“Have you reached a verdict?”
“We have, Your Honor.”
The camera stops shooting at the director’s command, the jurors stretch and study the next scene, and the judge jumps up and heads for the craft service table for some candy.
I was observing all of this from behind the camera and the sound equipment on the courtroom set of Rampage, the movie version of my first novel. It was being directed by the superb, Academy Award-winning William Friedkin, and I could see the cables, huge lights, the unfamiliar crew members purposefully swarming everywhere setting up shots.
It was very strange because it was as if I had wandered into my own imagination.
The whole thing was a dramatization of reel crime, and it all came from real courtrooms and real crimes I either saw or prosecuted during the five years I was a deputy district attorney in Sacramento County, California.
There were other movie or TV courtrooms I had stood in, but the feeling of disorientation never quite goes away. What is it about crime—real and reel—that so fascinates us in every medium and in every variation?
One of the first things that struck me as a prosecutor was that every case I saw—and there were literally thousands I read or took to court—was a full-blown story. Most were morality tales, too, if you will. But every one had a beginning, middle, and end. Each featured characters who said and did things that were very hard to create out of whole cloth, if you just sat down to concoct a story.
Some were heartbreaking, particularly the ones involving children. Some were hilarious, like the defendant who, when confronted on my brilliant cross-examination with his incredibly stupid auto theft, just turned sheepishly to the jury and shrugged. Of course, I had played my own preposterous role on occasion. One of the best was the time I picked up a sawed-off shotgun in evidence from the court clerk’s desk so I could make a dramatic point during closing argument and swung it barrel first to the jury box. Twelve men and women ducked down instinctively.
Rampage is about a horrific serial killer who tries to invoke the insanity defense. Reading about his crimes is awful, but necessary, I believe, to understand what happens to the various people affected by them—the victims’ families, the DA, and his wife. But when director William Friedkin filmed my novel, the intensity of the horror of crimes was magnified.
Another novel I wrote, Broken Trust, was adapted into film by two of America’s best writers, Joan Didion and her late husband, John Gregory Dunne. Tom Selleck played a privileged but decent judge who finds that agreeing to help expose corrupt fellow judges carries a cost he is not prepared to bear. He makes a choice from the best motives, and it traps him.
In fiction, whether presented on film or in the pages of a book, we can always walk out of the theater or turn off the TV or put down the book. Real crimes are not so forgiving.
In my latest novel, Sudden Impact, a respected and wholly admirable judge makes one terrible mistake in a split second when he hits an off-duty cop late one rainy night. The judge keeps on driving. He never imagined he would do something like that. If faced with similar circumstances, none of us knows how we’ll act until that moment of choice is jammed in our faces: sudden, irrevocable, momentous.
I hope Sudden Impact is filmed. I would like to see how the judge’s choice and its consequences, for him, his wife, and daughter and the two intrepid detectives who pursue him, are dramatized.
The enduring appeal of reel crime is that it allows us to experience the absurd, the terrible, or the imponderable and then walk away. Not entirely, of course: the best drama or humor gives us perspective and illuminations. We take in imaginatively what we need or want. People caught up in real crimes don’t have those luxuries.
Like the high point of so many movies and TV shows, when the stern and dignified judge asks if the jury has reached a verdict, we can watch, imagine, and, with luck, be moved.
But the certainty is that no one will give us an escape route from a real crime by saying, “Cut.”
William P. Wood is a former deputy district attorney and the bestselling author of numerous legal thrillers and an acclaimed nonfiction book, The Bone Garden, about serial killer Dorothea Puente. His latest book, Sudden Impact, was released in February. Wood lives in Sacramento, California, and is currently at work on his next novel.
Reel Crimes, Real Crimes