How to slice and dice a serial killer

Times Staff Writer

High above Wilshire Boulevard, scenes from the pilot of “Dexter” were illuminating a tiny editing room. From a couch, Bob Greenblatt, Showtime’s president of entertainment, considered the original version of the bloody series about a well-meaning serial killer -- and compared it to the revised version he’d made for CBS.

CBS will begin airing the 12 episodes of Season 1, or at least parts of them, tonight in another sign of how the networks are tiptoeing into edgier fare.

“The things that are unconventional about it are still 100% there,” Greenblatt promised as scenes of the Miami Police Department, Miami night life and Dexter’s kill room unrolled.

Indeed, the severed head still bounced on the freeway and the mutilated corpse was still neatly laid out by the motel. But profanities, sexual foreplay, genitals secured with plastic wrap? Cut, cut and blurred, even though you couldn’t see anything anyway. You just don’t know what might show up on hi-def, Greenblatt explained.


In personally editing the series, the lanky, low-key executive found himself in an odd predicament. Under his watch, Showtime has earned a reputation for provocative but likable shows you’d never see on broadcast TV. Now he had turned the twisted and darkly humorous series about the Miami forensics expert/serial killer into something a broadcast network would find acceptable.

Just the thought of an edited version for broadcast made both fans and some critics cringe. Could it be done without killing “Dexter’s” beating heart? And could any amount of editing make it proper for mass audiences?

In fact, Greenblatt said, CBS had fewer requested changes than he had expected. As sister networks under Viacom, Showtime and CBS had already considered collaborating on some projects. But as CBS watched the writers strike deplete its cupboards, it was agreed the time was right to let “Dexter” try the transition, the first full cable series to be repeated on a broadcast network. Even with the end of the strike, CBS will air all 12 episodes in Season 1. Showtime, meanwhile, will gear up to start production on Season 3.

Some of the cuts were indeed painful, but Greenblatt said he was happy to give “Dexter” the chance to be seen and appreciated by a larger audience. Because show runners were on strike before last week’s settlement, he took over the editing himself.


Actually, “Dexter” fits in “very nicely” with other procedurals and thrillers on CBS, including the “CSI” franchise, “NCIS” and “Cold Case,” which will lead into “Dexter,” said CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler. “It’s not that grisly of a show. It’s more of a psychological thriller, beautifully executed, with terrific characters, and the writing is great,” she said.

What fans love about the series, however, is that it would never be confused with “CSI Miami” or “Miami Vice.” As played by Michael C. Hall, Dexter narrates his own story in a sardonic monotone that changes as his self-awareness expands. He is well aware the Miami police don’t solve the majority of murders, thus leaving justice up to him and his unbidden and incurable antisocial urges.

As he goes about his business, he also describes his attempts to appear normal, such as forcing himself to find a girlfriend or bringing doughnuts to work. He justifies his sadistic deeds by killing killers only according to the “code of Harry,” rules of acceptable murder as laid down by the police officer who adopted and raised him.

The tone and pace are hot and languid, like the city, and peopled with a nice cultural mix. They include humorously flawed colleagues, such as a female chief on the make, a Spanish-speaking detective whose favorite book is “The Secret,” and Dexter’s own naive and ambitious sister. All speak the everyday profanity of the harshest workplaces.

The editing process wasn’t as daunting as it might seem, Greenblatt said. He started with an already edited and dubbed “clean” version that Showtime routinely makes of all its shows at the same time it is making the originals in anticipation of later syndication.

“Dexter,” preparing to shoot Season 3, isn’t yet ready to follow “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos” into syndication. However, many decisions about what to cut had already been made in an overly cautious edit, Greenblatt said.

Still, he said he “looked at everything” and in some cases was able to put back words like “bitch.” “Hell” and “damn” were also OK.

Replacing other profanities was the most technically challenging task. In the original pilot, Dexter and his nemesis, Sgt. James Doakes (Erik King), have a confrontational scene that sets up their cantankerous relationship. In it, Doakes uses the F-word six times. “We couldn’t do that,” Greenblatt said. At the same time, he said, “We didn’t want to take them all out.”


