Showrunner Veena Sud Talks ‘The Killing’, ‘Seven Seconds’ And Future Projects
Seven Seconds is arguably one of the boldest stories on Netflix. The 10-episode TV drama comes from The Killing showrunner Veena Sud. The story begins with a hit-and-run of an African-American teenager by a Jersey City cop. The mostly white police force covers up the incident, which causes public controversy.
“My son laid in the cold, in pain, for hours,” said Regina King’s character, Latrice Butler. “And, whoever did this is free.” What’s perhaps most interesting about Sud’s take on this type of story is all of the research involved and the in-depth look at how everyone suffers from such a tragedy.
Creative Screenwriting sat down with Veena Sud to talk about her fascination with mystery, slow-burn storytelling, the Statue of Liberty as symbolism, and her passion for research along with the importance of plucking images from real life.
Where did your fascination with mystery and stories about murder begin?
My fascination with mystery has been a lifelong obsession since I was a kid watching The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Just this desire to look at human nature in its most extreme forms. So that’s always been a driver for me as a storyteller. In terms of how I like to keep it interesting, to me and then my audience, is then to as closely as rawly as I can, step into the event.
So, whether it’s The Killing, trying to walk in the shoes of a family that’s gone through this window. What it feels like to be a woman in a homicide unit in a place like Seattle that’s foggy and beautiful, yet dead lit and terrifying. For example, when I was thinking of The Killing and I was trying to imagine Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), I was trying to connect and the only way I can start telling a story… I call it my image. I have to actually see it. There is always this one turning point image for the lead character, that then is my “aha” moment into the world of how to tell the story.
When I was thinking of Sarah, I was up in the Marin Headlands, which is near San Francisco. It’s a bunch of sea cliffs and a very lonely part outside of the city. I was walking along this hiking path alone and this fog had moved in. I couldn’t see past a foot in front of me and I realized, this is what she does. She goes into the most terrifying lonely places—she is a hiker, she is a trail-runner—and she does that in her daily life because she does that in her work life. She has to go alone, like she does at the beginning of the pilot, to go into this dark, lonely, terrifying place to find what she thinks is the body of a young woman. So that is part and parcel of who she is and how she has to be to do her job, effectively.
So these are different stories—The Killing, Seven Seconds, Cold Case. They’re all stories that revolve around murder where we may or may not know who the killer is. Do you also get into the mind of the killer when writing?
Absolutely. Whoever has committed a crime, I try to understand because I think we all do bad things and we all have reasons for why we do them. So, understanding the reasoning helps not only understand the humanity of the person who committed the act, but how the act specifically happened. For example, the person who killed Rosie Larsen (in The Killing), one thing we talked about a lot in the writer’s room is how do you dump a body in the middle of a lake? Physically, how do you do that? By physically trying to understand, what would be happening emotionally is that the event happened for the killer, you understand the trail that the homicide detective can follow.
There’s always a human being behind the act. Then, you can look at bus schedules. Did the person break down at one point and vomit in the bushes? We don’t think when we’re in a panic, so you touch something without a gloved hand, maybe. There are always these things that go into the mix of understanding how things happened. With Seven Seconds, clearly, we know as the audience who the bad guy is at the beginning and who committed the crime.
We have to spend time with Peter Jablonski (Beau Knapp), Mike DiAngelo (David Lyons), and all the other cops that are part of the cover-up, and see them go through what is essentially “The Tell-Tale Heart.” See these men slowly compartmentalize and not think about it or justify and grow more hateful of the community that they serve and/or go insane because they can’t deal with the thing that they did.
In an interview you did for The Killing, you mentioned that you enjoy “slow burn storytelling.” Can you elaborate on this tension as a method of storytelling, both in terms of full season arcs and individual episodes or scenes?
Yea, I think it’s almost like being a gymnast or dancer where the timing feels natural. You’re listening to something internal in the story that is telling you to follow something a certain way. Every storyteller has their own beat and rhythm. Some people like to go really fast and jump cut and all that, but there is something about staying still, for me, as still as possible that lends itself to seeing as much as possible.
I gravitate towards stories that are like The Killing or like Seven Seconds that do have a driving force behind them, whether it’s a mystery or driving force that has to happen. Whether or not it’s an incident, but allowing the audience to really live with the characters and not necessarily be on a fun adventure ride or roller coaster ride. The uncomfortableness, the truth, the despair that that character feels and ultimately the joy or resolution, perhaps, at the end of their story.
