Hank Steinberg and I discuss his path into storytelling, culminating in how came to create Without a Trace as a relative novice to the television business, how he developed the chops to run that show and build it into a top 10 television juggernaut. And we discuss the creative satisfaction and limitations of creating a successful network television crime procedural franchise.

Kary:

This is the Crime Story Podcast with Kary Antholis where we have conversations about how and why narratives of crime and justice are told.

Today’s podcast is a conversation with Hank Steinberg, Creator of the hit television series Without a Trace.

The conversation was recorded as part of a series of classes that I taught at The University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Each week I would host an artist for a discussion that would help us better understand their values and aims as storytellers in the world of crime and justice.

During our conversation we discussed Hank’s path into storytelling, culminating in how he came to create Without a Trace as a relative novice to the television business, how he developed the chops to run that show and build it into a top 10 television juggernaut. And we discussed the creative satisfaction and limitations of creating a successful network television crime procedural franchise.

And now, here is today’s Crime Story Podcast…

Kary: 

Ladies and gentleman, please join me in welcoming Hank Steinberg to our class.

Kary: 

Hank, tell us where you’re from and what your path was to becoming a working writer.

Hank Steinberg: 

I grew up in Long Island, New York, in a town called Greatneck. Went to the University of Pennsylvania, and while I did a semester abroad in Tel Aviv in 1989, thinking maybe I wanted to be a sports writer or some other kind of writer, the hottest movie in Israel at that time was this little indie movie called Sex, Lies and Videotape. Everyone in my group got super into it, and I went to see it like five times, and I just got super inspired, and I said, “I’m going to become a screenwriter.” I was 19 and thought that’d be a good idea, and I thought I could do it. I don’t know why I thought I could do it. But young and naïve and passionate, and somehow I thought I’d figure it out.

Hank Steinberg: 

After that, I came back to Penn. I finished up that year.

Kary: 

What did you study?

Hank Steinberg: 

I was an English major. Then I went to NYU as a six week summer class, sort of famous New York class called NYU Sight and Sound. And that point we were shooting on 16 millimeter film and you got to make five films in the class. I did an internship at Warner Brothers either that same summer or the next summer, I got to see a little glimpse of both sides of the business. I worked as a PA on a sitcom called Growing Pains and worked for the director Joe Dante who was famous at the time for directing Gremlins, and I was reading terrible sci-fi scripts that were being submitted for him and getting coffee for Kirk Cameron and Alan Thicke, and then after that I moved out to LA as soon as I finished college, and drove out here, and just kind of hustled. And ultimately, met a bunch of guys who were aspiring writers and young executives at a poker game, a weekly poker game that I used to go to, and one of the guys read one of my scripts.

Hank Steinberg: 

He thought it was pretty good. He sent it to a bunch of agents. One of the agents was at a startup agency called Endeavor at that time, which had four agents and three assistants, and they had this tiny little office above the Islands Restaurant, Beverly Hills, and that became this behemoth now of WME which like runs the universe. And I’m still with the same feature agent that I signed with at that time, and I still with the same TV agent that I got the next year when I got my first opportunity to work, which was with this bright young man.

Kary: 

Alexander Hamilton. People may have heard of him. You wrote your first spec script that got you a lot of work and brought you to our attention at HBO… was about Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, was it not?

Hank Steinberg: 

It was. I thought that could be a successful arena for telling a story, and it turned out I was right. It was just a different person and it was 20 years later, and it was a little more hip hop in Lin’s version than in mine. It’s a good lesson in terms of writing. People say write what you know, but it’s also write what you’re passionate about and what you have a way into. It doesn’t have to be autobiographical. It can just be something in the story that speaks to you that you can write from a personal experience and… When I was eight or nine-years-old, I was a real history buff, and they used to have these radio plays, and put them out on these records, and there was this story of Hamilton and Burr, a nine minute performance, and it was Hamilton’s wife saying, “Please don’t go to the duel, the evil man’s going to kill you.” But it was always fascinating to me that this sitting vice-president of our nascent country took a former secretary of treasury and architect of our financial institutions into a field and shot him. Then years later when I was in college, I started researching it, and I thought about writing a script for my senior thesis on that, and I thought, “No, it won’t be commercial enough, I shouldn’t do that, and it’s too big for me.”

Hank Steinberg: 

And I wrote all these other scripts when I first came out here, and I was floundering, trying to write to the marketplace. Trying to write an action thing and a comedy thing, and trying to figure out what can I do to get sold, what can I do to get in? Anybody I talked to about this idea thought it was a little bit crazy. At the end, I just said, “Screw it. I’m so into the subject matter,” and my way in was it’s about this friendship over 25 years, as I’m sure you’ve all seen the play… Was that line between friendship and rivalry that exists between men. So even though I didn’t live in the 1780s and I wasn’t in politics and whatnot, I had enough male friends to know what that dynamic was, and to burrow into that.

Hank Steinberg: 

Because I was young, I was able to I think inject a young sensibility into it. When I got that script to my agent, I got 50 general meetings, and it ended up getting me my job at HBO with Kary where he was starting out.