Instead, he dubbed in other words from the clean version. In one substitution, the mouth movement seems off, but Greenblatt said, “We figured we had to live with that. In one of them, we cut away and you hear it off screen. There are other scenes where Doakes is negative to Dexter, you just don’t hear him say the swear words. It softens it a little bit. That’s the hardest thing we had to deal with,” he said.

Greenblatt is no stranger to the editing room. He spent a decade as an independent producer (“Six Feet Under,” “The Hughleys”) and eight years as a Fox network executive (“The X-Files,” “Ally McBeal”) before joining Showtime. The executive said he remains a producer at heart.

While Writers Guild of America rules did not permit him to touch the editing equipment, he worked by directing “Dexter’s” editor, Louis Cioffi, who operated the equipment.

CBS wasn’t fussy

Greenblatt said CBS executives from Standards and Practices sent over pages of notes, carefully printed out should anyone from the FCC want to check them later. They were surprisingly lenient, he said. Broadcast networks, looking at the success of HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” are “all trying to see how far they can go,” he said. CBS has another midseason show, “Swingtown” (tagline: “Love Thy Neighbor”), a drama about 1970s suburban couples experimenting sexually. “They’re interested in seeing what they can do within what they’re allowed to do; that gets into some more dangerous territory,” Greenblatt said. “ ‘Dexter’ is a good experiment for them.”

Actually, most of the cuts were intended to shorten the show to allow breaks for commercials, he said.

As an example, Cioffi showed a clip of a scene in which Dexter pops up from the back seat of a car and pulls a wire around the driver’s neck, directing him to drive to the “kill room.” “We cut the stuff where he says, ‘Turn here,’ ‘Turn left.’ That saved 20 seconds or so, which I don’t believe you’ll even notice,” Greenblatt said.

The introduction to the pilot, which doesn’t include the familiar blood-splattered graphics, was edited to display the credits which had taken up two minutes at the end of the original. “On CBS no one will sit through two minutes of end credits,” he said. The most painful cuts were for the commercial breaks, he said. “We’re so used to seeing it continuously. . . . We chose the places that were the least interruptive,” he said.


As far as sexuality and overt violence, Greenblatt said there really wasn’t that much in the originals. There are butcher knives, yes, demonic looks, and lots of blood splattered about. There are plastic body parts representing blood-drained bits of flesh. But “the chops all happen off screen,” he said.

In any case, he said, profanity and gore aren’t the most revolutionary aspects of airing the premium-cable crime show on broadcast. Rather, it’s that the show’s main character and the show’s psychologically twisted lead are one and the same.

That is precisely the complaint of the Parents Television Council, which asked CBS last month to cancel the show. No amount of editing could make up for “Dexter” encouraging viewers to root for a serial killer, the council said.

Typically, networks allow anti-social, violent or destructive behavior if consequences clearly follow. After Season 2, Dexter is still free, despite the watchful Doakes.

“But Dexter kills people who deserve to be killed after he’s proven they’ve done the crime,” Greenblatt argued. There’s a fine line between vigilantism and murder, he said.

CBS assured the PTC that “Dexter” would comply with network standards and is scheduled at 10 p.m., the last hour of prime time, known as the “safe harbor” zone for more adult material. The network noted that the appropriate V-chip rating and parental advisories would be shown in advance and during the broadcast.

The PTC also called “Dexter” the “worst example of a disturbing trend” in which more adult-themed programs are migrating from pay cable to broadcast on prime time. “This is the first time such a graphic program has gone from premium cable straight to prime-time broadcast television,” the letter read.

But there was another constituency that CBS executives worried might freak out at certain scenes. That would be advertisers, who for some reason didn’t appreciate seeing someone else’s product in a scene. An Apple icon on a computer? Cut.



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De-cabling ‘Dexter’

The editors of “Dexter” had their work cut out for them in making the edgy show palatable to the Standards and Practices Department at CBS. Here’s how some questionable material was changed:

Problem: Victims tend to be naked and wrapped in cellophane.

Solution No. 1: Send it to a post-production house for optical blurring of the genitals, even if you can’t see anything. You never know what high-def will show.

Solution No. 2: Photo-replicate the duct tape holding the victim down and cover more of the body with it.

Problem: An explicit cover on a porn magazine seen in a waiting room.

Solution: Obscure it with a shaft of light from the window.

Problem: A woman is groping her date in a bar.

Solution: Cut it.

-- Lynn Smith