Confessions of a 24 writer.

Interviews with a point.
Jan. 17 2006 8:44 PM

The Worst Day Ever

A 24 writer talks about torture, terrorism, and fudging "real time."

(Continued from Page 1)

Loceff: We do have an investment in plausibility. We've hired writers who have done heavy research in espionage and anti-terrorism and worked with the government. And we've met with consultants from the intelligence community and other parts of the government, just to help stir up ideas and help us come up with something that seems compelling. But I think ultimately what makes the show is not the reality but the drama. Joel and Bob approach 24 the way they have always approached dramatic television: They've approached it with the idea that the drama is, in the end, more important than the factual aspect of the story. Joel in particular is really good at ignoring reality when it's convenient.

I actually started in the opposite place. I come from a technical background—I'm a mathematician and a programmer by trade—and I was one of those people who would watch a show and say, "Oh, that could never happen." And I know that those people sometimes watch 24 and get frustrated. But ultimately people don't watch shows because of how realistic they are. They watch them because of the same dramatic elements that have always made stories interesting. And fundamentally if those elements don't work, no amount of reality is going to be enough to keep people watching a show. The rule, I think, is: Do your homework, learn what there is to learn about the real world, and then when you get in the room, forget it all.

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Slate: One of the places where 24 and the real world have intersected most powerfully is on the question of torture. On 24, torture is regularly used in interrogation. Some critics believe that 24 actually plays to our desire to witness torture, that it is, in some sense, "torture porn." How do you make sense of and justify the role of torture in the show?

Loceff: I absolutely do not believe that the show is, in any sense, torture porn. This is something we talk about a lot. Torture is of no interest to us as torture, and we're not anxious to show it, nor do we want to watch it. We don't want to go to any level of great detail in depicting it, and there are many times when we will pull back from the original idea because it seems too much. I think its real use in the show, aside from its narrative function, is to create dramatic conflict, conflict not just between two people but within characters as well. If you look at any given torture scene in the show, you'll find that there's something in it that shows someone's distaste or disgust. And Jack Bauer's decision to torture people for information in the past has cost him, because it's shown other people just exactly what he's capable of. Jack himself is appalled by what he feels he has to do, but he's also convinced he has to do it. That is a real dramatic conflict.

Slate: One of the familiar critiques of using torture as an interrogation technique is that it doesn't work. On 24 it tends to be veryeffective.

Loceff: I don't know that torture works, and we don't write it because we think it works. So, I don't think any of us are trying to make a statement about the efficacy of it one way or the other.

Slate: Back to the realism question: 24 is shot in real time, which creates a very powerful illusion of reality. In that context, things that seem especially unrealistic run the risk of snapping us out of that.

Loceff: It is a challenge. I'd say that for every idea you see on the screen, there were five ideas we threw away that were more interesting and less real, and there were five ideas that we threw away that were more real and less interesting. What you have to get used to as a writer is realizing that most of what you come up with is wrong for the show.

Slate: It seems as if that weeding-out process goes on not just in the writing room but even after the shows have been shot. On the DVD for Season 4, for instance, there are 39 deleted scenes, some minor, others involving entire subplots.

Loceff: That's right. We go into every episode knowing that we will lose at least one scene and probably more. This is one difference between the way things are done on 24 and the way they're done in most episodic television: Joel and Bob are the kind of writers who are willing to throw out a lot of what's already in the can, which means doing reshoots. To me, this is the single biggest characteristic that allows the show to be somewhat more engaging than average. When Joel and Bob are in the editing room, they look at the show as if they've never seen or heard any of it. They're not invested in any scene, and that makes you free to throw everything out. We sometimes say that you're not done unless you've cut your favorite scene.

Slate: Is it better or worse writing for a real-time show?

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