to pop. I want them to have a lot of layers and levels to them. I don’t want it to just find a guy, yell at the guy, get the guy to confess.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: Also, the world that this takes place in has changed enormously. I mean, it’s weird when you watch old episodes. Some of the techniques the police use are horrible when you watch them. You don’t yell at perps. That doesn’t get a good confession. You don’t re traumatize your victims. But there’s a lot that people have learned in law enforcement.

Warren Leight: When we opened the writer’s room in May of this year, we had all these law enforcement people, district attorneys, detectives, forensic people, sexual assault nurses, come in and talk to us. A lot has changed even in the three years that I was away. So, that’s another focus for us is we find out that a lot of police forces don’t train their cops in this, and a lot of cops learn about how to deal with sexual assault cases from watching the show, which scares the hell out of me.

Kaitlin Fontana: Oh my God.

Warren Leight: Look, it’s an idealized version. Most people say I wish I had a detective like Benson when this happened to me. But you want to do it right. You want to set as good an example of how it’s supposed to be done as you can.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. I mean, I would say, as someone who’s literally watched the show since I was a teenager, grew up watching through my mom Law and Order, and then when SVU came along, I was 16. So, I’ve been watching the show the entire time it’s been on the air without fail, and following Mariska and following that journey of that character, and it’s very impactful to myself and the women I know who have been assaulted or are in the community of it to see the evolution of the show around those ideas.

Warren Leight: Some of that is Mariska’s own doing. She started this foundation, They Joyful Heart Foundation. You do a show like this, people come up to you and disclose, and that’s a heavy responsibility. So, you want to be able to tell them who the right people are to go to. You want to be able to be supportive. So, you want to learn what the state of the art is in terms of dealing with the post trauma of this.

Warren Leight: Even the way you interview people. You saw it in the Kavanaugh hearings, the way they interviewed. Mr. Ford was all wrong. Dr. Ford was all wrong.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: They wanted linear. Who, what, when, where, why?

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: People who undergo a trauma, we now know the frontal lobes shut down, sort of the lizard brain kicks in. So, you remember the trauma in pieces, in shards, through sensory memories of the sort of more atavistic parts of your brain. So, we’re dealing this year with trauma informed interview techniques, none of which were used on Dr. Ford. Except that one question, what do you remember most? She said, “The sound of people laughing.”

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: Just a sound. That’s when I knew what she was saying… I didn’t doubt her anyway, but you knew it was true, because that was a memory that emerged in that moment. So, I don’t know. It’s an interesting task trying to discuss the changes, to discuss this post Me Too world. People can now claim they’re being witch hunted and use that as a defense. We’re not running out of stories. I’ll put it that way.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. I mean, I wrote a question about how do you find new stories after 21 seasons? Then I thought about it. Then I thought, because they’re still happening.

Warren Leight: They’re still happening, and these guys, I mean, some of them are awaiting prosecution, but even the big names have mostly gotten away with it.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: Or are still filing motions and delaying their trials.

Kaitlin Fontana: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Warren Leight: You saw there was a case three days ago. Two cops pulled an 18 year old women on the side of the road. Five years later, having admitted to raping her in the back of a police van while she was handcuffed, they were given probation and no prison time, and sentenced to acceptance of a third degree bribe.

Warren Leight: There’s still reason to be angry. There’s still things that need to be dealt with differently. So, you don’t run out. Maybe just the way we approach the crimes changes.

Kaitlin Fontana: What level of responsibility do you feel to engage with that kind of news making?

Warren Leight: It’s intense. On Criminal Intent, we were doing murder mysteries with this brilliant detective, as he would always remind us. But this is a different responsibility to the audience. Even when we do a story about a false accusation, we don’t want people thinking that’s the norm or that’s very common, because it isn’t the norm, and it isn’t very common.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: So, you want to contextualize things as much as you can. I’m also aware a lot of the audience are either survivors or are a family of survivors. There’s something cathartic for them in watching the show as they tell you all the time. If you can show a path to survivorship, that’s something that is important to people.

Warren Leight: Look, a lot of things can go wrong in people’s lives after they’ve been victimized. You want to point out those possibilities and point out other ways to go.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. I mean, you touched on this a little bit, but I’ve always been fascinated as a writer and just as someone who’s a huge fan of the genre. What do you think it is about the procedural as a structure for a show that speaks so much to people that there are literally hundreds of thousands of them. Not just in the United States, but most of the imports from other countries are procedural shows as well.

