Allen MacDonald

By Kristine Huntley
Posted at March 10, 2008 - 8:50 PM GMT

Allen MacDonald has been with CSI since the show's third season. He's climbed the ranks from writers' assistant to staff writer and has had a hand in some of the most significant episodes of the last few seasons, including "Dead Doll" and Goodbye and Good Luck", which saw the exit of the first regular character to leave the show, Sara Sidle. Though busy at work for an episode for the show's eighth season following the hundred day WGA strike, MacDonald took the time to discuss the current season and his career at CSI with CSI Files.

Allen MacDonald

CSI Files: What's it like being back at work? Does the schedule feel accelerated?

Allen MacDonald: It definitely does feel accelerated. As soon as we got back, we had to jump into the fire as they say, and found out immediately that we were going to do six more episodes and that we were going to have to go into production very quickly.

CSI Files: You're working on an episode right now. Can you tease it a little?

MacDonald: I'm actually working on an episode with Naren Shankar and Dustin Lee Abraham, bringing back Method Man, who plays a character named Drops. I'm helping out with this episode--it's Dustin's deal. That character is a Dustin Lee Abraham creation. I've been brought on to help. A lot of these episodes that we're doing now we're kind of working together on because it moves things along a little quicker.

CSI Files: Were these episodes you're working on now planned before the strike happened, or have they been developed since?

MacDonald: The first two were already in the development phase before the strike began, and of course, everything just stopped because of the strike. When we went back some work had been completed on those episodes in the story conception phase.

CSI Files: Do you think, aside from the season being several episodes short of a normal season, the strike will change or delay any planned storylines?

MacDonald: The answer is yes. We were going to do 24 episodes this year, and we're going to end up doing 17--so we'll have seven fewer episodes. So definitely there were things we were going to do that have been scrapped or put on hold. Carol Mendelsohn is looking at [the rest of] this season as a mini-season--season 8.5. These six episodes will be a mini season, kind of like The Sopranos last season: the sixth season was like 20 episodes, but they aired 12 and then they waited and they aired the last eight later.

CSI Files: How many more scripts will you be doing personally after this one?

MacDonald: I think this is it for me. Anything can change, but I did "Dead Doll" with Dustin and Naren and I worked on Goodbye and Good Luck" , which was Jorja Fox's last episode. Those were two pretty cool assignments to get to be involved in! I had a pretty good season, so I think that after this point I'll be done until next year.

CSI Files: You've been involved in writing a lot of the episodes with Sara, like "The Unusual Suspects" and "Empty Eyes" where Sara's disillusionment with her job really started and began to take its toll. How much advance planning went into that arc? How much warning did you have that Jorja Fox was planning to leave the show?

MacDonald: First of all, I loved writing for Jorja Fox. I love all the characters on CSI, but I think all the writers gravitate towards a particular character and for me that's always been Nick Stokes (George Eads) and Sara Sidle. Their worldview fits mine.

CSI Files: They're really opposites in a lot of ways--Nick is the determined optimist while Sara is the jaded pessimist. What is it about those two different characters that appeals to you?

MacDonald: I don't know if I have an answer. This is my interpretation of Nick: when you're working a job like crime scene investigating and forensics, you're encountering a lot darkness and a lot of death, seeing the darker side of humanity. I think most of the time Nick very successfully compartmentalizes everything. He can keep the darkness in a box without the job bleeding into his life. I think Sara has a very hard time compartmentalizing and keeping things in that box and it definitely bleeds into her daily life. That's what always fascinated me about Sara Sidle was that she was so strong, but she feels so much that it's a constant struggle for her.

CSI Files: They really do seem like two sides of a coin.

MacDonald: I love them working together because to me, they're like brother and sister. The idea of them having any romantic relationship--which has never been brought up--I would find distasteful. They really care about each other. The scene that comes through the most for me is a scene in "Empty Eyes" when they're processing the house where the showgirls live and Sara comes into the kitchen where Nick is already processing and he asks her if she's okay and she says, "Yeah. Let's work." Just the look between them, there was so much empathy and connection between them. Those two characters were really there for each other. I'm talking a lot about those two, but I do love all the other characters. There was a line in that scene where Nick asks if Sara's okay, and she says, "Yeah, I'm just not used to them being alive."

