Photo: Erik Heinila
Nancy Miller
“Even when I was writing freelance episodes, and the lead of the show was a man, I would always put in a strong female character. I am sick of how every crime show victim is a female -- a naked woman at a strip club, nine times out of 10.”
Faith & Grace
Written by Shira Gotshalk

Nancy Miller, born in Louisiana and raised in Oklahoma City, was the youngest of three girls in a strong, Catholic family. After graduating from the University of Oklahoma in Norman with a degree in recreation, Miller had no idea what would happen next, only that, “I knew I would never do anything in recreation.” She was a Vista volunteer, a precursor to AmeriCorps, and after a year decided to go to L.A. for one year and try to write.

Just like that? Yep, just like that. That's how Nancy Miller works. “I didn't know what kind of writing I wanted to do. I just knew I loved to write, so I thought maybe I would sell song lyrics or something. And then I was watching TV one night and I went, maybe I could do that, maybe I could write for television,” she remembers. Miller bought books on screenwriting and, realizing that she had never even seen a script, called some TV shows and asked if she could see one of theirs. “Every show I called sent me a script. It was like a goldmine and I just studied writing. I read the books, I went to seminars and classes and wrote 10 spec screenplays in a year,” she recalls. Family, Eight is Enough, Charlie's Angels -- those were the fashion of the day and the memory of writing a Cagney & Lacey script is still remarkably fresh. Then, she “got very lucky and met nice people who opened the door for me.”

Those doors led to episodes of Law & Order, Profiler, CSI: Miami, and The Closer before she created her new character, Grace, “an intense Oklahoma City police detective with a fiery spirit and audacious life” on Saving Grace. Salvation, or redemption, or just a nudge in the right direction comes from an unconventional angel named Earl. Miller recently talked with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about faith, strong female characters, and the struggle of human nature.

You have been very open with the fact that you are Catholic and that faith is very important to you. What did you draw on for this character from Saving Grace?

Grace is really created from -- all of my women characters, actually -- they are all women that I know; pieces of women I know, pieces of myself. I grew up around Southern women, so most of my characters usually have some of their roots in the South. There is usually some character of faith in something that I do, but Grace came about because I was completely uncensored with the character. And then Holly Hunter came along and has taken Grace to even greater heights, so that the partnership that Holly and I have is truly a dream.

Is this the first time you have felt creatively uncensored with a script or a character?

No, I always do, and then it depends on the outlet. If I sell it to the network, I've gotta pull back, but I've had pieces of Grace in a lot of the women that I've created and some of the things I could do and some of them I couldn't. Grace is a pretty raw, uncensored, forceful woman. I couldn't have written this character 10 years ago.

Was there an evolution from a single woman questioning her personal faith into more of a global examination of faith or was that always part of your arc?

It was always about this woman, and her journey of faith was one part of her, because this woman is the center of all of these different parts to her -- she is an aunt, a cop, a best friend, a woman without faith in God. There are so many earthly things; love, friendship, loyalty, all of those things, so it was the broadening of Grace. I didn't want this to be a show just about faith, because faith interacts with all parts of our lives, whether you have it or you don't, you know? So it is that sort of a thing that I wanted to examine.

Photo: © 2008 Turner Broadcasting System, Inc
Holly Hunter on Saving Grace.
As a writer, do you put as much value in faith in God as you do in faith in the power of love?

Well, I believe that comes from God. That is my own personal faith. You know, I have an atheist on staff. I very much wanted an atheist on staff, and I hear him talk about where he gets his love, and it doesn't come from a God for him. Of course, I think it does, and we fight about it all the time. I think everything is a gift from God. Our emotions are a gift from God, our challenges.

In addition to faith, or hand-in-hand with faith, it is the whole idea of redemption. Why do you think Hollywood is so drawn to stories of redemption? Even action films are about the bad boy who must do something redeeming. Are we really that bad as a people that we need story after story of redemption?

I don't know that it is redemption as much as it is the human struggle and the battles we have within ourselves. The moral compass within us comes from many things. Some of us choose faith as a grounding and some of us don't. But we still have those internal struggles. I wouldn't call it so much about redemption as the struggle of human nature.

You have a lot of strong woman characters in your work. Is that just a part of your fabric as a writer or is it a conscious choice?

It is both. I get annoyed. Women have just as many interesting stories to tell as men. We are different, we're not better, we're not worse, and we've got great stories to tell. Any Day Now, I originally wrote that as a half-hour of the two little girls in Birmingham, Alabama, and there were some networks that wanted to do it, but they said, “Can you make the little girls into little boys?” I said, no. Wonder Years was on at the time and I said we are seeing a coming-of-age story of a little boy. I haven't seen a coming-of-age story about two little girls set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement.

Even when I was writing freelance episodes and the lead of the show was a man, I would always put in a strong female character. I am sick of how every crime show victim is a female -- a naked woman at a strip club, nine times out of 10. You know, I am sick of that shit. So I am going to write something where it is not a dead, naked woman in a strip club, and the cops don't have to go to a strip club to interview somebody. That is the power we have as writers is to create the world we want. Make it real.

Did you get a note from TNT asking for the male equivalent of Grace instead?

No, absolutely not.

Working with a diverse staff of seven, what is the atmosphere in your writer's room?

It is great. We argue a lot. I want passion from the writers on this show, and opinions. It is a tough show. It is a dicey show where we are walking a lot of tightropes. Any time you have an angel on the show you gotta be really careful. We had to set the rules for Earl, and that was weeks of discussion. And we argue, we yell, we laugh. You know, it is a great room.

You've said before that Earl is the type of angel that you would want to have. Ten years ago, Roma Downey was an appealing angel, and 20 years ago Michael Landon was the ideal angel in Hollywood. Do you think because we are in a different place, Earl is more attractive to more people? More believable, more acceptable?

I don't know. I think today Roma Downey would be attractive to an audience. I think Saving Grace isn't for a lot of people, and I think Early might drive some people crazy. They would need Roma Downey. It is just that Grace doesn't. Grace needs a guy like Earl who chews tobacco. That is my kind of an angel and 10 years ago that would have been my kind of an angel. But could I have done the show 10 years ago? Probably not. The landscape of television has changed so much. And it is so exciting now.

What is it about the law and order genre that appeals to you? Is it creatively exciting to you?

It is exciting to me because this is about the characters. I am writing an episode right now that's about a serial killer case, but what the scenes are about are the relationships between the characters. That is how I like to approach any kind of story that I tell. You get the train, you get the engine from the crime story, but each scene to me is about these characters. For this character and what we are exploring, I wanted her to be in a world where every day, she sees the worst of humanity and the best of humanity, which comes out at the worst times sometimes. So it is just a perfect genre: crime, love, betrayal, all those perfect settings.

Are you happy working in television?

That is all I want to do. I love it. I grew up on television. I don't go to see movies. I get so annoyed at movies for the most part. There are some amazing movies, don't get me wrong, but I usually watch them on DVD. And I just love the continuing characters on television. You watch them grow, they change. Movies are two hours start to finish and it is over.

Do you feel that it gives you more creative wiggle room when you have 22 or 24 episodes to deal with, rather than two hours?

Oh, yeah, it is all about the growth of the character and the changes. And that is life, we change, things happen, and we react to them.