Category Archives: Interviews

David Rambo Interview – Part 3

When David said he would be willing to answer questions I went to town and asked as many as I could think of. Here’s Part 3.

CC: How often do the writers bend the truth to maximize the conflict or action?

DR: Our only real cheat is time. Most of our cases are solved over the course of one or two shifts. Our lab results come in incredibly quickly. Our people sometimes work for what would literally be three days straight with no fatigue (and with an attractive and fashionable change of wardrobe and nobody’s hair gets tired). We do a phenophthaline test for blood in two steps, rather than the three it takes in the real world. But all of the science is researched, verified and correct. We don’t bend science for action, but we will compress time.

CC: What’s a typical day like in the writer’s room?

DR: There’s usually 4-6 of us in there. There’s also a lot of eating, a lot of water consumed, a lot of conversation we would never have at home or in polite company… but that’s the process. The ideas have to flow, and when they don’t, it’s sometimes really agonizing. We toss ideas out, and when it’s the right idea, the room seems to know it. Everything is outlined on the white boards that line the walls. The room sometimes goes until very late at night when it’s humming or a deadline looms; outside plans are canceled. When the room is good, it’s exhilarating, and when it’s not, it’s dreadful. But the process works — mainly because the writers come from so many diverse backgrounds and specialties.

CC: Has there ever been a real case the writers have wanted to do but it was too unbelievable?

DR: Happens all the time. Our kinkiest episodes seem to be the ones inspired by real events.

CC: With all of the cop/crime scene shows out there right now and their popularity; what do your scriptwriters look for to make your series stand out?

DR: CSI: created a genre. We’re interested in stories that when told through science are exciting.

CC: Forensics has become quite popular. What role do you feel CSI and the CSI franchise has played in making science “cool”?

DR: It’s had a huge effect. Enrollment in college forensics courses went up enormously as a result of CSI:. Municipalities have had less trouble raising funds to build or expand their crime labs. Juries have high expectations of evidence, and prosecutors and criminalists are finding that they have to be thorough in their preparation. I think the overall effect is positive and, frankly, I’m thrilled to be associated with the TV show that’s played a role in that.

CC: How did the strike affect you and your team? Are they raring to go, or like the actors in Hollywood, did it set everything back; did it affect you at all?

DR: We’re all dealing with post-strike stress disorder. Having to go on strike in the first place was both demoralizing and inspiring. Fan support was tremendous, and really helped keep us going for those 100 long days. I’m just happy to be back at work.

CC: Jorja Fox’s character left because all the violence and crime was getting to her. Does the subject matter of the show ever get to you?

DR: Honestly, at times it does get to me. And I try to put that on the page, because if it’s getting to me, it would be getting to our characters, too. I think law enforcement professionals, by and large, play a heroic role in society, but they’re human. It does get to them. That they continue to do their jobs nonetheless is inspiring. I like it when our characters reflect that.

CC: For some of the more difficult story lines, how do you leave it at work when the day’s done and not let it get to you?

DR: It’s important to have a full intellectual life away from work. I go to the theatre, read, cook, entertain, travel — yoga helps, too.

CC: Screenwriters are always told about the “rules”. Formatting is important but how important is it to have the margins just right, the font courier (not courier new), few or no parentheticals, no camera angles?

DR: I think what most readers are looking for is originality, not perfect typing. A voice, a sensibility — that’s what gets attention.

CC: Who are your favourite authors?

DR: My tastes are all over the place: William Shakespeare, Gore Vidal, Agatha Christie, James Baldwin, Anton Chekhov, Thornton Wilder, Willa Cather, Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James, Michael Chabon, A. A. Milne, Mark Twain, Kinky Friedman, Horton Foote… so many. The pile on the nightstand never gets any smaller.

CC: Besides this interview (thanks again), do you do anything else to give back to the writing community?

DR: I teach when I can. I also support The Actors Fund of America, which provides services and assistance to everyone in entertainment. During the strike and since, The Actors Fund kept a lot of writers and those who work with them from disaster. It’s a great organization, very much in need of donations now to help refill the coffers (www.actorsfund.org).

CC: Are any of your plays still being produced? Where?

DR: I’ve been fortunate to have written plays that are widely produced. This summer, my play THE SPIN CYCLE premieres at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, California. My play THE LADY WITH ALL THE ANSWERS is all over the country; there’s a production starring Judith Ivey opening at Northlight Theatre in Skokie at the end of May. GOD’S MAN IN TEXAS and THE ICE-BREAKER are always being done somewhere.

