On Friday, I was honored with an exclusive interview with the writing team from Bones. They were all together in a conference room and we talked on the phone at length about their jobs writing for Bones and what it’s like working on the show. I wanted to try to keep track of exactly who was answering each question, but I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the conversation by constantly asking who was talking. So I hope you’ll all bear with me. While typing this up, when I was sure who the speaker was, I indicated them, and when I was uncertain, I made it a generic Answer. I’ hope you won’t mind.
First, I had a great time with them. We started the conversation with four writers (Craig Silverstein, Liz Benjamin, Karine Rosenthal & Janet Lynn) and were later joined by co-executive producer Scott Williams. They were all so open and easy to talk to about all the subjects we discussed and as you may already know, they ended the interview by giving me one gem of an exclusive spoiler. I hope you have even a fraction as much fun reading the interview as I had doing it. Here’s what we all discussed:
Q: Could we start with a short introduction and please tell me your titles and what you do for the show?
Liz Benjamin: Sure, I’m Elizabeth, Liz, Benjamin and I’m a Producer. Everyone on the show has different titles, but we all basically do the same type of work, which is we write our own scripts. We brainstorm the stories together, then we go off and write the scripts alone. That’s how the process works. I’ve been with the show from the beginning, since season 1.
Answer: Liz is the only staff member other than the creator on an executive producer who has been with the show since the pilot. She knows everything. *chuckle*
Craig Silverstein: My title is Consulting Producer I came onto the show about halfway through the first season as Co-Executive Producer and left the show before the end of the first season because I had my own pilot at FOX called Standoff. That was carried at FOX for a season. Then I worked on some other FOX shows because I have a deal at the studio. Then I came back around to Bones after the writers’ strike because I knew Hart & Stephen [Executive Producers Hart Hanson & Stephen Nathan] and the show. So I’m on in an all-around “Hamburger Helper” sort of role.
Karine: This is Karine Rosenthal and you and I emailed a bit during the strike, I sent you pictures. My title is Producer, but basically the writing staff all have titles that change, the longer you’re in the business and you work your way up the ladder. But you start off by being called a Staff Writer and you get new titles as you move along that used to be much more connected with what the actual work was. In the earlier days of television when you were called a story editor you were given specific tasks to make sure the story was working, etc. But now, they’re just formal titles. Really you just acquire more and more producer responsibilities. That means sitting in on casting and having more of a hand in the creation of the show as a whole.
Craig: And more money.
Karine: Yes, and more money. *laughs*
Janet: And I’m Janet Lynn and I’m the Baby Writer here. I’m a Story Editor.
Answer: *laughs* Not any more! Janet was with the show last year, but now she has to take on more as a writer.
Janet: I’m still the baby of the family here.
Answer: And she’s having a baby. She’s our pregnant staff member. It was Baby in the Bough that did it to her. She spent time on the set…
Janet: Those babies were so cute!
Q: Where did you find such an adorable baby?
Karine: The day we finished the script, we had a casting day for babies and it was wonderful. We had two sets of triplets and a bunch of sets of twins and they were all super cute and they were crawling around our conference room. Really it was just seeing which ones seemed to be the most open to strangers or were the most adaptable and expressive. The triplets that we picked as our main babies were all just so open and wonderful because their family was so overwhelmed and had to use so much help from extended family members. They were very open to being passed off to whoever put their arms out.
Q: I’d like to talk next about the process of creating the scripts. We’ve already established that once the storyline is approved, you take it off and write the script individually. But where do the story lines come from? Is it from a brainstorming session or how does that all start?
Liz: There are various ways that we enter a story on the show. A lot of times, we come up with ideas and we run them by the Co-Executive Producers, and if they like them we put them in a pitch form and that gets sent downstairs to Hart and Stephen and if they like it, it gets put in the mix. Then people choose stories that have been approved by Hart & Stephen. Then we come together in a room as a group and we work, one by one to develop the story. Then a person takes that story that’s been worked out with all the story points and all the beats of the story and then they go off and write.
Craig: And just to give you a visual, when Liz is talking about the room, it’s literally a conference room on the second floor of a building of the FOX lot and Hart & Stephen are downstairs.
Liz: Right. And we’re surrounded by dry-erase boards and we have along conference table and lots of snacks.
Craig: Yeah, and coffee! *everyone chuckled*
And then we each have our own offices where we retreat to write our own script.
Q: How long does each script typically take, from beginning to end?
Karine: It really depends on the script. From story inception, oftentimes we’ll bat around the little nugget of a story for a long time. It’ll reappear and we’ll throw it out. And then we’ll think, hey, maybe we should do something about such-and-such that we’ve talked about. Once we’ve decided together that we’re going to do that story, working together in the room takes anywhere between one to two weeks. Sometimes it’s longer if it’s a really tricky story. And then the writer of that particular episode goes off to write the outline. And generally that takes between one to two weeks. Then the writer will get notes on that. And then it all depends how many changes need to be made to that outline, but once there’s an outline in a finished form, usually it will only take about a week to write the first draft.
Answer: A week to ten days.
Karine: Right. Generally we try to get them done as quickly as possible, so about a week to ten days. Then we’ll get a round of notes so we’ll do another draft. And there may be another draft after that. And always, Hart & Stephen will do a final pass to make sure the script is exactly what they want it to be. So, start to finish for the entire process can be as short as six weeks or as long as three months if it was something that was in gestation for a while.
