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“Should You Always Tell The Truth?” TV Writer Peter Moffat Answers In “Your Honor”

“Should You Always Tell The Truth?” TV Writer Peter Moffat Answers In “Your Honor”
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It’s been a prolific time for Israeli filmmakers to have their TV shows adapted or directly shown on our screens. These include Homeland, The Spy, and Valley Of Tears. The latest in the string of Israeli based television hits is Your Honor based on the Israeli TV series Kvodo (by Ron Ninio and Schlomo Mashiach) was bought to our screens with the help of British writer, Peter Moffat (Criminal Justice, The Village). Moffat spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about adapting a successful Israeli TV series into a successful American one, starring Bryan Cranston as Judge Michael Desiato. Developing Your Honor began by deliberately not watching the original so it wouldn’t deflect him from his vision, given that it had such a strong voice and perspective.

It all began when Moffat received a call from producer Liz Glotzer and asked him what he would do if one of his children was responsible for a hit and run accident that killed Rocco Baxter (Benjamin Hassan Wadsworth). Then she launched into the second question, “What if you get to the police station to report it only to discover the father of the victim was a famous mob boss [Jimmy Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg]? Do you turn around knowing your child will not be safe if you come clean?” This is the dilemma Judge Desiato confronts.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Peter Moffat

As soon as Moffat ended the call with Glotzer, he stayed up all night and asked an additional ninety-eight questions about what the show could be starting with, “What is your first step in handling the situation and what does that mean? What has the parent done, what has he become, and are you the same person you thought you were before you took that first step?” Judge Desiato doesn’t tell the truth because he can’t.

Peter Moffat enjoyed a previous career as a barrister so he could lend his legal expertise to the TV show. “I was asking the big questions about jurisprudence and morality and how they relate to the law?” He wanted to explore what such an impossible decision does to people. Then he pondered even bigger questions, “Is it always right to obey the law? Is truth always the best way?” These questions formed the bedrock of the themes in the show. Given the fluidity of morality, these questions give rise to intense conflict between the characters.

Your Honor could have been an intense legal drama, but from the outset, Moffat knew it was going to be a faced-paced, action thriller.

Once the TV writers’ room convened, Ninio and Mashiach who wrote Kvodo, lent their voice to how Your Honor was going to play out. “The biggest difference between them was that the Judge’s son did it deliberately as an act of revenge.In Your Honor, Adam Desiato (Hunter Doohan) was looking for his inhaler during an asthma attack while driving, so the hit and run was an accident. This dynamic blurs the perception of Adam’s guilt.

 

A Father Protecting His Son

 

Michael Desiato’s motivation for lying is fairly clear. He’s also faced with an additional problem of constructing a plausible alibi that seventeen-year-old Adam must adhere to in perpetuity to keep his secret safe.

Adam has a crisis of conscience as he pits his guilty conscience against his desire to be independent of his father. Moffat draws on his experiences of being a father to seventeen-year-old children in terms of how they choose to think even though he’s more worldly. “Adam is unpredictable and could slip up at any time. This makes for stressful and therefore good drama.” Adam is driven by faster emotions making him more impulsive, and less steady and unreliable.

Adam also feels things more strongly and his awakening conscience would only ensure the mob boss would kill him. “Emotions will lead him into danger.” The central crux of Your Honor is whether telling the truth is always the right thing given the circumstances. “You’d think that the answer was obvious. It isn’t obvious, and it might even be wrong.

Obfuscating the truth comes easier to Michael than Adam. He knows how the world works and is less idealistic. “The thing with Michael is that once you tell the first lie, it’s almost essential to tell a second lie to protect the first lie.” Michael has very few alternative choices other than to come clean. The bigger question for Michael is deciding what to do if another child is taking the blame for what Adam has done. “Is it still right to protect your child while sacrificing somebody else’s?” The answer should be no, but isn’t necessarily so for Michael. An even bigger existential issue is whether hurting another child, Kofi Jones (Lamar Johnson), hurts your own in a cosmic sense. Judge Desiato chooses to defend Kofi to placate his conscience. “These two sparring positions are at the heart of the show.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Bryan Cranston (Michael Desiato) & Hunter Doohan (Adam Desiato)

Judge Desiato chooses to represent Kofi. “That’s fatal for Michael. It’s his guilty conscience talking. If Kofi is charged, Adam is cleared. There’s a part of Michael that wants Kofi to be freed, but not at the expense of Adam.” This oppositional dichotomy drives Michael into making poor choices, but riveting drama.

Such a malleable distinction between moral and immoral makes it difficult to define Michael as either a hero or villain. Peter Moffat skews him towards a villain, but also adds a caveat that Michael is brave and courageous. The audience must sympathize with Michael given that he’s a judge and a supposed keeper of the law. “It’s damn hard work what Michael’s doing. He’s using every ounce of his experience, knowledge, and skills from decades in the criminal justice system.” No matter how entangled he becomes in his lies, Michael believes things will work out.

Peter Moffat declared that too many TV audiences want the characters to move in straight lines in order to understand what they’re about. Fortunately, he doesn’t believe they should act so linearly. “I think you can completely manipulate, maneuver, and mess up the lawyer representing the Baxter family while being in love with her.

 

Life As A Barrister

 

Peter Moffat’s previous career as a barrister could potentially help or hinder his transition into writing criminal justice television in terms of sacrificing authenticity for drama. Moffat doesn’t see any issue with his courtroom experiences impacting his sense of dramatic storytelling. In many respects, they are similar.

“If you don’t have the confidence to go into court every morning and wing it, to have not prepared all your cross-examinations, and do it on your feet, then it needs to be written just like a TV show. That’s how I did it. It had to have shape and tell a story.

You need to ask questions to get the answers that you need. You need to tell a story to a jury that has a clear beginning, middle, and end that you control, sometimes while pretending not to control it. Often, you pretend to be spontaneous when it’s planned. All of these courtroom skills are also writing skills.

When two lawyers cross-examine each other they want different outcomes. At the end of the speech, the judge makes a decision on the competing narratives and the jury delivers a verdict depending on who told the better story.

Ten hours of drama is surprisingly similar to ten hours of testimony in a courtroom. “You have to decide what the essentials are and how to pare things down to their essence. Then there’s the performance of it. Barristers are performers. You learn how to affect people who are listening, whether it be by words or silence.”

I spent most of my career defending people in crisis who really needed to tell you intimate stuff. It gave me a load of material on how human beings function when they’re in trouble.

My legal background means I can give my characters an array choices, issues, dilemmas, that a writer without a legal background wouldn’t have.

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