What were some things you learned between The Killing and Seven Seconds? Were there some big picture things as a creator where you’re thinking beyond the first season of a story?
It depends on the story. With The Killing, the entire series was based on this one particularly homicide detective, Sarah Linden. I knew that the entire series had to be looked at through the lens of this one woman’s journey. Seven Seconds was always going to be an anthology series that looked at one hot-button political issue in Jersey City every season. It was almost a hybrid series like The Wire, where some worlds exist and others fade away and others are introduced.
But, the main meat of every season was around one political incident that had happened. It really is kind of dependent on where you want to go with something. But, big picture lesson learned is that for more excitement the form can be changed. The niche is now more like 13-hour movies for a series that runs for 13 episodes.
There is a patience that we all have now with long-form storytelling and an excitement around it. I almost feel like my own muscles, in terms of going into other places like film and watch something like Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies, La Danse) with infinitely more patience than I had fifteen years ago. It’s kind of remarkable and it says something about consumers of content and how the form is changing. The form is infinitely malleable right now, which is really exciting for a storyteller wondering how to tell a different story in a different way, again.
You’re actually within one of the unusual cases where The Killing went from AMC to Netflix so it literally changed the way you could have written the story. In the TV writer’s room, where you conscious of how the audience will consume the content in terms of binging, single episodes, and so on?
Yeah, I think the only thing that that type of watching is the best for many storytellers, because then you don’t have to have this artificial stopping between chapters. The same way I read a book, where I’ll read as many chapters as I can stay awake for and fall asleep, or I’ll be my own editor and curator and stop when I’ve had my fill and then go eat a meal or whatever. That’s what present-day television allows for us to do: be the curator of our own experiences.
Versus, someone else is then judging when we stop and start. Then, there’s all this filler, which is frustrating for a storyteller. There are commercials and then forced waiting for a week, which absolutely affects how you tell a story, because you have to have all of these false cliffhangers, which are ridiculous. I think that lends itself to bad television.
Is there any added pressure to the number of episodes in terms of coming up with the story? This is ten episodes, but some TV shows may be twenty episodes. Are you plotting out the same story and slowing the pace or are you telling a much longer story?
The only show that I’ve worked on with 23 episodes was Cold Case, which was episodic. There was one crime per episode, so it was very different. It wasn’t a serialized show where you have a group of characters and their arcs determine the season. It was different in and of itself because there are only so many episodes you can plot out because partially you do make adjustments based on what’s happening on the ground.
With Seven Seconds, we plotted big, giant turning points and movements plotted out before we put anything out, but we still had to retain the flexibility of actors will bring other things and this is just a blueprint. We keep in mind the big picture, but we also make adjustments. Its 13 episodes of a serialized drama is a very, intense, rich, thick bouillabaisse of everything that you’re just trying to keep at a perfect temperature and a perfect level because it has to all fold together. The twenty-third episodic episode doesn’t have to hold together the same way.
In the pilot for Seven Seconds, there’s a hit-and-run and the episode is also buttoned with the Statue of Liberty at the beginning and the end. This puts us in place in terms of setting, but there’s also some symbolism of the back turned. Can you elaborate on this idea?
It was very purposeful. I lived in Jersey City for many years and I raised my son there. We went to the park while he was growing up and that was always striking to me that the Statue of Liberty’s back was to us, which felt absolutely fitting.
Jersey City is the majority black and brown, very immigrant, and very forgotten and very much in the shadow of Manhattan and in the shadow of the dreams, promises, and aspirations of Lady Liberty. I knew very quickly when I created Seven Seconds and that it would be in Jersey City that that image would be a part of the TV show because it was plucked straight from life.
The New York Times and various other publications have mentioned the comparisons to Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice cases in relation to this story. If nothing else, these are very difficult stories to tell, but where did this original idea come from? Is it meant to extend the debate beyond the headlines?
There are partial spoilers for the series below.
It came from the Spring of 2015 when I was turning on my television and seeing what felt like a nightly basis of another black man or black child shot down by the police. That’s where it came from. There was the imperative need to tell this story—which was being told in our headlines—but needing to do a deep dive into the why and the how and ultimately, how does this change?
Because the entire series tackles the actual incident of a policeman in a hit and run that involves a black child all the way to the end of the line in the story of the policeman being convicted or going to trial. So I was really into that process and telling the truth of what really is happening in terms of conviction rates and even prosecutorial rates for police violence cases.
