Modern Day Sherlock

Interview: Allen MacDonald

March 10, 2007

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Interview by Shane Saunders

Modern Day Sherlock's very own Shane Saunders interviewed CSI staff-writer Allen MacDonald for Modern Day Sherlock. Allen has been with the show since season three and worked on such episodes such as "Toe Tags", "The Unusual Suspect" and the upcoming "Empty Eyes". Allen was kind enough to take the time to answer your questions that fans submitted here and from affiliate Blacktie-Affair. Sharing what's coming up this season, MacDonald also shares how he got his job on the show, emerging themes, and much, much more.

Spoilers  throughout the interview!

MODERN DAY SHERLOCK: What were you doing before being a writer on CSI?

ALLEN MacDONALD: I got my Bachelor's degree at San Diego State University in Telecommunications and Film in 1995.  After graduating, I stayed on at my college job at the Shamu Show at Sea World for awhile.  No, I didn't swim with the whales... I videotaped them.  I was in the Jumbotron department, which was a group of about eight people who rotated four positions during any given live show: two camera operators, one tape operator, one director.  We were responsible for the images that were projected up on the Jumbotron screen during the show.

In early 1996, my uncle got me an interview with an NBC Financial Executive named Jerry Petry.  Jerry very kindly helped me get an interview on Saved by the Bell: The New Class.  I found out a few weeks later I had gotten the job.  

It was hard to leave San Diego -- I had a girlfriend and friends down there at the time -- but I'd always wanted to work in TV, so I took a job as a Production Assistant.  This means I drove around Los Angeles a lot on errands and deliveries -- which was unfortunate because I didn't have a clue how to navigate LA.  I learned quickly.  One of my main responsibilites was picking up lunch, dinner and Starbucks coffee for the production office and the writers' office.  Within a week of working there I realized I wanted to be a TV writer.  I also knew I didn't want to do comedy, I wanted to do drama -- I was obsessed then with a show called Homicide: Life On the Street.   I knew eventually I'd have to make the leap.

I then spent a year on another Saturday morning show called Hang Time, working as an assistant script coordinator.  Then through some connections I had at this company, Peter Engel Productions, I got a short-term gig working as an intern for the researcher on ER, which at the time was also one of my favorite shows.  I had a few months off between Hang Time seasons and figured it was worth a shot.  I got lucky -- an assistant job opened up before the internship ended and I spent two seasons there working for two of the writer/producers.

I spent a lot of my free time writing 'spec scripts' -- spec's short for speculation -- this means you write an episode of a show you admire to showcase your ability to capture its tones and 'the voices' of its characters while coming up with a compelling story and guest characters.  It's a writing sample.  I wrote an ER, Homicide, NYPD Blue, Dawson's Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.

I wasn't going to get an opportunity to write for ER, so I had to move on, because, if you want to be a drama writer, you have to find a show that believes in promoting from within.  I decided to apply to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles as a screenwriting fellow.  I got in and spent two years there and left with a masters degree and a new girlfriend.  

MODERN DAY SHERLOCK: Your first CSI episode that aired was "Spark of Life". How did you get a job on the CSI writing staff?

ALLEN MacDONALD: Well, the last question leads into this one.  Again, luck shone on me again.  After graduating from AFI, my girlfriend, Annabelle, went to work for a producer/director on CSI named Richard Lewis.  She got to know the writers and passed along my resume to a producer, Andrew Lipsitz, who contacted me when a job opened up for a writers' assistant.

My first week at CSI was around episode 15 of Season Three.  I replaced Sarah Goldfinger (who is actually not replaceable at all) after she had been promoted to staff writer.  This job was a tremendous opportunity because it put me in the actual writers room.  Initially, I laid low and just quietly typed notes on my computer, but eventually, I was encouraged to speak up and pitch ideas.  It was the nurturing atmosphere I had been looking for.  I remained the writers' assistant during seasons four and five, and then Carol and Naren very graciously gave me a freelance script, which is an actual episode of the show.  This was my 'audition' for a staff job and became "Spark of Life."  Getting that kind of opportunity is an incredible feeling -- it's like winning the lottery.  Luckily, they were happy with the results and Carol told me two days after I turned in my first draft that I'd be on staff for Season Six.  Carol, Naren and Sarah have all been wonderful mentors to me.

