Interview with Richard Stratton Wed, Apr 9, 2003
METTA: I would like to start out by finding out how you became you. My initial idea, which has changed a little bit, was to take your experiences - the crucial ones that show up in the story - and trace them through the process of moving from your head and your experience into the show.
RICHARD STRATTON: Well, having always been fascinated by the outlaw in America, Wyatt Earp and the people we used to watch on TV, the Untouchables, I related more to the Al Capone character, the Elliot Ness character. I have always been fascinated by the American outlaw, the gangster, the man of action who took it into his own hands to go out and do things. The whole idea was that behind every great fortune there is a crime, so that when you learn more about our greatest heroes, many of them have the same characteristics that criminals have. Often they just take things into their own hands. So I have always have been fascinated by the outlaw, the criminal, and I was drawn to that. I remember watching Dragnet when I was a kid.
There was one show about a gang of teenage kids running around in motorcycle jackets. They called themselves "The Pink Rats, " so I started a gang in Wellesley, Massachusetts called the Pink Rats, which was my first criminal association. I was like the president of the Pink Rats. I have always been fascinated by crime and criminals. You know, not wanting to be necessarily a bank robber or anything like that, we used prohibition. Bootlegging and the smuggling thing had fascinated me as a kid. Then, when I grew up in this subculture, I started smuggling pot out of Mexico into the United States. When I was in College, I went further and further in that direction. I always thought of it, though, even while I was doing it, as material for a story. I always thought the story was a uniquely American entrepreneurial story that I liked.
Finally, when I got arrested, which was in 1982, and went to prison, I really started getting very serious about writing. Before that, I was writing short stories and publishing magazines and stuff, but in prison I wrote plays, screen plays, and short stories, essays, and poetry - everything you could think of.
Then when I got out, I started making documentary films, started printing Prison Life Magazine, got into business with Marc Levin making documentaries. My first real exposure to episodic TV was when I was hired by HBO as a technical consultant on the series OZ, which frustrated me, because I felt there was a lot of great material in prison, stories about people in prison, on how they got there and how they existed. I never really liked what Fontana was doing with it. I thought it was too sensational, and the characters weren't well developed. It could have gone much further. So, I quit after one year and I pitched Gemini and HBO about another series about the war on drugs and the DEA agents and wrote a pilot for that. They were very happy with it and wanted to do it, but the success of The Sopranos got in the way, so they didn't do any new series that year.
So I took the idea to Showtime. They said it was too expensive. They said, "Don't you
have anything cheaper we could do?" and I pitched them this idea for a series about parole, which always fascinated me, as I was on parole myself. I think I told you this about when I was sitting in the waiting room, waiting to see my parole officer, I would look around and you could see these characters in there, watch them greeting each other, hugging each other, saying "good to see you again," "glad you're out," and then the parole officer comes in and they would look straight ahead, because they are not allowed to associate with each other. [The parole officers] can violate their parole [for talking to each other], yet they can bring them and put them in a room together and leave them there.
So, that's really how I got involved. Like I said, it is the fascination with the outlaw culture, seeing in it great material, starting from my growing up watching the Lone Ranger.
METTA: As you grew up watching these things, to what extent did you identify with the outlaws? You clearly weren't looking from the law enforcement perspective. You were more identified with the guys who were having the adventure. Is that it?
STRATTON: Yes - not that I don't think that cops have adventures too. I just follow the outlaw as one of the parts of American culture. The outlaw has always been portrayed as being a charismatic, interesting, adventurous person. There's that whole great line that, "to live outside the law you must be honest," and the idea that there is honor among thieves. It's just Robin Hood that is the lure of the outlaw in our culture.
METTA: Let me try this on you. Actually, before I even met you, I looked at all the tapes that I could get that Marc produced, the documentaries, and I felt that the interesting thing about them was that they showed the sympathetic side of supposedly bad guys. Every one of those tapes revealed to me that it is not a simple matter of right or wrong. My interest in the thing comes from the fact that I am interested in undermining what I see as a "culture of blame." You see the outlaw as an important part of American culture. I see American culture as one in which the idea is to find out who is responsible for the bad things that happen and then punish him. What interested me about those documentaries was that they undermine this simplistic notion, this attribution of blame. So I got interested in Marc, even before I met you. I think of him as a "red diaper baby." The best thing about the Left is their notion that when people turn bad it is because circumstances have conspired against them, and not because they are really bad.
METTA: And that seems to be the subtext of everything he wrote.. And then I find you, it seems to me, identifying with the outlaw. I see as a matter of fun, you know.
STRATTON: Of fun?
METTA: Yeah, of enjoying identifying with somebody who thumbs his nose at society.
STRATTON: Yeah, it's as much fun as the danger of matching up wits with the authorities, being defiant, always not wanting to knuckle under.
METTA: Was that part of your life in other ways too before you became a smuggler?
METTA: You were always challenging the schools.
STRATTON: Yes, I was a juvenile delinquent. They sent me to a reform school when I was in the seventh grade. I came from an upper middle class background, so it was kind of scandalous that I ended up in one of those types of institutions. And the fact that I went to prison, I think came as no surprise to anyone in my town. They are probably more surprised now, to find that I actually turned it around into a successful franchise in the entertainment business.
