On today’s podcast, we present part 2 of my two-part interview with Carol Mendelsohn, the founding showrunner of the juggernaut CBS crime procedural, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. (You can find part 1 of the interview here.) In this part of the conversation, we discuss the show’s characters, we take a deep dive into one of the iconic episodes of CSI which was directed by Quentin Tarantino, we look at the impact of the show on America’s criminal justice system and Carol reflects on the enormous success of the show and it’s spinoffs. 

One last podcast note, last Tuesday, October 6 marked the 20th Anniversary of the series’ debut on CBS.

Kary Antholis:

Let’s drill down on the characters and how each of them came to be. What were the roles of each of those characters in the storytelling? And how did you talk about them in the writer’s room? How did you use them in relation to one another and in relation to laying out the science and the story of each episode?

Carol Mendelsohn:

I don’t know if Gil Grissom would have been different if it wasn’t Billy Peterson. But we were influenced by Daniel Holstein, who was the supervisor of the night shift in Las Vegas at the Crime Lab. There was a Mr. Wizard, scientist kind of vibe to Daniel. And we infused Grissom with that. And Billy infused Grissom with that. Grissom loved bugs, insects. He knew everything about insects. And he would rather have breakfast with one of his bugs and insects than have breakfast with a person. He was sometimes socially awkward though we would be surprised that he would have a sex life. And his mother had been deaf.

Some of the characteristics we gave Grissom came out of sitting in a room and it just drops in. We did an episode called Sound of Silence. And we created a backstory for him. It was in one of the early seasons, and we said he knows how to read lips, he knows sign language. Grissom was that guy, “The evidence never lies. There’s always a clue.” That was his mantra. He wanted to bring closure to a victim’s family. And that always guided us. There was a little MacGyver in him. No matter where he was, he could figure out a way to test something. He never missed anything. And then, we sort of went sideways. And when we introduce Lady Heather our dominatrix… And we saw another side of him. But Grissom was just the greatest character to write.

Marg Helgenberger’s character was very influenced by Liz Devine, our tech advisor. They were both mothers. Anthony wrote an incredible backstory for Catherine. Her father was a Vegas casino owner. So, she’d been brought up in that world. And she’d been a stripper. Who would have thought of that? Anthony did. It was a story about a strong woman trying to stay strong and taking care of her kid and having relationships. I mean, it was an aspirational role. And the youngsters, George Eads, Gary Dourdan, Jorja Fox, Anthony laid the seeds of all their characters beautifully. The bond between Nick and Warrick would last until Warrick’s death. Sarah, as you know, was not in the pilot. And we thought it would be interesting to create a character that Grissom got to bring in. And that we would find out later that they had a backstory and that Grissom had actually had sex and had, at least, been in like if not love. So, that guided their relationship the whole time.

Kary Antholis:

Fascinating. (silence). I want to talk about the episode that you suggested I watch, that we could do a deep dive on, Grave Danger, which was actually a two-hour special directed by Quentin Tarantino and story conceived, I gather, by Tarantino. Tell me how that came about and why you recommended it to be the focus of our discussion. What was it about that episode that spoke to you? So deeply?

Carol Mendelsohn:

The episode speaks to me on many levels. We were in season five, Billy Peterson wanted to bring in a new director and it could be a director/writer. He just wanted to change up. And I was open to that. We’ve been nominated for several Golden Globe Awards. And we had all gone to the Golden Globe Awards the first few seasons. And at the Golden Globe Awards, Billy and Matt met Tarantino. And he said, “I’m a huge fan of the show. I love it.” And he had come over to the table where we were all sitting, the other actors and the writers and said the same thing. So, when Billy said love to bring in another director, we said, “What about Tarantino? He loves the show.” And he said, “Great. Go talk to him.” I said, “I can’t call him. He doesn’t know who I am. But you can.” And Billy reached out and Tarantino called. And he happened to be between films. And he did love the show. I can’t tell you how excited we all were.