Thanks, David for being so patient and answering so many questions. With the workload after the strike it was incredibly generous of you to take the time to answer all my questions.

Until next time…

Cindy

David Rambo Interview – Part 2

And now, the continuation of my David Rambo interview.

CC: Writers are told to write what you know. A lot of them take it literally. You’re not a CSI. What does the phrase write what you know mean to you?

DR: “Write what you know” is both the most helpful advice and the most useless. What’s important is to be willing to learn, to do your research, and write the human condition persuasively.

CC: Novel writers are told to read, read, read. As a TV writer do you watch a lot of TV? What do you watch? If you don’t watch a lot of TV, why not?

DR: I don’t have much time to watch TV. Frankly, I find broadcast TV often too willing to play safe for fear of offending viewers, yet the result is offensive because it’s so insulting to a viewer’s intellect. I’m not a big fan of the current trend toward supernaturalism as the answer to everything from crime solving to love trouble. Among the shows I do enjoy right now are “Two and a Half Men,” “Mad Men,” “Californication,” “The Closer,” and all the “Law and Order” shows (especially the original). My default channel choice is Turner Classic Movies, followed by the news channels. And I’m so boring — on weekends I love BookTV on CSPAN.

CC: Even bad writing can teach you something. Is there something you learned from a piece of bad writing? Either play, book, TV or movie. No need to tell us what the work was.

DR: I’ve learned more about playwriting from watching performances of badly written work than good.

CC: What has writing for TV taught you?

DR: Deadlines. Economy. Clarity.

CC: Screenwriters are always told about the “rules”. Formatting is important but how important is it to have the margins just right, the font courier (not courier new), few or no parentheticals, no camera angles?

DR: I think what most readers are looking for is originality, not perfect typing. A voice, a sensibility — that’s what gets attention.

CC: Who are your favourite authors?

DR: My tastes are all over the place: William Shakespeare, Gore Vidal, Agatha Christie, James Baldwin, Anton Chekhov, Thornton Wilder, Willa Cather, Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James, Michael Chabon, A. A. Milne, Mark Twain, Kinky Friedman, Horton Foote… so many. The pile on the nightstand never gets any smaller.

CC: They say Hollywood is all about who you know, but for those writers who aren’t comfortable asking for a favour (let’s face it a lot of writers are introverts) what advice can you give on breaking in?

DR: The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel taught me, “Circles rise together.” Writers need to reach out, form associations, make friends and contacts, and stay in touch. That’s a circle. As one rises, all are lifted. Try it, you’ll see. Don’t go it alone.

CC: What exactly does a writer/producer do?

DR: Writer/producers do everything, and have to be ready to do anything, to get an episode written, cast, filmed and edited. Usually it’s for our own episodes, but we’re on call to help as needed with whatever is in production. We read the drafts of all the scripts, and see rough cuts of all the episodes.

CC: Does CSI use a series bible?

DR: Yes.

CC: How close do you stay to the series bible?

DR: It’s a reference. There are some conflicts between what was originally on the CBS website about our characters and what we actually had on the show, but I think those differences have been reconciled. Just this morning, I needed the name of a strip club, and wanted it to be one we’ve mentioned before. Thanks to the bible, I named it “Seven Sins.” It was last mentioned in “Big Shots.”

CC: In a long running series like this how much of the character’s future is pre-ordained? Did the writers know from the beginning when they brought Sarah Sidle in that she and Grissom would be together?

DR: I wasn’t there at the beginning, so I can’t answer the Grissom/Sara question. We start every season, months before filming, discussing the characters, where they’ve come from, where they might go. We come up with tentative season arcs for each one, but they usually end up being more guides than hard and fast lists of events that we must use.

CC: How long does it take to write an episode?

DR: Usually about a week or two to “break” the episode in the writers’ room, talking through the plot, putting beats up on the white boards, etc. I think the longest that’s ever taken has been three weeks; it’s usually much less. Then it takes about two days to get a written outline organized. After that, the writer or writers take a week or ten days to get a writer’s draft written. Over the next two weeks, that draft will be rewritten and rewritten as notes come in from all departments, right up to, and often during, filming.

Good to know I’m not the only one who rewrites until the very last possible second.

Part 3 will be up Wednesday.

Until next time…

Cindy

An interview with David Rambo – Part 1

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…

Cindy