METTA: Yes, but you are not only a successful person, but you obviously are an extremely civilized person, and that is what interests me too: the transformation of whatever was going on with you when you were thumbing your nose at society, into somebody who has no ego and a whole lot of humanity .
STRATTON: Thank you, that's very kind.
METTA: Well that's true. I don't want to tie you up all evening. I will get you some other time some way.
METTA: Now, tell me about your journey.
STRATTON: Well at the risk of sounding simplistic, I think it was that I had a great mother who taught me kindness and love and respect, compassion and stuff like that. She just was a great role model and I think that because of that, I have a desire to try to do the right thing and be a good person, basically, though I didn't for many years. When I did something illegal, I prided myself on having certain ethics and wouldn't deal in hard drugs like heroin or cocaine. Ninety per cent, I am averse to any type of violence. The only times there was violence, it was not my doing, but I was associated with it from time to time when people were threatening to undermine the entire activity by ratting people out or something like that. I never did anything to them. I didn't strike them, but that is the one time I would see it as justified.
METTA: But you wrote about a time when you were on your way to kill your brother-in-law.
STRATTON: Right. One of the themes we're dealing with in the story is that by virtue of the fact that you are involved in criminal activity, even if it is supposedly not as bad as other crimes (which I don't believe that marijuana is) you're brushing shoulders with, you know, bad people. A lot of cops are involved, you can't blame. People who are marching to a different drum, shall we say. If you are involved with those people, then it is going to rub off on you. That's something I recognized was a negative aspect for me - the years that I was doing that, I spent a lot of time with people that I would rather not have. I'd rather have been doing something much more creative, like what I'm doing now. But I always did see it as some kind of material.
METTA: You were gathering material for a later career?
METTA: In writing, really?
STRATTON: Yeah, As a novelist, filmmaker or storyteller.
METTA: Well, you certainly got it
STRATTON: You know I meant to tell you something. I got a letter from David Geffen. You know who David Geffen is - the head of Dreamworks, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.
METTA: Well, actually I don't know him. You see, my knowledge of the industry is totally patchy.
STRATTON: Well, really, he had a company that he sold for a lot of money and he is a very wealthy guy. Well, anyway, he wrote me a letter telling me how much he loved the show, the storytelling, so there's been a lot of really good attention. People have been enthusiastic about the storytelling. That gives me pleasure and satisfaction.
METTA: Absolutely. Now what was it that Rob said - in fact he said it on TV a couple of times on talk shows - that he was confident that you had room for these guys to change, that he was looking forward to seeing change in the characters.
STRATTON: Yes. That's the beauty of this series.
METTA: Yes. Josh Brand didn't believe in character change. This was a big struggle between the two of them because Rob wanted his character to change. What worries me a little is that I assume you will have the change if you can project the amount of time that it takes. But when you're on a season by season renewal situation, how can you know when you have to start proceeding toward your dénouement?
STRATTON: That's a good question. It's tough, very tough. In this case, who knows what stars are going to be around, and for how long, even if the show goes on? How much time do you have to finish their arcs? It is a big issue, something we struggle with all the time. Metta, can we continue with this conversation another day?
METTA: Absolutely, almost any time.
STRATTON: I'll call you tomorrow, and we'll figure out another time.
METTA: Terrific. Thank you. Bye.
METTA: Anything that would bother people, I would take out. Anything that was sensitive or might cause trouble for you, or whatever, I would leave out.
STRATTON: There is nothing in there that hasn't been said in the news and media already.
METTA: I know. I already read one on the Internet.
STRATTON: Did you read Scott's interview? I think it was with the Daily News or something like that, where he ripped into Showtime and Sony and all the executives. They were quite upset about that.
METTA: I read something on the Internet and I assumed it came from you, but I don't know. It was very critical. It said that you had blasted them and that there was a lot of tension. You know, I wouldn't have said any of that on my own.
STRATTON: Well, one of the good things for us is that there is a new head of programming at Showtime now, Robert Green. All of my criticisms have been directed toward the old regime, with the caveat that I believe this new regime will address the problems that we have had in the past with the network. So, you know, it's ok in a sense to be criticizing them, because indeed they deserve it and they have also admitted how badly they handled the show. I don't think there is anything you could say that would be worse than the things that have already been said....There was an article in New York Magazine, a long article about me, wherein I talked about some of the conflict I had with the original show and Steven Kronish.
METTA: When Rob first knew I was doing this magazine article, he asked me: "Why don't you write something about our improvisation?" I said "Okay, when anyone who gives me a message has got wings on his ankles, I will definitely obey him." [Rob Morrow has a tattoo of wings on his right ankle, presumably in honor of Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods.] But the piece I wrote about improvisation was weak. It wouldn't work as a magazine article because the best examples of improvisation that I observed have been edited out.
STRATTON: You know, whatever you write is fine with me. There's been a great deal of discussion about improvisation, particularly this year. I've made it clear that I like it only when it doesn't change what I believe is the fundamental intent of the scene. Sometimes it does. When that happens, I can't have it. I can't allow those changes and I have had big heated discussions with Rob and with Erika this season about changes they wanted to make that I thought were wrong. It's just that they don't have the big picture in their minds.