Warren Leight: I mean, it’s fascinating. Also now we’ve got these eight episode procedurals. The reason Law and Order is… SUV I think in 250 territories. I mean, I’ll get the note from Dick Wolf every once in awhile, how will this rerun 30 years from now in Kazakhstan? He’s thinking about that, and I’m just trying to fix a little plot point at the end of an act.

Warren Leight: But the procedural, his format works well, because you can be in a hotel in Kazakhstan and turn on the TV, and you don’t have to know too much about who the characters are, what happened to them last week. I can come in. I will see a satisfying story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Usually there’s justice, which we all know is not often the case in the real world.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: So, there’s something satisfying, I think, about seeing the bad guys go down when they do go down. I’m aware that that’s not the reality in most sexual assault cases. We depict the dead ends as well, but if you do it right, it’s a well-told three act story.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: We might have six commercial breaks, but it’s still basically a three act story.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, yeah.

Warren Leight: So, beginning, middle, and end. There’s jeopardy. I find our stories work better if the victim is alive. One of the things when I came in eight years ago, I had all these other detectives come in. “What do you guys think of the show?” “Oh, it’s really great.” I go, “Anything we do wrong?” They go, “Well, now that you mention it, you know how every show opens with a dead body?” I go, “Yeah.” They go, “That would be homicide.”

Warren Leight: So, he said, “I see why you do that. The reality of our job is we meet the victim. Her body is a crime scene. She’s in the most traumatized state of her life. We have to take her to a hospital where she gets re traumatized again. Then for the eight or 10, 12 months of her life, she goes through this harrowing process where she herself is put on trial even as the victim, which doesn’t happen if your TV…” He said, “But I could see why you guys wouldn’t want to write that.”

Warren Leight: I thought, no that’s pretty good.

Kaitlin Fontana: That’s compelling stuff.

Warren Leight: That’s compelling stuff.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: That was the big shift when I came in the first time, I think. So, if your victim’s alive, that’s a lot more… as the cops told us, that’s a lot more pressure on the cops. Murder, you have grieving family members, but the victim’s alive and you have to go tell her in some states the rapist wants custody of the child.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: You have to break horrible news to the victim eight months after the crime and say, “He’s claiming it was consensual, and he’s going to ask what was going on in your life six hours before this happened to you, as if that has any bearing on what happened to you.”

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: When we started writing to that, the stories got gnarlier and more compelling, that journey. Then Mariska, Olivia, their Venn diagram overlaps. Her ability to empathize with the victim is a big part of the show as well. Just making sure that person is heard and believed.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: It’s what good cops should do in those situations.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Underline should.

Warren Leight: Yeah.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. So, tell me about the writer’s room previous to this, creating a writer’s room for the show. Then I know there’s been some… It was an interesting new kind of… You said before there’s half new people. I know it’s more women than men for the first time ever. Tell me about putting together the room.

Warren Leight: We don’t have a traditional room in terms of we all plot all the episodes. It’s Julie Martin and I. Julie Martin’s been there the whole time since I got there, stayed after I left. She survives every regime change, because she’s so good. She and I will generally plot with one or two writers on their episode.

Warren Leight: It’s not one of those things where the room plots it. Again, they’re more personal and emotional stories, and they’re not… even the twists, I prefer that they come from character. I stress what I call writing inside out. So, I hate when someone says, “And then in act four we find out George did it.” It’s like, who’s George?

Warren Leight: That’s the thing, we’ve never met him before. I go, that’s bad.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: It’s writing from the character and from what we know early on. In the past, because SVU unlike almost all one hour dramas on network anyway, it’s just an A story. There might be a small runner about Olivia’s child or this or that, but there’s only one crime. Blue Blood might have an A story, a B story, a C story, a D story.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: We have just the A story, which means you need writers who can sustain a five act and a teaser 45 scene structure keeping one crime alive for that length. So, very few people really have that experience. So, you end up with the guys who’ve done it before. You end up with the Law and Order pros.

