Written By September|October 2012 : Page 24
The Good Doctor On board the Storybus with Neal Baer Written by Louise Farr POrtrAitS by Jilly WeNdell 24 • WG a W Writte N By S e P te M ber |OC t O ber 20 12
The Good Doctor
On board the Storybus with Neal Baer
It rained all day in the remote Kenyan village, and Peter Kaganjo waited outside for hours to meet neal baer, the writer-producer who happens also to be a Harvard-trained pediatrician. Baer, known for his work on ER, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and A Gifted Man, examined 240 children that day in a makeshift clinic on his first 2006 visit to Africa, and he stayed to talk to Kaganjo, a young man who longed to be a doctor. He’d done well in his national exams, studying by kerosene lamp since his village had no electricity. But his parents Were tea-pickers and couldn’t afford further education. Baer, moved, called his wife, Gerrie Smith, back in Los Angeles and told her Peter Kaganjo’s story. “It would be best if he came to live with us,” he said. Smith agreed.
Obtaining a visa took a little help from Ken Salazar, a friend of Baer’s from his Colorado College undergraduate days who is now Secretary of the Interior. And so Kaganjo, who spoke Kikuyu and Swahili but very little English, moved next door to the Baers in the Hollywood Hills, enrolled at Santa Monica Community College, transferred after two years to the University of California at Davis, and in June of this year completed his pre-med requirements in biology.
“One of the great things about Neal is his real deep concern and understanding for people who are in trouble,” says David Foster, M.D., Baer’s classmate in medical school and co-executive producer of NBC’s Do No Harm. “I honestly don’t know anyone who’s used the bully pulpit we all have more effectively for social change in the world than Neal. He just does more and more of it the more successful he’s become.That’s part of his mission in life.”
On a recent Saturday, at around 9 a.m., a white minibus—of the type that usually carries tourists in search of mansions belonging to Hollywood stars—began lurching down Fairfax Avenue away from the Writers Guild of America, West building. The bus was heading toward the rougher streets of South Los Angeles. On board: more than a dozen screenwriters, researchers, and producers who had signed up for what was billed as a “Story-Bus Tour,” offering a glimpse of life in unfamiliar zip codes.
The idea for the outing—intended to expose writers to potential storylines that otherwise might not occur to them—came from Neal Baer and was organized by Sandra de Castro Buffington,Director of Hollywood Health & Society, the nonprofit advisory group on health matters for the entertainment industry, of which Baer is co-chair. This was the second such tour. The first, in the spring, gave writers a look at the city’s gang worlds, while today’s would focus on the impact of environment on health.Kids who live in Compton, for instance, are six times as likely to be obese as Manhattan Beach kids.
“When you go yourself and see the story, you take away something more,” Baer said, standing at the front of the bus and speaking through its PA system as the vehicle navigated potholes and sharp corners. He wore his hair in a modified Julius Caesar style and had on heavy-rimmed gray spectacles, a jaunty lavender-striped shirt, and blue striped socks with his gray jeans.Around Jefferson and Crenshaw Boulevards, police cars raced by, their sirens screaming. Farther south, on a wall abutting a bleak strip of railroad track, graffiti advised: sorry, guns alcohol drugs and aids give no life refunds. Anyone who knows Baer might have had the fleeting thought that he had shown up before the tour to hand-paint the message.
This bus ride included interviews with community organizers, glimpses of abandoned and contaminated commercial properties, a visit with a health inspector to a neatly kept house in search of mold or other factors that could be the cause of a lively little boy’s asthma, and a meeting with a medical clinic patient who told of hanging food from the ceiling in her slum apartment to protect it from rats and roaches.
All of it became merely another day out of a life Baer has spent helping to illuminate the otherwise hidden worlds of medicine, disease, and poverty. On Law & Order: SVU, where he was showrunner between 2000 and 2011, Baer connected fetal alcohol syndrome to kids and gun violence. He dramatized AIDS in Africa through a moving and award-winning documentary he produced, Home Is Where You Find It, filmed by a precociously talented 16-year-old Mozambique orphan, Alcides Soares, using a camera lent to him by Baer that had been a gift from SVU actors Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni.
De Castro Buffington remembers meeting Baer for lunch during her first week on the job at Hollywood Health & Society.He apologetically handled a phone call with network executives who didn’t want him to do a story about HIV deniers.