METTA: They don't know where it's going?
STRATTON: They don't know where it's going and they only see it from the standpoint of their characters. They don;t see it from the standpoint of all of the different characters. One thing about allowing the actors to be as involved as we do is that they sometimes begin to think they are actually creating those characters, and that's not true. It's somewhat true, but there is a guiding intelligence, so to speak. You know, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the arcs of these characters, where they're going, who they are and I can't have that changed because it upsets everything.
METTA: I can understand that.
STRATTON: So we're aware that where improv works is where it takes the material that's there on the page and enhances it and makes it seem more realistic - less like actors reading lines, more like people talking conversationally, the way they do. That's when it really works. And these actors are very, very good at doing that. But when they move the scene in a different direction and start to make it about something that it is not about, that's when we run into problems.
METTA: That's when I should have been there, watching that happen.
STRATTON: Yes, it was pretty explosive.
METTA: Is there anything you can tell me about it, or would you rather not?
STRATTON: No, what is really gratifying to me in a lot of ways is that the actors have become so invested in the characters. This happens toward the end of the season. They are having a lot of the emotional responses that the characters are having. They are talking as if they were really those people. Rob was very upset. He felt that I wasn't giving him anything to play in the scenes. He said, "You're cutting off my balls!" I said: That's exactly the way I want you to feel. Because he had started to say things in a scene with Rachel that I didn't want him to talk about at all. Because he can't. In the position he's in, it would be compromising the situation he's in. So, I had to tell him, no, you can't talk about that. He got upset, "What do you mean I can't talk about that? You're not giving me anything to say." I said, play the frustration, play the fact that you can't talk about this stuff, that you're stuck in this position where you can't. So then he got it. Since then it's been working out a lot better.
And then with Erika, it was such a funny thing because there was a long scene where she takes an offender person who is a drug addict, who is not a criminal. He is actually a rock star who gets into trouble on an airplane because of his drug use. She doesn't want to send him back to prison. She ends up actually taking him and forcing him to go cold turkey over the course of three or four days in his apartment. And at one point she put on some clothes that belong to the ex-wife or the former wife of the rock star. I didn't have any problem with that. But then she wanted to leave with the clothes on and I said, "No, you would never do that."
She said, "Why not? No one would ever know." I said "I'd know, the audience would know. You don't do those kinds of things. That's the last thing your character would do." She got all upset, "Well, Liberti's doing this and he's doing that."
I said, "That's Liberti. He's bent. You're not. And as a black woman you would be very conscious that they'd say you stole a three thousand dollar suit from this person. They would be all over you." So we had a big argument. She thought I wasn't giving her anywhere to go. And finally, when I explained it, this is a woman who won't sleep with somebody who is married. You have morals. Maybe you are promiscuous with unmarried men or whoever, but you don't do certain things. One thing you don't do is you don't take gifts. You don't steal, you're not corrupt in any way." So finally she understood it.
METTA: Hmm. Well, there was one thing I remember when I interviewed Rob. I think this was a year ago. That day he was playing the scene where he gets called to look in the trunk at the body of Goldie. According to the script, he just gets in the car and says, "I'll drive." Then he told me he was going to play it like, "this is not good!" He was going to carry on about that murder. But when I saw the tape, there wasn't any of that. He didn't say, "I'll drive" but he also didn't look very shocked. Was that another case in which you had a reason for not wanting him to be too agitated?
STRATTON: Yes, well I wanted him to be agitated, but I wanted him to play it without articulating it. I felt that he would be so shocked and in such a state of kind of denial about what was going on that he couldn't even discuss it at that point. That's when you just shut the trunk and say, "I'll drive." And I wanted him to say. "Ill drive," because that was my way of saying "I'm taking control. You obviously, Peter, are out of your mind, I'll drive, I'll take control." He couldn't really even talk about it, what had happened.
We had another scene where this came up again. I had to leave. I was in New York. George was the director at the time. The scene was the first time that Rachel and Kevin see each other after he gets out of prison and she has learned that he is a suspect in the killing of her brother. Liberti actually picks him up at the halfway house and drops him off so he has this meeting with his wife. Liberti goes into this cafeteria and is watching them from inside. I wanted the whole thing shot from the point of view looking past Liberti out the window, out there on the street, and I didn't want to hear any of the dialogue. I never wanted to hear a word of what they were saying.
Now, I'm in New York and I get a call from George and George is saying "Rob is demanding that we cover this." I don't want to hear it, I don't want to hear anything, I don't want the audience to hear anything that they are discussing. Big discussion and fight about it. Finally, I said, "Go ahead, shoot it, cover it, but we're never going to see it. It will always be on the inside." I didn't get what I wanted but I got close to what I wanted. But what I wanted - and this is again when I say they didn't have the big picture in their minds - was that at that moment, it wasn't so much anger as it was anguish. She was so distraught [interruption here caused by people stopping by].
METTA: Where were we?
STRATTON: The script is very specific. I just wanted her to be on that shot. I didn't want to hear any of what was discussed, and Rob would have it no other way.