Kary: 

Tell us about the first produced piece of material you wrote. It was also for HBO, but I didn’t work on it. I got to enjoy it from afar.

Hank Steinberg: 

I had been working at HBO for a few years, at first on the project with Kary, which was a young look at our Founding Fathers. Then I got a couple of other assignments at HBO, because people were appreciating what I was doing, but nothing was getting made. I told my agents, “I’m going to New York. Can you get me a meeting with Colin Calendar at the time? I have a couple of things to talk about,” and one of them was 61*, which was this baseball movie about Roger Maris and Micky Mantle. Interestingly enough, a story about a friendship and rivalry between two young men. So there was something that I was kind of interested in, and I guess good at in a certain way.

Hank Steinberg: 

So we sold that, and pitched the story, and about a year into the process, they brought Billy Crystal on as a producer, and I worked very, very closely with him on the development of the script. Billy was a major, major Micky Mantle fan, and had spent a lot of time with Micky. He spoke at Micky’s eulogy. So he brought a really strong perspective into it. I came into it with the perspective of wanting to tell the story of this misunderstood underdog, which was Roger Maris. And so it was a really good combination of both of us coming to it from a different perspective. He obviously had a lot of more experience than me, and the sensibilities… It was good. It was a really good, healthy collaboration, even when there were disagreements.

Kary: 

How did you get involved with Without a Trace?

Hank Steinberg: 

Coming off of 61*, which ended up being pretty successful, fortunate enough to get some Emmy nominations and stuff like that, it was a good time. There was incoming calls, and I got a call from one of my agents saying, “Do you want to do a pilot for Jerry Bruckheimer? It’s about missing people.” And the inspiration turned out to be the Chandra Levy case. So I took the meeting with Johnathan Littman who was running Jerry’s TV department, and I just instantly took to it.

Kary: 

At that time, Bruckheimer had at least two or maybe even three of the CSI franchises on the air. As you started your conversations with Jonathan Littman, what were the kinds of things you talked about? How did you use CSI to differentiate your show, Without a Trace, and as you dove into writing the pilot, what were the things that were on your mind?

Hank Steinberg: 

Well, to be honest, at the time that I took that pilot, I really didn’t care much about being in TV. Sometimes, the winds of fate just sweep you in a certain direction. It was the fourth most important thing that I was doing. I didn’t have a ton of passion for it. It was all rushed. I had all these deadlines all at once. I knew what the format of CSI was, and I saw how those shows worked, and I wrote the script in two or three weeks, and I didn’t care that much about it.

Hank Steinberg:

I mean we talk about the characters. There is still the DNA of my not caring that much at the beginning of the process, in what lasted.

Kary: 

How so?

Hank Steinberg: 

Well, we were talking before about the name Samantha Spade. I named the female character Samantha Spade. It was basically an inside joke to myself, and I figured at some point somebody will tell me I have to change this name, because it’s ridiculous. And we just never did, and then we shot it, and then eventually at some point, when the series got picked up, I had a character make fun of her, at least point to it and make it into something. But I knew what the architecture of a standard procedural was. You have five disparate characters, different ethnicities, different genders, different ages. Have somebody be represented. I more or less studied the format of these mystery cases, which… Law & Order was a huge show at the time. CSI was the biggest show on television.

Hank Steinberg:

I’m being a little bit crass about my level of care, because I did have an initial spark to the idea. My first couple of cracks at it were a bit lazy because it was less important than the other things. What I did spark to was the way that the show could be different, and the thing that did make it different, did make it survive all those years I think kind of stand apart slightly from the other procedurals was it wasn’t a murder case, where they walk in in the first two minutes and there’s a body, and now they’ve got to figure out who did it, which is always… There are stakes there, of course, because you want justice, but it’s a bit cold, because you can’t really help the person. I mean, you can help the parents of the victim, or the spouse of the victim, but it was really just so that they get justice or vengeance, it’s not…

Hank Steinberg: 

Whereas Without a Trace had a couple of things. It had hope, because the person’s missing, but they might still be alive. It had a ticking clock, which is they’re missing but they might still be alive. They might be kidnapped somewhere, tied in a closet, whatever the thing is. In a car accident off the side of the road. Whatever the possible result is. And it had the pulse of a thriller because of that. Then there were limitations to the form of that, which we can talk about later, because of the ticking clock. But I knew that that would make it different and interesting.

Hank Steinberg: 

And the other thing I sparked to immediately about it was, and this is in the DNA of the show, which is when somebody goes missing, there’s an adage in the pilot which is: “If you find out who they are, you find out where they are.” When you’re writing a pilot for a network, they like to have those catchphrases. Somebody has to say the mantra or the motto or the theme of it in the pilot, especially in 2001, so the audience can really easily digest what the point of the show is. But there was something to that, and it was every week is going to be the mystery of what are the secrets of this person, what’s going on in their life.

