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Peter Berg Discusses the Controversy Over "Wonderland."

Actor, writer, director and producer Peter Berg. He is the creator and executive producer of the new controversial ABC series Wonderland. The show is set in a mental hospital. Some call it the most accurate portrayal of the mentally ill on network television, while some mental health organizations say that the series further stigmatizes mental patients. As an actor, Peter Berg has started on the TV show Chicago Hope, and has appeared in movies like The Last seduction, Copland, and the Great White Hype. Berg spent 8 months in New York’s Bellevue hospital, doing research, and observing patients and doctors for the series.

18:45

Other segments from the episode on April 11, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 11, 2000: Interview with Jim Jarmusch; Interview with Peter Berg.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: APRIL 11, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 041101np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch Discusses `Ghost Dog'
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

On today's FRESH AIR, film director Jim Jarmusch on his new movie, "Ghost Dog," starring Forrest Whitaker as a hit man for the mob who follows the code of the samurai.

Also, ABC has just put the controversial new program "Wonderland" on hiatus. We'll talk with the program's creator, Peter Berg. "Wonderland" is set in a mental hospital and is based on the research Berg did at New York's Bellevue Hospital.

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First, the news.

(BREAK)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "GHOST DOG")

FORREST WHITAKER, ACTOR: The way of the samurai is found in death, meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: That's Forrest Whitaker as a hit man named Ghost Dog who follows the code of the samurai in the movie "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai." My guest is the film's writer and director, Jim Jarmusch, who also made "Stranger Than Paradise," "Down by Law," "Mystery Train," "Night on Earth," and "Dead Man."

The hit man in this movie lives alone on a rooftop and works for Louie, a small-time member of the Mafia who once saved Ghost Dog's life. Louie is part of a gang of losers. In this scene, Louie is told by his mob boss that he has to reveal the secret identity of his hit man.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "GHOST DOG")

ACTOR: Now, what the (bleep) is his name?

ACTOR: Ghost Dog.

ACTOR: What?

ACTOR: Ghost Dog.

ACTOR: Ghost Dog?

ACTOR: He said Ghost Dog.

ACTOR: Yes, he calls himself Ghost Dog. I'm -- I love these black guys today, these gangsta-type guys. They all got names like that they make up for themselves.

ACTOR: Is that true?

ACTOR: Sure.

ACTOR: He means, like, the rappers, you know, the rappers. They all got names like that, Snoop Doggy Dog, Ice Cube, Q-Tip, Method Man. My favorite was always Flavor Flavor (ph) from Public Enemy. (rapping) We got the funky fresh flyer flavor, lively looks in the bank (inaudible), (inaudible) technicality, to a dope track (ph). I love that guy.

ACTOR: I don't know anything about that. But it makes me think about Indians. You know, they got names like Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Rain Bear, Black Dog. (makes mooing sound)

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: The film "Ghost Dog" is both comedy and tragedy, a reflection on the meaning of life and death, and a study in contrast between cultures in America and between the code of the Mafia and the code of the samurai.

The Ghost Dog character follows the code that he's learned from the book "Haga Kure (ph)," "The Book of the Samurai." How did you come across this book?

JIM JARMUSCH, "GHOST DOG": Well, this -- the book was actually given to me while I was writing the script. And I had read other books about samurai culture and bushido. There's another book called "Code of the Samurai" which was written by -- and also by an old samurai. But this book is particularly beautiful because it's written in, like, little aphorisms, and each one is separated by a little Japanese symbol called a mancho.

And they're not really hierarchical in terms of content or subject. So you'll have one small text that is very philosophical, and the next one may be about, you know, how to clean your shoes. And I really liked that kind of nonhierarchical guide to being a samurai.

And also the form of the book influenced the form of the film, because -- in the way that those little symbols separate each text in the book, I kind of reversed that and used quotes from the "Haga Kure" as little separations in the film itself, like little breathing spaces, like -- almost like a little running commentary on what informs Ghost Dog as a samurai, like, where does it come from?

GROSS: The Ghost Dog character is somebody who was nearly killed by some neighborhood hoods, and he was saved by this small-time Mafia guy, and ever since then Ghost Dog has been the hit man for this Mafia guy in return for the favor of saving his life.

The Ghost Dog character, you know, in reading the samurai book, reads this line, "Meditation on death should be performed daily. And every day, one should consider oneself as dead." And in some ways I think that's almost the theme of the movie, this meditation on death.

Tell me why that struck such a chord for you.

JARMUSCH: Well, I started -- the real genesis of the project, and I don't really know why, but I wanted to make a portrait of a character that was a contradiction, that was someone whose life was very violent, who is a hit man, but we would find some reason to respect him or even like him. And in the "Haga Kure," or preparation for being a samurai, one is prepared for death at any moment, and that's one of the foremost, you know, elements of being a samurai or a bushido.