“I got to hear Neal change their minds,” she says. “I was sitting on the edge of my seat. He didn’t lose his temper.” Baer’s persuasive powers came into play again later when he pitched the Storybus tours to the California Endowment, which underwrites them. “He’s very convincing,” Buffington says, with a laugh.
There are, of course, other doctor-writers, many, like Baer, having grown their careers on ER, itself created by a doctor, the late Michael Crichton. David Foster, who ran a Boston detox center before Baer opened doors for him as a medical consultant, wrote his first freelance script for Baer at SVU and then turned staff writer and producer on House. Fred Einesman, M.D., is supervising producer on Private Practice. Zoanne Clack, a Grey’s Anatomy co-executive producer and a one-time emergency room Doctor, has written for that series from its start [see sidebar].
“Some people go into medicine because they’re attracted to the idea of taking a bunch of facts that a patient tells you and putting together a story that makes sense,” says Lisa Zwerling,M. D., who was a pediatric emergency physician in Los Angeles before she began writing for Presidio Med and ER. Now she’s a Do No Harm consulting producer. “That kind of skill set overlaps with the writer brain. It’s not as crazy as it seems.”
Writer Without Borders
A couple of weeks after the bus trip, Baer sits at his desk in his small office at the Hollywood Production Center on Gower Street. A file for a thriller that he is co-writing, Kill Again, is open on his computer screen. His first novel, Kill Switch, about a young forensic psychiatrist working with a sociopathic inmate, came out earlier this year.
“The novel is also about my fears of pushing research until there’s no turning back; opening a Pandora’s Box,” he says, abandoning his computer and moving to a well-stuffed sofa to settle in for a conversation, for which, by all accounts, he shouldn’t be able to spare the time.
“He is on the board of every charity I’ve ever heard of, and he’s out there in the community every day,” says Peter Jankowski, president and COO of Wolf Films, which produces SVU.“We’re used to working with a lot of Type-A personalities around here,” Jankowski continues, “and don’t get me wrong, Neal’s a Type A. It almost feels like he’s got five different lives going on at once.”
Baer is co-writing an exposé of the soft-drink industry, Soda, and will follow that up with a documentary based on the book. Through a MacArthur grant, he’s co-producing another documentary about the poorest town in North Carolina.The weekend after this interview, he takes off for Boulder’s Unreasonable Institute, where he’ll mentor young entrepreneurs from around the world, helping them to tell the stories behind their work. The idea is to move people and generate funds for their projects. As if this isn’t enough activity, through his newly created ActionLab.org, he’ll link viewers inspired by issues they see dramatized on television—the backlog of rape kits in police departments, for example—with ways for them to do something about it. “It’s always been part of my work,” Baer says, “bridging the gap between inspiration and action.”
Then, of course, there is his life in the industry, which gives Him this platform for doing good works. Under his current deal with CBS, Baer is working on four pilots of his own and supervising others. “I know how to do criminals, and lawyers, and doctors,” he says, “so I have to move into some new worlds.”
The world Baer inhabits now was far from his mind as he grew up in Denver, the son of a busy surgeon father who took him on hospital rounds so that they could spend time together. His mother’s outings were more adventuresome.She took him and his seventh grade friends to protest the Vietnam War and later was arrested while picketing on behalf of the United Farm Workers. “She was put in jail with a cell full of prostitutes,” Baer says, gleefully.At 85, Arlette Baer still works as a membership coordinator for the ACLU.
Despite his M.D., Baer describes himself as “the poster child for a liberal arts education.” In the circuitous route he took before landing in Hollywood, he earned a Colorado College political science B.A., a Master’s degree in education at Harvard, taught elementary school for a couple of years in Denver, and then returned to Harvard for another Master’s in sociology. Unhappy while crunching numbers—it was the stories behind the numbers that he found stimulating—he skipped out on a Ph.D. “Everyone wanted to be my office mate in sociology because I never used my office,” Baer remembers.
It was fortuitous that the cinema vérité documentary filmmaker Ed Pincus, a protégé of Richard Leacock, was to start teaching an undergraduate course at Harvard. Baer, with no background beyond a love of movies, pestered Pincus to get into the class. “I was driven. Just driven. I kept calling him and calling.”