One of the problems I think I've had with that is that he feels a necessity to fill the silences with dialogue. And a lot of times, that scene doesn't call for it. It calls for silence and a look on someone's face. You know what we do. You don't always have to explain it; it can be visual. So, in fact, I told them: Don't say anything, if you're going to say any words, show in your face what you feel inside. So that could be the problem, I think, because once the actors believe that the gate has been opened and they're allowed to do this, they think they have to do it all the time. They don't. They don't. Sometimes the scripts really work. Sometimes what is on the page is exactly what you need, nothing more, nothing less. So it's a challenge.
Then there are other times. For example, there was a scene between Kevin and Peter, where Rob's character says to Peter, "Do you think you can do that?" And then Rob added, "Without killing anybody"? Which was great. And it really worked. Peter kind of smiled and gave us like a Jack Nicholson. "Yeah, sure." But that added to the scene. It kind of gave it more depth and took him a lot further, but it didn't change anything that was there. That's the real trip, ad libbing.
METTA: Ok. Well all right. I'm not sure whether I want to do something more with the improvisation thing, but I guess the question is, if I'm going to do something for a magazine, they,re going to want something for season two. And the question, especially about Season Two, is whether or not it would be valuable to me. I don't feel I need it, but what bothers me is that I am looking for character development, moral values. And these guys could develop. I mean, Liberti developed a little in the sense that he didn't lie and that was a breakthrough. During season one, though, I didn't see many people really make very much progress.
STRATTON: If they made any progress, I would say it was negative progress. Regression. They definitely did regress. I mean that was kind of the intent of that season, to show how difficult it is for people to change, to grow. That's really what we were doing.
METTA: Is there any growth so far in this season, or will there be?
STRATTON: Well, I believe so. Whatever we said so far about this season, it is focused a lot more on James. He's going from Roman Catholic to Zen Catholic. That's a journey.
METTA: My Goodness! Really!
STRATTON: Which is kind of an odd way to put it. But if you think of a Roman Catholic as someone who, having been indoctrinated, tries to adhere to the tenets of his or her religion because that was how they were brought up. They go to church and go to confession and do all the stuff. They chose it because it validates their own lives. It is still very much a part of who they are.
In James's case, what he is doing is, he is relating a lot more to his becoming increasingly identifying with a lot of his parolees in ways that he didn't before. And that is changing him. It is making him more experiential. He is having more sense of who these people are that he is dealing with and, as a result of that, he is seeing more into the darker recesses of his own character.
And his personal life is in somewhat of a shambles. He is screwed up with his wife, and there are other things that I hesitate to even tell you about. I would really like to have you see them, ha, ha, they are going to shoot them this afternoon. He's gone on a really interesting journey and I think toward the end of the season, he'll have grown remarkably, but in a very kind of existential way. It is through experiencing, this is what I mean by the "Zen" idea. You have to live it in order to practice it. You can't just practice it and say I believe it. You have to actually live it.
So that's the journey that he is on. I think there is some spiritual and moral growth and I think that also, Kevin too, as a result of Liberti's interference and involvement in his life, will finally give up crime at the end of the season. He will be "reformed."
METTA: Really! All right. You've got three episodes to work with?
STRATTON: Yes, Yes.
METTA; And yes, Ok. I definitely want to see it.
STRATTON: James is turning. He has done things that I was most interested in - basically your conclusion that he was irredeemable, which is interesting, because I just don't believe that. I don't believe anybody is irredeemable.
METTA: You'd be in a hell of a fix if he were irredeemable.
STRATTON: Yes, exactly. But the way that he is redeemed in this show, this series, this season is likely to be pretty wild.
METTA: Yeah? Okay,
STRATTON: Pretty wild.
METTA: Michelle gave me a few hints, but then she kept saying, "I can,t tell you." Anyway, I don't know when I'm allowed to know. The question is, do I; you can't answer this for me. I don't know if I want to try to do anything with season two or not. I think I do if there is something I can talk about concerning redemption. Oh and with the growth, it could be Michelle's character. Anyone can grow. I don't expect Erika's character to change much. Is that true?
STRATTON: No, that is not true. She is changing in ways that I think are very hard for her, both as an actress and as a person trying to get through this thing. Because what is happening to her is almost against her will. She has become emotionally involved. In many ways, what Liberti's going through, she's going through too.
Obviously, as I was saying, these two have a great deal of affection for one another. They have very strong feeling for one another, which they continually try to defer to and do something with because it is so complicated. They are partners, which makes it hard. They work in the same office. It is inter-racial; he's married. All of those things, those complications make it difficult for them to come to terms with whatever they are feeling for each other. But it happens in other ways, in that they both feel more for the people they are supervising. And as a result of that, they get more in touch with their own feelings. They get to look at their own live and say, "We'll wait a minute here. What's going on inside? While we're watching them, who's watching us?"
METTA: Well, if I wanted to do something with it, how would you feel if I did?
STRATTON: It's fine with me.
METTA: It is? Which means I'd have to connect with some of these people.
STRATTON: That is strictly up to you. We're close to the end of the season.
METTA: Is it OK if I decide to do that?
STRATTON: Oh. Yes, sure. And there are tapes available.
METTA: All right, fine. Well, let me think about it.
STRATTON: I think it would be fascinating to see whether you think James is redeemed.