BEV: When CSI first started Grissom [William Petersen] was a quirky, geeky, and somewhat humorous science guy, as the series has progressed he's become introverted and brooding.  Is there any chance in the future that we'll see our quirky nerd back?  I miss him.

ALLEN MacDONALD: Oh, I think so.  To me, Grissom is all those things, it's just the specific cases that brings those different qualities out.

CUDDLES: I'd like to add-on and ask, what are the reasons to contribute to the huge change in Grissom's personality?

ALLEN MacDONALD: I don't see them as huge changes.  They're baby steps.  He's getting older.  He's spent a lot of years committed to his career and excelling at it -- but now he's probably needing a little more room to breathe.  More down time.  That's why I think he's let Sara [Jorja Fox] into his private life.

MODERN DAY SHERLOCK: You wrote this season's episode "Leaving Las Vegas" which featured a scene in which Catherine Willows [Marg Helgenberger] had a scene with a jail-inmate where she started unbuttoning her blouse. Fans have reacted critically to this scene. How did you feel when you were writing this and what is your reaction to the criticism? Was this the reaction you were going for for the character?

ALLEN MacDONALD: This question requires that I explain the writing process for a CSI episode:

The writer will individually find a story that strikes a chord with them.  Then they'll pitch it to Carol Mendelsohn and Naren Shankar, who are the showrunners, and they'll decide if it's enough to sustain a full episode.  Once they've approved an idea, a group of the writers that are available (some are off writing, some are on set as their episode is being shot, some are in the post-production phase) will go into the writers' room and 'break' the story.  'Breaking' basically means coming up with the story beat by beat and separating it into four acts.  We talk for a few days, then we start writing beats up on the dry erase board.  When we finish it, we pitch it to Naren and Carol, who will make adjustments and give significant insight into how best to tell the story.  Changes are made and an outline is written by our writers' assistant, Mike Daley, based on what was discussed.

Then the writer goes off for a week and a half and expands the outline, then writes the actual first draft of the script.  The script is turned in, the writer gets notes, and then you either sit down with Carol or Naren individually and go through the script scene by scene until there's a new draft.  That's the process -- each draft tightens the story and maximizes the drama.  TV writing is often a group activity and the scripts only benefit from the process.

I tell you all this because the truth is, Catherine didn't unbutton her shirt in my original draft.  That was Sarah Goldfinger's idea as we were rewriting the scene with Carol.  And I think it was an inspired one that I still support whole-heartedly.  

Catherine's done her job for a long time.  She can read people and intuit what they want, and, in the case of "Leaving Las Vegas", yes, she was willing to use her assets to get answers from the suspect.  I don't think this behavior was a stretch for her, Catherine put herself through school working as a stripper.  I read some of the criticism -- I don't feel she demeaned herself, I think it empowered her -- Catherine was in control the entire time, not the inmate.  She made the rules and called the shots.  That was Sarah's pitch and it made the scene two hundred percent better.  And if it got people talking, I think that's a good thing.

Now, that said, my girlfriend was not happy with me after watching that scene.  So, ultimately, it's a matter of opinion.

CATH4GIL: Do you think the team dynamics have changed this season?

ALLEN MacDONALD: During the early seasons, Grissom and Catherine were the seasoned leaders, while Nick [George Eads], Warrick [Gary Dourdan] and Sara were the 'newbies' who were learning as they went along. I think that dynamic has changed significantly as the newbies have grown into their skin.  They've each, in their own way, been influenced by Grissom's approach to the job but have, through experience, defined a unique style in their job that reflects their personalities.  At its core, it's the parent/child dynamic -- at first the kids are dependent on the parents, then they grow up, learn through experience, and eventually end up teaching the parents a thing or two.  That was the idea behind a scene in "Leaving Las Vegas" this season when Warrick asks Grissom if he's going on sabbatical because he's 'sick of babysitting', and Grissom replies that he's 'a teacher without any students'.  It's bittersweet for Grissom -- he's had a profound influence on his team, but they're learning to function on their own.  He's proud, but I imagine a little sad.

