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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

An Unscripted Career

Cynthia Saunders, a Laguna Beach mom, began writing during child-rearing breaks and wound up creating TV's new 'Profiler' series.

September 15, 1996|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last fall when Cynthia Saunders was writing the pilot script for "Profiler"--NBC's new Saturday night dramatic series about a crime-solving female forensic psychologist--she immersed herself in a dark, fictional world inhabited by a serial killer.

Then she'd stop and drive her son to water polo practice. Or help her daughter with college applications.

But Saunders didn't mind.

"Life is about interruptions," she says.

"Doing this for as long as I have, you have to have some ability to just transition from one world to another pretty quickly. Just being a mother in general you learn to switch gears."

Since selling her first script in 1988 to TV's "thirtysomething," she has achieved success as a screenwriter even as she chose to turn down television staff writing jobs that would have required uprooting her children and moving to Los Angeles.

Instead, she writes from her home in Laguna Beach. She's been there when the kids got home from school. She's car-pooled. She's made sure homework got done. And she's gotten to know her children's friends. Saunders, a single mother since divorcing five years ago, has never wanted to do less.

Now, just as her teenage son and daughter are coming of age, so too is Saunders' screenwriting career.

She is the creator and supervising producer of "Profiler," an hourlong suspense series whose protagonist is a woman who has a "unique gift for understanding the criminal mind."

Says Saunders: "I think men bring certain sensibilities to things, and women bring certain sensibilities to things. To me, there's an inherent contrast, and therefore it's dramatic to have a woman who's dealing with violent crimes. I think as a woman she'll bring a different spin to it."

Saunders, a passionate reader since she was a child, had never tried writing anything more than a letter until she was 34. That was 10 years ago.

Now, she has not only beaten the competition at large--each year the networks hear hundreds of ideas for potential new series--but in creating a series she managed to bypass the normal rise through the ranks of episodic television.

Before landing the series, she had written only eight scripts--for such dramatic shows as "Equal Justice" and "Sisters"--in addition to working a year as a staff writer on "L.A. Law," which accommodated her request to work from home in Laguna.

"When the network called to say my show had been picked up, they said, 'Do you have any idea what you've done?' " Saunders says.

John Landgraf, NBC's vice president of prime-time series, says: "It's very unusual for a writer like Cynthia, who doesn't have an extensive background as a producer, to create a pilot and not only have it made but have it get picked up and go all the way as a series. It's just a testament to the quality of her writing."

September has turned out to be a big month for Saunders.

Three days after her series debuts Saturday on NBC, CBS will air "After Jimmy," a TV movie written by Saunders about a family recovering from the death of their 18-year-old son. (Meredith Baxter, Bruce Davidson and Eva Marie Saint star).

And she's rewriting a feature film screenplay for Castle Rock Entertainment--an epic romance about a white girl and a Comanche warrior based on a true story passed down in her family.

But "Profiler" has been taking up the most of her time.

In the series, Ally Walker stars as Sam Waters, whose crime-solving ability led her too close to a serial killer: He retaliated by killing her husband. Three years later, Waters' former FBI agent mentor Bailey Malone (co-star Robert Davi) has coaxed her out of her self-imposed isolation with her 7-year-old daughter. During an investigation of murders in Atlanta, the serial killer who murdered her husband resurfaces. Waters then decides to join Bailey in forming a federal unit to fight violent crime. The pilot was filmed last March on location in Atlanta. Other episodes are being created on a sound stage in an industrial section of North Hollywood, where filming began in late July.

Because Saunders has no experience in series production, Ian Sander and Kim Moses were hired as executive producers of "Profiler" and Nancy Miller serves as co-executive producer and head writer.

Of the more than 80 pilot scripts purchased by NBC for the fall season, only 20 were produced; "Profiler" is one of seven to actually make it onto the network's fall schedule. Each of the show's six staff writers--including Saunders--will write two of the 12 episodes ordered by NBC.

After meeting with her fellow staff writers for three weeks in June to go over story ideas and character development, most of Saunders' story meetings have been by phone. Three weeks ago she drove up to North Hollywood to finalize the story line for the first of her two scripts and stop in at the "Profiler" sound stage--a warren of sets depicting Sam Waters' house and the crime task force's high-tech command center.

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