As Hollywood’s reigning “notebook guy,” Vanished series creator Josh Berman knows about werewolf disease and the usefulness of pig carcasses in determining time of death. And though he’s a television writer and not an FBI agent, he can also probably tell you everything you need to know about how to flay the skin off the hand of a drowned guy in order to take fingerprints. If he can’t, the answer will surely be buried somewhere in one of the many notebooks that are fast becoming his trademark.
The notebooks — white, three-ring, with a clear plastic pocket on the spine — are filled with pages upon pages of juicy forensic trivia. Charts on the hierarchy of people who work at the FBI. A minihistory of the 10 mm pistol. Articles on how to perform wire traces and phone taps, or how to track a missing person by GPS, or how to use thermal imaging to detect warm bodies inside a house. Berman is not just organized, he is organized squared. “I won’t forget anything if it’s in a notebook,” he grins. “Anytime I have a story hole, I know the best place to go is to the notebooks. And if it’s not in the notebook, I better do more homework.”
Berman has always kept notebooks — it’s a habit left over from his days as a perpetual student — but his three-ringed assembly rose to a fever pitch during his time with Vanished. It was the notebooks, actually, that got him the series, which centers around a prominent senator’s wife who goes missing. Berman was power-lunching at the Ivy with studio president Dana Walden one day, and they discovered that they were both fascinated by America’s obsession with missing-woman cases: Laci Peterson, Chandra Levy, Natalee Holloway. At the time, he was pulling 14-hour days writing episodes for CSI, but in his spare moments — nights, weekends — he collected stuff related to missing women. Luck favors the prepared. He showed the studio execs at 20th Century Fox Television the notebooks, and they gave him Vanished.
A notebook compiled on Berman himself would reveal that he is something of a wunderkind: a Princeton undergrad degree, a law degree and MBA from Stanford, followed by a year in Australia at the University of Sydney on a Fulbright scholarship for a master’s in history, then a summer internship at NBC that quickly segued into a development-executive gig, and finally a writer-producer job at CSI, where for six years he considered the life cycle of maggots and fly larvae and the myriad ways in which a human body can be shot, chopped, slashed, smashed, bludgeoned or otherwise sent to meet its maker. Then, Vanished.
“Tables of contents are key,” he says as we flip through the binders, which he’s hauled into his office on the Paramount studios lot — ordinarily, they are kept in the writers’ room so everyone can have access to them. “I think very logically. I’m very methodical. And law school made me even more so.”
He wanted Vanished to take place in Atlanta, so he started researching the city. There are political profiles of Atlanta, descriptions of its neighborhoods (for “a little flavor”), photos from a helicopter flyover indicating which monuments he wanted the camera to hit for the opening scene of the first episode.
“Make sure you get the fountains,” he told the guy filming in the chopper. “Make sure you get the Bank of America building.”
Because the show also has a secret-societies element, Berman clipped articles on the Freemasons and their purported connection to Jack the Ripper, as well as stories on Yale’s Skull and Bones, the Bohemian Society, the Illuminati. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a whole notebook just on casting ideas.
“I really love my Judy Nash section,” he says. “Judy Nash is a reporter played by the beautiful and talented Rebecca Gayheart. I studied real live journalists. I have a section on Nancy Grace, a section on Jessica Savitch, and other well-known anchorwomen, ranging from serious journalists to tabloid. After studying these women, I created Nash.”
Taken as a whole, the binders are like an archaeological dig into the show. “I leave nothing up to chance,” he says, hefting another binder into my lap. At the end of each day, he updates the tables of contents.
In the writers’ room, someone has pulled a page out of one of Berman’s notebooks and taped it to the whiteboard, next to doodles of Masonic symbols. I ask him if other people have been adopting his notebook system.
“I think I’m the only one that does it this way,” he says. “Maybe everyone else is smarter than me and they can keep it all in their head, but I like to have it written down. There’s so much to do on a TV show; the more consistency you have, the better. There’s no guessing.”