You brought up Sara Sidle's [exit]--I was very fortunate that I got to work on a lot of her final episodes, the kind of mini-arc leading up to her departure. You asked me before how long before we knew she was leaving--we only knew before we started those last seven episodes. When we did "The Unusual Suspects" we didn't know [Jorja was leaving]. When we did that, I was pretty sure I wanted to do a sequel, but I didn't know it was going to be Sara Sidle's last episode. That was Naren's idea.

CSI Files: So he was the one who came up with the idea to bring Hannah West back as an impetus for Sara leaving?

MacDonald: I always wanted to bring that character back. I had pitched two big stories [at the beginning of season eight]. They chose one of them, which was a very dark episode, to be Sara's last episode, and as we got closer to that episode, it was Naren's very clever brainstorm to [switch them]. I pitched the dark one and "The Unusual Suspects" sequel and basically the dark one was going to be Jorja's last episode and then Naren flipped them.

CSI Files: So is that dark one on hold until season nine?

MacDonald: Yes. Just the idea of that Hannah West/Marlon West were, in Sara's view at least, a failure in her life that she would like to remedy, and [a repeat of that] failure that would really get under her skin enough to make her rethink what she wants to do with her future.

CSI Files: And Hannah is a maddening character--she's the prodigy that can't be caught.

MacDonald: I love that character. Those two episodes are by far my favorite episodes, "The Unusual Suspects" and "Goodbye and Good Luck."

CSI Files: How did you end up working on that last episode for Sara?

MacDonald: Because I had pitched those two ideas and they chose the darker one to be Sara's last episode, I was assigned to that. And then because Naren liked "The Unusual Suspect" episode and since I had written the original episode, I [kept the assignment after the switch]. But it's important to know that for all of the scripts, it is absolutely a team effort and a lot of different people are involved at different stages of the game. Sarah Goldfinger and Naren were both huge parts of both those scripts.

CSI Files: You've written a large range of episodes, from the really dark episodes like "Empty Eyes" and "Leaving Las Vegas" to much lighter entries like "Dog Eat Dog" and "Toe Tags". Do you have a preference between lighter and darker fare?

MacDonald: Left to my own devices, I would absolutely write really dark, tragic, depressing CSI episodes, no doubt about it. I like to, where you can, inject some comedy into those episodes. I would say "Empty Eyes" is a good example of when I'm completely going dark.

CSI Files: "Toe Tags" is such a departure from the usual CSI format. How did that episode come about?

MacDonald: Every once in a while, we like to do an episode where we do four small cases. When we're in the writers' room, we often come up with these great forensic stories, but they're really short. The forensics is fantastic, but you can't find a way to insert them into a larger episode. So you can get about 10-15 pages out of the story but nothing more, and you can't build a whole episode around that. So what we do is we save those smaller stories, and every once in a while we'll do an anthology episode and tell four of those small stories. An example of that would be "4x4" in season five and "Toe Tags." And a little teaser--we're going to do another one of those in the last six!

But about "Toe Tags" being different--Doug Petrie, who will always be my hero because he wrote for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I loved, came in with the idea to have the bodies get up and talk. That became the interstitial tissue of that "Toe Tags" episode, where we tell anthology stories and the way they're tied together is that the dead people wake up. I was very excited to be a part of that because it was such a departure from CSI. He came up with the idea of doing that but what inspired him to think of doing that was a Billy Wilder movie called Sunset Boulevard. It starts with William Holden already dead, speaking to the audience. There was a scene cut from the final film where they take him to the morgue and he and the other bodies wake up and start talking to each other about the ways they died. And he was in hell. That inspired Doug to pitch that idea, and we kind of did our own spin on it. All that interstitial stuff was Doug. I can look at all the episodes and for the most part tell who did what. My name was on it but I only wrote the little Warrick story called "No Brainer." A woman's husband pushes her off the cliff and her brain is ejected in one piece.