Warren Leight: They’re good, but I thought when I was putting together the staff this year, I wanted kind of younger fresher voices. I know how to do that now.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: Julie knows how to do that. The old rooms were basically white men.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: Right? So, that doesn’t reflect New York in any way. Also I found as we made the show more about the survivor’s journey and the emotional content, the guys who were great at plotting those twists and turns did not necessarily know how to write the emotional effect on a family of a wife hiding her rape from her husband, and then her husband…

Warren Leight: They didn’t necessarily have those chops.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: It’s a different skillset. So, I kind of made… If you believe there’s this empathy structural bell curve, I wanted writers with a little bit tilted to the empathy side knowing that by now Julie and I can help structure the stories, but I also wanted… I brought in three journalists to the staff this year. Some of whom had covered…

Warren Leight: One of whom, Kathy Doby, had profiled the hate crimes unit in a great article in I guess Atlantic or Harper’s. Forgive me for forgetting which one. She also had done a profile of a Newark sex crimes office. She knows every cop in the city. She’s just covered a lot of ground.

Warren Leight: Then we brought in Dennis Hammill who’s covered even more ground. He’s been a beat reporter for the Daily News back to the Eleanor Roosevelt days, I think. I say that he knows the smell of every housing project stairwell in New York.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: So, I brought in Lisa Cullen, who’s on our council here.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: Who was a reporter before she transitioned into pilot writing. So, that’s three people with a lot of experience who can write voices. Some of them were nervous. “Well, I haven’t done this before.” They actually have internalized all these voices over time.

Kaitlin Fontana: Sure.

Warren Leight: So, that’s come very naturally to them. I have a couple of playwrights [inaudible 00:21:06] and Monet Hearst Mendoza. Younger playwrights who also have… You read scripts, and they take place in worlds, believably take place in a fair between a prison guard and a prisoner. Well, that’s going to be harder to find that ability to write that voice than it is to find a fourth act twist.

Warren Leight: So, it’s a nice mix. I did think we’re past time where the majority of the room should be women. Then I brought back some people who’ve been on the staff in various capacities and know how to help me keep the trains running, know what to do on set. I always have writers on set, which was not…

Warren Leight: When I first got to Criminal Intent, I would go to set and get yelled at for going to set.

Kaitlin Fontana: Oh, really?

Warren Leight: Yeah. Don’t go to set. The writers will just ask you to change things. They sometimes do, but sometimes you can answer questions or you notice something. So, I always have a writer on set. So, I have a couple people who’ve been on set, and the actors are comfortable with them. Now we introduce a new writer every couple of days, and everyone’s getting used to the new mix.

Kaitlin Fontana: Okay.

Warren Leight: I brought in Peter [Blanner 00:22:16] who’s also a former journalist and a novelist. He’s also done his time in the TV world by now. I guess as of now there’s four formal journalists on a staff of 11. I’m a partial journalist, partial playwright, but three or four former playwrights, and three TV writers. It’s sort of working out.

Warren Leight: I wanted a team. I didn’t want… I’ve been on staffs where it gets cutthroat, and I can’t stand it. I want people looking out for each other, because it’s a long season. I don’t want people trying to make other people look bad or not offering a scene suggestion to someone because they’re saving it for their script. Get another idea. Later.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right, right.

Warren Leight: If you’ve got something that works, throw it into the [crosstalk 00:23:06].

Kaitlin Fontana: [crosstalk 00:23:06] yeah, yeah. So, what is a day in the life of the room look like, then? You said it’s sort of a nontraditional writer’s room where you’re not necessarily all breaking story together. Can you tell me a little bit more about what it looks like on the ground?

Warren Leight: I mean, so right now Brandon and Monet are really working episode eight after getting notes from me and Julie. I threw Peter Blounder in on that to just help give them a sounding board while they were doing that. Episode seven has Lisa and Kathy Doby doing a lot of the writing, and we’re prepping that. I just did a pass on their script and sent it to them, and they just sent me their notes on my pass, which I just put in this morning.

Warren Leight: Meanwhile Kathy is on set today, because episode five is shooting, which she co wrote with Brianna [Yellen 00:23:57] who has been on staff. She’s like our third ranking writer now. She started out as my assistant. So, she’s been there a long time by now. So, Kathy’s on set while giving me notes on episode seven, while giving me notes on [inaudible 00:24:14] also on the set of the episode shooting now, but she’s giving me notes on the cut of episode four that just came in.

