Case #7: Debra J. Fisher & Erica Messer

Interviews by Jill for the Criminal Minds Writers blog

While quantity isn’t always better than quality, sometimes you get very lucky and find both as is in the case of the Criminal Minds‘ writing team of Debra J. Fisher and Erica Messer. Criminal Minds‘ “Gruesome Twosome” as they are called by the cast, crew and fans of the show because they have written some of the darkest and eeriest episodes of series, have a long and successful track record of delivering quality writing for such shows as The O.C., Alias, and Charmed .

Thanks to my position as the editor of Criminal Minds Fanatic, I had the chance to interview these two writer/producers–who were once assistants on Party of Five together. Debra and Erica had a lot to say about working on CM that we didn’t have room for here, but you can read both pieces in their entirety here and here.

How did you guys become writers?

Erica Messer on the picket line.Erica Messer: It’s always been a part of who I am. In 4th grade I wrote a book called Pickleberry Place about a land of pickles but the king was a cucumber. I was looking for the inherent drama even back then. Most of my writing in college was for documentary work in which I also directed and edited those projects.

In 1997, I wrote a spec for Ally McBeal and got a lot of feedback from the Party of Five writers [I worked for at the time]. I wasn’t sure what to do with the spec, but thought writing another one would be a good idea. Then the development executive for Keyser/Lippman Productions pitched an idea for a screenplay and she suggested Deb and I write it together. We did. It’ll never see the light of day. We knew we wanted to write in television and the best way to do that is to write television samples. So we did that. Once and Again was our first spec, which got us our literary agents. Then we wrote Sex and the City and off of those two scripts we met JJ Abrams for Alias. We were thrilled to get our first job writing on that show. It was an amazing introduction to the world that we’re working in now…

Debra Fisher on the picket line.Debra J. Fisher: When I first packed my bags and moved to California, I truly didn’t know what aspect of the industry I wanted to be in. While at UMD I tried everything. Directing, writing, recording radio spots. Anything and any class I could take, I was there. I loved all of it. So when I arrived in LA I worked for FREE on USC and UCLA grad student films. I worked on sets, in the camera department. I was a P.A. getting doughnuts. My parents loved the fact that after graduation from college I was making little or no money getting doughnuts. Soon I joined this company that helped place production assistants to companies. I went in and met with them and they told me I should no be working on sets, that I should be a producers’ or directors’ assistant. Somehow I landed a paying job at a company called Ruby-Spears Productions. Joe Ruby and Ken Spears used to work at Hanna Barbera and did Scooby Doo and such. I became the script coordinator, working with the writers’ on Mega Man and Skysurfer Strike Force. It was fun!

After a year or so I needed to make more money and got offered a job at Warner Bros TV animation dept. That was great. It was a short lived show called Waynehead and I got to meet the entire Wayans family. They did all the voices. I really got a chance to sit in the writers’ room at this point. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVED IT. Sitting around with other people coming up with ideas? And you get paid for it? And you get to write the script? I thought I had died and gone to heaven. One of the writers, David Wyatt, who I haven’t spoken to since is the whole reason I started to take a stab at it myself. (He left to write on a Cosby series.) I was talking to him about writing and he was like, “Just do it!” So I did. But my first love was what they called in animation, “live action.”

I loved me some relationship drama and my favorite shows were Party of Five and My So Called Life. If you didn’t know, I am Angela Chase! Kidding. That was my life growing up. No, I’m really serious about that. So somehow, someway, I heard through a guy I met that THE ASSISTANT TO THE CREATORS AND EXEC PRODUCERS WAS LEAVING. The guy got me an interview. I almost threw up. I had a pre meeting with Rick Draughon. He left to write for soaps, by the way. He thought I would be a great assistant for them and I was the first to meet with Chris [Keyser] and Amy [Lippman]. I thought the meeting went really well, but I wasn’t sure. When I was driving home, Rick called me to tell me that not only did it go well, but Chris and Amy canceled all their other interviews! I almost wrecked my car. I was so over the moon happy. I wanted to be a writer and these were the two people on the planet on the very show that I wanted to work on. I started in October of 1996. The TV season had already started in May for writers and July for production. I had a lot to learn and I was assisting two people. It was a lot of work! It was fast-paced and it was the best learning experience for anyone that wants to work on a TV series.

The production stages were on the Sony lot as well as the editorial dept so just like Criminal Minds, everything was there. The writers were all around me, meeting every day. Concept meetings, budget meetings, network and studio notes calls. Everything went through me. I was the gate keeper to Chris and Amy. I even got to read drafts of the early scripts! It was great. But then reality set in…

I had no time to write! I was exhausted every day when I went home. Enter… Erica….

Erica had started worked at PO5 at the writers’ assistant in Dec of 1997. By 1998, Chris and Amy got a lucrative overall deal. They got to have two assistants. It was an easy decision for them to promote Erica. So we both assisted them. It was great, too, because Erica wanted to be a writer. We would read each other’s stuff. Our stuff was awful!