METTA: All right. Now in terms of your own view as the source, I would love---Oh, wish I had room for a chapter on how you get transformed into Kevin and the extent which Kevin really reflect you or your development. But there's no way I can do that now. I'm too far gone for that. But I am interested in what you can tell me about your own epiphany or if you have had one big moment. Or were there lots of little shifts when you came to some recognition. Obviously you made some serious transformation in your life. And what can you say about how that happened. Was there a moment?
STRATTON: No, it was not a moment. It was a process. And it is ongoing, I would say. I have always been interested very much, even since I was really young, in how people grow and how experience changes that growth, and how our accidents become that growth. We are what we do.
So, when I arrived in prison, I had a lot of time to think about where my actions had led me. That was when I think I resolved to grow in different ways and to take the experiences that I'd had up to that point and grow. I would try to find some strength of character and build on that.
METTA: Did your low point come just when you went to prison, just before you were in prison or were you already developing in ways that...
STRATTON: Before I even went to prison I felt the creative, spiritual emptiness that I was doing. It wasn't gratifying, it wasn't satisfying. It wasn't satisfying my creative desires or urges, whatever the word, at that point. And I felt that making money was all a gamble. It doesn't really satisfy you. Win or lose, it's really not about that. It's about this crazy adrenaline high we become addicted to. So before I went to prison, I knew I was neglecting what I really wanted to do, which was why I had plenty of opportunities to do that. Before I went to prison, I was feeling the emptiness of my life and I resolved to change that. I would find something more lasting.
METTA: And that began in prison and you were able to make sort of changes in your lifestyle even when you were locked up?
STRATTON: Yes. Yes. Being in prison is kind of like being in a monastery, you know, if you are looking at it from that kind of standpoint.
METTA: That's what penitentiaries were invented for. They were places to be penitent.
STRATTON: Right. To reflect on who you were and how you got there. So that's what it became for me. I got seriously into meditation; I had gotten into it before that, but now on a much more regular basis. I started reading a lot of books about the growth of the soul and things like that and spiritual development. So I took what I called "the Inner Journey." You are stuck in a cell, I mean you are not always locked up, but figuratively, metaphorically, you are locked up in this space and then you go on the inner journey. You look within and try to find something there to which you can really relate.
METTA: You spent a lot of time meditating?
METTA: Now that doesn't fit my notion of a risk taker.
STRATTON: What, what?
METTA: That is one of the things I wondered about. I see the problem for people with the DRD4 gene, and maybe a lot of testosterone, or whatever else. Apparently there is more than one gene. I don't have any of that, myself. I'm probably at the lowest level of risk taking of anyone you will ever meet. You know, I can't even climb a ladder to fix a window shade.
I would think that part of the problem is finding an ordinary life in which you can make a contribution, where there is some excitement and danger. And I wouldn't think meditating would do a thing for anyone.
STRATTON: Meditating actually can be very, very exhilarating, because it is like leaping off a precipice into some kind of dark chasms of the soul, where you discover things about yourself that you don't know. I think a lot of people are risk takers who don't want to self-reflect.
STRATTON: But they may be diverted. Maybe you should take a look at the New York Magazine article. The fellow who wrote that article has a very similar kind of thesis. He talks about the DNA, the Lowell family that I come from, how they were opium smugglers, poets and you know.
(GAP HERE BECAUSE TAPE RAN OUT FOR A FEW MINUTES.)
STRATTON: You know, I think there is some truth to that. I don't know if it is always the case. But I think a lot of intelligent people who are afraid to look hard at who they are will divert themselves with various aspects of risky behavior.
METTA: Erika's character would be in that category.
STRATTON: Her personality. Yeah.
METTA: I don't think she is introspective.
STRATTON: Right, right.
METTA: As a matter of fact, I don't think any of those guys are very introspective.
STRATTON: You know, probably, in some respect, Kevin Hunter is the most introspective of them all, at this point, I would say. James is sort of discovering it, because he has this Catholic background and then this
government background, which is similar. I mean the church, the government, you know. You are supposed to believe this because it is what we tell you. It's that authoritarian doctrinaire way of thinking, so he's very much in that kind of mold that he is breaking out of. He is breaking out of that. Whether he likes it or not.
METTA: And to what extent did you have those qualities in your life?
STRATTON: I wasn't brought up a Catholic, but I consider myself a Christian. I believe in God and I always have been interested from a very early age. I have always felt there was some kind of spiritual connection which I never could really articulate, but I knew it was there. It is still there, but I was not brought up in any strict religious kind of routine. I have always been enmeshed with women who are Catholics. My wife is a Catholic. I've always been fascinated by Catholicism. I guess it is the ritual the whole thing. I am not sure, but I am fascinated by it and have always been attracted to Catholic women. Lapsed Catholics, usually.
But in Liberti's character, I am exploring certain aspects of my own personality. You see, I think of Liberti as always being of two minds. He is always in contradiction with himself. He's a Dostoevski in that sense. He's got this dialogue going on in his head, "Should I trust this person or should I bust this person"? That whole trust or bust thing. He is always of two minds. I want to trust him, I want to help him. I don't want them to get over on me and make me look bad. So he is constantly trying to weigh things. "It's that crease," the one thing I have loved about Scott the first time I saw him, it's that crease down the middle of his brow. He is an impulsive, compulsive type of person and I can relate to that to some degree. He also wears his heart on his sleeve. He is very emotional, which I'm not. I mean I am like that, but I don't show it. The Wop thing, where he's an Italian. He's a hot-blooded Italian. So I am interested in exploring all those aspects of his personality. The character of Liberti has come to mean a great deal to me as a character.
