With yesterday’s release of Fifteen Digits, a new thriller involving insider information and powerful New York law firms, we thought it was time to catch up with author Nick Santora. While he started out as a litigation associate at Sullivan & Cromwell, he’s long since become a prolific writer, show runner, and producer of scripted and unscripted TV, film, drama, comedy, comic books, and video games. Since we first interviewed him nearly four years ago about his work on Prison Break, quite a bit has changed. We sat down again with him last week, shortly before the release of his new book.
Let’s talk about your new book, which I just finished reading last night. Where did you come up with the idea for it? Were you ever a young associate slumming it in the printers?
You’re a lawyer, Matt. You know the precautions that are taken before you become a lawyer are staggering, especially in the corporate field. You have to take the ethics portion of the bar exam, then all these ethics courses and training seminars in the law firm, courses on insider trading, courses on confidentiality, they tell you when and how these Chinese walls will be set up if there are conflicts in the firm, to the extent you can’t sit at the same table in the lawyers’ cafeteria if someone is sitting there whose client has a conflict with your client . . . all these precautions are taken so there isn’t even a hint of impropriety, insider trading, or corruption.
They then take these documents, the merger agreements, the deal memos, the SEC filings, and send them down to the printers, where these guys who barely finished high school copy and collate them, format them, and ship them up and down the firm in mail carts—and there are no protections when it comes to these guys. And I always thought, why not? I always tried to think of the legitimate reasons and then I realized what it is—the lawyers don’t think enough of these guys to worry about whether they would know what do with the gold that they are handed every day.
So I wrote this book about five guys who figure out the value of the information that is passing through their Xerox machines and figure out how to exploit it.
It’s an amazing scam. There’s nothing to stop anyone from doing this, other than the fact that your book just blew the lid off of it.
Ha. Now there’s going to be a rash of insider trading cases after reading this book.
Who are your inspirations in the book world? There was definitely a bit of a Grisham feel to it and a bit of a Wall Street feel?
There are certain writers who I admire a great deal. John Fante, a great Italian-American writer who puts a lot of humor in some dark stuff. I like to put humor in my stuff. There’s some really dark stuff going on in my book, but I think there’s some humor too.
I’ve been compared to Grisham. One reviewer called me the blue collar Grisham, and I don’t know if he meant it as an insult or a compliment. I wasn’t sure how he meant it, but I took it as a compliment. A recent reviewer said I was a combination of Harlan Coben and John Grisham. I was floating on air for five hours.
Lorenzo Carcaterra, who wrote Sleepers, he sometimes goes to some dark places where my books go. If you dissect anything, you can find things similar to other artists. I just hope that it stands on its own, that it’s something unique and people enjoy.
Are these characters based on you in any way? I was going to guess the main character, Rich.
I’d say Rich is most like me. My first novel, Slip & Fall, was much more autobiographical. This book not nearly as much. Rick is similar to me—he’s an Italian kid in New York with blue-collar roots, and he feels that breaking into the white-collar world is going to be the ticket to the life he wants. I did that. I worked at S&C. I fit in there like a trapezoid peg in a rhombus hole.
That was my firm experience as well. I have to say I loved the book, but I thought the ending was very shocking. Was there any debate about it?
I was asked by my agent and by my editor if I wanted to go a different way. I would say that my agent didn’t want that ending because the traditional movie, the traditional book, the traditional story doesn’t end this way. Every interview I do now is about how the ending shocked the hell out of them. So, yes, there are certain detractions with ending it this way, because some people might say this ending is foreign to them. But once they absorb it, they say, man, this author took a risk. I think it worked out and I’m enjoying that.
Are you going to be reading a passage from your book at the launch party this week?
Actually, I’ve always found the concept of authors “reading” to audiences to be pretentious, obnoxious, and awkward. I read to my three year old. I’m not going to read to grown ups who know how to read. There are going to be hundreds of people in the entertainment industry, friends and colleagues at that party, and it would be embarrassing to read to them. For all of us.
So instead, I reached out to Malcolm Goodwin. He’s an incredible actor, director, and producer. We discussed producing a filmed scene from Fifteen Digits. Within a day, he had a crew assembled. We got a ton of great people involved. I got the great Jimmi Simpson. Gino Pesci. I took the pivotal scene from the book—where the scam is presented from one character to another at McMahon’s Bar—which we shot at [Michael’s Bar and Grill in Burbank] and I’m going to have a screening at the book signing. I had Rosie our editor from Breakout Kings and our assistant post supervisor Dan handle the post work. A lot of talented people donated their talents and their time. This thing came out great, I already see it as a film, we’ve been getting a bunch of calls about it for several months from producers and studios who are interested in the film rights.
