Interview with Michael Cristalli and Marc Saggese - Primetime TV Show Articles From The TV MegaSite

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By Suzanne

Interview with Michael Cristalli and Marc Saggese (the real-life Las Vegas attorneys who are the inspiration for the new CBS series, "The Defenders.")  2010

Meet the Real Defenders

As different as day and night, Cristalli and Saggese's illustrious careers include cases that have made national headlines. In arguably the biggest case in Nevada history, Cristalli defended Sandy Murphy, who, along with her lover, Rick Tabish, were accused of the murder of Ted Binion, member of a wealthy Las Vegas family which owned the Horseshoe Casino. The case mesmerized the public with its tawdry details of a high school pageant contestent-turned stripper becoming intimately involved with Binion.

Murphy and Tabish, allegedly forced Binion to ingest a lethal combination of Xanax, heroin, valium and black tar heroin. The goal? To dispose of Binion, even as they sought to find the location of his secret vault in the middle of the Nevada desert, which they believed to contain millions of dollars worth of cash, silver bullion and casino chips. After being found guilty of first degree murder, Murphy, under Michael Cristalli's representation was acquited in the retrial, while being convicted of lesser charges.

The duo served as defense lawyers for superstar bodybuilder Craig Titus and his wife, Kelly Ryan, who were charged in the murder of their personal assistant, Melissa James. The case garnered worldwide media attention as details emerged in the bizarre case. First, there was the alleged sexual relationship between Titus and James. At some point, James died and her body was found in the trunk of Ryan's car, after it had been set ablaze. Speculation ran rampant, with Titus claiming that James had merely suffered a drug overdose. But James' head was encased in duct tape -- what was the purpose in this and for the burning of the vehicle?

Indeed, motive for the murder was never established, but along the way, a prosecutor alleged in open court that Titus was part of a plot to murder three witnesses who were scheduled to testify. In the end, Titus and Ryan avoided being convicted of first-degree murder, with the court accepting a plea of second-degree murder for Titus and arson and battery with a deadly weapon for Ryan.

 1. How did your lives become a TV series?

Marc - A documentary film crew was following this person around and he was referred to us by the ACLU when he was looking for a lawyer. We gave the OK for the crew to shoot us and they became fascinated by our practice and the types of criminal defense cases we handled. They wound up getting financing from Fox for a documentary pilot and they really liked what they captured. Most TV shows have focused on the prosecution side of things but we gave them a look into the day-to-day lives of the defense. Fox eventually turned it down as a reality series due to liability concerns, but "The Defenders" evolved into a dramatic series at CBS.

Michael - I think we offered something unique -- the way we fight for our clients and the way we interact with each other. At the core is the notion that there's something that's just not right with the structure of the justice system. Injustices are happening every day, people are being wronged and someone needs to stand up for them. We fight for these causes. And then there's the personal interaction with one another. We look at life similarly, but arrive at our conclusions in different ways. We offered a different dynamic about lawyers in general that the network liked.

2. Why did FOX turn down the reality show (if you know)?

Marc - Joe and Harry Gantz, who were the filmmakers who made the documentary, took the finished project back to Fox. They loved it, but moving forward, they became concerned about the possibility that any and all footage could potentially be subpoened by the D.A. Also, there was the issue of attorney-client privilege. Any time a third party has access to these communications, this privilege evaporates. They thought of different ways of shooting around it, but came to the conclusion that it would affect the way the show was shot. Eventually, they gave the project back to the Gantz brothers, giving them their blessings to find another home for the show.

Michael - Fox invested a lot of money into the documentary. They really loved it, but reluctantly decided to pass on it as a series. Much to their credit, they allowed us to pitch it other networks.

3. What gave you the idea to turn to CBS next?

Marc - Joe and Harry shopped the documentary around and took it to CBS. They had the same concerns as Fox, but Nina Tassler, the president of the network, really liked what she saw and suggested the possibility of turning the reality show into a dramatic series.

Michael - CBS wanted to include all the elements of the documentary -- the same hardcore legal issues and personal dynamics between the two main lawyers. But being a drama, it would not be subject to liability issues.

4. There are lots of lawyers out there. What makes your particular practice so special or different?

Marc - I think it's the way we handle our cases. We'll passionately defend our clients and are definitely not a "case mill" law firm. We'll fight for every little guy like it's World War III and believe the outcome matters. It's always less work for me to plead out and not go to trial. But we'll go down swinging. I had a client once who was facing major jail time for something he didn't do. His co-defendant pled guilty because his attorney told him he couldn't win and he wound up being sentenced to something like 8 years. But we fought on. And on the last day of his trial my client said to me, "No one has ever fought for me like you in my entire life. No matter how it turns out, thank you for caring and thank you for fighting for me." He wound up being acquitted, while the co-defendant is still in jail today.

