Veena Sud: Be ready

The Killing creator Veena Sud offers tips on pacing a story and the tenacity it takes to work in TV.
By Kinney Littlefield | Published: September 30, 2014


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Photo by Carole Segal for Netflix

From start to finish, Veena Sud’s TV scripts exude street-smart attitude. Rarely has dialogue felt so rhythmically right as it does in Sud’s acclaimed crime series The Killing, now available in its entirety, including its final-forever six episodes, on Netflix streaming video. As always, The Killing’s beleaguered detectives, Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), track a seemingly crazed killer, this time of an uptight upper-crust family with its share of soul-sickening secrets. The cops’ souls also hang in the balance as they face the fallout from Linden’s horrific, hair-trigger act in last season’s cliffhanger finale. All the while, the series stays true to Sud’s signature storytelling style, with its misty-mournful vibe, savvy street-speak and moments of heart-stopping stillness.

Although based on the Danish series Forbrydelsen (The Crime), The Killing has  an in-the-skin sensibility that’s supremely Sud. Long fascinated by society’s underbelly, Sud began researching crime in her high school years and toured seamy spots with a vice squad officer while attending Barnard College in New York City. After graduation, she worked as a producer for Pacifica Radio/WBAI in New York and as a reporter for the media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. Later, she earned a graduate degree in filmmaking from New York University. Her criminal proclivities flourished when she became a writer and then an executive producer on the CBS crime series Cold Case.

Those creds led to The Killing, which, despite critical praise, had a troubled run on cable’s AMC. The network cancelled Sud’s series twice, initially after the series did not, in Sud’s best slow-reveal style, disclose the killer of teenager Rosie Larsen at the end of season one. Sud’s unconventional refusal to wrap things up neatly sparked howls from viewers. But the show ultimately ran for two more seasons before AMC offed it.

Now resurrected on Netflix, The Killing has become a seminal part of TV history. And Sud is busy scripting the indie film Sweetgrass, which she plans to direct this fall. Still, she recently found time to chat candidly about The Killing, crafting a flawed female character and keeping TV drama real.

Flawed – even monstrous – anti-heroes are a staple of TV dramas these days. How did you approach crafting the anti-heroic characters of Linden and Holder, and how did you counterbalance their flaws with redeeming qualities? Did you have a checklist?

The beauty of the anti-hero – anti-heroes like Linden and Holder who are flawed people – is that we as human beings know so many people like that. We’re one of those people ourselves in real life. We are full of brokenness, we’re full of character defects, we’re full of pride and pomposity. We make horrible mistakes, and we betray people we love. We do all that, but at the heart of maybe each and every one of us is the desire to do good and a desire to live a meaningful life.

As opposed to the idea of a checklist, it’s simply looking at people in my life and people I’ve met in the course of doing research – real-life detectives and undercover narcotics agents. And really trying to be honest about human darkness and flaws.

Either a Pollyanna character or an evil character could be one-dimensional. But if you set out from the beginning to just sketch a portrait of a human being that you’ve met in life, or a composite of a human being, inevitably you will get that multi-dimensional aspect that all of us can relate to and not box them into just good/bad.

So Linden is rooted in real life?

Specifically with Linden, she’s a single mother, she’s failing, she’s trying her best, she’s disappointing her child. I was a single mother for many years, and I know how difficult it is to balance that. And what happens too often in television in terms of motherhood – representations of motherhood – is that it’s a completely unrealistic portrayal. Our contemporary version of mothers is, you know, she’s got a job and she can juggle the kids and she can juggle their activities and she can look really hot and have wild sex with a husband – and it’s this superwoman bullshit. It’s horrible, because I don’t know anyone who does that.

And motherhood is this sacred cow. We can have a man, a father, sleep with a woman who is not his wife and steal money from his company, and cook up drugs, but his fatherhood is never questioned. He’s a shitty father, but no one ever demonizes him for that. But if a woman is a mother and she makes one misstep, she becomes this awful creature.

And so it was really important to me that Sarah Linden be an imperfect mother and represent the truth of what many of us experience – at least myself and most women I know – which is that we are not perfect, we don’t always succeed in balancing everything and sometimes we become very obsessed by our work.

How did you keep The Killing dialogue so real?

The writers and I spent a lot of time prior to writing a sequence meeting the real-life people that we’re trying to portray, meeting a teenage prostitute or spending time with our homicide technical advisor, Gary Sloan, who has such a specific way of talking. It’s such a gift to listen to how people talk and to listen to the cadence of the character that you’re creating, and then over time being able to marry the blueprint of that character to the actual actor who’s inhabiting that body. There’s an inevitable transformation in language, but our actors have an incredible proficiency in getting into the dialogue, because it’s naturalistic, and it tries to be naturalistic. There is a pace to it that feels very conversational to people.

You seem fond of silences between characters, gaps between words, a kind of on-screen stillness. Why?

Most truth exists in the space between words, and most of our lives – if you observe carefully a day in the life of a home you are a visitor in – is lived in silence. So silence is an integral part of the fabric of a story like The Killing.

