||The Vanishing Act
Without a Trace isn't written in invisible ink.
The show began, like most series, with a writer looking for a job. Hank Steinberg, who had written two television films, 61* and RFK, met with Jonathan Littman of Jerry Bruckheimer Television to discuss creating a pilot. Littman suggested a show about missing persons investigations, and Steinberg saw his name on it. He was not a procedural writer, but he knew he could tuck a psychological drama into this one.
And so the lovely bride disappears from her wedding. You see her, and then there is the shot without her. This vanishing became the signature opening of Without a Trace, a CBS drama now in its third season.
Without a Trace is from the Jerry Bruckheimer juggernaut of CSI: police procedurals. It was intended to be another hit procedureal, and it is. In its own way. The vanishing-bride opening unfolds into a story of childhood sexual abuse. Without is a hybrid genre, a crisp procedural shell with a meaty, emotional drama inside.
Steinberg remembers the basis of the initial story construction: "The investigation on how to find the missing women of the opening shot always hinges on what was going on in their lives. There's a line from the pilot that we use a lot as shorthand here: If you find out who they are, you'll find out where they are. When we're talking in the room about a story, we say, 'What's the who-they-are-are, where-they-are?' Ultimately, when we break the story, we always try to make the reason they're missing tie back to some secret, some psychological complexity they have going on in their lives that incited the incidence of their disappearance."
After his initial pitch meeting with Littman, Steinberg went home and developed the five core characters of the FBI missing persons squad. He debated with himself whether the squad should be local police, state police, or FBI, but some quick research settled the question. Ultimately, his pilot portrayed a lonely woman who seemed to have everything, but her secret unhappiness drew her into the web of kidnappers. "In a kidnapping, the police have to cede power to the FBI, and I certainly didn't want to make a series about people who have to hand off power to someone else."
His pilot script pleased the network and the studios, but they wanted to pair Steinberg with an experienced television showrunner. He was wary of these arranged marriages. "A lot of times, it doesn't work out because the more experienced television person tries to take over and it becomes a power struggle." But he acknowledges that running a show "is a whole other skillset. It's managing people and knowing postproduction and casting and all these things that a writer of features never has an opportunity to do." He was introduced to five potential partners and chose Ed Redlich, who had performed the wise-old-hand function on two WB shows: Felicity and Jack & Jill. Steinberg recalls the choice: "It was just a vibe. Our creative sensibilities are very similar. It was his general understanding of what he liked about the pilot, where he saw the series could go." And perhaps most important, Redlich assured him in their meeting, "My job is to support you and help you do the show that you want to do. I made it clear to him that I had no interest in making Without a Trace [into] The Ed Redlich Show."
But they also balance each other well. Steinberg: 34, single, fiercely focused on his work, talks perceptively about his characters' inner lives but reveals little about himself. Redlich: 46, married, more relaxed, a lawyer before becoming a screenwriter. Redlich enjoys telling the story of how they once met before their matchmaking meeting. They were in the lobby during the 2001 Emmy Awards watching the World Series on television. (The Emmys were late that year because of September 11.) Both men are New Yorkers, but Redlich, a Mets fan and a Yankee hater, was rooting for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Steinberg is a rabid Yankee fan (his 61* is about the Mantle—Maris home run rivalry). When ushers ordered that the TV sets be turned off, the two men united to fight for their right to watch the game. Four months later, they were formally introduced by the studio. But only Redlich tells that story.
"It's a good marriage," says co—executive producer Greg Walker. "Ed has a Falstaffian quality. He's witty, funny, smart, and always a moving target. It helps in bad moments."
Redlich arrived on the job when the pilot was in preproduction. He had written for The Practice, but neither he nor Steinberg were procedural writers. They decided almost immediately that theirs would be a hybrid. Redlich describes their plan in what Walker might call his Falstaffian way: "Let's hire the best, coolest, most interesting writers we can find, and we'll muddle our way through the procedural elements."
They knew they had to let viewers know their plans from the start. "We try to push the envelope of what a procedural drama is," says Redlich, "and our feeling right from the beginning was that we were going to do it until the audience or the network said, 'You know what? It's not the show that we want.'" From the get-go, the network advised against getting personal with the characters.
But viewers seldom go home with characters. There are hints, innuendos, nuances of private goings-on. Samantha Spade, the FBI agent played by Poppy Montgomery, fixes Jack Malone's (Anthony LaPaglia) shirt collar in an unexpectedly intimate way. Agent Danny Taylor (Enrique Murciano) declines a drink offered by a flirtatious bartender. "Not on the job. Not ever," he says. It later emerges that he is a recovering alcoholic. Eric Close's character, Martin Fitzgerald, gets into a cab with Montgomery's character at the end of the season, even though they live in opposite directions. "We try to do it when we can," says Redlich.
