Monday, February 4, 2008
Debra J. Fisher ~ Before & With Erica Messer
copyrighted by Jill Davidson 2008
I'm currently in the process of writing an article about Debra J. Fisher and her writing partner Erica Messer for 'Adopt a Writer'. Because their answers to the preset questions are so imformative I've decided to also post the questionaires. Here is Deb's form. :)
NAME: Debra J. Fisher (J stands for Jane)
HOMETOWN: Grew up in Hyattsville, Maryland. 20 minutes outside Washington D.C.
SCHOOL: B.A., Radio, Television & Film - University of Maryland, College Park
JOBS BEFORE TV WRITER: Script Coordinator for various animated series. 'Mega Man','Skysurfer Strike Force', and 'Waynehead' and an animated series about the life of Damon Wayans growing up in New York (This was for the Dub Dub Dubya B - Warners Bros TV Animation). After that became the Executive Assistant to Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman (Co-creators, writers' and Executive Producers of 'Party of Five')in October of 1996, the third season of the hit FOX show.
TIDBIT: Started talking to Erica on the phone on my first day while she worked as an assistant at Fox! She came to work as the Writers' Assistant for PO5 in December of 1997.
WHAT IS A WRITER/PRODUCER?: The first part is pretty simple. The "writer" or "writers'" of the episode typically come up with the story and physically write the episode and get a "written by" credit at the front of the show. But, as you may or may not know, so much more goes into the making of just one episode. When you "produce" the episode you're involved and actively working with the other departments in various stages of pre-production. 1) casting 2) location scouts (where are we going to shoot the exterior shots?) 3) wardrobe 4) props (guns, knives, handcuffs, various torture devices) 5) special effects (those UnSub shots and transitions) 6) Production meetings (one in the beginning of prep and one at the end. Each dept sends a representative and we go through the script page by page with the director, the AD's, and talk about every aspect of the scripts. What crane is needed? How many extras? How much blood?) Lastly, the day before we shoot 7) Tone meeting. One of the most important meetings during prep! The writer or writers' sit down with the director and go through the script, scene by scene and discuss characters, motivation, story, blocking of the scene (if they've done it yet). It's a very important meeting for the writers' to convey to the director the intention of a scene and why it may be important to focus on a particular character and what's the sub-text of a scene. What is this character thinking, etc? It's also a chance for the director to talk about the physicality of equipment and blocking, etc.
ALL THAT IS ONLY PRE PRODUCTION.
Then we have 8 physical production days where we shoot the episode. On location and at the stages. When you "produce" your episodes, the writer or writers' is on set for every minute of the 8 day shoot. We work with the director, actors, department when they have questions about dialogue. And when we rehearse a scene, some dialogue might not work with the physical location, etc. And we'd have to change something. Sometimes in rehearsal, the scene isn't working as written, so we would change things on the spot.
THAT IS PRODUCTION.
Then the editor gets a certain number of days on their cut. The director is supposed to have about 7 for his or her cut. Then as "producer" we watch the "directors" cut. We get notes from the team, then we go into editing for a certain number of days. After our "producers" cut is shown to the network and studio, we do more cuts/trims/fixes based on their notes. All the while we are working on finding music if we haven't already, and writing ADR. Usually two or three days before a show airs, we see a cut with music, effects, etc. We can make a few minor adjustments at this point. Levels of music if we can't hear dialogue, things like that.
THAT IS POST PRODUCTION IN A NUTSHELL. Then our show airs and we get to do it all over again!
HOW DID YOU BECOME A WRITER?:
When I first packed my bags and moved to California, I truly didn't know what aspect of the industry I wanted to be in. While at UMD I tried everything. Directing, writing, recording radio spots. Anything and any class I could take, I was there. I loved all of it. So when I arrived in LA I worked for FREE on USC and UCLA grad student films. I worked on sets, in the camera department. I was a P.A. getting doughnuts. My parents loved the fact that after graduation from college I was making little or no money getting doughnuts. Soon I joined this company that helped place production assistants to companies. I went in and met with them and they told me I should no be working on sets, that I should be a producers or directors assistant. Somehow I landed a paying job at a company called Ruby-Spears Productions. Joe Ruby and Ken Spears used to work at Hanna Barbera and did Scooby Doo and such. I became the script coordinator, working with the writers' on Mega Man and Skysurfer Strike Force. It was fun!
After a year or so I needed to make more money and got offered a job at Warner Bros TV animation dept. That was great. It was a short lived show called 'Waynehead' and I got to meet the entire Wayans family. They did all the voices. I really got a chance to sit in the writers' room at this point. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVED IT. Sitting around with other people coming up with ideas? And you get paid for it? And you get to write the script? I thought I had died and gone to heaven. One of the writers, David Wyatt, who I haven't spoken to since is the whole reason I started to take a stab at it myself. (He left to write on a Cosby series.) I was talking to him about writing and he was like. Just do it! So I did. But my first love was what they called in animation, "live action."
I loved me some relationship drama and my favorite shows were 'Party of Five' and 'My So Called Life'. If you didn't know, I am Angela Chase! Kidding. That was my life growing up. No I'm really serious about that. So somehow, someway, I heard through a guy I met that THE ASSISTANT TO THE CREATORS AND EXEC PRODUCERS WAS LEAVING. The guy got me an interview. I almost threw up. I had a pre meeting with Rick Draughon. He left to write for soaps, by the way. He thought I would be a great assistant for them and I was the first to meet with Chris and Amy. I thought the meeting went really well, but I wasn't sure. When I was driving home, Rick called me to tell me that not only did it go well. But Chris and Amy canceled all their other interviews! I almost wrecked my car. I was so over the moon happy. I wanted to be a writer and these were the two people on the planet on the very show that I wanted to work on. I started in October of 1996. As you know the tv season had already started in May for writers' and July for production. I had a lot to learn and I was assisting two people. It was a lot of work! It was fast paced and it was the best learning experience for anyone that wants to work on a tv series.
