Move out of the way Law & Order. You old-timers with your faux presidential candidates and walkers are so passé. There’s a new (well, sort of) show in town with spin-offs sassier than wearing nothing under judges’ robes. Science trumps detectives every time. In fact, CSI is so mammoth that it’s the only thing that happens in Vegas that doesn’t stay there: it chills in Miami and New York as well, via production in Los Angeles. And this is where Carol Mendelsohn ’73 comes in. The veteran writer-producer came to CSI in its baby days for the pilot after having worked on shows like Melrose Place and surviving a pilot with O.J. Simpson. The Sun caught up with her as season 8 was getting ready to premiere to talk about her time at Cornell, CSI, and her career in the biz. Here is an excerpt of that conversation:
The Sun: What was it like at Cornell for you? What was your favorite aspect of Cornell and what was your least favorite?
Carol Mendelsohn: That is so long ago now. [Laughs] I remember how beautiful it was. I remember sitting in class with the windows open in all those old buildings. I remember my friends. It’s kind of clichéd, but all the good times that I had and all the great professors. My least favorite was that Cornell was so big that sometimes you actually could feel pretty lonely.
Sun: How did you end up here?
C.M.: From high school I actually went to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, for two years. So I spent my freshman and sophomore years at Smith, and really didn’t like it. It was a little too small; it was all women. So I applied to Cornell, which I think I was waitlisted from out of high school, so I tried again. That’s how I came to be a Cornell graduate. I came for my junior and senior years.
Sun: What was your major?
C.M.: My major was political science, mostly because that was my major at Smith. But when I got to Cornell, I would say a lot of my classes were in literature. It was too late by then to really switch my major.
Sun: Do you find that either one has a great deal to do with what you’re doing now?
C.M.: You know what? Not political science. Literature — it never hurts to be well read, especially when you’re writing for television or the movies. But I think it’s the collective you, it’s everything that you learn in the entire experience of going to college that is really what you carry with you. I remember my advisor at Cornell said that you probably won’t remember much of what you learned after you learn it, but you’ll always know where to go to find it again. You learn those skills. I think that being inquisitive and wanting to learn and being open to new ideas, I think that is what Cornell instilled in me. Again, I may not be the liveliest person in cocktail chatter, but if I want to know about something, I know how to go and find out where I can get information and then read it or study it and learn. I think that’s the value of an education.
Sun: After Cornell, you went to law school, right?
Sun: In your television career, were you ever tempted to get on board with one of the many lawyer-based shows on TV, or were you trying to get away from that with your move to TV?
C.M.: Actually when I first started out, I tried to get a job on L.A. Law, because they were looking for lawyers who were also writers. At that time, I had an overall deal working for Steven Cannell who was doing shows like the A-Team and Rip Tide and Hardcastle & McCormick. I couldn’t get a job at L.A. Law; they looked up their noses at the kind of shows that I had been writing for. I always wanted to do a law show, and it was very hard to get a job on one of those shows. As a matter of fact, it became very difficult in my career to even get a job on shows that were about women! Because for so long in my writing career, I wrote action/adventure/thriller kind of TV shows and back then, you got pegged as one thing. I would hear, “She can write action, but can she write for women?” And people would say no, but my agent would always say, “But she is a woman!” But that didn’t seem to convince anybody, which doesn’t make much sense, but that’s the way it is. [Laughs]
Sun: [Laughs] So when did you make the transition from being a writer to producing?
C.M.: That’s just a natural transition that you make if you have any longevity in the business. On TV shows, usually when you come onto a show as a junior writer, you either come on as a freelancer, which means you’re just there to do an episode or two and it’s an audition of sorts, or you come on as a staff writer, which means you actually have a position on the show, but you’re on the bottom rung. The longer that you stay on that show, or the longer that you stay in the business as a writer, you keep moving up the ranks. You can go from staff writer to story editor to executive story editor to co-producer, producer, supervising producer, co-executive producer and eventually executive producer. I’ve been very fortunate in my career that I’ve worked pretty steadily since 1984. Eventually as you move up on the show that you’re on, or you move out and then onto another show, a title comes with it. And eventually when I was on Melrose Place, I came on as a supervising producer. The next year I was a co-executive producer, which I stayed until the final season of Melrose Place, and then the other co-E.P., Chuck Pratt, and I both became executive producers and we ran the show that final season. That’s just what happens. It’s like the army.