It worked. “I’ll never forget this first film I made about an Italian baker.He had this cone, and he was shooting cream everywhere. I remember the evocative nature of this film, the sensual elements. I was cutting my film and remember walking past my professor’s door and he was saying, ‘I’ve got this student,and he made this wild film where whipped cream is flying everywhere, and I just love it.’ I heard that, and it changed me; he really liked my work.”
Two documentaries that Baer produced and shot with other students sold to PBS. Then, after he spent a year as a directing fellow at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, an agent advised, “If you want to direct, you have to write.”
This was 1984. It took him five years to get a show on the air—years during which Baer hedged his bets by completing pre-med studies at USC.“I was struggling,” he says. Then he remembered, as a kid, being with a friend at the moment she spotted her father with another woman. That memory of her devastation became a springboard for writing and directing Private Affairs, an ABC Afterschool Special. “I just hounded them, hounded them, hounded, pitching, pitching,” he says about ABC. In an early Baer touch, another character in the drama contracted gonorrhea from her boyfriend.
Grocery shopping at a Hollywood market, he bumped into his childhood friend, John Wells, who asked him to pitch for the Vietnam War–themed China Beach. Baer’s freelance co-written episode, “Warriors,” earned a 1990 Writers Guild Award nomination.
“I didn’t set out to be a doctor; I didn’t set out to be a screenwriter, didn’t set out to be a showrunner, didn’t set out to be a producer,” Baer says. “But I found passion and had moments that presented themselves. Ed Pincus changed my life.John Wells changed my life.”
But not so fast. By 1991 China Beach was off the air, work had dried up, and Baer was on a plane flying back to Harvard and medical school: “My son was a year old, and I always said I don’t know if I’m cut out for this Hollywood.” In Baer’s third year of med school, John Wells, writing and executive producing ER, invited him back to L.A. “My wife was doing computer research; we were $160,000 in debt. I’d accrued a couple of months vacation, so I came out here For two months, and I loved it. I said, ‘John, I really like this. I’d like to stay.’ He said ‘There’s no guarantee the show will do well.’” It’s no news that the show, with its fast pace and multiple storylines, reached an over-40 share after its fall 1994 NBC debut.
Warren Littlefield was the network’s president of Entertainment from 1993 to 1998.“It was almost a graduate course in medicine,” he remembers about ER, which he discusses in his book, Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV.“What was critical was that it was authentic, it was real, and in the midst of all this information they had to be accurate, and then slowly the audience would get educated in a way that they had never heard before or understood. [Neal Baer] had remarkable credentials, and in every single script, week in and week out, we could feel the benefit of that.”
In the emergency Writing room
On his first day at ER, Baer had arrived nervous but with 100 stories. “In every episode there is some part of me that happened or that I heard about,” he says. “We had this wonderful stew of conflict that we were able to play out among the characters on the show. I remember thinking hard about Eriq La Salle’s character, where to go, and I was reading about new DNA testing.I was so excited to go to the writers’ room the next day. ‘I know what to do. His girlfriend comes to him and says you may not be the father of this toddler who is deaf.’ This child he loves more than anything. Should he take the test?”
They decided that the child should be deaf, since La Salle’s character had such a stake in his own perfection. “It was so rich. I just loved it. I was just able to delve into the lives of people and explore my own journey of becoming a physician.”It didn’t hurt that, when stuck for material, he could call two of his brothers, who were surgeons, and his M.D. father. “He would try to teach me, and I’d say, ‘Don’t teach me. Tell me something funny.’ And he would.”
Learning to write on ER was “torturous,” he says, crediting Paul Manning, a writer who died of cancer in 2005 at age 45, for mentoring him. “He said, ‘Just write down stuff that’s coming into your head. Shape it later. Don’t be so tight.’”
These days, Baer is quick. “I can’t teach you how to write a scene, but I can give you tricks. I can teach you how to get in late and get out early in a scene. My strength is I’m gifted with story. I can twist and turn a story, and I did it from the day I entered ER. ‘You don’t like that? How about this? This? This!’ And so writing takes me more time. I find it so interesting that there are some writers who can’t do a story to save their lives, but once you give them a story they write it brilliantly.And I’m so jealous of them.”
Still, he received an Emmy nomination for his “Hell and High Water” episode, in which George Clooney’s Dr. Doug Ross turns action hero to save a boy trapped in flood waters.Emmy and Writers Guild Award nominations came for “Whose Appy Now?,” which has Ross dealing with a teenage cystic fibrosis patient who wants to die.
