In the writer’s “hot seat” with Christopher Waild of NCIS

NCIS writer Christopher Waild with LSY! reporter Erin Manth, who's a family friend.

NCIS writer Christopher Waild with LSY! reporter Erin Manth, who’s a family friend.

For more than a decade, CBS’ NCIS has been one of the biggest shows on television. It would be tough to find someone who doesn’t recognize Mark Harmon or one of the other stars from the hit series.

But more than 200 people stand behind Harmon and the other actors on the show. Among those are the nine writers who create the storyline and write the scripts for each episode.

One of those writers is Christopher Waild … and one of our LSY! reporters, Erin Manth, is family friends with him. This week, Christopher was at Erin’s house for dinner, and she chatted with him about his work as an NCIS writer. Here’s their conversation:

What do you do at NCIS? How did you get started working there? What education background do you have?

Christopher: I am a writer-producer for NCIS, which is different than, say, a physical producer who actually puts together the show. I am one of the nine writers at NCIS. I have a bachelor of fine arts with a concentration in screenwriting from the University of North Carolina School of Arts.

I moved to L.A. without a job, and I had a friend who worked in post-production at NCIS. He heard that a writer’s production assistant (PA), who gets coffee and lunches and makes copies, was going to be out for a few days and a substitute was needed, so he got me the job to fill in. While there I was bored and it was really messy and I’m kind of a neat freak, so I cleaned the kitchen and PA office and I guess that made a good impression. I ended up getting a job as a writer’s PA there.

After a change in showrunners I got a job as a writer’s assistant, which is doing research and helping the writers at the show. I got the job after submitting a writing sample after another assistant had left. I had spent my time as a PA really watching and understand the show. As a writer’s assistant I took notes and did research and I made sure to do that really well. After that I ended up having the opportunity to write a few scenes and then co-write an episode. Eventually I got a job as a writer. I have written around 21 episodes.

After you started working at NCIS, what surprised you about your job?

Christopher: How supportive and encouraging the others writers were of me as a new writer. I thought everyone would be defending their own job but they were very helpful in teaching me what I know. I still work with some of those guys.

Where do you get inspiration for your episodes?

Christopher: I get inspiration from whatever I’m doing at that moment — news stories that I read, TV shows and movies that I have watched recently, or books that I have read. All of those are good at sparking ideas to get the ball rolling.

What is your favorite thing about your job?

Christopher: I like the collaborative environment of television writing. I like working with other people who are smarter than me, it makes my stories better. You can bring questions to everybody else.

Which NCIS episodes have been your favorite and why?

Christopher: Anything in season three. It’s fast, it’s fun, it’s smart. The show seemed to hit a stride that was unique. With Ziva (a character on the show) coming in, there was a romantic angle and the Mossad angle gives it a danger and intrigue.

What is it like working with the stars of the show? How long did it take for the novelty to go away of working with someone like Mark Harmon and other cast members?

Christopher: It’s still there to an extent. They are very talented, they know their characters, they know the show. There is a lot of awe and wonder to someone who has been playing a character for 12 years. Our cast are fabulous people. They get along with each other, they get along with the crew and the writers, they are down to earth, there is no ego. You can have discussions with them about their characters. We are very fortunate to have that after 11 seasons.

What was it like when Cote de Pablo, who played Ziva, left?

Christopher: We were surprised when she left. We were putting together the beginning of season 11, and we got word that she wasn’t coming back. We had to scramble a little bit and rebuild the beginning of the season, but we understood why. Ultimately it turned out really well.

What is the process of writing an episode like? How long does it take, who works on what parts and how many people are normally involved?

Christopher: As long as they give you, which is never long enough! Ideally you want three years to write an episode and get every detail right, but that level of perfection will never be achieved. The nice thing about television is that you can write something at the beginning of the month, shoot it at the end of the month and it is airing the next month, TV is very fast-paced. But typically, if I have my way, I get a couple days to come up with the story and break the story and put it on the board and see the progression of the story. Then preferably two days to write an outline, which is roughly a 10-15-page breakdown of each scene. Then I get, ideally, two weeks to write the script. Quite frequently we don’t get that much time though! The shortest amount of time I have ever written an episode is in six days from outline to script, that was “Canary” in season 10. We have over 200 people who make an episode, between our pre-production, production and post-production.

Do you have any funny experiences or stories from on set?

Christopher: We kind of have a rite of passage on set called “Getting Hot Seated.” There is a section of the set called “Video Village” where what we are filming is shown. Behind the monitors you have the directors and writers sitting in those canvas director-like chairs. And especially the writers on set are not really talking to the directors or actors. Everybody else has a job and you just kind of sit there.

Every now and then, if you are there and looking too bored, the dolly-grip Johnny, or maybe someone else, will come up with a lighter. Mark Harmon or an actor will come up to you and start a conversation and distract you and while he’s doing that, Johnny puts the lighter underneath your seat, just far enough that it doesn’t light the seat on fire, but it slowly gets the seat hot just enough to feel burnt. And just when you jump up, he’s gone, because he knows exactly how long to do it and when to disappear. It is all done in good fun though. Everyone has a good laugh.

Where do you see your career going after NCIS?

Christopher: I really don’t know. NCIS is such a wonderful place to be, I love the cast, I love the crew and I love my bosses. It will be difficult when it ends or when I move on, but it is something that will happen one day and I will just have to be prepared for that. And professionally it will be a time to move on and do other things. But right now, I can’t beat NCIS. It was my first job and I never left. Which on a professional level is a little scary — it is my only credit. But on a different level, it has been wonderful.

What advice do you have for anyone who wants to get involved in the entertainment industry or writing for a TV show like NCIS?

Christopher: As a writer, I would say read and write as much as you can and get your writing out there. Get people to read it and give you honest notes. And move to L.A. That is where the opportunities are.

Erin Manth is a senior in our program at Mount St. Mary Academy in Buffalo, New York.

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