METTA: More than Kevin?
STRATTON: No, no, not more but they should be equal.
METTA: I think of Kevin as your alter ego, but I assume that James Liberti was the parole officer that you knew.
STRATTON: Not really, I never knew that parole officer very well. I just took certain obvious things about him, the Catholic, Italian kind of background that he came from and gave it to Scott's character. And while it is true that Kevin's character is kind of my alter ego, I think that the real test of a good storyteller is to be able to develop those characters who are not the ones that the writer feels drawn to. You know what I mean? The reason I thought Oliver Stone's movie about Nixon was so good was because he hated Nixon, but he really got into Nixon's character. I think he went through that hate, which is similar to what I have been through with Liberti. The same kind of thing.
METTA: I think I drew you off course. You were telling me about the stages along the way while you were in prison. When you came out, you were raring to go as a new personality?
STRATTON: Actually, I have often said that just before I got released from prison, I often felt as though I could spend the rest of my life there. It would not have been particularly difficult for me. I had reached the level, I don't know whether it was growth or some kind of understanding within myself where it didn't really matter to me where I was at that point.
STRATTON: Yeah. Yeah. I mean it wasn't until I knew I was getting out that it began to get to me a little bit. But I really felt like, I can do this, I can do it. I could continue to do it because I was so involved in the journey that I was on.
METTA: I,m really surprised to hear that and really delighted. You know, one of the things I want to talk about later is the notion of transcendence. That you transcended a situation.
STRATTON: Transcended the idea of space and time.
METTA: Yeah. And when you got out, what happened?
STRATTON: Well, that's the interesting thing. Why I wanted to do this show was because of what I've said to so many people with their characters - that you want to somehow, a lot of times, get back in touch with the person you were when you were locked up. And some people even begin to feel nostalgic for prison. You know there is a great Byron poem where he talks about his changes after being locked up for so long. There is a whole set of stages that you go through.
There was a great book, it was written by, I am sure you know of it. He is a psychologist and it was about his experiences in a concentration camp. Viktor Frankl.
METTA; Oh yeah, I refer to him a lot. Extraordinary, I mean his book was one of the biggest influences in my life. He says people have assignments, that life gives you certain assignments that you have to perceive and respond to. And I believe that, I mean, I see things coming at me that I am supposed to be doing. I know it. This is fine.
STRATTON: Yes, I thoroughly believe that, thoroughly. But anyway, there are phases that you go through. As first you feel great, you feel ecstatic. You're in a state of elation to get out. Then you think, "I'm free. Now I'll be able to do all those things I wanted to do when I was locked up." When you're in prison you think, because I am here, I am not free to do the things I want to do. That's what is holding me back. Then you get out and you realize that the world is not just there waiting for you to come out and say " I want to do this, that and the other thing." You start to meet all these obstacles and diversions. There are all those things drawing on your attention. You have to make a living, you have to go to meetings, and you have to do all those things you didn't really have to do when you were in prison. So you don't have the time to focus on yourself and you become distracted.
And then there are all the temptations that are constantly around, the drain of other people, which is a great thing, but it takes you away from what you want to do. Then people get depressed. They go through those periods when they think I was actually better off when I was in prison.
METTA: A lot of people?
STRATTON: A lot, a lot. It is very, very common. Just about everyone I've talked to who has spent a significant amount of time in prison have gone through these kinds of changes when they got out. And that is what I tried to do, tried to show that in the series. Yes, the first season, but even more so in the second season. The first episode of the second season was about a Gulf War vet who had been adversely affected by gas and depleted uranium and the whole gamut of things that have happened to these Gulf War vets. I don't know if you have followed it, but recently the Federal Government of the United States executed a guy who was only the third person they executed under the new Federal Execution laws. The guy was a Gulf War Hero. He had been gassed with sarin gas and the whole bit. Then he came back and did a horrible thing. He abducted and raped some woman on an army base. But they executed him. To me it was that he was a courageous but damaged human being, and then they executed him. So we did a show about a Gulf War vet who twists off basically. And he says at one point, you know, when Liberti finally catches him and tries to calm him down, he's like, you know, "Just wait till they stick that needle in my arm." And then he goes, "And the world just ain't what it's cracked up to be." You know, in other words he's saying, "Out here is not so great. This hasn't been a great thing for me to be out of prison. Maybe I'm better off back there or better off with a needle in me."
So I try to remind the writers constantly, "Remember how the prison experience has affected these people, and if you don't know, ask me and let me help you with that. You can't write these people just like you would write anybody. They have been affected by the time that they spent in prison and now they have to try to deal with the world and all the distractions of being back in the world.
METTA: Another thing I wanted to ask you. You know, I wrote a section on restorative justice, because it seems to me that anybody who watches this show will have to conclude that there is something very wrong with the criminal justice system. And, if so, what should be done? What I wonder is, if you were in charge, what would you do? How can you reform the justice system?
