Research changes the story because it changes the storyteller
Documents, images and consultants’ testimony can lend unexpected dimension to a narrative in development. This year’s Emmy writing and directing nominees remind us that research changes a story because it changes the storyteller — it lobs a curve at preconceptions or perspective.
Some writers bring the best research of all: personal experience. For Nic Pizzolatto, a south Louisiana upbringing meant he could write “True Detective” “from my memory and my perception … keyed towards the environment I knew we would find there.” But Ryan Murphy didn’t know the Crescent City from Adam before “American Horror Story: Coven,” having to persuade local residents en route.
“The city, to be honest, was a little nervous about us … but I really wanted to send a love letter to New Orleans, the mystery and magic of it,” Murphy says. Once early episodes evidenced six months of diligent, respectful research, “doors formerly closed were opened to us.” (And the mini has been welcomed back for next season.)
Murphy took a different approach to “The Normal Heart,” at first seeking documentary realism. He assembled a massive “dream wall” of iconic plague-era imagery. Yet the campy, Day-Glo look and wacky hair people commonly associate with the early ’80s threatened to subvert the mission.
Weekly movie nights highlighting a different feature from each year, Murphy says, “reminded us of the way things actually looked. … Much more streamlined; 1940s-influenced; much more muted.”
Helmer Jodie Foster loves to dive into her subjects; she likes to spend “four months, six months” accumulating research she ends up “wearing like a jacket.” But when she signed up to direct an episode of “Orange Is the New Black,” she discovered TV’s need for speed. With producers handling “all that lovely stuff,” she was freed to take on the psychological garb of her main character, troubled formerly male Sophia Burset.
Transgender thesp Laverne Cox offered Foster “our way into” a little-known world of urgently needed meds, identity crises and pronoun confusion, the last of which occurred often on set. “I’d pull Laverne aside to apologize and she’d say, ‘It’s a habit, and it just takes time. … Part of what I’m doing here is educating people.’ ”
Not everyone adores research though. Alec Berg, co-creator of “Silicon Valley,” has “a love-hate relationship with” it. He’d never had to deal with the issue on his previous show, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
“It’s not like anybody can sit at home and go, ‘that’s not what would happen in Larry David’s house,’ but engineers in general are pretty snarky people, and if we screwed that up we were going to get flamed for it” Berg says. So he made multiple visits to the real Silicon Valley.
Ultimately, a project’s research may best be judged by how much it’s resisted. A cascade of stuff on Mardi Gras rituals and post-Katrina corruption persuaded “Treme” co-creator Eric Overmyer.
“I didn’t know how much I didn’t know about New Orleans,” despite 25 years of off-and-on Big Easy livin’.
“All the research was already in our DNA” for his and David Simon’s final episode, so much so that his most potent memory is not of photorealism achieved, but of imagination flourishing.
“We wanted to make sure we got the historical and cultural facts right,” Overmyer says. “And we deviated from facts and the record quite often. But at least we knew we were doing it.”