It was a suggestion by The Innocence Project's Barry Scheck to Tony Goldwyn and Richard LaGravenese that provided a real spark to WE TV's first original scripted drama, “The Divide.”
Goldwyn, an actor-producer-director-writer, had made a film called “Conviction.” Starring Hilary Swank, it was based on a true story of a working mother who goes to law school in an effort to represent her brother, who has been wrongfully convicted of murder and has exhausted his chances to appeal.
“I, pretty much, like a lot of people, assumed that if you are put in prison, you probably did something pretty wrong,” says Goldwyn.
But he says getting to know Scheck and others at the Innocence Project, an organization that assists prisoners who could be proved innocent through DNA testing, as well as some of those who have been exonerated, he became fascinated with the process.
During the making of “Conviction” Goldwyn had become friends with LaGravenese — the screenwriter of “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Water for Elephants” and “Behind the Candelabra” — and the two began looking for a project to work on together.
Goldwyn, who plays President Fitzgerald Grant on ABC's hit melodrama “Scandal,” suggested that they pursue something provocative dealing with The Innocence Project for television.
“I realized that violent crime has an impact on everyone involved, whether it's the attorneys, the police, the families or the victims,” he says. “When a person is put into jail for something they didn't do, (many) people's lives are irrevocably changed.”
LaGravenese says they decided that they didn't want to focus the story on somebody in The Innocence Project, because those people are so “selfless.”
“The Innocence Project is really very fertile ground to do character stories where everybody has their reasons to understand that you may not agree with someone's action,” he said. “They may actually cross a boundary or cross that divide. But to understand their story and their reasons for doing it became kind of the thematic idea for the characters.”
Instead, they decided to concentrate on a prosecutor who got it wrong.
Originally, the idea for the series was to make the prosecutor white and the inmate on death row black, “which was statistically more likely,” notes Goldwyn. “So I told Barry about it and he thought it was a great idea but we should flip it.”
For LaGravenese and Goldwyn, that simple switch opened up all sorts of possibilities in the series, including the decision to set it in Philadelphia, which has had its own racial problems.
“The Divide” focuses on the city's charismatic African-American district attorney Adam Page (Damon Gupton), who prosecuted two white men for the murder of a black family. A last-ditch appeal by a young Philadelphia lawyer named Christine Rosa (Marin Ireland), who has joined the Innocence Initiative, begins to cast doubt about the conviction of the white men just days before the execution of one of them.
The reopening of the case also stirs complicated feelings among those on both sides, including Adam's wife (Nia Long), a lawyer herself, and his father (Clarke Peters), whose own days as part of the civil-rights movement has given him a different perspective on race than his son.
LaGravenese and Goldwyn initially sold “The Divide” to AMC, renowned for dramas like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” but the network wanted to expand the scope of its sister network, WE, known for reality fare like “Bridezillas” and reruns of “Law & Order,” and suggested the series could do for WE what “Mad Men” had done for AMC.
Another reason Philadelphia was chosen is because Pennsylvania has the death penalty with lethal injection, and the current controversy about using drugs in executions plays into the early plot of the show.
However, the racial tensions remain an important aspect.
With President Obama in the White House, we were supposedly living in a post-racial society, notes Goldwyn. Instead, suggests LaGravenese, “We've seen racism go underground and then coming out in a much more powerful way.”
Though “The Divide” has not been picked up for season two yet, LaGravenese and Goldwyn promise that the mystery of the first season will be resolved by the end. But they also plan to “create some messy tremors (that) will hopefully launch into season two,” LaGravenese notes.
The veteran screenwriter says it's harder to get serious drama made today.
“The film industry has gotten a little more constrictive because studios are making more franchise kind of movies. The kind of stuff that I wrote in the '90s, I don't know that I'd be able to do those kinds of movies now. So I love television.”