Tonight fans of ‘SVU’ get a special treat as the season 14 finale, “Her Negotiation,” is married to the season 15 premiere, “Surrender Benson,” creating an 'SVU' two hour event.
While both episodes have already aired, this is the first chance that viewers will have to see the two installments play as one unit. (In my opinion, a smart move by NBC.)
For those wanting to know more about the creation and execution of these two interwoven chapters of the series, here are a few details. (Small spoiler alert here – if you are one of the few people who has not seen these episodes, you’ve been warned that there are some revelations here.)
First, “Her Negotiation” was not originally meant to be the season finale. Originally, the final episode of the season was going to be “Poisoned Motive,” the episode in which Rollins was shot by a sniper who was carrying a grudge against her partner Fin, but when NBC ordered an additional two episodes, the plot for Benson’s harrowing experience was hatched.
The criminal storyline, and the creation of ‘The Beast,’ character William Lewis, was, like many other ‘SVU’ plotlines, based on several real-life incidents; one of which involved a man who raped an elderly woman who was birdwatching in Central Park. She had photographed him nine days earlier committing a lewd act in the park and reported it. Looking further into the man's past, which included a long history of violence against elderly women, led the writers of ‘SVU’ to this storyline.
Executive Producer Warren Leight explained, “There was a weird spate of guys with really bad rap sheets who were never convicted of their crimes for some reason. When you look more closely at what they’d done, it was inconceivable that they were out, free to walk amongst us. There are flaws in the legal system; people get off repeatedly on technicalities or they play the system really well, maybe their name is repeatedly misspelled so the law can’t catch up to with them or maybe they get caught, go to prison but then get released by mistake. All of these things add up to having this really bad guy who's gotten away with so many different crimes so many times.”
With the basis for the character in mind, Leight wrote the role with Pablo Schreiber in mind. “I’d worked with him on another show that I wrote, ‘Lights Out,’ and I knew he could carry this, even elevate the material and he really did.”
While most of Lewis’ actions were performed just as scripted, Leight revealed that not all of the deeds incorporated by Schreiber were on the page. “The scene where Benson spits on him and he wipes it from his cheek and then puts his finger an in his mouth was written, but other times, he would say, ‘let me try something here’ and we would let him go.” To that effect, Leight disclosed that in the scene with Lewis and Benson in the car, when he puts duct tape on her mouth and kisses her, that was all Schreiber.
Schreiber wasn’t the only one that Leight felt brought the goods, saying, “Everyone stepped past what I expected of anyone. Michael Smith, who directed “Surrender Benson,” did so in such a way that he really guided the viewer through each moment very visually, especially in the scenes with just Lewis and Benson. He really took those scenes to a higher level.”
Giving credit to the editing department as well, Leight says, “It was cut together so well in the first pass that we knew exactly what to cut right away and those cuts didn’t change the flow, if anything they made everything move much better.”
Going deeper into the intimate dance between Benson and Lewis, Leight talked about shooting those moments and how cast and crew handled the intensity. "That monologue made certain people nervous before shooting began, because there were people that thought it was too’ monologue-y,’ just too many words.
The day we shot that monologue was the day Mariska was the most nervous not because she thought it was too much, but because it was so emotionally charged. But, immensely to her credit, she knew exactly how to do that scene, how to best convey those large chunks of that speech. Pablo was nervous about those scenes too, but once they started playing it they were so good.” Giving a little more insight, he goes on to say, "Mariska was more nervous about those scenes than when we shot some of the more physical stuff, all of which tells you something about her commitment to every bit of the material."
As for those physical scenes, Leight reveals, “Mariska felt safe doing those scenes because of Pablo. There are a lot of psychotic actors out there that you can cast and that’s not what you want on the set for something like this. You want two people who respect each other and can really relate to each other. They both have kids so during the downtime they talked with each other about their kids a lot. They were aware that they were doing something very loaded, very disturbing, but at the end of the day they could relate to each other as humans and that made it safer to keep that connection and go further.”
During those pivotal scenes the two actors were working in a tiny room with a sparse camera crew, while the rest of the creative team sat outside the beach house in ‘video village’ taking it all in with Leight disclosing that “We were watching this amazing thing happening between these two actors, we just kept saying, ‘Wow, just, wow.’”
When I was talking with Leight back in September about this episode and what’s to come this season, I asked, given his track record for gripping season finales – Cragen with a dead hooker, Benson at gunpoint -- if he already had something in mind for the season 15 finale, to which he responded, “I do have a vision for the end of the season. I know how I want to end it but I want to hold onto that for now. I know where we’re going to a degree with Olivia’s character and every once in awhile I have a something in mind for the end and that’s a good thing. It’s an ongoing dialogue between me and Mariska about where this character is going and what’s going to happen down the road.”
I believe it was the Oscar-winning Director Mike Nichols who said, “Every scene should be either a fight, a seduction or a negotiation.”
Congratulations “SVU’ for making this absolutely true in “Surrender Benson.”
Tonight fans can use the #SaveBenson hashtag again, or might I suggest SVUFightSeductionNegotiation ?
"Law & Order: SVU" airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on NBC.