Hank Steinberg is the acclaimed creator of the award-winning CBS series “Without a Trace” and HBO’s 61. He’s also author of the new book, “Out of Range.”
Steinberg is an accomplished screenwriter and producer. Now, he’s making his mark in the realm of publishing with a debut that is already one of the breakout thrillers of the summer. Steinberg discusses his book, “Out of Range.” The war on terror is a major aspect of the novel. Steinberg shares his outlook and whether we can expect more terror in the U.S. Steinberg is also working on a screenplay of “Out of Range” for Paramount Pictures.
Now that Steinberg is in publishing, he shares what the shift was like… from writing for television to writing novels. He is currently writing and producing the forthcoming TNT series “The Last Ship” with Michael Bay.
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Start of Interview with Hank Steinberg
Jason Hartman: It’s my pleasure to welcome Hank Steinberg to the show. He is the acclaimed creator and award winning CBS of the award winning CBS series, Without a Trace, HBO’s 61 and author of his new book, Out of Range which is becoming a movie pretty soon. He’s also got a new series coming up entitled The Last Ship and that will be on TNT. It’s a great pleasure to have him here. Hank, how are you today?
Hank Steinberg: I’m doing well. Thank you so much for having me.
Jason Hartman: Great. And you’re coming to us today from Beverly Hills, California, I believe?
Hank Steinberg: I am indeed. I just took a break from my writer’s room for my new series to step out and talk to you. So I’m happy to be here.
Jason Hartman: Fantastic. We’re happy to have you. First of all, let’s talk about what’s new first and then we’ll kind of go back in time a little bit. I especially want to talk about Without a Trace. But your new book is entitled Out of Range, and it’s a novel. And it’s being turned into a movie as we speak, I believe. Tell us a little bit about it.
Hank Steinberg: Well I’d always wanted to write a thriller. Which means coming up with Without a Trace, I had some of those skill sets. We’re doing a thriller a week for 160 episodes on that show. And I was intrigued at the idea of doing something Hitchcocky and which started small with some domestic situation and Hitchcock’s heroes were always kind of everymen who got thrust into an impossible situation with a much larger scale than they ever could have imagined. And they always start with kind of a small incident of mystery that then just got bigger and bigger. I’ve always been attracted to those kinds of stories. So that was something I’ve always wanted to do, and I was always kind of waiting for the right play of inspiration.
That actually happened, it just happened to me by accident through something that happened to me in my own life. So, my wife was driving home from Disney Land three years ago and she had my 18 month old son in the car with her. They had just had an exhausting day in Tune Town on Dumbo the Flying Elephant. And they were both frazzled and exhausted, they were driving home at night and my wife called me from the road and she said “I’m trying to figure out how to get home, can you guide me through? It’s like 6 different freeways and you know the way.” I said sure and I start navigating her through and I was on the Bluetooth so I could hear everything that was going on in the car.
And my son starts to just freak out, kicking and screaming and crying and he’s inconsolable and my wife can’t do anything to help him from the front seat, and she says she’s just going to pull off the freeway, get off and try to deal with him. And something in my stomach said “Honey, are you sure?” and she said she’d call me back in five minutes. She hung up the phone, it went click. So a few minutes went by and my mind, my paranoid mind just started racing.
Jason Hartman: Well, that was in LA where your wife was pulling off the freeway, so I think you had good reason to be concerned, right?
Hank Steinberg: Yeah, very much so. And of course, off the freeway it’s always a little bit kind of deserted, so it’s at night and I’m just imagining about what could go wrong there. And then I start to think to myself, if she doesn’t call back, how soon would it be before I grab the keys to my car and jump in the car myself and go chasing after her? Because I was talking to her on the way home – I know approximately where she got off the road, almost the exact exit. So it would take me 45 minutes to get there but I could go after her at some point.
