Neal Baer & Jonathan Greene: an interview with two gifted writers.
Article Type: Interview
Subject: Authors (Works)
Author: Brooks, Julie
Pub Date: 06/22/2012
Publication: Name: The Forensic Examiner Publisher: American College of Forensic Examiners Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Law; Science and technology Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 American College of Forensic Examiners ISSN: 1084-5569
Issue: Date: Summer, 2012 Source Volume: 21 Source Issue: 2
Persons: Named Person: Baer, Neal; Greene, Jonathan
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 293949008

JULIE: Where did you get the inspiration for the book series?

JON: It didn't become a book series until after we made the deal, but where it came from was about ten years ago. Neal came to me after we had been working together for about a year on SVU and well, two years almost, and said he had this idea for a movie. Over the next few years we wrote a 35-page outline for a feature film and then we never wrote a screenplay because we were busy on the show and our lives kind of got in the way, etcetera, etcetera. And about two years ago our book agent, Lydia Wills, came to Neal and asked him if he had a medical thriller or any ideas for a medical thriller lying around and Neal literally pulled our outline out of the bottom drawer of his desk. The book agent read it and said "Well, why don't you guys write a couple of chapters and we can send it out as a book proposal?" We wrote three chapters, and then we wrote two more chapters, and then she said "Well, I need two more chapters" and the next thing we knew we had a three-book deal with Kensington.

JULIE: I know that your original title was Blindsided, but you changed it after the movie came out. What made you decide to ultimately change it to Kill Switch? What made you come up with that idea after you scrapped the first one?

NEAL: Well we couldn't use Blindsided because the movie The Blind Side came out. So we're actually glad we didn't because we like Kill Switch better. We were just thinking about titles that would have multiple meanings for the reader. When we do SVU or A Gifted Man, a TV show that we're doing now, we think of titles that resonate in multiple ways. We had one-word titles on SVU, so if we did a show called "Chameleon" it could be about somebody changing identities, but also about the way that you think something is one thing and then it turns into another. That kind of thing. So, we came upon this idea Kill Switch because the word has multiple meanings in this book. It could be about stopping something terrible from happening at the last moment when you hit the kill switch. It could be switches that occur throughout the book it terms of killing. It could be a kill switch biologically in a cell that stops the cell from replicating out of control. So now you see where the title came from.

JULIE: When I was reading it I was thinking about how a kill switch sometimes is used to turn off before something happens. I sort of thought of Claire as having her own internal kill switch.

NEAL: Yeah, she has her own kill switch. So we thought it resonated for us in a number of ways that we liked.

JULIE: As a writer one of the hardest things to do can be to write from the perspective of the other gender. You both seemed to pull it off very well, not only with Olivia on Law & Order but also with this new character, Claire Waters. Were there any challenges you faced writing much of the novel from a female perspective? If so, how did you overcome it?


JON: You hit the nail on the head when you talked about writing Benson. We had been doing that for so long, it just made it easier. Olivia Benson is a very strong character, a strong woman, and so is Claire Waters. They are similar in a lot of ways. I think Olivia Benson, for the years that we wrote her, was really trying to find who she was as a person because of her background. In a way, that's exactly what Claire is doing, delving into her past to kind of answer all the questions about why she turned out the way she did.

NEAL: Well, I think writing Olivia Benson was very helpful in writing Claire because they are both strong women. Mariska Hargitay physically embodies Olivia Benson, but the words that she speaks are our words that we wrote. A lot of times the viewing audience just sees that character and they think "Wow!" which we want them to do. We want it to be seamless, but in truth it's not Mariska Hargitay speaking, it's really Neal or Jon or the other writers from SVU. Just like now with Patrick Wilson or Rachelle Lefevre, they're speaking these lines but they're written by us. So we are very much those characters as well. It's a very shared, intimate, collaborative type of thing. It's pretty interesting. So we write all these different characters of different genders, male, female, sometimes transgendered, straight, gay, young, old, we've done every kind of character imaginable. Victims, perps, and I think that's great training ground for writing the characters in Kill Switch.

