Writing: The Dying Art. Kaufman on Ace the Case


Since creating the most successful franchise in cable television history (The Real Housewives of Orange County), Ace the Case writer/director Kevin Kaufman has moved on to docu-drama, adding cinematic elements to formerly narration-driven work.

As writer, director and producer, Kaufman has now developed a feature, Ace the Case, in which 10-year-old Olivia (Ripley Sorbo) witnesses a kidnapping and only one detective (Susan Sarandon) will believe her unusual story.

Creative Screenwriting spoke to Kaufman on what screenwriting we can learn from docu-dramas, realistic dialogue for children and working with the biggest rabbit he’s ever seen.

Ripley Sobo as Olivia Haden and Susan Sarandon as Dottie Wheel in Ace the Case. Credit: Kid Witness, LLC. / Gravitas

Ripley Sobo as Olivia Haden and Susan Sarandon as Dottie Wheel in Ace the Case. Credit: Kid Witness, LLC. / Gravitas

Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us a little about your background and how you got into the business.

Kevin Kaufman

Kevin Kaufman

I started out in Camden, New York hoping to make it as a playwright. I was lucky enough to have plays produced off Broadway but to be honest; they were some of the worst plays ever written. I was struggling, couldn’t really make a go of it and segued into a job as a writer/producer for Sports Illustrated Magazine, where I was making film shorts.

I followed the photographers and the writers as they covered special events, so that was my first filmmaking experience. I was a writer/producer doing behind the scenes pseudo-docs that would see how photographers covered the Kentucky Derby or the Super Bowl or a major boxing event.

As thrilling as that was, it was too corporate an environment and I soon learned that you either focused on the work or you focused on the internal politics, and I was really more interested in the work. So, I started my own production company, this goes back a ways, and slowly but surely started getting involved in television production.

My way in was a documentary, we started with a history of Latin Jazz, following it from Africa to Cuba to New York, and that was my first TV production. From there, strangely enough, I created and produced the first season of The Real Housewives of Orange County.

Gretchen Rossi in The Real Housewives of Orange County

Gretchen Rossi in The Real Housewives of Orange County

Long story short, we were pushed out after the first season and I was listless and met a NYPD homicide detective named Rick Tirelli (Pride and Glory, Exposed). 

He was still working as a homicide detective but he was moonlighting as a TV producer on NYPD Blue. He and I hit it off and we started producing docu-dramas. They’re real stories, but then they’re dramatized. Our first client was A&E Networks, we did a series called Watching the Detectives where detectives told their best horror stories and we re-enacted them.

Then we produced a couple seasons of a series for Investigation Discovery called I Married a Monster, which was about women who had been involved with gangsters and their personal stories. Then, finally, for the last three years we were working on a series called The Perfect Murder. These are  intricate whodunits with multiple suspects where ultimately you find out who did it.

I’ve been involved in the crime world, the crime genre, trying to take stories that are real and then dramatizing them as effectively as possible. That’s how I’ve honed my craft.

The Perfect Murder

The Perfect Murder

As far as Ace the Case, there were some elements in the story that we had been marinating with for a long time. We really didn’t know what to do with it. We didn’t know if we should play it as is, should we change the architecture of it?

I had a 25th wedding anniversary coming up and my wife wanted to go to Italy. I had two sons, Miles who was 22 and Jackson who was 14, and it was the first time we had left them home alone. While we were away in Italy, all of my neurotic anxiety and craziness took fruit, and that’s when I thought of the idea of leaving kids home alone, left to their own devices, they back into witnessing a kidnapping. So, that’s how the story was born.

Ripley Sobo as Olivia Haden in Ace the Case. Credit: Kid Witness, LLC. / Gravitas

Ripley Sobo as Olivia Haden in Ace the Case. Credit: Kid Witness, LLC. / Gravitas

So what did you do there? Did you start writing down notes, or did you wait until you got back home?