STRATTON: The first thing I would do is to legalize drugs.
METTA: All drugs?
STRATTON: Yes, all drugs. Spend the huge amounts of money that are spent now on each addiction to try to treat people who have drug and alcohol problems. I mean, alcohol is probably responsible for more criminal behavior than drugs. Most of the violent crimes that happen, especially spousal abuse, are almost always alcohol. Child abuse, very often, drunken parents. So I think the whole war on drugs, which has really been the engine driving the criminal justice system in the United States and North America, needs to be completely reformed. The whole idea of making substances illegal and saying, that's the way we're going to control it, is just totally wrong. And I think that there's an awful lot of wasted resources that go in this direction to try and stop the illicit drugs, or supposedly try and stop the illicit drugs. It's so cynical that I don't think the government even is trying to wage against these drugs. So that would be the first thing that I would do. I would also do away with the death penalty. I think that the death penalty is absolutely barbaric. In fact, I am in the process of trying to get Canadian Citizenship, because I am so disgusted with the government of the United States and where that country is going. It's just awful, awful.
METTA: Yes, Okay.
STRATTON: Ah, George Bush, I mean this whole thing when they killed Saddam Hussein's sons. I was on a conference call the other day with the studio and the network. And somebody from the network said, "Well, why is it, Richard, that we always have to portray the government as having some sinister agenda?" And even before I could answer, one of the other executives from Sony said, "Well you know, isn't that funny! Just this morning my nine-year-old son asked me, `Dad, why did the American Government want to kill Saddam Hussein's sons?' And I said, "There you go, there's the answer to your question. Because they're hit men. They are criminals. As far as I'm concerned, they are criminals" So, as far as reforming the criminal justice system, I would start with Dick Chaney. All of these guys are bad, bad people, I think. I really do. I mean, this guy wants to execute people left and right.
METTA: I know.
STRATTON: It's a testament, an eye for an eye until we're all blind. The whole idea of restorative justice, which I do know a little bit about. I think there are probably ten percent of the people who are in prison who really need to be there.
STRATTON: Maybe ten percent who are actually violent, predatory criminals who would continue to prey on other people. But that's not...
METTA: How would you prefer to reform the Parole System?
STRATTON: Well, that's a good question. I believe in parole. I think now a lot of parole themes are limited. It's been called other things, sometimes "supervised release," because they realize that ultimately, they can't do away with it. But for political reasons, there has been so much pressure on a really important type of character who comes out on parole and does something horrendous. And then it's like, See, that's why parole doesn't work. But that's not the case. It's one bad example when there have been hundreds of thousands of people who have been on parole, done their parole and actually may have even been helped by their parole officers or by parole. The first thing I would do would be to start some kind of pre-release programs in prison, where they try to get you ready for the street. They don't now. They just throw you out.
The episode we did that I thought was so instructive about that, was actually a very entertaining episode in many ways. The episode was about a guy who threw urine in Liberti's face and punched him. But the whole thing about that was that he was a guy who was brought up in institutions, who had no idea how to behave once he got out on the streets. He was just a maniac, released straight from solitary to the street, after having been locked up most of his adult life. And even brought up in institutions, he was what we call state-raised. These people aren't prepared for the streets at all. There are no preparations, no pre-release programs, where they have people working telling what to expect when you get out. This is how to balance a checkbook. Here's how do these things that you'll have to do to cope in the world. So you just let them out there with no way of dealing with these problem situations and they are going to fail. So you are setting them up to fail, which keeps the whole prison industrial complex going.
You know, the thing about the United States, which is so horrendous to me, is that they take everything and turn it into a business. I remember reading the other day about Guilani wanting to do something where you invest in terrorism futures. Guilani is involved in that.
METTA: Oh, I didn't know about him. I heard about somebody else who was in it. Poindexter.
STRATTON: Yes, Poindexter is another one. But can you imagine, they're going to take this and turn it into a business?
METTA: There's a thing going on in New York. Never mind, I just don't understand it.
STRATTON: You know, I was just like you. I didn't understand it. As soon as I saw that Guilani was involved, I thought, that's perfect. These two scumbags, Guilani and Bush, took this 911 disaster and turned it into a great thing for their careers. But it would take a huge undertaking to reform the criminal justice system.
METTA: The thing that strikes me as problematic about it is they can't really have a therapeutic parole relationship because people can't afford to tell the truth. I mean, in a parole situation, if you told the truth, you would go back to jail.
STRATTON: Well the thing, though, to always keep in mind about this show is we are dealing with the Special Offenders Unit, which is different from the rest of parole. Now the parole, mostly state parole, system is so overloaded and the officers' case loads are so huge that they don't have the time or the resources to make effective changes in people's lives. Although some of them do and I have met some. Amazing people, who are so dedicated to really helping people. They work with people who have mental issues, drug abuse problems. Believe me, I didn't even know this until after I became involved in the show.
