‘Everything starts with a good script’
Interview with screenwriter Matt Witten about the series “MPU – Missing Persons Unit” (original title: “Vermist”)
MATT WITTEN was, until last year, the screenwriter and producer of ‘House’. Besides, he has written screenplays for the series ‘Law and Order’, ‘CSI: Miami’ and ‘Supernatural’. He is thus a man of experience, and this is the reason why private Flemish network VT4 has hired him in order for him to offer his precious advice for the writing of ‘MPU – Missing Persons Unit’, the fiction series about the department for missing people.
The film and the 9 episodes of the TV series were written by Bas Adriaensen and Philippe De Schepper. Matt Witten got involved particularly a few months ago for the script of the film, which serves as a pilot to the series.
“A pilot is difficult to write”, says Witten, “One does not content themselves with writing crime stories, since one must introduce characters and want to tell a story concerning these. Since one must give answers to a wide variety of questions, this episode is the most difficult to write. Does the character, for instance, have children? If he does, it changes a lot of things in the further development of the series.”
NEWSPAPER ”DE STANDAARD”: What is your role ?
MATT WITTEN: I help give structure to the narrative. Bas and Philippe have written an excellent first draft with good murders and good suspects. I make no changes to their stories, but I help them keep a tempo and structure as well as make them tell the story they wished to tell. Their plot is good, and my job consisted mostly of adapting certain elements so that all would be told in the strongest possible way.
“DE STANDAARD”: How do you work?
MW: Let’s say there is a murder and the murderer sat at this table. After 5 minutes into the episode, his fingerprints on the table are being controlled and after 15 minutes we discover that these fingerprints belong to the suspect. That’s bad writing. The police must find out after 10 minutes. In certain scripts, we also see that the murderer appears for the first time after only 40 minutes. This is not a good idea. We often want to see the murderer in the first half of the episode. Thus, one must find ways of showing him earlier.
For MPU, we first write the scenes on a board and look at what is working and what is not. The elements that do not help the development of the action are being deleted at that stage. And you can see much more easily where the pace of the narrative slows down, this way.
“DE STANDAARD”: : Writing a script is a team work in the US. In Europe, it’s more of a solitary job. Which formula do you think works best?
MATT WITTEN : Most American series have a team consisting of six to twelve people. The way we work, however, is not necessarily the same everywhere: sometimes a screenwriter writes an episode on his/her own and presents it later to the head of the screenwriting team, sometimes we deal with real groups, where all screenwriters work together for hours on each part of the episode.
I think that teamwork gives better results. But in the US, there’s hardly a way of doing otherwise, because a TV season features 22 to 24 episodes. It must therefore be organized like a machine, which isn’t the case in Europe, where you only have 10 to 12 episodes per season. But it is a more comfortable way of working. I couldn’t write 22 scripts per year. In order to do this, I need other people’s help.
“DE STANDAARD” : Are screenwriters the people with most power on America’s TV sets?
MATT WITTEN : Yes, and it’s a very good thing, by the way. In television, a director takes care of one or two episodes, and then off he goes (note of the editor: MPU also works with four different directors). It is pointless, therefore, to give them the biggest responsibility on the project. Screenwriters have an edge, because they know what is going to happen and how the characters are going to evolve. And everything starts with a good script, anyway.
“DE STANDAARD” : Have you noticed other differences between the US and Belgium?
MATT WITTEN : For certain aspects, I am jealous. For instance, the actors have more time to rehearse their parts here. In the US, they rehearse for 10 to 15 minutes before a scene: they look at their marks where they will have to move and how they are going to act. One rereads the script once more before shooting, but it lasts for no longer than an hour.
Another nice aspect is that the channel has directly ordered 10 episodes (the 90 minutes pilot and 9 episodes of 50 minutes) of MPU. In the US, one makes a pilot, and then hopes for potential orders of the reminder of the episodes. We do have much more money in the US, which facilitates matters significantly.
“DE STANDAARD” : American series have been very successful in Belgium, of late. Are we witnessing a golden age of TV series?
MATT WITTEN : “The Sopranos”, “The wire”, “The shield”,… are indeed of great quality, but can one talk of a golden age ? Perhaps. I do not see this as such. We are indeed very strong in TV and we work seriously. We invest a lot of money and work hard toward good results. Your comment stems also from the fact that you do not get to see our bad TV series.
Copyright “De Standaard” -Jan Debackere /With special thanks to Jérémi Szaniawski