David Zabel

supervising producer/writer of award-winning series ER

by Kim Hunter

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born in 1966, in NYC. Grew up in Manhattan, extremely interested in theater and exposed to it at a young age through my family, in particular my paternal grandmother, who was a passionate theatergoer. I liked acting as a kid but was also quite a focused writer of stories, plays, poems. I went to Princeton in 1984, wanting to be a poet — I studied at various times with Galway Kinnel, JD McClatchy and Katha Pollitt. Theater overtook my literary aspirations there, and I graduated as an English Lit major (Drama minor) in 1988, wanting to be an actor. I went for an MFA at NYU/Tisch, and graduated in 1992.

I acted and directed in New York and LA for some years, all the while writing but only plays and stories for my own pleasure. I was not interested in TV or film. I taught ESL and drama to make a living from 1989-1998. Then, at 29 (oh, a cruel year), I felt like I was tired of scraping along and gave TV a go — I wrote a sample of NYPD Blue, followed by ones for ER and Ally McBeal. Got a job on JAG (1998); wrote two episodes. Got fired. Got a freelance for Star Trek: Voyager and wrote some stuff on my own (stories, a spec feature, a TV sample, in 1999), then got a job on Dark Angel (2000-2001), during which I was hired to write a movie for Miramax. Then, ER stole me away from DA, and I wrote a second feature for Miramax, followed by a feature for Paramount (just finished). Currently starting a feature for Warner Bros. and working on ER. Married for one and a half years (her name is Erin) — no kids.

How did your schooling relate to your development as a writer? And how does it relate to your writing today?

My experience in theater, especially as an actor, remains absolutely invaluable. There’s no better training for film and TV work than the collaborative effort of mounting a play and bonding together to tell a story. I think I also became well equipped at a young age for the balance between the solitary aspects of being a writer and the group demands of working in film/TV.

Having been an actor (I did some small professional work) helps me in my ability to write good dialogue, to understand what actors need and don’t need from the words, and have a sense of what makes good spoken dialogue — some people write dialogue that looks great on the page but doesn’t fall from the mouth as smoothly as it reads.

I have a good sense of text vs. subtext that I learned from acting and from studying the great playwrights with a wonderful teacher in high school and a number of great professors in college. In a way, I learned to do what I do not from watching TV or reading Shane Black scripts but from reading Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard, etc. This gives me a strong foundation, I think, but some of the best writers I know don’t know shit about Ibsen, never heard of Inge and dream of nothing other than writing the next Terminator.

Also, because of my background, I tend to have a good working relationship with actors whom I think I understand well, perhaps better than many other writers/producers. When considering my own or anyone else’s work, I try to always keep a good balance between what I think and what I feel, both of which are important.

Have you been active in any other arts? How has it influenced your writing?

I’m terribly un-musical but improv classes are definitely good for stretching writing muscles. I often work things out by playing roles in my head — occasionally even aloud (though muted, not full volume — more like a mad mutter).
What was your first break into show biz? Into screenwriting?

A manager who liked a play I’d written encouraged me to write my first sample — an NYPD Blue. It got me an agent who got me a meeting at JAG — this was my first meeting for a job, in fact. I got hired to write a freelance, then hired onto the staff. At which point I looked like an absolute stud to everyone.

Until I was unceremoniously and unfairly fired by my absentee boss, a guy named Don Bellisario — who has been very successful in TV and is infamous for running his shows the way Attila might have if the Huns had had a TV show of their own. I worked very little for the year after that and was sure I was doomed, that my employment had been a simple anomaly.
Tell us a little about the shows you’ve written for and the features you’ve written.

The shows are pretty various in terms of genre, style, demographic, etc. — military/legal, sci-fi, action, medical drama. I’ve written for four different networks: JAG – CBS, ST: VOYAGER – UPN, DARK ANGEL – Fox, ER – NBC. And I’ve worked directly for some pretty big bosses — Bellisario (Magnum, Quantum Leap, Navy:NCIS), James Cameron, John Wells (who is by far the best television ‘show runner’ I’ve worked for).

I pride myself on range — I don’t want to be pigeonholed as any particular kind of writer. That would be limiting and boring, and Hollywood loves to do it. I’m resisting that.

Also, to thrive in TV, I think you must be flexible. The best TV writers can write more than one type of thing — this is because if a show runs for three or four seasons, and you write ten or twenty episodes, let’s say — well, over that time, you’ll need to be able to handle at least a little of everything — drama, action, comedy, romance. Otherwise, that show is not going to stay on the air — it’ll run out of gas. (There are of course some exceptions — like shows where there is no character development. These shows I enjoy watching but they don’t particularly interest me as a writer.)