Michael - I think people who watched the documentary saw that we're real guys -- people who are truthful and honest. We get up every morning and fight for our clients. Our offices are not corporate, sterile or quiet environment. We yell at each other and wear our emotions on our sleeves. And we get into heated arguments with the prosecution because of what we believe in. We always communicate our emotions and speak our minds -- but also have sense of humor about ourselves. Most of all, we really care and are very confident in our abilities as lawyers.

5. How is "The Defenders" different from other legal shows from the past?

Marc - The show is very unique -- it's directly derived from reality, which has never been done with any dramatic series. We speak daily with the producers and give continuous feedback on the accuracy of what they're writing. Also, every case filmed so far is based on actual cases we've handled. We're also unusual in that we offer a view from the defendant's side of things. 90% of law shows are from the point of view of the prosecutor, invariably painting the accused as guilty in very black-and-white terms. "The Defenders" shows what is to be a defendant -- a regular person -- up against the state of Nevada, the Las Vegas police department, and the District Attorneys' office and its unlimited resources.

Michael - In the past ten years or so, there's been a very black-and-white portrayal of the justice system. Notably absent from all the television shows we've seen is any sense of development of the defense or examination of social issues that may have caused the defendant to be in the situation he's in. These mitigating circumstances might make him not such a bad guy after all. Also missing is the idea that the prosecution goes about their job in an unsavory way in their effort to get a conviction, or that the judge may be harsh or cynical and merely wants to move the case forward because his calendar is too full. There's also a lack of character development with most of these shows -- you really don't get to know what makes them tick. "The Defenders" gives viewers a chance to see that the world of law is gray -- not black-and-white. It's also got a great element of humor, too.

6. Is there any worry that people will think this is a remake of the old show of the same name? Marc - No, there's no overlap at all, the name is just a coincidence. I boxed professionally in the past and my name in the ring is Marc "The Defender" Saggese!

Michael - Not at all. It's been quite a few years, so I don't know how many people will remember the other show. We came up with "The Defenders" because it's just a great title and fits the characters and storylines extremely well.

7. Do you ever watch other TV shows about Las Vegas, and if so, what do you think about them? Marc - Not really with television. But as for Las Vegas-based movies, I never miss them! The ones I've seen usually portray the city pretty accurately. Las Vegas is one of the most amazing places on earth and I love it. So I'll certainly watch and enjoy.

Michael - I'll watch movies about Las Vegas whenever they're on. "Casino," "Oceans 11" -- old or new, I'll always tune in. Las Vegas is such a great background for films -- it's intriguing and mysterious with lots of drama behind it. This town is fascinating and I'll watch anything associated with it.

8. Do you think this show will be fairly accurate to your life?

Marc - Yes, but I expect they'll take dramatic liberties with certain aspects of our lives. We understand that and it's certainly okay with us. For instance, Jerry O'Connell plays my character and is a single, charismatic guy who likes being around lots of women. On the other hand, I recently got married and -- am a very happy married man!

Michael - I think it'll be accurate to a certain extent, but they have taken some dramatic liberties to make the show more interesting. But where things really hit home is in the interaction of Jim and Jerry's characters and how they feel about law, the justice system and how they protect their clients. That's where the writers have done a great job -- maintaining the integrity of the documentary and carrying it over to the drama.

9. How are your friends and family reacting to your lives (and possibly theirs) being put on screen?

Marc - I recently went through e-mails my mother had sent me over the past year or so. And I watched the evolution of her messages in regard to the show. From, "This is so wonderful" to "Oh my goodness, it's happening!" to "It's actually here. We're so happy for you." That summarizes the reaction from everyone in my family because it's been moving forward for a few years. They're proud, excited and supportive -- and it's an honor for me to be portrayed by Jerry O'Connell in the show. I can't say enough about my family's support.

Michael - They're ecstatic, from the development of the documentary to the development of the show. Just to have the opportunity to have a drama on television that's about you -- it's surreal. It's really like hitting the lottery in a sense. Everyone has been very supportive and interested in the project. The nice thing about the show being a drama is that anything someone likes and embraces, you can declare to be true. Any aspects that might be less complimentary, you can say, "No, they took serious dramatic liberties!" We can deny and admit at our leisure -- always a good thing!