So, he came in to meet with the writers. And he’s an encyclopedia of every TV movie, every TV episode, everything ever made. And he pitched a story that had been inspired by a TV movie that I remember. It was story about a kidnapping, I believe in Florida. A young girl from a wealthy family was kidnapped and she was buried in the ground with a breathing tube. And he said, “What if we do something like that? And what if we bury one of the women on our show, Marg or Jorja Fox?” And I said, “I love it, but we’re not burying a woman. We’re going to bury one of the guys.” And he said, “I like that better.” So, that was the inception of the idea. And we talked for a couple of hours and then he left. We said we would start to break a story. And then he would come back in. And that was our process. And we decided to bury Nick.

And what happened was, we wrote a great script with Tarantino. The casting in that episode is incredible. He loved actors and he would work the material. And he brought in the John Saxon. I mean, do we all love John Saxon from old TV shows? It was a lot of actors that have been in his movies, Louis Charles, Andrew Prine. It was so great. Anyway, so we started filming. And CSI had a running time of, I believe at that time, 44, 45 minutes, but each page of the script was translating to a minute of film and we a long script. So, we were going to be way over and we were going over in days. And it became a big issue.

And I had an idea. I thought, why can’t we make it a two hour finale? I called Nancy Tellem at CBS and I said, “Look, we have about a 62-minute script at the moment. I only need 84 minutes to have a two hour. You can release it as a two-hour movie in Europe and make all this money. And you have a two-hour CSI finale for only three or four more days of filming.” And because it was CSI, they said yes. So, now we had an issue, we needed to get to that 84 minutes. So, the question became, how do we add the minutes to this? And a lot of the character scenes, the board game with Dukes of Hazard, the locker room scene with Nick and Warrick talking, all those scenes we added on, we wrote on the fly. And we were writing them. I didn’t get a chance to clear that board game. This never happens, I mean, you know what it’s like, broadcast standards?

Kary Antholis:

Right.

Carol Mendelsohn:

Tarantino wrote that scene at night, but I didn’t know he’s going to write a board game. He brought his own board game. And I’m going to shoot it in an hour, and I haven’t cleared it. I had to call in every favor with broadcast standards. I had to say, “We will clear it. I promise you, I will clear it after we shoot it, but we have to shoot it.” And then if you notice, about two thirds of the way through the show, there is the craziest autopsy scene we’ve ever had. Nick is on the autopsy slab, and it’s Dr. Robbins and assistant coroner, David Berman. And it’s in black and white. Well, the reason it’s in black and white is we shot it and color and it was so much blood and gore, I couldn’t clear it. So I said, “Okay.”

Kary Antholis:

So, that hallucination was part of the stuff that you did on the fly?

Carol Mendelsohn:

Yeah. We kept filming. Every day, my actors would come to me and say, “Carol, when does hiatus start?” And I would say, “When I get to 84 minutes and 36 seconds.” And so, every morning, my first stop was in editorial, “Where are we?” And we would know how many more scenes we had to write. So it was the craziest, most exciting episodes that I’ve ever done. Everybody was into it. It was like doing a live show in a way.

Kary Antholis:

Tell me about the resolution of the episode, where Stokes goes to see the daughter of the kidnapper in prison. Tell me about where that came from and why in your view that’s there.

Carol Mendelsohn:

Our instinct was not to end the show with Nick being pulled out of the ground and going into the ambulance. As writers, we all talked about what would it have been like to be in Nick’s position? And actually we all watched that two-hour together in Vegas. And Tarantino brought RZA with him and some of Wu Tang clan. And I was talking to a young rapper who said to me at the end, he was most effected by the gun and that Nick had a gun. And it made him think, “Would I kill myself? Did I owe it to my family to try to survive?” And we had this deep psychological conversation in Vegas. And we had the same psychological and deep conversation in the writers room.

Nick had been on a journey very few people ever experience. And we all wanted to see, did it change him? And the scene really showed Nick’s inherent goodness, his ability to move past what had happened to him. And I think it says so much about Nick Stokes as a character. He wanted to help people, he wanted to do good. And I think that even though he got nothing in that scene from the daughter, we saw that she was affected by it. And Nick, through all the things that had happened, maybe he made a difference. And I think that that was part of the philosophy of our show. Shit happens to people, but is there light by bringing closure, by reaching out to somebody, do you make the world a slightly better place? Can you bring the world back into balance? And that’s what we did.