And why, you know, why that appeals to me, I'm not exactly sure, I'm not very analytical. But I do know that philosophies that consider death as part of life and are kind of cyclical speak to me much more directly than, for example, religious philosophies that are based on being rewarded or punished, you know, in the afterlife.

GROSS: Well, when I was watching "Ghost Dog," I was thinking, you must have been thinking a lot about death, because both "Ghost Dog" and your earlier film, "Dead Man," are about people who have been saved from death but are facing their imminent death. And in "Dead Man," a Native American prepares an elaborate death ritual for this young white man who has been shot and is dying, and this ritual is to create a decent journey into the next world. In "Ghost Dog," the Forrest Whitaker character has studied "The Book of the Samurai" and has learned to face death through that.

And in a way, by facing death, he also learns how to live. I guess I'm...

JARMUSCH: Yes.

GROSS: ... I guess I'm wondering how much reading you've done about other cultures' philosophies toward death.

JARMUSCH: Well, quite a bit, and not in preparation for anything, but just out of interest. And, you know, these two particular philosophies -- in "Dead Man," it comes from aboriginal -- North American aboriginal culture, and in "Ghost Dog" it comes from an Eastern Zen culture. And both of those philosophies are very much concerned with life and death being part of the same thing, in fact, all things being one thing.

So I -- you know, over the years I guess I've read a lot of different philosophies from different cultures, but, you know, I'm really not a big fan of religions or philosophies that seem to be intent on controlling people. Like the idea of -- you know, I was raised a Christian. I sort of lost that, well, pretty early on, when I was told that animals don't have souls, which kind of freaked me out, because I had a dog, and my dog had a soul.

So I also don't -- it seems like -- almost like a game show technique, Christianity, like if you behave well, in the afterlife you'll either get paradise, or you'll get the inferno. It's like, you know, what's behind door number two or door number three? It's kind of an odd philosophy to me.

So I have been drawn toward those that consider things to be circular and cyclical.

GROSS: So you've done a lot of reading. Have you ever immersed yourself in any of the disciplines that you've read about?

JARMUSCH: No, I haven't. I'm not very disciplined. (laughs)

GROSS: (laughs)

JARMUSCH: I'm more interested in the philosophies and how they -- you know, what they -- how they affect my thought processes, rather than, you know, really disciplined. Although there's a guy who worked on "Ghost Dog" briefly, he appears in the background in a scene and performs a few martial arts moves on a guy that's, like, trying to steal...

GROSS: Oh, yes.

JARMUSCH: ... something from him. And that's Sifu Yan-Ming (ph). He's a Shaolin priest from China that lives in New York, and I got a lot of respect for him. And I may study with him on some level in the near future. I certainly would like to, but I haven't started yet. I don't know how much it would be, you know, physical and how much philosophical. But he said he would like to, you know, devise some program for me specifically.

Some of the Wu-Tang study with Yan-Ming, and they've actually given him some money for a prayer room in his school and have been big supporters of his.

GROSS: So is your interest in studying martial arts to do it as a discipline or to do it for self-defense?

JARMUSCH: It would be definitely as a discipline. For self-defense, you know, I'd rather just carry a gun.

GROSS: Which you probably don't...

JARMUSCH: I'm joking.

GROSS: ... right, yes. (laughs)

JARMUSCH: I don't, no.

GROSS: Right.

JARMUSCH: No. But it was -- you know, it's a combination, what -- and you see in "Ghost Dog," for example, when Forrest Whitaker became that character -- he studied martial arts since he was 10 or 11 years old, and in the film, he -- when he uses his weapons, which are modern handguns, automatic guns with laser sights and silencers, he handles them like a sword. He even uses physical movements that are similar to the way a samurai or a martial artist would use a sword. And a sword is an extension of one's arm, which is an extension of one's body, which is an extension of one's chi or one's soul.

And so, you know, all those things are completely interconnected in Eastern philosophy, and even in the study of martial arts. So, you know, I'm interested in the connectiveness of those things, and if I did -- if I do study it, it would be, you know, trying to discover those connections.

GROSS: I don't know if you'll think this is a fair analysis or not, but it seems to me some of your early films, like "Stranger Than Paradise," were kind of absurdist, you know, kind of searching for meaning and not sure if there was any and having a kind of absurdist outlook, whereas your last couple of films have, like, found meaning in understanding death and facing it.

JARMUSCH: Well, you know, it's hard for me to analyze those things. I don't -- once my films are done and I've seen them with a paying audience, I really never look at them again. So I try not to, like -- I don't know, to analyze my own work. I'm really more intuitive, and just like to go forward. So it's hard for me to chart those things or say, you know, what affected you at what point in your life and changed your work in that way.

I don't really know, I just try to keep making them, you know, intuitively. So I have no good answer for that.

GROSS: My guest is Jim Jarmusch, and he wrote and directed the new movie "Ghost Dog: The Code of the Samurai."