The production stages were on the Sony lot as well as the editorial dept so just like Criminal Minds, everything was there. The writers were all around me, meeting
every day. Concept meetings, budget meetings, network and studio notes calls. Everything went through me. I was the gate keeper to Chris and Amy. I even got to read drafts of the early scripts! It was great. But then reality set in...
I had no time to write! I was exhausted every day when I went home. Enter... Erica....
Erica had started worked at PO5 at the writers' assistant in Dec of 1997. By 1998, Chris and Amy got a lucrative overall deal. They got to have two assistants. It was an easy decision for them to promote Erica. So we both assisted them. It was great, too, because Erica wanted to be a writer. We would read each others stuff. Our stuff was awful!
Then one day their development exec, Deborah Cincotta, suggested we take a stab and write together. What a concept! We both want to write. We work for a writing team. Hmmmm. Good idea! So we wrote a really, really bad feature called 'Blackout' I think....
Amy Lippman was like, "You guys want to write in tv, right? Why aren't you writing tv?" Good question, Amy.
So we wrote a 'Once and Again' and got the attention of some agents. (We also got MAJOR, MAJOR, MAJOR notes from Amy that took our script to the next level.) Then we SIGNED with United Talent Agency and then wrote a 'Sex and the City.' We spent the better part of 2000 going on meetings. Meeting the network and studio people. Our bosses, Chris and Amy were way cool about that. Way Cool.
It was close to May of 2001. There was the threat of another writers' strike at that time. We would only be staff writers' so we were waiting for shows to get staffed and hire the little people. Then one day...
... the phone rang at 9am and I answered it. There was a male voice on the other end and he asked to speak with me or Erica. It was JJ Abrams. I almost disconnected the called I was so freaked out. He said, "I really liked your guys' scripts. Can you meet for coffee today?" Uh, duh. Sure.
We raced to the Palisades to meet with JJ Abrams because he show ALIAS had been picked up to MAJOR buzz and he was leaving for Hawaii with his family. But he wanted another female writer or two!
Our "coffee" turned into a two hour lunch. Man he grilled us. Thank god we were prepared. What stories would you want to tell about Sydney Bristow? How would you keep her accessible to the female audience? Thank god we had each other! After two hours he had to go! He needed to catch a plane. He said... "Let's do this."
I'll never forget that moment for the rest of my life.
Erica and I jumped into our car and immediately called our agents. They simply said, "We'll get into it" and hung up. We didn't hear from them for three agonizing hours. What did they mean, they'll get into it? We were dying. Then, they finally called and said, "Congrats! You start tomorrow!" Huh? You mean I'm never going to answer phones ever again? You mean I'll never book trips for my bosses ever again? You mean I'm going to get paid to do the very thing I love? Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. As they say... The rest is history!
WHAT'S THE MOST FUN PART OF WORKING ON CRIMINAL MINDS? WHAT PART DO YOU DISLIKE THE MOST?
The people we work with are the most amazing part of this job. Ed Bernero is a dream to work for. The entire writing staff is amazing. We spend hours and hours together, talking, debating, reading each others work, giving notes. I couldn't think of a better group to spend all this time with. Also the entire crew. I work on a show where I know every single person I work with. There name, there spouses name. There kids names. That's not the norm... usually...
WHAT DO I DISLIKE THE MOST?
How fast you have to move in tv. Sometimes the end product can be affected by how
little time you've had on a first draft or how little time you have to prep because you're still doing rewrites. That's a bummer sometimes.
CONSIDERING THE SUBJECT MATTER OF CRIMINAL MINDS, HOW DO YOU KEEP FROM TAKING THE SHOW HOME WITH YOU AT NIGHT?
In the beginning I definitely took the show home with me. I rescued a big, big
dog and I got an alarm system on my house. I also learned how to fire a gun. Don't mess with me people. I can bench press my own weight and I can play football.
CRIMINAL MINDS ACTORS SEEM TO WORK WELL TOGETHER ON SCREEN. DOES THE SAME SYNERGY EXIST AMONG THE WRITING CREW AS WELL?
Oh, yes. The writers' work so well together. We're like a well oiled machine. Especially the same writers' who've been around since the beginning. You tend to have a short hand. It's easy and that's really nice.
CRIMINAL MINDS USES A NUMBER OF SPECIAL EFFECTS TO SHOW THOUGHT PROCESSES,ETC. WHAT IS INVOLVED IN WRITING AND PRODUCING SCENES WITH SPECIAL EFFECTS?
It's a group effort. After we have a concept we talk with various people and
departments. Special effects, props and the director! Oh and don't forget our
line producer. He tells us if we have the money to do it at all! Thank you Charles Carroll.
WHAT DO YOU THINK MOST VIEWERS MISUNDERSTAND ABOUT WHAT IT TAKES TO WRITE AND PRODUCE 22 EPISODES OF A TOP RATED, PRIMETIME NETWORK SHOW LIKE CRIMINAL MINDS?
Are you kidding? After reading this I can't imagine that anyone won't get what we do! haha. Truly, though.... How much time it takes to make an episode of television and just how many people are involved. It's very stressful but very rewarding at the same time.
I love it when fans ask: Do you write for one character or all the characters?
Do you write some or all of the lines? :)
WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WEREN'T A TV WRITER?
I would want to be a freelance photographer. A yoga and pilates teacher. A world explorer and a dog rescuer. I would spend more time with a cause close to my heart: Canine Companions for Independence.
Copyright 2008 Jill Davidson.