Anyway, she ended up calling back. Everything was safe and she was fine. She came home fine, but it gave me the kernel of an idea. If that was the set up to the mystery. A husband on the phone with his wife, she pulls off the side of the road, she says she’ll call back in five minutes and she never calls. So now he waits, and he waits and he starts calling hospitals, he starts freaking out. And after 45 minutes he says screw it. I’m going in the car, I’m going after her. He finds the freeway exit, he finds the car, and there’s cops everywhere. His kids are out of the car, they’re young kids, they’re crying and his wife is missing. What happened to her? Why did someone take his wife? Why did they leave the kids? Why is the car on this spot on the road?
And then the worst part is, the cops look at him and say what are you doing here? How did you find her? And his story doesn’t sound plausible. 90% of the time a woman goes missing, it’s the husband had something to do with it. They traced his phone records and it turns out he was calling her 5,6,7 times within the last hour but never left a message. It seemed like he was stalking her. So now it just looks like he’s showing up to the scene of the crime the way people always do. Now not only is his wife missing, but the police aren’t going to be helpful.
I thought that was just a great hook for a story. A guy in over his head, there’s this fundamental urge to find his wife, and then low and behold, just like in any good episode of my tv show, it turns out the more he’s looked into, he realizes his wife has been lying to him. She’s been keeping secrets. She’s been communicating with an old boyfriend who may himself be embroiled in some international conflict and problems. And that’s how the story starts to widen out. It turns out she’s gotten in over her head and our hero, Charlie Davis has to find his wife and solve the riddles of his marriage. Does his wife still love him? Should he even go after her given the fact that she might have given up on their marriage?
Jason Hartman: Where’s the tie-in with Uzbekistan though?
Hank Steinberg: Well her ex-boyfriend who she had started talking to is an Uzbekistani billionaire who’s involved with some nefarious things. The backstory, which is the prologue of the book, is that Charlie and Julie had spent some time in Uzbekistan. Charlie is a rogue-ish international war correspondent who goes into the darkest corners of the world and tries to snoop out stories that nobody is telling. And he and his wife had met in Uzbekistan and it turns out whatever she’s gotten involved in is going to draw them both back there. I love that kind of rogue-ish hero that’s sort of in the Harrison Ford Indiana Jones mold – a guy who’s a self-starter, who’s savvy, who’s dauntless, who takes on the tough stories. He’s a tough starter, does things on his own.
And I think what’s a cool combination of this story line is because he has done that job and he has that skill set, he knows his way around the world and he speaks different languages and he knows how to bribe people. He’s savvy and he knows how to get out of tough situations. It makes him equipped to find her, equipped to get to the bottom of what’s going on in the larger story. It makes him equipped to be that kind of physicalized hero but at the same time he’s kind of a regular guy just like you and me. We can relate to him when he can’t find his wife and she’s pulled off the side of the road. So it’s kind of a combination of every man and superman, which allows him to do these adventurous things and have it be plausible, yet have him still be an underdog.
Jason Hartman: Fascinating stuff. That’s one of the things about a great novel. There are so many tie-ins to lessons that people might learn from real life. It’s not just fiction. There’s a lot of substance there. Maybe you can tie in going back a little bit to Without a Trace. How did that tie in with the novel, or did it at all? It seems like it would have just based on content a little bit.
Hank Steinberg: Well, the underlying metaphor of the story is that Julie has been lying to Charlie because there’s something empty and missing in her marriage, and she has not wanted to confront him with it. She doesn’t agree with some of the choices that they’ve made together as a family, that he has pushed. And he starts to come to realize that he’s got some culpability in what’s gone on in their relationship. So the underlying metaphor of the story is that there’s problems in the marriage and when you don’t talk about your problems, bigger problems arise.
And I think that ties back to most episodes of Without a Trace, the missing person had some problem or some secret or something that has led to their disappearance and it’s because in some way they have been hiding their problems and not been dealing with it with the people that are around them, and that comes back to bite them. I think that is a valuable lesson for anyone who’s married or anyone in a relationship to not simmer and teeth on the who resentments and carry things, but to get them out in the open before they bite you.