It's the guest cast that gets the big emotional scenes. Predictably, the core actors would like more of the juice, but they are, after all, FBI agents, the solvers not the victims of crime. It is the downside of steady work on television. "You don't want Anthony LaPaglia to be a traffic cop," Redlich says. "I remember saying to him at the beginning of the season, when he was pushing a little against just being on a procedural show, 'Anthony, I would love to write scenes with you and your girlfriend or your wife or mistress at home having a huge fight. But the audience is going to be saying, 'Please finish fighting. Please finish having sex. And let's get back to that missing person case.'"
Nine writers, including Steinberg and Redlich, turn out a season of scripts using a process that began evolving during the series' first. "I said to Hank at the beginning, 'I don't want to have a staff like other shows, where one writer pitches to the exec producer and then goes off and writes an episode.'" So all of them gather in the room at the season's start, discuss the arcs of the characters and the story, and pitch ideas. "People begin to understand what an episode of the show is, and it makes them comfortable with each other. It's an intimate working arrangement."
But breaking a story with nine people, Steinberg says, is not efficient: "There are too many voices in the room." Instead, they divide into two or three groups, each working on a single story. Steinberg and Redlich float among them; the writers break the story on index cards, with an assistant taking notes. "We build the story as a card puzzle," says co-executive producer Jan Nash. Whoever is writing the episode then takes the bundle of cards and notes and writes what Steinberg calls "a very articulated outline that I read and give notes on. Then the writer goes to write the script." More notes follow, plus maybe another draft or a polish or rewrite by Steinberg.
The episodes have no B story.
"It's a monster, really a bear," amends Redlich. "It's a movie of the week with every other scene missing. The classic Without a Trace is an analysis of the character of the missing person and what at that moment was the crisis/secret that made them go missing."
It takes a group about two weeks to break a story. "With all our plot twists and turns, it needs four heads," says Walker. "We don't repeat beats. If there's an overheard fight or a suspicious check, we use it only once per season." Because their stories hinge on uncovering the past, they are interwoven with flashbacks. "None of us knew how to use the flashbacks in the first few weeks," says Nash. "What are the rules? How does the story have to unfold in the timeline? We had to figure it out as we went."
Few of their stories are "ripped from the headlines." The premises come from everywhere. One writer heard about the underground railroad for battered women. "It's new, it's topical, nobody's heard about it. It's a secret world," he told the group. So an episode began with a very pregnant woman disappearing from the hospital; Agent Vivian Johnson, played by Mariane Jean-Baptiste, goes undercover to find her. They never read about such a case in the newspapers. Another episode, about Martin's dying aunt, was inspired by a Nightline segment about a woman who had written books on dying suddenly confronted by her own terminal illness. Still another came from a classic law school case in which the police trick a suspect into talking to them without his lawyer. Other stories begin with themes: infidelity, a closeted married gay man.
The staff are profligate with ideas, often using up two on one show to give it an extra twist. For the episode about the closeted married man, the story spent another idea. "We combined it with high school reunions because it's a place where people are forced to confront who they are," says Steinberg. In another episode, a priest played by Hector Elizondo goes missing. "They got halfway through breaking the priest story and figured out they needed something else." They decided to make the priest a patient in desperate need of a liver transplant. "If we're stalled on a story, we look through the list of ideas and see if there's something we can add to it to make it fuller and richer," Steinberg explains.
Luckily their staff have checkered pasts. Redlich was a lawyer; Nash an investment banker. Co-executive producer Jennifer Levin is a doctor. Executive story editor Maria Maggenti was a political activist. "Everyone on the staff has life experiences and underlying expertise that come to bear on the show," says Nash.
And characters on television series, Steinberg learned, are less fixed than two-hour film characters. They evolve over time and are shaded by their actors. "Anthony [LaPaglia] pushes the character darker than I had imagined him going, but I embrace it," Steinberg says. "It makes perfect sense to me that somebody doing this job for such a long time would carry that. We knew we were going to have an alienated wife and that he was a workaholic and felt this need to save everyone. But it wasn't until year two that we came up with the backstory idea of his mother's suicide being the core thing that drives him." LaPaglia's intensity, Steinberg says, became "an almost Freudian urge to save the world because he couldn't save his mother. It doesn't make him happy, and it will never be enough because there will always be another missing person."
And he envisioned Murciano's FBI agent as shy and internal, but Murciano brought something a hint bolder, more charismatic to the role, and the writers went with it. Steinberg has thoroughly imagined backstories for each of his core characters. What they have in common, despite their differences, he says, is "private secrets. Everybody's incomplete. There's something, a piece of them, that's missing too, and the job becomes a good cover."