It was strange, it just came to me quickly and I just started writing scenes. It just came out of me faster than anything had before. I mean, I had been thinking of this kidnapping story for a while, so I backed into that, but initially I wrote it knowing my two kids.

I had the protagonists be the older brother and the younger brother. So then, wisely, my wife said, “You know, that’s not as interesting as you think it is. It might be more interesting if one of them was a girl.” I thought I don’t really know any girls that are 10 or 11 and she says, “Oh no, you do — Detective Tirelli’s daughter.”

Sure enough, I know this girl extremely well. Her name is Olivia, she’s independent, smart, got a mind of her own. As I was re-sculpting the character of the 10 year old, I was able to draw from everything I knew about her. She’s funny, red-headed, so that made that character a little more real to me.

What were some of your other influences for this film? Were there any other movies or TV that comes to mind when you were writing the story?

Doing television, you’re doing a season of 10 or 13 hours. You’ve got to write efficiently. As I was writing it, I knew that I wanted to avoid an expensive, over the top production that wasn’t doable or that wasn’t reasonable.

So I wrote everything as if I was going to shoot it in my own neighborhood, I turned everything local. I put the family in a loft like my own, I knew the streets in my neighborhood that were scary and I knew the parks. New York, if you make it local, can be a small town.

I wanted to have that intimate familiar small town quality, even though you’re in, smack dab, in the middle of New York City. Even though it was cut out, we had a few scenes at the local elementary school. I wrote to what I knew and what I could walk to. Everything had to be within walking distance of my house, at least conceptually.

That made it feel very real to me and very local—more of a neighborhood.

Susan Sarandon as Dottie Wheel in Ace the Case. Credit: Kid Witness, LLC. / Gravitas

Susan Sarandon as Dottie Wheel in Ace the Case. Credit: Kid Witness, LLC. / Gravitas

Are there other ways that reality television or your docu-dramas have changed your perspective of creating fictional work?

You’ve got to boil down, it seems, to their essence. There’s not a lot of fat. The training that you do when you do these docu-dramas, it’s a low form of filmmaking. I always saw it as more of a film story to it, and a lot of these producers who produce these types of television, they don’t even care about the acting.

The actors are more props, they’re more focused on narration, and they don’t really construct these scenes as movie scenes. I pushed our company to take a different approach and make this thing more cinematic, make it feel like a little film short, each scene. It’s a different experience, and it’s harder to do and more time consuming, but it’s more like a film as opposed to god-awful reenactments.

During that training I learned the short-hand, what’s the scene all about? What is the character going through, or what are the changes that have to happen? It’s not just about plot, either. What’s going on, what’s crucial, and what can’t you live without?

I also edited this film, so I’m thinking not only as a writer who wrote the script, and a producer who’s worried about the money, but I want to make sure I’ve got some choices in the editing room so I’ve got some options. Or I know as an editor and a director that that scene was so good that I can walk away from the coverage and just let it live.

Susan Sarandon as Dottie Wheel in Ace the Case. Credit: Kid Witness, LLC. / Gravitas

Susan Sarandon as Dottie Wheel in Ace the Case. Credit: Kid Witness, LLC. / Gravitas

In your series, is it still an equal focus on the overall story arc or is it more about individual scenes?

In The Perfect Murder, it’s more of a whodunit and you follow the detectives; you follow the investigation. You’re at point A and at the end you’re at point Z, so it does have a natural flow, a natural arc. There are basically five acts, and each act you go out on a cliffhanger, there’s a certain formula that you have to adhere to.

But, within those acts, there are a lot of storytelling options. We try to make things more cinematic and more like a narrative film and less like a typical reenactment show. That was the discipline we took to Ace the Case. It wasn’t so far off. Obviously, it was a bigger budget, bigger crew, better actors, like Susan Sarandon (Thelma & Louise, Bull Durham).

