Detective Jim Dunbar was blinded by a gunshot while saving three officers from a madman with an AK-47. In the new series “Blind Justice” on ABC, Dunbar fights for his job back. The co-creator of the show, Matt Olmstead, graduated from Chico State in 1988 with bachelor’s degrees in journalism and English. Originally from Santa Rosa, Olmstead worked on “NYPD Blue” for six seasons.
Q: What first got you into writing?
A: I worked for my high school newspaper and at that point I knew I wanted to get into journalism. I looked around in the UC schools. I saw Chico once and loved it, so I wanted to get my journalism degree there.
Three years into it I went on an exchange to University of Georgia through Chico State and took a film class and really enjoyed film. At that point I knew I wanted to pursue film and television, but it was too late to switch majors so I finished out as a journalism major and packed up the car, drove down to Los Angeles and made a go of it.
Q: This show you’re coming out with, “Blind Justice,” what’s the gist of it?
A: The general storyline is a detective in New York is blinded when he is shot in the line of duty. The show takes place a year after he’s been blinded and has rehabbed to the point where he is self-sufficient and he wants to be a detective again.
He’s met with a lot of skepticism and resistance by the police department. Nobody thinks he can do it and he proves everyone wrong. It’s essentially a story of perseverance. It’s a guy who was dealt a major setback and how he responds to it. I think people can relate to it. A guy who had it all and he has to work twice as hard to get near where he was before.
Q: Did this idea just pop into your head or was it just working from the idea of perseverance?
A: Actually the guy I work for, Steven Bochco, is one of the major guys in television and he has been for a long time. He did “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue.” I’ve worked for him for the last seven years. He pitched the idea to me and a guy named Nick Wootton-we were head writers on “NYPD Blue” for the last four years- so Steven calls from his office and said he had an idea about a blind detective.
We thought he was crazy. How are you going to do a show about a blind detective? He can’t see. But Steven kept after it and we finally sat down to write it, all the skepticism we had about the concept we put in the mouths of Dunbar’s fellow detectives-we made them skeptical as hell.
Any apprehensions people have about the viability of a guy who is blind being a detective, we address that in the second scene. People definitely give him a hard time. Nick and I wrote it with Steven’s guidance. Only about halfway through writing the pilot, I was turned to Nick and I was like, “You know, this is really a kick-ass script and a kick-ass idea.”
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
A: The main thing is you have to move to Los Angeles and be willing to live pretty sparingly. You have to take a job answering phones or however you want to make ends meet and write at night. It’s not easy. There’s people who have called from Chico or Santa Rosa or wherever in the country and they want to get into writing, but they want to do it from the comfort of their home… It’s just not going to happen. You have to come to Los Angeles and suck it up and starve for a couple of years while you meet people, write and be around it. Once that happens, if you have talent it’ll surface.
The second thing is, people see the money that can be made in writing and they think it’s fairly easy-gotta get a computer, you get a scriptwriting program and start writing. Those people who come in thinking they can make a lot of money doing it-they’re weeded out pretty quickly. In Los Angeles, there’s 200,000 people that have written a script. If you write two scripts, you’re in a club of about 70,000. The more scripts you write, the more exclusive of a club you’re in of people that are going to stick it out. Before I actually sold (a script) I wrote at least six.
Q: What is your most memorable work?
A: After about four years in Los Angeles, I sold a screenplay with a writing partner. That was really big, but the feature business is a really fickle business. We got paid for it, but nothing ever happened. At that point I went off on my own. I was probably about 31 or 32 and I was back to square one. I had written with my writing partner some really commercially oriented scripts that were trying to be home runs, but they had no soul to them. They were just high-concept nonsense.
I was like, “If I’m writing scripts and nothing’s going to happen to them, then I’m going to write a script that I really believe and I really like.” So I wrote a script that had no real commercial aspirations and it was that script that really launched me. I got an agent and my first meeting was with Steven Bochco.
At that point they were in their fifth season of “NYPD Blue” and they hired me to do a freelance episode, which is an audition. You write that script and if they like it, then they pick you up as a staff writer and you work full time. When I was done writing that freelance script-it was actually for a show called “Brooklyn South” that lasted one year-Steven called me in his office and he said he really liked it and he was going to pick me up as a staff writer for “NYPD Blue.” It was at that point that I realized I was in.
Q: With your writing career taking off, I’m sure you had more of this before, but what do you like to do in your free time?
A: The thing about writing for me is it’s not just a job, it’s really my passion and how I express myself and my hobby, it’s what I look forward to doing. It satisfies a lot of things. So when I’m not writing, I like to just chill out. My wife and I will go away for the weekend.
As a staff writer I was only responsible for three scripts a season and I had more time to go out and do stuff. As a head writer and an executive producer, with Nick Wootton, I’m responsible for writing 22 episodes a season and you find free time kind of falls away. So basically I work, come home and chill out with my wife. I’m not Jet-Skiing on Lake Havasu. I’m pretty well spent and satisfied putting in the work.
Q: Let me focus on “N.Y.P.D. Blue.” What do you feel you picked up from that experience?
A: Well I was lucky enough to get hired for season six as a staff writer. As a staff writer you’re doing three scripts a year and hopefully they’re really good. They’re looking at moving you up.
Seasons six and seven were the last years of David Milch. He was the co-creator and show-runner from the beginning of the show. Right now he’s doing “Deadwood” on HBO. He wrote 90 percent of the scripts for “N.Y.P.D. Blue” until then. It was about a two-year internship where I watched him work and learned a lot from him and Steven. So when he left after season seven and I moved up to head writer with Nick Wootten I was ready.
Year eight, nine, 10 and 11 it was Steven me and Nick. I came on “N.Y.P.D. Blue” as, I guess a talented writer, but a fairly undisciplined one. I learned about writing a script and getting 22 episodes done a season, dealing with actors and editing. I entered as a novice and I feel now I can run a show.
Q: Any last thoughts, ideas or tidbits?
A: I wrote for The Orion for two years. I was the entertainment editor and that was a very good experience for me. When I started writing a column I branched out into more of a creative writing atmosphere instead of the “who, what, where, when and why” straight journalism. Ironically my experience at The Orion really helped me out and prepared me for television, even though I didn’t know it at the time. Writing features you can write out of your house, but when I started working in television where there’s deadlines and collaboration and you have to work on a deadline and get stuff done, I realized it was my experience at The Orion that prepared me. I really enjoyed my run because, looking back, I was working with smart, motivated, talented people who are going to help your work come out.