Interview: ‘CSI’ Writer Christopher Barbour

Posted on March 10, 2011


CSI fans got a real treat this season when former series-regular William Petersen returned for a brief cameo. The mastermind behind that story, 2008 Genesis Award Winner Christopher Barbour, graciously took a break from his busy schedule this afternoon to speak to me exclusively on how they got Grissom back, Catherine’s future, and a big showdown between Nate Haskell and Ray Langston. Spoilers a plenty after the jump!

William Petersen (left), and Christopher Barbour.

Saunders: Some pretty major events happened in your last episode “The Two Mrs. Grissoms.” With the show eleven seasons into its run, what made the writers decide to do an episode with a heavy focus on Grissom (William Petersen), even though he is no longer a series-regular?

Barbour: (laughs) Yes, indeed. We love Jorja Fox and Sara. And obviously, Sara being married to Grissom, there was a need to address how that relationship works in some way, shape, or form. We are a procedural show so it’s more difficult to sort of delve deeply into the lives of the characters. You usually get suggestions and snippets of that. In the beginning, the episode was more focused on Sara and her relationships. I was actually surprised that we were able to get Billy to come back and do the cameo; I was thrilled.

I feel very fortunate. I’m not just a writer on the show, but I was always a fan of the show. So it was sort of a dream job. Billy’s a fine actor and I can understand wanting to move on to other projects, I think Jorja really reached out to him. She had done that for him in “Leave Out All The Rest,” and he asked her ‘do you mind doing this one video segment?’ and she said ‘sure!’. So she reached out to him and it was really a surprise. I guess in the back of my mind and probably Treena Hancock and Melissa Byer‘s mind that we might have an opening if Billy didn’t mind making a phone call or being on Skype. In my mind I didn’t think it was going to happen.

We wanted it to be a surprise to the audience. People go ‘oh, why didn’t you promote it?’. I guess from my point of view I like the idea that it might’ve been something that was a surprise. It sends a signal that you should watch the show because you never know what you’re going to see. I also didn’t want people to think that we were jerking them around because he’s not in a lot of it. I didn’t want people to be disappointed. Hopefully you get a sense of how they stay in contact while in a long-distance relationship.

Jorja Fox and Marlee Matlin in CSI (photo: CBS)

Saunders: Was it scripted from the beginning to have him return?

Barbour: No, not at all. Not at all. We thought about meeting the mother-in-law because of the concept of returning to the deaf school. The possibility of having Marlee Matlin as a guest-star. That all sort of gestated together, and then the possibility of having Billy coming was late in that process. There was a possibility of doing the episode without him; I think it’s so much better with him. It’s very hard to talk around him, and we were very fortunate that he agreed to do the show. It might have felt a little empty if we had done that episode, met his mother, seen the relationship between mother-in-law and Sara, yet not see Grissom. (laughs )

Saunders: How hard was it to get him back?

Barbour: (laughs) Honestly, I don’t think it was that hard. I know that Jorja had reached out to him. I don’t know how hard in the sense in that he has moved on to other things… it was really more of a scheduling question. I think in regards to him making guest appearances the door has always been open.

I think he was more than happy to accommodate it, which I thought was very nice.

Saunders: From a technical standpoint how difficult was it to incorporate the sign language into the script?

Barbour: It’s interesting in that regard. We wanted people to really feel that world as much as we can get them into that world. From my point of view I like the twists and turns of an episode, but I did like the idea of hiding the bad guy as the translator because he was someone that would be present for us and necessary for us in order to communicate.

We were interested in the notion that there were different types of sign language; I don’t think people really think about that. We had some people around to help us make it authentic, and then certainly having Marlee Matlin along was very helpful.

Saunders: A few weeks back we got a sense that Langston (Laurence Fishburne) might be going to the ‘dark side.’ (Barbour laughs) He’s clearly having a rough time with serial killer Nate Haskell (Bill Irwin), and from what I can tell he’s reached his breaking point. At what point is he finally going to snap?

Barbour: Well, we will be bringing Nate back. He is not done tormenting Langston yet. That is what we’re working on as I speak, without giving anything away. Bill Irwin is an actor we’re really excited to have as a part of the show and he will be returning. Hopefully, it will be a satisfying run as we approach the end of the season.

Laurence Fishburne and Bill Irwin in CSI (photo: CBS)

Saunders: Fun times for Langston…

Barbour: (laughs)

Saunders: There’s been some interesting discussion on the Internet that Ray’s ex-wife Gloria (Tracee Ellis Ross) could somehow end up in the Langston/Haskell showdown. Care to comment on that?

