Television writer and X-Files devote, Kath Lingenfelter, shares her insight on writing in Hollywood, growing up in New Hampshire and her early love of science.
I wanted to be a writer long before I realized that is what I wanted. I grew up in a big family with five siblings. My very early youth was spent on a horse farm in New Hampshire; when we got to be too much for my mom, she would send us out into the woods. We would become this rag-tag band of misfits, my older brother wielding his Bowie knife, making up adventures. I learned back then how transformative storytelling could be. The dinner table was also a key contributor. At the Lingenfelter table, if you wanted people to listen, you had to be two things: loud and engaging.
The less homespun answer is The X-Files. I was pre-medicine when I was in college, but after I fell in love with Mulder and Scully, I (secretly) knew television was where I wanted to be.
What memory or experience stands out as a turning point early in your career?
Oh man, so much of my early career was stumbling into the right situation at the right time by no design of my own. I graduated college with absolutely no idea where I was going. I was working in a bookstore, living with my parents in Michigan, and my older brother Scott staged an intervention. He was living in Los Angeles and knew I had made some kind of proclamation that I wanted to work in film (without knowing how to do that at all). He said he was going to business school in the Fall and I should live with him in LA until then. He was training for a marathon and his running partner happened to work at CAA as an assistant. She got me an interview and that was my very first job in Hollywood, working as an assistant to Bryan Lourd.
That job led to the next turning point, which was getting a job with Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood). As an assistant at an agency, you are privy to all the key job openings before anyone else. I knew I wanted to work in television as a writer (after three years of hemming and hawing), because it seemed the best place to learn and hone the craft. One of the agents at CAA, Kathy White, advised that I should work for a writer as an assistant. What are the chances I would end up with someone like Jason? He was running Roswell on the WB back then. First of all, the staff was ridiculously talented: Jason, Ronald D. Moore, Russell Friend and Garrett Lerner, Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts, and Breen Frazier. I learned how to be a writer from watching them. Secondly, the fans were out of control. They loved the show so deeply, every character and story meant so much to them. That pretty much sealed it for me. Plus, a few years later Berg and Harberts created Pepper Dennis and gave me my very first staff writer job (not to mention, Friend and Lerner later helped hire me on House). My brother, CAA, and Roswell really changed my life.
Can you give us some insight into the creative process? What is the most difficult part of your job?
I can tell you the easiest part of my job, and that is working with other writers. On a show that is run well, writing television becomes a team sport in the best sense of the word. I have been lucky to be on staffs where you watch hugely talented people swallow their pride, buckle down, and support all the other writers in pursuit of making a great show. We break story together, help write scenes together, give each other notes, take shifts on the set for one another. There have been exceptions of course, but that feeling of camaraderie (and the unadulterated childish joy of making television!) makes it the coolest profession for me.
Have you always been interested in science? How did you acquire your interest in science?
My dad was an anesthesiologist and my mom is a registered nurse. My parents rarely talked down to the kids. In fact, my “birds and the bees” conversation with my father involved diagrams of anatomy and very frank descriptions of what a sexually transmitted disease can do to the body. The world was presented to us with both wonder and pragmatic explanation. Additionally, I fell in love with Piers Anthony books as a girl. A lot of them are silly yet wonderful fantasy but a lot of the others are science fiction. Not true hardcore science fiction, but enough to make my science classes an adventure for me.
I went into college as a pre-medicine student but soon realized my love of science was not one that could be applied literally. Organic Chemistry gave me night sweats. It took me years to embrace science again and accept the way I loved it, which is as a devoted fan.
What were your favorite movies and television shows when you were growing up?
I watched a lot of television. I could not get enough as a kid – Tales of the Gold Monkey, Remington Steele, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Battlestar Galactica, Twin Peaks, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Then I went to boarding school and television was a luxury. The same thing with college. One show did manage to find me during that time and thoroughly seduce me: The X-Files. Each VHS copy of an episode was my Precious.
You have participated in a number of The Exchange activities. Why did you become involved, and what have you enjoyed most about working with The Exchange?
I worked on the show Boston Public with Rick Loverd. We stayed in touch and he invited me to one of the panels, I want to say “The Science of the Dead.” We screened the zombie movie Survival of the Dead and George Romero was there, along with an epidemiologist and a neuroscientist. The night was spent seriously discussing what the reality of a zombie apocalypse would be like: what would their brains look like, how long would we survive, is there a pathogen out there that could make it happen?
I had an absolute blast. My brain was left tingling. I got the card of the neuroscientist and figured, “let’s try this,” and sent him an e-mail about a comic adaptation we were working on for Pushing Daisies. I asked what the inside of a brain would look like when it is reanimated and which “systems” would be the first to come online. To my surprise, he sent back this brilliant set of answers and possibilities, backed by links to science articles. That was it for me; I decided The Science & Entertainment Exchange was the coolest thing ever.
Subsequently, any time I have had the privilege of giving a speech on behalf of The Exchange, on the topic of incorporating good science into television (2011 ACS National Meeting, 2011; MiNTiFF Conference in Berlin, 2012; ECCU Conference in Orlando), it has been an amazing experience. My eyes are always reopened about the benefits of good science in entertainment and the desire out there for it. Most recently, I was struck at the ECCU Conference, which is co-organized by the Citizen CPR Foundation, about how portraying correct CPR on television can radically affect the public. It could literally save lives. Any person, any age, can be a hero.
You have worked on programs including House and Caprica. Why should film and television projects consider science advising? What is the advantage of using real science in film or television?
Whatever you think your imagination is capable of, science can make it go further. And, beautifully, the reverse is also true (see: tricorders/smartphones).
What do you think you learned from the scientists you met that has made you a better producer?
I would point again to the conferences I attended that were non-industry based. Getting to hear from the scientific community about the benefits and consequences of science in media has underscored the responsibility we have to get it right. People watch television; things sink in, things inspire, awareness is created. So much of our culture is emulation. I will use the CPR example once more. The equivalent of a 747 full of people goes down every day as a result of cardiac events. Many of those people can be saved. But we do not have AEDs where we need them and the bystander effect leaves us all waiting for someone else to take action. If you meet one survivor of cardiac arrest who was saved by a stranger, or hear one story about a parent losing their healthy, athletic 16-year-old son on the soccer field because no one thinks a kid needs CPR, you know that getting it right on television matters.
Plus, people like Drs. Lance Becker and Benjamin Abella can tell you how science is specifically working on actually raising the “dead.” That kind of stuff just makes me giddy.
Thinking of the next generation of producers and scientists – what message would you like to share with them?
Imagination is not topic-specific. There are perspectives out there you have never considered, so talk to someone you would not expect who also peddles in “what ifs?”
What can you tell us about your current project? Your next project?
I am working on a mid-season show for NBC called Infamous. It is a soapy thriller that you would not expect to have anything to do with science, but in fact, one of the central characters is a pharmaceutical company and a groundbreaking drug that could change people’s lives. Once again, science affects story.
I am also working on my own project that has to do with ley lines and alternate universes. I have been watching a lot of Brian Cox and reading Brian Greene. They help science fans like me pretend we can talk physics.