Every season, I wanted to have one moment in time, one episode, where we could pull back from the investigative pace and have a quieter moment with Linden and Holder. Whether it was that episode in season one where Jack, Sarah’s son, goes missing for the day and she and Holder are forced to spend the day in a car together getting to know one another oddly, in a way they hadn’t before. Or whether it was in season three where Linden spent a day with Peter Sarsgaard – who played death row inmate Ray Seward – on his execution day, trying to save his life because she thought he might be innocent of the murder that he’s convicted of, that she herself and her ex-partner Skinner (Elias Koteas) put him away for.

If anything, there was almost a two-man play aspect to those episodes, which was a challenge for me, but also was very exciting. I’m a very visual writer, and I love to write spare dialogue, so being put in a situation where the characters had to talk to each other over an extended amount of time and usually in one location, whether it was the visiting room of a prison or inside a car, was a challenge and really a joy.

What do you mean when you say you’re a “visual writer”?

I’ve always constructed stories based on images, thus I’m a screenwriter versus a novelist or a playwright, even though I deeply admire both fields and one day would love to try my hand at both. I write “cinematically” in the sense that I try to convey the image I am seeing on the page, sometimes even the types of shots that construct the actual scene.

Joel Kinnaman talks on set with The Killing creator and executive producer Veena Sud. Carole Segal for Netflix.

Joel Kinnaman talks on set with The Killing creator and executive producer Veena Sud. Carole Segal for Netflix.

 In The Killing’s final season, we see Linden and Holder start to fray, morally and emotionally. How do you pace such disintegration?

When you know you’re having your characters go through an arc, what we do is, before we plot anything out, episode by episode, or scene by scene, we think, “How far does this character need to go?” It’s more of a boundary-less conversation about, you know, “She [Linden] started here, and we left her in the woods [at the end of season three], having done that horrible thing. How far should the story take her?”

That opens another conversation about, “When you are falling apart, and you have this horrible secret, what are the moments?” We’ll try to have that conversation about the moments and how far we need to go, and then the arc will start becoming more concrete based on that conversation. We’ll have multiple scenes; we’ll have the relationship with Holder going through its own mini-arc.

And then at the beginning of every season, we have all the episodes up on the white board and all the character names and we’ll start filling in, next to “Sarah Linden, episode one,” you know, “She keeps putting off getting rid of the gun.” Episode two: “She starts to panic because the shell casing has gone missing, she doesn’t know where it is.” It’s that kind of filling in. That’ll be the container that’ll take in all those moments.

The Killing is notable for its intense but rather slow and lyrical pace, which goes against the grain of most high-stakes cops ’n’ crime series. How did this rhythm evolve?

With the first episode, there was a very definite pace I had in mind, and then when we were shooting it: slow burn, taking its time, telling an emotional story in all its intricate nuance. A Death in the Family by James Agee was a novelistic influence, so that type of pacing is what we tried to recreate on The Killing.

[Director] Patty Jenkins had her own pace, and we’d talk about what was going on in the scene [in the first episode] and how much silence, how many looks. There was a thing we did on The Killing where we encouraged directors not to call “cut” quite as soon as they would in a regular show. So after the last line of dialogue or the last bit of action, wait five seconds because the actor will always do something interesting or throw a look or have a moment that we didn’t expect. That’s something that you want to discover during production. And then in editing, it’s a whole new thing that you’re looking at. And the editor will take a pass, and the director will take a pass, and it’s like music. It’s the rhythm of the song. Over time, a lot of people start playing the same piece together.

The Killing is full of red herrings, misleading clues to murders. For example, when Linden and Holder grow suspicious of Detective Reddick (Gregg Henry) after they see a photograph of him with a victim in the victim’s home. How do you manipulate all the false leads?

All the twists and turns – as you say, red herrings – are figured out at the beginning of the season, and then we drop them into every episode. So for the most part, we’ll know who or what are the red herrings in an episode. And then on occasion as the writers are breaking [describing the detailed action of] his or her episode, they’ll come up with something really exciting, and then we’ll go with that.

How many writers did you have on staff on the final season of The Killing?

We had myself, Dawn Prestwich, Nicole Yorkin, Dan Nowak and Sean Whitesell. We had five writers.

So how did you choose which episodes you yourself would write or which to assign to someone else? Did you choose what was close to your heart?

It was the practicality of just playing hopscotch during a TV show that was in production. It was determined by how many writers I had on my staff – on how we could distribute the scripts so that all of us were writing and producing and being in post-production. For example, I did the pilot and then I did the first episode of season one, and then I needed enough time – because I was on set producing that second episode of season one – to finish that and then jump onto the next script.

Aside from allowing for more explicit language, how is writing an online series different from writing for broadcast or cable?

Not having the need to cut away or go to black at any point really enriches this season of The Killing and is a perfect pace for this last season. I’ve always written for broadcast venues that have commercial breaks. Especially this season where the stakes are so high for our lead characters, and heightening by the second around Linden’s and Holder’s necks, it’s very good that we’re not able to go to commercial breaks. You know, that we’re in this story at an unrelenting pace and you know it’s a bullet train from start to finish. Aside from other freedoms, the freedom around language and the ability to tell longer stories, the commercial-free storytelling, brings up a story in a way that is so liberating.