I’ve written two pilots — both drama-comedies — one on my own about a special kind of school and one for Warner Bros. set in the world of sports medicine. Neither was shot.

The movies I’ve written have been a Woody Allenesque romantic comedy, a bittersweet teen romance based on a short story called “Keith” by Ron Carlson, a script I was assigned by Miramax for a proposed Jackie Chan-Roberto Benigni action comedy and a teen musical romance (somewhere between Saturday Night fever and save the Last Dance). Now, I’m beginning to work on a biographical film about a 19th century thief — a kind of historical comic caper, roughly contemporaneous with “Gangs of New York.”

I asked Mr. Zabel to answer several writing questions by taking us through the creation of an ER episode.

On the process of writing/producing for TV

It may help the dialogue if everyone watches the episode I refer to here — “Out of Africa” on 3/4.

First, I must say that every show is different, so there is a wide range of systems for developing a script. On some shows, every script passes through the computer of the head writer/showrunner/executive producer (that’s how David Kelly and Aaron Sorkin do it). ER is not run like that, so while my boss John Wells is part of the process, he does not re-write every script — in fact, he only does this in extreme situations, usually with younger writers. This system is much more user-friendly for a writer on staff because you are given more autonomy and trust — you are given notes, of course, but it is left to you to implement them.

STORY

So — on ER, the senior writers have a RETREAT in June where the larger┬ástory/character arcs are decided on and mapped out in the broadest terms. For example, last June, we decided that we would introduce a new character who would be a tough, working class nurse who is a very young single mom. (This became Samantha Taggart, played by Linda Cardellini.) She would ultimately become a love interest for Luka Kovac. We decided that Carter would come back from his work in Africa, in love with a black woman who was carrying his baby. We discussed how his experience overseas, his newfound love and his imminent fatherhood would change his character in terms of how he dealt with people and cases at work.

We usually go through each character and map out certain milestones in the course of the season. (For example: Carter will return from Africa in episode 10; the baby will be born in episode 21.) All of these things start off planned but end up being improvised over the season as we see how well storylines and characters turn out.

Once this has been done, the entire writing staff (seven plus two doctor/writers) assembles to discuss individual episodes. For each episode, we try to identify a spine and the major threads — usually discussing four or five episodes as a group. At some point, John Wells will decide who is writing which episodes and then that writer will focus on what he’s got.

For example, I was assigned ep 5 (which reruns on March 4). For that one, we decided I would introduce the new nurse; I would play the return of Kovac to the ER with a different way of practicing medicine based on his African experience; I would begin a three-episode story about Lewis’ connection to a lonely old man with Macular Degeneration (played by Bob Newhart).

With that and a few other loose ends, I then go off and work on a beat-by-beat OUTLINE in some detail — usually ten pages. This takes about a week. Then the group gives notes, I revise it, we discuss that and I’m sent off to write the episode (usually given 10-14 days).

The doctors, who help develop the medical storylines and often come up with the ideas for them, will give me a great deal of notes to help me write scenes. So, I tell them, this scene is going to be about Lewis beginning to suspect that Bob Newhart is suicidal — what can she detect on his labs that will feed that suspicion without necessarily confirming it? (because I want it to be ambiguous to both her and the audience). I consult with the docs throughout the writing and then they vet the script for accuracy. In this episode, I decided that it was really a split spine — Lewis and Kovac.

The fire story was something we came up with for reasons that are quite revealing about the reality of the business. In a meeting with Jeff Zucker (head of NBC), he told me quite bluntly that he needed something “promotable” for this episode. Something visual. It was important for ratings. So some of my cohorts and I said — okay, what haven’t we done? We’ve blown stuff up, we’ve crashed cars, we’ve had guns fired, we’ve had a pseudo-hostage situation — what’s new? Well, we’ve done lots of burn stories but we’ve never SEEN the event. “Let’s set someone on fire.” Pretty silly, really. But we came up with two stories — one based on a political protest outside the hospital where someone self-immolates. And then the story I ended up doing — which felt a bit less strained and more plausible (though plausible is sometimes a relative term on TV).

Interestingly, this story became the center of the episode. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine what it would have been without it. So, while the evolution may have been less than artistic, the result — I hope — was more than just a cheap stunt.

THE SCRIPT, once written, is read by the group. I get notes — usually in a meeting led by my boss. This can be brutal — a bunch of writers dissecting a script. Then I’ll do another draft or two.

At which point, about ten days before shooting, we have a CONCEPT MEETING in which I, as the writer, take the director and the production designers through the script and explain things, ask questions, etc. (on wardrobe, sets, casting, etc.)