Of course, what happened here, it exploded into a huge situation, something with a lot of scope. But it works as a metaphor for any marriage. Because I think people in all marriages hide things from their spouses at times because they don’t want to deal with it or they don’t want to confront the issue and it almost always causes problems.
Jason Hartman: Sure. Well, that’s good advice. So do you have any favorite episodes of Without a Trace that maybe you just want to talk about for a moment?
Hank Steinberg: Sure. There’s a handful.
Jason Hartman: That ran for what? Like 9 seasons, right?
Hank Steinberg: It ran for 7 seasons and 160 episodes.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, very successful.
Hank Steinberg: There’s a lot to choose from. There’s an episode or season one finale called Fall Out, which dealt with a man who was in a PTSD after 9-11. It was a very powerful episode that I wrote and was very attached to. There was an episode called Wanna Be, which dealt with bullying in schools, which I wrote and was very, very close to my heart. I drew from personal experiences to write that. Both because I was someone who had been bullied and I had also bullied other kids. And that was what was interesting to me, was that I explored, I think we often demonize kids that bully. I think it’s an awful thing to do, but I think there’s a whole culture that exists, it’s called the kick the dog phenomenon where someone gets bullied by someone else, then they turn around and in order to make themselves feel okay they bully someone else altogether. And the episode was very, very effective. We actually ended up having 3,000 schools call the network the next day to ask if they could get a copy of it because they wanted to use it as a teaching tool in the schools. This was back in 2003 I think. So it was well before a lot of the cyber bullying that we see and the issue has become an issue that has been much more palpable and the schools are dealing with it more head on.
But at the time, ten years ago, I think it was a little bit ahead of the curve at calling attention to these things that were happening. And that was a very gratifying thing to be able to turn a personal experience that I had into something that I felt was artistically inclined and being able to evoke really strong feelings in people and then have it dealing with a deliberate message that was hopefully effective in helping out conversations in schools and having people deal with it. And having people put it to some use, which is the best thing you can do when you create a piece of art.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, no question that that is a huge problem. Hopefully that episode helped attack the problem to some extent at least. Tell us about what you’re working on now. Your new series is entitled The Last Ship, and that will be running on TNT. What’s that about?
Hank Steinberg: It’s about a Navy ship, it’s captain and the 230 people that are following him in the wake of a Global pandemic that wipes out most of the world. And onboard the ship is a scientist who may be able to create a vaccine to solve the problem of the pandemic and save who’s ever let in the world. It’s kind of a high seas adventure, a little bit of Star Trek on the water, Mad Max on the water with them having adventures every week and trying to find the cure, and save people, and fight their enemies. It’s a very big production value. It’s a Michael Bay production, so it’s huge and exciting and Eric Dane from Grey’s Anatomy is the star who plays the captain. It’s really fun, and I’m sitting here with my 6 other writers breaking those stories for the first season. The pilot’s been shot – it came out great. And the whole first season, all ten episodes will air next June, 2014.
Jason Hartman: You know what amazes me about shows like The Last Ship? When it’s an ongoing saga, as you mentioned, how long do you plan to have the shelf life of that series be? Because it’s the same story, right? And they’re constantly just adding to that. So it’s another hour, another hour, another hour of the same people in the same situation, and then I guess the end of the series is the situation resolves one way or the other. How do writers plan for that?
Hank Steinberg: Well, you hope to start with a premise that you feel like has legs – that you can see that the story can continue to unfold, to open up and expand in a way that you feel like you can see. We don’t know what the third and fourth seasons are going to be, but you feel like you know that the premise is going to provide you with the real estate to be able to do that. And so that’s for starters, especially when you’re doing a serialized show like this show is.
