Interview: 'The Killing' producer Veena Sud
Veena Sud spent five seasons as a writer on CBS' "Cold Case," a solid, well-crafted example of the turn-of-the-millennium vogue for TV crime stories that provided a beginning, middle and end within the confines of each episode. Everything was about shorthand, getting the story points across as quickly and efficiently as possible.
As the lead producer on AMC's "The Killing," Sud gets to try out her longhand. The series (it debuts on Sunday night at 9) takes the sort of story Sud might have told in an hour of "Cold Case" - the murder of a teenage girl in Seattle - and devotes an entire 13-episode season to it. Sud gets to take her sweet time letting us get to know to the victim's parents (Brent Sexton and Michelle Forbes), the local politician (Billy Campbell) who seems an obvious suspect, and especially Detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos from "Big Love"), the veteran detective who winds up with the case on what's supposed to be her last day of work.
Shortly after a press conference for the series at the TV critics press tour in January, I spoke with Sud about adapting the original Danish series "Forbrydelsen" (which gave Sud a template and some characters, but which has a different resolution to the mystery than what Sud is planning), about what she wants the audience to know and when, and a lot about the value of having so much time to play with.
(And for those wondering - or who haven't heard yesterday's podcast - I quite like "The Killing," albeit with some reservations. Review coming later this week, along with a few more interviews.)
I want to elaborate on some of the things you talked about in the session, specifically the notion of being able to go deeper in the single story than you could on a more traditional cop show. You spent a lot of time on "Cold Case." What sort of things can you do here that you couldn’t do on that show?
On "The Killing," we don’t have any forced closure, because we’re able to have a lot more real estate and a much broader canvas for each of these stories, so we’re following the story versus forcing the ending. So that’s a great thing, for me to let me follow my characters around. We spent a lot of time in the writers room just talking about the characters, and what would happen on this day? And on the next day? So not knowing the ending really helps, because then you find all this magical interesting stuff coming your way.
"Cold Case" was obviously very successful but it also had a very specific format that was part of the success. But during your time on that show, did you ever find yourself working on stories and saying, "Man, I wish we could spend more time on this"?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that it was a pleasure in its own way, to be able to know an ending of story and in essence work backwards. But I think that the biggest thing for me on "Cold Case" was I really want to spend time on the victim's life. And we spent a lot of time paying tribute to the victim, but I really wanted to know what was going on with people who loved the victim today and really spend time with them and really take things really slowly with the investigation. So that was something that I would have liked to do.
Yeah, time is a great luxury. The climax of your pilot is a scene we've seen many other times, but to be able to let it play out that long, that must have been sort of a nice thing to be able to do.
Absolutely, yeah. I think sometimes the most compelling type of storytelling is when you can’t look away and you’re not allowed to look away from certain things and you have to face that this terrible thing is happening.
Is the show envisioned in your mind as a clear whodunnit where we don’t find out until (Linden) finds out? Or might there be a point at which we learn and she doesn’t?
The audience will always be with Sarah. No one will know. There might be pieces of the mystery that will be revealed to the audience before the detectives, but for the most part we’re all on the ride with her. We’re in that car with her.
One of the things Billy talked about is that he doesn’t know (if he did it). That’s got to be sort of an interesting thing. How do you get the performances you want out of your various suspects if they don’t know if they did it?
It's really interesting. I spent a lot of time hanging out with cops. And murderers aren’t normal people and it’s such an atrocious thing that they’re, like, "You meet a man who’s raped a 6-year old girl—his granddaughter—and in his mind she’s a slut." He’s creating an excuse in his mind, that what he’s done is so horrible, that it allows him to think it was okay. So that was something that I knew, and it felt like you may have the weight of something horrible you’ve done on you, but human nature forces you to continue to live and continue to wake and drink coffee and take a shower, to find a way to ignore it and/or justify it.
Now, it’s a great thing that you get to tell this story over 13 episode, but the longer you tell the story the more pressure there is to get the ending right, because people will have watched for 3 months straight waiting for it. How much of the ending did you know going in? And how much did you discover along the way about where it was going to go?
I had notions of scenes and moments in the final thing that would come at me in bits and pieces. As notions and thoughts and maybes. But those were maybe ways to hang ideas off of when we first started to really dive in and make it as a series. But there was a lot of surprising twists and turns. So I came in with ideas and thoughts and things - and mostly it was actually characters. So it was like, "I know 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 could all be potential murderer for all these 7 different reasons, but you know..." And the other writers too. All of us came in saying, "Let’s just follow these characters around. Let’s follow the logical progression, the story, the emotional progression and not come to a conclusion and the minute we came to the discovery together, it was like, "... Yeah."
Getting back to the idea of time is a luxury, from the pilot or from a later episode what’s an example of a scene or a kind of scene that you can tell on this show that you couldn’t in a procedural one-hour murder mystery series.
That’s a really good question. One example is in the first episode of the series that Ed Bianchi directed, which is the first one right after the pilot. It’s 3 minutes of two grieving parents driving to the morgue to identify their daughter’s body. There’s no dialogue. The only sound is horror and the sound that exists inside a morgue. So that opened up a whole other way of thinking of the storytelling. That beginning is an emotional place we know to go to right after we’ve seen whatever happened moments before, an hour before whatever, the night before to set the table for what’s coming ahead. And it’s almost like a visual plan.