Now, you wrote the part of Ghost Dog for Forrest Whitaker. What was it about -- did the character happen first, or did you decide to write something for Forrest Whitaker first?

JARMUSCH: Well, I had a vague idea for this character, this desire to try to make a contradictory character who was violent, but we would see something deeper in him and respect him. And that was the very beginning. And then, of course, I started searching in my head, like, well, who can I imagine as this character?

And Forrest Whitaker kept returning and returning. And so I called him up and talked to him -- I had met him a couple of times briefly. But I called him up and said, "Look, I have this idea, I want to proceed writing it with you in mind. Is that OK with you? I'm not going to, you know, try to commit you to the project until I have a completed script." And he said yes. You know, I told him what I knew thus far.

And so I started there, and, you know, what attracted me to Forrest is, his presence is somewhat contradictory. He's very gentle, and there's definitely a kind of depth to him that you feel right away, and you feel it when you see him on screen. And yet he's also a big, imposing guy. He's studied martial arts. There's another side to him. And I wanted to get that kind of a balance.

And it's a very difficult character to ask an actor to play, a character who doesn't talk much, he doesn't really act out, he's very centered and reserved and reactive. And Forrest is a really, really amazing actor in terms of reacting, which I think is the essence of acting.

And just tiny things can fleet across his face and say a lot more than probably pages of dialogue. So I proceeded, you know, writing for him, and in the end, when the script was done, he agreed to do it.

GROSS: You know, he has one eye that's kind of swollen and hooded, and, you know, and it looks different from his other eye. And I think it's a real asset for him. I think he knows how to use his eyes in such a way that sometimes that more swollen eye makes him look more vulnerable and bruised, and other times it can make him look more kind of threatening and unpredictable.

JARMUSCH: Yes, that's true, and it -- you know, and I was somewhat aware of that, just not designing the shots, but I was aware of that from different angles too. But it's really something -- I'm not sure how aware of it he is or not, but, you know, there's a kind of asymmetry that has a real emotional effect in his face, definitely.

GROSS: In your acknowledgments at the end of the credits, you thank Jean-Pierre Melville (ph), the French filmmaker. Tell me what -- tell me about his influence on you and on this film.

JARMUSCH: Well, Melville made very, very beautiful French gangster films, and what I really love about Melville is that he did mix different things together, like, his films are very, very French, in a way. "Ghost Dog" quotes "Le Samurai," that starred Alain Delon. There are a lot -- I really love all of his films. Like, he will have these French gangsters dressed in a very American style with shark-skin suits, and they drive through Paris in big American cars.

And he kind of mixes things together. There's something -- even his film "Le Samurai," of course, was a big inspiration for "Ghost Dog," because he uses a kind of Eastern style. The center of the character of Alain Delon is essentially a samurai. He doesn't go as far as Ghost Dog goes to give you references as to, you know, what code he follows. But he definitely refers to, you know, an Eastern way of thinking or of acting.

And I don't know, I really -- I love the way Melville mixes things together, and he's very particular in that way.

But there were other films too. There's a film that was also very inspirational, my second favorite hit man movie of all time after "Le Samurai," which is a film called "Branded to Kill," a Japanese film from, I think, 1967 by Seijun Suzuki that is a really bizarre, beautiful mixture of many things.

It's a black and white Cinemascope film, and it really verges at times on surrealism, but it is also a -- certainly a gangster film, and it pretty much ended the career of Seijun Suzuki with the Japanese studio that he worked with because they considered the film to be just too strange.

GROSS: My guest is Jim Jarmusch, writer and director of the new film "Ghost Dog." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: My guest is Jim Jarmusch. He wrote and directed the new movie "Ghost Dog."

Ever since "Life Is Beautiful," I've been, you know, wondering about you, Jim Jarmusch, because you're the person, I believe, who first used Roberto Benigni in an American film, and that was in your film "Down by Law." So I consider you, like, partially responsible, for better or worse, for unleashing (laughs) Benigni on America.

So would you like to reflect on his success since that time?

JARMUSCH: Well, you know, we remain really good friends. We worked together, we made a short film after "Down by Law" with Steven Wright (ph) and Roberto called "Coffee and Cigarettes," and then he was in a film that I made called "Night on Earth." And we plan to do something again in the future, but it's not really set up yet, or what it will be.

But, you know, Roberto is such an amazing character, just an amazing person, and really, nothing that he would ever -- could do would really surprise me. So when "Life Is Beautiful" was, you know, such a big success, and suddenly there's Roberto at the Academy Awards, you know, part of me was surprised, but another part of me was not surprised at all. I mean, I just -- it's hard -- I don't know what Roberto might do next, you know? He's just really an amazing character.

GROSS: Did you see his film?

JARMUSCH: I did, yes.

GROSS: Like it?

