Face Behind 'Without a Trace'
With the missing-persons drama an established CBS hit, series creator Hank Steinberg talks about the show's challenges and what comes next
By Jim Finkle -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/10/2005 8:00:00 PM
Hank Steinberg is a relative newcomer to television. The 35-year-old executive producer of the CBS hit Without a Trace got the gig after CBS asked him to write a script based on an idea for a missing-persons series from Jerry Bruckheimer and Jonathan Littman, the team behind CSI. Steinberg's prior credits had included just two made-for-television films: 61*, an HBO feature about the rivalry between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris that garnered him an Emmy nomination for scriptwriting; and RFK, which he wrote and co-produced for FX. Steinberg talked to B&C's Jim Finkle about Without a Trace and what else he has up his sleeve.
You're not a big fan of procedurals. How did you end up creating one about the FBI Missing Persons Squad?
I thought it was a great engine for a show, that I could do something complex psychologically. That's how I formulated it, and that's how I sustained it. I've also been able to weave in character development so the main characters' struggles undulate against the missing-persons stories. It's so character-driven and psychologically based. That's what keeps me interested.
We want the audience to be surprised at the end. But we also try to balance that. When we reveal the ending, we want the audience to feel that, if they played along and they were smart, maybe they could have gotten it. If they watch it a second time, they would see that, “Oh yeah, they laid that in there. They gave me the clues along the way. I could have gotten it.”
Even if you figure out who might be the bad guy, you still don't necessarily know the end result. Did the missing person escape? Are they dead, or are they alive? That's one of the great things about the premise.
In the show's first season you wrote nine episodes. That's a heavy workload.
I came in as a feature writer who had never worked in television [but had] a very clear idea of what I wanted the show to be. I wasn't too familiar with the process. I loved working with the other writers, but I definitely took the lion's share of it on my back in the first season. In the second half of the second season, I said, you know, I can't go on like this. I can't go to every casting session and every rehearsal and do all the cuts. And do the music. So I started to delegate more. It was to the benefit of the show and certainly my life.
The show's received a lot of attention for an episode called “Wannabe,” where a 12-year-old boy who picks on a girl at school ends up trying to kill himself after some of the girls in his class retaliate.
It was very dear to my heart. It was actually kind of based on some experience I had in childhood, which I then just took to an exaggerated level. But I was just interested in how children at that age are trying to figure out where they are in the social structure and how to treat each other. What was important to me about that episode was to show that everybody does it, that everybody is caught up in it.
CBS says that thousands of schools called to get the tapes of the show and that students really identified with it.
That was a great moment. If I never do anything else, you know, I'm okay. To be able to touch people is a reminder of how powerful the medium is.
In your first season, you did a show about racial profiling. How did that sit with viewers?
It was about a year after 9/11, and we might have been a little ahead of ourselves. A Saudi Arabian is profiled as a terrorist. It turns out he's not. But in the end, he suffers a tragic conclusion. I think, if that came out now, it would be right on the money, given all the things we've been reading.
Would you like your next show to be more political?
I would, actually, because I have a lot of strong opinions on that subject matter. But you have to be careful about it being preachy and not try to cram it down people's throats. I'd like to do it in kind of a more subversive way.
What do you want to be doing five years from now?
I think, after five more years of television, I probably would like to take a year or two off and go back to movies and maybe recharge a little bit, maybe direct an independent film. And then see how I feel. But TV is pretty exhausting. Especially the way I do it. I can't let things go. It's in my nature. And it's always there. Even on the weekends, even when I'm out with friends, it's always there.
How does working on a series compare with writing films?
I'm much more confident in my writing. It used to be a really terrifying process. When you're writing a movie, you're given four months to turn out a first draft. Frankly, I think it's too much time because you drive yourself crazy obsessing about the idea, that it's going to be brilliant. In television, you've got a week, sometimes four days, to do a draft. You know you have to do it, and you just do it on instinct. A lot of times, it comes out better that way.
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