Liz: Some stories require more research. And when we’re breaking a story in the room together we may have things that have to be researched. We have researchers that work for our show and we reach out to them and we also may reach out to Kathy Reichs for certain questions. We do research ourselves sometimes. We ask a lot of experts, use a lot of Google… *everyone laughs* It’s a process that can take time, along with getting notes from various people along the way. We have to do the filling in with all the research and scientific stuff. There are a lot of pieces that go into doing it.
Q: So you actually do get input from time to time from Kathy Reichs?
Karine: Yes, especially bone-specific questions, things that are really specific to what Brennan would be doing with a body or how she would determine certain things from the bones. She’s very helpful with that.
Liz: She doesn’t work with us, meaning she’s not a member of the staff that comes in every day. We call her and bother her at the grocery store or looking at a body. Things like that.
Q: How do you incorporate aspects of the actors when you write for their character?
Craig: It goes something like this. You’re hanging out one day on the set and David Boreanaz will say to Scott Williams that he really likes hockey and asks if we can do a hockey-type episode, for example. So then we think that maybe we could have Booth play hockey because David likes hockey and he’s good at it. Stuff like that.
Liz: Or like Emily’s love of animals. They have personality traits that as they get more comfortable with the character come into the show, but Hart created these characters.
People had seen a lot more of David before this so Hart knew more of what David could do. He knew what he should be writing to for David. With Emily, since this is her first major role, we have seen over time what a good comedian she is. So that’s amped up more opportunities for her to show her great sense of timing. David has that as well, but we all knew that from the get-go. And as we find out skills they have that we didn’t know that have, we’ll try to make sure that those are highlighted.
Answer: Like Eric being on Broadway. You need to use that.
Q: We did get to see in one episode, David & Emily’s characters in the diner where Emily was eating a salad and they talked briefly about being a vegetarian, and we do know that Emily is a vegan. Have you considered making that more of a characteristic of Brennan?
Answer: Emily’s very good about accepting that this is a character that is not her and the character is going to be doing different things than what Emily herself believes in. But out of respect for things she has very strong feelings about, Hart wanted to have the character at least play with the idea of becoming a vegetarian. I think that is just a given now that the character is a vegetarian. But, knowing Hart, who knows? He could at some point force Brennan to fall off the wagon and eat a big, juicy steak because Hart certainly loves his meat. *laughs*
Q: Oh, no! He wouldn’t make her do that would he?
In unison: No!!!
Craig: She wouldn’t do it. It would be a long day on the set. *laughs*
Q: It would have to be a tofu steak, right?
Q: Another question from the readers. They want to know if any of the stories are taken from current crimes in the news.
Liz: Yeah, we take story wherever we can get story. We read newspapers, books, articles, watch things on TV. Story comes from so many places and we use them as jumping off points. I have a background with Law & Order. I worked for Law & Order: Criminal Intent and there we strictly took things straight from the headlines and used them as jumping off points. So that’s one of the first places I go when I’m thinking about a new story.
Karine: We sometimes use stories in the news as jumping off points but we try not to be a “ripped from the headlines” kind of show.
Liz: It’s more just for inspiration.
Karine: Yeah, the show has so many more comedy bits and a lighter tone; it would seem somewhat disrespectful if we were doing that with something currently ongoing or a true crime that had just happened. Often there are old crimes we’ll be researching to get an idea.
Liz: I don’t think that if you look back at any of our episodes you could say that it was ripped from the headlines. The only one that we used as a bit of a jumping off point was Woman in the Bay that we took from the Scott Peterson story, but we took it in a whole new direction.
Q: Bones fans want to know if you ever read any of the Bones fan fiction and if it’s ever an inspiration for your writing the show.
Karine: We actually don’t read any of the fan fiction because legally, we’re not supposed to. Because in case we ever did something that was similar we could be accused of stealing the idea or plagiarism. And often with these characters, of course it could happen easily that people would have similar ideas for fun things that could happen with the characters. So we can’t read any of the fiction. We often read comments and things like that. But we can’t read any of the creative work. But we’re thrilled that they do it. That’s cool!
Q: I know they’ll be disappointed that you can’t read it, but I’m sure they’ll understand. One of the readers asked what the worst side-effect was that the writers’ strike had on the show.
Answer: We were all exhausted. We were marching outside for so long.
Answer: It was a season that was going along really, really well and then it just got truncated. I would say that the worse side effect was that when we’re working on creating a TV show, we’re all like a big family, all the aspects, like the writers, the actors, the set producers and everyone else. And something like a writers’ strike it really breaks that up for a while and it’s tough because people have different interests during something like that so it causes some pain. It was also for everyone to be out of work, not just the writers, but the entire crew. We wish that all could have happened differently.
Looking back, it was so long. No one expected it to be that long and it really did disrupt the season for so many reasons. It disrupted people’s personal lives and for some, they can’t recover the income that’s lost for our crew members. And there were the stories we had to re-shape this season.
Answer: The rhythm of the story telling was off by the end of the season, I think.
Q: Just so you know, most of us out here were supportive of your cause.
Answer: Yes, the fans were really wonderful and that was evident on the picket lines. Fans that live in the LA area would come out and be supportive and it really meant a lot.