Warren Leight: So, everyone’s in motion.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: You’re getting cuts. I’m trying to get new stories going. Eventually I’ll go into a room with maybe two writers, three writers, note taker, good writer’s assistant is a must.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yes.

Warren Leight: I want cards on the board. Especially we have fewer and fewer minutes to tell a story. We’re down to fewer than 41 minutes now.

Kaitlin Fontana: Oh, really?

Warren Leight: You have a teaser and five acts. So, those acts are shorter than they used to be. I need to know why someone’s coming back at the end of the first act.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: At the end of the teaser. If at the end of the fourth act they’re not engaged, that’s on us. Sometimes you can do what I would call a more emotional act out in act three or act four. I don’t want oh my God we think Tommy did it. Knock knock. Break in. Tommy’s dead. I guess he didn’t do it. Go to commercial. I don’t want to see that act out-

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: … every episode. I mean, we’re going to do it probably during the year, but one of the things is what’s the shape of the house before you start worrying about what color drapes? What are the big arcs of the story? First thing I always say is, “What was the crime?”

Kaitlin Fontana: Right, right. Yeah.

Warren Leight: People forget. [inaudible 00:25:30] I go, “So, wait, I’m sorry. What happened?” Oh.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: We’re pursuing people. You have to break out of the rhythm of… and then we think it’s Tommy, but it’s not Tommy. Break out of the red herring rhythm. Find one or two characters who will carry the story for you. Then how do our guys, Ice, Kelly, Olivia, [inaudible 00:25:55], how do they fit in?

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: This is what I learned from Gabriel Burn writing and [inaudible 00:26:00] writing. You don’t want those guys getting bored. You want to keep your recurring characters, your regulars, engaged. Every few episodes, give somebody and episode that’s a little more weight for them, but also keep Mariska in the picture at all times.

Kaitlin Fontana: Of course, yeah.

Warren Leight: So, it’s plate spinning, I think.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s a lot of plates spinning at the same time in a way that tells me your brain must be just firing on all cylinders.

Warren Leight: Yeah, but I don’t remember like the names of my kids’ friends. You get into this head, and it’s 3:00 in the morning and you wake up, and you’re like wait a minute. The woman who runs the massage parlor should… I’ve even woken up in the middle of the night and written out whole things only to realize that I had the idea, and in my sleep I dreamt I got out of bed and wrote it down.

Kaitlin Fontana: Oh, no.

Warren Leight: Which is horrible.

Kaitlin Fontana: You’re inception-ing yourself in the night.

Warren Leight: It’s terrible. I played a trick on myself. Yeah. It’s in your head a lot, or what’s a good casting idea?

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: What’s a good location? The other thing is, New York is a big part of this show. It’s tricky, because New York’s gotten so cleaned up.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: You have to figure out what neighborhoods have we not shot in? I’m looking up way upper East Manhattan by the Willis Avenue bridge.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: I don’t think we’ve been there too often lately.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right, right.

Warren Leight: What’s a good location for a halfway house? What’s a good location for a gay and lesbian health center right now? What’s something new that we haven’t shot yet? I want to get to the Shawarma [crosstalk 00:27:36] yards. Can you do a walk and talk while they’re going down the Shawarma?

Warren Leight: But just how do you use the city? We’re doing a lot more street shooting this year than they’ve done in the last few years.

Kaitlin Fontana: Oh, that’s interesting.

Warren Leight: Yeah, I like it. It’s tricky. You’ve got crowd problems. People take pictures of Ice and Mariska.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: But it’s kind of… you put a long lens on, and you get that night cowboy shot, that John Voight walking up. It’s a nice shot to get. You tell the directors… this was a dick mantra early on but, don’t shoot the mountains. Shoot the canyons. If you look at early SVU years, they shot directly into the walls of buildings.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: The show runner who proceeded me who ran after 12 years, very successful, Neil Bayer. He didn’t want city sounds to get in the way of the dialogue. He wasn’t as interested in showing the city. Also, the show used to be written in California.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: So, those guys don’t know the city as well.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right, right.

Warren Leight: So, he slips out the back door of the bookstore and goes into an alley.

Kaitlin Fontana: You’re like, nope. Not here.