Hank Steinberg: 

In all 170 episodes of the show that we ever did, it was never like a random somebody grabs someone on the side of the road for no reason. The reason that they were missing had something to do with something going on in their life, an affair, a financial proprietary, something that was going on, something that they were trying to do to help and they got in trouble. And it always had to do with revealing character. And the flashbacks would always do that. They would reveal character.

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Kary: 

Tell us about getting picked up for pilot, and the process of shooting a pilot on that, and then getting picked up to series.

Hank Steinberg: 

I was just about to move to New York. It was right after 9/11. It was like January of ’02. And I got a call. “Hank, your pilot got picked up. Come back. You’re going to produce it. We’re shooting in LA.” So I changed my whole life. The woman I was going to move in with in New York was moving out to LA. I mean my whole life just changed. Then all of a sudden, I was a producer. I had never done it before. I was 30 or 31 or something. It was like, “Oh, I get to go to casting meetings, I get to interview the production designer, I get to be part of all of this,” and that was pretty cool. Then I started to care. Then the other three things I was working on seemed a lot less important. And that became really addicting and empowering and energizing.

Hank Steinberg: 

Through the process, I worked super hard on the script all through… Even after it was picked up and everyone was saying, “Oh, the script’s so great,” I didn’t like the script. I did not like the script they picked up. When I read it over, I was like, “This is lazy.” There was enough in the basic structure of what I had done which actually survived, and there was enough in the tropes of the show, the whiteboard tracking how many hours missing and the flashbacks, all that stuff was already there, and that was I think what they saw was going to really work. But I didn’t like the way it was executed. I worked super hard to get it into a much more textured, nuanced, sophisticated place as we went through.

Kary:

Who directed your pilot?

Hank Steinberg: 

A director named David Nutter, who you’ve worked with on a number of HBO things, a lot of Game of Thrones and stuff. He’s directed something like 20 pilots, and they’ve all gone to series. I think at the time it was his ninth pilot, and he was nine for nine after that, so I was feeling pretty good about that, when they said we’ve got Nutter.

Kary: 

Tell us about getting picked up to series.

Hank Steinberg: 

It was super exciting. I mean, I was young and naïve, and I thought then that if you do good work and people are rooting for you… Everybody’s rooting for you through the process. They’re always saying how excited they are. “We’re all very excited.” The hardest thing to get anybody in Hollywood to say is say no. Everybody’s always excited up until the point when they stop calling you back. I was actually kind of confident the whole way through. I also had the Bruckheimer machine behind me. I had David Nutter. I mean, I knew Bruckheimer had the number one show on TV in CSI, and I think they already had CSI: Miami coming too. So I actually just felt pretty good that it was going to happen.

Hank Steinberg: 

We got picked up, and then all of a sudden it was, “Okay, now we’re doing this.” I had never run a show before, and it was, “We want to get you a show running partner.” The Bruckheimer people were super cool about it, because this process can go a number of different ways, and it still happens now, where if you’re a feature writer, or a baby TV writer who’s never done it before, they can really just foist someone onto you who’s done it a bunch, who’s powerful, and you can lose your show. You can have somebody just totally take over your show, and you can get pushed out.

Hank Steinberg:

The Bruckheimer people were great, super supportive. They didn’t believe in that. They believed in supporting the voice of the person who wrote the pilot. I hope some of that had to do with them believing in me, but I think that they do believe in that in general. They said, “You’re going to need a show running partner, but we’re going to allow you to choose.” So they vetted with the studio and the network for candidates, and I got to meet all of them, and at the end they left it up to me because they said they would feel comfortable with any of my choices, so that was a great way to start the process, at least giving me the choice. I chose a guy named Ed Radlick, who had come off of working David Kelly shows. He was a super smart, intellectual guy. He had gone to law school, was a very good writer, and most importantly a mensch.

Hank Steinberg: 

I just knew he’s not going to try to steal my show from me. He’s going to basically support what I want to do. He’s got his own pilots, his own things he wants to do. He wants to do his own show. And that ended up being a really good partnership and mentorship for me.

Kary: 

Tell us about putting a room together your first season and what the dynamics were and what kind of schedule rhythm you fell into over the course… How many episodes is that first season? 22?

Hank Steinberg:

22. And then after that 24.

Hank Steinberg: 

I mean again, I had no idea what I was getting into. I didn’t know the rhythms of TV at all. What I knew was the rhythms of a pilot, which is you go everywhere, do everything, go to every casting session. You’re on the set all the time, and then we put the writers’ room together. We hired… I think there were nine writers overall, including me, of a variety of levels. Some upper level writers who were very experienced, some younger writers who were coming out of the Warner Brothers writers’ workshop. Men, women. Then we started breaking the stories, and then obviously production started, and we had maybe three or four scripts in the bank.

Hank Steinberg: 

I thought, “Oh, I just do the same thing I did on the pilot 21 more times.” That doesn’t really work, because you can’t be in nine places at once. You can’t go to a casting session for three hours, and then also be on the set and then also be in the writers’ room and writing and rewriting and taking calls with the studio and network all at the same time. Eventually I almost had a nervous breakdown, because I was trying to do everything. I sort of figured out I’ve got to delegate here. But at the end of the day, each episode had its own theme, and it somehow worked.

