Friday, November 22, 2013

FBI 202 for Crime Fiction Writers: Interview with Scott Nelson, Part 2

by A.M. Khalifa, thriller writer, Google+

"The FBI has screwed up on occasion and folks seem to remember the bad things that happen more than the good things that occur daily."

On Tuesday, I ran the first part of my interview with Scott Nelson, the film industry’s leading technical expert on all matters FBI.  Mr. Nelson rose to head the FBI's public affairs office where he was instrumental in the creation of America’s Most Wanted, as well as convincing the filmmakers of the Silence of the Lambs to shoot on location at the FBI’s academy in Quantico, Virginia.

In this final segment of the interview, we expand the discussion beyond practical advice for crime fiction writers. He reflects on the times his life was in danger, his reputation as one of America's best door-shooters, and his work as one of the most sought after FBI technical experts in the film industry. Click here for part 1 of the interview.

A.M. Khalifa: Among your numerous accolades, you are also apparently one of America’s most accomplished door-shooters. What’s that all about?

SN: Well, I've been involved in more than one fugitive hunt and I've also provided advice to Hollywood about difficult door entries. Sometimes, the only way to get in is to breach the locking mechanism with bullets. But, this is definitely the last resort and often only under emergency conditions. In J. Edgar the movie, actors used Thompson Machine guns to blast their way into hoodlum hideouts, and frankly, the biggest problem we had there was clearing the set so no one was hit with hot .45 caliber Thompson Machine gun shells as they rapidly spit out the side of that deadly weapon. The Hollywood prop folks did the rest. And, they did it very well. Those scenes looked real to me even though I knew they were not.

AMK: Talking about guns, was your life ever at risk in the line of duty? 

SN: As a young Marine Captain in Vietnam I was lucky to survive. The biggest and toughest battle we fought was to re-take the historic city of Hue from the North Vietnamese Army who slaughtered thousands of residents and occupied the so-called Citadel there. I was wounded by fragments from an RPG rocket.

As a fairly new FBI Agent in Newark, N.J. - commonly referred to as the broken glass capital of the world - I was involved in a huge bank robbery shootout and hit in the face with lead from a bank robbers 9 mm. Fortunately, no FBI Agents were killed, although the bank robbers weren't so fortunate. One died; one was wounded 52 times; and one escaped injury by clinging to the underside of their getaway car. According to the Judge who tried the case in Federal court, the first shot which was fired by the bank robbers was like the splitting of an atom. All hell broke loose.

AMK: I'm glad you made it through. On a lighter note, you've worked with some top filmmakers. What can you tell us about those experiences?

SN: Filmmakers want to tell an appealing story, often with political and/or social overtones. And they want to do it well and be successful. They want the characters to be human, often with deep flaws that the public can recognize and identify with. They also want to be true to the facts - sometimes. The best filmmakers are able to meld fiction with fact and still deliver an appealing story. Plus, these top filmmakers are typically great story tellers with a sense of drama and context.

AMK: What if a filmmaker refuses to heed your technical advice, how do you resolve that? In other words, what happens when technical accuracy clashes with artistic vision?

SN: That is an interesting question, and a common occurrence. Unless it is a documentary, artistic vision usually wins out. And really that is to be expected in fictional pieces. Fact is, technical accuracy can be boring and difficult to sell.

AMK: Last time you said the notion the FBI is always prone to "screw over local law enforcement " is largely inaccurate. But I do know you have an even bigger pet peeve about how the FBI is depicted in popular culture.

SN: I think an even bigger misconception about the FBI is "that they spy on American Citizens." Not so. The FBI operates strictly within the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Rule of Law. True, they run complicated confidential undercover cases, do court authorized wire taps and often conduct surreptitious, sensitive investigations but they do so within the law and to protect the rights of all Americans. They always balance the intrusiveness of their investigations.

AMK: However, with recent revelations about the activities of the NSA, many people in America are arguably concerned whether all security agencies are indeed adhering to the law. Do you think members of the public have a hard time differentiating between one law enforcement agency and the other, and lump them all together as “the government”?

SN: I think many Americans recognize the FBI, but certainly they are fuzzy on the Bureau's investigative jurisdiction - over 350 different criminal violations - and the legal and administrative basis for their investigations. Plus, the FBI has screwed up on occasion and folks seem to remember the bad things that happen more than the good things that occur daily. I do think many folks confuse the various agencies and typically lump them all together. As I recall, there are approximately 19,000 local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies out there. And that doesn't include the intelligence agencies like NSA and CIA etc.

AMK: We spoke about the risk of copy-cat criminals getting inspired by fiction. Recently and after the Boston bombings, Rolling Stone magazine found out the hard way how the public feels about glorifying terrorists. Do you think the mass media is increasingly trying to blur the lines between good and evil?

SN: Yes I do, either consciously or subconsciously. First of all, Evil sells. Big time and that is what the public wants to see. And, evil often fits the media social view that criminals aren't really responsible for their actions and that our capitalistic system is in fact predatory and unfair to the less privileged. Therefore, the good guys deserve to be punished by the bad guys because this levels the playing field.

