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Hollywood Writers’ Series – Part 5 with Trey Callaway

 

Let me introduce you to my friend Trey Callaway. Trey is an immensely talented film and television writer who is currently a producer/writer for CSI: New York. He’s probably best know for writing the screenplay for I Still Know What you Did Last Summer. In addition to his work as a writer, Trey is also a professor at USC, where he teaches writing students how to perfect their craft and work in the entertainment industry.

I got to know Trey during the writers’ strike of 2007-08. He and another writer friend were co-hosts of United Hollywood Live, an online radio show that just happened to take callers. I became a bit of a regular, and the friendship lived beyond the show and the strike.

Trey is tremendously generous. In 2009 when I was speaking near Hollywood, I met him in person for breakfast. The conversation was inspiring. He answered every one of my silly questions. And amazingly enough, he’s agreed to let me ask a few more. I thought learning a bit about his process might help those of us who work in collaborative environments. I hope you agree.

1. What does your process look like when writing a new episode for CSI:NY, or any television show for that matter? Do you draw on your own life? Do you look at what’s happening in the news? How do you begin to make a blank screen into a story?

Writing for CSI:NY is a very different process from what I would normally follow on my own. For starters, conceiving fresh ideas for any show after eight seasons can be tricky—but when there are two other shows in the same franchise that have been on the air even longer—nine out of every ten ideas that pop into your head have already been done. Meanwhile, since our mysteries are very “New York-centric” and the investigations are driven by science, many of our stories come from doing copious amounts of research on both fronts. So yes, we voraciously comb through newspapers, forensic journals, and the like. But because New York City has such a complex and colorful past, I find that most of my best episodes have sprung from digging into the city’s rich history.

2. In television you work with a team of writers. Is that harder or easier than when you’re writing a film (which I assume is more of a solo thing)?

Whether you’re working in TV or features, writing is lonely. Anyone who tells you otherwise has an imaginary friend. Because at the end of the day—it’s you and you alone sitting there in front of that screen watching the cursor blink. So working with a team definitely helps take a few of those cinder blocks off your shoulders—and God knows a show like CSI:NY is extremely difficult to write in a vacuum. But one of the biggest challenges of sitting at a writer’s table is learning how to recognize the difference between incorporating the valuable feedback of others on your story—versus what may just be another writer’s expression of how they’d tell the tale if it were their turn to sit in front of the screen.

 

3. When you’re in the writer’s room and there is a disagreement about creative direction as you’re breaking a story, how is that sorted out? Does the best idea win? Does the person with the most authority win? How are creative disputes resolved?

By throwing things that will inflict maximum pain without requiring hospitalization. Kidding. From my point of view, the best idea usually wins. Most seasoned writers know it when they hear it—and conflicts tend to resolve themselves very quickly. But if the fight drags on, having a decision maker in the room can often be the most effective way to move forward.

4. It has to be hard to ALWAYS be on. What do you do when you’re hit with writer’s block?

At CSI:NY, the walls of the Writer’s Room are covered with Paper Plate Art—a necessary and therapeutic way to cope with everything from simple boredom to major blockage. I’m sure a shrink would have a heyday examining some of those creations. But sometimes clearing those hurdles can be as simple as taking a lap—around your office or your home or the entire back lot. Just take a moment to get out of your unproductive space and breathe. Can’t tell you how many times that’s worked for me. And if all else fails—take a shower. I’m not exactly sure why, but without question, that’s where all of my greatest ideas have been conceived and my biggest problems solved.

5. I’m sure it depends on the episode, but how often does the final product look like what you imagined when you were writing the script?

Well, it’s always a collaborative process. But I think one of the greatest things about the CSI:NY production crew in particular is that if they’re not helping you realize scenes exactly as you envisioned them, more often than not, they’re helping you improve them. Maybe that’s just what happens when you’re surrounded by extremely talented and passionate people. But it’s an absolute blessing.

 

6. Do you do a postmortem on shows after they air? In other words, do you debrief and talk about what worked/didn’t work as well as it could have?

 

Not officially per se, but as you can imagine, in a roomful of writers there’s no shortage of opinions. We also pay attention to what the fans are saying, if only to try and stay a step ahead of them sometimes! I will say though, it is pretty amazing how even after all these years of working on a well-oiled machine—there are still tons of surprises (good and bad) at every step of the process that usually keep even the most experienced writers on their toes.

Read part 1 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Carol Barbee here.
Read part 2 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Jonathan E. Steinberg here.
Read part 3 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Matthew Federman and Stephen Scaia here.
Read part 4 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Jeffrey Berman here. (1263)

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