Corinne Marrinan

By Kristine Huntley
Posted at May 28, 2009 - 8:42 PM GMT

Corinne Marrinan has worn many hats on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, starting out as an assistant and transitioning to Associate Producer, handling the many media tie-in products spawned by the show, including novels, DVDs and games. In season nine, Marrinan stepped into a new role on the show: staff writer. Marrinan took time during her hiatus--which the Academy Award winner is using to work on her latest documentary--to speak with CSI Files' Kristine Huntley about what goes into writing for a hit television show.

CSI Files: You just finished up your first season as a writer on CSI! What was your first year on staff like?

Corinne Marrinan: It's funny because being there for so long--it's been almost nine years since I came out here to work on the show. And I've been on it in so many different capacities that it really wasn't much of a dramatic transition. Part of that may have been that when I was working on my first script, which was a freelance spec, which never happened, I was still doing my other job. So I had this crossover period when I was doing my other job and I was working on this script and so when [Suzanne] Que [Reed] took over what I was doing, there was a period when I'd be in the writers' room breaking somebody's story and then we'd go on a break and Que would have a bunch of questions about my previous job. So I kind of felt like it was just another extension of the many things I have always done at the show. It wasn't like starting a new job. Later in the year Que got the hang of [my old position]. Things had come up about the museum project or the DVD special features and she'd just say, "Well, what would you do?" We just had that crossover period. By the end of the year, I was pretty much just doing the writing and realizing that yes, this is pretty much a more than full time job in itself!

My final act as the Multimedia Producer was when Billy [Petersen, Gil Grissom] was leaving the show and a lot of the affiliates wanted a live interview with Billy and it was just getting to be way too much. It was like thirty people who wanted to come interview Billy on camera. So CBS publicity called me because they know I make documentaries and they know I've known Billy forever and said, "Hey, will you do us a favor? Will you do Billy's final big interview, and take all the questions that everybody has and just do one big interview with him? And then we'll send the tapes to all the different affiliates." So in the writers' room, I'm breaking my story and they're like, "Can you do this for us tomorrow?" So I took a break from my script and went and did an hour-long interview with Billy, which turned out really well actually. We'd never done that before--I'd never interview him for anything. It's hard to interview somebody you know; there's so much [the interviewee] leave[s] out because you know the other person knows the answer. So you just go, "Oh, I'm not going to tell that anecdote because she was there!" And your brain kind of shoves things to the side that you know the other person already knows. It worked out pretty well. That was my last thing I did before moving over.

CSI Files: Do you think that interview will end up on the season nine DVD set?

Marrinan: It will, actually. As it should be, you won't know that I'm interviewing him--it's just footage of him. He did all the work; I didn't have a camera on me.

CSI Files: What's the writers' room at CSI like?

Marrinan: Well, it's different all the time and it really depends on the different combination of people in there because at any given time, you have a writer that's on set, a writer who is off writing their story, you have somebody in editing who is editing their episode, so depending on where you are in the shuffle, you end up with different combinations of people and you're either working on your own story or working on someone else's story. I honestly couldn't tell you what I like better! I really do like being in there [working on somebody else's story], maybe because it's a little less pressure. You know you're not on the spot as much and you can just relax and try to come up with ideas that help the other person. But it's different all the time. Somebody's writing on the board or brings in new research, or sometimes we get Daniel Holstein or one of the tech advisors in for a week so we try to get as much information from them as possible. So we'll have a week of forensic-intensive story breaking. If we're going into a world, we'll watch a documentary or film on that world. Sometimes we'll just all sit around and watch something to get ideas out of it. Or we'll watch old episodes if we want to structure an episode like one we've done in the past. Like Allen [MacDonald] and I, when we were breaking "If I Had a Hammer", the first thing we did was watch "Invisible Evidence" because it had a similar courtroom structure, and we of course changed the structure as we went along, but that was a starting point for us. We said, "Okay, let's watch 'Invisible Evidence' as a successful structure for this kind of thing, and let's go from there." That's what it's been like; you never know what to expect. You come in and Carol [Mendelsohn, executive producer] is like, "You come in, rewrite with me, you go in the room and break a story with Allen"--it can change day to day.

CSI Files: Your first episode for the show was "Let It Bleed". How did that story evolve?