Then one day their development exec, Deborah Cincotta, suggested we take a stab at writing together. What a concept! We both want to write. We work for a writing team. Hmmmm. Good idea! So we wrote a really, really bad feature called ‘Blackout’ I think…. Amy Lippman was like, “You guys want to write in TV, right? Why aren’t you writing TV?” Good question, Amy.

So we wrote a Once and Again and got the attention of some agents. (We also got MAJOR, MAJOR, MAJOR notes from Amy that took our script to the next level.) Then we SIGNED with United Talent Agency and then wrote a Sex and the City. We spent the better part of 2000 going on meetings. Meeting the network and studio people. Our bosses, Chris and Amy were way cool about that. Way Cool.

It was close to May of 2001. There was the threat of another writers’ strike at that time. We would only be staff writers so we were waiting for shows to get staffed and hire the little people. Then one day…

… the phone rang at 9am and I answered it. There was a male voice on the other end and he asked to speak with me or Erica. It was JJ Abrams. I almost disconnected the called I was so freaked out. He said, “I really liked your scripts. Can you meet for coffee today?” Uh, duh. Sure.

We raced to the Palisades to meet with JJ Abrams because his show ALIAS had been picked up to MAJOR buzz and he was leaving for Hawaii with his family. But he wanted another female writer or two!

Our “coffee” turned into a two hour lunch. Man he grilled us. Thank god we were prepared. What stories would you want to tell about Sydney Bristow? How would you keep her accessible to the female audience? Thank god we had each other! After two hours he had to go! He needed to catch a plane. He said… “Let’s do this.”

I’ll never forget that moment for the rest of my life.

Erica and I jumped into our car and immediately called our agents. They simply said, “We’ll get into it” and hung up. We didn’t hear from them for three agonizing hours. What did they mean, they’ll get into it? We were dying. Then, they finally called and said, “Congrats! You start tomorrow!” Huh? You mean I’m never going to answer phones ever again? You mean I’ll never book trips for my bosses ever again? You mean I’m going to get paid to do the very thing I love? Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. As they say… The rest is history!

Most people really don’t understand exactly what a writer/producer does. Could you describe the writer’s production responsibilities?

ERICA: It varies from show-to-show. On Criminal Minds, each writer is encouraged to produce their own episodes. This means you are the expert of your episode and are there every step of the way. When prep begins and the meetings are back-to-back, you need to know your script better than anyone else. If your intention wasn’t clear in the script, it is your job to make it clear. If someone has an idea that would strengthen your script, you are thankful that you’re on a great show where everyone wants to make the best product. From prep, you continue onto the actual shooting of the episode. Getting to work with our crew is awesome. They are the best. The heroes of our show. After the shoot, the episode goes into post-production. The editor turns in a cut to the director and then the director turns in his/her cut to the producers. Once all of the producers watch the cut and give feedback, the writer of that episode joins the editor in the cutting room to get the episode ready for the studio and network. Their notes are incorporated, post-production does the rest of their magic with the score and then you get to watch!

Considering the subject matter of Criminal Minds, how do you keep from taking the show home with you at night?

DEBRA: In the beginning I definitely took the show home with me. I rescued a big, big dog and I got an alarm system on my house. I also learned how to fire a gun. Don’t mess with me, people. I can bench press my own weight and I can play football.

ERICA: At first I took it home. And still do, in some ways. But it doesn’t bother me as much now. It’s like a medical student who doesn’t see the blood anymore. The psychology of these criminals fascinates me and if I keep it clinical like that, I’m okay.

What’s the most fun part of working on Criminal Minds? What part do you dislike the most?

ERICA: It’s always talked about in business that success comes when you have the right product, process and people. After a few years of looking for this, I’ve hit the jackpot. Criminal Minds has been all of those things and more. It’s hard to single out the best part, but I’d have to say it’s the relationships I’ve made with every single person on this series. Ed Bernero encourages us to all know one another because we’re in this together.

What part do I dislike? I’ll let you know when it happens.

DEBRA: The people we work with are the most amazing part of this job. [Executive producer] Ed Bernero is a dream to work for. The entire writing staff is amazing. We spend hours and hours together, talking, debating, reading each other’s work, giving notes. I couldn’t think of a better group to spend all this time with. Also the entire crew. I work on a show where I know every single person I work with. Their names, their spouses’ name. Their kids’ names. That’s not the norm… usually…

What do I dislike the most? How fast you have to move in TV. Sometimes the end product can be affected by how little time you’ve had on a first draft or how little time you have to prep because you’re still doing rewrites. That’s a bummer sometimes.

What would you do if you weren’t a TV writer?

DEBRA: I would want to be a freelance photographer. A yoga and pilates teacher. A world explorer and a dog rescuer. I would spend more time with a cause close to my heart: Canine Companions for Independence.

ERICA: My immediate family has a history of civil service to this country. From local law enforcement to FBI, CIA, NASA and State Department, they’ve all tried to make our world a better place. I’d love to follow in their footsteps and become a real hero instead of just writing about them.