Michael Crichton - Television

The Original Cast of ER, 1994. Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Spotlight on Michael Crichton’s Television Career

Michael Crichton, drawing on his extensive Harvard Medical School training, created the series and wrote the script for the pilot episode of ER 20 years before it was produced.  Eventually to become one of the longest running dramas in television history, the approach Michael Crichton developed towards television dramas changed the way modern series are written, paced, and directed.

In His Own Words

Michael Crichton - In His Own WordsAs soon as the first draft was finished. I looked at it and realized that it didn’t follow the structure of any script I’d ever seen. Characters didn’t resolve; there were no story arcs; patients came and went at random; the pace was breakneck; dialog technical; emotions understated. Taken as a whole, the script looked chaotic and determinedly undramatic. It was an accurate portrayal of life in an ER, but as I read it over, I lost my nerve.

I gave the script to a friend who was a studio story editor. He agreed it didn’t follow any of the rules, but said it was terrific, and predicted that it would work like gangbusters. Twenty years later, it turns out he was right.

Michael Crichton Signature

I wrote it in 1974. I’d just finished Westworld, which was fantasy, and I wanted to do something very realistic. I decided to write a quasi-documentary about twenty-four hours in an emergency room. I had spent time in the ER during my medical training, and I felt that environment had never really been portrayed on film. I set out to show the hectic pace and the quiet heroism of the physicians who do this work. I tried to reproduce the way individual patients were seen briefly, in glimpses—they came and went, and often you never knew what happened to them. Done in this way, the script was easy to write, because I was just reporting events I had experienced. I didn’t think about it, I just did it.

Origins

The television series ER was created by Michael Crichton.  The origins of this groundbreaking medical drama are related in a 2009 Hollywood Reporter article called “Saying Goodbye to ER: After 15 Seasons of Blood, Sweat and Tears, NBC’s Medical Drama is Sewing it Up”. Here is an excerpt:

The ER phenomenon started as a dusty, 20-year-old, 150-page screenplay that Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton had written based on his own experiences as a medical resident in a busy ER, and only wound up at NBC somewhat by default, as Warren Littlefield remembers it.

Littlefield, now an independent producer, was running NBC Entertainment in tandem with NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer back in 1993. Crichton was riding high on the mania wave surrounding the first “Jurassic” film, and this script, intended to be a feature, was suddenly pitched at NBC through CAA as an ensemble medical drama.

“We were intrigued,” Littlefield recalled, “but we were admittedly a bit spooked in attempting to go back into that territory a few years after St. Elsewhere, one of the great dramas in the history of the medium, had left our air. Here we had this screenplay from a very hot author that was very long and dusty and all over the place. And yet at its core there was something quite remarkable about it. There were all of these heroic characters who were very flawed. There was a density to it that was dizzying, But it was memorable.”

By that time, Steven Spielberg also was onboard as a producer, and NBC greenlit ER as a two-hour movie. That wasn’t good enough for CAA, which insisted on a six-episode order. “We told them, ‘Good luck finding that,’ ” Littlefield says. “We finally came to an agreement after lots of twists and turns.”

ER premiered opposite a Monday Night Football game on ABC and did surprisingly well, Littlefield remembers. “Then we moved it to Thursday night and it just took off.”

This was the mid-1990s heyday of “Seinfeld” at NBC, and so Thursday night at 10 was seen as the choicest spot on television. “We were in the right place at the right time with the right cast,” is how Executive Producer John Wells sums it up. “A lot of things have to go just right for this kind of success to happen. There’s an alchemy to these things when they work. You wind up looking like a genius, but the truth is you can never replicate it.”

ER brought to television an arresting visual style that felt fresh and invigorating, its trademark overlapping story lines feeling somehow compelling rather than overcrowded. It connected with audiences in a way no medical series previously had. Scheduled opposite CBS’ Chicago Hope, the David E. Kelley-produced medical show that was artsier and more character-based, ER blew it out of the water.

“Our idea from the start was to be an emotional action show,” recalls Christopher Chulack, who was an ER producer at the start and is riding the series’ last wave as an executive producer. “The whole idea was to convey the pace of working in an actual ER. That, and studying the lives of the people who work in that emergency room and how this job impacted them.”

Actors Sherry Stringfield and Anthony Edwards “We were careful never to sugarcoat the material or cast doctors as larger than life,” Wells adds. “They made mistakes, and patients acted like idiots — just like in real life.”

ER screenplay written by Michael Crichton

In His Own Words

Michael Crichton - In His Own WordsThis project has a long history, and it was something that interested me ever since my medical training. What actually happened was in—I think in ’89, Steven Spielberg called me up and said he wanted to do a project about an emergency room, and I said I did too. We began to work on this thing, and shortly after that, he got interested in dinosaurs and I did too. So we deferred this thing. And it kept getting deferred, and finally it seemed as though it was not going to have a life in the way that we had originally imagined. And we thought of doing it as a television show, which we’re glad we did.

Don’t miss our special section dedicated to Michael Crichton’s hit TV Series, ER.

A Different Kind of Medical Drama

In His Own Words

Michael Crichton - In His Own WordsI had a lot to say about the actors’ performances in the pilot and early episodes, because there were several problems that had to be overcome. The first was pace; everybody involved in TV had long since adopted a speed of moving and talking which was far slower than real life. It was an economic issue, really. Fewer script pages to shoot in an hour. But I wanted ER to run at a faster than usual pace. At first, the actors were uncomfortable talking so fast. And I wanted them to rattle off the tech talk, which is even more difficult. And I pushed for a professional demeanor, which meant they not “relate” to patients in expected ways. For example, it was hard to get the actors to look at the injury and not at the patients’ faces, when they were talking to them. It goes against instinct. But professional behavior is a lot of what gives the show its realistic quality. And finally, I urged an eccentric rhythm on the show, and to keep scenes from having a “button” either in writing or in performance. Often TV scenes end on a meaningful look or a dramatic pause. Actors come to expect that, to build their performances around that final moment. But those buttons stop the flow dead. I wanted the show to cut away before the moment happened. It was a little unusual at first.

