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[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Tuesday’s series premiere of Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders.]
As loyal viewers know, most episodes of Law & Order open with a warning of some sort: “The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event.”
However, there was no need for that opening title card in the series premiere of the latest franchise spinoff, Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, which focuses, as the title suggests, on the Menendez brothers who were found guilty of murdering their parents in 1989 and are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.
While obviously a far cry from the 42-minute one-and-done cases that made Law & Order a syndication mainstay, the premiere episode featured several longtime elements of the franchise, such as the title cards showing various times, days and locations, as well as the infamous chu-chung between scenes.
The eight-episode first season opened with Jose and Kitty Menendez’s bloody deaths in the living room of their Beverly Hills home and centered on the year after as their sons Lyle (Miles Gaston Villanueva) and Erik (Gus Halper) wasted no time moving forward with their lives, including pricey purchases (a gold watch, a Porsche convertible) and career plans (a franchise of buffalo wing restaurants, a pro tennis career).
That raised eyebrows and suspicions from the detectives on the case, particularly when they also learned that Erik had been implicated in burglaries in Calabasas, Calif., and had also co-written a film script with a friend in which the main character murders his parents. As part of Erik’s sentence for the robbery, he was ordered to see a therapist, Dr. Jerome Oziel (Josh Charles). Dr. Oziel juggles trying to help his patient following the murders and his affair with Judalon Smyth (Heather Graham).
To break down the look and feel of the first episode, THR spoke with executive producer and director Lesli Linka Glatter while on a break from shooting the upcoming seventh season of Homeland.
Thanks so much for jumping on the phone.
Do you know what’s hilarious? I’m in a federal prison outside of Richmond, Va., and we’re on lunch break but of course everywhere you go, you have to be escorted by a guard so I’m sitting in a conference room that has Glock safe action pistols, and how to use them, right in front of me. That’s my view. (Laughs.) Yesterday, I was shooting in the most beautiful five-star hotel so that’s the irony.
How has it been otherwise moving to Virginia thus far for season seven?
This is my eighth day of shooting and every year we reinvent the wheel and that makes it incredibly exciting because we’re always dealing with new stories, new challenges and new cast, but it never gets easier because we’re never going back to the same environment. I’m really thrilled about the new season.
How has it been shooting closer to D.C. given everything that’s happening?
There’s a lot of fascinating things to look at. No one could imagine the world that we’re in and it changes constantly.
Moving to Law & Order True Crime, what appealed to you specifically about this project?
Certainly, the fact that Edie Falco was involved was a huge plus for me. When I heard about the project, I didn’t really know that much about the case and what I really knew was, “Oh, it’s the rich Beverly Hills kids that killed their parents,” which on the surface didn’t interest me terribly. But when I started to read the script and do research about it, I thought, “Oh, things are not what they appear to be, there’s another layer to explore here.” I’m always fascinated by stories that are not what they appear to be, where you have to dig deeper to see what’s really going on and I very much found that in this particular story. Yes, these kids did a horrible and heinous thing, they killed their parents, but I think one also has to look at what is behind that. I think you don’t shoot mom ten times and dad eight times if you just want their money. There’s got to be a huge amount of anger and another story behind that. And that was really interesting and provocative to me.
I also was very interested in the idea of privilege. In the beginning, because they were rich Beverly Hills boys, the privilege helped them. They didn’t do a gun residue test that night. Had the police done that there would have been no investigation, they would have known immediately, but because the kids were so upset they didn’t do it. That would have never happened to a poor kid. They would have immediately been tested. But in the end, being rich really hurt them. They were very much tried in the press as being these spoiled kids and in some ways, they absolutely were, but there was more going on and that’s what was intriguing,
Are you a true crime fan yourself?
I’m fascinated by human behavior but am I always following true crime? Not all the time, no, but I’m very much interested in people being put in extraordinary circumstances where they’re forced to deal with who they really are, and what human behavior comes from that, and the choices people make.
You joined Law & Order True Crime months before the cameras started rolling, so what did those early conversations about the series entail? What other contributions were you able to make in those early stages?
A lot of it was about what the look and feel of the show was going to be, what the cast was going to be and showing the different sides of this idea of privilege. The dream of Beverly Hills and that most people will never be able to attain this. I liked looking at both sides of that, and also shooting L.A. in that period. I haven’t shot L.A. for years and years and shooting L.A. for L.A., albeit 1989 — it was interesting to look back on what was there, what wasn’t there. So that was exciting to jump into.
