In the writers’ room with Motive
Showrunner James Thorpe and writers Dennis Heaton and Daegan Fryklind on penning a police procedural that attempts to bring viewers a novel emotional journey in the "whydunit?"
CTV is banking on its upcoming police procedural Motive, which is getting a big marketing push from Bell Media and a coveted premiere slot following the Super Bowl this Sunday.
The homegrown series was created by exec producer Daniel Cerrone, who wrote the pilot. Exec producer Rob Merilees and his Vancouver-based Foundation Features developed the series with showrunner James Thorpe, then teamed with exec producer Louise Clark’s Lark Productions to produce it.
Ahead of the premiere, Playback spoke to Thorpe and writers Dennis Heaton and Daegan Fryklind about throwing the conventions of the police procedural out the window.
PB: In Motive, we know both the victim and the killer right off the bat. Were there any challenges in writing the script to fit the show’s structure? How did you do it?
James Thorpe: It’s quite complicated because we’re actually dealing with four, maybe five different timelines. There’s the killer’s timeline, there’s the victim’s timeline there’s the flashback timeline –where we’re filled in on how the victim and the killer actually came together – and there’s the present day investigation timeline as well. So it is quite a complicated structure, and if you could see our writers’ room wall – we have devised a system of colour-coded giant Post-It notes where each timeline gets its own colour. And it varies on a case -by-case and story-by-story basis, but sometimes we’ll break the killer and victim timeline first and figure out what exactly happened and then start to hang off that. And [with] other cases it works the exact opposite.
So it’s a very demanding structure but it’s never the same twice, we’ve discovered.
Dennis Heaton: In the past procedurals that I’ve written on it was the “whodunit” question; at the end, we found out who the killer was and why all at the same time, so when you put the killer at the very beginning of the episode and say, “Hey everybody, this is the killer,” we’re basically saying to the audience, you have to throw out every preconception you have about what a police procedural is. Often you watch an episode of The Mentalist, you watch an episode of Bones, you know that the person they arrest at the end of act one is not your killer.
It’s almost become a trope of the ‘language’ that the audience understands, so for us, we had to change that entire mindset of–we didn’t want to go out on a red herring. Not only would the audience know it was a red herring, but we’d stated it explicitly in the teaser. So it forced us as writers to come up with new ways to find those dramatic turns in the story that still made our investigators look smart without going to the trope of the classic, “It’s the wrong man (that’s been arrested).”
Daegan Fryklind: You also have to throw out preconceived notions of what a killer is too, because the model we’re playing with, we spend a lot of time in the psychological aftermath of the killing, with the killer. And you don’t usually get to see that with police procedurals. They take you up to the point of arrest, but not that person’s emotional arc after they’ve done the killing. For some of our killers, they’re just put through the wringers, and for other ones, the killing gives them peace of mind. So they’re very different journeys that each one of these killers take.
PB: Where does the input or background come from?
DF: …Our own killings?
DH: Personal experience.
JT: That’s kind of true, in a way. All our writers came from a strong dramatic background, and because our format is a procedural, but we’re not about the science like a CSI show, and we’re not really about the gore like Numbers or Criminal Minds, so it really is an intense emotional ride, a very dramatic ride. And the killers do have amazing character arcs – they get to play the gamut from A to Z, and that’s also why we’re starting to attract a lot of high-level talent for the role of the killer because they realize it’s an amazing opportunity for an actor, too.
So each of the writers has a rich experience background and very dramatic experience as well, and that really was a big part of the puzzle.
PB: Because each episode has a mini-story, plus there are the continuing characters, how do you balance between long-term character development and focusing on making a complete story for a particular episode?
JT: Very carefully. That’s why we had to come up with colour-coded system. We can see at a glance, are we short on pink cards? That means we need one more flashback. Are we short on yellow cards? That means we’re ignoring the real-time investigation. So there an ebb and flow and balance to each episode. Our killer and victim take up a lot more real estate on-screen than they do in a normal procedural. They have a lot of screen time. But at the same time we have to service our regulars, of course, and slowly develop their long arcs as we go along too. So it’s been a very intricate process
DH: It really is a puzzle block. Like James said, because you’ve got the constantly shifting killer and victim story, we have a format but you can’t fall back on a formula because it doesn’t exist. Sometimes the killer and victim aren’t going to know each other at all, sometimes they’ve been dear friends since childhood. With each story it’s like: “do we hide that information? What information do we conceal? What don’t we conceal? What gives us the most satisfying [and] surprising emotional journey?” We can write an episode “here we have a shocking surprise at the end of the episode” but if we’ve done too much smoke and mirrors to hide the information that you need to make that reveal shocking, you could possibly end up with a story that’s unsatisfying as a journey. It really is a tightrope.
JT: Even worse the audience feels cheated somehow. We try very hard not to cheat the audience. It is a question of what we reveal and when we reveal it but we play the game fairly.
DF: It’s done in a way that makes our detectives smart as well. Sometimes they’re behind the audience, but then at the point at which they’re ahead of the audience, that’s the exciting crux of, “Okay, we’ve figured it out, we know why this person did it,” which is MOTIVE!
PB: So it must be a challenge sometimes when you’re writing and thinking about keeping that audience engagement up…
JT: You really want them to keep guessing. As they watch, they meet the killer and victim in the teaser – so right away they know who did it, so the question is “whydunit?” and really, they’re following lead detective Angie (Kristin Lehman) as she sort of struggles her way through a maze of clues. Hopefully the fun for the audience will be knowing the truth and watching Angie navigate her way towards the truth, watching her interactions with the killer in almost cat-and-mouse or Columbo-like way.
We do save one surprise moment for everybody at the end, something the audience didn’t see coming, something related to the motive, so there’s like a final little Easter egg for everyone in act five.
PB: Was there pressure to make her a likeable character? Did you ever want to make her a completely unlikeable lead?
DF: It’s hard to see her as unlikable, though because you’re just inherently rooting for her. I mean, they’re killers, the stakes are high.
DH: We’ve got a very strong antagonist antihero in the episode – there are killers that we want you to empathize and also sympathize with, and other times there are killers that we want you to hate from the word go. But because of that, you really need that grounding force of the cops that you want to spend the time with, because they are also going to be our constant through this.
When you start to deal with antiheros in and of themselves –you’re dealing with shows like The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy, you want to immerse yourself into that compelling world that they’re in. So it’s like we’re going into that world on a weekly basis so we want our heroes to be heroic.
PB: You’ve all worked extensively in Canadian series and for some of you, in the U.S. and Europe as well. Where does Motive fit in the current TV landscape?
JT: I think it fits in the number one slot! I think its fresh new take on the procedural format and it’s extremely accessible to a lot of diff people on a lot of different levels. There’s a mystery element, there’s the dramatic element, there’s the whole puzzle-solving element to it all.
PB: How did everyone come on board?
DH: I was part of a work release program.
DF: [Thorpe found us in] the writers’ orphanage. He’s our Daddy Warbucks.
DF: A lot of us had worked with the producers before…
JT: And I had read samples of everybody before. And when they asked me to put together a dream list, I did, and some of it actually happened.
DH: But then that fell apart and he got us.
The Motive writers’ room includes James Thorpe, Dennis Heaton, Daegan Fryklind, Wil Zmak and Katherine Collins.
Pictured: 1 – L-R Kristin Lehman (Detective Angie Flynn), A-Cam Operator Mark Chow, Roger Cross (Staff Sergeant Boyd Bloom) and 2 – L-R Director Charles Martin Smith and Dennis Heaton