Originally published in Script magazine May/June 2011
Aaron Ginsburg is a longtime TV/Film writer, producer and director. His television writing/producing credits include The 100 (CW), The Good Guys (Fox), The Finder (Fox), Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe (USA), and Intelligence (CBS), to name a few. Follow Aaron on Twitter: @DrLawyerCop.
The smell is absolutely disgusting. A thick, putrid stench of decay and death chokes the air. Struggling not to gag, I involuntarily cover my nose and mouth with my sleeve, my eyes watering.
I’m standing in the fictionalized version of the Forensic Sciences Department of the Jeffersonian Institute, a sprawling, high-tech laboratory soundstage that’s home to Fox’s hit crime series Bones. In front of me, creator Hart Hanson has removed what’s left of a decomposed human skeleton from a large, stainless steel vat. As my body fights back another round of dry heaves, I turn to my equally nauseated photographer and stammer, “I thought this was supposed to be fake … ”
Ten Minutes Earlier
“Are you bored yet?” Hart Hanson asks me, with a self-eff acing charm. The creator and showrunner of one of Fox’s top-rated shows embodies a warm, jovial spirit and a youthful energy that’s downright infectious. Of course, at this point we hadn’t yet found the rotting body. He’s in the process of taking me and my friend, (and substitute photographer) John, on a private tour of the massive set while I ask him about his show’s humble beginnings.
“Back in 2005—oh my God, that’s so long ago—I went to meet with producer Barry Josephson. He had gotten the rights to a documentary on Kathy Reichs, who had written the books about Temperance Brennan.”
Reichs, a real-life forensic anthropologist and best-selling novelist, has now written 13 novels that tell the tales of her beloved heroine Temperance Brennan (played onscreen by Emily Deschanel). However, when Hanson began creating his series, he believed he only had the rights to Kathy Reichs’ real life. “So, I created the world of Bones from that documentary. There’s nothing from the original books in the show. In the books, Temperance Brennan is a 50-year-old, divorced, former alcoholic who has a grown daughter. She works in Montreal and North Carolina, in two forensic labs. But I didn’t take any of that world … ”
In fact, Hanson didn’t even use the name Temperance Brennan initially “because I didn’t know we had the rights to the books or the character!” It was Kathy Reichs, of all people, who suggested the show use her character’s name. Hanson remembers Reichs asked him, “‘Would you mind making her Temperance Brennan?” And I thought that’d be great because Kathy has, you know, a mass market published following—a big following.”
As it so happens, Josephson had obtained the rights to one of Reichs’ books, but this was a detail that Hanson never knew. “It’s something I just found out last week! I didn’t know we had the rights to one of the books. I thought we only had the rights to the documentary.” Then he muses, “If I’d known everything I should have known, I don’t know if we’d still be on the air … Watch your step.” And with that, Hanson produces a very realistic-looking FBI identification card and swipes it through a sensor. Just like on the show, the machine chirps and we’re granted access to Temperance Brennan’s primary research area.
Both John and I look at each other—excited to be on the Bones set where Dr. “Bones” Brennan and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth (Deschanel and David Boreanaz) catch bad guys week after week. Hanson, meanwhile, looks like a federal agent himself, twirling his FBI badge while describing what happened when he was tasked to write the pilot. Before he ever set pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), he told 20th Century Fox, “Look, I’m not going to do a CSI. I’m not going to do a procedural. I’d die of boredom before I got halfway through the year.” Hanson chuckles at the memory, “And Fox said, ‘No, no, no, do it your way, with character and humor and all that stuff,’ and I knew they were lying … that they would never make it because they wanted a CSI. So I wrote the pilot and, much to my surprise, Fox bought it and said, ‘Yeah, yeah, we like this!’”
And so did America. The series premiere was watched by 10 million viewers, and after only three episodes, Fox ordered a full season. Now, over 100 episodes later, Bones is in its sixth season and still going strong.
“So, in all your episodes, do you have a favorite murder weapon?” I ask.
Hanson stops mid-tour, and grins, “That’s a great question! You know what: I think we’ve used up every goddamn thing we can think of that you can kill a person with.”
