David Rambo, a writer/producer with the hit TV show CSI was kind enough to answer some questions, okay a lot of questions, for me about writing for TV and how he got started. Thanks, David for answering so many questions. Because there are so many questions I will be breaking this up into three posts.
Cindy Carroll: You started as a playwright. How did you come to write for CSI?
David Rambo: William Petersen, who has an extensive theatre background, wanted to bring a playwright to the CSI: mix of writers. Carol Mendelsohn had wanted to do an episode that was essentially a two-character play. Through theatre contacts I share with Billy, my name came up. Carol read my work and asked if I’d like to write the two-character play episode. I hadn’t written for television before, but wanted to give it a try. While the episode ended up not being a two-character play at all, it was an important episode (“Butterflied”), and the experience led to my being offered a staff writing job when was opened up the following season.
CC: Carol Mendelsohn approached you about writing a freelance episode. How are other freelance episodes acquired?
DR: Freelancers have come on the show several ways. Usually, it’s been through some kind of personal association with someone on the show.
CC: What does CSI look for in a freelance writer?
DR: Because of the way the show is written, what’s most important is that the freelancer bring a voice and ideas to the room. Our writing process is very collaborative. Once a writer turns in a draft, it’s written and rewritten, usually with the writer’s participation, so that the voice of the show remains constant. We have a fantastic script coordinator who formats and proofreads all the drafts. What’s most important are the ideas that are on the page, and the roles our characters play in bringing them forth.
CC: Before you wrote your first episode, “Butterflied” did you watch CSI?
DR: I had only seen a few episodes, usually because a friend had been cast in a guest role. I liked the show and its feature film production value.
CC: What advice can you give to an aspiring TV writer?
DR: I would give the same advice I give any writer in any medium: be a whole artist. Read, travel, see plays, cultivate a bias for listening, read at least one newspaper every morning, make a list of 100 books to read and read them all (but not all at once), make a list of classic movie to see and see them all (but not all at once), consider art you think you won’t like, and above all — question. Always ask, “what if? “why? “why not?” Questions are the most useful tools in a writer’s toolkit.
CC: You said once that CSI uses more than the WGA minimum freelance episodes. Is that still the case?
DR: This is an odd season, due to the strike, but it’s usually been the case as far as I know.
CC: Do you have a writing routine?
DR: When I’m writing, first and foremost I need silence. Even when there’s no loud ambient noise, I usually wear foam earplugs. I also wear the plugs when I’m reading something demanding utmost comprehension. I like to start fairly early in the day. TV is written on tight schedules, so the daily output is usually a factor of how much time I have to get the script done before production begins.
CC: How did you get started writing? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
DR: I’ve always had a close relationship with words and reading; both my mother and her mother were public school librarians, and I started reading at an early age. Though I wrote my first play in fifth grade, and a musical when I was a teenager, I didn’t feel a serious ambition to write until fairly late in the game, at around age 36.
Beginning a few years after that, I’ve been able to earn a living through writing, and I’ve never been happier.
CC: Did you go to school for writing? Either for writing plays or for TV? What do you think about courses offered to teach screenwriting? What value do they bring to the table for someone just starting out?
DR: I didn’t study writing formally. As a playwright, I attended as many workshops as I could, and if the instructor blew hot air, I at least got to meet other playwrights and compare notes. Now, I often teach playwriting in seminars and workshops, sharing what I learned and adding ideas of my own. I think it’s enormously useful for an emerging writer to get input from many sources, but ultimately, it comes down to one’s own ideas, one’s voice, and putting them on the page.
CC: Writing plays and writing for television are very different. How was that transition for you?
DR: The transition was challenging, but I had a lot of help and patient support from the CSI: staff. They knew I was coming in from a background exclusively in the theatre. I learned quickly. I needed close supervision through my first episode on staff, “Swap Meet,” but by my next, “Who Shot Sherlock?” I started feeling a little confident.
CC: Is breaking into television writing impossible? If it’s not impossible, what’s the best way to go about it?
DR: It’s not impossible, but one has to be willing to be work up the ladder. Without having realistic expectations, it’s easy to get discouraged. If you’re willing to start as a p.a. or an assistant, make contacts, ask questions, listen and learn, it’s possible to get a foot in the door. Competition is fierce. There are invariably more talented writers than open staff positions. You’ll need patience, flexibility and drive.
CC: Is it true there is age discrimination in TV writing? And if so – what are the ideal ages for someone to break in?
DR: TV is a youth-conscious medium, especially ad-supported TV. There is a bias toward the hottest young writers. That said, I became a TV staff writer at 49 — a completely unexpected development for me. There’s always a market for an original voice and ideas.
Good to know. I still a few years before I hit 40 and I’m definitely young at heart. Part 2 will be up Monday morning.
Until next time…