From executive producers of NYPD Blue, East New York stars Amanda Warren as Deputy Inspector Regina Haywood, the newly promoted boss of the 74th Precinct, in East New York - a working-class neighborhood on the edge of Brooklyn in the midst of social upheaval and the early seeds of gentrification. With family ties to the area, Haywood is determined to deploy creative methods to protect her beloved community with the help of her officers and detectives, if she can get the skeptics on board with her plan. Regina Haywood has a vision: she and the squad of the 74th Precinct will not only serve their community - they'll become part of it.
Within the first minute of the pilot episode of East New York, I surprisingly let out a very audible gasp - the escalation of events to one pivotal scene hooked me. Writing a diverse ensemble police drama, especially one centered around a Black female lead isn't an easy task, yet co-creators and co-showrunners Mike Flynn and William M. Finkelstein do it so effortlessly. The next forty minutes that followed was chock full of interesting character development, A and B storylines and great dialogue to boot.
I had the great opportunity of speaking with Mike Flynn about how an article was the perfect tinder to create this very specific show, their process in establishing character voices and tone, specific symbolic wardrobe choices, and so much more.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Knowing that this was inspired by an article that was sent your way, how were you able to find a story within that piece, and create this world and develop this ensemble of characters?
Mike Flynn: Well, I think with a police drama we definitely wanted to kind tackle it from a character standpoint. We wanted to see who would be put in a hot seat, in terms of coming into a show and how will we dive into the world and I think the best approach to that part of the process was kind of figuring out who this Regina Haywood character was. It's an ensemble show and we have a lot of great characters that offer a different perspective. But I think we wanted to kind of focus on a new commander coming into an established system and inside of an established house, so to speak. So, it's like, ‘OK, who is this new person coming to take over and what kind of ideas is she implicating?’ That was the approach to it. From that, we kind of built out the word of the neighborhood in which she was a police in. We kind of wanted to set it in an area that hadn't necessarily been seen on television.
Sadie: I can sense just from the pilot that you're going to be juggling with a lot of themes and hot-button topics. For Regina, finding her voice and establishing her point of view in this world as both a professional, in this particular role, especially a Black woman fully in charge, which we rarely see in the media, and who she is as a person outside of her career. How much research went into those specificities?
Mike: We spoke with some consultants and officers, women who have held positions from in uniform all the way up to a chief; experiences of women cops that I've encountered throughout my life - I have some family members who work in law enforcement as well. William, the co-creator, he dealt with cops for as long as he's been writing like NYPD Blue. He's come across a wealth of knowledge and people I think in terms of just how do they navigate that world and throughout the philosophy of policing all the way from the top and going all the way to the bottom. Also, it’s like how do we approach certain situations - would a white cop approach it the same way that a Black cop would? Those are the kinds of questions that we try to ask ourselves, as far as storytellers, in terms of what would elicit the highest point of emotion and what would tell the greatest story. And also within that, we want to build a foundation on it, being truthful and being as authentic as we can to people who actually live in that environment and deal with it every day. That's something we wanted to really kind of truly understand.
In terms of getting the perspective of a woman in the patriarchal kind of industry, it's like, how do they get there? Get across their goals and what they're trying to do in terms of the job, but at the same time, they have to serve the people in the community and neighborhood, so it's like a kind of balancing act between personal and professional life and incorporate this world to make a well-rounded drama.
Sadie: Yeah exactly. That reminds me of this great one-liner from Chief John Suarez to Regina Haywood on her first day, “Welcome to East New York.” It perfectly encapsulates what we’re about to get into with Regina on this journey.
You’re doing so much in this pilot episode, from establishing the tone and your ensemble of characters. How much work were you two doing ahead of time breaking backstories?
Mike: I think it was a notion of like you said, who these characters are and what can they expect from this new commander coming in, and are they going to have any opposition to what she's doing? And so I think by kind of not necessarily splitting the house down the middle, who's on this side and who's on that side, but you get a nice array of different opinions about this new commander coming in. You get the conservative side and get a more open-minded side, the curious side, you get the nervous mind.
Building new characters we also went towards certain relationships, or which characters are going to be, as far as the pilot goes, which characters are going to be paired off and how can we build these stories up, but they also leave room open down the line in the series, ‘OK, we haven't seen Regina interact with Bentley, and how does that work?’ kind of storyline - we build between this rookie, versus this new woman who's coming in and she's a chief, but you know, essentially she's new to the world and to this precinct. So, you kind of get that viewpoint.