“So, if you were to murder someone today, you’re saying you wouldn’t have a personal preference of murder weapon?”
Hanson eyes me, “Do you mean, have I learned how to get away with murder?” For a moment, neither of us says a word. Finally, I smile back, “I did have that on my list of questions, yeah.”
Hanson looks around, making sure the coast is clear, and then he leans against a large stainless steel vat. His voice is low, conspiratorial, as he reveals, “Here’s how I would kill someone if I had to get away with it: I would whack them on the head with something you could buy at Target or Walmart—something that they sell gazillions of units of—like a kids’ aluminum baseball bat. Then, I would wrap the person up in a sheet so that blood didn’t get anywhere. I would take him out to the Mojave and dump him in the middle of the desert, without burying him, with no clothing, and just leave him there. And if no one found that body for three days, then I’d be free and clear. I’m in grave danger for those three days, but after three days, trust me, there’s nothing left of that body.”
I nervously glance over at John, my photographer. We both watch as Hanson’s eyes glimmer with excitement. He continues, “Coyotes and wildlife have just taken care of the body. Everything is scattered over, like, 25 miles. They’d never catch me. That would be my method of killing someone.”
He takes a breath, then adds, “Not that I’ve thought about it.”
And that’s when we discover the body.
As Hanson moves to continue our little tour, he accidentally brushes against the steel vat, knocking a transparent odor shield onto the floor—and instantly, the room is clogged with the overwhelming smell of decay. As we peer at the putrefied remains, I struggle not to wretch. Good thing my photographer had a stronger stomach and was able to catch the moment on film. The vat is a tool that forensic anthropologists commonly use to macerate remains, literally boiling the flesh off the bones in a nasty cocktail of powdered Alconox, sodium carbonate, and water. But, Hanson assures us that this industrial macerator is just set decoration. It’s not real. Or, at least, it’s not supposed to be.
The three of us all exchange a look. One thing’s clear: “These bones aren’t props.”
In all of my assignments over the years, discovering a rotting corpse mid-question was definitely a first. I quickly decide I’m going to try and keep my interview with Hart Hanson on track. I only get a few hours with him, he’s a busy man, and the whole day was nearly ruined earlier when the magazine’s original photographer flaked and didn’t show up. I was able to call in a favor from my good friend, John, and now my interview was happening … with or without the potential murder investigation.
That said, it’s hard not to be a little freaked out. “Shouldn’t we call the cops?” But, Hanson gives me a cool wink: “How about after the interview? The cops are used to me doing a little scientific inquiry on my own.” And with that, Hanson moves to a lab station and begins carefully extracting microscopic particles from one of the femurs. He places his findings into some medical-looking centrifuge, and I can’t help but ask, “I thought you said these were all just set decorations?” Hanson shrugs, “I find it really informs the writers on the show to know everything about how these things work. Believe it or not, given how goofy we are, we don’t make shit up … ”
He presses a button and the centrifuge begins to spin. While a nearby supercomputer begins assembling partial strands of the victim’s DNA, Hanson reflects on the murders in his TV series. “Keeping the cases from being repetitive is getting really hard. Who knew we were going to go this long? I hate to admit this, especially to another writer, but the network guy on our show once said, ‘The best episodes start when you come across a body and you go, ‘How the fuck did this get here? What the fuck happened to this guy? How the fuck are we going to solve this question?’ And I remembered that. Now we call that moment ‘The Find.’ So, by about episode five of the first season, we would start with the discovery of a body by civilians. That was a production decision, by the way, because it gave David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel a half a day to breathe. Or they would come walking up and there would be human remains in some gross, yet engrossing, position.”
The centrifuge beeps and Hanson begins typing into the supercomputer, “We always had that beginning, at around five to seven minutes into the show you were going to be looking at something horrible and, we hoped, interesting. We’ve done that every time.”
“Do you feel that, as a writer, you’ve gotten better at solving murders?” I ask, my eyes drift to the half-assembled skeleton.
