Samantha Corbin-Miller’s stellar career in Hollywood include work on some of the most important shows of the last decade – ER, The Practice, Law & Order, and Lie to Me – among many others. Corbin-Miller shares about her start, the most difficult part of her job, and how science inspires story.
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to become a producer and writer?
I was the only child of a single mom. So I had a lot of time alone and had to keep myself amused. That meant making up stories in my head about the world around me. Luckily, I found a way to parlay that into a career!
What were your favorite movies/television shows when you were growing up?
I was always drawn to anything that had a balance of grit and dark humor. Even as a very young child I liked Norman Lear sitcoms. Barney Miller was a favorite. As I got older, my bedtime got later so I became completely obsessed with NYPD Blue and L.A. Law. But I also loved soaps and pomp and circumstance, so there was plenty of Dallas, Dynasty, Melrose Place, and Masterpiece Theater as well.
What memory or experience stands out as a turning point early in your career?
When John Wells, one of my first showrunners on ER noticed that during my first few weeks on the job I wasn’t speaking up in the writer’s room. He called me into his office and told me that I wasn’t being paid to keep my mouth shut, and that my thoughts were just as valuable as the amazing group of far more experienced writers I was working with. Having someone like that tell a young writer that her opinions and insights matter was huge! I haven’t shut up since!
Can you give us some insight into the creative process? What is the most difficult part of your job?
Hating to be cliché, the most difficult part of the job, for me, is the blank page, also known as the blinking cursor. Even if you have a million ideas about how you want a story to go, sometimes that can be just as intimidating as having no ideas, because then you don’t know where to start, what to keep, and what to sacrifice. That’s why I always try to write really quick first drafts that I call “garbage drafts” where I write without going back to edit or read anything, just to get words on paper. Once that’s done, then no matter how crappy it is, I’m suddenly “rewriting,” which is a lot less stressful than coming up with something completely out of whole cloth.
Have you always been interested in science? How did you acquire your interest in science?
I’ve always been interested in the “soft” sciences, like psychology, because that informs so much of who we are and, of course, who my characters are. I was always a pretty poor science student; I actually avoided science like the plague in college. However, working on ER, I learned, with a ton of help from brilliant and generous doctors/writers, like Neal Baer, how stories about science, in this case, medicine, can inform wonderful character beats. I also learned how important it is to get the science as accurate as possible, even within the confines of an hour-long television show because so many people, sad to say, get their primary health information from fictional television shows.
What role can science play in the development of a television show? How do you know when you need advice from a scientist? How do you think that the timing of a consult within development can make a difference in the outcome of the project?
I owe a massive debt of gratitude to so many scientific technical consultants who have helped me over the years. Because of them I’ve been able to successfully mimic everything from an arson investigator to a pediatric oncologist. A technical advisor who also understands how stories work is like gold! I’ve met quite a few of these “golden consults” thanks to The Exchange, most recently, Dr. David Epstein at Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles, who has patiently answered every one of my crazy questions, and, without a doubt, made a recent medical pilot I was working on, 100 times better than it would have been without his input. I think it’s really important to start a dialogue with a consultant as early in the process as possible. Once you know what your world is, your main characters and their conflicts, and you’re into the storytelling, talking to a consultant can only serve to enrich the story you’re trying to tell, because truth is always stranger and more multifaceted than fiction. Creatively “wrestling” with Dr. Epstein, with him trying to tell me what was possible and impossible within the medical stories I was trying to tell, and me pushing back, wanting to deliver the most drama from every medical beat, we managed to come up with some really compelling twists and character moments that never would have come about without us collaborating from our very different, yet complimentary points of view.
Writer’s rooms are known for being male dominated. What advice would you give young women wanting to break into television drama writing?
I’d tell them that even when they run into the occasional jerk who has issues with women writers that most showrunners and writers don’t. I’d remind them that women are the majority of the television audience, so someone who understands that audience will always be a valuable member of a writing staff. And, most importantly, I’d tell them what John Wells told me as a staff writer, “You’re not getting paid to shut up.” Your voice is valuable and unique and there’s only one of them, make sure it’s heard.