What did you pull inspiration from when deciding what the show should look like?
One of the things that excited me was this juxtaposition of what L.A. is, the different sides of L.A., where the police live, what Beverly Hills is, the people who work in Beverly Hills, the people who live in Beverly Hills, the whole idea of what wealth can bring you, and most people don’t have that. To me this was a very interesting set of circumstances set around this particular crime. Also, there are a lot of flashbacks that inform who the characters are, and what may be different about what they say about who they are and what they actually do. Finding the language for those flashbacks was also exciting to me.
What stands out is the heavy amount of flashbacks in the series. Why do you think that was important to include?
I think it was to show the juxtaposition between what people say and what their actions are, what the history is and being able to see the world from different characters’ point of view. Again, there are a lot of points of view — that was one of the challenging things. It becomes more streamlined as the miniseries continues, but you have the cops’ point of view and how they see the world, and then you have the Menendez brothers and how they see the world, and it was a lot of information coming into this one. I forget these episodes are only 42 minutes rather than 55 minutes of storytelling time. Not assuming that everyone knows what this story is, you have to kind of lay out what the crime was, what happened and all the pieces that get you and the police and the family to where they are, so that was an intriguing puzzle to me but I felt the flashbacks definitely illuminate character.
How did you decide how much to show of the crime itself? And when to show it?
That also changed as the process continued. The first script I read, you didn’t see it until the end of the series. I felt like you didn’t want to see too much. You wanted to see pieces of it but not have all the information, because as you continue, you will get hopefully more information and I always like stories that have two sides of an issue. Things aren’t always black and white, there are more things that exist in the shades of gray than in the absolute.
Given that, why do you think it was ultimately the right decision to open the series with showing the crime?
I think there were a lot of choices that went into that decision.
This show is obviously an iteration of the Law & Order franchise, so what were those conversations like of trying to figure out what elements of the original series to include, like the title cards and the music?
Right, well, actually the first discussion was that it was not going to be there. That was something that happened later.
Why do you think that was ultimately included?
The Law & Order franchise and series is hugely popular and people love it.
One of the other big storylines introduced in those first two episodes was the affair between Dr. Oziel and his mistress. Why do you think it was so important to include that so prominently?
Because she was the tipping point, and she was the one who went to the police and was the break in the case. She called them up and said, “Oziel told me that the brothers killed their parents.”
Did you see this storyline as having a different tone than the main storyline, which deals with much darker material like the murder and its aftermath?
In some ways, but again, I always like to keep things grounded in reality. Oziel, again, things are not what they appear to be with him. He’s a therapist, and the fact that you would talk to anyone and betray the doctor-patient confidentiality, but especially talk to your mistress — this is very unusual behavior as far I’m concerned, but these are the facts. This is what he did. And he had done this a number of times. This was not the first, so he was obviously a doctor that played fast and loose with that particular rule.
Dick Wolf has spoken a lot about how he believes the Menendez brothers were sentenced too harshly. Do you share that belief?
That’s a very good question. Again, I love to look at both sides of any issue. It’s one of the things I love about working on Homeland. My favorite scenes in Homeland are when two characters have completely opposing views and they’re both liked and they both have their entitlement to their point of view. I wanted to not go in assuming, because I didn’t know much about it. I wanted to look at the whole picture. I would agree that, again, there’s no question these guys committed a horrible crime but in my opinion, in doing the research, I do feel that they were abused. That doesn’t validate their behavior, but do they deserve life imprisonment without the possibility of parole when we parole murderers who…. Let me put it this way: I don’t think these two people will go out and kill other people. I don’t think they’re a danger to society. I think they were in a horrible situation and this was before that particular defense was well known. I think one can’t possibly know if you’ve been abused since you were a small child and you feel your life is in danger, what you might do.
I know it’s very controversial. Some people believe they weren’t abused. I think with all of the research and talking with doctors and reading anything I could get my hands on and having two full-time researchers, it felt to me that it really pointed to that. And in the first trial, it was a hung jury because of that and in the second trial, none of that was admissible and they got the worst sentence you can get.
Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.
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