One of the things that you’re doing with the producer title — when you’re just a freelancer or a staff writer, it depends on the show — but I try to train the young writers on our show, so I let them get involved in all the producing functions so that they can do it when they are producers. Not every show is like that, but when I worked for Steven Cannell, he was training writers like myself to move up the ranks. So I let my writers — and I was allowed to do the same thing — go to casting, go to the editing room. I might not let everybody talk, but I expose them to that experience. So producing functions are really part and parcel of being a writer for television. Unlike features, the director in television is usually the guest. We have a few producer-directors on our show. The show-runner as a producer, whether you’re a producer or a supervising producer or a co-E.P. or an executive producer like myself, you do those producing functions and those are the things other than script-writing duties. If you’re going to be a show-runner on a TV show, you run a multi-million dollar, and in the case of CSI a $150 million, business, so you have to know how to produce.
Sun: When you first started writing, what was it that you were writing? What were your first forays into writing in general?
C.M.: When I started, I was a lawyer in D.C., working at the Watergate, and I started to write magazine articles — short stories. I would write them and then get little pink slips in the mail rejecting them. And then I took a couple screenwriting classes, one at the A.F.I. because the American Film Institute had an office in the Watergate, which is where my offices were. Also the Corcoran School of Art was not too far from my office, and they had screenwriting classes. I always loved television, so I took a few screenwriting classes and then just started to write scripts. Also, I was in D.C., so I wrote a few plays with some playwrights at the New Playwrights’ Theatre. But my love was really television, so I just started writing scripts of the TV shows that I loved.
Sun: Had you done any writing when you were at Cornell?
C.M.: I wrote a lot of term papers and things like that, not any creative writing.
Sun: How did you find the time to take all those courses and write while also working as a lawyer?
C.M.: Geographic proximity played into it because I could actually work until 7:55 at night at the Watergate and run over and still make an 8:00 class in the other Watergate building, and the Corcoran School of Art was about a five-minute walk from my office too. I couldn’t have gone to Georgetown or Capitol Hill and taken a screenwriting class. I’d come in early those days because my hours were horrendous as a lawyer, but class was once a week so on those nights I came in early in the morning and could work until almost 8:00. It seemed to work out. Sometimes I had to go home and work again, but you just do it. It was a passion, and I think anytime you have a passion to do something, even if you don’t get to sleep — ever — you do it. I’m not sure I could do it today, but back then, it’s just what I wanted and it was everything to me.
Sun: When you were at Cornell, did you do any other sorts of activities outside of the classroom?
C.M.: I remember trying out for the tennis team, but I didn’t do that. It was kind of odd to transfer in your junior year. Everybody’s made their friends and everything. I just remember studying and palling about with my friends. I can’t remember being on any sports team really. I don’t think I had too many extra-curricular activities.
Sun: You did mention how your advisor gave you that piece of advice that you still remember. Were there any other professors that guided you in any way?
C.M.: My favorite professor was Walter LeFebre and he was just inspiring by his presence. He had so much knowledge and he was able to communicate it in such an effective way and inspire his students. He inspired my by his passion to have an equal passion for the subject matter, and I think that that’s really a lot about what I do in television. We as writers here at CSI, our passion for what we do and for the characters and the stories, for the authenticity of what we’re writing about, our job is to make the audience equally passionate. I took back then — I don’t know what it’s like now, but you also had to take a number of science classes.
Sun: It’s still like that.
C.M.: I took “Physics for Poets.” I wasn’t the best science person then. But it’s interesting now when I think back about that class, because so much of what we had to do at CSI, especially in those first years when we were learning about forensics, was to figure out first of all what was the science, understanding for ourselves, and then being able to communicate it to somebody else, but communicate it in a dramatic and interesting and entertaining way. And really it was sort of what the professor was doing in class in physics. Physics was way over my head, but the professor was sort of a Mr. Wizard. He could make it fun, and out of entertaining me, I would actually be able to understand the principles. I think that a lot of that is what we as the writers do at C.S.I all the time, especially at the beginning when we didn’t understand forensics. None of us had science degrees; we were all mostly political science and liberal arts majors and we had to learn the science.
Sun: How does that happen? What kind of background information do you get for each show that speaks to a job that you’ve never held? How do you prepare yourself to write for that kind of show?