Marrinan: The B-story David Rambo and Carol came up with the idea for and then David and I wrote it together. The A-story was my spec; there was no B-story. It was just an idea that I had come up with based on the funny things in life. I drove by [this] creepy, good-looking tropical aquarium supply place once. It was this windowless dump of a place with really crudely drawn fish and underwater life cartoons on the outside of it. And you just look at this place with the handmade sign and you say, "Man, that's got to be a front for something!" There were never any cars in the parking lot. So I was thinking about that place and also, I've always been drawn to and nauseated by the invention of the blood transfusion and how when they first developed that technology, how crude and painful it was. If you look up online, you can see what the first blood transfusion kits looked like--they're really grotesque! To think that they had to make so many mistakes before we realized that you can't just mix any blood type with another blood type. So people would die and they wouldn't necessarily know why but it was that trial and error that led to discovering the RH factor and the A-B-O blood typing system. So I just had these two randomly different ideas. The fish store kind of sparked this idea in my head about what goes on behind closed doors in that kind of place, thinking, if you had an aquarium business, what kinds of drugs could you run through it? It seems like a perfect front because you have so many chemicals coming in and out. That's where I looked up some information and found the science behind atropine, which is used for both stunning tropical fish for transport and medicinal use in humans and for cutting cocaine for psychedelic purposes. It was kind of this weird selection of notes that merged and from there I just kind of strung them together and I put together and spec and they decided to make the spec. We went back into the room and moved some scenes around and changed a few things here and there. But I was really pleased with how similar it ended up being to the original story. I really didn't expect it to, once we went back in the room, to bear that much resemblance [to my original idea]. That was gratifying.

CSI Files: How soon after writing the episode did you get the offer to join the staff?

Marrinan: The day before we started shooting, actually! So that was really nice. Carol told me right before we started shooting. She said, "The process has just been going really well and everybody agrees that you should be on staff." So that was a nice way to go on hiatus that year.

CSI Files: That's right, the first four episodes of season nine were shot right after season eight wrapped up.

Marrinan: Yeah, it was this time last year. So I was coming back with a different job! It was really a pleasure. I actually wrote the spec not thinking they would ever produce it. I wrote it more [on] advice I got from a mentor in the Producer's Guild. He said, "You don't have any writing samples and producers should know how to write. You should exercise that muscle a little more. You already know this show really well. Why go and try to write a House spec when you could much easier put together a CSI one? And if you're just doing it for your own edification and [to have] a sample, then who cares?" And then [I wrote it] and I though it turned out pretty well. It needed some work for sure. It was definitely a collaborative effort! Sarah Goldfinger read it when I was working on it and a couple of other people, and they encouraged me to give it to Carol and Naren [Shankar, executive producer] to see what they thought.

CSI Files: You wrote "Deep Fried and Minty Fresh" with Sarah Goldfinger and "If I Had a Hammer" with Allen MacDonald. What's it like writing with a partner?

Marrinan: The first thing is, I've [been] very good friends with both of them for a long time. And anybody who's ever worked with friends knows that can go either way. So I was really pleased that both went very well in terms of working with somebody else. I'm used to working with people; I might actually be a better partner writer than a solo writer. People who have writing partners do this all the time. I may be somebody who actually ends up doing that; I just really enjoy bouncing things off somebody else. And if you're working with somebody who is open to other ideas and isn't full of ego or defensive about claim on a certain line, [it's a great experience]. You can love certain things about what you've written, but you have to kind of let go lightly with a lot of things. Quite often for pragmatic reasons or creative reasons, the things you love about a script don't always make it in, and you have to learn to let that go.

Technically, Sarah and I wrote most of our script together; we sat in a room and wrote together, so much so that by the time we were finished, neither of us could remember who wrote what scene or who wrote what line. That particular script turned out very different from what we first pitched. We had seen it as a much more serious episode, but as it went along, everybody seemed to respond more to the more comic elements. I wouldn't say that it was light as much as it was just kind of quirky and weird comedy, with some really fun, out-there characters. But it was not at all what I thought it was going to be going in, which is a really good experience. Like I said, if you get married to an idea and you don't let it live its own life to a certain extent--because so many people are breathing life into it--you're just going to end up disappointed. So you just have to be open to what it's going to become. And if you really care about a certain aspect of it, you fight for it, of course. That one didn't turn out at all like I planned. Sarah and I wrote together very well and people seemed to respond to the wackiness of it pretty well.

