“When I Put My Time Into Something, I Want It To Be Wonderful, Not Just Comfortable” Michael Starrbury Talks ‘When They See Us’
The story of the Central Park Five is a shameful indictment of our deliberately flawed criminal justice system. Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr., and Korey Wise were conveniently convicted of a brutal crime in 1989 they did not commit. We published their names for a reason. Hopefully, our doing so will raise our awareness and collectively aid their healing and return some peace and normalcy in their lives.
Their story is dramatized in the Emmy-nominated, four-part limited series on Netflix called When They See Us. It was produced and directed by Ava DuVernay. Creative Screenwriting Magazine caught up with Michael Starrbury who wrote the fourth and final episode of the series. Starrbury is also known for writing The Legends Of Chamberlain Heights and The Battle Of Versailles for HBO Films.
When They See Us is a title that delves deep into the Central Park Five’s lives. It allows their truth to be told. It allows their truth to be seen. It will pressure our authorities to be more accountable for their actions.
We asked Starrbury why When They See Us was so important to him. “It’s important because people need to look at the justice system that’s set up in America. The idea isn’t for the prosecutors to help you. They’re not looking to help prove your innocence. The police, the DA’s office are not your friend. Their goal is to potentially put you in prison.” Although the events happened three decades ago, “the same things are going on today, to the same group of people, mostly inner-city black kids,” he added.
Regrettably, the blame doesn’t fall solely on the shoulders of our flawed justice system looking to make a speedy arrest. “It was more important for people to recognize some of the mistakes that were made, not just by the so-called justice department, but by the families involved with the boys,” who encouraged the five to plead guilty in the hopes of more lenient sentences.
Starrbury wrote Part 4, the final of the limited series, the last images the audience will have of the Central Park Five. No pressure. Things obviously turned out well for the TV writer who garnered an Emmy nomination for his work. He wasn’t entirely left to his own devices in the process. The previous three episodes were already locked down and the plot of the final episode was decided before he came on board. “I was given a beat sheet to work from. It was far from a draft or an outline,” recalled Starrbury. Each episode stood on its own leading to the arrest of the real killer and the exoneration and release of the Central Park Five.
“There wasn’t a lot of buildup to the release during episodes 1 through 3 despite the serialized nature of the series. Episode 4 was Kory’s story building up to the court case scene leading to the Central Park Five’s eventual exoneration. I wanted to focus on what it was like through Kory’s eyes and staying in the moment rather than referencing the previous episodes.”
Michael Starrbury was asked about the challenges involved in writing such a defining episode.
“The challenge was telling the Kory Wise story in such a confined space and still make it cinematic. I had to make sure every moment came across as it should. That it was not melodramatic. This is exactly what happened,” he said.
Although the facts been well-documented, Starrbury still had moments to express his creative flair to further the dramatize the episode. “I sometimes added a joke to add levity to a moment of Kory having a horrible time.” A degree of creative license is tolerable so long “as I was always truthful to the story.”
“I didn’t embellish any events to artificially add a plot point for dramatic effect because they were already dramatic enough.”
Researching The Facts
Research can be an issue for dramatized stories based on true events. Sometimes, writers can be overwhelmed with too much factual information, or forced to interpolate events when it isn’t entirely clear what happened. Starrbury was well-prepared before penning Part 4 of When They See Us.
“I had the interviews from all the five gentlemen, archival stuff, newspaper articles, everything you could imagine.” Starrbury sifted through all the available material with a fine-tooth comb to ensure the utmost accuracy in his storytelling. His research was supplemented from his personal experiences as a black man growing up in America. Every black kid knows someone who has been wronged by the justice system.
We asked the screenwriter how he approached the actual writing process without letting himself be buried in facts. “I write from instinct, the inner city vibe of things, the idea of what happened to them. I didn’t necessarily need to get into the nitty-gritty of what happened because I know about it.”
“I was there at the real moment in 1989 and felt the subtext of the events.“
Kory Wise is a unique character often referred to as the outlier of the group – the” plus one” in the Central Park Four plus one. While the other four went to ‘juvie’, he went straight to men’s prison. “He was a sweetheart and didn’t seem to fit in. They put him in a place he didn’t belong. That’s what made him different. Being a kid surrounded by grown-ups.”
Starrbury has a non-didactic approach to screenwriting. “The goal is not to dictate the audience’s emotions. I look for the emotion in each scene and let the audience decide what to do with it.” But he does have an over-arching objective of where he wants audiences to direct their attention. “The obvious thing I want the audience to look at is racism, but it’s bigger than that. It’s our whole justice system. I want people to feel we can do more. We don’t necessarily need to trust everything they see in the media.” We have the power to change things.
Michael Starrburry is very particular in what he chooses to write. His stories must intersect with his life experiences either directly or indirectly. “I’ve dabbled in the things that I write about. I want to write about things or characters that have been misinterpreted,” he said. At this point in his career, he has the luxury of saying no to projects.
We asked him how he connects to a potential story idea and how he decides if it’s worth pursuing. “If I read a story or article and feel that I can put a spin on it, I’m interested. I want to be moved by a character. I like the little guy. The ‘struggling to get there’ guy. It sums up the people that I love. I like it when you don’t know who you’re supposed to be rooting for. I think the henchman is more interesting than the mob boss.”
He describes his writing style on Now They See Us as “nuanced.” Cold, hard events without any emotional underpinning “don’t seem to play well on the page. I see how I can best dramatize these events.”
Starrbury places more value on quality over quantity on the scripts he writes. He won’t write a screenplay just because it can be filmed. The screenwriter takes his time to elevate the story. “I want my writing to stand the test of time and not just be a product.” He achieves this by making his protagonists empathetic so the audiences understand their motivation and follow their emotional journeys.
When it comes to what films led him to a career in filmmaking, the answer is pleasantly far removed from When They See Us. In terms of films that have inspired his creative process, Starrbury cites Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi (1992) and Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994).”
“Pulp Fiction was the movie that changed my life. I learned how you make that kind of movie because the dialogue is so cool. Then I discovered Reservoir Dogs. Then I read Elmore Leonard books and he became my favorite writer.”
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