C.M.: I came onboard in the pilot before the series, which is when the network orders a pilot so they can actually see if there’s a TV series in this, and one of the things Jerry Bruckheimer said to us when the pilot got picked up was — and he had just finished Enemy of the State, that Will Smith movie — he said, “People love to go into worlds that they are unfamiliar with, and the world needs to be authentic.” People need to talk as they would talk if they were, in E.R., doctors, or in Without a Trace if they were feds, or CSI as if they’re forensic scientists. And he said, “Never shy away from that. You need to find the best technical advisors that are out there and get them to work on your show.” That’s what we did. We made the decision from the beginning to be true to the science. The only time we ever take any liberty with the science is in the time it takes to process D.N.A. or other evidence because obviously it takes two weeks or a month. The show’s over in an hour. We take some liberties with that, but we’ve always wanted to be authentic and real and never be open to criticism that what we do is just a Hollywood version or that it’s bullshit. So I went out and I hired some great tech advisors; most of those tech advisors are still with the show. Most of them are now writers and producers. We have all the Vegas crime lab people that we had met because Anthony Zuiker who originally created CSI had actually done a ride-along at the Las Vegas crime lab. He had a friend from high school that was a CSI — they were then called C.S.A.s, crime scene analysts, but now the whole department’s called CSI They all became very good friends and colleagues of ours, and we always have relied on them. And we have experts all around the country and around the world that help vet our scripts and our science. Anytime we do anything about insects, Dr. Lee Goff is one of the leading forensic entomologists in the world, I think one of ten or fifteen forensic entomologists in the world, and he lives in Hawaii and teaches there. Anytime we have anything about bugs, we’re always talking to Dr. Goff. Whatever we need for each particular episode, we learn for that episode. We do all of our research. Many seasons I’ve asked the writers if they turn in scripts, or any of us do, we also have a package of materials with all of our underlying research so that the director, so that anybody that has a question, the actors, its there. You understand what the science truly is, what it states, what we’re trying to prove. It makes the show very fun because we’re always learning. This year we had [William Petersen’s character] Grissom study colony class disorders of honey bees, which has been in the press a lot. We sent some of the writers out to a bee farm. We’ve learned all about that. We’re doing an episode about bull-riding, and some of the writers have gone to rodeos and out to the farm where they get—I don’t know quite what the technical term is, but it’s where they get the semen from the bulls, which I guess is very valuable. One of my writers was doing that last week. We have a go-karting episode, and I took the whole writing staff go-karting. It’s not like we go out and commit murders every other weekend; we can imagine that. But whatever the subject matter is, we do. Like dining in the dark: throughout the United States and abroad, there are a number of restaurants where you dine in the dark — pitch black. It’s about the experience and sensuousness of the taste over being able to see what you’re eating. One of our writers when to this restaurant Opaque and dined in the dark. We do our research.
Sun: Had you had similar experiences in previous shows in that way where you would have to do a lot of digging in a fun way or just regularly for each episode, or is this a unique experience in your career?
C.M.: A lot of the cop shows that I worked on, we always had a detective, and usually on a lot of the shows that I did, it was one specific detective. I would go and meet him at the police academy or meet him in a coffee shop somewhere when he was on a case or whatever. I was always doing research like that, but CSI is unique in terms of the breadth of the research and the subject matters that we focus on. On Melrose Place, so much of it was about who was sleeping with who and it was driven by the emotions of the characters. All of us would share our stories about love and heartbreak, etc, so that was really coming from personal experience. And I guess when we all ran out of our personal experiences, the show was over. But CSI is very unique, and there’s sometimes when we do stories about things that we actually have not gone out and done, like we did a story about plushies and furries, which are when some people like to dress up as … stuffed animals … and what they call scrinching. And I did not go to a plushy or furry convention, but I read everything I could about them. And it’s fun! But CSI is unique and I think that when I talk to my friends on other shows, or have an experience with other TV shows, the groundwork that we do before we even go into a writers’ room and start to bring stories is astounding. So it’s unique. I guess it’s a long way of saying yes. CSI is unique.
Sun: After you were taking the courses and you started brushing u on your screenwriting skills and everything, did you just move to L.A.? How did you make the transition from lawyer to writer?
C.M.: I actually tried to do it in what I thought was an actually productive way. I’m not so sure that it was, but it worked. I stayed in D.C. for about a year and a half, and just wrote. I thought if I moved and changed careers all at once, it would be too much, so I actually wrote a couple scripts and then I moved out to California. And because my father was upset that I was no longer a lawyer — he’d paid for my law school education and he was a lawyer — I actually took the California bar and that took about six months of studying. I never practiced law here. Then finally I just hunkered down and kept writing and volunteered in student films and did everything I could. Luckily, a couple years later, I had a job. But eventually if you wanna be a screenwriter or work in television or film, you really have to come to California.
Sun: How did you end up getting involved with Melrose Place and what was your role there?
C.M.: I had been on a number of TV shows — I’d probably been in the business close to 15 years in writing — and I was working on a project called Frogmen. It was my own pilot for a series, and it was with Warner Brothers. I was writing and producing it, and we were actually down in Puerto Rico filming it. It starred O.J. Simpson. We got back from filming; we’d filmed for three weeks. We got back and I was actually waiting to go into the editing room to edit the film, and I got a call from a girlfriend and she said, “Carol, you better turn on the TV. Your star is being arrested.” So I suddenly found myself without a job. O.J. was in jail, and I didn’t have a job.
