Preparing for a Legal (Courtroom) Drama
"Everything that guy just said is bullshit. Thank you."
The year - 2011. The location - the living room of my parents' home in Singapore. I had just wrapped principal photography of my first feature film, True Love the previous night, literally. Reading the newspaper whilst having my breakfast, I came across a very interesting article. It was about a lawyer who had spent the past 6 years trying to save a man from the gallows for a murder he did not commit. As I read through the events leading up to the man's eventual release, all I think about is, " Wow there really is a movie in this!" There hasn't been a legal drama movie about Singapore's judicial system before. An inspiring true story about a man's determination to stand firm with his principles for a fellow Singaporean who has been convicted for a crime out of prejudice.
What is a legal (courtroom) drama?
A legal drama is defined as a genre of film in which the system of justice plays a critical role in the film's narrative. I prefer to call it a legal drama instead of courtroom drama because though the narratives usually focus on the legal practice, the justice system, following the lives of the fictional attorneys, defendants, plaintiffs, the main characters do not always have to be lawyers in a courthouse or the majority of the scenes do not have to take place in front of a judge and jury( Singapore doesn't have a jury system, which could be another film by itself.1*) The film can have multiple personalities in multiple settings and still fall into the category of a legal drama.
The mantle of the film's psychological, climactic, or essential scenes will be derived from the core of the story which is the judicial system's action or inaction. A legal drama's objective is to propose a moral dilemma to the audience. By laying out the facts of the "case", will draw the viewers into the story for an emotional connection to take place.
As a crime junkie, any story with even the slightest hint of the criminal element will get my interest and my writing wheel spinning. Especially movies about the judicial system are definitely worth watching because they are always dramatic, full of plot twists, delve into emotional responses to tense situations highlighting the law system's action or inaction. I've seen my fair share of them from TV shows like Ally McBeal to To Kill a Mockingbird. Below are 2 classic films that I am using as references as I build the foundation of my legal drama project.
12 Angry Men
Even though the legal aspects of some of the events that transpire in the jury room are beyond what would be acceptable (the introduction of the knife, the speculation about the woman’s glasses), the film has been held up by the American Bar Association as a model for the workings of the justice system.
The trick of the film is that you may reach the end and feel that the defendant must have been innocent. As some time passes, however, the details of the case seep back in and you realize that on the balance of probabilities he probably did it. The concept of reasonable doubt may have let a murderer go free but isn’t that preferable to see an innocent man die?
With this film, Akira Kurosawa, the filmmaker, actually wanted to make a tribute to silent films, and as silence takes over large parts of the movie, the focus on cinematography is even greater than usual.
His framing often includes triangular compositions, with the one who speaks shot in close-up in order to give emphasis. As he uses dolly shots and pans, his camera moves perpetually, giving a sense of continuity in every scene.
Furthermore, his visual style gives meaning to each sequence. Take, for example, the scenes in the court. The setting looks extremely pure, in an open and well-lighted space where even the sand seems to be smooth, as this is a place where justice rules. On the contrary, the scenes in the forest are filled with shadows, and even the small amounts of light find it difficult to pass through the thick branches.
3 Essentials for Writing a Legal Drama
As I began writing the treatment, I researched how to write a legal drama and the expectations of the audience. As expected there are plenty of essentials/elements that go into writing this particular genre. I've narrowed down the 3 that is most relevant to me 4*
Contents of the Trial:
The contents of the trial are essential to courtroom dramas. The audience has to know how the legal system was involved and for what reasons. Thus, this is where the bulk of the background information and time-period perspectives come into play.
What the contents of the trial show the audience is how life was during the era in which the movie is taking place. Many courtroom dramas are based on real-life cases that revolutionized societal ways.
The contents of the trial should intrigue the audience and create a cathartic appeal. As previously mentioned, they are where the most riveting elements of the film are usually found, centering around betrayal, murder, or general injustices.
Whose Side Are We, the Audience, On?:
Depending on the contents of the trial, it may not be a matter of decision for who the audience sides with. When it comes to films like Marshall, Denial and On the Basis of Sex, where the stories center around acts of injustice regarding one’s race, religion, or sex, the audience is presumed and expected on the side of the honorable protagonists.
On the other hand, some courtroom dramas don’t make the verdict so easy to come to, for example, 12 Angry men.
The audience may or may not be expected to pick sides for specific characters. When it comes to murders and crimes, many courtroom dramas tend to build suspense around who the right guy is and who the wrong guy is, but in cases of injustice, the right and wrong guys are generally apparent from the get-go.
Unexpected Twists In the Case:
Whether it be a surprise witness, the discovery of new evidence, or even a sudden revelation, twists are prevalent in every courtroom drama. There has to be something to keep the audience on their toes. It needs to throw everything— the entire court— into a state of disbelief. It’s the gasp moment.
12 Angry Men is an excellent example of a film that has multiple twists. These twists allow opinions to form and alter. The first comes when Juror 8 (in the video above)shows that he owns the same switchblade as the accused, casting doubt regarding the uniqueness of the weapon.
The final twist is when Juror 9 realizes that the key witness couldn’t have had to put on her glasses in order to see the crime take place.
Twists need to make sense and actually relate to the story. Luckily, life is full of twists and turns. With real-life events often inspiring courtroom dramas, twists are readily available to us. What’s important is that we present them with the emotion and integrity they deserve.
Though the idea for the story began 10 years ago, I must confess that I had only been sporadically been working on the development of it for a variety of reasons and excuses. It wasn't until the past 2 months that have I been actively writing the treatment. I've applied for a few grants since then with the goal to win some development money to hire a couple of screenwriters ( I'm not a real screenwriter ;) A good segway, one of the reasons that took my time away from the project development, is that I have been working on Sagittly, a film production software. The goal of the software is to aid filmmakers with project development. By providing filmmakers a platform to develop their treatment by being able to write down their logline, synopsis, character bio, and screenplay and share it with collaborators, the goal is that they will spend more time creating rather than organizing.