Kary: 

Did Ed help guide you into how to structure the room, how to structure story breaking? How did you figure out how to assign scripts and develop people’s strengths and shy away from their weaknesses?

Hank Steinberg: 

I mean, the room kind of came together. We hired a bunch of different writers from different walks of life that we thought had good samples. Everybody got along very well. The first year of any show I think, it’s hard for the new writers to get into the head of the person who created it. It’s not really even tooting my own horn. I just think it is what it is. The person that created it knows… If they don’t know what the show is, the show’s not going to work. It’s going to fail very quickly. But the person who created it tends to have the voice of the show, an idea of the show. I was young, and I knew what that was, and I had also been working on it for a year, and they were just starting, so I was kind of showing them what the show was going to be.

Kary: 

Did you develop a way to articulate more clearly to them in succeeding episodes and then seasons what the rules of the show were, how to go about looking at it, and when to know it’s a Without a Trace episode and when it’s not a Without a Trace episode? If you could tell us a little bit about that.

Hank Steinberg: 

I mean at the beginning, I learned all about putting cards up on boards. I never really did that. And act breaks and all that stuff. But we were discovering it as we went along. But one of the arguments, for example, that we had in the first year was we had these flashbacks. The flashbacks, I was adamant from the beginning that the flashback always had to have the missing person in it. It couldn’t just be… If you were missing and Jack Malone was interviewing your mom, we weren’t going to get a flashback about your mom and your dad talking about you. It always had to have the missing person in it, because my very purist philosophy about the show is every episode is about who is the character of the person who’s missing? The flashbacks are not just to move the story forward. They’re to elucidate the character.

Hank Steinberg: 

The other writers begged me, “Oh, it would be such a good scene to access this,” and I said, “Then find a way to get the missing person in that scene.” You want to have a scene about the parents fighting, because that’s an important part of the dynamic of this family, then put the missing person in the middle of that fight, so that I get their perspective on it. We never broke that, and I just was religious about that. That was one thing that we were learning.

Hank Steinberg: 

Another thing I remember early on was there was a question about the pacing of the show. Law & Order had a very, very bah-bum. You go, you interview a witness, and then they say, “Oh yeah, it was the guy from the deli,” cut to the deli, and then the guy from the deli goes, “No, it was the girl from the brothel,” cut to the brothel. I remember the second or third episode of the show I said, “What I want to do is in the first act I want to have LaPaglia’s character,” it was a missing boy, who went missing on a subway, and “I want to have David Paymer,” who’s a great Oscar-winning actor, we got him to play the dad, “I want to have LaPaglia interview Paymer for like seven pages, and just show how difficult it is for LaPaglia’s character to have to deal with a grieving parent who’s also a suspect, because the parent’s always a suspect, and to watch the dynamic between those two.”

Hank Steinberg: 

And they were like, “You can’t have a seven page scene.” I said, “We’re going to intercut between this and…” I don’t remember what we were inter-cutting with… We would go to that, we would interview him, and then we would go to another scene, and then we’d come back again to them, and then we’d go to another scene, we came back to them. So you felt like this conversation had been going on for six hours. Now today that’s not a novel thing. But at the time people were not doing that in procedurals. I actually had the benefit… There were a lot of challenges of not having worked in television before. But I wasn’t locked into some of the rules of television and the rules of procedural television. I had an instinct, and I said, “No, we’re going to do this, and it’s going to work. It’s going to be tense, it’s going to be cool.” That was a really good moment, and I think it started to liberate the other writers.

Hank Steinberg: 

And I learned a lot from the other writers who had worked in television on other shows for so long. I learned a lot of things about the culture of how you have to treat your writers in the writers’ room and stuff like that. It was a good mix. But it was cool not having those prejudices that I had. It was liberating for me and for us.

Kary: 

Tell us a little bit more about that balance between procedural drama and hitting the beats of procedural drama, and character development. 

Hank Steinberg: 

Before, I did want to point out one thing that the other writers taught me that was really important, which was it’s a marathon. You have nine writers, seven writers, whatever it is on your staff, and there’s 22 episodes. It’s really important that you keep the culture of that writers’ room positive and everybody feeling good. There’s just a way to deal with… When you get a script, and it’s the first season of a show, and it’s a writer that doesn’t have the voice yet, and I felt like I had to rewrite, there’s certain ways that you do it, where you keep everyone’s morale up.

Hank Steinberg: 

One of the ways I would do it, I learned, I was… Sometimes I really just wanted to take it and do it myself, because I thought it was just so off from what I wanted. Or I’m going to bring them into my office, and we’re going to stay here all night, and we’re going to stay here all night, and we’re going to do the rewrite together, so that A, they would learn what I was looking for, and B, when we came out of there, they would still feel a sense of ownership. We had worked on it together. Even if I was sitting at the keyboard, even if I was doing most of the typing, but I was pitching lines to them. “What do you think of that?” They would pitch lines back to me. That was really helpful.