As luck would have it, my agent called me, I think the next day, and said Melrose Place was looking for a writer. One of my really good friends, Chuck Pratt, had been on Melrose Place, but he had just created a show called Models, Inc. So Chuck was moving off Melrose Place and there was a position for a supervising producer. Chuck always said that he had pitched me a number of times to Melrose over the years, and they said, “But she’s never written a soap opera!” Chuck would always say, “But she watches soap operas!” Which I do. I met Darren Starr, who created 90210 and Melrose Place. We met for a drink at the Four Seasons Hotel the next day, and we just really hit it off, and the day after that I had a job on Melrose Place and I stayed for five years. So it was sort of serendipitous.
Sun: For CSI was that originally your baby, or did you come on later on like you did for Melrose Place?
C.M.: It was Anthony Zuiker’s vision, and I came on because Anthony had been driving the tram at the Mirage in Las Vegas and had never worked in television. They needed a seasoned writer-producer to work with him. So I got the job, and my first day was the first day of filming of the pilot, so before the series was ever up on its feet. I’ve been here really since day one. Then Anthony and our other partner Ann Donoghue and I co-created CSI: Miami and CSI: New York.
Sun: Are you still as involved with the spin-offs as you are with the original? Which show is more of your main responsibility than the others?
C.M.: I’ve always stayed from the beginning with the original show, and it’s actually now 100% of my time. When we launched CSI: Miami, Ann, Anthony and I and Danny Cannon who directed it really were involved with it that first season, trying to get it on its feet. As we got towards the end of the first season of CSI: Miami, we really found that it was just too hard doing two shows at once, but Ann really fell in love with Miami. She left CSI to run the Miami show, and that is what she does. Then eventually, we created CSI: New York, and Anthony left CSI to go run New York. So there were three of us and three shows. It all worked out perfectly. We still talk and stuff, but I don’t have, other than being a cheerleader, anything to do with Miami or New York, and same for them with CSI Except we all together, Ann, Anthony and I, were the little footsoldiers at the first few seasons of CSI, really trying to find the show and develop the show and make it what it is. So none of these spin-offs would exist without the collective effort of Ann and Anthony and I, and all the writers and directors that worked so hard on CSI those first few seasons.
Sun: On a week-to-week basis, how much writing do you still get to do for the program?
C.M.: I usually don’t put my name on the scripts. I write a few scripts that I get credit on every year, but the first five seasons of CSI, every single script that went on the air went through my computer. Sometimes it was a page one rewrite, which meant almost everything was mine, and sometimes less depending on the script. I wrote so much of it those first few seasons, but I get paid a nice salary for what I do and I learned early on from Stephen Cannell that you don’t put your name on other peoples’ scripts, even when you’re the boss. Even if you write every word of it, you don’t take money out of their pockets. That’s always been the way I’ve done it, so probably most people in the world don’t know that I’ve written almost every episode. And Ann wrote a lot of them. Now that we’re in our seventh or eighth season, Naren Shankar — also a graduate of Cornell — Naren and I sort of were on and off. He’ll supervise episode one; I’ll do episode two. We just step back and forth all season. I really only supervise now half the season, 12 episodes. Sometimes everybody has to jump on a certain episode, but it’s not like all 24 anymore.
Sun: Since you just mentioned working with another Cornellian, and Steve McPherson, another Cornellian, told me he worked with you at one point —
C.M.: Yeah, he was executive in charge of CSI!
Sun: Yeah, he actually mentioned that he didn’t know you had gone to Cornell.
C.M.: I didn’t know that he went to Cornell either! I heard about it from my assistant! It’s so funny.
Sun: Do you meet a lot of Cornellians in the business?
C.M.: I always meet Cornellians, but Naren said Ron Moore of Battlestar Galactica went to Cornell too. So there are a few of us, yes. But I bump into more Chicagoans than I do graduates of Cornell. I’m from Chicago.
Sun: What are the advantages and disadvantages to writing for show like CSI where there’s very little recurring plot for the main characters versus other shows that you’ve done where it’s been all about the continuing drama between episodes?