Warren Leight: No. Then the poor location team would have to manufacture an alley for a chase scene.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: It’s like, that’s just now it goes. We don’t do many chase scenes, because traffic’s so bad in New York. What’s a car chase in New York?

Kaitlin Fontana: Right, right. It’s not the French Connection.

Warren Leight: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Tell me a little bit about, because the show that’s been on the air this long, when this show started, streaming space didn’t exist.

Warren Leight: Yeah.

Kaitlin Fontana: How is the SVU-D model or… I watched the episode. I don’t have cable anymore. I’m a lifelong TV fan, have watched it since the dawn of time. I watch the episodes on Hulu. How is making the show changed in that space?

Warren Leight: Well, I think some of the biggest, I’ll say, discussions I had with Dick Wolf, because he wants every episode to be entirely self contained, or he always wanted that. He doesn’t like personal stories, or he didn’t like personal stories, just tincture drops. Like I’m sorry she’s dead. Move on.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: I told him, I said, “Your problem is the show’s been on so long, and it’s been so successful that the world has changed.”

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: Nobody needs to watch your show Thursday night at 10:00 if it’s a self contained episode that they can watch at any time.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: That’s Thursday nights at 10:00. [crosstalk 00:30:06] You’ve got no reason to do it. So, if I have people wondering is Olivia going to be able to adopt that baby, they’ll tune in if you’ve left a little people hanging on a cliff.

Warren Leight: I did cliffhangers for the first time in the show’s history.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: I ended a season with Pablo Shriver putting a gun to Mariska’s head.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Great arc. I loved that.

Warren Leight: [crosstalk 00:30:28] We didn’t know if we’d been picked up by them. I thought, well, I don’t think they’ll end the series here. I think it was called Her Negotiation, too. It was a big negotiation at the time. So, I have dragged Dick and the show to an understanding that you want to wrap up the story, the main crime, but that there has to be more personal… let’s call it personal drama of our main characters, things going on in their lives.

Warren Leight: Because the audience watches for them.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: They want to see what’s [Karisi 00:31:02] going to do? What’s Olivia going to do? That, I think, does distinguish the show. People feel very comfortable with these characters.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: So, I’ve tried to write while maintaining the discipline of the procedural and without getting into real soap territory, find a sort of a newer ground for the show where you are tracking the emotional health of these guys who are under a lot of stress.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: It used to be an episode would end. It would be an incredibly harrowing episode, and then lights up on the next episode, and it was Groundhog Day. It never happened.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right, right.

Warren Leight: I found that… sitcoms do that. I’m always amazed by that. I found that unrealistic and really shifted. It was for awhile like pulling a tractor uphill with your teeth.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: [crosstalk 00:31:51] to start internally, because it was new. I want these characters to have memory of what’s happened before. Not just, oh that was the perp who ran that car into the ground.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right. Emotional memory.

Warren Leight: Emotional memory.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: That’s the big quiet shift in the show, I think.

Kaitlin Fontana: As a fan, it’s been very gratifying to watch that happen, because I think, I mean, I can only speak for myself and my mother perhaps as well, but as lifelong fans of the show we were always there for Olivia. My mom actually used to have a… we’d have a conversation of what would Olivia Benson do in this situation? I think that’s that conversation that a lot of people have.

Warren Leight: We do it in the writer’s room.

Kaitlin Fontana: I’m sure. Yeah. Well, I would hope so. I think that seeing that kind of change has been really interesting, too, and feeling from her character and from Ron’s to this orientation towards motherhood, this feeling of seeing crimes differently as a result, and making some mistakes and some miscalculations as a result of the emotional weight of things.

Warren Leight: People have blind spots. Detectives have blind spots.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: You can have your characters be aware of their blind spots, and they’ll still make… but it’s nice for the characters to point out each other’s. We just wrote a scene. Rollins is afraid Olivia’s being played by somebody. Is she really picking up on what’s going on, or is she thinking about how her sister has played her?

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: Right? That kind of sub text, you don’t have to know it to watch the episode and enjoy it, but if you’re a long term fan, that stuff pays off for you, I hope. I want people to watch the night it comes out, because I think if those numbers keep dropping, it’s harder to rationalize the show staying on the air.