CSI Files: Where did your inspiration for "Empty Eyes" come from?

MacDonald: That was based very heavily on a killer named Richard Speck, who in the late 60s had broken into a house at a nursing school and he had killed eight girls one after another. One of them had managed to crawl under the bed. In reality, he didn't know she was there. He was so caught up in the killing, he never even counted and lost track, so he assumed he'd killed them all and left the house. She's still alive. Carol always wanted to do the Richard Speck story--it was in Chicago and Carol's from Chicago. I had pitched to her earlier in the year, the idea that I wanted Sara to find a victim still alive--a victim that was dying, who was going to die and there was very little that could be done, but that she would try to speak to Sara, and that Sara would be in a position where she would have to be empathetic, comforting her in her final moments, but also to get that valuable information about what happened to her that she would have as a first-person witness. It's that conflict between being a human being and doing your job and how that would haunt Sara. Watching someone die gives it a whole new dimension.

CSI Files: It's a great episode.

MacDonald: I feel very proud of that one as well. The reason I went with "The Unusual Suspect" and "Goodbye and Good Luck" [as my favorites] is because they're dark and they're emotional but it's also like an intellectual chess game. Hannah's always playing people. "The Unusual Suspects" episodes were an intellectual chess game, but "Empty Eyes" has more pure emotion and devastation.

CSI Files: Hannah is definitely quite the sociopath! It was interesting to see her go up against Sara.

MacDonald: Naren and I worked on it and we both had a really good sense of those characters and what the next stage of Marlon and Hannah's relationship would be. She loved her brother and became very attached to him after what he did for her in the first episode and she kind of fell in love with him a little bit and got possessive over him and then felt betrayed when he fell for someone else and acted accordingly. What I loved so much about "Goodbye and Good Luck" is that between Hannah and Marlon, everyone always thought of Hannah as so smart and that Marlon was stupid, but his final move, even though it's an act of desperation, killing himself--he had no choice, he had no life ahead of him, she had completely screwed him successfully--but the one thing she wasn't suspecting was that he would kill himself. That's how he kind of outwitted her.

If Hannah doesn't have control, she becomes unglued, which is why she had that big breakdown scene with Sara. That actress, Juliette Goglia and Douglas Smith, too, who played the brother--they're just phenomenal. I was so excited to work with them again. Alec Smight directed the first one and Ken Fink directed the second one and they're just amazing directors to work with. They're so much a reason why those episodes succeeded.

CSI Files: It was great to see those two characters come back!

MacDonald: I was dying to see them come back! I wanted it to happen in season eight since the first one was in season six. I wanted Juliette to grow up a little more. I wanted her to look a bit older.

CSI Files: CSI has been running for eight and a half seasons--how do the writers keep it fresh?

MacDonald: Carol and Naren, the showrunners, have an incredibly good barometer for what direction the show needs to go in, what kind of material we should be focusing on for each season and finding each season's identity. It definitely comes down from the top. They rely on the staff because we're very diversified in terms of our personality--I mean that in a good way. We all will sit down and write a totally different CSI episode. We try to come up with fresh ideas. A lot of stories we do we pitch to Naren and Carol and they say 'yay' or 'nay' to it. They're very supportive.

CSI Files: How did your first episode, "Spark of Life", for which you got a solo writing credit, come about?

MacDonald: I was a writers' assistant [on the show]. I started as a writers' assistant halfway through season three. Sarah Goldfinger was the original writers' assistant until season three. She got her first episode and then they promoted her to staff and then they needed a new writers' assistant. My girlfriend, now my wife, was working on CSI for the director Richard Lewis and she knew the writers and had given my resume to Naren Shankar and Andrew Lipsitz, who's not on the show anymore. So I was a writers' assistant, which means I was in the room, taking notes. And they encouraged me to pitch ideas if I had them and after doing that for a couple of years they decided I was ready and they gave me a script. I of course had asked; they didn't just give it to me.