JARMUSCH: Well, it's very difficult for me to be really objective, because Roberto and Nicoletta Brasci (ph) are really close friends, and the intention of the film was so loving and beautiful that, you know, I reacted emotionally in that way. But at the same time, I'm not sure it's, like, my -- the type of film I might have reacted to in the same way if I was able to be more objective. You know, it's hard to just -- to really say -- to analyze it as a film.

But I know what -- their intentions came through very strongly, and, you know, was a -- it was a very loving, beautiful message in their film.

GROSS: Another famous casting moment in your personal history, in your movie "Mystery Train," which was set in Memphis, where Elvis fans and Sun Records fans are paying their pilgrimage to Memphis, the person playing the ghost of Elvis is Paula Jones's husband, Paula Jones of the sexual harassment case against President Clinton.

JARMUSCH: That's right.

GROSS: You must have been mighty surprised when that story broke.

JARMUSCH: Yes, I was pretty surprised. I think actually Paula Jones came to the set one time to get -- you know, pick up her husband, I think, Steve. But I don't know, I don't know if they're still together. I haven't really followed their lives. But yes, that was pretty odd.

But I thought you were going to ask me about Screamin' Jay Hawkins, who appears in "Mystery Train."

GROSS: He passed away recently.

JARMUSCH: Yes, and that really hit me hard. He was, like -- I considered him like an eccentric uncle that you dearly love and thought would outlive you definitely, you know. I just never felt we would lose him. So that was, like, to me, losing a kind of national treasure and someone really that I really loved, so that was a hard one.

GROSS: Yes. But...

JARMUSCH: The thing is, you know, Screamin' Jay Hawkins was -- his idols were, like, Caruso, and he always wanted to -- and Paul Robeson. You know, he always wanted to sing opera. And right before his death, he was preparing to finally record an operatic record. So that was kind of sad. That was always his dream, and he didn't get to do it.

GROSS: Jim Jarmusch wrote and directed the new film "Ghost Dog." He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(AUDIO CLIP, "I PUT A SPELL ON YOU," SCREAMIN' JAY HAWKINS)

(BREAK)

GROSS: Coming up, creating a TV drama set in a mental hospital. We talk with Peter Berg about "Wonderland." The show has been controversial and got low ratings. The network just put it on hiatus.

And we continue our conversation with film director Jim Jarmusch.

(BREAK)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

I'm Terry Gross, back with Jim Jarmusch, director and writer of the new movie "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," starring Forrest Whitaker as a hit man for a Mafia family.

Now, the music sound track for "Ghost Dog" was composed by Rizza (ph), who was one of the founders of the hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan. And I like the sound track score a lot, and it's kind of like this minimalist hip-hop techno stuff that has this melodic line that almost reminds me of, like, an old folk melody. It's a really odd mix of sounds.

What did you tell him you wanted?

JARMUSCH: Well, I've been a big fan of his work since the first Wu-Tang record, "Enter the Wu-Tang." And, you know, I told him that wanted his kind of -- I don't know how to describe his music, but it's very -- his Wu-Tang earlier stuff is very atmospheric and dark, and yet very delicate at times. And, you know, he does mix a lot of really interesting things together.

And his sense of rhythm is very particular, very identifiable, although a lot of, you know, DJs and producers have imitated him, I can still tell you what's Rizza. It's like listening to Monk or someone with a signature.

And initially I -- you know, that's what I told him, and he had agreed to do the score actually before we shot the film, to do it. He didn't start writing it until after he saw a rough cut of the film. And it's funny, because the first music he brought to me was, in my mind, not appropriate for the film. He wrote very -- not conventional, but a kind of score with synthesized strings and really amazing music, but I thought it was more appropriate to, like, a John Wu film or, like, a Hong Kong action film.

And then I told him, "Yes, but I want that more dark sort of edgy or more minimal stuff that, you know, that you're known for as the Rizza," because he's also known as Bobby Digital, and he makes different music if he's Bobby Digital than when he's Rizza.

So then he said, "Yes, I understand," and then he reappeared a few weeks later with incredible music, exactly what I wanted. And then a couple weeks later he gave me even more. In the end, we had too much music for the film.

GROSS: Well, let's hear some of Rizza's music from the sound track of "Ghost Dog."

(AUDIO CLIP, MUSIC FROM THE SOUND TRACK OF "GHOST DOG," RIZZA)

GROSS: Music from the sound track of "Ghost Dog." My guest is Jim Jarmusch, who wrote and directed the film.

In "Ghost Dog," Forrest Whitaker lives on a rooftop. He's created a little shack on the rooftop. And he lives there with a lot of pigeons. He sends messages by carrier pigeon, and he loves these birds. I really only know of carrier pigeons through movies, you know, particularly "On the Waterfront," in which the Marlon Brando character, you know, has pigeons and really, you know, loves them, and it -- they bring out his sensitivity. (laughs)

Have you ever, like, actually seen a rooftop with carrier pigeons?