Warren Leight: Also, we got Ian McShane for the premiere. We have Ariel Winter for that second episode. What can I do to get… this may be my theater cabaret thing. How do I get people into the tent?

Kaitlin Fontana: Oh, yeah, certainly.

Warren Leight: So that it can’t just… I don’t want it to be a regular… or sometimes it’s a, oh they’re doing that story?

Kaitlin Fontana: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Warren Leight: Because you want the water cooler moment. Did you see they did… And of course all our stories are fiction, but everybody knows who they’re about.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right. Yeah, of course. Yeah, Ian McShane, my goodness.

Warren Leight: He’s evil, but he’s so good.

Kaitlin Fontana: He’s so good. I think that’s they key. If I may be so bold, is just keep having Deadwood actors.

Warren Leight: Yeah.

Kaitlin Fontana: Show up, because you had some last season as well.

Warren Leight: Yeah, and American Horror Story. There’s certain shows. I don’t do it consciously, but it must be the taste of a certain casting director or show runner is in sync with. It’s like borrowing band members from certain bands.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Warren Leight: Boy, everybody comes from Orange is the New Black.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: Really can play.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: Then there’s some shows where they’ve had like nine year runs on a perhaps a CBS procedural or something like that.

Kaitlin Fontana: Sure.

Warren Leight: And they come in, and it doesn’t work as well for us.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: So, it’s kind of interesting figuring out who plays your stuff better.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: I like the repertory company. The other advantage of all this New York theater and all these one acts is I know 4,000 actors in New York.

Kaitlin Fontana: Sure.

Warren Leight: I get to see them when they come in, and I like certain people coming back as judges, and people have been in plays. I had one episode where I had four people from the cast of [inaudible 00:35:11] in the same episode. We all enjoyed it immensely. It was a private joke for ourselves.

Kaitlin Fontana: Sure. Yeah, yeah. Are you still going to see theater regularly?

Warren Leight: Yeah. Yeah. I’m a Tony voter. So, I don’t know how it will go this year. But last year I saw every Broadway play and musical that opened. It sounds maybe better than it is. The rule if you’re going to vote in a category is you have to have seen everything that’s nominated. You don’t know if some play that opens in September and closes in November is going to have a best actress nomination.

Kaitlin Fontana: True.

Warren Leight: So, if you’re going to observe the rule, then you should see it. I don’t necessarily stay awake for every minute of it. That’s hard for me. I still see that. I wish I saw a little more off Broadway, but also that’s how I cast the show. I believe if you’re in a Broadway show or an off Broadway play and you’ve been doing eight shows a week, I need actors who can come in and go oh my God I’m in a scene with Ian McShane, Mariska [Hargetay 00:36:13], Raul Esparza. I’ve got to hit it.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: You don’t want somebody to freeze. So, I like actors whose muscles are up. The best is somebody that’s just had a long run. Oh, that closed this weekend. A bunch of musicals just closed. So, I’ll call them in like two days after they close and they’ll get the job. They’re going, “Oh, it’s so good. I was nervous. My show just closed.” I was like, “Yeah, no. That’s why you’re here.”

Kaitlin Fontana: That’s why it worked. Yeah.

Warren Leight: There’s a lot of great theater in New York. There’s a lot of… also the diversity in off Broadway and off off Broadway theater casts is tremendous.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: So, that’s a really good way to be exposed to worlds that casting might not normally pick up if you’re just looking at broadcast TV.

Kaitlin Fontana: Are you writing some characters with a specific actor in mind sometimes?

Warren Leight: Yeah, I try to do that, but a lot of times you don’t get that actor, but it doesn’t matter, because if you’ve written it with a knowledge of a certain actor, then other… Look, when you write your play, you think oh my God. I’ve got Edie Falco, and she’s wonderful in it, and that’s great. But then other people can come in and inhabit that role their own way.

Warren Leight: Generally speaking, I don’t like my writers to completely make up their characters. I like them to base them on an amalgam of people they know or someone they know or a behavior pattern. The Ariel Winter character, she’s Mercurial. You could diagnose her a number of… Maybe she’s borderline. So, when we were putting that together, a lot of people have dated people who need drama.

Kaitlin Fontana: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Been there.

Warren Leight: Hypothetically. So, if you’ve experienced that relationship a number of times, I found it at times effortless to write that character.