That sounds way more exciting than a reading. What is the big difference between writing for TV and film?
Control. In TV, you have a lot more control. I don’t understand why producers and studios think the same guy who has been doing TV successfully for 10-15 years suddenly doesn’t know what he’s doing once that same writer writes a film. But you see it all the time. A TV writer is given tons of respect. A film writer is treated like an ass.
So do you want to direct this movie if it gets made?
Not necessarily, but I want that to be an option. But down the road, yes, I want to direct.
Let’s talk about Breakout Kings, your hit show on A&E, and your first time as the creator and show runner. How did that come about? Was it just a play on words? Let me use the last word of my last show, Prison Break, for the first word in my next one?
Yes, my next show is gonna be called Kings of Leon. Seriously, Breakout Kings was an idea I had while working on Season 1 of Prison Break. I did all four seasons of that show, best time of my life. During season 1, I had the idea of these guys who catch prisoners who break out. So I pitched it to a colleague, Matt Olmstead. He said “Hey stupid, do you enjoy working here?”
I said “Yeah, the shows a hit, I love everyone involved, I’m having the time of my life.”
He said, “So why would you go develop. If it gets picked up, you have to leave this show to develop it, it could get cancelled after two episodes and then you can’t come back because we have to find someone to replace you.”
He gave me some great advice that I will pass on. “If you’re on a great show that you love, ride it out.”
But isn’t that hard to sit on an idea you think is great?
It’s easy when you’re on a show like Prison Break. Everyone was so talented, I got to write characters that were so interesting, but like all good things, it came to an end. I had a year on my contract, so Matt and I both coincidentally got sent to consult on Lie to Me.
We were at lunch one day, and he said he didn’t know what to do after this. I was in the same boat. He suggested we work on something together. We were sitting eating Mexican food and I said, “you know, four years ago I pitched you something.” And before I could say anything he said “are you talking about Breakout Kings?” I knew it had to be a good idea if he remembered it four years later, so we collaborated on it and sold it. We’ve had a good time working together.
What’s it like being a show runner? Is there a lot more pressure on you to succeed?
Show runner means you are responsible for every aspect of the show. If it’s a hit you get all the credit, if it fails you get all the blame. It’s great because you can try to effectuate your vision for the show, your collective vision with all the talented people you are working with. There are some speedbumps. The network and studio executives might have different ideas, you might have unruly actors, a director who hands you a cut that is unusable. These are the bad things. Don’t really have them on Breakout Kings, though.
You are trying to create your vision. You don’t normally get all the people you want. I’ve been lucky. I work on an off cycle cable show. In theory you’re not supposed to be able to find anyone worth their salt because, by the time you’re staffing, all the best writers have been gobbled up. But in truth I’ve found amazing writers on Breakout Kings that I would work with over and over again.
As for what we do: we have to break scripts, oversee it, rewrite it, cast it, ok wardrobe, ok set design, and oversee editing. Sometimes we spend days in post, also we do music spotting, do final sound mixing. You’re also trying to write a script and you have 100 phone calls a day. It’s a wild ride and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.
Would you say you got to effectuate your vision on Breakout Kings?
Much more in Season 2. When a new show gets on the air, a lot of money is being spent and you have to appreciate that—because the studio and network are putting in all that money—they are going to have a lot of thoughts about what they want the show to be. We were given a direction to make Season 1 a lot more procedural than we wanted it to be at first.
I didn’t have a problem with having a new case a week, I just didn’t want a straight procedural. I coined the phrase “Fun-cedural.” I cannot write a show where the dialogue is interchangeable every week. But we made it work and in between Season 1 and 2, they said go ahead and make it more funny, add lots of character, fun dialogue. The result is that lots of fans are enjoying it.
What does the future hold for this show?
I’m hoping we get a Season 3, the numbers are really strong. There was just a New York Times article about how Sunday night nobody watches live TV, they watched their Dvr’d stuff, so our Sunday night numbers are solid. But when you add our DVR numbers they are great.