JULIE: I know you both come from different backgrounds. Neal, you're a doctor, and Jon, you were at one time a journalist. When did you first determine that you wanted to be fiction writers?

NEIL: I started writing and decided I wanted to write when I was a graduate student in sociology at Harvard. I started making documentary films and I really loved storytelling and telling people stories through documentary filmmaking. I went to the American Film Institute to learn how to do it from a dramatic fictional perspective. I started writing because I was told if I wanted to direct, I'd have to write. So I started writing and ended up directing only once, an after-school special, and I've been a writer ever since. Going back to medical school certainly enriched my writing because seeing patients is really great training in being a storyteller, because you have to elicit every patient's story in order to treat them and to go down the road of a diagnosis and do it in a way that is best for the patient. A really good doctor is a really good storyteller. That was another way of merging my passion for storytelling with another kind of work and that led to ER, and that was storytelling about doctors, and that led to SVU which was about cops, but still doctors are on the show played by Tamara Tunie and B.D. Wong. That led to A Gifted Man, which is about a doctor and nurse, and that led to Claire Waters. When we were starting the book we made her a physician. We made her a psychiatrist who had already been through medical school and through her residency in psychiatry and now is specializing in forensic psychiatry but she is a physician. So those elements of myself are embedded in this kind of storytelling where I really like to explore the world of medicine, and certainly with this book what we found very interesting is that two weeks after the book was first released these new stories came out about researchers having made the H5N1 bird flu virus more transmissible and whether or not that work should be censored in nature and science, and that's very much a part of our book about what should scientists and researchers be--how far should they be allowed to go in covering and manipulating cells which could ultimately have a terrifying and terrible outcome if people got infected. So, in other words, true life imitated our book two weeks after the book was out.

JON: For me, I was really a child of TV growing up and I always wanted to write dramatic TV and I went to college for, and graduated with, a degree in political science. I took a year off and tried to figure out what I wanted to do with myself, not really going for the writing, and wound up going back to graduate school for mostly journalism, but I did do some creative writing. I had to take a creative writing class, a script writing class. I wrote a script about an experience I had driving an ambulance in New York City back in the 80s and I wrote this script and the instructor who had done some TV writing himself gave me a really good grade on it and said, "You know, when you are done, you should pack up and move to Los Angeles, because that's where you belong." But I was too scared to do it ... I didn't want to wind up waiting tables. I was already working as a radio news reporter and actually won a couple of AP awards, Associated Press Awards, for my reporting and I said you know, I don't really want to be in front of a camera, but I could certainly get used to this, and I would end up taking a 15-year detour through local TV news, and then Court TV, and the news experience really focused my writing skills, really honed my writing skills because, firstly, you have to write the news very quickly. If something happens at ten minutes to six, you need to get on the six o'clock news. Second of all you have to learn to tell a story completely in a very short amount of time. If you're doing a reporter's package, for example, you basically have about a minute and thirty to tell an entire story of what happened. A lot of times you have an anchor read where you have basically one page or twenty or thirty seconds to tell an entire story. So you really have to learn how to minimize your words and that's something that you try to do a lot in dialogue when you arc writing a script. And then about 13 years into nay news career I said you know I really need to try to write dramatic TV again before I age out, so to speak, and so I wrote a couple of spec scripts and the short version of a very long story is (that) one of my spec scripts made it to my very first SVU as a freelance. I got hired on staff literally three weeks before Neal did and that was a very lucky thing for me.

JULIE: Both of you are from different backgrounds and neither of you really have a forensic background. How do you go about preparing yourself, like whenever you were working on Law & Order and for Kill Switch, what do you do to prepare yourself as far as like interviewing people and gathering data?

