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TV Writing Taught Him to Trust His Instincts

Aug 4, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Hank Steinberg doesn’t watch television, and he’s never really liked episodic cop dramas. “I’m sort of a movie guy,” he said.
That may sound odd, considering Mr. Steinberg, 33, is the head writer and executive producer of the CBS investigative drama “Without a Trace.” To hear him tell it, however, he traveled a long, hard road to an unexpected destination.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Steinberg moved to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter. He landed a production assistant gig and wrote scripts in his spare time.
Five years passed. The unsold specs piled up, about one for every year he had been in Los Angeles. Mr. Steinberg was still working unsatisfying production jobs and trying to avoid becoming too comfortable, lest he quit screenwriting altogether.
“I was pretty demoralized,” he said. “But I was determined to give it one more year.”
Good thing, too. During his sixth year in Hollywood Mr. Steinberg had a breakthrough while writing a historical action script called “The Duel.”
“I finally figured out that you have to rewrite, and rewrite and rewrite,” he said.
Mr. Steinberg rewrote “The Duel” about 25 times-and HBO optioned the script.
Though the film was never made, the spec opened a door and Mr. Steinberg wrote the historical dramas “61*” for HBO and “RFK” for FX. Then his agent called about a new show Jerry Bruckheimer was developing for CBS called “Without a Trace.”
Network television? Cop drama? Mr. Steinberg said he was interested nonetheless.
“I thought it was an interesting opportunity to do something psychological,” Mr. Steinberg said. “[The show] wasn’t about a crime, it was about a person and what happened to them.”
To hear “Trace” executive producer Jonathan Littman tell it, Mr. Steinberg was a perfect fit precisely because he was more interested in characters than in crime scenes.
“We wanted somebody who could bring the past and characters to life, not a straight procedural writer,” Mr. Littman said. “Our history is about finding people outside the box, not going to who the natural choice would be.”
Mr. Steinberg was hired as a writer and producer, and was promoted to executive producer after seven episodes (“He exceeded expectations with his producing ability, and there seemed no reason he shouldn’t have the full title,” Mr. Littman said.)
Mr. Steinberg quickly found that unlike working on spec scripts, running a television show did not allow the luxury of second-guessing himself.
“When writing a movie, you have too much time to pace around your apartment and procrastinate,” he said. “In television you don’t have the time. You have to trust your instincts and shoot from the hip.”
Though major Emmy nominations have eluded the freshman show, “Trace” has been a critical and ratings success. The goal, Mr. Steinberg said, is to make every episode “one you want to watch twice.”
It must be working. The summer rerun ratings for “Without a Trace” are closing in on time-slot competitor “ER.”
“It would be nice,” Mr. Steinberg admitted, when asked about the possibility of toppling NBC’s aging monolith. “But there’s not much we can do differently to change the outcome of that.”
What about procedural dramas? Is he competitive with, say, Bruckheimer’s other investigative drama-“CSI”?
“I don’t know,” Mr. Steinberg said. “I don’t watch it.”
STATS
Name: Hank Steinberg
Date of Birth: Nov. 19, 1969
Place of Birth: Great Neck, N.Y.
Title: Writer/producer
Big Break: Hired by Bruckheimer Television to write “Without a Trace”
Reps: Endeavor
Who Knew? He had an epiphany of impending success while biking in Thailand.