We’ve had times during CSI where we went back and either rewrote a final scene, but most of the time added a final scene. And we did an episode where there had been a murder on an airplane. And I wasn’t satisfied when I watched the episode. And we always knew we needed a last scene. We were already in editorial and we wanted to understand what had happened on that plane, but not just from the science. We had the characters talk about if somebody was trying to take down a plane, trying to open the plane door, we wanted to have our characters share what they were thinking. And Grissom said, “If one person had just asked this passenger what was wrong…” Because he wasn’t a bad guy, he was having a manic episode.

Kary Antholis:

Right.

Carol Mendelsohn:

One person had just asked him, “Are you okay?” All those other people might still be alive.

Kary Antholis:

Right.

Carol Mendelsohn:

And I think that CSI had the ability to bring things around.

Kary Antholis:

Something occurred to me as we were talking and you were telling me about having worked on the O. J. Simpson pilot in the mid-nineties as he was arrested. How much did your experience of the OJ trial impact the work you did on CSI?

Carol Mendelsohn:

I think the impact that the OJ trial had on CSI came at the time Anthony was conceiving of the show, because I think but for the OJ trial, CSI wouldn’t have happened. The idea of DNA, of science, of evidence, it was a whole new world. And so, I think that that impact didn’t come from me, it came from the actual trial and the circumstances of the trial. But I have to say CSI and people may forget, it came at a time where forensic science was just at the beginning. People weren’t swabbing for DNA. When we went to the Crime Lab in Vegas, they didn’t have a computerized fingerprint bank. The fingerprints were on index cards. That was how they memorialized the evidence of all their cases.

So, our CSI grew as forensic science grew. And that was the trajectory. We were really influenced by all the great technological advances in forensic evidence. And we always got dings and hits from real CSIs and from the audience that you can’t get a DNA result over a commercial break. But by the time we finished the show, you could swab somebody at a scene and get, not the definitive result, but you could get a result right then and there from the back of your vehicle.

Kary Antholis:

You touched on the forensic science community reaction to the show. But one of the things in the world of criminal justice that is talked about a lot is the CSI effect. And that can mean various things, but generally I think it means that the impact of CSI and the other similar types of shows that it spawned impacted the jury expectation for what the evidence would be in a trial and what effective evidence would be in a trial. And that somehow indirect evidence or circumstantial evidence was less valuable than scientific evidence or direct evidence. Can you tell me a bit about your experience with this so-called CSI effect and how it impacted you as a showrunner of the show?

Carol Mendelsohn:

Well, Billy Peterson always said that he wanted our show to last 13 episodes and to make a difference in the world. Well, it lasted 325 episodes. But the CSI effect is the difference that we’ve made. I think that, yes, jurors have a higher expectation now in criminal trials. I think it’s a good thing to hold the CSIs, cops, everyone involved in criminal justice to a high standard. Do I think eye witness testimony is inherently unreliable? Yes. It’s been proven to be unreliable. The interesting thing about all this is we created CSI during the time when things were more black and white, the evidence never lies, that the truth comes from a DNA swab. As the show evolved, we got into some other episodes. Yes, sometimes it is gray, sometimes there is no answer. But today, through the manipulation of evidence, sometimes the evidence does lie. So, we are living in a very different world today.

Can I steal your fingerprints? Can I take your blood? Can I make it seem that you were someplace that you weren’t? Today, I can. When we started CSI, it was much more difficult. I felt that it was a hopeful show, that it was a show that if a scientist does their job, they will come to an answer. Is every answer black and white? Sometimes it’s gray. But they will come to an answer. And that is the answer, that is the truth, that brings closure. And I was always proud of that. That answer your question?

Kary Antholis:

Absolutely. So interesting. What about just a quick word about the spinoffs of the show and about bringing the series to a conclusion?