Kaitlin Fontana: Sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Warren Leight: I just knew what she would say. Because there are people who have so much tension inside of them, they only feel calm when they project it onto everyone else. That’s a great character to write. Ariel came in from Modern Family and killed it.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Yeah.

Warren Leight: She was just glad to stretch and get a wardrobe that… She said on Modern Family she basically wore the same clothes for 10 years. They’d just get her a different size.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Yeah. Oh my goodness.

Warren Leight: We arced her wardrobe for the episode.

Kaitlin Fontana: Well, that’s great. So, tell me a little bit about you in terms of your approach. What does it look like for you specifically as a writer when you sit down to write? Where do you like to write? What does it look like in the room?

Warren Leight: I envy people who have habits and routines. I’ve always been a deadline writer. TV probably having 22 episodes probably works for me in a way that locking me in a room wouldn’t. I like having the deadline. I’m sociably trained enough that I couldn’t stand causing a crew of 200 people the anxiety of not having a script on day one of prep.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: If it’s me alone in a room, I won’t get it done. I don’t want to torture the crew the way a lot of crews get tortured.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: So, we always have a script on day one of prep. Then I keep working it. When I tone with the director, I do three, two hour toning sessions that are also rewrite sessions where you go page by page and work it. If I have to write at 2:00 in the morning…

Warren Leight: When I was doing a treatment, it was a 13 hour day on set, and I had to be there every day for a variety of reasons. Then the question was do you go home and write ’til 2:00 in the morning and wake up at 6:00 and go back to set, or do you sleep and wake up at 3:00 in the morning and write?

Warren Leight: So, you write when you have to, or I write when I have to. It’s hard to write, to start something fresh at the stage offices. So, I have a separate writer’s office, or late at night after the kids go to sleep I’ll just stay up. I have to really pull away from interruptions and the Internet and everything. Once the word’s down, the rewriting which is a lot of the work, but it’s a much less… I don’t have to disappear into my head to do a rewrite the way I have to.

Warren Leight: First drafts are I think… the blank page still scares me. I don’t have a great trick for it. Just start.

Kaitlin Fontana: I don’t know if I trust people that the blank page doesn’t scare. I think it should scare you.

Warren Leight: There are writers who can throw down 80 pages effortlessly every week, and some of them are very good, but a lot of them that’s what they do. There’s no judgment, which frees them up to write. The absence of judgment means they don’t particularly rewrite. Sometimes it means they don’t rewrite very well. That first draft is what you’re going to get from them.

Warren Leight: It’s like I need somebody who can throw a lot of innings. I think of it as a pitching stat. I need a knuckle baller. I need somebody who can come in at the end and just… I don’t want the Mets’ bullpen.

Kaitlin Fontana: Who were your heroes when you were growing up, writing heroes?

Warren Leight: Journalists. We didn’t see theater growing up. I watched comedies a lot. [inaudible 00:41:10] latchkey kids, right? So, I watched a lot of sitcoms, but I read Smith in the New York Times, Pete Hammill, Jimmy Resland. I liked the New York columnists.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: I loved the tabloids. I loved sports. In my mind, I was going to be a sports writer, and then I was going to be a journalist. Then I was going to be a comedy writer. I liked writing jokes for hire. That was really work where people would write a joke for certain comics, like slap a 20 on the table, and that was that.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: It was much more those guys who captured the city.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: It was the great days of tabloid journalism in New York, and those were the guys, and music journalists I liked reading. I always liked Rolling Stone Magazine had great writers.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: Magazines and newspapers were where I dug into that, and then the standup of Bob Newhart.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Sure. Yeah, I used to be a music journalist, and that was huge for me, too, growing up the-

Warren Leight: Just fantastic guys who get into that world beautifully.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: I didn’t read that much crime fiction. I never read an airplane book in my life. Rod Serling, I loved.

Kaitlin Fontana: Oh, yeah.

Warren Leight: My idea of a writer when I was nine was Rod Serling is the coolest guy on earth.

Kaitlin Fontana: That’s fair. For me, I mean, around the same time I started watching The X-Files. So, it’s kind of in the same ballpark.

Warren Leight: Yeah, yeah.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: Except Rod Serling smoked when he introed the show.

