Interview: Don McGill

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The cameras are rolling on the set of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation today for the first day of production on Season Thirteen, a remarkable milestone for the CBS drama series; an accomplishment most shows in today’s television landscape aren’t able to achieve. After ending the previous season with multiple cliffhangers back in May, fans have been left asking some rather important questions: Will Ecklie die? Is Nick really leaving the lab? Who’s following Finlay? How will DB find his granddaughter? Executive Producer, Co-Showrunner and writer Don McGill, who recently signed a new deal with CBS Television Studios, was able to address these topics and much more with Shane Saunders during a recent chat. (Spoilers after the jump!)

CSI Files: Season Thirteen marks the first season in quite a few years where there’s cast stability and no planned departures. Has it been easier breaking these upcoming stories knowing you don’t have any characters you have to write out?

Don McGill: Yeah, last year was, admittedly, a challenge because we were introducing DB Russell [Ted Danson] and dealing with the fallout and aftermath with the Langston/Haskell episodes. We knew last year also that we had asked Marg [Helgenberger, Catherine Willows] to come back for a last season and continue at least halfway through the season, which she graciously and happily agreed to do that; we were so thrilled to at least have her for half a year. But we knew then that we were going to have to come up with a way to give her a star exit and that also meant introducing a new female CSI to compliment the team, and that’s when we introduced Lisa Shue‘s character. We’re really excited because this year everybody came back. We introduced Russell and Finn last year, we brought Morgan [Elisabeth Harnois] in at the beginning of last year so yes, it’s definitely easier to break stories when you know who your players are. Now that we know who our cast is coming back, we’re able to create longer arcs dialed into the crime stories of the week, but also give each character a journey through the season that we’ll be checking in on every episode. It’s great to have everybody back and to have the opportunity to make sort of longer plans for the story arcs for our characters while still staying true to the classic CSI crime-of-the-week storytelling. It’s going to be a fun season.

CSI Files: Are you planning on adding any new regulars in addition to Jon Wellner (Henry Andrews)?

McGill: At present we’re not really planning on that. In our minds, we always thought of Jon as a regular cast member, it didn’t seem like a big change to make that official. We may be introducing other characters this season who will recur, but I don’t think we’re planning right now to have any more people joining the cast.

CSI Files: How are you approaching this season in terms of keeping the show fresh? Have you settled on a theme?

McGill: We’re still working on storylines and character, but I would say thematically last season was about bringing the CSI team together as a family under the leadership of our west coast, Sherlock Holmes zenmaster, father-figure DB Russell. We ended Season Twelve with Russell’s own family threatened; Ecklie [Marc Vann] shot; Finlay in the arms of the enemy; and our whole CSI team under siege, given that we ended with the concept of family physically threatened and emotionally threatened, in the premiere Russell, Ecklie, Finlay, Nick [George Eads], Sara [Jorja Fox], Greg [Eric Szmanda]–the whole team–will deal with the physical threats and Nick’s committment to his job. Thematically if last season was about righting the ship and restoring the family, this season will be the exploration of the tension within the family and the challenges of keeping it together.

CSI Files: And as you said DB was brought in to help right the ship, but as we saw in the finale things still aren’t going smoothly within the department. Will DB face any repercussions?

McGill: Yes. Coming out of the premiere we’ll see repercussions for DB and for his family, possibly some riffs even within his own family given the fact that DB’s job came home to roost for him in terms of McKeen [Conor O’Farrell] actually reaching into DB’s home and taking his granddaughter. I think Russell will be dealing with a certain personal emotional fallout and also fallout within his own family. There will also be repercussions from the premiere of sort of seeing the darker side of Russell.

CSI Files: Viewers seem to really enjoy Ted Danson and the humor he’s brought with him, but there’s also a bit of concern that the constant pairing of DB and Julie towards the end of last season pulled focus away from the original cast. Now that these new characters have had time to settle in, will the established cast make their return to the forefront?

McGill: Yes, definitely. I think you can say over the last twelve seasons we really got to know our long standing cast members and their characters: Nick, Sara, Greg, Brass, Doc Robbins. Introducing Russell, Morgan and Finlay last year required spending some time letting the audience get to know who they were, much in the same way as the early years. I hope that we’ve done a good job of letting the fans get to know Russell and Finlay, and I think that gives us the opportunity as we look at Season Thirteen to really once again focus on the whole team and really see them all playing together and interacting more.

CSI Files: How will the fate of Conrad Ecklie be addressed in the premiere? Will things pickup right where the show left off, or will there be a bit of a flash-forward, much like “73 Seconds”?

McGill: We’ll be picking up about one second after the events of the finale. We’re going to hit the ground running in the premiere and we won’t stop. I think it’s going to be a pretty action-packed, very emotional thrill-ride in the premiere and you’ll know the fate of Ecklie in this episode, and you’ll discover what will happen to Russell’s granddaughter. We’ll see the fallout from Nick’s decision to quit and we’ll be with Nick on his journey from walking out of CSI to being brought back in to help bring Russell’s granddaughter… sorry, I don’t want to get too far into it. [Laughs.] We’ll see Finlay’s resourcefulness, we’ll feel Nick’s existential crisis even after he returns to the team to help Russell get his granddaughter back.

CSI Files: Is Nick’s return to the team going to be a gradual one or almost instantaneous?

McGill: His will be the question left unanswered in the beginning of the premiere. Because as we’ve said, McKeen took vengeance on Ecklie for shooting McKeen’s son. We realized and acknowledged that when Nick quit and left CSI he’s missing and our guys will all be asking, “Where’s Nick?” We’ll be reminded that he was actually there with Ecklie when Ecklie killed McKeen’s son. The first question we’ll be asking in the premiere is, “Is McKeen coming after Nick now?” In discovering Nick we may find him in some jeopardy. Clearly, we’ll find a way for him to come back to the team and help in the investigation. He does become a catalyst for a resolution and bringing people together.