Without might not be a full-blooded procedural show, but the writers want the procedures they depict to be authentic–or at least they don't want to be inaccurate without a dramatic reason. They have a full-time consultant–Mark Llewellyn, a former FBI agent who has worked in both the Los Angeles and New York offices–available on the set for advice about how the agents would hold their weapons or enter a building. (It seems that the FBI in New York and Los Angeles have different procedures; Redlich says the show has settled on the L.A. stylesheet.) Llewellyn vets the scripts and gives two or three pages of notes on each one. "He'll say, 'You can't search that guy's house without a warrant, and you don't have enough for a warrant right now," Redlich says. In one episode, Llewellyn himself played the FBI sniper who took out an innocent doctor. He corrected the original version of the script. "The only way this could happen," Llewellyn told the writers, "would be if the doctor turned his weapon on the agent and the sniper was forced to take the action to save a life."
A beat or two had to be changed, but his suggestion was taken, as it is most often. But like most procedurals, "We bend things for drama," Redlich says. They don't violate protocol or have agents abuse suspects, but they do take small liberties, like pursuing suspects into the territory of other FBI offices.
As research, Steinberg and Redlich toured the FBI offices in New York and Los Angeles. They were surprised at how low-budget the facilities were. "When we walked around there, it felt like going into Bloomingdale's to use the bathroom and you have to go into the employee area. The FBI just felt so down," Redlich adds. "I don't want to be criticizing the FBI; I'm criticizing their budget."
It is no secret to newspaper readers that the FBI is less than cutting-edge technologically. "There was a time when the bureau was really behind in technology," Llewellyn says, "but it's catching up. But there are no flat screen TVs, and not every department has all the new equipment." He admits that the Without a Trace squad works in "the best looking FBI office I've ever seen."
"When you get into building a set," Redlich says, "you want it to look good and look cool. The set's gotten much fancier. The real FBI is a government agency working with a government budget."
But more than the set has been dressed up. The show's FBI agents are smart, sensitive, and beyond conscientious in an era when the real FBI has been in the headlines for Waco, Ruby Ridge, Wen Ho Lee, and Brandon Mayfield, the Oregon lawyer mistakenly arrested for involvement in the Madrid train bombings because the FBI had botched fingerprint evidence. "It's not a great time for real law enforcement," Steinberg agrees.
Llewellyn says that Without a Trace has a realistic spin. "They don't always find the bad guys and save the victims," he points out. "But they've done a real good job of portraying the FBI in a positive light. The bureau appreciates it."
It is perhaps a paradox of show business that Redlich and Steinberg turn up as FBI boosters. Steinberg, the writer of the Robert Kennedy biopic RFK, is a staunch Democrat. The only call he takes during this interview is to arrange a Kerry fund-raiser. Redlich calls himself "a Red-diaper baby. I come from a superliberal background. That's why I liked writing The Practice. They were defense attorneys. I never imagined I'd be writing the police side of things." His father, a left-leaning law professor, was a member of the Warren Commission that investigated the assassination of John F. Kennedy. "My father had a million FBI stories. You grew up with a distrust of the FBI," Redlich recalls. "I came of age during Watergate, so the FBI was a tool the government would use to spy on war protesters. It's interesting to write the FBI as heroes."
Walker explains the approach best: "The real FBI is a model from which we take what we need for the story. We idealize some elements of it because viewers want to believe in heroes who are working endlessly for us. But we don't idealize the internal politics of the FBI. We show that as it is."
Perhaps to get some of his own ideals back, Redlich wrote a powerful anti—death penalty episode last season. Walker rode shotgun to "provide an oppositional voice and make sure it didn't come out agitprop." Walker describes himself as "knee-jerk anti—death penalty before," and researching the issue reaffirmed his convictions and belief that the justice system was too flawed for irrevocable solutions. Adding to the volatility, their core cast includes the English-born Jean-Baptiste and two Australians, LaPaglia and Montgomery. "They are vehemently anti—death penalty," says Redlich, "and Anthony wanted to make a big statement against it." Redlich convinced him that it would be more valid to let the drama make the statement itself. "It's just not realistic for you as an FBI agent to be as opposed to the death penalty as someone like me or my lefty friends," he told his star. Montgomery's character, in fact, made the law enforcement argument for the death penalty.
The politics of law enforcement might give the writers an occasional twinge, but mostly, as Steinberg says, "We're interested in the emotional truth of the story. That's the important part. I don't think of us as being an FBI show. To me, the fact that our guys are in the FBI is incidental."
Or, as Walker says, "I like the idea of secrets. In a conventional drama, you want this and I want that and we fight over it. This show is about the intimate exploration of lives. It's the forensics of the secret life, the beguiling life you can't enter in a normal drama."