“That’s a great question. No one has asked me that in six years.” Hanson peels off his plastic gloves and tosses them in a medical waste basket. “Because here’s the thing: I certainly was never perceived as a procedural writer. I’m a character and humorous, light-drama guy. I originally hired a bunch of people with a lot of procedural experience and they’re all gone now.”
“Dead?” I ask, nervously.
Hanson chuckles, “No … it just didn’t work out. You always need people who are very good at plot, but I think most writers should be able to tell a story. Certainly, I know the science now. I know forensics and I know our actors, so things go more smoothly. I would say we struggled very hard in the first season to figure out how to tell these murder stories. We made classic mistakes, like we almost had people in the drawing room at the end of the episode saying, ‘and then you killed him with a candlestick because he was sleeping with your sister!’ We’ve gotten better at parsing stuff out. So, I guess I am better at telling murder stories now than I was when I started on Bones 116 episodes ago. I could have answered that question with a simple ‘yes.’ See what you’re in for?”
Before I can respond, Hanson clicks a few more keys on the computer and the ID of our victim is suddenly displayed on a large monitor in front of us: DYLAN SERRANO, 36, PART-TIME PARALEGAL. Hanson looks at me, “Know him?” I shake my head; I don’t. So the question becomes: How did this 36-year-old part-time paralegal end up boiled to death in a huge vat on the set of a hit Fox television series?
“Somewhere in season three, I said to my writing staff, ‘Okay, I don’t want to hear the words ‘blunt force trauma’ again. We will not solve another murder by finding an impression of the weapon in the bone that tells us ‘this is a Colt 45.’” It’s clearly one of Hanson’s storytelling pet peeves, but even as he says it, he holds up Dylan Serrano’s skull—pointing to a dent in the bone. “Of course, when it works, it works.” I look closer and see a nearly indiscernible cranial rupture to the parietal bone. “An impression of the weapon?” I ask. Hanson nods. Maybe Serrano wasn’t boiled to death …
With incredible skill, Hanson slides the skull under Brennan’s high-power Scanning Electron Microscope and magnifies the damaged area by 300 times. What becomes clear is the faintest trace of something silver, something metallic, in the bone indentation. I look around the lab, but everything looks silver. “Maybe Serrano fell and hit his head on the lip of your maceration vat?” I offer. Hanson nods, it’s plausible. “Or maybe he was pushed. Only one way to find out.”
We begin analyzing the metallic substance together. John snaps photos of us working while Hanson shares more of his process. “In the first season, what I had to do to start writing—and I started this in the pilot— was draw a little dead stick figure. And in and around the stick figure, I’d draw all the evidence. All of it. Because that’s what our show is, especially bone evidence. So you’d have to have two or three things on the bone, knowing that in Act Five or in Act Six the final bone thing would click into place and you could catch the bad guy. But also there’d be: What did he have in his pockets? What does his clothing say? What bugs were around him? And so I’d draw pictures.”
I ask Hanson if he uses any other shorthand terms, like his stick-figure drawings, on the show and he nods. “As I mentioned, there’s ‘The Find.’ Then we have what we call ‘Brennan’s Big Moment,’ which is the final clue that leads to the murderer. There’s also ‘Booth’s Big Moment’—what does his gut tell him as a humanist interrogator and investigator that turns out to be true? And then we have ‘The Download.’”
“Right. That’s when we find out how and why the murder happened from the murderer or with the murderer in the room. And we try to minimize this. My motto is: ‘Minimize The Download.’ And we have what I always call the ‘Glug, Glug, Whoopee Moment.’”
At this, John lowers his camera and, for the first time since we found the rotting dead guy in the metal vat, we can’t help but laugh. Hanson joins in the laughter, explaining, “That’s from the pilot. In the pilot, there was a line when Brennan is depressed and her friend Angela comes to her and says, ‘Want to get a drink? Non-topical application. Glug, glug whoopee.’ Then they talk about whatever is bothering Brennan. Now the ‘Glug, Glug Whoopee Moment’ has gone from being just Brennan and Angela discussing something personal to Brennan and anyone. Usually Booth now, or Booth and anyone. After all these years, you can just say ‘Glug, Glug, Whoopee’ and [we all] know what you’re talking about.”