So you start with that, and it’s always an interesting push and pull between how much story line, any amount that you burn through in the beginning because you just want to use one of your great ideas, and you get everybody hooked, and a balance between not burning through stuff so fast that you run out of steam and end up having to jump the shark and bend over backwards now to sustain what you have. Those are the kind of debates that people have in writer’s rooms on ever show that has that serialized storytelling element. How quickly or slowly do we unfold this stuff? And if you stay grounded with and stay true to your characters and have their motivations feel real, then I think the audience will go with you. It’s when you start pushing your characters around into plotting that you’ve created where the audience goes, that feels like the writer is telling the character to do that as opposed to the character wanting to do that. That’s when you get into trouble. So it’s difficult to do, which is why most fail but when they’re done well they are incredibly satisfying.
Jason Hartman: Sure they are. I just so much appreciate things that are well written, whether it be a book or a television show or a movie. It’s just all about the writing. It’s amazing. When you look at sitcoms, I think Seinfeld was so far above so many others, you may disagree with me, you probably don’t, but I don’t know.
Hank Steinberg: No, it’s one of my all-time favorite shows, and I still watch it a lot before bed to give me a smile before I go to bed.
Jason Hartman: It certainly does. It’s so brilliant the way they tie things in later in the show and so forth. I wish they’d make a more contemporary version. But I compare it to a show like Friends for example, and I just don’t see the writing. It just doesn’t impress me the way Seinfeld does. But writing matters so much. And it seems like, and what I was really getting to in making that statement is it seems like writers don’t get enough credit. Now, maybe you feel that way sometimes because you’re so intrical and so important to the production. The writer, unless you’re in the business, most people don’t know who the writers are, right?
Hank Steinberg: Yeah. There’s definitely a thing with that. It depends on the medium. I think what’s gratifying about writing a novel now is that there’s no one else that gets the credit besides me. It’s my name on the front and there’s no actors interpreting my lines, there’s no directors shooting, there’s no production designers making the set. All which is very gratifying when you do that – that’s a very collaborative experience and that collaboration can be really fun and exciting. But I also just wrote a play. So in that case, the playwrights name pretty much goes above the title. That’s just how that industry works.
And in movies and TV, in movies in particular, the writers are really at the bottom. In television we do get a lot of the credit within the industry and a lot of the power. A TV series rests with the show’s creator and executive producer and writers. But at the end of the day, people go to see the actors. The actors are the ones on the red carpet, and I think half the people think that the actors make up their own lines, which sometimes they do. But look, I love my job. To be able to come to work every day and create stories, and use my brain, and think creatively, and in the case of television you go to work with other really talented, smart people in a room while they’re just talking about how to tell a great story. It’s pretty hard for me to think about anything else I’d rather do.
Jason Hartman: How did you get into it? Did you just go to college then decide you were going to be a writer? Or did it happen later in life?
Hank Steinberg: Yeah. That’s pretty much it. I always love these kinds of stories. I always love emotionally rich characters in stories and I love thrillers. So Without a Trace is kind of a perfect mix for that, and hopefully that’s what the book Out of Range is going to accomplish also. But writing was always something that interested me, and then I was a junior in college and I said I was going to do this. I was just naive enough and blindly ignorantly blissful enough to think I could do it. And then I moved out to LA and hustled and struggled and wrote a bunch of bad scripts, and then finally figured out how to write a good one and broke through, and got an agent and started getting work. And things started to come together.
Jason Hartman: Was your educational background in English or Journalism or something else like film?
Hank Steinberg: I was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and I wrote a screenplay for my senior thesis, which my advisor was a playwright named Romulus Linney who was a great guy and who was actually Laura Linney’s father. Laura Linney is a great actress. And he was really supportive of me and really helped me kind of get over the first hump of finishing my first script. I was also a journalist at Pen. I wrote sports for the daily paper there. So I had that training too, and ultimately decided screenwriting over journalism. But I think it’s something that you don’t have to have formal education to be a writer. That’s for sure. Some of it helps. It’s definitely a skill and a class and you can learn things, but it really takes practice. You just have to keep working. It’s like Matthew Gladwell talks about with that ten thousand hours.
