If you keep track of the so-called vanity cards that trail every TV program, you know that Jerry Bruckheimer Television is behind some of the biggest shows on the box. We wanted to find out exactly how one production company hit the jackpot so hard, so we went looking for answers from JBTV president Jonathan Littman, the man behind the machine.
Jonathan talked to us about living the life of prodco chief, including coming up with the idea for Without a Trace, making everything old new again and dog walking in formalwear…
For the folks at home, what is your job at Jerry Bruckheimer Television?
What I do day to-day is develop new shows and oversee all the shows that are on the air: CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI: NY, Without a Trace, Cold Case and The Amazing Race.
Where did you first meet Jerry, what were your initial discussions and what was it like working for him 10 years ago?
I met Jerry through a mutual friend, and I actually turned down a meeting with him three times in a row.
Was he still with [partner Don] Simpson at that point?
No, it was after they had split; [I initially turned the opportunity down] because of my experiences working with feature producers in television—they just never really do the job. They like the idea of television, [but] they never get to work. Jerry persisted. He actually scheduled a meeting with my assistant without my knowing about it, and by the end of our meeting, he had me—hook, line and sinker. There's no ego with Jerry at all—he loves producing, and that's very infectious, and you sort of get to that point of, "Why are you being an idiot? It's a job with Jerry Bruckheimer."
Had you always wanted to be in TV?
I've always wanted to be in the entertainment business, since I was a little kid. I grew up in New Jersey, and I actually started out in the theater, but when I got out of college in the '80s, theater in New York was pretty much nonexistent. It was the darkest part of Broadway's depression, and a close friend of mine suggested, "Why not work in TV, since all you do is watch TV?" That made complete and total sense the minute he said it.
So, my very first job in TV was as a secretary at ABC in New York. I worked in late-night and children's programming, which, believe it or not, was a combined department, and we were still in the big building on Sixth Avenue in New York. I went from ABC to NBC in the daytime department and then to Fox's prime-time division.
It was a journey, and what I learned along the way was that I wanted to be at the very beginning of the process. I wanted to make the shows as opposed to having them made for me as a network executive.
What specialized technical knowledge do TV producers have?
It's about being a good storyteller. Everyone who is successful in film, television and theater has that sense of telling the audience what it wants hear. Being a TV producer is probably somewhere between being an architect and a contractor, so in addition to the creativity, it's also about organizing an enormous number of people around a common goal, and then letting them do what they do best: Letting writers write, letting cinematographers shoot, letting directors direct, and making it possible for them to do it.
The two parts of your current job are keeping the current shows running and developing new shows. What's the split of your time, and how is the energy different between those two jobs?
The time split varies depending on the day. We're incredibly fortunate that our shows are…
It's not that—it's the people who are doing them. They are unbelievably gifted and that makes what I do infinitely easier, because then my job is about having perspective and being objective—being the person who steps back a little bit to be objective about the direction of the show, without being all day in the writers' room, where you're almost too intuitively involved.
One of the most flattering moments I've ever had in my life was the first Christmas of the first year on CSI, Carol Mendelsohn and Ann Donahue gave me a Tiffany pen and made me an honorary writer on the staff, which was very sweet and one of those incredible moments.
I also do whatever I can to make the writers' job easier, taking certain things off their plates, like budgeting or dealing with the network, because it's hard enough to get out 24 episodes out a year on top of having to do all the other business.
The energy of production is all about the moment…it's all about what has to be done now. In development, you have a little more time to dream and build and grow. But it's also the hardest part, because you are creating something from scratch.
Development is always about personal interaction. The development part is about seeing the promise of someone sitting in your office pitching out an idea, seeing that sparkle at the very beginning. Like Anthony Zuiker saying, "I love the idea of forensics," and you going, "Okay, that's a great idea; let's make that," and then developing that into CSI.
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Tell us about developing Without a Trace…
One of my favorite movies is the movie Laura, and I always thought that Laura could be a television show. Without A Trace has its roots in the movie Laura, that idea that a missing person has a secret life and that secret life gets revealed through the lives of the people you talk to about him or her. When the intern Chandra Levy disappeared in Washington, what was fascinating was how she had this secret life that—at the end of the day—apparently had nothing to do with the random and tragic thing that happened to her. About two weeks after the Chandra Levy story reached its peak, there was an article in the Los Angeles Times that 75 percent of the people that go missing are actually found, so both of those elements were the basis for creating the show. I pitched the show to [CBS president] Nina [Tassler] at a TCA cocktail party that year, and I said "Chandra Levy: the series," and that was sold. Then I found [writer] Hank Steinberg. I had been reading Hank's material, and I had read 61*, and near the same time Nina made a deal with him, so it was a perfect timing, and that's where the whole show Without a Trace came from.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be you?
I am still very close to my college, Vassar, and when I meet with college students, I always say there are two reasons why you should come into this business: Because you watch a lot of Entertainment Tonight, and you think it looks glamorous, or because telling stories is all you can think of doing. If it's the latter, you're going to succeed, because you're going to do it intrepidly every single day, no matter what. If it's the former, you're going to be miserable.
It can never be about the glamor, it has to be about the love of it. I get home from whatever big party or awards show I've have been at, and it's great, but I'm still walking my dogs in a tuxedo, and then I go and do two hours of work.
What about people who want to work for you and pitch their shows to you? What kind of people are you looking for?
I think the one thing that our writers have in common is that they have a unique voice, and their characters came to life on the page in a way that makes them stand out, that doesn't seem like something the audience has seen already a hundred times.
The old joke is that there are actually only 12 stories to tell in this world, going all the way back to the Greeks, but it's how you tell them. When a writer has the ability to tell a story you've seen before, but in a unique way…A perfect example is CSI, which is Quincy, M.E. It's the series with Jack Klugman that I watched growing up as a kid, except Anthony brought it to life in a completely different way that made those characters so fresh. The execution of it is so different that it blew the audience back.
You could look at Aaron Sorkin—when he did West Wing, the prevailing wisdom in this town was Washington would never work on TV. It failed over and over again…until Sorkin. The exact same thing could be said about a missing-persons show or a cold-case show, both of which had been tried multiple times and failed. The differentiating factor is Aaron Sorkin's voice and [Without a Trace executive producer] Hank Steinberg's voice and [Cold Case executive producer] Meredith Stiehm's voice, the vision they had for their show, the voice that they gave to their characters, the way they were executed and how they told the story in a way that captivated the audience.
Without that originality, it's familiar, and the narrative is linear, and the audience has seen it all, especially with television today, because there's too much great television…
There's great TV all the way across the board, and everyone bickers about the Emmy nominations, and I'm like, "Yeah, but there are 10 shows worthy of nominations." There's never been a better period in television where there are shows that are just great. Every night across the cable networks, the big networks, it's amazing, so the task of creating something truly original is hard.