CSI Files: It’s slightly frustrating because for so long Ecklie has been somewhat of a prick and then you guys transform him into a likeable character who may be kicking the bucket.

McGill: [Laughs.] Tracking the Morgan/Ecklie storyline, it was Carol‘s [Mendelsohn] idea from the start to introduce the Morgan character as the daughter of Ecklie, which created this really great opportunity to–which I don’t think we’ve ever had on the show–actually have a father and daughter in the workplace so you could see how it would play professionally and personally. We started them off fully estranged and over the last year, one of the arcs we did want to explore was that relationship from Morgan who, yes, knew the old Ecklie which the audience knew; the guy before he started to become a better man. As the audience had come to see that Ecklie had become a better man, so did too Morgan gradually come to see that her father was a better man and worthy of her love. We really wanted to make it at that moment when Morgan saw the change to rip Ecklie away from her and really have him in mortal jeopardy. When we come back in the premiere we’ll feel the pain Morgan is feeling about whether her father lives or dies. We will answer the question of whether he’ll live or die in the premiere.

CSI Files: Is there a chance we’ll meet his ex-wife and Morgan’s mother?

McGill: There is a good chance we’ll meet her but not in the premiere. We are thinking it might be interesting to meet her later in the season.

CSI Files: 24‘s Jayne Atkinson seems like a perfect candidate for the role.

McGill: I like that. That’s a great idea.

CSI Files: It seems plausible for Catherine to return in a federal agent capacity now that DB’s granddaughter has been kidnapped. Have there been any discussions with Marg Helgenberger to make an appearance this season?

McGill: This I can say: Catherine won’t be making an appearance in the premiere, but as we’ve always said, the door is always open for Catherine’s return. We would love for Marg to come back. Not for the premiere, but we have had discussions about how we might be able to bring Marg back and bring Catherine back to CSI.

CSI Files: There’s also an unwavering amount of requests from the fans for an appearance by William Petersen. An attempt was made last season but some personal matters conflicted with filming, and now he has a potential new series on pay-cable. Has progress been made to lure him back for an episode or two?

McGill: The door is always open. As you’ve pointed out, we talked to Billy in the past about storylines that would bring Grissom back to CSI. We’re glad that Billy’s coming back to TV in his new show Hurt People, but we’d love to have him come back to CSI, too. There is always an opening because of the Sara/Grissom relationship and that’s a relationship that we do want to continue exploring further this season.

CSI Files: Might this be the season viewers finally meet Sara’s mother?

McGill: We’ve talked about it and yes, it would be a great idea. We just want to have the right story to introduce Sara’s mom. We have a list of actresses and we’re really excited when we look at some of the names of who we would like to approach for the role.

CSI Files: Two of DB’s children have been introduced so far: Charlie (Brandon W. Jones) and Maya (Brooke Nevin). He has two more if I remember correctly… will they be in the premiere?

McGill: We won’t see any other Russell children in the premiere and that’s about all I can say. We’ll be seeing Charlie in the premiere as well as Maya, who will be in the premiere since it’s her daughter that’s been taken. In the finale we said Charlie was en route to the house when everything went down and he will arrive and be part of the family drama.

CSI Files: Any other stars from past years making a return?

McGill: No definitive ones at this point; we’re still early on. I will say that we’ve had some discussions in the writers’ room how we’d love to have a sexy prison break episode with three of our favorite femme fatales: Annabeth Gish (Laura Gabriel, “Willows in the Wind”), Dita Von Teese (Ellen Whitebridge, “A Kiss Before Frying”), and Dina Meyer (Anne-Marie Tolsom, “The List”). Some stiletto-heeled murders.

CSI Files: What other episodes do you have planned for the season?

McGill: After the premiere, which is kind of a battle against the clock, we’ll also be looking at a mass-killing in a diner, but not just any diner: one of the CSI’s favorite haunts where we’ve seen them breaking bread many times before. Again, the idea of family being threatened as in the premiere, this is sort of another sense of the people in the place where you go to have breakfast and know the staff.

We’ll also have an episode where we go back in time to the days of the Rat Pack in Vegas to solve a current crime, but one linked to a cold case deep in 60’s Vegas lore.

We’re going to have a crime set in bigtime basketball, which takes us to a WLVU fantasy camp and will once again bring Charlie Russell back to CSI, but this time maybe even as a suspect.

We’ll have another genealogical mystery this year. And we’re looking at a very cool story that would involve Nick being brought in on a murder case involving someone close to Warrick’s [Gary Dourdan] ex-wife. It’s a case that will take Nick and the whole team to the past and [remember] memories of Warrick, and sort of inform us all on where things stand in terms of Warrick’s legacy and also Warrick’s family and how our CSI’s have kind of, unbeknownst to anybody, each been a guardian angel in one way or another for Warrick’s ex-wife and son. We have a sense of the first few episodes but we’re still waiting on scripts to come in. Oh, and we are looking at kind of a cool episode where a K9 officer is murdered and the dog is the survivor, and the key to solving the case. There’s another one that Carol is going to be co-writing which is going to be a story that basically takes us back to the case which got Finlay fired in Seattle. When new evidence is discovered Russell, Finlay and the CSI team will be sort of taken into the investigation of that whole cold case, which might finally bring closure to the case that got Finlay fired.

CSI Files: Now that CSI: Miami has been cancelled is there a chance we could see a character or two from the spinoff pop up on CSI this season?

McGill: We’ve talked about it internally, and definitely something we’ve discussed. We don’t know if we’ll be able to do it this year but it’s definitely something that’s of interest to us.

Shane Saunders
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