JARMUSCH: Oh, yes, definitely. Well, not carrier pigeons. They have been extinct since 1914. But yes, right behind where I live on the Lower East Side, for years and years there was a coop in the building just behind mine, and I used to watch them often, especially on weekends when he'd fly them on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

And it was very, very -- just visually interesting, because when they flipped directions, depending on where the -- how the light was hitting them, they would often flip from being backlit to frontlit, and therefore from black to white, and would fly in these swirling patterns. And, you know, it was some old Italian guy that had them and was always smoking cigars out there and waving his flag to bring them back down.

And then in researching the film, I met quite a few different pigeon guys that keeps -- keep pigeons, both in Manhattan and up in Spanish Harlem in Manhattan, and in Jersey City and other places, in Brooklyn. And boy, I'll tell you, it's a really weird subculture of people who keep birds.

GROSS: What's weird about it?

JARMUSCH: Well, they're just such strangely different kinds of people, you know? I met these guys up in Spanish Harlem. I'd really like to make a documentary film about them. They -- wow, they have this wild rooftop setting in an abandoned building that's, like, a kind of drug building, and they have, like, a -- some kind of Rotweiler up there that they say is very gentle, but is chained up because she'll jump on you.

And they have maybe 600 birds, and they just really -- two guys really interesting, wild characters. They -- there are birds that will -- homing pigeons that will return to them, so those are the birds they choose to sell, like, they'll sell them for...

GROSS: (laughs)

JARMUSCH: ... five bucks, and couple days later they're back, you know.

GROSS: (inaudible) (laughs)

JARMUSCH: So they were really fascinating. Also across from them on Morningside Heights, there are some peregrine falcons that are nesting, and they sometimes come and snatch a bird from their, you know, their flock of pigeons while in flight. And they were really, you know, fascinated by that. It was horrifying to them. But they said, you know, It's all part of survival. We, you know, we got to give in order to survive as far as our birds go. So, you know, sometimes we watch some falcon come and snatch one of our birds away.

GROSS: It seems that now there's a lot of young independent filmmakers who make that independent film and then land that big commercial deal and get catapulted into the world of major motion pictures. You haven't really done that world. Would you like to stay out of it, or just keep going your own way?

JARMUSCH: Yes, I'm happy being whatever I am, marginal or -- as long as, you know -- I am tired of being called -- my films being called quirky, I must say.

GROSS: (laughs)

JARMUSCH: You know, I think any critic or reviewer who uses the word "quirky" in reference to anything that's, like, slightly left of the mainstream should be hunted down and -- I don't know what, shipped off to Gilligan's Island forever or something. But I -- I don't...

GROSS: What's so irksome about the word "quirky"?

JARMUSCH: I don't know, every review -- any film or record that's, like, alternative or whatever label they use, is always called "quirky." And I'm starting to get -- you know, I'm starting to get ready to -- I don't know, take action against the word "quirky."

GROSS: (laughs) Well, watch out.

JARMUSCH: Yes, I know, do you ever wake up and just feel quirky? I don't know, I got a quirk in my neck. I don't get this word "quirky."

But anyway, I lost -- now I lost the question. Oh...

GROSS: Oh, about making it into -- in...

JARMUSCH: Yes, because I'm just too damn quirky.

GROSS: ... (inaudible) commercial pictures. Right.

JARMUSCH: Yes, I'm just too damn quirky for that. No, I -- you know, I didn't calculate, like, I will make films, like, outside the mainstream, or I will make this type of film. I just intuitively -- I love the form of cinema, and I'm just trying to learn how to do it and how to use it. And, you know, this is a world where almost everything is valued -- or its value is assessed in the marketplace, which doesn't interest me.

And I don't know, I'm just not really drawn -- I think I would make very bad commercial films, or I'd end up in jail for having to work with -- having people tell me how to make a film. It's just not my strength, that's for sure. So I'm going to keep trying to do what I do as long as I can, and eventually, if they stop me, I don't know, I'll figure out something else to do.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

JARMUSCH: Well, thanks a lot for having me. It was nice talking to you.

GROSS: Jim Jarmusch wrote and directed the new film "Ghost Dog."

Coming up, the creator of the TV series "Wonderland."

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Jim Jarmusch
High: Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has a new movie called "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," starring Forrest Whitaker. Jarmusch often acts as writer, director and producer of his films. His other films include "Stranger Than Paradise," "Down by Law," "Mystery Train," "Night on Earth," and "Year of the Horse."
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Art

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch Discusses `Ghost Dog'

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: APRIL 12, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 041102NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Peter Berg Discusses `Wonderland'
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:45

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "WONDERLAND")

ACTOR: My name is Wendell Brickel, and I got a problem with eyeball pressure. And I can tell because of the burning up inside of my shoulders, both of the hot spots where my transmitter and receiver are packed in.