Hank Steinberg: 

The other thing is that there was a script in the first season that was one of my babies, I loved this whole idea for the episode, and it was a staff writer, first year… He didn’t have enough time to write the script. We fell behind. He only had three days to write a draft, and it just wasn’t very good. There was no time, so I just had to take it. We were falling way, way behind, and I just had to take it. It was a very controversial script, this is 2002, about a Saudi Arabian doctor in New York, who goes missing, and it was all about the rush to judgment. Is he a terrorist just because he’s missing, and there were some circumstantial things that made it look like he might have some associations with people that could be dangerous. It turned out he was innocent. And it became this referendum on profiling. It was a really cool episode.

Hank Steinberg: 

There was not one word left of this guy’s script, except for the first line when the doctor comes in and says hello. Everything else by the end was changed. And it was a painful process, because it was such a potentially inflammatory and difficult subject matter, and I was getting notes from the studio and Jerry was weighing in. The network, everyone was really nervous about it. But that sweat and all that pain made it into one of the best episodes we ever made. It was nominated for a Humanitas Award.

Hank Steinberg: 

At the time it’s time to do the production draft of the script, I told the other senior writers, “I’m going to put my name on this. This is crazy. We’ll just give him another script down the line. There’s nothing left of what he wrote, and it’s my baby.” And they said, “It’s true, and that’s technically just, but if you want to have a happy staff, you don’t put your name on people’s scripts, even if it’s technically justified or whatever.” And there’s some showrunners that put their name on every script. There’s some showrunners that rewrite everything and do it that way. And then there’s some showrunners… John Wells was somebody that they named who is a great producer because he keeps his people happy. “Everyone knows it’s your show, you’re going to get the credit anyway, do that.” That was a really valuable lesson that I learned, and that I kept. Then it got nominated for a Humanitas Award.

Hank Steinberg: 

Sorry. Going back to your other question about-

Kary: Characters versus procedural.

Hank Steinberg: 

We were at a huge disadvantage about delving into the character stuff, because it became almost impossible… If there’s some 17-year-old girl who’s missing and she’s been missing for 52 hours, and you’ve got that damn 52 hours missing going across the screen every three minutes reminding the audience how much time has gone by, you really don’t want to see Jack go home and have an argument with his wife about loading the dishwasher, or even about the kid’s school tuition, or even about really almost anything else unless there’s huge stakes in whatever that personal story is, because you’re just going to go, “Why are you talking about that and not looking for the girl?”

Hank Steinberg: 

Whereas in a dead body show, where it’s a murder, time is not ticking. Yes, the murderer is running out there free, but unless he’s a serial killer, he’s probably not going to do it again. So you have time in other shows to go to the bar and blow off some steam that night. We never had those scenes. So it was a weird place, because I was trying to push the character stuff forward as much as I could, but I had all these constraints built into the DNA of the show I’d created.

Hank Steinberg: 

We eventually got to a point later that season where… It was the beginning of season three, actually, the network sat down with me and said, “We want you to take it easy with this character stuff. You’re breaking the show.” The show was like top five, and a cover of TV Guide, not because… There were all these soapy things on the cover of TV Guide because of the romance and all these things happening between the characters. I was like, “Guys, it’s actually working.” It’s funny. 10 years later I had lunch with Jonathan Littman, and he’s like, “Oh my God, if you created a show now, we would absolutely demand you had those things in the show.”

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Kary: 

Tell us about the dynamic with the actors, especially as the show begins to become popular. Tell us about that dynamic.

Hank Steinberg: 

Well starting with Anthony. Anthony was, at the time, a Tony-winning actor, an Emmy-winning actor. He was coming off of these indie Australian movie called Lantana, which everyone thought he was going to get nominated for an Oscar for, which he was great in. As a matter of fact, he passed on Without a Trace, then two days later didn’t get the Oscar nomination, and then the phone rang, “He’s interested!” And he came in. So he came in I think a little bit reluctantly.

Hank Steinberg: 

I found a way every year to give him at least two or three episodes that were totally about his character. Maybe it would be a case, but it would be really about his character or just be totally about him, not even a case. The network would freak out and I’d go, “Okay, so that one’s not going to repeat well, but at least I’ll have an actor who feels like he’s acting. And it’s going to buy me two months of peace on the set.” And I happened to love doing those also. Those were the ones I would write and direct. We’d have a great time. And then I’d go back to teenage cheerleader goes missing and how do we make that interesting?

Hank Steinberg: 

It started with Anthony. One of the interesting things that happened through the casting process, during the pilot, but also through the course of the show, is that you may have an idea about who the character is, and sometimes you really do. You really have a strong idea. Then sometimes either it’s not so defined and then the actor you cast really defines it, or it shifts.

