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The Salon: Creator of TV Dramas Delves into the Dark Side

 

VEENA SUD '89

Like many Barnard undergraduates, Veena Sud used her time at college to explore new worlds, but hers were a far cry from the ones most students pursue. During her freshman year, she visited Chinatown with a police officer from the vice squad for a crash course on the sex industry. “I’ve always been fascinated by law and order, and dark, gritty worlds,” she says. That fascination—bolstered by the research she has done on criminals and the police since the age of 16—laid the groundwork for a successful career writing and producing such TV shows as Cold Case and The Killing.

After Barnard, Sud spent several years working as a journalist at Pacifica Radio and at the media-watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. She also married and had a son. In her spare time, she made experimental films like Stretchmark, a semi-autobiographical piece about being a single mother.

At 28, she enrolled at New York University’s film school, where she studied with Spike Lee, who allowed Sud and his other students to view rough cuts of the movie on which he was working. After graduation, she spent a year directing MTV’s The Real World, then made her way to Los Angeles. She landed a job on the short-lived show Push, Nevada before meeting the creator of the CBS police drama Cold Case, who hired her as a writer. Three years later, she became the show’s executive producer. “I got to learn everything at hyper speed,” she says.

In 2010, Sud adapted a moody Danish police drama called Forbrydelsen for American viewers. The Killing was conceived as “an anti-genre cop show with slow-burn storytelling,” Sud says. Eschewing the one-episode resolution of many such shows, each episode of The Killing, set in Seattle, captured one day in the investigation of the murder of teenager Rosie Larsen. But the storytelling focused not just on the police work, but also on the lives of the detectives and the victim’s family. As always, Sud delved into research, meeting with families who had lost children. “It was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had,” she says. “And it became even more important to me to tell their story accurately and authentically.”

Sud also consulted with detectives in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, and took the show’s writers on a visit to the morgue. Her youthful forays into police precincts “emboldened me to ask questions and go places,” she says. “It’s been a useful tool all my life as a writer. I realized what people have to say is much more interesting than what I could make up.” Yet translating that research into a fictional world is “a fine balancing act. You’re a creator of a made-up world and a documentarian. When you inhabit the space in between, you hit your sweet spot,” she says.

As executive producer and head writer for The Killing, Sud worked on everything from creating the budget to studying the color of the leaves outside the windows of the fictional police department. To make the home of the victim’s family look appropriately lived in, Sud would trail crumbs around the kitchen and make sure there were piles of papers scattered on counters. “Visuals are an important part of my storytelling,” she says. “That level of detail seems like it’s not that important, but it is important if you’re trying to suspend disbelief.”

The Killing earned high ratings and critical acclaim. In The New York Times, Ginia Bellafante wrote, “With its lyrical pacing, restrained performances, and a palette so visually cool that it feels as though you are watching from inside a Sub-Zero, The Killing is at once a procedural and a rich exploration of the perils of obsession.” But the show ran into trouble at the end of its first season when the killer was not revealed. Viewers took to the Internet to protest, complaining that they felt cheated. Sud was shocked by the backlash, having always intended to reveal the killer’s identity at the end of the second season. AMC cancelled The Killing in July after its second season concluded, leaving Sud disappointed. “The show has so much more to say,” she says.

After a well-deserved vacation, Sud is back at her writing desk. She is at work on the screenplay for a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 thriller Suspicion for Paramount Pictures. It will be her first feature-film script. With nominations for both an Emmy for outstanding writing and a Writers Guild of America award for her work on The Killing, Sud is poised for a promising career. “The world has so many great stories to be told,” Sud says.

—by Jennifer Altmann