By M. Sharpe
Navigating the path of changing a character from an antagonist that audiences loved to hate, to a protagonist that people would root for in the course of a few short seasons was no easy task. But according to writer and co-executive producer Duppy Demetrius, the key to Sharon Raydor’s transition to the center of Major Crimes had a lot to do with family. “The whole Rusty thing was a big boon for that. Just seeing her compassion with Rusty, and her being motherly, and getting the backstory with her husband and her kids helped the audience see her in a different light. I think we’ve done a good job, and the reaction has been spectacular.”
Off-screen, Demetrius credits another family with making the transition from The Closer to Major Crimes such a triumph- the team of writers who have worked together for over seven years. “Luckily our writing staff hasn’t had any changes since season three of The Closer. That’s when several of us hopped on. There really hasn’t been any turnaround since- the only reason people have left is because they’ve gone off to do their own show. Everybody going in (to Major Crimes) knew how to write for Sharon. When I first started on The Closer, it was a question of how polite was too polite to write Brenda- but there weren’t any of those issues with Sharon because we all had lived with her for three years. There was no learning curve on how to do her voice, or how she would handle a situation with these adversities against her. It wasn’t an issue.”
If there was an aspect of the transition that took the writers a little more time to figure out, it was Sharon’s home life. “When we’re not seeing her in a professional atmosphere, that was the only thing where there was some challenges to it, because she obviously can’t be the way she is at the office at home, but she’s a straight shooter- she says what she means and she means what she says, and that had to transfer to her home life. But now you have to add the aspect of a runaway kid that lives with her, and how she handles that, and the arc of her becoming a mother to that kid. It’s been fun, and we’ve been very lucky.”
Acknowledging that Major Crimes has had a darker tone than The Closer, Demetrius says it wasn’t so much of a conscious decision as a natural progression. “We ended up going darker, I think, because it was more of an ensemble cast. In The Closer, almost every crime we were able to tie back to Brenda’s personal life. Every now and then we had the really dark ones where there was no time for a personal story, but most of the time there was some sort of personal aspect that related back to Brenda. But with our personal aspects we’re able to go past Sharon, and we’re looking into Provenza’s backstory and Flynn’s backstory and Sanchez’s backstory. And by doing that, we’re able to open up a whole different world and go in a lot of different directions, and a lot of those directions wind up being more gang, more mob, more whatever. So it makes it easier to go darker just because of the way we’re doing the show.”
More Than Just a “Cop Show”
Demetrius got his start in the industry when he moved to Los Angeles from Pittsburgh, PA after college with the goal of becoming a television writer. Working his way up through set production assistant and producer’s assistant jobs, he then got a job working as the assistant to one of the creators of 24 in its first season. The next year he was given the opportunity to co-write a script, which lead to him becoming a staff writer the through the end of the fifth season. Another staff writing job on the show Kidnapped followed, before he joined The Closer in its third season, and transitioned with the majority of the cast and crew to Major Crimes.
Demetrius draws on his time at 24 to point out one of the main differences between Major Crimes and other “cop shows” is the way stories are layered within each episode. In standard procedurals, the A-story would be the murder of the week, the B-story might be a secondary crime, and the C-story would be a personal situation relating to one of the characters.
By contrast, on Major Crimes, the writers strive to fold the A-story and B-story of every episode into one another. “So you don’t realize they are separate- the B-story has something directly to do with the A-story in almost every episode. Whatever Rusty is going through thematically is what the crime is about, whatever Provenza is going through thematically is what the crime is about.” He uses the example of the season two episode “There’s No Place Like Home”. “The episode with Tim Conway and all those guys and Provenza was all about losing your identity as you get older. He’s losing sight; he could get stuck on desk duty. And that all had to do with if the guest characters of the A-story lose their apartments, they lose their identity.”
Demetrius wrote “There’s No Place Like Home,” which garnered much critical attention and praise for the show, and its use of a bevy of classic TV guest stars. “Originally we wanted to do something that was going to be a callback to those old TV shows that everyone had. And we figured it would be fun to do an episode with the old Hollywood, and what happens when the lights go out, and you realize these people are family, the ageism against them all, and the way that relates to Provenza.”
Not knowing who would be cast when he set out to write it, Demetrius says the writers based the characters in the episode on their own family- their co-workers in the Major Crimes crew. “Because you have to start somewhere, we based it on people we knew. We based the hairstylist on (head hairstylist) Stacey K. Black, Clayton in wardrobe was based Greg LaVoi (costume designer), the transportation guy played by Paul Dooley was roughly based on Rick Belyeu, our transportation captain.”