NEIL: Well, we have, you know, a full-time researcher who pulls, makes books for us. So, for instance, I was very interested ... I had read about a couple of people at Harvard who had done some work in familial DNA where they posited the idea that what if one gets DNA from a crime scene and looks for a 50% match instead of a 99% match and can find siblings, cousins, uncles, fathers, etc. What does that mean? Can we do that? Should we be doing that? And that became a big focus of an episode where Mariska Hargitay's character set off to find her brother by running her own DNA through the system--that's possible if someone has been arrested on a felony and their DNA is in the system. But that often is the case and that brings out the civil liberties issue. So we subscribe to a lot of journals and medical forensic, and our researcher reads through things and he would just send me lists of stories every week and I would choose ones that interested me and I would ask him to do further research so we would do, you know, all kinds of stories on SVU about the latest in DNA research or how people had fooled the cops by putting tubes in their arms, and using someone else's blood, I mean, you know, we did everything possible and we were so interested in how you could use water and looking at different isotopes to pinpoint where the body was found. This all came from our avid research and we would do research ourselves. I would give books to the writers to read on different topics. We would make these big books available so that we could delve into all kinds of issues be it neural, biological, research on how people feel, whether or not guilt can be determined by PET scans, if you can tell someone is lying to you, if DNA can be fabricated. There was a story out of Israel about faking DNA. We did that with Mariska's character, when someone took her DNA, amplified it, and left it at a crime scene to indicate her. So we're always reading ourselves and I always have it in my contract that I have a full-time researcher on the show to pull constantly, and then we talk to experts. So, indeed, we spoke to Fred Goldberg, who's a professor of molecular biology at Harvard Medical School who talked to us about apoptosis to make sure we were correct in what we were writing about, and then the forensic side will talk to experts in the field depending on what kind of work we are doing. Certainly Jon's work on Court TV in legal and criminal cases as a reporter and producer have influenced what we do, and because of my work as a doctor, I'm interested in pathology and what we can learn--as I just illustrated--and I just love this idea that you can figure out where someone may have been by the water they were drinking, so we certainly did that on the show.


JULIE: Do you believe that dialogue is more difficult to write for the screen or for a book?

NEAL: That's a good question. It's the same. Cause it's getting out the same kind of, I mean, for a screenplay it's all dialogue. I mean, we write prose that just describe where things are but that's not so important. It's really the dialogue that takes you deep into the character and then you need the actors to act it so that they can, through subtleties and facial expressions and body movement, convey what they are thinking. The trick is, not really so much the dialogue, but what you can do in a novel, which is to write where people are thinking and we can't do that in television or movies unless we do voiceover, which we tend not to like. We feel like that usually breaks the illusion that you are watching something real when you are hearing voiceover, so we tend to avoid that in our screenwriting. That's really the difference for me, not so much the dialogue but that you can say what they are thinking and convey that about a character versus a screenplay where the actors have to convey it through body language and expression.

JON: The one thing about dialogue is that we've all read books where you will say to yourself, wow, this is not how people talk, and what you learn in television is how to a) write conversationally and b) you have to write dialogue conversationally because dialogue is after all usually a conversation. So the books that I have read, the ones that I have read quickly that tend to be fast reads as opposed to slow reads, I can tell you that one of the things that makes a book a quicker read is that you can understand what people are saying to each other and the people speak like real characters and I think that's where it's important in both mediums to be able to write good dialogue that reflects who the characters are.

JULIE: Are there any writing projects you haven't attempted yet that you would like to do either together or on your own?

JON: That's a hard question to answer. I mean we have two more books to write together. Certainly, we're hoping to be able to write a screenplay for at the very least this first one, and of course for the very best of all worlds when we get the third book done we will be embarking on our third screenplay as well with any good fortune, let's say.

NEAL:I imagine anything we haven't really written, I've written move past but it's been a long time so it would be fun to write, it would be fun to come full circle having written the outline, writing the novel, then coming back and finishing the script would be pretty fun. So that's something neither of us have never done.

JULIE: And I heard that you already have Katherine Heigl signed on as the lead. Is it true that when you were writing Kill Switch you had her in mind?

NEAL: Correct.

JULIE: So you both have worked on a lot of crime stories. Is there ever a point where you just get so sick of writing crime that you just can't take another dead body, and what do you do to get away from that?

JON: That was one of the pluses after 11 years of writing a dark show like Law & Order. Coming to write a medical show, which Neal had done on ER for seven years before SVU, was something I had never done, and, for me, it was a very liberating experience. The shows have parallels in that both are about people trying to help people, but we don't have to get as dark on A Gifted Man as we wound up getting on SVU.