That part of it we stepped up the measurement, but I was still trying to tell my story and use all the techniques that I know to keep it dramatic, with cliff-hangers, and thrilling to keep the audience wondering, and not be too obvious, and keep them worried about the girl and the brother while they’re alone. To make it real.

Going into this, when you see movies that feature kids, they’re so unreal. They’re all wise-ass and they don’t talk or act like any kids that I know. I wanted these two characters to feel like kids that I know, with a relationship that felt real.

I’ve got two brothers, older and younger and I know that the dynamic of both loving and hating your siblings at the same moment. That competitiveness and that easily irritated quality, and the love, still. You’ve got to feel all of those emotions at the same time, but it’s got to feel. . . I wanted these characters to be real.

Ripley Sobo as Olivia Haden and Luna Tieu as Mei Wong in Ace the Case. Credit: Kid Witness, LLC. / Gravitas

Ripley Sobo as Olivia Haden and Luna Tieu as Mei Wong in Ace the Case. Credit: Kid Witness, LLC. / Gravitas

Did you write these characters, or shape them in any way, for certain actors?

Once we got Sarandon we expanded her role, obviously. We had a certain number of days and I wanted to squeeze every moment I could. That was a high honor and a challenge. I think she was interested in the character, or playing it where it wasn’t the archetypal female detective who had no sense of style or glamour or was mannish.

I think the Dottie Wheel character feels more like some of the female detectives I’ve worked with or met through Rick. They’re not mannish, they’re multi-dimensional, they’ve got their own family life, they’re attractive, they’re dynamic. They’re not your typical sour, sexless, mannish detectives. With Susan, we did make the relationship between her and Olivia a little more intimate.

We wrote more and sculpted it knowing what an incredible actress we had in our hands, so we wanted to get the most out of her. I think the scenes with Ripley Sobo (Steve Jobs, Batman V. Superman) and Susan are the most interesting ones in the film. There’s a real rapport there. 

You’re the Writer, Editor, Director and you went off and started your own company. For those coming up in the industry that are frustrated with certain aspects of Hollywood, would you recommend either doing multiple roles or starting something on their own?

You know, it’s funny, a lot of people ask me, what’s the best way in? I think the most interesting way in, if you’ve got any talent, is writing. That’s the dying art. That’s the one element that people think of the last, but that’s the most critical.

If the script is weak, no matter how you produce it or who’s acting in it you’re going to have a weak film. I think writing, which helps you if you want to be a producer, or you want to direct, I think that’s the best way in—at least in my experience.

Ripley Sobo as Olivia Haden in Ace the Case. Credit: Kid Witness, LLC. / Gravitas

Ripley Sobo as Olivia Haden in Ace the Case. Credit: Kid Witness, LLC. / Gravitas

Is there anything else that you’d like to share about the film?

The scene with the rabbit. I expected just a normal-looking rabbit to show up, but the person who was wrangling showed up with the biggest rabbit I’ve ever seen in my life. Everybody was laughing hysterically, we were trying to figure out how we’re going to handle this monster. It hit the film with what I wanted which was a little comical and a little crazy.

The actor, Lev Gorn (The Americans, Keane), brought the rabbit into the story. Some of the actors we had talked to, they didn’t get the rabbit. But his grandfather had actually raised rabbits, not to eat but almost as good luck charms. He said that’s the heart of the role. It spoke to his history. He thought that was a sign, so we were honored to get Lev because he’s such a good actor and he was just infatuated with the rabbit.

Featured image: Ripley Sobo as Olivia Haden in Ace the Case. Credit: Kid Witness, LLC. / Gravitas



Brock Swinson

Contributing Writer

Freelance writer and author Brock Swinson hosts the podcast and YouTube series, Creative Principles, which features audio interviews from screenwriters, actors, and directors. Swinson has curated the combined advice from 200+ interviews for his debut non-fiction book 'Ink by the Barrel' which provides advice for those seeking a career as a prolific writer.

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