When Producers Attack

Producer John Langley is a man's man. He doesn't seem to mind much what people think of him. He's a refreshing change from many of the prissy image-conscious producers I've interviewed.

Langley owns a huge production facility on Colorado Avenue in Santa Monica. His parking lot is filled with about 40 vehicles.

I believe I was here once before - about eight years ago. In my days as a struggling actor, I participated in a talkshow pilot but the producers pulled me off the show because I was over the top obnoxious.

As I walk down the hallway to John's office (circa August 9, 2002), a blonde woman (who turns out to be his wife of 30 years, Maggie) warns me, 'If you're not a smoker, throw your arms up in the air and say you can't do the interview here. And he'll take you upstairs.'

I walk into the office, which turns out to be a largely empty stage. I look around and crane my head to the left where I find John, a tall strapping man almost 60 years of age, smoking a smelly cigar.

He asks me if I mind the cigar and I say I don't, but sure it would be nice to do the interview upstairs, after he takes me on a tour of the facilities.

We walk into an editing bay and it looks like the guy is cutting homosexual porn, but it's just the TV show Cops, Langley's most famous production. It debuted in 1989 on Fox, and is about to air its 500th episode.

John and I settle down on adjacent couches in an empty upstairs office. We put our feet up on the table and whinge about lawyers.

Luke: "My sister is a barrister in Australia."

John: "Well, a barrister is not like a US lawyer."

Luke: "Barristers have to wear a wig."

John: "It's more noble."

Luke: "There are so many more lawyers here. Yanks are so litigious."

John: "I was never in a lawsuit in my life until I got into this business, where it is almost inevitable."

Luke: "People will sue each other and then do business the next day."

John: "Absolutely."

Luke: "I would never sue anyone unless it was just over the top. It's not honorable."

John: "I wish we had the English [legal] system where loser pays. As long as you don't have that system, you are going to have a lot of litigious people suing just so they can get an insurance settlement."

Luke: "Where did you grow up?"

John: "West Los Angeles and Manhattan Beach. My father worked in the aircraft industry. My mother was a housewife. I have two older brothers and a younger sister. None of them are in entertainment.

"I was born June 1, 1944. At one time, I wanted to be an academic. I've always been a slow learner. At age 18, in 1961, I joined the Army. I didn't want to go to college right away. I figured this was a great way to see the world and get laid.

"I went into so-called Army Intelligence. I spent two years, nine months, 29 days, 13 hours, 22 minutes and 14 seconds."

Luke: "Did you being in Army Intelligence help you get laid?"

John: "Oh sure. I was in Panama for two years. Then I returned home, went back to school, piddled around, worked multiple jobs, and returned to school. I got my BA (English) and MA (Literature/Composition) from Cal State Dominguez and I did PhD work at UC Irvine in the philosophy of aesthetics. It was a movement at the time. I taught at those two schools and I thought I wanted to be a professor.

"In 1971, I finally said enough of this nonsense. I quit because I couldn't conceive of teaching the same courses year in and year out. I'm a Gemini. I need more stimulation. I loved academia and I loved literature but I burned out on Ivory Tower capitalism.

"I got married and worked for an airline for three years in public relations. It was a great gig but I made no money. I traveled the world. I've always been a writer. I published in Film News International. Someone (Steve Friedman) read a screenplay I'd written and asked me to help produce a movie (The Crowley Testament) for Warner Brothers. So I quit my job in 1977. It was a theatrical fictional documentary about a mad scientist named Lucius Crowley.

"Then the guy who bought the project for Warners was fired and the new guy who came in, Robert Shapiro, threw out all the old projects.

"Then I worked for the marketing firm, Producers Creative Services (PCS) , of my future partner Malcom Barber. In 1980, we sold PCs and started a production company. We starved for a couple of years and then we did a documentary about drug addiction called Cocaine Blues."

Luke: "Was this based on personal experience?"

John: "Oh, there's been a bit of that. Maybe it was my karmic debt. We had a film deal with somebody and they said, 'Do something small first just to show that you can do what you say you can do.' So we did Cocaine Blues, which had been developed for somebody else. In my naivete, I realized that making a film was one thing but selling it was another.