Sitting in his office, Baer repeats an anecdote that he had told on the Storybus. It’s one of his favorites, but he wants to tell it again, to emphasize that actors don’t own their roles.“One time George Clooney asked me to come down to the set,” Baer says. “He said something like, ‘Doug Ross wouldn’t say this.’ And I said, ‘Really, how do you know?’ And he said, ‘I’m Doug Ross.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m Doug Ross in my head and my heart.’ Then George smiled, in only the way he can, and said, ‘You’re right.’”
And he was. With Harvard and the show’s cooperation, Baer traveled between Boston and Hollywood, and by 1996 had become an M.D. Between 1997 and 2001, he interned in pediatrics at Children’s Hospital–Los Angeles and became licensed to practice in California. Somehow, he had also managed to fit in two years of treating patients on weekends at the free Venice Family Clinic, where he was a board member until two years ago. “More stories,” he says, looking satisfied. “It’s just like living this funny life of real and pretend and trying to make the pretend as real as possible.” Nonetheless, he remembers his son, Caleb, 12, when Baer was on ER and doing his residency, saying to him: “You’ve been on call my whole life.”
License to Heal
The year before he got his California license, he had become showrunner for Law & Order: SVU. Now, in preparation for a move to spiffier quarters at CBS Studio Center in the San Fernando Valley, memorabilia is stacked about the office, including a framed photo of Leslie Caron. A longtime fan, Baer persuaded the actress to appear on the series portraying a rape victim; she won an Emmy.During Baer’s 2000–2011 era, the show and its actors stacked up six Emmys and 24 nominations as well as Golden Globe, Edgar, and Sentinel for Health awards. In the ages-old argument about whether drama should entertain, instruct, or do both, Baer won out, with the SVU all-points-of-view structure lending itself to the gritty and controversial subjects that compel him. “In a drama, all the arguments can be presented,” Baer says, “and you can maybe take the one that speaks to you.”
There was no writers’ room, and Baer insisted that his writing staff become involved in every aspect of production: “Writers would put their outlines up on the board, and then I’d come and talk to them about it. Then I’d do the same thing when it went to script. There was a lot of collaboration that was pretty intimate.”
Jonathan Greene, Baer’s novel-writing partner, was an SVU executive producer. “He never jumped credit on a writer,”
Greene says about Baer. “There are some showrunners who will take your stuff, change two words, and take credit. He always had our backs, and that’s a big statement in this town.”
With Baer’s arrival, the show changed, Jankowski points out.“We started exploring things on a medical level, on an emotional level, that we didn’t in the first season or two. Neal did a wonderful job, as did Chris and Mariska, of channeling each other. That was a wonderful relationship to watch. They talked daily. I’ve got to say the success of the show is as much his as anybody’s.”
Baer worked mostly in Los Angeles with the show filming in New York. “Unlike the mothership, we got more into the characters. Mariska being the product of a rape, questioning whether she was violent because of her father; Chris Meloni being an altar boy who had five children and felt constricted and angry. He was the rage we felt toward the perp, and Mariska was the empathy, and then we’d play with it and switch it, and I loved it. But then it was time to go.”
Time, in fact, to executive produce last season’s A Gifted Man, created by Susannah Grant, about a successful neurosurgeon (Patrick Wilson) whose dead ex-wife—in life a free clinic director— gives him morality lessons from beyond the grave. Baer says that the clinic was in the pilot, but he expanded it. As he always says, he was bringing his personal stories to the work. “It became a show about Patrick Wilson’s living in two worlds, the world of concierge medicine where every gizmo and gadget is at the tip of your hand, available for a price, and the other world of people in the United States who don’t have insurance.”
The show was doomed, he thought, once he saw the research data: intent to watch high, awareness low. “But you just learn.That’s the first show I’ve ever been on that’s been canceled.” ER, Baer points out, was on the air for 15 years and SVU is still on, with more than 50 million people watching it every week across all platforms. “You hear about wonderful shows like Mad Men that are getting, like, one-point-something million viewers, but the world is watching NCIS and SVU.”