This last one was my favorite of the season--not my favorite of all the episodes this season, but my favorite one that I was involved in. Working with Allen was great. We worked together very differently than Sarah and I did, in that I wrote the Teaser, Act One and Act Two and he wrote Act Three and Act Four. And then we put them together and then went back over the script together to try to make it one voice. Carol was very involved in that part of the process as well, smoothing it over. I think we had really awesome guest cast. Henry Thomas (Jeremy Kent) and Charlotte Ross (Sabrina Owen) were amazing. I love writing for Marg [Helgenberger, Catherine Willows]. Originally my "Let It Bleed" spec didn't even have Grissom in it; it was almost all a Catherine episode because at that point when I was writing it, I knew Billy was leaving, so I just decided to write it as a Catherine A-story. She's really fun and full of great ideas. Even when you're changing things around, she has really wonderful instincts about what works and what comes across naturally. Sometimes it seems fine on the page and then as soon as it comes out of someone's mouth, after the first take I'll be like, "Oooh, that isn't working." [Marg] always has great ideas because she knows her character better than anyone else.

That was a really great episode to be on set for. It was really special, too, because Daniel Holstein, who was the inspiration for Grissom way back in the day who has been helping us for years and being a tech advisor from afar--because he's still a head CSI in Las Vegas--this was his story. This was his first case--or something similar to it. It's not exactly like his first case for obvious reason, but it was definitely the starting point. What's so amazing is that the one thing that nobody believes about this episode--the whole idea that a hammer was outside for ten to fifteen years--[was true]. Ten or fifteen years after Daniel's first case, the guy that was put behind bars got a new trial because there was some kind of monkey business with the lawyers back in the day or the jury instructions were wrong--there was some kind of small technicality and basically this guy got a new trial. So Daniel had to go back to his first case. He was a rookie [at the time of the case]--there was something else big going on in Vegas that night and his supervisor said, "Okay, here's your first case, see you later!" and dropped him off. Because he was a new kid, he was meticulous, so thorough, so scared that he was going to make a mistake that he took excellent documentation and the guy got convicted. Now, it's so many years later, the technology is different--there's DNA now and you can see things on computers and test for certain chemicals that you couldn't do back in 1991 unless you were at Quantico. So he had to take out his whole box of evidence and reprocess the whole thing, but he still didn't have the murder weapon. He went back to the scene, which is something our guys always [do]. So he went back to the scene, but the house was gone! So he's wandering around the lot, and he literally just looked into this bush next to a wall, and there's a hammer being held by the bush with leaf matter protecting it. And it's the murder weapon. And he got evidence off of it.

It's funny, I've looked at the things online and people say, "That's impossible. A tree couldn't do that. You couldn't get evidence off of it." It's true that if it had been in Miami, it would have been too humid. But it's nice and dry in Las Vegas and it fell in exactly the right spot and got protected by the foliage. And trees do grow around all kinds of items--there are some very funny pictures online! So that was the thing that nobody believed about the episode, and that was the thing that actually happened. We find a lot that the truth is stranger than fiction. So that was fun--it was great for Daniel, too. We were the lucky ones--we got the story and he was really able to be involved and got a credit--finally! For all the things he's helped us with and all the stories he's told us, it had a good feeling behind the entire project.

CSI Files: It really is incredible that the hammer story is true!

Marrinan: I saw some things online [that said], "Man, they're really stretching it these days on CSI! That makes our job harder, but it should be hard. We never really want to cut ourselves any slack, either. We never say, "Well, we'll just fake that here or there." You have to fake the time it takes to get something, you have to skim over some less dramatic details to get to the story, but we've got these really excellent tech advisors who did this for a living and some of them are also writers, like Rich Catalani and Larry Mitchell and Daniel Holstein. You sit down with these guys and you have to look them in the eye and ask them, "How is this done?" They'll tell you and they'll cut you some slack, but when you're writing, you feel that you have to do right by the tech advisors as well as the audience. This is their reputation on the line with their co-workers; they're supposed to keep us honest. And I know I take that very seriously. It's really hard because the fans became more educated about this at the same pace we [did]. This is a smart audience, and you have to respect their intelligence. But then if we have something that seems so far out there, I suggest they probably do a little of their own research first before they say we're lying!

CSI Files: I've definitely Googled after watching the show!