Hank Steinberg: 

But the Danny Taylor character, who was played by Enrique Murciano, was supposed to be quiet and shy and internal and cerebral, and then Enrique walked in the room, and was the exact opposite of that, but he was so charismatic and exciting and everyone loved him, and it was like, “Okay, I guess that character’s going to be that now.” And then we would write toward that. The character and the actor start to blend in a show, especially a show like that, where there’s not that much written for the character anyway, because they’re doing the heavy lifting of solving the mystery. So it really is their innate personality and their energy they bring to the role that start to define it.

Hank Steinberg: 

Jack Malone was supposed to be an avuncular, patriarchal great teacher. Super great to his people, an amazing leader. And Anthony had absolutely no interest in doing that. He thought that was so boring, and I was like, “Yeah, you’re right. It is boring.” Maybe it’s because I was writing three other things at the time that I conceived it, and it was the least important thing, and I was just going… I just wrote a total cliché character. He came in, embodied it with his brooding, dark energy. You look in his eyes, and you can tell there’s 1000 things going on.

Hank Steinberg: 

He wasn’t so happy, because he wasn’t getting to act as much as he wanted, and so that started to take over, so suddenly Jack Malone became a deeply unhappy guy with a very dark personal past, which we really got into. Suicidal in his past. His mom killed herself. We added all these things in there that I had never thought of before, to basically go with the actor and what we thought was going to be interesting. And it made him broken, and it made him therefore… He felt this drive to solve these other… These cases was going to fix something in him. So that was a conflict between the actor and the part.

Kary: 

You mentioned you directed several of the episodes. Tell us about who was the cinematic custodian of the film, of the series, season to season, and what were the cinematic influences of how the show was shot, and then tell us about your taking on directing episodes and your evolving role in the cinematic conversation.

Hank Steinberg: 

Well, David Nutter was really the one that created the look, because he directed not only the pilot but the second episode. The flashbacks and our ways in and out of the flashbacks became a signature thing that we would do on the show. We didn’t have a strong producing director, which is now very, very common. Almost all shows have a producing director who’s on the show all the time, who sets the look, really interacts with all the people in production and defines the look of the show. Sometimes it’s the pilot director who stays. Sometimes it’s an experienced producing director who continues with the look that was set by the pilot director.

Hank Steinberg: 

At the time, not everyone was doing that, and we didn’t have one at the beginning, so it was really the DPs at the beginning. And actually, the Bruckheimer people were so all over the look, and everything having to do with the visuals of the show and the production value of the show. I think we went through three or four composers in the first year, three or four DPs, a couple of costumers. They were not shy about firing people if they did not think that the show looked cool enough and edgy enough and consistent with the Bruckheimer brand. So they were really the cultivators of the brand. I mean that’s something that Jerry has been doing for a million years, had already been doing it for a million years, and now he’s been doing it for 17 more. His movies all look unbelievable, and he has such an eye for that, and he was really on top of that, and helping us pick the people that were going to be doing that.

Kary: 

Then at what point did you start directing episodes?

Hank Steinberg: 

The second season.

Kary: 

Was that liberating for you? Did you enjoy it?

Hank Steinberg: 

It’s the greatest. Maybe it’s not suited for everyone, but it’s hard for me to imagine being a writer and not wanting to direct what you write. And that’s not to say that a really good director can’t elevate your material. A really good director can elevate your material and can bring whole new things to it that you didn’t think of and see and make great suggestions and see things. I’ve had lots of great interactions with directors who have helped me hone the script and figure out what is the most important parts of the script and add things. But when you’re writing something and you picture it in your mind, it’s just so fun to go out with the actors and your crew and play, and then discover new things that you didn’t see, that you didn’t conceive, and being open to that process.

Hank Steinberg: 

If you’re doing an indie movie or something it’s like everyone’s together for the first time, you don’t have enough money. You’re scrambling against the clock, and you’re all trying to figure things out together.

Hank Steinberg: 

When I came in it was like, “Well, the cast all knows who their… They know their parts. The crew all knows what they’re doing.” So I could just come into the most comfortable and supportive environment. I mean, you’re the boss, so they all want to do the best job for you, so it’s the best. And maybe even more importantly, for those eight days, I’m not in the writers’ room, I’m not in post, I’m not in casting, I’m not thinking about anything else. I had to let go and let the other writers and producers just take that off my plate. That is extremely liberating because when you’re not doing that and you’re running a show, you’re thinking about 20 different things at once. You’re thinking about five different episodes at a time. One that’s on the board, one that’s getting rewrites, one that’s in editorial. It’s just so pure and distilled.

Kary: 

Tell us a little bit about the post process on the show, and how your experience in the editing room and in the finishing room evolved.

Hank Steinberg: 

Well, first thing I would say is try to find your way into an editing suite as much as you can, as much as you can. I learned more about writing and storytelling from editing, than almost anything else. More than shooting, because that’s the final rewrite. I mean that’s a cliché, but it’s true. The final rewrite is how you edit it all together. It’s incredible, the things that you can do. Moving scenes around, cutting lines, restructuring in ways that you never would have thought of when you wrote it. How can this scene that I put in the third act actually work in the first act? How can it be so much more powerful there or vice-versa?