AMK: I know your work with your private firm and as a technical consultant for the entertainment industries allows you little time for one-on-one literary consultancy with writers. Would you make an exception for a particular project, and what would that be?

SN: Well, even though I find crime writing interesting, time and previous commitments have in the past made this a little difficult. However, I would make an exception for a particular project, time and interest allowing. I guess this would be on a case by case basis.

AMK: Finally, what book did you just finish reading, and what’s next on your reading list? 

SN: Funny you ask. I just finished your book Terminal Rage and also Charlie One Five - A Marine Company's Vietnam War by good friend and Marine Corps author Nick Warr. Like your book, Nick's latest offering is powerful and telling. Charlie One Five tells about a conflict where we never lost a battle but lost the war. And sadly many, many of America's best and brightest. 

From a personal perspective, I find my combat Marine Corps experience correlates with crime stories, particularly from the violent sides, and the dangerous leadership situations that occur during each and every young Marines combat experience. However, boring college text books are next on my list. I teach an ethics/law class next spring so I'm preparing for that course.

Readers: Do you like your FBI agents served nerdy and smart, or strong and infallible? And writers: What challenges do you face when depicting your law enforcement protagonists?

If you have any questions for Scott Nelson, please post them in the comments section below and I will field them and try to get Scott to answer as many of as possible.

A.M. Khalifa, author of international thrillers, writes exhilarating, contemporary stories pulsating with life and unforgettable characters. His debut novel, Terminal Rage, is a layered thrill ride that moves seamlessly from inside a nerve-wracking hostage situation to far-flung locations across the world, challenging readers to stay ahead of its unpredictable plot.

The ebook version of Terminal Rage is now on sale for $2.99 on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo


  1. Thanks for a great two-part post, AM.

    As a writer, it's important to me to make my LEO characters human, whether they're on the nerdy side or the strong side. That would mean they are indeed fallible, but strong enough and committed enough to avoid serious error. Usually. ;-)

    1. That should have been SMART enough and committed enough. I need more coffee! Sheesh.

  2. Great interview, A.M., both part I and this one! Informative and interesting! :-)

  3. I enjoyed the interview but I have to disagree with this comment: "And, evil often fits the media social view that criminals aren't really responsible for their actions and that our capitalistic system is in fact predatory and unfair to the less privileged. Therefore, the good guys deserve to be punished by the bad guys because this levels the playing field."

    I don't believe the media absolves criminals of responsibility, nor does it view capitalism as predatory. The media is owned by corporations.

    And what makes you say the media promotes the idea that good guys need to be punished to level the playing field? Who are the good guys you're talking about? In my world, FBI agents are the good guys, and no one wants to see the bad guys (bank robbers, terrorist, hostage takers) win.

    Are you talking about corporate crime? In which bankers commit fraud and various other crimes against the less fortunate? Just because a guy is wearing a suit and a Rolex doesn't mean he's automatically one of the good guys. And personally, I'd rather see a banker who rips off his customers for millions spend more time in jail than a hungry, poor person who steals food to stay alive. Does does that make me a bad guy?

    1. Not sure what Scott meant, but you make some good points here, LJ.

    2. Popping in as a non-journalist, at least beyond my school years.

      Media, unless it clearly fluff or biased, does not exist to entertain me, or influence me, or even educate me. It exists to inform me. I will come to my own conclusions.

  4. First of all, fantastic interview! Yay, you!:) Secondly, I do understand your points, L. J. Sellers. However, I must say that I also feel like I understand what Mr. Nelson meant. It is true that we live in a society where evil sells. In that same society, the rationale for many stands that ultimately, "It's okay if he or she does this or that because he or she has dealt with soooo much in his or her past..." I feel that the media and social avenues enforce this train of thought. It's wrong, but what can be done? They keep spitting it out, and as a society, we keep gobbling it up. And yes, it does seem like many out there side with the base half of their psyches and pull for the underdog with bad intentions but a "big heart" to win out. I also feel that many do believe our capitalistic system is unfair to the less privileged, which in turn gives those less privileged a right to "stick it to the man" every now and again. I live in an area where many people with those same thoughts and principles take major advantage of the system just because they can, which in turn ruins everything for those that truly could be helped. And thus, the circle continues and spins out of control. All that to say, I do not feel at all that what Mr. Nelson said was far-fetched, but simply an astute response.

  5. I kind of scratched my head when I read this, too. While it's possible I missed something (and perhaps the comment required further explanation) as a former member of the televisions news media, I can't recall any instance where we didn't hold criminals responsible for their acts. In fact, we were at times relentless about it, following them all they way through the trial process until sentencing.

    As for saying we advocate that a capitalistic system is predatory or unfair to the underprivileged, I'm not sure it's fair to make such a broad generality. It was our job to uncover social wrongs no matter who committed them. If some were in fact a result of a capitalistic system, I'd think our willingness to explore that showed impartiality rather than a bias.