10. Will you be making cameo appearances on the show as well?

Marc - Michael and I were in the first episode, in a scene with Frank Sinatra, Jr. performing, with Jim and Jerry sitting in a booth next to us. But most of it wound up on the cutting room floor. But one of the writers said this might be a good thing, because they might be able to use us in a later episode in a speaking role -- maybe as prosecutors!

Michael - We were already briefly in the pilot. We've been asking the writers about writing an episode and maybe making an appearance in it. So we're definitely looking forward to that opportunity. But if we wound up playing prosecutors, it would certainly be a strange feeling.

11. What is it like working with Belushi and O'Connell?

Marc - They are off-the-charts amazing actors. I never knew how difficult it was to do what they do until I was on the set and watched them transform themselves in front of my eyes. They are also extremely talented and flawlessly professional in how they approach their work. On a personal level, they've been very kind and welcoming -- and both are very funny guys to be around. Michael and I have spent time with them and now consider them friends. I really never expected that, but that's just how they are. Really wonderful people.

Michael - They're tremendous -- they're both great human beings and super guys. We got to spend time with them and Jerry even visited Marc at his house here in Las Vegas. They went to the court and Marc introduced Jerry to the prosecutors -- showing him the ropes. As for Jim, he's just a down-to-earth guy and very open and friendly. Moreover, they both really know their craft. They're great comedic actors, who also have tremendous facility in handling drama. They've been very receptive to us in our continuing roles as consultants and we speak with them on a regular basis.

12. Are you still practicing law while you do this show (and if so, how do you find the time for both)?

Marc - Everyday. A good lawyer sells his time and his knowledge. And a good lawyer will find time for both. I work hard and smart -- I work as a consultant on the show and also take care of my clients. It's actually manageable if you intelligently budget your time. And when it comes down to it, this is absolutely essential, as these are the products we have to offer.

Michael - Yes -- we just work more. The number one priority is our practice and clients. We have a great support staff here at the office. As for the show, we work harder and longer hours -- reading scripts in the evenings and in the morning, consulting with the writers or actors via phone or e-mail, flying out to the set in the evenings and back to court in the morning. It's a balancing act, but we're fortunate that there's two of us, so we can help each other out with commitments.

13. I know that a lot of "locals" in Vegas don't gamble much or even go to the strip. Is that what it's like for you guys, or are you really into the night life there?

Marc - I'm not into the nightlife of Las Vegas at all. We work long days, so after work I usually go out for a six-mile run, then it's to bed. If it's Friday or Saturday night, my wife and I may go out to a nice dinner or a show. I don't participate in gambling, either. It's available here 24/7, so there's really no urgency to hit the tables. But I do love the lights, action and atmosphere of the city.

Michael - No, I've been married for 17 years, so most of my spare time is spent with my family. We live in a quiet area of Las Vegas, which has a small town feel to it. It's nice to know the glamour of Las Vegas is available to you. A visit to the strip or dinner in a nice restaurant is always available.

14. What can viewers look forward to with your show? What will surprise us?

Marc - We look forward to serious issue being portrayed accurately, as well as the levity that is a part of our day-to-day lives. We hope to add some lightness to the otherwise heavy issues we deal with. It's really a coupling of these two components -- we're handling very serious legal issues, but in the midst of it, there's still humor to be found. And Jim and Jerry capture it flawlessly.

Michael - Viewers will see a different dynamic than what they've been accustomed to seeing in a law show. They'll see bigger-than-life character development in terms of their business and personal lives, and unique interaction between the two lead characters. Also, the cynicism and injustices of the legal system will come through. They'll see the development of the defendant and his perspective -- and why his social circumstances might be mitigating issues as to why he should or should not be charged in a case. Plus, there is a great combination of drama and comedic elements. All of this is unique to the law show format.

15. Anything else you'd like to tell us about your show?

Marc - "The Defenders" is unique -- a one-of-a-kind show with real attorneys, portraying the law accurately and offering a dramatized view of their private lives. We've been working tirelessly to keep it as authentic as possible. Unlike other dramatic law shows, which are almost completely fabricated, ours will portray things exactly as they are. It's really the only show of its kind.

Michael - "The Defenders" is a wonderful opportunity to shed light on the law in a different manner from what the public has been used to seeing. Our show will demonstrate the constitutional issues that are involved in a case and also let audiences see the emotional aspects that affect everyone -- the victim, the prosecution and the defense attorneys. It also affects their families and we'll see how the two lead characters have to go home and deal with their personal lives after spending the day on a some really gut-wrenching cases.

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