We premiered in March against daylight savings time—one of the lowest nights of TV watching every year. We go up against March Madness and NBA playoffs, Mad Men, and God knows what else. But when we get our DVR numbers, we are sometimes up over 100%. We are bringing in millions of viewers on basic cable.
Would it be harder to go back after being a show runner to work for someone else?
It’s funny you ask that because I don’t know if Breakout Kings is coming back. Also my contract is up, and I have been getting a lot of other offers, I’m in my prime creative years, but also my prime earning years. So I have to balance creativity and economics and all that. I’d be thrilled to work on someone else’s show, if I like the show creatively and feel we could work together well. Zach Estrin, Karin Usher, Nick Wootton, Matt Olmstaed, Seth Hoffman, Terry Winter. I can go up and down the list of people that are talented and know what they are doing.
How would you describe your style as the boss of the show?
There are these horror stories about show runners yelling and screaming at their writers, ripping up scripts, 7 am in the morning till 2am workdays. The writers on Breakout Kings don’t even know what 6 pm looks like. We work from 10-5:30 or so and order in lunch, which means we eat for 10 minutes and before we know it we’re talking about the show again. That’s the way Matt and I like to do it.
If you’re organized and know what you’re doing, you should never have to work a weekend day. I know some people that were asshole show runners that don’t work much anymore. If you asked the Breakout Kings writers, I would hope they would say I treat them respectfully. I don’t feel like they work for me, we work together.
When you are a writer, everyone in this town is always trying to lump you into a category, how have you managed to avoid that?
I got lucky to some extent and I took some risks early on. I am not with the first agency that signed me. They were wonderful, but I recall that one of the agents a year in said to me “Nick, relax about wanting to write this book, why would you want to do that, you are an hour drama TV writer.” By the way, the odds are better for you if you let yourself be put in a box, it’s good advice, because when shows are looking for someone in that realm, they look to you right away.
But I wasn’t doing this for the money. I love to write. If I wanted guaranteed money I would have stayed a lawyer. So shortly thereafter, I fired them. This was an agency that plucked me out of obscurity from a film festival and I will be forever thankful to them and I actually thanked them in my first novel.
I switched over to Ari Greenburg at William Morris Endeavor. I said I want to write movies, I want to write TV, I want to write scripted, I want to write reality, I want to write books, I may want to write video games and comic books.
He said “write good stuff and I will do whatever I can for you.”
In addition to the scripted TV shows, I created a reality show that ran for 5 years, I wrote four movies, two got made. I sold a comic book series and I’ve written a video game. All of that was because my agent Ari agreed not to put me in a box.
I find that very inspiring on a personal level, that you’ve managed to do it your way.
Look at Will Ferrell, he’s done drama, comedy, produced, acted. Look at Jimmie Simpson on my show, he’s on Always Sunny, it’s a brilliant and absurd show, his character wears a bathrobe, drinks milk all day and showers with his brother. Then on my show he is having dramatic scenes where he faces the parents of a child he killed, he’s crying, pained when he meets them. What if he just put himself in the comedy box or the drama box? If people tell you no, figure out a way around it.
Your sheer volume of work is incredible, what’s your secret?
It’s just working hard. I know a lot of young writers and producers who tell me their frustrations with not being able to get things done, yet they are hungover from last night. Even before I was married I was staying in on Friday and Saturday night writing. My wife and I haven’t gone on a vacation in 10 years. The truth is, when I have time off, I will fly to New York and spend time with my family and go to New Jersey to spend time with her family so we can see the people we care about. When I’m there, I hole up in my childhood bedroom and write.
That’s funny, do you still have your posters from your childhood on the walls?
I actually have a Tommy Boy poster up. But I’ll sit there and write. You really want to know the secret? I told someone else this yesterday. The guys who are serving the coffee in Starbucks over there want my job, everyone in LA wants to be a writer, everyone wants to be a producer, everyone wants to be a director. The only way you’re going to hold on to your job is to constantly be working on it. The only way to hold on to that job is work ethic. I’m not the best writer in the world. I’m sure there is a guy in Paducah, Kentucky, who has a novel on his shelf that would blow my stuff away and sell six million copies. So I know I have to work hard. Everyone has to work hard, [but] not everyone wants to.
Three things you can’t live without?
My wife, my daughter, and my other daughter.
Book you’re reading right now?
The biography of John Fante, the Italian-American writer.
And finally, why should people buy your book, Fifteen Digits?
I have an 8 year old and 3 year old and I need to fund their college educations.