ACTOR: I know my ABCs. A is for addiction. B is for beta-blockers. C is for compulsion, D for delusions, E is for electroconvulsive therapy, F for fear. G is for grandiose delusions. H is for hallucinations. Insomnia, judgment, Kleinfelter syndrome, lithium, mania, narcissism, obsession, panic disorder, Quinzepam...

(END AUDIO CLIP)

TERRY GROSS, HOST: That's a scene from "Wonderland," the TV series set in a public psychiatric hospital. Today, after only two episodes, ABC announced it was putting the series on hiatus.

"Wonderland" received many rave reviews, but ratings were low, and the series was controversial. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill condemned the series for portraying patients as killers, crazies, and freaks, reinforcing ignorance and stigma.

Late last week, before the series was placed on hiatus, I spoke with "Wonderland's" creator, Peter Berg. He also produced the series and wrote the first episode. He was already familiar to many TV viewers from his role on the hospital series "Chicago Hope" as Dr. Billy Kronk. Berg also co-starred in the film "The Last Seduction" and directed the movie "Very Bad Things."

Let's hear another scene from "Wonderland." Michelle Forbes plays Dr. Lila Garrity, head of the comprehensive psychiatric emergency program. In the first episode, a man who hasn't been taking his medicine goes on a shooting spree, killing several people, including a couple of cops. Dr. Garrity had actually evaluated him a few days earlier and decided that he shouldn't be admitted.

In the second episode, she's given a hearing within the hospital to determine whether she should be fired. Here's what she says in her defense.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "WONDERLAND")

MICHELLE FORBES, ACTRESS: My job in CPEP is to catch what I can't see. I catch ghosts. Mental illness is not visible. There are no machines, there are no MRIs or CAT scans or X-rays, there's no amount of blood work or DNA sampling that can help me to predict a human being's behavior from one minute to the next.

And until someone is able to invent a machine that can help me to see a neurotransmitter misfiring, invent a machine to put me inside the cornea of a patient who is seeing Satan or inside the eardrum of someone who is receiving homicidal instructions from a toaster oven, until then, I will continue to make decisions based largely upon my gut instinct.

That is my instrument.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: Last week, I asked "Wonderland's" creator, Peter Berg, about his reaction to the criticisms from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

PETER BERG, "WONDERLAND": Not to this degree. I think that, you know, something that I've come to appreciate is the amount of anger, pain, and frustration that the mental health community feels. It's a community that feels they've been neglected, that feels that they've been in a large part misunderstood and certainly misrepresented by the media.

And I think that what our show has done, somewhat inadvertently, is to shine a light on a world that has been forced to live in the dark, so to speak, and that light is irritable and un -- become very unsettling to many people.

And it was not -- it was never our intention to cause any kind of, you know, substantive pain or uncomfort. We are, again, just trying to present a world that we observed over the course of eight months at a psychiatric hospital in New York.

GROSS: Why did you want to do a TV series set in a psychiatric hospital?

BERG: The world of psychiatric hospitals has always been of interest to me. When I was in college in St. Paul, Minnesota, I volunteered at an adult halfway house for schizophrenics called the Hewitt (ph) House, where I was the night manager. And I spent quite a bit of time getting to know adult schizophrenics. And I was very intrigued by the way their minds worked and by the way their minds did not work, and they way they functioned.

And prior to that, when I was growing up in Westchester, New York, my mother was volunteering at a psychiatric hospital in White Plains, and she used to come home with stories about what she had seen and what had happened to her during the course of her days at this hospital in White Plains.

And I was -- I remember being profoundly impressed with the inspiration that she took from the hospital. And I think that both that and my experience at the halfway house in Minnesota sort of laid the groundwork for just a genuine interest I had in the world.

Then it was films like "The Titticut Follies," which was a documentary made by Frederick Wiseman, I believe in 1967, which I encourage anyone to see. Certainly "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was formative. And at a certain point it occurred to me that I had never seen any kind of -- what I believed to be realistic portrayal of life in a psychiatric hospital. I thought it might make for compelling drama.

GROSS: Now, you did, what, eight months of research at Bellevue. Why did you choose Bellevue as the hospital where you wanted to do your research in?

BERG: I guess that Bellevue always sort of represented the mecca of psychiatric care in my mind. It was certainly a hospital I'd always heard of growing up in New York. I had heard -- the name is just sort of ingrained in the city's character. And the notion of a psychiatric hospital of that scope and size located smack dab in the middle of Manhattan was somewhat intriguing to me.

So I sort of just kind of followed my nose, and it led me to Bellevue, and I made contact with several psychiatrists at the hospital, and just started to spend as much time as possible there. And it was and is, remains as one of the most inspiring and fascinating melting pots of human activity that I've ever encountered. It's a remarkable hospital, it really is.

GROSS: How much time did you spend there each day, and where did you place yourself?

