You don't have to write only about what you know, but you do need to know about what it is you write. A common refrain we have all heard over and over again. We aren't expected to know everything in the world but we have to be open to learning about it. How do we do that? We talk to and hire people who know about the areas we seek to learn. It's a great plan, but it's also fraught with danger. Let me use this example as a way of explanation.
When I worked Seized Property for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) we had several items that couldn't be stored in our permanent vault. Whether it be cars, houses, special seizures (such as hundreds of thousands of dollars of vintage wine that needed to in cold storage), or the just plain absurd, like the grizzly bear (supposedly circus trained) that was in the back of a trailer to act a deterrent from the officers finding the thousands of pounds of drugs hidden in there. To fill this void, CBP hired a national contractor to take care of all these special seizures. In turn, the contractor would hire retired CBP employees to oversee the program and make sure everything was correct. The liaison we worked with was a retired Special Agent. He had thirty years in the Agency, twenty of them as a member of management and several extended assignments to Washington DC. The man was connected, he knew it all. Yet, he didn't actually know anything. The national contractor had fallen for the same trap that many filmmakers make when hiring a movie consultant.
- Don't be Blinded by a Resume: There is no doubt our liaison had a great career. He served well and did a lot of great things. But, to put it in perspective, adding on the five years he had been retired and the thirty he served, that put him starting out in the early '70s and had last worked as a Field Agent in the early '80s. I don't know about you, but I don't really think that the long form seizure paperwork they filled out on typewriters, before I was even born, qualified him as an expert on our modern computer tracking systems.
- Agents Really are Special: Special Agent sure sounds like a cool title. That guy must have been down with everything. Well, not exactly. It is well known inside the agency that agents aren't the most detail oriented individuals. They love the thrill of the hunt and the capture. After that, it's high fives and off to the bar. The paperwork? That can wait. We actually lost a court case because the agents were too tired to weigh everything the night they seized it. So they put it in the vault and came back to do it the next day. They then had a rookie sign the chain of custody (for training) even though he wasn't on scene. Basically, they handed it to the defense when he asked how they can be sure all the drugs they weighed the next day came from his client when they didn't know what they took from the scene and the person who vouched for it wasn't even there. Not exactly who you want in charge of your seizure program.
- The Headquarters Trap: The word "Headquarters" is one of those golden resume words. It automatically implies that you were in the thick of the action. You were a decision maker. You had your hand on the pulse of the agency. Actually, Headquarters is pretty detached from the real world of enforcement. They are dreamers. They spend their time collecting reports and issuing new edicts. They sit around and wonder what would look better on officers, a crew or v-neck undershirt. They put out directives that we aren't supposed to say we think someone is lying to us. That would be too mean. Instead we had to say, "I feel you not being entirely truthful with me." You know what they aren't doing? Arresting drug smugglers, interviewing terrorists (and watching us call them liars when need be), crawling under cars on a hot day to look for drugs or clearing a ship's crew on a cold winter night. They only know about the field from what they read in our sanitized reports and the pie in the sky edicts they send out to us. Not exactly the type of person you want consulting on a law enforcement movie.
- Do NOT go to the Source: Nearly every agency has become wise and created a media relations position. It's a smart move. It's what we call, "Controlling the conversation". As a filmmaker looking for information on CBP, you get excited when you see CBP has a person on staff who will talk with you and give you information. But wait...
- You have to remember who that person works for. Hint, it's not you. Their job is to make the agency look as good as they possibly can. They're not going to tell you any dirty laundry. They're going to fill your head with sunshine and rainbows (and unicorns) about how their officers are professional at all times, and never say anything mean, and they have the best equipment, and their supervisors are caring and attentive to their officer's needs, and... you get the point.
So what can this teach us? Make sure you are hiring a person with specific experience in the realm of your story. If you have a story about the backroom politics at a national level, then go after a Headquarters person. If your story is about a local officer, find someone with about five to ten years in who never transitioned away from the field. Have a SWAT story? Make sure you hire someone who actually worked on a SWAT team. Have a completely raw, gritty story that may not put people in the best light? Better not hire the guy provided by the agency whose job it is to make them look good. Don't be blinded by resumes.
*Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Directed by Irvin Kershner. Studio, Lucasfilm (now owned by Disney)