During the Written By interview, Baer is encouraged to run through his list of accomplishments and nominations— the 15 current board memberships, the awards and honorary degrees, the volunteer work, and the trips to take cameras to children in Africa—and even he can get temporarily lost about his schedule and achievements. So Baer calls in his assistant, Mike Russo, who is waving his boss’ CV. It runs 16 pages in an extremely small typeface: trustee of the Writers Guild of America Health and Pension Fund; visiting professor at the American University in Paris; guest lecturer at Stanford Business School; senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy; board member of Venice Arts; Professor of Preventive Medicine at USC’s Keck School…
Baer explains cheerfully that he goes to bed at 8:30 p.m. and rises at 4 a.m. to read scripts, write, and work on the novel, fitting in an hour of exercise daily. For good measure, he adds a couple of acupuncture sessions a week to relieve the anxiety with which he awakens. He manages this schedule by Avoiding nightly television. “I TiVo everything,” he says, rather as if the rest of us could accomplish as much if we reserved our TV watching for weekends.
Every room in Baer’s Hollywood Hills house has a spot for reading and writing. “He works in the car; he works on a plane,” Baer’s wife, Gerrie Smith, says over the phone, adding about her husband’s accomplishments, “It’s kind of dazzling to me.” There’s a brief pause, followed by an affectionate laugh. “Of course, there’s a driven, workaholic side about which I have mixed feelings.”
Smith likes to tells stories too. She remembers the calls from Baer in Africa, when he told her about Peter Kaganjo and Alcides Soares, the 16-year-old orphan documentarian who had once lived on the streets. Soares, whose Home Is Where You Find It won numerous awards, went on to study at Deerfield Academy, the Massachusetts college prep school, sponsored by Baer and Smith, and is about to enter the African Leadership Academy for a year Before applying to college in the United States to study film. Soares shot 60 hours of footage, Smith says, and Baer called on his Hollywood connections to assemble the film and administer postproduction polish. “Neal got a great deal of flak from some of his colleagues for leaving a $6,000 camera overnight,” Smith says. “That tells you a lot about Neal, that he was completely comfortable doing that.”
A few more weeks go by. Now Baer is in a car driving through the Rocky Mountains on his way to see family but also heading to a trustees meeting at Colorado College, another of the boards on which he sits. His phone keeps cutting out, but through the static he sounds elated. Today he has learned that he has sold the co-written pilot for Nightcrawler, a character-driven police procedural, to CBS. (“I hope to sell a number of others soon and will let you know when I do,” he emails later.) More good news: Peter Kaganjo has received word of his acceptance into medical school at UCLA. “No practicing in Toledo,” Baer says. “That’s Our agreement. He’s going back to Kenya.He wants to be a cardiologist.” Says Kaganjo, “I’m very, very grateful. It’s not only for me. It’s for my community and for my country.”
This sets Baer wondering about fate.“What if he hadn’t gone there that day, and I hadn’t seen him? I could have just gotten in the car and left.”
Another thought. What if Baer let up on his activities and decided that being a showrunner was enough to fill his time? What if he stopped worrying about supplying cameras to AIDSmothers, and microcredit to women in Madagascar, or let someone else work on connecting new media with global health through USC’s Center for Storytelling, Activism, and Health? Does he ever think about saying enough, time to kick back and take a break?
Baer hesitates for no more than a second. And the hesitation is not because he’s considering such a proposition, but because he can’t believe the question. Then he answers, “No.”
SaNdra de CaStro BuffiNGtoN, director Hollywood HealtH & Society
“Wherever there’s a story about human beings, there’s a story about health, life, and death,” Sandra de Castro Buffington says. She’s the Brazilian-American director of Hollywood Health & Society, the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center program funded by the CDC, the California Endowment, and other foundations that provide the entertainment industry with health information. HH&S’s research has found that health content in storylines jumped from 51 percent in 2004 to 80 percent in 2009; in the past two years, the organization consulted on 384 stories that aired.
“That’s a huge number,” De Castro Buffington says, stressing that the organization is not in the business of telling writers what to write. “We work to inspire them. It’s very different for the health community. It means having no control. It means trusting the creative process,” she says. “We simply need to bring [writers] the most exotic stories we can, related to health and climate change, and they take it from there.”