BERG: The amount of time I would spend there would vary, but one thing that always impressed me was that I would go to the hospital, I would start talking to a doctor, and I would start talking to some patients. And I would look at my watch, and it would be, say, 8:00 in the morning. And I'd talk for a while, I'd look back down, and it would be 3 in the afternoon. The time would fly. I would -- it was that interesting of a place to be.

But I divided my time mainly between two places in the hospital, which I thought -- and, you know, for a show, had the most dramatic potential. One is what they call the CPEP, which is the comprehensive psychiatric emergency program, which is basically a standard emergency room but only for psych cases. There's no medical, medical equipment in it.

It's a bunch of psychiatrists, a bunch of psychiatric interns and med students and people who, from a variety of walks of life, come in because their minds are not working. Some of them come in on their own, on their own, some of them are brought in by police or by EMTs or by families. And it could be anyone from a Wall Street stockbroker who tried to commit suicide because his wife left him to a homeless man who's gone off his medications and is having a severe psychotic episode.

And it's acute. People are in a fairly agitated state of duress when they come in there, so as a result, it's a pretty -- it's a pretty dramatic place to spend time.

GROSS: The character of the head of the comprehensive psychiatric emergency program is also pregnant. She's quite pregnant, and in the first episode, she's stabbed in the stomach with a hypodermic needle by the man who has killed people after neglecting to take his medicine.

BERG: Well, that's not entirely accurate. She's not stabbed by him. She -- a patient tries to hurt himself with the needle. She grabs the needle, trying to save the patient, and there's a may rice (ph), and police try and break it up. And it's a complete accident. She actually falls on the needle. But the patient is -- does not actively stab her.

GROSS: Oh, I didn't quite get that. I see. OK. So...

BERG: Take it out again, you'll see.

GROSS: (laughs) OK.

BERG: She's, she's, she's, she's trying to protect the patient from harming himself, and she's struggling with him, and he's trying to hurt himself with the needle. She's trying to prevent that from happening. Two police officers sort of charge in a bit too aggressively, flip a gurney over, and in the accident, in the fall, the needle punctures her stomach.

GROSS: Now, that seems like it's...

BERG: Yes? (laughs)

GROSS: I'm trying to find the right words. It seems like the kind of drama that you'd expect on TV that I'm not sure how often happens quite like that in real life.

BERG: Maybe. I -- you know, that's clearly the -- I think they estimated that when that moment happened in the show, I think there were 21 million people watching "Wonderland" when that needle accident occurred. At the moment it happened, 3 million people turned their televisions off. This clearly was a shocking, a shocking image and a shocking scene.

GROSS: Is it good or bad for you as a writer and producer to know that you create this scene and it causes 3 million people to turn out? I mean, this is the kind of exact empiricism you have now in television. It could be a kind of inhibiting thing. The message you could get is, Uh-oh, better not do that again.

BERG: Well, there were also...

GROSS: They're not going to be that provocative again.

BERG: Right. I also look at it as, you know, 3 million people turned off, but 17 million people didn't. And those are acceptable, the losses, for me, again considering that I believe we're doing a show that is certainly not going to be everybody's idea of fun around the fireplace, you know, (inaudible)...

GROSS: Oh, I'm glad you say that. I'm going to stop right here and say that, you know, I've had people come up to me and say, It's an interesting series, but I don't know who's going to watch it, because it's very disturbing subject matter, it's very upsetting, it's very depressing.

BERG: Right. You know, again, I guess -- the -- certainly the first show is as disturbing as anything I've ever seen on television. All the remaining eight shows, I don't believe, are. You know, that being said, after eight months in a -- observing life in a psych -- in a public psychiatric hospital, I really felt there was only one way we could do the show, and the more time the writers spent and the more we saw, the more convinced we were that this is how the show should be.

And if it -- it fundamentally becomes something that, you know, provides too much of a rub for viewers and they would rather flip the channel and watch something a little less -- I don't know what the word is, demanding, upsetting, challenging, confrontational -- that entertainment's certainly available. But to do an honest job and to respect the doctors and the patients we saw, we felt that this was how the show had to feel.

GROSS: My guest is Peter Berg, creator of the ABC-TV series "Wonderland," which was just put on hiatus by the network. More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: (audio interrupt) ... creator of the ABC-TV series "Wonderland," which is set in a public psychiatric hospital. After just two episodes, today ABC placed the series on hiatus. I spoke with Berg last week.

Now, one of the doctors in the series, the doctor that heads up the forensics psychiatry department, is played by Ted Levine, who our audience will probably know best as the psychotic serial killer in "Silence of the Lambs." It seems almost like a joke, in a way, an in-joke, you know, to take the person who is best known as playing a serial killer and make him the forensic doctor.

BERG: I -- you know, a little bit. Ted's...