Barbour: I would say that that is a possibility. (laughs) We’re exploring the possibility of what would Haskell do to antagonize Langston.

Saunders: Is Tracee contracted for future episodes?

Barbour: I don’t know that for a fact. But we are exploring–I think we’d like her to come back.

Saunders: One of the things I read was that Haskell might pull a Kevin Spacey moment from SE7EN and delivers Gloria’s head in a box to Langston…

Barbour: (laughs) The CBS-approved not-too-grotesque version. (laughs) We have had decapitated heads on the show before. (laughs) Perhaps. Without trying to give anything away, I think it’s just about Haskell upsetting him and with the potential for Langston to become very dangerous.

Marg Helgenberger in CSI (photo: CBS)

Saunders: Marg Helgenberger (who plays current CSI supervisor Catherine Willows) had made it clear that she plans on leaving after this season. Has an exit-storyline been put into place?

Barbour: We are segueing her off and I think we’re still developing how that might happen. And also the possibility that we leave the door open should she decide to stay.

Not only do we love Marg, but the character Catherine Willows is very important. And to leave the door open for the possibility of her to be back is and when she leaves. Not all of the things have certainly been settled yet. When those things are settled we would want to develop a storyline to usher her off the show in a style that she deserves.

I have to say just speaking as a fan she is always going to be an important part of the show. And like Grissom, she’ll still be referenced as it seems like she’s going off to bigger and better things.

Saunders: What are the chances Catherine will stay in a successful relationship with Vartann (Alex Carter)?

Barbour: I don’t know. Well, tune in tonight! There will be an interesting development in tonight’s episode (“The List,” written by Richard Catalani). I think that’s one of the things we’re dealing with as the weeks and months proceed; what kind of relationship she wants to have and what the future is for her. What other possibilities are there for her and with someone like Vartann.

Saunders: Melinda Clarke and Louise Lombard are returning as Lady Heather and Sofia Curtis, respectively. What are the chances they’ll stick around long-term to help add a little more female blood to the cast?

Barbour: As far as Lady Heather I think the door, again, is left open for her. We found a storyline that was appropriate to bring her back; she is a favorite of ours. With Sofia, I think there’s a possibility to return again… even before the end of the season. But that hasn’t been settled.

Saunders: Will Sofia be coming back as the deputy-chief of Las Vegas or another town?

Barbour: In Las Vegas.

Saunders: Do you happen to have a favorite character to write for? Your two episodes so far this season, “House of Hoarders” and “The Two Mrs Grissoms,” happen to have lots of Sara involvement. And I have to say, you do a fantastic job writing her character.

Barbour: Thank you. I don’t know if I necessarily have a favorite character to write for. I’m a fan of all the characters and like the family component of the show. In “House of Hoarders,” I liked how I could focus how each one contributes to the whole and each one’s response to a certain thing.

There is something that I’m drawn to Sara about her past and her working through those issues. And in “Hoarders” Nick (George Eads) and Sara’s response to that environment was something that I was interested in exploring. I like how they’re CSIs and this group of people who interact given certain circumstances, and work together to solve these problems.

(Barbour notes here that when he reads the blogs, he discovers fans who aren’t necessarily in favor of team conflict. He says it’s nice to see a team work together through their problems.)

Saunders: That kind of segues into my next question: If Sara sticks around full-time next season, is there a chance we’ll get a little more backstory involving Sara’s mother?

Barbour: There’s always that possibility. I hope so. For our show we like doing a mystery every week and to find the right cases that will illuminate our characters is always a challenge. I think you will see more of that [backstory]. I am not at privy as to who is coming and going, I just know that we are all close from actors to writers to crew. We all love working with each other which is really great. If Jorja should stay, we’ll definitely try to explore that backstory.

Saunders: Finally, as the show reaches the home stretch of season 11, what can viewers expect to see during the remainder of this season’s 22 episode order?

Barbour: There definitely will be a big showdown between Nate Haskell and Ray Langston and the team. That will hopefully be exciting and surprising for everyone and everyone will be surprised at the outcome of that.

Ann-Margret falls victim to Sqweegel in CSI (photo: CBS)

Saunders: Is Anthony Zuiker (the creator of CSI) planning on bringing Sqweegel back?

Barbour: That is true. We may be revisiting Sqweegel.

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