Dick Wolf is no stranger to ripping from the headlines. In the nearly 26 years since Law & Order debuted, the Emmy winner has looked to real-life cases for countless episodes of the flagship as well as its spinoff series, in addition to the Chicago universe that now takes up major real estate on NBC’s schedule.
However, the prolific TV producer still turned heads earlier this year when it was announced that he was developing a true-crime anthology series for which the first season will focus on the Menendez brothers. After years of stuffing long, drawn-out investigations and trials into 42-minute episodes, Wolf and writer Rene Balcer will examine the Menendez case, in which brothers Erik and Lyle were found guilty in 1994 of murdering their parents in 1989, over eight hours. (Put into development in April, the project was picked up to series earlier this month.)
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Wolf about the inspiration behind the True Crime series, why he picked the Menendez brothers and why he’s not afraid of true-crime fatigue.
You’ve done ripped-from-the-headlines cases before, but what made you want to explore it in a longer format?
You want me to completely candid? [The People v. O.J. Simpson] was like, ‘Oh, this is a good idea!’ (Laughs.) Because we did a version of Menendez, of the boys in 1992, like in the third season of Law & Order, so it’s something that has really interested me since it happened.
Why this case? I’m sure you’ve read tons of murder cases before.
The whole concept of what drove them to do it is the most … are they telling the truth? Were they molested? What was the level? How long did it go on? How oppressive was it? What did the mother know? I mean, come on.
What other cases did you look at before you picked this one?
There are other cases that, if it works, I know we’re going to be doing in the future.
Why was Rene Balcer the right person to come on board this and write?
This is an enormous case. There were two hung juries and a trial, and there is nobody better at writing complicated legal procedurals than Rene. He’s been doing it time after time after time for years and years and years, and this is a hugely complicated case.
What was behind your decision to frame it within the Law & Order franchise as opposed to just calling True Crime?
First of all, it’s a huge legal procedural. Look, I learned the lesson when we did the movie which started all the branding, which was Exiled. It was the highest-rated movie of the year. Barry Diller said, ‘I don’t know who’s going to watch this. Why don’t you call it Law & Order?’ When it did the numbers it did, it was the highest-rated movie of the year, and I don’t think it was because it was called Exiled. (Laughs.)
Will it have any elements from the original? Will there be a theme or an opening?
[Original series composer] Mike Post is going to write another variation.
Obviously, true crime is a hot trend right now. TNT is working on a Chandra Levy miniseries, FX has season two of American Crime Story. How concerned are you with viewers getting burnt out on these kinds of shows?
I never worry about it because I think that there is an endless appetite for stuff that’s really well done. If it’s not really well done, yeah, I think you can go, ‘Oh, please, I’ve got to watch six more hours of this?’ But if it gets you — and O.J. got me and I know that story really well, because it was told differently.
What is the timetable for the project? When could this premiere?
Rene is up in the Arctic Circle working on his own show [The Council, which will debut on Canada’s CBC in fall 2017], so I think he’ll really start working next month or something. I’d love it to get on in the second quarter of next year … but it’s tough. It’s eight hours.