With Neal Baer co-chairing HH&S’s advisory board (the president of the WGA at any given time is cochair), the organization’s team of nine consultants acts as a free resource, answering emails and phone calls and putting writers together with health and environmental experts, often when writers are crashing on a deadline. They will even go so far as to take a visiting expert to a writers’ room. “Neal’s been my partner in crime, except we’re not criminals,” De Castro Buffington says. “No matter what I pitch to Neal, he thinks all the ideas are great, and he says let’s make it bigger.”
Last year, Buffington took a group of writers to Johannesburg, South Africa, and Mumbai, India, to observe health and social problems first-hand. The writers visited a program that had rescued 200 children from sex slavery, and a brothel where former sex workers had turned health activists to prevent their peers from experiencing violence. At a city dump in India, the HH&E group met families who were born and lived out their existences amid the rubble. And in Africa they stopped at a TB hospital that draws patients from throughout the continent. “You go into a situation and let the story find you,” Carol Barbee, Touch co-executive producer, told a WGAW panel after the trip; she did just that, incorporating a domestic violence storyline she had heard about in Africa into her “Safety in Numbers” episode.
An upcoming series of Storybus excursions will focus on climate change and partner with NASA. Writers have to apply for both domestic and overseas tours, and HH&S looks for the most active writers. “We also like to take some newer writers who don’t have so many credits but are actively writing. It’s people who can get the most out of it and who can apply it most immediately,” De Castro Buffington says.“What we hope is to see timely and accurate health and climate content in storylines, so if it’s a movie that’s going to be 10 years in the making—we certainly wouldn’t turn someone away for that reason—but our preference is TV writers or people with a quicker turnaround.”
fred eiNeSmaN, m.d., co-executive producer, Private Practice
People who choose emergency medicine choose it because it allows you a lot of free time to pursue other endeavors.It’s high-intensity shift work. You go in and at the end of your shift, you’re done. You’re only allowed to work 15 days a month, so you can work 15 days at whatever you like. I was working in the emergency department in the trauma center at Cedars-Sinai when I got a Master’s degree in film at USC. I applied and never thought I’d get in, but I did.They said, “Do you have a portfolio?” I said, “No, I’m a doctor.” They said, “Oh, we have lots of those.” There were four doctors and a lot more lawyers.
I wound up working on ER on the second season. I went there thinking it would be a couple of weeks and wound up there for 14 years. Out of ER, whenever Warner Bros. Or John Wells was looking for a doctor for Friends or West Wing or Third Watch, they’d always refer me.
Because ER was such a popular show, we got to do amazing things. It was like making a movie every week. You can’t duplicate the ER phenomenon, so you have people who are trying to make intensely medical shows, or there’s the shift back to making them more character- based.
St. Elsewhere, M*A*S*H*, there is a continuum of each show trying to define its own point of view. Shonda [Rhimes] did something with Grey’s. She took the medicine and made it so much more relationship-based. And our show is very much the characters and the ethical dilemmas. Haven’t we seen that?Well, yes, but we’ll tell it differently. We get to air, in the public domain, subjects that doctors might be talking about among themselves.
There’s a time when you have to stop being the doctor who writes to become the writer who used to be a doctor. You don’t want to be the doctor forever, because then that’s all you can write. And I actually like writing.
liSa ZwerliNG, conSulting producer, Do No Harm
I wrote in college, and then after college I was part of a theater group in L.A. where I wrote plays and produced them. We were a group of friends doing our own thing. I got interested in medicine, went to medical school at the University of California–San Francisco, finished my training, and was working as a doctor in Los Angeles when Lydia Woodward, who was writing the pilot for Presidio Med, put the word out that she was looking for a doctor who could write.
I became technical advisor for the pilot and then joined the show as a staff writer. I wasn’t looking to leave medicine, and the producers were patient with me. I was beyond excited and very grateful that I got to do both. It was busy, busy, but we fed on each other because it was good for the show that I stay relevant.
Later, Meredith Stiehm, a dear friend of mine who was part of that theater company, was on staff at ER, so she recommended me. One of the first things I learned there was that a cool medical case is cool, but that’s not enough. The story has to be on another level: the emotional story that’s going on among the doctors, nurses, and the patients.
Joining a show in its powerhouse years, I didn’t have a sense of how much new shows are subjected to studio/network feedback. We were in a bubble where we got to write the shows we wanted to write.And we had a very stable staff—not a lot of turnover, and a lot of mentors. You feel safe with people and feel that it’s a room where you can be yourself.