  6. I'm also scratching my head as I don't often see the "media social view that criminals aren't really responsible for their actions" much less the other part about capitalism.

    Bottom line for me is broad generalizations of any stripe are to be avoided at all costs. To be sure, an example (or a few) can be found for even the most outlandish stereotype, but that doesn't mean that validate that stereotype. Life is a broad spectrum that resembles a bell curve in that there are extremes and the more common middle.

  7. Looks like the interview of a former FBI agent has stimulated some excellent discussion here! Lots of food for thought in all these comments!

  8. But if he meant "a few powerful filmmakers in Hollywood," that's what he should have said. Those people do not equal the media. Andrew and I are both former journalists, so we have a much different, and broader idea, of who the media is.

  9. As I see it we have actually three topics. The media and the Entertainment industry, The law enforcement and the elephant in the room that is our judicial system. I'll try to be brief, and explain.
    The media lost their power of informing long time ago, and became in my opinion bad entertainers. It seems that all news agencies say the same things almost verbatim, and facts and independent analysis are often lost. Actually, we receive better analysis and information from comedians (i.e. John Stewart, or Bill Maher). On the other hand the Entertainment industry does not have a responsibility to be accurate as they are here to entertain not to educate. The public at large is at fault here. Why believe a movie that is supposed to be a work of art, for entertainment purposes, and expect our news to be entertaining and less informative? I prefer boring accurate and objective news and fantastic movies. Basically, the news should be informative not just gossip or spin on a juicy subject. Entertainment is entertainment, or should we put a disclaimer on all movies "this is a fiction don't believe it"?
    A writer will romanticize and embellish reality, so we, as consumer, would like to read it. That's THE job of the writer. When in the '70s we embraced the psychological aspect of crime and the reason behind it, there wasn't a movie or story that didn't stop to tell us what happen to the hero in the past, and there is always the line " my father this... or that". Then we gave explanation to the criminal's behavior and why he is such a monster. Well, it is movies! There are good cops and a few bad cops, but when someone has a gun pointed at him, there is a good chance they won't think twice before responding in kind. The law enforcer has a tough job, there might be some bad among them. But when risking their life and then seeing the "bad" guy evade justice because he had a rough childhood, it is difficult to accept.
    In the Japanese literature, we see bad and evil almost at the same "level" the hero is 55% good and 45% in the dark side, while the villain has 55% bad and 45% good. This makes the protagonists more humans. We like to glorify to the extreme our heroes (Superman, Batman, etc.) and this transpire to the media, it is all black and white there are no shades of grey.
    Finally, the elephant in the room, our judicial system, allows the criminals to get away with murder. The lawyers can strike a deal, plea bargain, etc. Nobody pays, as long as they have chips to bargain with. Then the writers get inspired and according to the spin they want to give to the story, they let go of a dangerous murderer and torture the hero and we love it. But in real life, as a lawyer friend of mine said "it is very boring" only in movie you'll have fun watching a trial.
    We like to be entertained, the impact of the image is very powerful and movie makers should be responsible (with great power come great responsibility), on the other hand you'll never see a criminal watching a painting of Goya and go kill someone, do you?

    1. Slim, you make some great points! The only point I strongly disagree with is this one: Then the writers ... let go of a dangerous murderer and torture the hero and we love it." I would absolutely hate to read a book or watch a movie where that happened! Especially the hero getting tortured! Are there actually readers who love that, or was that just thrown in as a one-time extreme example?

    2. I hope that's what he meant. Otherwise I'm going to have to stop reading thrillers!

    3. Don't think I'll do either, A.M.! I'll just read thrillers by authors I know and trust, so no nasty surprises at the end!

      By the way, I recently got Netflix and now I'm hooked on the TV series, Breaking Bad. Watched the first 4 episodes of Season 1 last night, and now I'm on Episode 5. Addictive!

    4. Thank you for your comments, Jodie. What I meant by "torture the hero" is more a psychological "torture" rather than physical one. The hero, in my comments, would catch a criminal, and the sleazy lawyer gets him off, hence "torturing" the hero, etc.. Apparent defeat and then the hero comes back winning.
      Since you mentioned Breaking Bad, you'll see an unorthodox hero, almost like the Japanese ones. :-)

    5. Thanks for that clarification, Slim! Actually, when you think of it, the whole storyline of most thrillers consists of continually challenging the hero with major or minor problems, with all kinds of defeats and setbacks along the way. Through courage, determination, and resourcefulness, the hero keeps persisting and usually (thankfully!) wins out in the end! So we readers can cheer and feel we've somehow played a part in one victory over evil. Or at least that's what I advise in my book, Writing a Killer Thriller.

      And I finished Season One of Breaking Bad last night - OMG! That show is addictive, but I'm going to have to alternate it with some light, fluffy viewing so I can sleep afterward! :-)

  10. I'm just catching up on a LOT of back-reading. So all I can say here - thanks. An interesting read. Much appreciated. (Both parts.)


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