During the next week, as a producer/writer, I sit down with the director for TONE meetings where we discuss each scene in depth, both what is intended in the writing, the production challenges and how he or she will shoot it. Also, I take part in casting the roles, clearance checks on names and trademarks, discussing the script with our regular cast as needed, budget issues, re-writing or adjusting where necessary, location scouting.

We will do a read-through and a production meeting the day before we shoot. The PRODUCTION MEETING is led by the First Assistant Director who goes through the script and describes what we’re prepared to do in each scene and how. (“For the lady with trake, we will have a prosthetic neck.” “For the scene on the street, we will have 75 extras.” “For the fire, we will have stunt doubles and Fire Department on the set.” etc.)

During SHOOTING, I am available to do whatever comes up — a problem on the set arises, I will be called down. A scene isn’t working? Someone wants a dialogue change? Someone’s crying in their trailer? I will watch each day’s dailies and discuss them with the director. If there’s something we missed or think we may need later, we’ll try to get it now rather than after the episode has wrapped.

POST PRODUCTION — After the director is done and delivers their cut, I will be involved in the editing, the sound mix, the music, etc. Notes from the network and studio (which, in our case, are usually very minimal) — the fire story above is an exception.

RANDOM POINTS — We do not work like a sitcom. Our room only meets three times a week for a few hours. We never actually “write” together. And we don’t rewrite each other except in rare occasions where a junior writer needs some help getting a draft to a shooting script.
Where do the ideas come from?

Ideas come from everywhere. Newspaper stories, personal anecdotes, family stories, our doctors, our own research visits to various ERs, etc. In ep. 5, the Bob Newhart story, for example, is loosely based on my grandmother.

The story of “Athena” came from one of our doctors. Sam injecting the guy’s neck at the beginning is a bastardized version of a story a doctor told me when I visited Charity Hospital in New Orleans.
How far in advance do you work?

Less and less as the season wears on. We get a head start six weeks before shooting begins, but production catches up to us. Yesterday, I put out a first draft of episode twenty — which will have a concept on 2/20, start shooting on 3/2, finish on 3/11, and air on 4/29. That’s more post time than necessary, but by the end, we’re usually posting two weeks before air.

You’ve told us about working on shows as a freelance writer, a staff writer and your ER credit is Supervising Producer. Can you tell us a little about the working relationship and responsibilities of each of these writing levels?

The various levels within a writing staff are largely indicative of experience and pay. There is no specific difference between the task of a producer and a co-producer on the writing staff. But if you’re a co-executive producer, more is expected of you than if you are, say, a ‘staff writer.’ Usually, you go up a level each season that you are renewed — the sequence is staff writer, story editor, exec. story editor, co-prod, prod, supervising prod, co exec prod, exec prod.

Theoretically, it might take you eight or even more years to rise through the ranks. There are also some financial implications to the titles — but this, too, varies from show to show, and network to network. (A co-EP on UPN will not generally make anything like a co-EP on a hit CBS show.) On our show, the bulk of the episode writing is done by the exec producers (Wells, Johnson, Gemmill) and myself. That is the way John Wells wants to do it.

How would you work with a freelance writer on an episode of ER? If ER doesn’t use freelancers, describe a time you freelanced for another show and how the producers and staff writers worked with you.

We’d bring in some writers whose samples we liked to pitch us stories — “stand-alone” stories, not character arcs. Stories that are set up, played out and resolved within a single episode. When we liked someone’s stories and their demeanor in the room (do they play well with others? do they know how to spin things out?), we’d hire them to do a freelance. However, we rarely shoot these scripts. They are used mostly as auditions and occasionally as a story-well from which we can draw.

(Yahlin Chang, this week’s episode writer, was hired after a good freelance. This is now her second year on ER, but her first solo script. She co-wrote with senior writers twice last year.)

Most shows do use their freelancer’s scripts, which are usually massively re-written by an on-staff writer before shooting (witness an ep of Star Trek: Voyager I freelanced four or five years ago — apparently, I was too inexperienced to pick up on the subtleties of that show). We use them more as a tool — the writer is paid the same, but there’s less chance of getting an aired credit.

How is the writing schedule planned?

The writing schedule is planned strategically so that we never have two less-experienced writers doing back-to-back episodes. There is not much more calculation to it, except in the occasional situation where someone has a unique breakout idea that is truly theirs. (Episode 12, for example, set in the NICU — neonatal intensive care unit — was written by Lisa Zwerling, a writer who is also a pediatric ER doctor. It was obvious that she should write that, and it was largely drawn from her own experience.)

NOTE: In most of our medical stories, we try to find ways to make them resonate with or reflect our doctor’s lives/stories. It is, in the end, a show about doctors and nurses — not patients. The way that NYPD Blue is about cops — not perps, or The Practice is about lawyers more than clients.