Hank Steinberg: 

You learn so much about the economy of screenwriting, because when you’re watching the… You realize how much… If you have good actors, how much they can communicate with their body language and a look. You realize you need less dialogue. You learn that your dialogue should be coming at things from the side, because of everything that the actors can put in there. You learn about pacing. And it’s super fun, because you’re no longer looking at a blank page of like, “Oh shit, what am I going to do with this scene?” Well, you’ve already shot it, so that ship has sailed. Now you’re sitting there with 51 minutes of material that you have to cut down into a 42 minute show. So it’s finite, whereas the writing process is infinite, and that can be a very daunting part of the process of writing.

Hank Steinberg: 

So that’s super enjoyable. You’re off the hook. You have a certain amount of material, and it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. Now you can do with it what you want. But there’s also amazing things you can do to rewrite scenes with judicious uses of ADR and looping and inter-cutting and voiceover. There’s lots of things that you can do. So it’s a really incredible creative process, and it’s the part of the process that I enjoy the most.

Kary: 

I kind of skipped over this, but just give us a sense of research for the show, experts you used, diving down into real, true stories and adapting them. You mentioned the Chandra Levy, Gary Condit story as kind of an inspiration for the show. But tell us a little bit about the research process and infrastructure that you built for the show.

Hank Steinberg: 

I’ve done two shows, this and The Last Ship, which had… We had very, very strong advisors. Without a Trace, we had an FBI advisor who was full-time on the show, and he was there on the set most days, and he also gave notes on scripts. He was not sitting in the writers’ room. That would’ve been just too invasive. But he gave notes on all the scripts. And on The Last Ship, I had the navy. In both cases, you really need them to get a certain amount of verisimilitude, and you also need them to get out of your way when you need to tell a dramatic story. It’s a really art, craft, finesse, game of personalities really, of figuring out how to work with them, make them feel heard, massage their egos, make them feel like you’re listening to them, you’re trying to protect…

Hank Steinberg: 

They have a thing that they’re trying to do, and it’s different than what you’re trying to do. Your FBI advisor is trying to protect the integrity of the FBI, because he believes in the FBI, and because all of his friends are in the FBI and they know he’s working on that show, and they’re going to call him up and bitch him out if there’s something unrealistic on the show. 

Hank Steinberg: 

The other thing of course is when you have fallible people, fallible FBI agents or fallible people in the navy in my other show, and they want to pretend, “No, no, no. We would never do that, because it’s in the rules.” Oh, you have no one in the FBI who’s ever made a mistake, or broken the rules? We would try to get them to see this character’s going to make a mistake, but then they’re going to learn their lesson from the mistake, and so in showing the mistake, we’re going to prove the value that you want to defend in your organization, in your institution, is going to be more shown and put on display by showing the mistake and the consequence of the mistake, and then proving the value. Once we got to teaching that lesson to them, it was helpful, and they would go along with it more.

Kary: 

Where did stories come from? Were there PAs or researchers that were digging through, looking for things? Did writers bring real stories and then you would fictionalize them to-

Hank Steinberg: 

We didn’t do much rip from the headlines. Law & Order was doing that, and we didn’t do that much. The ones that interested me the most was where we could deal with a social theme.  One of the episodes that was one of our most successful was about school bullying. Another one was about the profiling of the Saudi Arabian doctor.

Kary: 

You often started with issues and ideas rather than rip from the headlines? That’s new, that’s interesting.

Hank Steinberg: 

Yes, we did that. But I mean, look, we did 22, 24 episodes a year, so sometimes it was, “That would be a really cool teaser.” I think the second episode was a kid goes missing on the subway on his way to Yankee’s Stadium. Okay, that’s cool. It’s scary. It’s going to hook people. Now what’s the story? Sometimes we had to back our way into it. One year, we said a whole bus full of schoolchildren goes missing, and that was based on an old case. Not a rip from the headlines, but an old case. It was a Coachella school bus went missing.

Hank Steinberg: 

Those were harder, because we had a great hook, and then it was like, “Okay, but what’s it about? Why would a whole school bus full of children go missing, and how am I going to make it emotional? How am I going to make it be about…” We somehow, through lots of rewrites, we found a way to make it be about the tensions of the socioeconomic inequities in the town, and it came back to some disgruntled mother, who lived on the “wrong side of the tracks,” and it was something about her issue. We tried to bring it into that. So there were a number of different ways that we broached it.

Kary: 

Without a Trace was seven seasons on the air. How many were you showrunner for it?

Hank Steinberg: 

I left halfway through season four to go do The Nine.

Kary: 

All of those seven seasons on the air, it was in the top 20, including two in the top 10. It was the show that knocked ER out of its perch on Thursday night must-see TV. It also had incredible success in reruns, in big syndication sale. Why did it end after seven seasons? Why didn’t it go the 15 that CSI did?

Hank Steinberg: 

Economics. I wasn’t there for the end. They moved the show around four times in the last two or three years, four different time slots. It was almost like they were trying to kill it. The show was a co-production between Warner Brothers and CBS, and it was at a time when the networks were moving much more towards wanting to own their content, because they make a lot more money on a show when they own it.