Is the structure of the acts within an episode actually different when you write that episode without commercial breaks?

Every story has natural ebbs and flows, every story has natural sequences that begin and end, mini-arcs throughout a story. So if you want to call those act breaks, that’s probably the most useful thing. We’re used to writing four act breaks [for cable network AMC] and this season [for Netflix] we said – simply so it won’t be a run-on sentence on the white board – as each writer broke their story, go ahead and put in the act break, just put it in. Know that we don’t really need to break to that act break. And in the past, we never really did anyway. We just said, this is where this arc ends and isn’t it wonderful that we can cut now because it’s seven minutes or 15 minutes or whatever amount of time it was. For the most part, there was a consistency in timing when those mini-arcs end in an episode. So there was nothing superficial or artificial about saying OK, we’re going to end the act here.

The artificiality comes in when you’re trying to create stakes at the end of an act, so an audience will come back at the end of a commercial and not forget about you. That’s where the artificial type of storytelling is, and the frustration, I think, for a lot of writers – and probably for a lot of audience members, too.

What are the pros and cons of adapting a series from an existing series such as Forbrydelsen, versus creating a project from scratch?

Certainly the pros are having your own take on a beautiful piece of work that has been realized already. Also because formats that are already realized are really great selling tools to networks because they allow them to see, potentially, what a series could look like or at least what it’s based off of. Søren [Sveistrup] had created such beautiful and nuanced characters in Forbrydelsen, so being able to riff off that writer’s music was really a treat and a joy. I don’t know that there are cons to it.

I was very lucky. Søren was very generous. We emailed each other at the very beginning, and he recognized that the American version of The Killing was going to be my own creation, and he was fine with that. There was no territorial thing at all.

When you sit down to face the blank screen, to start an episode, do you have any rituals or personal writing habits?

I try to write as early in the morning as I can, or as late at night as I possibly can. The reason I do this is either I just woke up and I have no defenses, or I’m so tired and all my defenses have gone to bed. So it’s a way of tapping the unconscious, I think, before I judge, before I cringe. Those are always the best times for me.

If you ever have writer’s block, what do you do?

One thing I do that really helps me a lot is: I try to write in longhand. If I’m ever hitting a block and resistance to writing, I’ll try to trick myself into thinking, “You know, you’re just sitting here kind of trying things out. You know none of this matters, it’s not on a screen, it’s just on a legal pad with a pen, no one cares.” Or with a pencil, which is even better. It’s amazing how that helps my flow. Again, I just need to take away as much defensiveness as possible, or judgment, when I’m writing.

What qualities did you look for when you were hiring writers for The Killing?

I looked for quiet storytelling and then specific experiences that writers might have, writing for specific worlds. Specifically for The Killing, because the show traffics so much in emotional nuance and the ability to go very deep into character and emotional fallout – grief, sorrow, loss, anger – I look for writers who are capable of standing still in moments and really going deep in them. Clearly we’re not an action-adventure show. We don’t need adrenalized writing. We need that quieter, slower-paced, emotional truth in writing. I look for that. And because we go into specialized worlds, I’m really looking for writers – for example, during season three –who were really familiar with the world of runaway kids or were very good at writing teenage voices.

Any advice for new or aspiring TV writers?

For me, it’s always been and it’s what helped me in my career: tenacity. This is an industry that is one of the toughest in the world to break into. Be ready for the long game, be ready to run a marathon, train every day, write every day and be ready at a moment’s notice to do your best work. Be ready. Be ready for the long haul.

And women writers need to be especially tenacious?

Yes, I would say so. You know, we’re in an industry that’s so male-dominated. We have not a lot of characters like Sarah Linden on screen. I’ve been incredibly lucky in my career to have had amazingly generous showrunners and a female showrunner who gave me my first showrunning job. I was promoted by Meredith Stiehm who created Cold Case. I was given the incredible opportunity to run a show for the first time as a very junior writer, which I don’t think is an opportunity that comes to many writers, certainly not women writers, that quickly. So absolutely, hang in there. Hang in there even harder if you’re a woman, because it’s certainly not easier.

Kinney Littlefield is a New York-based entertainment journalist who has covered TV for The Associated Press. She is a former staff TV critic for The Orange County Register in Southern California.

VEENA SUD FILE

Born: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Lives: Los Angeles, California
Education: B.A. in political science and B.A. in women’s studies, Barnard College, New York; M.F.A. from New York University Graduate Film Program

Selected TV Credits:

Creator/writer/executive producer, The Killing (Netflix and AMC) 2011-2014

Writer/producer/executive producer, Cold Case (CBS), 2004-2007

Writer, Push, Nevada (ABC), 2002

Director, The Real World (MTV), 2001

Award Nominations:

2012, Nomination, Writers Guild of America Award, New Series, for The Killing

2011, Nomination, Primetime Emmy, Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, for The Killing (pilot episode)