ANNE: Why are some of the characters being pushed into the background? Warrick Brown is one of the biggest sufferers of this fate, but also to an extent Greg Sanders [Eric Szmanda], Jim Brass [Paul Guilfoyle] and Sofia Curtis [Louise Lombard].

ALLEN MacDONALD: I don't think that's the case.  Greg Sanders has had a huge arc this season that started in "Fannysmackin".  Greg's life was threatened and he made a split second decision that killed another human being.  It's had a ripple effect for him through out the season with the Coroner's Inquest... and there's more to come.

Each episode is designed differently.  Some are big cases that involve the whole team.  Others focus in on specific characters and reveal a little bit more about them.  So it may feel like some characters are falling into the background, but I promise, it'll balance out.

MODERN DAY SHERLOCK: You've written some GSR-centric episodes. What is your perspective on the romance?

ALLEN MacDONALD: You know, I really haven't written many GSR-centric episodes -- you're probably thinking of the locker room scene at the end of "Leaving Las Vegas" where Grissom says goodbye to Sara as he leaves for his sabbatical.  

I think the romance enhances them both as people.  It gives them a fresh outlook on their job and their lives.  Expands their world view.

WOJO: Do the writers and producers take the negative feedback, letters, emails seriously? If so why does this season continue down a path that is not good for ratings and making viewers change the channel?  CSI need to get back to it's roots.

ALLEN MacDONALD: We (meaning all ten of the writers this season) take any and all feedback into account.  But shows and characters develop and change -- certainly it would become redundant to still be playing the same character beats as season one.  I genuinely feel season seven is one of the strongest seasons CSI has ever had.  Change is good.

MODERN DAY SHERLOCK: What motivates you to write and what influences you?

ALLEN MacDONALD: Hard to answer.  I've just always been compelled to write.  If someone says something that sticks with me, I'll write it down in a moleskin notebook hoping it'll be useful down the line.  Sometimes it's a CSI idea, sometimes it's a screenplay idea, sometimes it's just a scene or even dialogue.  My family has become more frightened of me since I started writing the show, so there's that.

I enjoy exploring people and what makes them tick.  CSI gives our writers a unique forum for character development because they're revealed through how they do their job.  We don't usually go home with the characters...  (well, there was that one time at the end of last season...)

RISSA: Among all the characters, who is your favorite to write for? And what pairing do you enjoy most enjoy putting together?

ALLEN MacDONALD: I enjoy writing for all the characters on CSI, but I think if you watch the episodes I've been involved with, it's pretty clear I gravitate toward Nick and Sara, both individually and together as a team.  I identify with them the most -- they view the world the same way I do, which makes it easier for me to hear their voices in my head.  Sara's front and center in my next episode, "Empty Eyes" -- and Nick's right there backing her up.

That said, "Leaving Las Vegas" was a Catherine episode and I did the Warrick story in "Toe Tags," and it's really valuable for me as a writer to bounce around to other characters, work different writing muscles, and see the job from their unique perspective.

WINTERWILLOWS3: What do you see as the emerging themes on the show this season and how do you feel these themes will carry over to season eight?

ALLEN MacDONALD: For me, this season has been about the toll being a CSI takes on the individual characters.  So I answer the question with more questions: How does seeing death on a daily basis affect you?  Can you remain empathetic without it crushing your spirit over time?  Or is it better to be apathetic so you can remain impartial and do your job more effectively.  I think it's a balancing act for all the CSIs.  

And yes, I think these themes will spill over into next season.

MODERN DAY SHERLOCK: What can viewers expect towards the end of the season?

ALLEN MacDONALD: Tiny crime scenes.  Big suspense.

Shane Saunders is the owner and webmaster of Modern Day Sherlock