Marrinan: When we're coming up with ideas, Google is great. I don't know if we could have done this show pre-Google. But then we still have to get everything vetted. Just because [you can't] believe everything you read. We'll find something online and then we'll ask our experts and they'll say, "Well, not really." Like the toothpaste poisoning thing--that happened once. Could it happen? Yes. Does it happen all the time? No. But it's possible under the right circumstances. As long as you kind of go along with that suspension of disbelief, if you go along with that if the moons are aligned and the planets are aligned in the exact right away, somebody could die from it! It's happened once. We really do care about the credibility of these [stories]. We're not trying to put one on anyone. We don't want to look bad, and we don't want our tech advisors to look bad.

If people didn't care, we could be a lot lazier about this stuff, but they do. We want people to go, "Wow, I had no idea that could happen! That's such a cool piece of science. I've never heard that before." So when we're talking about ten years and umpteen different forensic shows on TV, for someone to go, "I've never heard that before," it's getting harder and harder! There was a day when they could take a blood test and put phenophaline on the Q-tip and it turns pink and everybody would ooh and ahhh. Gone are those days! But that could be a major piece of science in one of our first episodes. The bar is so much higher now. I might need to go get another degree!

CSI Files: Fans definitely pick up on character tidbits and humor as well.

Marrinan: I really am a big fan of the episodes that really have a scientific structure, like "A Bullet Runs Through It" or "Invisible Evidence" or "If I Had a Hammer" because as a writer I like to work with boundaries. Maybe it's because we're on deadline, but I like for someone to give me somewhere to aim. So if you have this really strong skeletal structure with science and you know you have to hit all these marks, the strong logic part of my brain really loves that. And of course then you have to make sure all of the other emotional elements and wherever we are in the story arc of the season [are] added in. But I'm very comfortable writing within a strong science structure. I don't feel like that's an afterthought--let's stick some science in here. For me, that's just a comfortable place to start.

From an emotion part of it, you can go in so many different directions. There were some scenes with Catherine that maybe the first time you write it, she has a very strong attitude in one way. Like she's mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. But then you read it with the rest of the script and realize, "Oh no, in this scene she should actually be a little forlorn and maybe thinking of her past and all the things she wishes she did differently." Then all the sudden the tone of that scene is so much different because there's such a range of human emotion you can play to. You can adjust those things, but you can't adjust how the science goes. So if you write a scene and the notes that you get back from the network or the executives say, "I don't want Catherine to act like this in this scene. I want her to act in a different way." That's change you can [do]: you have to track it through the episode, but you can go in and change the dialogue and the intention or maybe just page-one rewrite. But if you have that strong structure in the beginning, it's not like a house of cards that's going to fall apart.

CSI Files: The scene between Catherine and Brass (Paul Guilfoyle) in "If I Had a Hammer" where they're discussing the case is a really nice one.

Marrinan: Allen wrote that scene. I love that scene. I think they did a great job. That's one of those scenes that changed a lot. At one point the scene was with a different character and it didn't quite work as well. We wanted someone who knew Catherine back in the day like Grissom did. We thought, Brass knew her then. [We wanted] somebody who's more of a seniority equal but maybe not Ecklie (Marc Vann) because she might not be as comfortable opening up to him. That scene changed three or four times when we were writing it. I think [Allen] really nailed it when all was said and done.

CSI Files: It's been a big year of change for CSI, saying goodbye to two characters and bringing two new ones in. What was it like tackling that?

Marrinan: It was really interesting. I got to be in on the break for the Billy finale/Laurence [Fishburne, Ray Langston] intro, "19 Down"/"One to Go" and it was kind of like sky's the limit at that point--there were so many different ways it could go. Laurence came in and he talked about what he had in mind. Like our other actors, he's somebody who has a great sense of storytelling and character and, you know, he's been in a couple of things before, so we tried to give him what he was looking for while at the same time giving the show what it needed and the audience hopefully what they wanted. But it's tough because you're writing five or six episodes ahead of what's aired. So you're writing episodes and you don't even know how the audience has reacted yet to his character. And they take that very seriously. They don't just go, "This is what we're doing--my way or the highway." When we write something and we put it up on screen--especially if it's character-based or arc-based--and if we're not getting a good response, if the fans aren't digging it, they listen and try to go, "Okay, this doesn't seem to be [working]." You can't please all the people all the time but if it seems pretty unanimous in one direction, we'll try to adjust things.