I have a cousin who is a Federal Parole Officer and deals with people who have drug and alcohol addictions. And it's a different thing. The people we are focusing on, what they call the Special Offenders Unit, is at high, high risk of returning to criminal activity. That's one of the prerequisites for getting into Special Offenders, or some kind of criminal affiliation, whether it is organized crime or gangs or something like that. It could be high profile, where there is a lot of attention on someone like our Leona Helmsley type character, those kinds of characters go into Special Offenders, or, sex offenders or people with mental health problems. So we're dealing with the high, high risk of re-offending, which is a small percentage of the case load.
METTA: That was your response to something I said about the difficulty of telling the truth. I would wonder how much therapy can be accomplished.
STRATTON: Well I think for those offenders who are not high risk, there is probably more, or the ones who have patterns of re-offending because of drug problems or alcohol who really need help, there is probably more open dialogue between the parole officers and the parolees.
I know for instance, that when they have people with drug problems, they try to work with them. They try to get them into rehab programs. And there are instances when the parole officer says, well, you've shown positive for drug use, but I'm not going to send you back. I'm going to try to help you. We've shown a little bit of that this year.
But the thing about the Special Offenders Unit is, a lot of times they would be on someone like Kevin Hunter. They know that he is involved with criminal activity or they have a very strong suspicion that he is involved with the criminal activity, but they can't get him for that. But they can get him for something they might not send someone else back for. In other words, if they found out something like you left the district without permission, but you were basically doing the right thing, they probably wouldn't violate you on a technical violation. But for someone that they know is dirty, up to something else, if they can get you on a technical violation, as they did with Hunter last year, that's why they sent him back. And it's just rude to say, even though you think you are getting away with it, we are watching every move you make. Maybe we didn't get you for this, but we are getting you for whatever we can, at this point.
METTA: You see, I don't know that has happened at the end of last season. I finally figured it out, although Liberti was saying, you're going to spend the rest of your life there. It didn't look to me as if he had enough to keep him there.
STRATTON: Yeah, he didn't. With Freddy and Goldie dead, it was just a violation and he would go back to serve the rest of his time. He goes back for a year. They give him what they call a one-year hit, which he then tries to whittle down. He gets his lawyer involved. In the first episode of the second season, you see him still in prison, trying to get out. But they want to keep him there because they are trying to put pressure on him to give them information on all of what he knows and what he was involved with. So, they're fighting him on that. And that's why this guy, this new guy, Terrance Howard's character, Lucius Mosley, comes in. One of the agendas he has is to what they call "flip" Kevin. Make him a co-operating individual, who will then be allowed to engage in criminal activity as long as he feeds them information. You'll see.
METTA: When do you need to quit? When are you going back in?
STRATTON: I don't know what time we are going back in.
METTA: Do you see any mistakes that you made, things that in retrospect you wish you could change about the show so far?
STRATTON: You know, there have been very small casting things along the way when I feel I was pushed. My instincts were to cast one way and I let people pressure me into casting the safe way. I found that whenever I make those safe choices, they are never the right choice. So I think that is the only mistake I really made, not to trust my instincts. When I see the person who is right for the role, people will say, Oh, that person doesn't have as much experience. There is someone else who is better looking. I hate to do casting based on someone being better looking. For God's Sakes. So I think I've let myself be too influenced when it comes to casting. But then again, you get a lot of people telling you what to do.
METTA: What about the plot? Are you happy with the plot?
STRATTON: Oh yes, very happy.
METTA: And you got your way on everything that was significant?
STRATTON: Uh huh, I absolutely did.
METTA: Even from the get go.
STRATTON: Well, not from the get go. The first five or six episodes I think are very uneven. They were not the kind of thing I wanted to do. When you look at the Kevin Hunter story you kind of thought well, this is a good show. But then you look at the so-called episodics, you thought, this is like any other TV show you could see on the networks. It seems contrived; it didn't seem realistic to me at all. In fact, I'm surprised we even got beyond that.
METTA: That's the way I felt about that too. In terms of changing the production system, if you could start over and make the television business work the way you think it ought to, what kinds of structural changes in the way the industry works would be most promising as a way of enabling really excellent TV to be produced?
STRATTON: Well I think creative control has to be put in the hands of the creators of the show and not in executives. I think that HBO has led the way with David Chase and the Sopranos. They have given him a huge amount of creative control on the show. That's really what you need. You can't have a bunch of executives, who again don't know what the big picture is. They are not storytellers but are trying to tell you how to create characters and how to tell stories. They will continually go for the formula, they will go for the gimmicky. They will go for dumbing it down, trying to explain things to the audience.
I don't want it over-explained. I like it when people are not absolutely sure what is going on, because it makes them think. Somebody said something earlier about the brain being almost asleep when people are watching TV. I would like them to be thinking, "wait a minute, what is going on here? What is this person doing, why are they doing that?" And make it a little ambiguous-make it more like a novel where you really have to think about what is going on. What is the plot, what is the writer, the creator trying to tell us here? It's happening in premium cable TV, shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Street Time. But it's been a struggle for us. It's only because of the chaos that was around us that we were able to get creative control. We did it against their will. We really did. And it's going to be a fight all the way along.
Some of the people out there are a little bit angry at us because we have never said, "Ok, you guys are right, you know what you're talking about." In fact we said, "No, you dummy it down, you try to make it into a formula TV show, which it is not. You don't really know about these people in this world and you try and tell me."