He was, in fact, always known as the notebook guy, even during his early days with CSI. “I never want to be caught where an actor asks me a question that I can’t answer,” he says. “So I’ll create packets of information for the director. For example, we had an episode where we extract DNA from a plant. If an actor asks me, ‘Can you really do that?,’ all I have to do is go to my little notebook, look up plant DNA, and I’ve answered the question.”
The Vanished pilot culminates with a scene of a woman’s frozen body. “I love that notion of finding a missing woman who’s been frozen for 10 years,” Berman says, extracting a printed e-mail from a coroner about what that woman would look like. “A previously frozen body will show rapid decomposition,” he reads. “There should be freezer burn on the skin, just like a chicken left in the freezer for far too long.”
Nearby, there’s a prop of the Dead Sea Scrolls on the coffee table, framed in gold, looking semirealistically aged. “Is this how you saw them in your mind’s eye?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says. “But I didn’t know what the fonts would look like.”
Later on, Berman’s assistant Tom Mularz and I walk around on the darkened Vanished sets, where everything is sleek and art-directed — a posh senator’s home, a high-tech FBI lab with gleaming brushed steel and moody chiaroscuro lighting. Berman and Mularz are both cute as puppies, and according to Mularz, are often told that they look as if they have a combined age of 20. Mularz, who copies all of the documents in Berman’s notebooks since there are no computer back-ups, talks about how much he admires his boss and about wanting his own show, or someday being a part of the April and May “staffing season,” when all the Hollywood TV writers are in a mad frenzy to land on any show they can. “Serendipity plays a part, certainly,” Mularz is saying, as two workers nearby eat their lunch atop a fake coffin. “Josh happened to land on CSI back when it was just beginning, before it became a cult hit, then a mainstream hit, then a megahit.”
“I’m having so much fun,” Berman says about Vanished as I leave, “I hope it goes on forever.”
In the end, Vanished vanished. Forever turned out to be 13 episodes. Luck may favor the prepared, but it is also fickle. A few weeks after we met, the network took the show off the air, putting Vanished on hiatus, along with all six of its other hourlong newly launched serials in the thriller genre, including Kidnapped, Day Break, Runaway and The Nine. The world of the Kennedyesque Atlanta senator and his sexy missing wife disappeared into the recesses of Berman’s and the fans’ minds.
“It was a bummer,” Berman tells me, allowing a brief moment of wistfulness to creep into his upbeat demeanor; his speech is normally peppered by earnest “sure”s and “absolutely”s and “no problem”s. He is calling me on the road, which he admits is the only portion of his day when he has uninterrupted time to talk, and the faint thrum of midday traffic registers as white noise on his cell. A car honks in the background.
“It’s a lot to ask viewers to come back every week. When you write a show where if you miss one week, you’re lost?” he says. “I don’t think that’s what the American audience is looking for right now.”
Come June, early in the development season, when people in the television industry pitch new shows, Berman will be pitching the networks a legal show — two of them, possibly — as well as a “show with elements of fantasy.” Already, a new notebook, filled with intriguing ideas involving the law, is growing.
For now, Berman has moved on to the staff of the popular series Bones, for which he writes and “breaks” stories, coming up with ideas and turning them into outlines. The Vanished sets are gone, as is Berman’s old office. He’s got a different set of notebooks, though, one for each of the five episodes he’s working on for Bones. (“It’s a terrific show, with all the cool forensics of CSI and the interpersonal dynamics of Moonlighting.”) From his old “Forensic Ideas” notebook, he pulls an e-mail that he received from an actual CSI in Santa Clara County who found bones that were glowing. In the presence of the enzyme Luciferase, certain pigments will react with oxygen to emit a sickly bluish-green light. Wow, Berman thought, that would be a really cool story, and sure enough, the glow-in-the-dark bones will appear as a story point on an episode of Bones that will air in May.