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411mania Interviews: Law and Order: SVU Executive Producer Neal Baer

June 2, 2009 | Posted by Al Norton

Neal Baer has been the executive producer for Law and Order: Special Victims Unit for the last 9 seasons. Prior to that he was a writer and producer on ER, where he received a total of 7 Emmy and 2 WGA nominations. Baer is a graduate of Harvard Medical School and did his pediatrics residency at Children’s Hospital, Los Angles.

Al Norton: Did you ever think when you joined the show that you’d be breathing this kind of rarified TV air, looking at your 11th season and being your network’s top rated drama series?

Neal Baer: Well I came from ER so I was used to it (laughing). I wasn’t used to it at all but I am gratified by it. I don’t think we think about that as much as we just try and do the best show we can and hope that people will watch.

Al Norton: I know it must be hard for you to stay out of things like contract situations but at what point do prolonged negotiations affect your ability to lay out the new season?

Neal Baer: We don’t start shooting until July so we’ve got time. The show isn’t arced per se, like on ER were the focus was on a lot more of the characters love lives and such. For us each episode is individual in terms of its plot and drive. Yes, we carry certain elements about the characters personal lives over from episode to episode but it’s really about how their lives and their views affect the case. We have time to let the dust settle before we have to role up our sleeves and start writing.

Al Norton: Do you think SVU will come to an end when NBC says, “ok, we’ve had enough” or could you see a time when think, “we’ve told all our stories.”

Neal Baer: I don’t think we could ever tell all our stories. Every year I think we’ve told all our stories and then, thanks to our full time researcher, we pull all these stories from around the world and then we say, “wow, the depravity of the human mind is endless and limitless.” Unfortunately (laughing). We’ve got a whole new set of stores. I’ve already got 8 stories for next year, I’m already talking about actors about guesting on episodes.

Al Norton: You mention guest stars and obviously your show is quite famous for not just having great guests but having them in great roles (actors appearing on SVU have received 11 Emmy nominations in the Outstanding Guest Actor/Actress categories). Who is left on your wish list?

Neal Baer: Well if I say than I’ll give away who might be on next year (laughing). We are in negotiations now with a couple of people who haven’t done TV before. We had Brenda Blethyn this year, an Oscar nominated actress who hadn’t done American TV before. Carole Burnett was on, and of course she’s done TV but not in a while and not like this. Ellen Burstyn, Robin Williams, Nick Stahl…we get interesting actors to play these roles. I was just talking to our casting director Jonathan Strauss and he was reminding me of a number of people I really like who haven’t done the show yet and it got my mind working.

Al Norton: Are you at the point where people come to you to be on the show?

Neal Baer: We have had people come to us, yes, which is nice.

Al Norton: When you write the parts are they done with specific people in mind or do you only think about that once the scripts are done?

Neal Baer: We do both. For instance, with Ellen Burstyn, we knew we were going to Stabler’s Mother and we knew she was our first choice before we had written it. We knew what the basic story was so we sat down with her for breakfast and pitched her on the story. She said, “that sounds interesting, I’d like to do something like that.” That’s typically how it happens in those situations, we’ll talk to actors – we talked to Brenda Blethyn, we had a long talk with Carol Burnett – and then move forward from there.

Al Norton: How did Hillarie Duff end up on the show?

Neal Baer: We knew she was interested in doing the show so we crafted a part we thought would work and then we had the perfect mother for her in Gail O’Grady. The mother from hell (laughing).

Al Norton: You worked on ER for seven years before coming to SVU; with all the hype about show ending, did you watch the finale?

Neal Baer: Not only did I watched the finale but I went to the final wrap party and was on the set when they were shooting the scenes with Noah (Wyle), Alex (Kingston), Sherry (Stringfeild), Laura (Innes), and Eriq (La Salle).

Al Norton: That must have been fun.

Neal Baer: It was. I had worked with all of them since I started on ER in 94 when the show started. I’ve stayed friends with them and Alex was on the show this season. There’s been a lot of cross-pollination with the shows; Kellie Martin has been on, CCH Pounder has been on, Eriq has directed one of our episodes. It’s fun for me to work with all my friends.

Al Norton: You’ve had more than few alumni from your writing and production staffs go on to do other projects. Have you started to think about your post-SVU projects?

Neal Baer: Of course.

Al Norton: Anything you want to talk about?

Neal Baer: No (laughing). Various things in early stages, movies, things like that. Things that may be announced soon.

Al Norton: There are a lot of rumors about one of the series regulars dying in the SVU season finale. Without getting into details about who, how do you come to that decision and then how do you approach the actor?

Neal Baer: For the story decision it just kind of came to me one day. I thought, this may be a really interesting way to bring our cast together and deal with this story point. Then you call the actor up and say, “I just need to talk to you about something. I’m sorry but you’re going to be killed.”

Al Norton: Did the conversation go ok?

Neal Baer: Yes. I think everybody knew that somebody was going so they weren’t shocked.

Al Norton: With all the spoilers that are available on the internet it must make your job tough sometimes; you want people to want to know information about the show and for there to be a buzz but you don’t want fans to know what’s going to happen every second of every episode.

Neal Baer: Right. It’s tough. I remember when Clooney came back to ER when Julianna’s character was leaving and they had to have a secret shooting in Seattle and hide the footage in a refrigerator to keep word from leaking out. There was this whole big thing and that was before the internet made the impact it does now. It’s just pretty tough because the scripts are out and crew members have them and it’s pretty hard to keep things top secret.

Al Norton: What do you think about your network’s move to replace five hours of primetime programming with a new, Jay Leno hosted talk show?

Neal Baer: I understand why they are doing it. It’s the current state of television. Unfortunately it’s not the same kind of business it was 5 years ago, 10 years ago. I wish that there were more slots for dramas but maybe it will concentrate the dramas so that they’ll all be terrific shows because we’ll all be fighting for those coveted spots. It will be interesting to see how it shakes out.

Al Norton: Do you think you could see the networks doing what cable does now, adapting the BBC style of 10-12 episode seasons instead of 22, so you can have more shows but fewer episodes?

Neal Baer: Oh yes. I see that happening now and especially with things going through the internet more and more. I don’t even know if they’ll be networks anymore after that.

Al Norton: What is it you find yourself watching on TV these days?

Neal Baer: I love the Game Show network. Still love the What’s My Line reruns.

Don’t miss the season finale of Law and Order: SVU tonight at 10 pm on NBC.

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