"We entered it in all the film festivals and won some awards. And that's how I got into television [and conceived the show Cops].

"I wrote a screenplay that sold years later. Then in 1987, I made the Dolph Lundgren: Maximum Potential exercise video. I hired Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary as PAs. Quentin and Roger worked at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, where I live. They were kids, 18-19 years old. We used to discuss film and BS. I loaned him my script for the [1986] film Behind Enemy Lines. He showed me scripts he'd written.

"As a PA, Quentin was always bashing into nightstands and babbling everybody. He's quite a talker and loves to get into debates about film. My partner would say, 'Fire that kid. He doesn't know what the hell he's doing.'

"Roger came to me once and asked, 'I want to be a director. I don't want to be a PA. How do I do that?' I said, 'Roger, if you want to be a director, direct. If you want to be a writer, write. If you want to be a producer, produce.' He thought about it and said ok. The next day he came in and said, 'I quit.' I said, 'That's cool. What are you going to do?' He said, 'I'm going to be a writer and a director.'"

According to Imdb.com: Roger Avary "met Quentin Tarantino at a video store they both worked at in the 1980's. Though Quentin Tarantino received credit, it was actually Avary who conceived the Top-Gun gay reference speech that Tarantino used in Sleep with Me (1994). Avary's writing contributions to Pulp Fiction (1994) include: 1) A boxer who refuses to throw a fight. 2) A pair of hitmen who accidentally shoot a hostage in the head in the back of a car. (Actually a deleted script idea from True Romance (1993). 3) A boxer who tells his wife they are in danger, and must leave the country."

Roger says about Quentin: "I've realised that I can't hang out with him. I talk with him, and he just sucks stuff from me."

John: "Quentin finished out as PA on that project, picking up dog turds on Venice Beach and that kind of work. That was their intro to the film biz.

"I produced about eight two-hour Geraldo Rivera primetime television specials. One, called American Vice, featured a live drug bust. One lady sued Gerald because during the live broadcast he said, 'A lady and her pimp are being...' She claimed she just happened to be at that guy's house.

"I was trying to sell Cops at the time. I went to Tribune with it. Back on Cocaine Blues, I accompanied cops on a drug bust. I said, 'Wow, this is interesting.' I thought it would be great to do a show with no narrator and no script, from a cop's point of view. Because it is interesting work. Nobody would buy it.

"Tribune said, 'We'll do something with you if you do it with Geraldo.' I said no, I wanted to do Cops. They said, 'Well, it's Geraldo or nothing.' So I thought about it and said, OK, we'll meet.' And then we put together a two-hour special, American Vice, about the drug war."

Luke: "Did you do the one where he opened Al Capone's vault?"

John: "No, that was the first one he did. And I think he was chagrined by it because it was a big bust. There was nothing there. Our promise to him was, 'We'll guarantee you that your vault won't be empty. We'll have all this action and all this investigative look at drugs. We'll put you undercover and get all this clandestine tape of drug deals. We'll do live drug busts.'

"The guy at Tribune said, 'Are you sure we can do that live?' I said, 'Of course we can.' I didn't have the slightest idea how to do it. We researched it and found technicians who told us how we could do it. We used microwave technology and bounced signals up to helicopters who'd bounce it back down to trucks who'd bounce it up to satellites."

Luke: "What are people telling you while you try to shop Cops?"

John: "We'll never do this kind of show. It will be a nightmare legally. You can't do a show without a host and narrator. You can't do a show without actors and a script. I had blinders on and I refused to listen to all the rejections. All the networks rejected it. The irony is that once it was picked up by Fox and succeeded, every network wanted to do the same show. All the networks called me back to see if I would do a cop show with them."

Luke: "How did you finally get Cops on the air?"

John: "Timing. I met with Steve Chao at Fox. His mandate was to do alternative interesting programming. I kept pitching him shows and he rejected all the shows. Finally, I said, 'You wouldn't know a good show if it slapped you in the face. Fuck off. I don't want to talk to you anymore.' And that excited him. 'No, no, no. One last pitch. Pick one idea that you really like.'