C.M.: I don’t think you can really categorize it as an advantage or a disadvantage. Truly, when you write for TV, it’s a job. It’s also a passion, but it’s the job that you have. Television, to me, the audience and the fans tune in to see the characters. On CSI, yes they also tune in to see the science and the weird stuff and the twists and turns. But sometimes it’s actually more difficult to write a procedural and still find the humanity and the fun organically within each scene. If it was just dry science, nobody would watch. I mean, you’d watch the Discovery Channel or PBS. So that’s difficult, but it’s also difficult on a show like Melrose Place where it’s all character. The characters are really driving the plot. That’s also difficult because as you’re on longer and longer, you’ve explored almost all relationships with each of the characters. That’s why a show like Law & Order may run longer than a show like Melrose Place or 90210. Of course, they both ran for a lot of years. I don’t know if I would, again, say advantage or disadvantage, but the difficulties of writing one or the other, in general, it’s really tough to write a TV show. I don’t care what you’re writing. And it’s just as tough to write a bad TV show as a good TV show. It’s just really, really tough and you always feel like you have homework. You always feel like you have to study for a test. You always are facing a blank page. You have a production machine that every seven or eight days needs another script. It’s very, very difficult. It’s like running a marathon every year, not a sprint, and it’s not for the faint of heart.
Sun: Although I’m sure it changes all the time, what’s a day in the life like for you?
C.M.: It depends. There’s a production meeting or something that’s scheduled very early in the morning. You get there when you need to get there. If you need to be on set, set call is 7:00 or 7:30. Most of my days are spent either in the writers’ room, which is where we bring stories, or in my room usually I’ll be writing a script usually with one of the writers, or more than one of the writers. If we have an episode that I’m supervising and we have a cut of that, I run between doing what I just said and the cutting room and I work with the editors. Some days I spend the entire day with the editors. I don’t really anymore, but first season I would go to all the production meetings, I would go to all the music spottings, I would go to the mix all the time. But over the years, the people who do that work on the show are so much better at it than me, that I’ve been able to hand off all those responsibilities. But our days are very, very long, and sometimes last season if I got home at 10:00 or 11:00 at night, that was an early night. Sometimes we’re here much later, 12:00, 1:00, 2:00, still rewriting because we have a script due in the morning. The first five seasons of CSI, I pretty much worked every weekend. But now that it’s the eighth season, I let the junior writers do some of that heavy lifting on the weekends. You just never know day-to-day, and then any problem that comes up on the set, that’s also my responsibility, and all the publicity and promotion and interfacing with CBS, that’s my job, along with Naren … internet promotion. There’s so many aspects when you think about CSI or any TV show today. It’s much more than just the script and getting it ready for broadcast. There’s merchadising, there’s computer games, there’s albums. There’s all these other things that you have to worry about today and they all fall in your lap.
Sun: you mentioned before a lot of the cool research things that you get to try out for each episode, for example the go-karting and things like that. What’s the most fun thing you’ve been able to do that maybe you never thought you’d actually do before the show?
C.M.: The most fun I’ve ever had: there’s an exhibit traveling the country — CSI the Experience — which was born out of a partnership between the Forth Worth Science Museum and the National Foundation of Science. It’s an exhibit that teaches about forensic science, but through the characters and the world of CSI. It started in Chicago this summer at the Museum of Science and Industry. In May it was launched. All the producers and the cast and some of the writers went to Chicago for the opening. We got to tour the exhibit, toured as you would just being a museum visitor. We also lent them our crime scene miniatures from last season, so they were on display at the museum. Just being in Chicago with the cast and all my fellow producers, and a lot of us are from Chicago, Bill Petersen took us on a private tour of Wrigley Field. We just hung out, and it was really the most fun I’ve had on the show. It’s not about the science. It’s about science in the sense that the exhibit’s about science, but it wasn’t about doing the research. My second most favorite is I love it every time we go to Vegas and hang out with the real CSIs. It’s just fun. We go to crime scenes and just talk to them. I don’t like autopsies. If I never have to go to another autopsy, that’ll be too soon —
Sun: Have you had to go to a few?
C.M.: Yeah, we send the writers to autopsies and … yes. Most of my writers have a stronger stomach than I do, but yes. I really don’t need to see another dead body. I would not have been a good medical examiner.
Sun: What were some of your favorite TV shows growing up?
C.M.: I never loved comedies. I mean, we all loved I Love Lucy, I loved The Big Valley. I loved a lot of things you’ve probably never heard of. I loved soap operas. I really did. I loved Dynasty and Dallas and shows like that. All the [Steve] Bochco shows like Hill Street Blues, and those were the shows I loved. But most of the shows with some action and some mystery to them.
CSI appears on Thursdays at 9:00 p.m. on CBS, which in Ithaca is channel 5. Full episodes of the show are also available on CBS.com for free. To read more of The Sun’s conversation with Carol Mendelsohn ’73, visit www.cornellsun.com.