Working on the script, Demetrius says that, while some things were set in stone, other aspects changed once casting was completed. “We knew how we wanted it to end with the glasses, because Provenza had to have some way back in to the force-we knew he wasn’t going to be on desk duty. But we didn’t know it was going to be Tim Conway, Paul Dooley, Doris Roberts, Marion Ross and Ron Glass- we had no
idea they were even available. What we did at the time was make our wish list- and we got our first wish on everything. It was really amazing. And then you go back to the script and say, okay, how are we going to Tim Conway this up? How are we going to Ron Glass this up? And certain things it really changed. Like with Tim Conway, the physical comedy that was there was was all written in after the fact, and some was completely impromptu.”
The episode also allowed Demetrius to work closely with two other members of the Major Crimes family in different capacities, with frequent director of The Closer and Major Crimes, Paul McCrane, stepping in front of the camera as a guest star, and fellow staff writer Leo Geter directing the episode. “I’d worked with Paul McCrane a couple of times as a director, and he’s just such a professional. There’s a reason he’s won Emmys, and been around as long as he has- he’s amazing. And to be able to throw him into a karaoke contest- it was another wishlist thing- ‘what can I do here that I would never be able to do… let’s do a karaoke contest!’ His partner in that was Tony Award winner Marissa Jaret Winokur. And we met her, and we saw them rehearsing their dances on an empty stage, and they were having so much fun, but they were taking the comedy very seriously, and they were able to do it. It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience.
And to be able to do it with Leo just added to that. Because I’ve known him since season three of The Closer, so we’re able to talk to each other as equals, we joke around, and if there is ever anything on set that he wants to change, or I want to change, we do it, though we didn’t run into too much of that because we had prepped this so much, that going into it that we knew exactly what we wanted to do.”
Anatomy of a Season
The process of constructing the stories of Major Crimes is a team effort between all the writers, and begins well before cameras start rolling. “In the beginning of the season, we (the writers) come in about fourteen weeks early, and we say ‘here’s the theme of the year’, and this years theme was identity for the first half, and character for the second half. So we go, okay, what are different forms of identity: there’s identify theft, there’s sexual identity, there’s ageism, there’s all these different things. So we have a big list of the different themes.”
Next up are the character arcs, “So we go, we know in this episode Rusty has to do this, because in episode nine or ten he’s going to confront this person, or we know that this has to happen with Provenza, because in episode seven he has to do x, y, and z. So we come up with the overall arcs of the characters at that point so the season makes sense and we can have a season finale that makes sense and ties into the premiere.”
Demetrius points out that while they set the construct of the season early, it all can be shifted. This proved to be the case during season two, when the writers originally planned for a 15 episode season, only to have to change plans when TNT ordered additional episodes, and changed where the season break would be. “We needed to tweak our story arcs. We were all planning on ten episodes and ten story arcs (in the first half of the season). And then our finale became episode eleven, so things had to be added and shifted. We took bits and pieces of other things, and luckily we had enough time to do it.”
After setting theme and the character arcs, the writers begin pairing the crime stories to each episode. To help with that, Major Crimes has Retired LAPD Detective Mike Berchem on staff as a supervising producer. “He’s an asset to the show- I feel like half the stories, or more, that we come up with are based on something he’s seen. He’s a retired detective of 35 years. He has whole stories he doesn’t even tell us because we can’t use them, they are so disturbing. So it comes up to, ok, what’s going to be a good murder to tie into the theme? And a lot of times you can make almost any crime at some point fit the theme, but once you do that you have to go back and kind of feather it to make it completely thematic.”
Next, the writers work to “break” the story into acts to begin to mold it into the form it will need to reach for TV. “Once the basic structure is in place, all the writers work together to sketch out the different notes that each act will have, and the beats the characters are going to be doing.”
Once the writers have finished breaking an episode together, the writer of the episode will take the room outline, called the beat sheet, and begin to turn that into the first draft of the episode. “Once we’re done breaking in the room, I go off and sit in my office and look at my notes, work to make it a coherent story.” If, during this process, he realizes that the writers missed something, or that some part of the story needs to be shifted, it goes back to the writers room. “We’ll sit back down and go through the beats again and make it work. That’s one of the great things about the show- everybody’s approachable. But I’m sure that comes again from being together for seven years- you can do that. It’s a very light room and we joke and laugh and play games, and it’s fun.”