"We'd pitched four ideas: 1- 911, which became Rescue 911. 2 - Most Wanted. 3. Funny home videos. 4. Cops.

"Then he said, 'Which one of those do you want to do the most?' And I said Cops. He said fine. We met with Barry Diller. Fox initially ordered 45 episodes a year. We cut back to 36 so that we could have a life. We're in our 15th season now."

Luke: "Did that Supreme Court media tag along ruling affect you?"

John: "No. There's a big misunderstanding about it. The Supreme Court ruled that if somebody accompanies the police on to private property, they are subject to being sued by whoever owns the private company. The case came about because CBS News had accompanied the police on a raid.

"It's an interesting constitutional issue pitting the Fourth Amendment (against unreasonable search and seizure) and the First Amendment (free speech).

"The ruling got misinterpreted in the media as no more ride-alongs, which is nonsense. For Cops, we always get permission from everybody anyway so it doesn't matter. We have far more strictures than the news. They can show everything they want."

Luke: "Why do people sign releases to be on your show?"

John: "Fame."

Luke: "If you were arrested, would you sign a release?"

John: "Of course I would. I've told my children the same. Cops has become part of the pop culture. People who will yell, 'Get that news camera away from me.' But when they hear that it is cops, they go, 'Oh, that's cool.' And they sign releases. You tell me why. I don't know why. Maybe it's because it is part of the landscape now. It's cool to be on Cops."

Luke: "You had that producer who was arrested for drunk driving."

John: "Yes. He was cashiered from his position because of that. He's no longer allowed to go into the field. He's in a purely editorial capacity now."

Luke: "Your wife works with you."

John: "Now that the kids are raised, she's become more active. We've produced a couple of films together.

"A few years ago, I started a website Crime.com with the sole purpose of reverse convergence. Right in the middle of the dot com madness, as bubbles are bursting all over, I started an internet company called Crime.com. It was everything you ever wanted to know about crime - information, news, entertainment... I wanted to turn it into a channel. I ended up selling it to USA Networks and being a cofounder of the cable channel, which has yet to launch. And also being responsible for all the original programming."

Luke: "What's your reaction to reality programming like Survivor?"

John: "I see it as reality-based gameshows. It's a distinct genre, apart from reality programming.

"The media need labels. They need categorical imperatives."

Luke: "What shows have you been working on?"

John: "Not much. I'm picky. I doubt that in television I will ever succeed the impact of Cops. It's the best idea I've had for television entertainment."

Luke: "Have you had to tone down the violence on Cops?"

John: "No. The interesting thing about television is that you can show all the blood and guts you want. You just have to avoid sex and language. I've had some interesting discussions with Standards and Practices [internal network censorship units] over the years. For instance, you can't say 'Jesus Christ' or 'God damn it' on television. Yet I can show homicide. To me, a murder is far more obscene than language. I always try to push the envelope as far as possible. Not to exploit, but to be as real and as raw as possible because that's the programming mandate for the show. I wanted to show you reality as you have never seen it. You what to show what a homicide scene is and what a high speed chase is. My purpose is not to show blood and guts. I just want to show reality as unvarnished as possible. Cops is an existential variety show. It is unpredictable and immediate and as real as you can get without being there.

"Often there's a confusion between the message and the messenger. I am not a cop and I have never had ambitions to be a cop. I'm a child of the '60s. If you would've told me that I was going to do a show about cops, I would've said, 'What am I going to call it? Pigs?' I just happened to get in an arena that was dramatic and started doing documentary films about it that became so-called reality television. And in doing it, I developed respect for people doing it, like cops, paramedics, firemen. Most of these people are in it for pro-social purposes. By and large, these guys are the good guys.

"When something like 9/11 happens, there's a great urge for order."

Luke: "What did you think of the Bush administration's overtures to Hollywood to play a part in the war on terrorism?"

John: "Deplorable. I am not big on propaganda. The best form of propaganda is an informed populace."

Luke: "Why have you chosen to specialize in crime?"

John: "Why do I do Cops and not Accountants? Certain professions lend themselves to drama. That's why there are so many medical, legal and crime dramas."