Suddenly, Hanson bolts up, pointing to the computer screen in front of him where a series of numbers are now displayed: Al3Sc. “The silver found imbedded in the skull of Dylan Serrano is Scandium-Aluminum Alloy.” Hanson reads from the monitor, explaining that Scandium-Aluminum Alloy is used in the manufacture of Smith & Wesson pistols. Hanson shares his theory: “He could have been hit in the head with a handgun.”
As Hanson moves to re-examine the skull bone, my eyes drift back to the computer and something else catches my eye … Scandium- Aluminum Alloy is also used to manufacture kids’ aluminum baseball bats … you know, the kind they sell gazillions of units of at Target and Walmart.
“You did it!” I blurt out. “You killed him!”
Hart Hanson turns to see me nervously holding Dylan Serrano’s femur like a weapon. “You admitted that a baseball bat was your ideal murder weapon, right?” But Hanson only shakes his head, “You know what the other deal we made with our audience was? On Bones, it would never be a surprise killer. It would always be someone you met in the first half of the script. The show is a murder mystery, it’s a whodunnit. And we weren’t going to catch somebody we’d never seen.”
That sounded like a confession to me. I turn to my photographer, John, and ask him to take a photo of this moment—a snapshot of the two of us busting the Bones creator red-handed for cold-blooded murder. John leaps at the chance, frantically struggling to set up his tripod. With an unexpected crash, it topples over … the tripod’s leg brace curiously damaged. And that’s when Hanson demonstrates his own Big Moment.
“Think about it in terms of the show,” Hanson explains to me calmly. “There are only a few motives for murder: love, jealousy, revenge and greed. None of those could explain why I would murder a part-time paralegal.” Hanson does have a point. He slowly moves back to the computer console, adding, “It’s a bad motive when someone is just nuts. There’s no fun to it. They have to have a character reason for wanting the dead person dead. Right?”
I’m not sure where Hanson’s going with this line of reasoning, but I won’t lie, I’m intrigued. He continues, “On the show, we are trying to never repeat our finds, how we discover the body, and to not repeat the basic storyline of the murders. You know, ‘the brother of an abused wife kills the abusive husband,’ for example. We’re trying very hard not to repeat any pattern and it’s getting more difficult. But this … ” He gestures to our own skeletal discovery. “This is a new one.”
He types quickly into the computer, leading me through his logic. “Now, our interview started late today because you were missing your photographer, right? A photographer who only makes his living snapping pictures part-time for Script magazine.” Onscreen, Hanson pulls up the magazine’s employment records and, sure enough, listed under “Freelance Photographer” is the name Dylan Serrano. My mouth drops, stunned. “Appears he paid the bills working part-time in a law office.” Hanson smiles, sadly, “And your photographer wasn’t on time today. But he wasn’t late … he was early. And your wannabe-photographer friend here, John, was waiting for him. He cracked poor Dylan across the head with his three-sectional camera tripod—a brand of tripod that’s coated with the same Scandium- Aluminum Alloy used on baseball bats. Then he shoved Dylan’s body into the macerator and hoped we wouldn’t notice his broken tripod.”
My eyes go wide and I stare at John. At my friend. At the murderer. After a beat, John sinks to his knees, defeated, “I just needed the work … needed a job … and I really do love the show.” Hanson looks at me: “See? Greed.” I can’t help but nod, stunned by the whole confession. Talk about minimizing The Download.
Special thanks to photographer JOHN ALES, a professional actor and photographer who performed the shoot for this interview. He will next be seen in Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe and he’s currently serving two life sentences for the murder of Dylan Serrano.
Additional special thanks to ALEC GILLIS of Amalgamated Dynamics who created the realistic corpse especially for this interview.
- More articles by Aaron Ginsburg
- TV Writer Podcast: Aaron Ginsburg
- Writers Room 101: The Fall TV Bloodbath
Get tips on writing for TV in our webinar
The Hidden Patterns of the New Hit TV Hour Pilot Stories In 2016