CSI Files: Was it difficult to ask for a script?

MacDonald: Only because you're afraid they're going to say no! But I was definitely going to ask. It wasn't hard because they knew I was going to. The only person in their right mind who takes the job [as a writers' assistant] is someone who wants to be a writer. Otherwise there's no reason to do it. So they expect that you want to write because to be in the room taking notes on stories, you have to understand story. I'd tried to become a writer for years before CSI, but was very hard and I constantly hit walls and rejection. I was very fortunate that I landed in a very nurturing atmosphere. I don't think you're likely to find that very easily in the television industry where they're willing to teach you and train you. Our show is on a really tight schedule and we have to move quickly, so there isn't always time to do that stuff. So I really credit Naren and Carol for taking the time to do that. I'm not the only person on the show that has that story. Three of the ten writers on the show were former writers' assistants--myself, Sarah Goldfinger and Jacqueline Hoyt.

CSI Files: Was "Spark of Life" an idea you'd pitched to them?

MacDonald: Our technical advisor, Larry Mitchell, who is essentially a CSI in the L.A. sheriff's department and has been for many, many years had worked a case about a woman who had lit herself on fire. That was one of the main ideas that Larry had pitched to the writing staff at the beginning of season five. And through the entire season I always had my eye on that one because it seemed really dark and it just appealed to me naturally. It was amazing to me as we did the stories they'd get crossed out and no one was taking that one. Carol said, "What would you like to do?" and I said, "I'd like to do the one about the woman who lights herself on fire," and she said, "That's great!"

I had read this article that Carol had given me about an infertile couple--the tension there if they really want to have children. I knew she liked the idea, so I pitched an idea I knew she'd like! She'll laugh at that, but my interest in the idea was genuine.

CSI Files: What's it like to watch your own episode on screen?

MacDonald: It's thrilling. I wanted to be a TV writer for a very, very long time--it's not an exaggeration to say my entire life--and it's still a thrill to have your name on the credits, to be on the set, to see the actors perform dialogue that you've written. The thing that I love specifically about television, why I like TV more than screenwriting, is that you follow characters over a long period of time. You get to see them change.

CSI Files: How long did you work before coming to CSI?

MacDonald: About eight and a half years. My first job I worked as a production assistant on Saved by the Bell: The New Class. I went and got the writers dinner and I learned within a week that I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't know if I wanted to be a Saturday morning writer. I'm not very funny! You asked me earlier what I gravitate toward, and though I did "Toe Tags" and "Dog Eat Dog," they're not my favorite episodes because they're funny and I don't think I do that very well. I was more interested in one hour drama.

Because I was at NBC, I had access to the tape library. I went and started checking out episodes of ER because I hadn't watched it yet even though it was in its second season. Within three weeks, I had watched the entire first two seasons. I was in love with it. I'd always liked one hour drama--I used to watch Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. The woman who runs the tape library at NBC--the DVD library now--Rebecca Rieck said if you like ER, you'll like Homicide: Life on the Street. She got me into that and I loved it. I wrote spec scripts for both those shows. I was still working on Saturday morning television and one of the executives at the time sent my script into the NBC story department. They used to have a writers' program called the New Voices Writing Program. They would choose a couple people every year and I got chosen.

Then I interned on ER and the internship turned into a job and I worked on ER as a writers' assistant for seasons four and five. After I stopped working there, I went to grad school at the American Film Institute for two years, which is where I met my wife. She already knew Richard Lewis at that time because they were both from Northwestern University in Chicago. She had been in contact with him and he had invited her to come watch him work. So after we graduated from AFI, she went to go work for him as his personal assistant, and you know the rest!

CSI Files: How do you feel about the spin-off shows, CSI: Miami and CSI: NY?

MacDonald: I have no resentment towards the other shows. I think each of the shows has found their own identity. They do very specific things to differentiate themselves from the other two shows.

CSI Files: Have you ever pitched a story you really wanted to do but haven't been able to find a way to?