But they have a pretty strong idea of Langston being, not to the detriment of the other characters of course, really being the intellectual center of the show, the way Catherine is really the emotional center of the show. We had a couple of episodes where he was the new guy, making mistakes, and I think we kind of thought that was going to go on longer. Then all the sudden we were like, "We have to move him along. We can't have him being a rookie for a whole season." He's a grown-up, smart guy who does his homework and our audience has got to trust him and the other CSIs have to trust him. And you can't have him do the really cool, interesting stuff until he's caught up with the rest of his peers. So he accelerated pretty quickly, but I think because he's presented as an exceptionally intelligent guy--he was a pathologist and a teacher and obviously has life experiences behind him and you can kind of go with that. And he can't replace Grissom. Nobody wanted him to replace Grissom. So we had to make him different enough--maybe he's more socially adept than Grissom was. But he's not like a big open 'tells everybody his feelings all the time' guy either. Like you have a couple of shots where you see him wearing a ring--you don't know if he's divorced or widowed. And we didn't necessarily know from the get-go either.

CSI Files: Do the writers know now?

Marrinan: No. I can say I do, but it can all change. There are so many things that have gone a different way at the last minute. We'll just have to see what happens next season. It's not what the show's about, but if you're going to invest in these characters, they have to be real people.

CSI Files: The other new character on the show, Riley Adams (Lauren Lee Smith) obviously has a rich backstory of her own. Will we find out about the suicide referenced in "Miscarriage of Justice" that obviously haunts her?

Marrinan: I'm pretty confident that that will play out [in season ten]. I'm not sure when. I think she has a really interesting backstory that hasn't been explored yet, so different from everybody else. She has kind of a fun, sassy side to her that is great to play. I just love Lauren--she's delightful on so many levels. [Riley] has some serious trauma in her backstory that she's going to need to deal with because it will present itself in some ways. Like you mentioned in the case of the suicide--being so opinionated almost makes her judgmental. So obviously people are wondering what that's all about. We'll definitely get to explore that. She has a real enigmatic quality to her. It was a big year to be introducing new stories and story arcs for people, between Grissom and Sara's resolution, introducing Langston and getting to know Riley more. I think this is going to be a good year for her.

CSI Files: Do you know if there are any plans for William Petersen and/or Jorja Fox to return?

Marrinan: I don't know of any. I know Billy has had a couple plays going on this year. I know the door is definitely left open for that possibility, but I have not heard anything about it or what the situation would be that would bring them back. Because things change so much during the course of a season, something we think will work in episode three, we'll get to episode seven and realize we missed the boat. We're way past that point now. It's like the Langston being a rookie thing--there were some very cool moments to play and then we all woke up one morning and were like, "Oh my god, we're so over this." And I think that point came and his first episode hadn't even premiered yet! So we're over him being a rookie, and his first episode hadn't even aired yet for the public. It just moves so fast.

But it's important to remember where everybody else is at. Naren and Carol wisely said even though we were moving forward with Langston so quickly we have to let this air and see how everybody responds to it before we set this in stone. It's the kind of writing that because it's ongoing, it's almost like the process isn't done until we get feedback from the audience. You can write in a vacuum all day long, and it can look nice on paper and then the actors can say it and you go, "Oooh, that line looked good on paper--it doesn't sound good now that it's being spoken." So you change it a little more and mess with it a little more and then you go edit it. And then you look at it all together and go, "Aw, man, I wish we had this other line in there--it would be so much more clear." So then maybe we do a re-shoot or do a loop line. So you write a new line and insert it in editing and the magic of editing [happens]. And then you all watch it, and you're watching it with a bunch of people who have already been living it so long that it's almost like the process isn't completed until you get more feedback and then the last episode is always teeing up for the next one. It's never just a single incident. So you have a responsibility to the writers that are coming next because you're teeing them up for the next thing that happens in the arc. If you think about it that way, it keeps us very busy. And you have to know what everyone else is doing, you have to constantly be reading other people's pitches and scripts and watching cuts that aren't finished yet because it will affect the episode that you're writing. I know that sounds self-evident, but I didn't realize to what extent until I actually got into this with them.

CSI Files: Have you guys started talking about season ten yet?

Marrinan: We had a meeting; we always get together at the end of the season to talk about what people should start thinking of, new story ideas, new character ideas. But I think by the end of the season, the well is kind of empty and the hope is that you'll come back after a month off energized and rejuvenated and come in with a bunch of new fresh ideas. And certainly when you get in the room with the other ten writers, that's always an exciting day. We come back and then production doesn't come back for another six weeks. So we have a little head start to try to lay out the year as much as we can knowing things change. So we're going to come back in early June and have a lot of talking to do!

Discuss this interviews at Talk CSI!

Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Kristine Huntley is a freelance writer and reviewer.