Kaitlin Fontana: That’s true. There was a smoking man on The X-Files, too, though.

Warren Leight: Yeah, yeah. That’s where they got it.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, I’m sure. I’m sure, yeah. Speaking of music, do you listen to music when you’re writing?

Warren Leight: Yeah, but I go more instrumental than lyric.

Kaitlin Fontana: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Warren Leight: If I want to get myself started, I’ll put on something with a jump to it. If I need to get into a meditative flow of some sort I’ll go to Bill Evans piano music or something like that. If you need to get going, Trombone Shorty will get you going. It’s more jazz and soul than other genres. You won’t hear a lot of country western in my house.

Kaitlin Fontana: Well, I feel like that kind of feeds into the New York feel of things that is required of your job maybe. [crosstalk 00:43:22] Country western doesn’t necessarily call to mind New York City.

Warren Leight: No. No. Except for Old Town Road, I guess. I was born here and raised here, and every episode of TV I’ve ever shot was shot here. I had a development deal a couple years ago, and they were saying, well you can come out and shoot that in LA. I go, “I don’t really know how to do that.”

Kaitlin Fontana: What does that mean? Yeah.

Warren Leight: Why would you want me to do that? In Treatment was here. Lights Out was here. Criminal Intent was here. The first episode of anything I ever wrote was 100 Center Street, because it was an actor… It was the only job an actor ever got me. The guy who was in Side Man, Joe Taylor, who was just a lawyer for us, was working with Sydney Lamette on 100 Center Street. Sydney had seen Side Man, which is how Joe got to be on that show.

Warren Leight: He said, “Sydney would love for you to write an episode.” I thought, sure.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: Meet Sydney Lamette. I watched him direct an episode, and I hand it in. My agent was furious at me. How could I deign to write an episode of television without being put on staff? My lawyer fired me.

Kaitlin Fontana: Wow.

Warren Leight: It was just like a weird little… You can’t just go in and write an episode. I go, well I did it.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Warren Leight: It was fun. They’re shooting it.

Kaitlin Fontana: How many people got to watch Sydney Lamette direct?

Warren Leight: Yeah, it was great. [crosstalk 00:44:36] I was a little apologetic. I ran into him a couple years later. He said, “What play are you writing, my boy?” I said, “I’m doing Law and Order Criminal Intent.” I was a little apologetic, because he thought of me as a playwright. He said, “Hey, kid. When the money’s on the table, you take it.”

Kaitlin Fontana: Perfect.

Warren Leight: It was always nice to be called kid.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I still like being called kid, too. Do you have a favorite scene or a line that you’ve written?

Warren Leight: No.

Kaitlin Fontana: No?

Warren Leight: Side Man’s the thing I’m most proud of as a play. Every once in awhile I’ll watch something go by or it’ll be a little promo on Twitter, and I’ll go, “Oh, that was nice.” Either I don’t remember them or I don’t memorialize them particularly.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Warren Leight: Side Man was the most personal thing I ever did. I had a couple of plays after that that meant a lot to me, also. I don’t cling. Also, going back to writers, certain movies writers including Walter Bernstein meant a lot to me early on. A script like Midnight Run, I thought was brilliant. Those were shows that had, movies that had, a ticking clock and a plot, but had great emotional heart to them, and of course Slap Shot.

Kaitlin Fontana: Classic. I mean, I’m a Canadian. So, Slap Shot is-

Warren Leight: It’s a great movie.

Kaitlin Fontana: … an ultimate film. Well, Warren, thank you so much for being here. We really appreciate having you on the podcast. Congratulations on season 21.

Warren Leight: Season 21. I’m only responsible for six of its 21 years. So, congratulations to Mariska and Dick.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yes.

Warren Leight: But thanks for having me.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yes. I’m going to keep asking myself what would Olivia Benson do, until the day I die.

Warren Leight: We have bracelets.

Kaitlin Fontana: Really?

Warren Leight: Yeah.

Kaitlin Fontana: I need one of those.

Kaitlin Fontana: That’s it for this episode. On Writing is a production of the Writers Guild of America East. Tech production and original music is by Stockboy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America East online at You can follow the Guild on social media at wgaeast, and you can follow me on Twitter at @kaitlinfontana. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thanks for tuning in. Write on.

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