Carol Mendelsohn:

In terms of the spinoff, obviously CSI burst on the scene so it was a success. I had mentioned to Paul Haas somewhere during season two, that wouldn’t it be great to spin off CSI and do another one. And Paul mentioned it to CBS and everybody had said, “Put on the brakes. We’re going to concentrate on CSI. No spin-offs.” And so, nobody talked about it for six months. And then, Anthony, Ann and I got a call, “Les Moonves wants to see you in his office.” And we drove to Radford from Santa Clarita. And Anthony got to the gate first and he was driving a pickup truck and then Ann and I behind him. And he said, “I’m from CSI. I’m here for the meeting.” And the security guard said, “You must be here about the spinoff.” And that’s how we heard about it.

And we went upstairs, to Les Moonves office. And Jerry was there, Bruckheimer and Jonathan Littman and Les wanted to spin it off. And then it was where are we going to set it? And we quickly decided on Miami, home of Miami Vice and it’s such an international flavor and feel. And so, then we were doing CSI: Miami and casting CSI: Miami. I had a big fight with CBS once Miami launched. Because again, we got the same instructions, “This is anywhere, USA.” I knew it was never going to be anywhere USA. That didn’t make any sense. We were doing the show, Miami was going to be a character. We wrote our second episode of CSI: Miami, we were doing double duty, Ann, Anthony and I, was wet foot, dry foot, which is that interesting phenomenon that if you get one foot on dry land, you are in the United States, wet foot, dry foot, you can stay.

And we wrote this incredible episode, Tucker Gates directed it. And CBS didn’t want to air it. They accused me of bait and switch, that I promised a show of anywhere, USA, another CSI, just another CSI and the show was about Miami. So, we pushed that episode, I think it aired as episode 11. But what did the show become? It became about Miami. We all knew that it was going to become about Miami, just the same way CSI became about Vegas.

So then, a couple years later, we got invited to dinner at an Italian restaurant by Les and he said he wants to spin the show off again. We all had our various opinions of where we wanted to set it, but everybody settled on New York. And off we went to New York to visit the Crime Lab. And then, years later we read an incredible book and met an incredible woman who worked out of Trinity College in Dublin. And she worked for Interpol and she’d written a book and that became a CSI: Cyber. And in terms of wrapping up CSI, I actually had breast cancer and was going through chemo. And Anthony came to my house and we talked about what the episode should be. So, I had my input and I thought they did a really beautiful job of tying up everything and Grissom came back and I thought it was very satisfying.

Kary Antholis:

Carol, what is the best piece of advice, either personal or professional, that you’ve ever received?

Carol Mendelsohn:

I think, since we’re talking about CSI, I think the advice you get about show running is usually very good advice for life. And Jerry Bruckheimer said to me once, “The louder the message, the softer the voice.” And he was right. It usually came in the context of, I had a problem or I had an issue to solve. Most of the time, I never bothered Jerry with it. But he had always said, “If you have a problem that is unresolvable, call me.” And during the course of CSI, we had a couple. And he would be like the coach. And he would say, “Get back in the game, Carol. Get back in the game.” But he gave me that piece of advice, which we’re human beings in addition to being showrunners. And part of our job is managing people and making sure everybody’s taken care of, and everybody’s heard, and the show is running smoothly.

And when he said the louder the message, the softer the voice… And it was very, very good advice because I learned to dial it down. And there’s something about delivering bad news, talking about a difficult subject with somebody when your voice is soft, that actually puts them back on their heels. It’s not why you’re doing it. But anytime we had a really big problem at CSI, I would never go down to the set and scream and yell. I’m not a screamer or a yeller. But I always believed, and I learned this from Jerry, that what I needed to do was go down and be the calm and make everybody know it’s going to be all right. And the problem always got solved. Sometimes it took a little longer to solve things, sometimes it was immediate. But that was the best advice I ever got.

Kary Antholis:

Carol Mendelsohn. Thank you so much for your time.

Carol Mendelsohn:

My pleasure.