To get the TV production low-down from higher-ups like Steven Bochco, Jerry Bruckheimer, Stephen J. Cannell, David E. Kelley, David Milch, Steven Spielberg, Darren Star and John Wells would cost a hefty tuition in any school of cinema or TV.
Or, you could just have a chat with Ann Donahue.
The “CSI: Miami” showrunner worked under or alongside all of the above producers, for whom awards have grown like orange trees in the Sunshine State. Even though “CSI: Miami” is generally more of a procedural and less character-based than the shows of her past, their influence flows through Donahue.
“From every person I worked with, I got something,” she says.
Donahue’s television writing career began on “21 Jump Street” (co-created by Cannell), and within a few years, Donahue was moving up the producer ladder on “Picket Fences” (Kelley), “Murder One” (Bochco) and “High Incident” (Spielberg).
The list of shows is quite a gamut to run, but the run leads right to Donahue’s approach to her current show. For example, the quirky, serialized “Picket Fences” doesn’t bear much resemblance to “CSI: Miami” — but where the twain did meet, Donahue drew lessons.
“From David Kelley,” Donahue says, “I learned to say, ‘Why not?’ If it’s been done once in the real world, let’s get a story out of it. Even if things are being worked on in universities in research and development, it’s always, ‘Why not?'”
Similarly, Bochco and Spielberg yielded tutelage all their own — the kind of stuff that you can be told in Screenwriting 101, but that doesn’t really stick until you see those at the top of their field show their loyalty to the maxims.
“Organization, organization, organization,” Donahue says, was Bochco’s mantra. “That’s the way to produce. There’s a great phrase: ‘There are no mistakes made in production; it’s all pre-production.’ “From Mr. Spielberg, I learned to use a visual. Whenever you can use a visual in place of a word, use a visual.”
Other lessons for Donahue were more nuanced. Milch, a writer and creative consultant on “Murder One,” offered Donahue guidance that should prove interesting to fans of his HBO series, “Deadwood.”
“The hardest thing is the one I learned from Milch,” Donahue says, “which is that the audience will fill in 70% of the dialogue. It took me a long time to realize no one here wants to hear my flowery language.”
For all the high-profile shows Donahue has toiled on, she says that “21 Jump Street” and producer David Levinson, whose credits date back to the 1960s series “The Virginian,” taught her the most about the nuts and bolts of storytelling. It’s much more than what’s on the page; it’s lighting, casting, the whole megillah.
And then ultimately, no matter how many legendary tutors you have had, you have to be yourself.
“Every show has a voice,” Donahue says, “like every book has a voice, and you have to learn the voice and write toward that. If I were to come in and write a ‘Picket Fencian’ story (for ‘CSI: Miami’), it would stick out like a sore thumb.”
It is Donahue, then, who was instrumental in distancing “CSI: Miami” from the original “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” has adapted her character-influenced background to the demands of a procedural show for 100 episodes and has kept the series from getting stale.
What you come to realize — though with all her accumulated knowledge, it should be no surprise — is that Donahue is becoming a mentor herself. “Oz” veteran Sunil Nayar, now a “CSI: Miami” co-executive producer, testifies to that.
“She sees each part of the process and excels at it,” Nayar says. “Breaking story, visuals, editing — she is the best editor I have ever seen in my life. She is the guiding light of the thing. She’ll find stories where we weren’t sure any existed.”
Donahue insists she is still learning.
“You still worry every morning,” she concludes. “I will say I don’t get in the elevator like when I was younger and say, ‘How am I going to do it?’ “