I think there's a nice balance in terms of cracking open where these people were before Haywood got here and what they were doing before they became cops and why they became cops in the first place. I think that was all necessary and important factors in terms of these characters and why we're telling this story right now.
Sadie: Yeah, it’s an interesting perspective and showing the humanity of cops, because as we all know in this day and age, it's very black and white, no pun intended. But making that decision to give both sides of the picture a voice, I’m curious what was the toughest challenge for you two in terms of what were the deciding factors to move forward with storylines in what you and can’t say?
Mike: We decided to closely observe and be mindful of what's going on in the world in terms of the relations between cops in the community and how the media is telling this story and building this narrative around policing in America. One thing we didn't want to say is out the gate these cops are all heroes, and this is why they're heroes and this is why you need to watch the show. That's not what we wanted to do. We want to tell you that these are flawed characters and they made mistakes, but are they willing to learn from those mistakes and learn from the mistakes of others who work in their field?
I don't think there's necessarily something that we definitely didn't want to say. We didn’t want it to be preachy obviously, we didn't want to come off as the recruiting tool for the police force. We kind of want to leave that in neutral ground to where you wait for the audience to decide how do they fall in love with these characters - do they want more from these characters? Do they want this character when they get their comeuppance, in some form of fashion, but I think that's the journey that you've taken. And on a TV show, in my mind, it's about discovering.
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Sadie: I’m not sure if this was intentional, but Regina’s red coat, felt like it was symbolic as a cape.
Mike: Yes! That's something that when our costume designer came to us - we kind of wanted to give her the notion of we want her to have a statement that she is a woman in uniform, but what does she wear on the outside of that - and when she came in with that red coat, we were all over it. This entails who she is and when she's running down the street, it flaps blowing in the wind - I hope people take notice of that and I'm glad that you brought that up.
Sadie: Working with your director Michael Robin, what was that creative process like and establishing the visual tone and rhythm of this show?
Mike: I got to really sit back and watch a master at work - that was my takeaway from that because every day he had his vision on how to come into the scene and give lessons of inspiration. Like, he pointed out stuff that I really didn't really see, like, ‘OK, he's coming at it from this angle, from this perspective, but his point of view is telling a particular beat in this scene.’
I had asked him how many times he had produced and when he told me the number I was like, 'Well, you know what you're doing.' [laughs] Hopefully it'll be a successful partnership that continues on beyond the pilot, but I was just in awe of what he did every day. I said, ‘Man, you're like the Godfather,’ [laughs] you come in and kiss the ring and hopefully keep this thing going but it was great. I have nothing but great things to say about that. That was my experience.
Sadie: Working with your actors, in terms of casting, you have a great balance of both dramatic and comedic players here. Once the casting was in place, did you find yourselves reworking character voices, intentions, or anything like that?
Mike: Yeah, that's the conversation that we constantly have with the actors, even after you cast them and we've had a conversation on the terms of, where do you think the character came from? What do you think they want out of this job? We sat down with each of our actors and had a candid conversation about what they thought about it and out of that, we did go back and it did nothing but only make it better, made each character really pop more. I think everybody has a great instinct.
We've worked with some wonderful actors and I'm still in shock with the company that I'm working with, in terms of who we got, what they bring to it, and what they bring to the character. I think it's you really start to find other stuff as you're watching, it's as simple as watching a take in the scene, and maybe there's something that that they said or that they did, that informs so much more about their characters that I didn't even know about. So, I think that was something that was really fascinating to discover and to continue to discover. It's just an open collaboration, I love that about this process.
Sadie: What inspired you to become a writer?
Mike: I kind of go back to when I was a kid, because I played sports a lot, and outside of that time, I had a lot of idle time on my hands. [laughs] Instead of sitting around getting in trouble, I would just start writing stuff because I always had characters in my head, and I had scenarios in my head, and I had a vivid imagination. I think that was the impetus behind me being a storyteller - making up scenarios and getting the gratification of wowing myself and actually not underestimating my capability of telling a story. So, I think it started with that and then taking a turn and being serious about it. I'd watch my favorite movies, and I would ask questions to myself, ‘Why did they have the character do that?’
I went to film school, and I didn't really understand what aspect of filmmaking I wanted to be in, but I felt like the best place to start with was to tell your own story and I didn't see a lot of images that reflected me growing up on television. So that's kind of what sparked me to really get out there and say, ‘OK, if they didn't do it, then hopefully I could come in and contribute to whatever that's missing on television.’ That's what kept me going to push and to go further into this career.
Watch East New York on CBS.