When he feels like the beat sheet is good enough to work through, Demetrius turns that into an extensive 35 page outline “which is more or less everything in the script, just in a different format.” The completed outline then goes to Executive Producer and Head Writer James Duff for approval. “I’ll get notes back, I’ll address the notes, and once that’s good and everyone’s happy it goes off to the studio and network. We’re very blessed- the studio and network trust James implicitly and know that the shows are going to be good, and there generally aren’t very many notes. Then I will take that outline, which is pretty much a script in itself being 35 pages, and I convert it to script format, and then that goes out.”
Demetrius laughs as he finishes explaining the process. “Hearing it out loud, it sounds way more confusing than it is when you’re in the middle of it.”
From Page to (Sound) Stage
Another thing that separates Major Crimes from many other procedurals is the involvement each writer has on his or her own episode as it is being filmed. “When I was on 24, we wrote the script, and it just went off, and that was it.” On Major Crimes, “I am the producer of the episode. I am on set, I am in every meeting. I’m in casting. I’m on the location scouts. My name is on the script, so I am one of the people responsible for making sure it actually gets taken care of.
So for example first day of prep, I’m in a meeting, I’m in the pre-production meeting, I’m in the casting meeting. I’m in the locations meeting to clarify what kind of places we’re looking for. Then there are the videos and stills meetings, so we know what pictures to hang on the wall, or know what videos need to play on Tao’s computer in the electronics room. I don’t know how all the meetings actually get taken care of, because there are so many meetings, but we do it, week after week after week.”
Each episode of Major Crimes is filmed in seven and a half days. “If we start on Monday, I’m on set at 6:30am for rehearsal, crew call will be 7am and then we shoot all day, whatever the Assistant Directors’ have scheduled that day, and we work all the way through.”
Because episodes are shot out of order, Demetrius says his job on set is to make sure that each scene that is filmed will make sense with what comes before or after it once everything is edited into the final order. “If the director says ‘I don’t think we need this shot’, I can say, well, actually we do, because thematically we need to be able to see the reaction at the end of the scene for the rest of it to make sense. Based on scheduling and availability, the final scene of the episode could actually be filmed first. And tonally, that has to be the right tone based on what the tone of the scene before that should be, and the scene before that should be. If the tone is wrong in that scene, then it won’t make sense when it’s all cut together. So that’s one of the reason I’m on set, so I can make sure the tone is right, and I’m there if there’s any questions from the actors, and to make sure, thematically, lines are being delivered correctly, I’m doing a theme pass on it to make sure it all makes sense, and if the directors have any questions.”
Demetrius is candid about the advantages of working with directors from the Major Crimes family. “My favorite directors to work with are Stacey, Leo and Sheelin Choksey. Because they all come from our camp. So I’m able to be a lot more candid with them, I’m more comfortable with them because I’ve known them for so many years, so those guys can come to me with any questions. No question is stupid and hopefully they don’t think my questions are stupid, because I’m always asking questions.”
Once filming is completed, the episode goes into editing, where James Duff and Mike Robin take charge in molding it into the final aired form. “All in all, by the time I get my script to the time it’s done shooting, it can be a month and a half process.”
Demetrius wrote one episode for the forthcoming winter season of Major Crimes, “Risk Assessment” which was directed by Stacey K. Black. But he’s tight lipped on what fans can expect from any of the upcoming episodes. “We have some crazy things coming up- I don’t know what I can say without giving it away. I could say there’s a lot of Provenza, a lot of Rusty, a lot of Sharon, but there’s always a lot of Provenza, a lot of Rusty and a lot of Sharon.”
Demetrius also reveals that fans will get to see their first Christmas with the Major Crimes family. “We have a couple weeks of Christmas- the crimes aren’t Christmassy but we are doing the whole Christmas thing this year. The episode we shot airs December 23rd, and we go through into the New Year.”
After a season of 19 episodes, Major Crimes finished filming the week before Thanksgiving, and Demetrius is looking forward to spending time with his family, working on his own writing project and embracing one of his other passions, magic. “I’ve been a magician for a little over twenty years so I’m sure magic will surface during hiatus at some point.”
But there isn’t too much rest ahead for the weary. So far Major Crimes has been picked up for 15 episodes for season three, and the writers will be heading back to work in early December to begin the process all over again. Demetrius laughs as he thinks about it. “When you’re writing it, you want to kill yourself, because you don’t think you could ever do it. Then you do it, and you think ‘oh, that wasn’t so bad’. That’s why we keep writing.”
Follow Duppy Demetrius on twitter @Duppyd.
Additional reporting by C. Bullen