After ER, I wanted to work on non-medical shows.After a couple of years, being back here in the medical world on Do No Harm, I’m reminded all the time: There may have been a time when pure medical cases in and of themselves were enough to support a story, but I think post ER and post House, audiences have seen it all.
ZoaNNe ClaCk, m.d., co-executive producer, Grey’s aNatomy
Dr. Zoanne Clack was working with the Centers for Disease Control, trekking to a Belize village to administer hands-on doctoring and to Palau and Micronesia to consult over their emergency medicine programs. Important as the work was, she felt that she hadn’t found her niche.
As a child, she’d had fleeting thoughts of acting and writing. But good grades—and her mother—had pushed her toward medicine. Bogged down with paperwork and worried that at any time a patient might die, Clack realized that she had to make a change.
“One day I just snapped,” she says. She was going to move to Los Angeles, she decided, but she wanted to arrive to a job. “I didn’t want to be a ‘starving artist.’” Impossibly, an ad showed up in an emergency medicine journal: ER needed an on-set person. She interviewed, didn’t get the gig, and then moved to L.A. anyway. “I just wanted to save face. Keep my plan going.”
Once here, she took acting classes. “They helped open me up,” she remembers. “All that stuff you’ve been pushing down because you’re a doctor.” She put some of it on paper, began taking writing classes through UCLA Extension, and came up with a Sex & the City spec script; lucky, she believes, since the show had a drama format. “If I’d learned sitcom format, that would have been the end of me.”
A mere year and a half after arriving in L.A., she interviewed with Lydia Woodward, co-creator with John Wells of Presidio Med. “I said, ‘I’ll do anything. I’ll be a consultant, I’ll work on set, but I love to write.’ And I shoved this script right in her face. Two months went By, and she hired me as a staff writer.” When that show was canceled, Clack kept up the writing classes and spent a season working on spec scripts. Next staffing season, Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes offered her a position as story editor. Another show had wanted her, but she went with Grey’s.
“I was lucky enough to learn on the job—a huge learning curve,” Clack says. “My vast amount of education, all of that money and dollars, limited me creatively in a significant way because I know what the boundaries are and no one else does. I’m, No friggin’ way. That can’t happen.” By now, she has learned to soften and say maybe, and even yes, unless something is medically impossible. “Every script means me having to loosen up my boundaries. Literally, sometimes, especially if I’m not in the room. Because I have to work on every script, they’ll pitch something that they know is wrong or way out there. On the board they’ll write, Zoanne. We can do it. Or even in the script they’ll write direct notes, Make it work, Zoanne. So there’s a little pushing of the boundaries every day. And the boundaries create conflicts that should add to the story, not weigh it down.”
Nine years after being hired, Clack still recalls with a shudder her third Grey’s season, when she watched friends being fired from the show and worried that she would be next. She moped and hoped that she would make producer before being kicked out into the world again. “I put a lot of pressure on myself probably, that way.”
Then, one day, Rhimes asked Clack why her agents were calling to see how she was doing. “I was, like, I guess I’m being fired,” Clack said. She wasn’t, of course.“Are you kidding me? We love you here,” she remembers Rhimes saying. “And I was, Couldn’t you have said that three months ago?”
At first, like many TV doctors, Clack put in weekend shifts at an emergency room. But as her writer-producer responsibilities grew, that became harder. She does good works though, traveling during hiatus on behalf of the United Nations; Hollywood, Health & Society; and other nonprofits. She’s been to Croatia, India, Kyrgyzstan, and New Guinea, where she has taught writers how to frame and structure stories while integrating medicine without preaching. She also mentors aspiring writers through the WGAW’s mentorship program.“It’s been very gratifying,” she says. “On the one hand, I could be saving lives; on the other, I write for Hollywood.One of the things that I’ve found that I can use to validate my existence is to use my public health training and my medical degree and my writing skills to be able to do this entertainment educational stuff.”
No question that Clack found her niche. She loves her second life. “Even though there’s all this pressure, I have it in context of real pressure. We can go back and forth on this script 8 million times and it’s still going to entertain people,” she says. “Nobody’s going to die.We can fix this.”
Read the full article at http://www.mydigitalpublication.com/article/The+Good+Doctor/1152347/123626/article.html.