David Grae did not intend to use science on the hit series Castle, but as the supervising producer and writer explains it, the science kept coming up. No stranger to seeking expert advice (Grae previously worked on Joan of Arcadia, which had a religion and philosophy advisor), he called up The Exchange for some science help. Recently, Grae took some time to answer a few questions for us on his writing background, his first big break, and what inspires him.
Tell us about your background. How did you get started in the entertainment industry?
It has been a long, circuitous route. It started when I got the acting bug in high school and then I became serious about acting in college at Brandeis, which had a great theater program. I also started writing short fiction and plays and ended up an English major on a creative writing track. After a brief post-college foray as an advertising copywriter, I did Off-Off-Broadway downtown, avant-garde theater for several years, partnering on shows with a couple college friends. I wrote, acted, directed, and produced. Nothing ever came of any of it, but I had a great time. Along the way, I attended Boston University’s Creative Writing Program and got my master’s degree in fiction writing and playwriting. I finally wrote a more mainstream play called Moose Mating and put it on in New York. It got some attention and was published by Dramatists Play Service; the play has since had several regional and a few international productions. I finally decided to move to Los Angeles in the fall of 1999. In the spring of 2000, I directed a production of Moose Mating in LA that got me enough attention to nab an agent. I wrote a few television spec scripts, got a freelance episode of a show you don’t remember on a cable outlet you barely know. And, finally, in the fall of 2003, I landed my first staff job on Joan of Arcadia, a gem of an hour drama that lasted only two seasons on CBS.
Has there been a defining moment in your career that you would you say was your “first break?”
Barbara Hall read my play Moose Mating and hired me on to the staff of Joan of Arcadia, which she created.
The Gotham Writers’ Workshop seems to be hugely successful. Why did you (and Jeff Fligelman) start it? Could scientists benefit from taking classes at the Workshop?
I am very lucky that I met Jeff Fligelman in the summer of 1992. He was the education director at Young Playwrights, Inc., a wonderful non-profit in New York City that places professional playwrights in public high school English classes to teach playwriting over six weeks. Jeff hired me to teach, and one day, we got to talking. It turned out that he was teaching screenwriting classes out of his living room. I had taught creative writing at Boston University to undergrads. With my background in advertising, I thought that Jeff and I would be well-matched to start a school for creative writing. We planned the business for about six months and then opened in March 1993. Honestly, the reason I wanted to do it was that I thought I was a good teacher; and Jeff was a good teacher. And we were both passionate about teaching writing. Our focus has always been on teaching the best writing classes possible – focusing on teaching the craft of writing. As for scientists, of course they can benefit from taking Gotham’s classes. I imagine that anything that expands one’s mind is a good exercise for a creative thinker.
How does Castle differ from the other shows (Joan of Arcadia, Gilmore Girls, Without a Trace) you have worked on? Were there times when you thought those shows could have benefited from the use of a science consultant?
Well, I'm not sure that Gilmore Girls ever needed a science consultant. On Joan of Arcadia, we had a religion and philosophy consultant who helped a lot. On Without a Trace, our writer’s assistant would source consultants as needed. I am sure we spoke to scientists from time to time. I know I talked to a specialized doctor once who gave me just the right disease for an episode I was writing. As for how Castle differs from other shows, it is mostly in the subject matter. Castle is a homicide detective show, so there is a murder each week that our heroes need to solve. It is closest to Without a Trace, where the FBI agent heroes had to find a missing person each episode. But the tone of Castle is different. The cases are more fun, and we actively mine the humor. On Trace, there was not much room for humor.
Why did you choose to use science advisors for Castle?
I never chose to use science for Castle. It has just turned out that almost every episode idea that I’ve had seems to require some type of scientific expertise. Maybe I am drawn to those kinds of episodes. But it was never a conscious decision. As a writer on Castle, the focus is always to come up with a great murder mystery that has room for fun along the investigative path.
Castle has been applauded for its sharp, intelligent writing. How do you keep the writing interesting and the plotlines intriguing?
Well, I do my small part. We have an incredible staff of writers, and we all work really hard. We also care a great deal about keeping the quality of the show as high as possible.
In a workshop called Inside the Writer’s Room: Where Physics and Hollywood Collide, you mentioned wanting to do a show that would do for science what The West Wing did for politics (in terms of educating the public). Is that still on your “to do” list?
Well, I actually wrote the pilot for a studio. Barbara Hall had a great idea for a show where a team of theoretical scientists solve cases with elements outside the realm of conventional science, and she asked me to write it for her production company. This was in 2006, before The Eleventh Hour and Fringe got on the air. It was fun to write, and I adored the premise, but, unfortunately, it never went anywhere. That’s showbiz.
Have you ever experienced a moment of “story trumps science,” when you’ve really wanted to get the science right, but the story was more important?
Well, I don’t exactly think of it that way. The fact is that in much of dramatic writing, not just TV writing, there are certain conventions that the audience accepts. For instance, on legal shows, much of the focus is on the courtroom drama. The reality is that 98% (or something like that) of cases settle before going to trial. Also, preparation for a trial could take months and a trial itself could takes weeks or months and is incredibly boring – not on TV! I like to think that we get the “emotional reality” as right as possible. When you only have about 42 minutes to tell a story, especially one where a case is introduced and is solved by the end, you need to cut to the chase in ways that sometimes bypass all the steps that might really take place. To directly answer your question, yes, I have not always gotten the science exactly right. But I have never consciously put something out there that is patently wrong. The spirit of the science has always been right, as far as I know.
What inspires you? Anything you can share about your next project?
Great ideas inspire me, especially when they are my own (not that I have had too many, if any). But they are hard to come by. I love taking an idea and making it work over six acts (five commercial breaks) of an hour-long TV show. It is the hardest part of the day-to-day work of an hour-drama writer, in my opinion. But it is very rewarding when an episode comes together and the story works. As for my next project, that would be my next Castle episode, which I cannot share anything about. Sorry. Well, I can share one thing about it. It will air this fall on ABC!
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