From the Old School
Shield scribes go way back
By Kevin Downey -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/29/2005 8:00:00 PM
Writing partners Sarah Fain and Liz Craft weren’t thinking about penning television scripts while working on their high school newspaper in Kansas City, Mo., in the late 1980s.
In fact, neither Fain nor Craft, who earlier this month wrapped up their first season as writers and co-producers on FX’s Emmy-winning The Shield, were sure how to parlay their interest in writing into careers when they graduated from Pembroke Hill High School in 1989.
“I always wanted to be a writer, but it seemed like a crazy, impossible thing for a Midwestern girl,” says Fain. “I thought I wanted to write books, because that was the only type of writing I was familiar with.”
Fain and Craft, both in their early 30s, took divergent paths after high school and wouldn’t reconnect as writing partners for several years. Fain went to Williams College in Massachusetts, while Craft headed to New York’s Columbia University. After graduating, both women found work in what Fain calls the periphery of writing: Fain taught English in North Carolina for AmeriCorps’ Teach for America, and Craft went into publishing.
It was only in the late 1990s that both women began to consider writing for television. Fain says she was inspired by her creative-writing students to turn her passion into a career; she dabbled in writing screenplays. Craft wrote young- adult books, such as What We Did Last Summer, and edited others, including the Sweet Valley High series. She also tried unsuccessfully to land a job writing for a soap opera.
In 1998, Fain and Craft reconnected over beers in Kansas City and put plans into place that would rapidly transform the self-described polite Midwesterners into Hollywood writers working on edgy network programs like The WB’s Angel and The Shield.
MOVED ON A WHIM
“Sarah was talking about how she was moving [to Los Angeles] in a few weeks, and I decided on a whim that I would move, too,” says Craft. “What happened was that we had one other friend out here who was an agent at Innovative Artists. He introduced us to this woman who is no longer an agent and said, 'This is going to be your agent, and she’ll tell you what to do.’”
What they were instructed to do was write speculative scripts for programs like HBO’s Sex and the City, ABC’s Once and Again and HBO’s prison drama Oz.
“Our thinking in writing the Oz script was that, as women writers, we didn’t want to get pigeonholed into only writing soft drama,” says Craft. “So we decided that we were going to write the edgiest spec script anyone had ever seen. That way, we had the range of Once and Again, which is a very family-oriented show, and Oz, a very violent, edgy show.”
Those scripts caught the attention of some women in Hollywood who Fain and Craft say were instrumental in launching their television careers.
“The first jobs we got were because we were really championed by female executives,” says Fain. Among these women is Nicole Norwood, who was working at The WB at the time. (She is now at Touchstone Television.) Craft says Norwood made a point of helping them find a job.
Within two years of landing in Los Angeles, Fain and Craft got their first TV jobs writing Saturday-morning programs like All About Us. By 2002, they began working with Kevin Williamson, creator of The WB’s Dawson’s Creek, on his short-lived Glory Days. They next worked on The WB’s Angel, where they occupied the former office of Shawn Ryan, creator of The Shield.
This season was Fain and Craft’s first on The Shield, which through mid May has posted a 29% increase over last year in its household rating. The show is best-known for bringing to basic cable the type of intense violence and rough language once limited to premium networks like HBO.
“We get a kick out of messing with people’s perceptions of what women should be writing,” says Craft. “You have to get over that mental barrier. If you don’t totally go for it, you’re not going to write as well as you need to for the show.”
Glen Mazzara, co-executive producer on The Shield, says they were hired because of their Oz spec script and have had no trouble writing about cops in violent and sexually graphic situations.
“They do everything the male writers do,” he says. “They talk about action, the dynamics between the guys, and they come up with crime stories. They have a caustic, wry sense of humor, which—more than anything—would allow somebody to be a writer on the show.”
Fain and Craft are on break from The Shield until its fifth season goes into production, probably in July. As they have for much of their Hollywood career, the two friends are flipping between writing intense scripts and working on something decidedly softer: a novel for publisher Little Brown about a group of friends during their first year out of high school.
Says Fain, “While we’re working on The Shield, which is obviously a gritty drama, it’s nice to have the story of four girls to go to for a respite.”
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