“On the Cutting Edge: Medical Realism on ER” featuring Michael Crichton

From the Archives: Michael Crichton’s Notes on the ER Pilot’s Dailies

Selected Notes:

DON’T BE AFRAID TO PUSH THE PACE! The key to this dialogue is to push the pace and throw away the lines. If it feels uncomfortably fast, it is probably about right.

(The Greene-Ross IV scene is probably fine, given its desultory quality in the story.)

But in crisis scenes, when the pace slows down (as it did with Barr and Lewis) the scene loses urgency. It seemed to me these two seem to have too much time for banter; I don’t feel she’s hurrying on to the next patient, she’s too personal, too relaxed, there isn’t a crisis. He isn’t worried or in shock from injury or a near escape. It’s a pleasant scene, and it’s very easygoing.

Push the pace and the proper behavior will naturally follow. Get the actors stepping on each others’ lines. Don’t be afraid of overlapping!

You must give yourself room to shift pace internally; the Lewis-Barr scene was about the normal dialog pace for, say, Greene and his wife in the cafeteria, not the crisis-mode pace.

Remember, pumping the pace is one of the simple technical things you can do to distinguish this piece from run-of-the-dial TV and I would urge you to do it. Think His Girl Friday.

The final, crucial point about pace is that if you slow it, you invite the audience to imagine they can or should understand the technical dialogue. But the true tech talk they’ll never comprehend. So you aren’t doing your audience a favor by slowing it down. In fact, if it goes faster there will be a subliminal signal not to try to understand it, but rather to go with the flow, and the audience will be happier. Trust me on this.

(In printing my books, I often put dull technical passages in smaller type, making it harder to read, so the readers won’t try to read it, but will just sort of skim or look at it. If it was normal type, they’d think something was there of plot importance, they’d read dutifully, and they will be disappointed or annoyed.)

Selected Notes:

GET THE TECH TALK DOWN COLD AND BORING! The performers often seem to be feeling for the lingo, or semi going up on their technical lines, instead of rattling it off. And even when they are saying the medicalese smoothly, it seems to have an interesting quality to them, as if they have chocolate in their mouths and they are rolling it around, tasting it, savoring it a little. Beat that shit out of them! As doctors, they’ve been saying words like these for decades and it all comes blurting out on automatic pilot. It isn’t interesting to them; it’s just information, and they can report it and comprehend it at a blistering pace.

The proper analogy here is directions. If you had an actor emote on camera while giving directions to get somewhere (“turn left at the 405, and golly, make sure you get in the right lane, and then, let’s see, now, why gosh, I suppose you might want to get to the 134″) you’d kick his ass until he just rattled it off, because in life nobody emotes while giving directions. It’s just directions, for Chrissake. Same with the med talk.

Don’t miss our special section dedicated to Michael Crichton’s hit TV Series, ER.

“You Set the Tone”

In two pivotal scenes in the Emmy winning pilot episode of ER, a doctor tells another doctor … “You set the tone.”  From the Official Archives, you can see one of these scenes as Michael Crichton originally wrote it.

Don’t miss our special section dedicated to Michael Crichton’s hit TV Series, ER.

ER - Most Emmys for Freshman Series

ER’s Eight Emmy Awards Ties Record for Most By a Freshman Series

In His Own Words

Michael Crichton - In His Own Words

I learned—or was reminded of—the overwhelming importance of luck in this business. Because ER was very lucky. Although this particular project retained my original vision as a writer, I can’t take any credit for that. I’m as malleable as other writers; I want to see my projects get made, and I know I have to accommodate divergent views along the way. That ER retained its integrity was, in retrospect, just a matter of luck. Many times, a studio or network said they would make ER if I would rewrite it in a more conventional form. I never did, usually because I was busy with other things, so I never got around to making the changes. Eventually, I became stubborn. I’d lived with the project so long, I wanted it to be done as written, or not at all. After all, I’d already waited two decades with the script in the drawer. I became courageous because I didn’t give a damn any more.

Finally NBC agreed to shoot the script as written. It was a brave decision on their part. They just gulped and said, go ahead. But I think they might have been emboldened by another bit of luck: Steven Spielberg was the project’s godfather, and Jurassic Park had been released a few months earlier, and was a huge hit.

Another piece of luck was that none of the powers-that-be were entirely convinced the project would succeed, so we were left alone to work as we thought best. Rod Holcomb directed the pilot wonderfully. Our cast was more inspired than we knew. The show found favor with audiences.

And finally, of course, ER luck has continued. The show’s cast and crew handles their huge success with unprecedented grace. And most important, John Wells assembled a creative team that has deepened the characters, and the storytelling format, in breathtaking ways. In its third year, ER has lost none of its energy. But it has acquired an emotional heart and a technical polish that goes far beyond anything in the pilot.

One of the most difficult things for a writer in this business to accept is the uncertain fate of one’s work. I sometimes think that filmmaking means taking all the elements—the script, the director, the cast, the producers—and throwing them up in the air, then seeing if they land on the ground in a pleasing pattern. Sometimes the process works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

But sometimes, if you’re really lucky, everything falls together just right, and you get more than you ever hoped for. More, to be honest, than you deserve.

That’s how I feel about ER. I’m pleased, proud—and very grateful.