MacDonald: There were a couple of stories this season I wanted to do and I was going to do, but the strike caused them to get scrapped for the present moment. I'd like to do [them] for season nine. But other than that, with rare exception, if I've wanted to do a story, I've gotten to do it. Carol and Naren, if they see you've got passion for a story and you're excited about it, they have no intention of getting in the way of that enthusiasm if they think it would benefit the show.

CSI Files: Why do you think CSI as a franchise is so popular?

MacDonald: I think because whodunit cop shows have always been a television staple. In the history of television, I think procedural dramas have always been popular, especially if they're medical or law or cop. The CSIs aren't police officers, but [the show is] still a whodunit on the level of a police procedural. It's a forensic procedural. I think the reason why it did so well right out of the gate was that it combined a very well established television format, which was the procedural whodunit with modern forensic science. If you think about when the show premiered, I don't think most people would have thought science could be suspenseful or sexy or anything like that. But they were wrong and the marriage of the whodunit with modern science is what made the show such a breath of fresh air. And I think the look was and is still very unique. The Jerry Bruckheimer mandate was to do feature television so that when you were flipping through the channels, you go, "Whoa, it's like a movie." And the writing is good--I can say that because I wasn't on it then!

CSI Files: And the writing is still good!

MacDonald: I think for me personally, my favorite season of CSI is season seven. The jury is still out for the current season, but so far I like seven the best.

CSI Files: With Grey's Anatomy moving against CSI that season, it really seemed like there was an attempt on CSI's part to bring it up a notch and outdo what had come before.

MacDonald: Competition is a good thing. It really gets the creative juices flowing. Everybody realized we were going up against another big show. The miniature killer was a huge undertaking that was very successful. That was also a big change for us to do a season long arc like that. What's so great is that those episodes [that make up the arc] are still stand-alones. Like Law & Order or any procedural, they're designed so that if you haven't seen any other episodes, you can watch that one episode and follow the story. It's how CSI differs from Grey's Anatomy. With the miniature killer, it's a season-long arc, but you can watch any one of those individual miniature killer episodes and have satisfaction at the end--something major has been solved.

CSI Files: How was the decision made to end that season on a cliffhanger? Was there ever any talk of killing Sara off in "Dead Doll"?

MacDonald: There was never any serious talk of killing her off. We knew at the beginning of the season that she was going to be in peril at the end of the season. While we never intended to kill her, we needed [the audience] to think we were going to kill her. If they don't think there's much of a possibility that she's going to die, then the episode isn't much fun to watch! The rumors only helped!

CSI Files: The premiere got great ratings!

MacDonald: I think we beat Grey's Anatomy by four or five million viewers that night. I was hoping we would, but I didn't believe it when the ratings came in.

CSI Files: Sara and Grissom's romance was a big part of the seventh season and the first part of this current one. CSI originally stayed away from romance, but now all three shows seem to be embracing it. Do you think it was wise for the show to go down that path?

MacDonald: Well, you can only play the 'will they or won't they' for so long. They either do or they don't. Another huge television staple is unrequited love--characters that love each other, they're soul mates, but they can't be together. And the fun part is their not being together. Moonlighting is the classic example of a show that was basically creatively dead when the couple got together. We brought Sara and Grissom together in a credible way, but I don't think we short-changed the characters by doing it. You've got to have a bump in the road! It was fun to see them in a relationship during season seven, and what made it fun was that nobody else knew about it. That changed in the finale "Living Doll". It's such a great moment when Sara was kidnapped that it came out that they were together. I think you can make it work having them together. I think The Office does a phenomenal job of having Jim and Pam together. On a TV show, there's always going to be some conflict around the corner. I'm sure eventually a wrench will be thrown into Jim and Pam's happiness.

CSI Files: With CSI finishing up its eighth season, where do you envision the show heading? What's next for CSI?

MacDonald: All I can say is that I feel very certain that we will continue to use forensic science to solve murders!

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Kristine Huntley is a freelance writer and reviewer.