Joan Cusack, Peter Strauss

"Ripped from the headlines" is the Law & Order franchise's catch phrase, but often times just one nugget of a real-life story is enough to inspire an episode.

This season's premiere slightly borrowed from the story of Jaycee Dugard (who was kidnapped and found to be living with her captor years later), added an element of the Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novack film Vertigo about remaking someone you love, and combined it with the idea of installing RFID chips in your kids to trace their every move.

SVU executive producer Neal Baer recently spoke with TVGuide.com about what interests him and how he translates that into entertainment. Plus: How did star Mariska Hargitay's Joyful Heart Foundation inspire this week's upcoming episode?

TVGuide.com: Why did you decide to cast Joan Cusack in the season premiere?
Neal Baer: We love to bring on actors who are known for their comic work like Robin Williams, Carol Burnett, Martin Short. If you're a really great comedian, you're a really great actor, because it's really hard to be a comedian. We've never been wrong about that, so that's why we wanted Joan.

TVGuide.com: Was the Jaycee Dugard story your inspiration for the episode?
Baer: We certainly know about that story, but the genesis for that show wasn't so much that story, but what a parent goes through when a child is taken away and you never find out what's happened. To us, that was one of worst, most unimaginable things that could happen to a parent and we wanted to explore that.  We understood Joan's character really well and we understood why she'd want to remake this little girl to be like her daughter who was lost. The character was wacky, but for a reason. So it gave us a clear arc for her and yet it also made her really suspicious because why would you be changing this little girl. It really came down to my own interest in thinking about the psychological consequences [of not having] any finality to that horrible story and the twist is that, well, the daughter is still alive.

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TVGuide.com: Did you always want Henry Ian Cusick to be a part of both the premiere and the episode that followed?
Baer: We pitched this to him as a two-arc show. He's suspicious at first so everybody goes, "Oh, he's the one," then we take the suspicion off of him. We had it planned all along who his character was, what he was going to do, how he might cozy up to Benson to get information and get them off his trail. It was always two episodes.

TVGuide.com:  Where do you get the idea for the second episode, "Bullseye"?
Baer: The first movie I ever wrote was an adaptation of a story from Oliver Sack's The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and the man whose mind is erasing himself. I'm very taken with neurological disorders so I had told Dan [the writer] there's a really cool neurological disorder called Capgras where someone you love or are very close to is an imposter because the emotional link between your vision and your emotion has been damaged. So in the episode she sees her daughter, but doesn't recognize her as her daughter, but when she hears her voice that's a different route of wiring from your brain.

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TVGuide.com:  What else inspires the stories?
Baer: I'm very influenced by the movieVertigo. I love the notion of remaking someone in somebody that you're in love with. So in this episode the Vertigo element was Joan Cusack remaking her daughter into the image of the kidnapped daughter. The influence of Vertigo is Jimmy Stewark making Kim Novack to the woman he lost. Kim Novack is Mikka Von [Paula Patton's character name] spelled backward. Our newest character played by Melissa Sagemiller is Gillian Hardwicke. [Her first name] Gillian is from Bell, Book and Candle, [the surname] Hardwicke is from The Notorious Landlady.

TVGuide.com:  Next week's episode features Jennifer Love Hewitt and is about the issue of rape-kit backlogs. This is an issue Mariska has been very involved with.
Baer: I was at an event last year for Mariska's Joyful Heart Foundation and I heard about a woman who was literally stuck in her apartment was afraid to leave because this horrible guy kept after her. It struck me and I said to Mariska, I know how to do the rape-kit episode now. How do you tell victims to go through this arduous process when we have tens of thousands of kits unopened? That's an issue I think we can all agree is a bad thing and something needs to be done. So I said to myself I know how to unravel this.

TVGuide.com:  What can you say about Jennifer Love Hewitt's performance?
Baer: She said she fell in love with acting again.

Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesday at 9/8c on NBC.