Why Seattle? Just because it seems stylistically similar to Denmark in some ways?
No, you know what’s interesting? When I watched "Forbrydelsen," part of it is so - I don’t know if you’ve seen it.
I have not, no.
Part of the compelling nature of the series is the world reflects the internal life of the characters because it’s go brooding and tragic and rainy and still beautiful there. Not like some bummed-out place where you don’t want to be. You want to be there. But part of you knows that it’s a dangerous not quite safe place to be. So I started to do some research and choose different cities, and obviously Seattle in the Northwest was kind of in that wheelhouse. But Seattle specifically vs. other cities because it’s a city of contradictions. It's a city on the edge of civilization. It’s beautiful skies, the frigid Puget Sound that’ll kill you if you fall into it. The most liberal, the most literate city in America. The hunting grounds of the Green River Killer. So there’s black and there’s white and there’s tragedy and there’s beauty in almost everything, just in that one place, that serves as the backdrop.
Now the idea that the cop who’s on the verge of retirement, giving up the badge, walking away, that’s a familiar one. You deal with that a little bit in the pilot. Going forward, it’s only going to be covering a relative real-time period, how much is that going to be an on-going issue of her boyfriend saying, "When are you coming down?" Or does that get pushed to the side?
Well, like Mireille says, it’s the bigger question. It’s the bigger question of whether or not this woman can choose happiness for herself or whether or not she’s going to go down into the rabbit hole of this obsession. So we’re playing it out.
I want to talk about the score and the visual palate of it. In terms of the look and the sound of the show, what were you going for?
The look was, initially when I was starting writing the pilot, the work of the photographer Sebastiao Salgado was a huge influence. And "Se7en," "The Sweet Hereafter," "Jennifer 8" - again, within a frame, you need tragedy, like this sense of openness in a sense of the unknown. So then we worked on it together - (pilot director) Patty (Jenkins) and the director of photography and I - building this repertoire of images from different movies and photographers, where the cinematography of it helps really, because it's AMC and it’s not television as usual creating what you saw in the pilot and even edging that look along as we go. So, visually, if the visuals were flat, the story’s flat. So for example, with the pilot, we talked about the contraction in the frame, but as the mystery thickens and the more we know over the course of the season the less we know. So we start shooting more dirty frames, shooting through glass, shooting through rain reflecting the characters getting mired in this mystery where nothing is what it seems and no one is telling the truth.
And the music, we hired the composer from the original Danish series to do the music. He is an incredible storyteller. You heard the music in the pilot, and his music introduces a whole other element. And it’s rare to find this where you can feel the tempo and the drive and the adrenalin of the investigation but at the same time feel the sadness of this loss. So again, within the same frame, two emotions.
And you’ve said that the story’s going to go maybe in a different way than it went in the original show. Beyond whodunnit and certain plot points, what would you say sort of distinguishes this from that in your mind? What would you say are the biggest departures either tonally, thematically, stylistically?
The biggest departure overall is we’re taking more time with the back-story of Sarah. We’re taking more time to really allow American cable to tell her story as a character and to spend more time, discover her past, discover the thing that she’s running from and how that informs what she does today and whether or not she’s going to choose happiness or the rabbit hole. And even with the family of the girl, and even with Billy’s character, everyone's got a secret. Everyone’s got a past. Everyone thinks they’re done with their past, but their past isn’t done with them. So you know, everyone’s got a demon somewhere that in the grenade explosion of this murder investigation is going to be revealed.
How closely is the partner (Detective Stephen Holder, played by Joel Kinnaman) modeled on the original partner?
That was a huge departure. That was the one part of the original Danish series that did feel like a trope. The character of Holder was based on some narcotics cops I was hanging out with in Compton a few years ago. And I’m fascinated by that. They’re these chameleons. They’re not even cops. They’re kind of cops but they’re into that world of the street. They like it. They’re good at it. And that character, again, these two inherently consecrated things. So Holder was just totally cut from new cloth.
So what was the original partner like?
The original partner was a little bit more everyday guy cop. "Hey, I’m a new guy and I’m here and ha ha, I’ve got an attitude and I’m sexist and you’re a woman." And I felt like "You’re a woman" is tired. It’s like, come on, you know? It’s less about man and woman. It’s more about a man who comes from a place where he’s in your face and he’s got no boundaries and he’s yelling at everyone and a woman who, what she does is silence and watch and see when someone starts lying. And so these two characters have very, very different ways of being in their lives, but also working, thrust together in this investigation.
I want to go back to something you said before about how we’re not going to know anything that Sarah doesn’t know and it’s the perspective of the two of them in the car and all that. But at the same time, you are telling scenes that occur independently of the investigation. How do you do that? How do you tell lots of stories about Billy’s character without telling us Billy did it?
It's a really fine line, and that’s what we’ve been discovering for many months in the writers room is, before we get to our coda, how much can the audience know about Billy? How much can they know about the family? How much can they know about the suspects without feeling that they’re way ahead. So it’s really a fine line.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com