NEAL: It didn't bother me (laughter) because I was always interested in the story and how to tell a cool story and learn something new and take the audience to a place where they hadn't been, which really does get into the forensics because what we did in year 11 or 12 of SVU, we couldn't do in year one. I remember an episode we did last year where a college student is manipulating Stabler by making it look like a woman's been kidnapped, and it's all done through the iPad on his computer and we wouldn't have been able to do that show before ipads because Stabler's carrying around his iPad, and seeing what's being put up on the internet. He wouldn't have been able to take his PC around and there wasn't really Wi-Fi and GPS, as there is now, back in 1999. We started in 2000 with SVU. So SVU evolved with technology in forensics. So it's pretty amazing ... I was thinking hard about that towards the end of SVU, like wow, we are doing all these things that we couldn't possibly have done and it's giving us new ways to tell stories. And so, I think that's an important answer to your question. Which is ... technology, forensics, new media, were evolving so quickly that it was always giving us new ways of telling stories, and that was really cool for us.

JULIE: Have you ever met a detective, real or fictional that you really admired, that inspired any of your characters?

NEAL: Well, we have certainly met a lot of detectives who have been really wonderful in sharing their stories with us, and we've had detectives who are consultants on the show, so many. We've met SVU detectives, we've met homicide detectives, we've talked to chiefs, we talked to everybody you can imagine who's involved in police work--pathologists, psychiatrists, forensic psychiatrists.

JON: We had on our staff a woman who had been an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn. Again, going back to what Neal was saying about experts, we always try to find experts in the field that includes law enforcement and the legal system.

NEAL: I think a lot of it changed with ER. I was the first doctor to write on television, to my knowledge. Medical shows before ER had doctors as consultants who would read scripts and kind of sprinkle some medicine though it. ER took a different approach and demanded doctors be on the show because it was from the doctor's perspective. So there were two of us who started on ER who were writers, not just consultants but writers writing and working with the other writers. So, I would develop all the medical stories for ER, and that had a huge impact on Hollywood--more so than people realized. I guess the other side of it is David Kelly when he was on LA Law, he was one of the first lawyers who was writing from his experience. Being able to write from one's experience allows one to take the audience very deep into the culture of that arena. So David certainly took people into the world of lawyers in ways that hadn't been seen before, and I was able to take the viewer into the world of becoming a doctor in ways that hadn't been seen before because I was going through it literally because I was a fourth year medical student the first year of ER. Now, cut to the present, there is no medical series on television without doctors--House, Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, all have doctor writers and all the legal shows have lawyers writing. CSI, because it was very forensically oriented, required it, as well, and ER had already been on so they knew the trick, which is you have to have real forensic experts on your staff: So I think that ER really changed the way that television was done in ways that people don't quite realize.

JULIE: If a movie was to be made about you, who would play you in the movie?

NEAL: Well, George Clooney already played me because I was writing a pediatrician for ER so I would love to have him playing me again in some way.

JON: For me I would just have to go by appearance and say Jason Alexander, although I wish I had his comic talent.

NEAL: But you both can sing, John.

JON: We both can sing, yes. But he dances a tot better than I do.

JULIE: Lastly, If you had superpowers, what would your superpower be and why?

JON: At first I thought it would be teleportation, but to me it's more interesting, you know, going from one place to the other just by willing it takes all the fun out of the journey and, of course, it's about the journey and not about the destination. I'd take mindreading.

NEAL: Interesting. I'd like to be able to disappear.


"A psychological thriller of the first order."


"Riveting and rich with character."


"Masterful, unforgettable, gripping."


"A fast paced, gritty crime thriller from two great story tellers."


"Amazing twists and turns that will keep you at the edge of your seat."

~ ICE-T ~

"A must-read."


"An absolute winner a non-stop thrill ride ."


"Fans of high-octane, intricate thrillers will welcome TV producers Baer and Greene's fiction debut...delivered with skill."


"A startling, intense suspense novel ... will have readers staying up at night--with the light on to see how this one turns out... Readers may just have found the next 'Preston & Child' team!"


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