GROSS: He's very good. (laughs)

BERG: I can't deny that there's a, there's a, there's a certain perverse appeal to that, to that. But the bottom line with Ted for me is that he's just, I think, in my opinion, one of the finest actors working, working today, and I've always been a big fan of Ted's. But to me the casting of Ted is -- and -- is representative of our -- again, our attempt to create a world in which we could explore the psychology of all -- of all of the -- of all of our -- of all the characters in the show, doctors as well as patients.

And what I think we looked for with the five, the five leads were actors that wore their psychology on their sleeves. And I think for better or for worse, all of our principal characters are delightfully damaged souls. And they keep, they keep it together, but not always so well.

GROSS: What was it like for you to pitch the show to network executives? I don't know how many networks you went to before actually making a deal. But what was the way you described it when you were trying to get somebody to pick up the show?

BERG: I was pretty, I was pretty broad. I didn't -- I'm a huge research freak, and to me, to try and front-load a pitch and kind of go in and say you're going to do a show, and it's -- and you're going to go into a lot of detail about a pitch without doing research is, I think -- I just can't -- it's just not the way I like to work, I...

And so my approach to the pitch -- and we only pitched it to one person. The first person I pitched it to was actually a company called Imagine, which is Brian Glasier (ph), Ron Howard, and Tony Kranz's (ph) company. And I just kind of said, I want to go live in Bellevue for eight months, and I'll come out of it with a television show. (laughs)

And they kind of said, What? I said, I want to go live in a psychiatric hospital for eight months, and I'll come out of it with a show. And they paused and they kind of said, Hmm, OK. And we went to ABC with that basic pitch, and they paused and also said OK. And I said, I'll see you in eight months, and eight months later I came back, I came out of the -- I came out of the, the hospital with the script, which I think everybody responded quite well to.

The concern then was the concern now, that at the end of the day, it probably would be interesting or it would probably be compelling, but that it just might be a bit too dark.

And what happened, this is kind of a funny story, I -- well, they let me go off and shoot the pilot. I presented them with the pilot. They all, they all loved it but felt that it was too dark, and they said they weren't going to order it. And I was really depressed. I'd worked -- you know, I'd put about a year of my life into it. I was not, not doing well. And I said the best thing I could do is just go back to New York and start writing another script, just throw myself into something else.

I like to write in New York, I like to write in small hotel rooms without any distraction. It was 10:00 at night in New York. I was sitting in this hotel writing. My heart wasn't into it. The phone rang, and it was a woman's voice saying that Michael Eisner was calling me from California.

And I thought it was one of my best friends just kind of playing a joke on me, because Michael Eisner runs Disney, and Disney did my show, I thought it was a joke being played on me. So I, like, swore at the woman and hung up the phone. And about two minutes later the phone rang again, and it was Michael Eisner saying, "I don't know who you're swearing at, but this is Michael Eisner, please don't hang up on me. I want to talk to you about your show."

And I apologized, you know, several times, and he said it was OK. And we talked about the show for over an hour. And he expressed his interest in the show, and his concerns. And I thought he was incredibly articulate, and I was amazed at how much he was able to offer. And because of his support, the show got picked up.

GROSS: Is there a lot more heartburn involved in producing, directing, and writing a series than there is in just acting in one?

BERG: You better believe it. I discovered a phrase called "the heart wall." I never knew that phrase.

GROSS: (laughs)

BERG: And when it started to burn, I realized that I had one, and that it's a problem. The -- running a television show is an extraordinary exercise in human management, and coming from the background that I did, which was basically, you know, just being an actor, I was not entirely prepared for the amount of management, the amount of stress, the amount of ego stroking, the amount of concentration that I would have to develop if I was to keep it together. I made a lot of mistakes. I didn't always do it was well as I could have.

But I also learned quite a bit, and I think by the end we were starting to come together and figure out kind of who worked for the show and what kind of people served the show well and what kind of people, for whatever reason, just couldn't, couldn't serve the show as well. And we just started coming together by the end. But it's a wild ride, running a television show, no question about it.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

BERG: No, it's my pleasure. I'm a big fan of the program.

GROSS: Peter Berg is the creator of the TV series "Wonderland." Our interview was recorded last week. Today ABC placed the series on hiatus after broadcasting only two episodes.

I'm Terry Gross.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Peter Berg
High: Actor, writer, director and producer Peter Berg is the creator and executive producer of the new controversial ABC series "Wonderland." The show is set in a mental hospital. Some call it the most accurate portrayal of the mentally ill on network television, while some mental health organizations say that the series further stigmatizes mental patients. As an actor, Peter Berg has started on the TV show "Chicago Hope" and has appeared in movies like "The Last seduction," "Copland" and "The Great White Hype." Berg spent eight months in New York's Bellevue hospital, doing research, and observing patients and doctors for the series.
Spec: Entertainment; Television and Radio; Health and Medicine

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Peter Berg Discusses `Wonderland'
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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