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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 4/10/2005 08:00:00 PM Eastern

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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