Ted Kotcheff was between films in 1999 after a critically and commercially successful career in his native Canada and in Great Britain and the United States that had included directing such landmark movies as the cult classic “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” starring Richard Dreyfuss, “First Blood” (the original Rambo) with Sylvester Stallone, and the high-grossing comedy “Weekend at Bernie’s.”
Then his agent called with an offer. “He said [executive producer] Dick [Wolf] was looking for someone to run a new series, and I said, `I don’t know anything about television. I’ve been in film all my life,”‘ Mr. Kotcheff recalled in his office in New York City. “He said, `Well, what’s so different about it? Try it. You might have fun doing it. … Do 13 episodes and then you’ll be finished.”‘
Nearly six years later Mr. Kotcheff is in his sixth season as executive producer and showrunner of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” which has become a huge hit and the most successful of the trio of “L&O” shows on NBC. Its ratings are up 8 percent over last year and it regularly wins its time period, beating veteran shows such as “NYPD Blue” on ABC and “Judging Amy” on CBS.
So far this season the police drama typically attracts more than 13 million viewers each week, including a healthy share of the coveted 18 to 49 audience, making it the 17th-most-watched show on TV. “It’s a very strong brand,” said Tom Bierbaum, NBC’s director of ratings and program information. “It’s still a dominant show and a growing show.”
They shot 25 episodes last year at a cost of about $3 million each. Mr. Kotcheff is quick to credit a lot of that success to Mr. Wolf, the stellar cast and his producing partner on the show, Neal Baer, a former physician and veteran of “ER” who has written most of the episodes. However, it is clear the show is very different from the other two “L&O” franchises and has benefited from Mr. Kotcheff’s feature film touch and special feel for the actors and the often sensitive material.
There really is a Special Victims Unit within the New York Police Department, which mostly deals with sex crimes that involve women or children. The original title for the show was “Sex Crimes,” but the producers and network decided that title would “only attract the prurient and keep away the natural audience,” Mr. Kotcheff recalled. “Then they said, `Why don’t we call it “Law & Order” as well,’ because they wanted to cash in on the popularity of the original. I was against it because it had nothing to do with `Law & Order.’ It was a totally different approach and I intended to do it differently. But they decided to call it that.”
Where the original is shot like a documentary with a flat acting style, Mr. Kotcheff went after film-style narrative storytelling and a more realistic approach. He and Mr. Baer broadened the subject matter beyond just sex crimes. They also tapped into the news for subjects that have included the use of anti-depressants by kids and stem cell research. Every show is done as a mystery with a load of surprising plot twists and turns.
“What’s interesting about our show is that it appeals to women,” Mr. Kotcheff said. “I guess many women have been raped and don’t bother reporting it because they don’t want to go through the whole rigmarole. I just directed one called `Doubt.’ It’s a he said, she said, like what happened between Kobe Bryant and that girl. We’ll never know what went on in that hotel room, whether he raped her or not, and that is what ours is about [although it otherwise has no connection to the Bryant case].”
After he did his first half-dozen episodes, Mr. Kotcheff told Mr. Wolf his agent had been right, there was a lot of similarity to film, although there was also a big difference. “It’s role-to-role dialogue,” he explained. “I said, `You know Dick, I’m going to tell my directors that when the camera turns over to not say `action,’ but to say `talk.’ He laughed, but its true. It’s role-to-role dialogue. You start the scene and bang, they are talking and bang, as soon as they are finished talking, it’s on to the next scene. It is verbal and less pictorial. The film screen is huge and you can tell a lot through the detailing you put in a picture. The TV screen being smaller, it’s an automatic predisposition to lean heavily on dialogue.”
The legendary Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni told Mr. Kotcheff when they worked together on the breakthrough 1966 film “Blowup” that he always wrote the first draft of his screenplay as if it were a silent film. Then he adds sounds and dialogue as needed to fill out the story. “I lived in Rome for a while, and although my Italian was rudimentary, I understood that film,” Mr. Kotcheff recalled. “You don’t have to know the language to see what was going on. You know it by the way it is photographed. So I learned that and from then on, for all my films, you have to show it.”
On “L&O: SVU” it turned out to be extremely necessary. “I try to find at the same time, as we go through the staging, to say things about the characters and their relationships pictorially that don’t have to be said in the dialogue,” Mr. Kotcheff said. “So there is this balance. But on the whole it’s tilted toward [dialogue]. It’s the nature of police work. The procedural part of detective work is verbal.”
Mr. Kotcheff, who turned 73 earlier this year, is unsure he will ever return to doing features regularly, not only because of his success in TV but also because of ageism. “Who knows? Yeah, I’m getting on, and I think a lot of older directors are not getting a lot of work,” he said. “I hate to be lumped with ageism, but I think there is a certain element of it. … The business, as far as studios are concerned, sees the target audience as under 30. They want directors who are in contact with that audience rather than old farts like me.”
That same experience has served him well in TV, where Mr. Kotcheff has found new life. “I regard [the TV series] as one endless film that’s going on and on and on,” he said. “And it’s arcing and it’s going to go over four or five years to explore the characters, explore the relationships. It’s never-ending trying to find a variety within a certain confined area. Variety. Changing relationships. That’s the trick of it. To continually find something new.”