Hank Steinberg: 

In the end of the day, I think that was the real reason, was that CBS had a successful schedule of a lot of other shows that were working, and they wanted to bring on another show that they owned. And also, as a show ages, it costs more and more money. The actors cost more. Everything goes up every year. So the older a show gets, the more expensive it gets, and typically it gets more expensive, and the ratings start to decline a bit, so at some point those two lines meet where it doesn’t become profitable. It was still was plenty profitable. It just wasn’t quite as profitable as in the first three years, and then you had the change in the whole dynamics between the studio and the network.

Kary: 

Best piece of advice you ever got?

Hank Steinberg: 

There was a confluence of events that all happened around the time of Without a Trace, and it was a two pronged advice that I got from Jerry Bruckheimer and Lawrence Kasdan within 18 hours of each other. I was writing this movie for Lawrence Kasdan, and I had the phone call with him where I got his reaction to the first draft of the script, So I was kind of lost and floundering, and I had this phone call with Lawrence Kasdan, and he read this script that I had submitted to him that… I don’t know what happened, because it was really important to me that I do a good job for him, but I kind of… I took on too many things on my plate at once. I procrastinated. I wasn’t disciplined in how I wrote it. And it was also kind of a little bit lazy in a way. I didn’t know it really til he told me. He gave me the best tough love speech you could have, especially from somebody who you really, really respect. He just said, “There’s no specificity in it, in this script. You’re not in it. You’re not inside it. I don’t know what happened, because I saw 61*, and that was so specific and so had a voice.”

Hank Steinberg: 

Then he told me this story about his own career, where he’d had some success with an early movie that he’d written, and then he’d had a really bad meeting at a studio about whatever was his next movie that he was working on. And he was walking on the lot of the studio, and he said to himself, which was basically what he was saying I needed to tell myself, he said, “God damn it, man. You fought this hard to get inside the fort. Now you’ve got to redouble your efforts.”

Hank Steinberg: 

He was right. I had fought hard to break in, to get an agent, to get work, to get a movie made, to get an opportunity, and then I had this feature script that was not good enough..

Hank Steinberg: 

I was kind of reeling from that, and the next day we went into… We had the notes call with the studio, on the Without a Trace pilot, and it was also at the same time that I was really struggling with my rewrite of Without a Trace. As I told you, when I reread my own first draft that had gone into the network, that they had picked up, I thought it was lazy, I didn’t like it.

Hank Steinberg: 

Then David Nutter came in as a director and he absolutely correctly said, “This is not well-researched. There’s no FBI verisimilitude here. It reads well, and that’s why the network likes it, but it doesn’t feel real. They don’t feel like FBI agents. We’ve got to do the research on this.” So I did a rewrite basically for him, because I wasn’t was really taking ownership over any of it, and the studio and network read it, and kind of freaked out, because it was really dry, and it had lost a lot of the personality and jazz that the first draft had. They were pretty spooked, and they had already green-lit it and we were prepping and whatnot.

Hank Steinberg:

And I left the building kind of demoralized and freaked out. As I was walking out, I passed Jerry, and he came out of his office and he looked at me and he said, “You wrote a great script. Why’d you fuck it up?” He smiled though. He wasn’t panicked. He wasn’t mad. He smiled like, “Seen it all before, I’ll see it again.” I knew he was still pulling for me, and it was his way of giving me the tough love speech. I went home and I thought about it, and I was like, “Why did I fuck it up?” And I thought about what Larry had said to me about redoubling your efforts and being specific and being inside it.

Hank Steinberg:

I came in the next day, first thing that morning, and Jonathan Littman, who was running Bruckheimer’s TV department, said, “Okay, so we’ve got the studio notes, we’ve digested them. What are we going to do? How are we going to fix it?” and I said, “I got it.” And Jonathan was like, “What do you mean?” “Just, I got it.” So I walked up the stairs, and I locked myself in that room for three straight days and I worked for like 16 hours a day, and when I said I got it, I didn’t know what it was I was getting, but I knew that I had to find it up there in the room.

Hank Steinberg: 

Then I found the spirit of what everyone had liked about the first draft, and kept the verisimilitude that the director rightly wanted so that it felt real, and I put myself and the personality, whatever I brought to the original part of it, back in. But I ended up with a much more complex and nuanced and real feeling. A combination of all of it. When I walked out of that office and I walked down the stairs, it was like, “I did it, and I know I have it now.” I didn’t have a doubt that everyone was going to be happy with that draft. That’s what happened, and then we more or less shot that draft. The broader lesson is: Know the Gestalt of what you’re trying to do, and preserve that, and hold your ground in some way, but not be stubborn about taking input from people, because you’re going to need that. It’s a tricky thing, and it’s kind of a craft onto itself. But I think almost all the successful screenwriters have in some way or form learned how to do that.

Kary: 

Please join me in thanking Hank Steinberg for being with us tonight.

End of interview.