Jason Hartman: Right, right. In the book Outliers.
Hank Steinberg: Yeah, you’ve got to put in that time. And that was a really gratifying thing about doing television. Up until that point, working on my own schedule it was easy to procrastinate. Once you’re in TV and you’ve got to do 22, 24 episodes a year, you’ve just got to burn. And you get those ten thousand hours under your belt and you come out of that just with a whole other level of craft that you now have to lean on.
Jason Hartman: Sure, sure. And I know this is all over the board to answer this question, but I’m just so curious. And hopefully the listeners are too. How long does it take you, an experienced writer, to write one episode of The Last Ship, for example, or an entire movie? I guess Out of Range is really… well, you’ll write a screenplay as well, but it’s taken from the novel. But how long does it take to do this work?
Hank Steinberg: Well it’s funny because most people think of writing as probably being the process of sitting down and writing the script. And there’s actually so much more you’ve got to do before you start that process. so to physically write the actual script of an episode of television can take ten days, or it can take as little as three or four days, but that’s because all the legwork has been put in in the writer’s room, coming up with the storylines, going over every scene beat by beat, and coming up with an outline. So by the time you sit down to actually write the script, the lion share of the work, the hardest part of the work is done, and the fun part is actually writing the script where you’re moving within what you’ve done, you make changes of course as you go and you discover things in the scenes and look at the characters.
Jason Hartman: Do you lay things out? Do you like lay a storyboard out on the floor or on a wall, or do you use a software program? There’s a lot of those screenplay programs out there nowadays. How do you do it?
Hank Steinberg: Most TV writer’s rooms have a corkboard with pins and index cards, very old fashioned, and on each index card is the scene, two or three lines about what the scene is. And you put those up on the board so you can see the whole story, and if you want to move the scenes around, you take those index cards off the pin and you move it to a different part of the board, and then when you feel like you’ve got it completed you write it up into an outline and then you go to a script. Then when you’re writing that, that’s standard for TV and it works really well when you’re writing with other people.
I do the same thing if I’m writing a script. I did it for writing Out of Range the book, I did the same thing where I had a cork board with every chapter plotted out. And then of course when you get to writing, you’ve discover all kinds of things. So that’s generally my process. I very rarely just sit down and start writing with an idea without knowing where I’m going. It’s going to be hard to do that in a story that has to be intricately plotted. You kind of have to spend a bunch of times thinking about the story and the story points before you actually write.
Jason Hartman: Good stuff. Well, this has been a very interesting discussion Hank, and I appreciate you joining us and telling us about this. Do you have any websites that you want to direct people to?
Hank Steinberg: Well, people can go to the HarperCollins website to check out Out of Range, and of course Amazon.com, it’s up there and readily available. It’s in all the Barnes & Nobles and a majority of probably local bookstores. I will have an author webpage up probably in the next couple days. So if you’re looking to buy the book, Amazon.com is the easiest and harpercollins.com.
Jason Hartman: Fantastic. Well, the book again is entitled Out of Range, and it’s by Hank Steinberg and Hank, thank you so much for joining us today.
Hank Steinberg: Thank you.
Narrator: Thank you for joining us today for the Holistic Survival Show. Protecting the people, places and profits you care about in uncertain times. Be sure to listen to our Creating Wealth Show, which focuses on exploiting the financial and wealth creation opportunities in today’s economy. Learn more at www.JasonHartman.com or search Jason Hartman on iTunes. This show is produced by the Hartman Media Company, offering very general guidelines and information. Opinions of guests are their own, and none of the content should be considered individual advice. If you require personalized advice, please consult an appropriate professional. Information deemed reliable, but not guaranteed.
Transcribed by Ralph
Guest: Hank Steinberg
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