You’re listed as the creator. What happened after you had the idea? Did you write the pilot? Did you pitch the idea or what happened next?
When I first came up with the notion, I had just finished The Killing and I was looking for my next thing. I talked to my executives at Fox 21 where I had my deal and I said, “Look, this is what I want to do next.” They were incredibly supportive and I said, “I’m not going to pull any punches. I’m going to really tell the story as it’s being told in real life and not some feel-good bullshit. I’m just going to try and be as clear and as honest of a storyteller as possible.” They said, “Absolutely. We’re behind you.” It could have been a very different thing if they said “No,” because I wouldn’t want to be the one telling lies about the criminal justice system. So, to their great credit, they said, “Yes.” So, we went out and sold it to Netflix.
The creative part of all this and what I like to do as a creator is spending as much time as possible with people who are really involved in the issues, whatever the story is I’m looking at before I start writing it. So I did speak with Trayvon Martin’s mom and talked about the night prior to his murder, the morning of his murder, the nights and hours after. She found out that her child had been killed. We ended up speaking to a lot of moms whose sons had been killed by police officers.
Really, as much as possible, we looked for the truth of what they went through, not only a parent’s worst nightmare of the death of a child, but the additional trauma of a justice system that won’t even prosecute the man who killed your child, and then your child being treated like a criminal. We went through the whole process of talking to prosecutors. In Jersey, we had this great technical advisor who worked in the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, where KJ Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey), the lead prosecutor of Seven Seconds worked. As a writer, we just speak to ourselves in the real world of it all and then started to make decisions and wrote plots from that.
Have you always taken such a deep dive into the research? Do you ever get overwhelmed with material or do the plot points come out at you as you start to dig through the resources?
I like to do research because the real world is way smarter than I am. I find gems that I could never have thought of. I think real life is fascinating and I think people are infinitely fascinating, especially people who have gone through immensely trying times. They inspire and they say these things and they go through so much that is worthy of being on our screens and not in a sentimental way like I would probably think up.
Real life people are actually heroes, so why not go to the well of it all? I also feel that my job then is to find the poetry in whatever experience I get the chance to look at and weave it together in a story that becomes a story and not a documentary.
Outside of television work, there’s also a new movie called Between Earth and Sky listed on your IMDB page. Did you find any limitations or restrictions on writing this first film when compared to television?
No, I had the great fortune to work on my first film with Jason Blum (Get Out), who is a friend of artists and gives directors final cuts on the projects. We do the films cheap enough that there’s enough mentorship around it that they’re very, very open to what the writer-director imagines or envisions for the project. I certainly think that’s part of his success. It’s actually been way more freeing. In television, you have a lot more hoops to jump through. At least in this version of movie making, I’ve had less.
You write relatively darker stories. Where do you find your inspiration? Do most of your stories come from the headlines?
In the vast majority—definitely with The Killing and Seven Seconds—were inspired by real life. Obviously, with Seven Seconds, I just mentioned television news in 2015. With The Killing, it was based on a Danish format. When we started to venture out into other cases, they were always inspired [by real life]. Whether it was the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, who was the most prolific serial killer in America. He killed upwards of sixty women in the Seattle-Tacoma area. That was Season 3 of [The Killing]. There is real life.
Real life will inevitably bring this endless trove of stuff and inspiration. Another big inspiration for me besides the news and stories in the news are photographs. A big part of The Killing Season 3, in terms of inspiration, were the photographs of Mary Ellen Mark, “Street Kids,” in Seattle. These young survivors, who/ were tough as nails, but still felt love. That drove the human story behind that season.
I read that you started writing very early, as a teenager. There are so many outlets and avenues these days, where would you recommend a novice writer start if they hope to make projects and become a professional creator?
I mean it’s the same advice I got when starting out. I try to do it to this day, but it’s really the best advice: write every day. Make it the discipline. Make it your discipline. Treat it as your job even if you’re not getting paid for it yet. You will—if you treat it as something you must do every day. It just keeps the wheels turning. You not only have a source of the daily observations of your life, but of human existence, or a conversation you might have overheard that you will use later on in your work.
You just have this treasure trove of things to go back to—physical ideas and the practice of putting pen to paper.
Catch the audio for the entire SEVEN SECONDS interview here.
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