Interview with David Zabel,
supervising producer/writer of award-winning series ER

by Kim Hunter

Part I

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."

Part II