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From DL High School to Hollywood producer: 'Dirty Sexy Money' is hit for Craig Wright

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Some people may not know the similarities between "Dirty Sexy Money" character Brian and executive producer and writer Craig Wright, but they're there.

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Brian, a preacher, leaves the church to join the family business. Wright, a former preacher, left the church to join Hollywood.

"I was already at odds with the church over a lot of things," he said earlier this month while in Detroit Lakes visiting. Wright now lives in Silver Lake, Calif., an area of Los Angeles between Hollywood and downtown.

Graduating from Detroit Lakes High School in 1983, Wright is still close friends with high school friend Chris Knapp, and was home with Chris, visiting his parents, Jim and Joann Knapp.

Less than eager, but willing, Wright sat down to discuss Detroit Lakes versus Los Angeles; being a playwright; the church; and how television really isn't good for people.

Getting started

Wright's first experience with theater in Detroit Lakes was "Every Man," a one-act competition at the high school, with former teacher Dennis Kral directing.

"I forget why or how he justified it, but he cast me when I was in ninth grade, I think, in "Every Man." He used to call me "every boy," Wright said, which caused laughter from everyone in the room, including Jim and Chris Knapp.

He went on to also act in "Flowers for Algernon" and "Fiddler on the Roof," but he'd find writing was where his passion was. He and Chris Knapp were editors of "The Humanist," a literary journal in high school. Mark Hassenstab, English teacher, "who we kind of idolized," was the advisor.

Wright began writing poetry, and after high school, he briefly attended St. John's. That ended quickly, and from there, he "floundered around" for a period of time, living in Detroit Lakes, watching "Days of Our Lives," fishing and visiting the Port Authority.

"Until Dr. Knapp spoke to me and said if you'd like to go back -- because I didn't have any money -- said if you'd like to go back to college, I'd like to pay for it, if you keep your grades up."

So he enrolled at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He attended for two and a half years, "until I couldn't handle that anymore and left." From there, he made his way to the Twin Cities with the Children's Theater and worked as an actor. While there, met a playwright that said Wright should give writing a try.

He wrote "Crocodiles," for which he won a Jerome Fellowship for $5,000. It was never produced though.

"I think that made me a playwright, that moment right there. I wasn't a very good actor. I didn't like being told what to do all the time."

But that's not to say he wanted to tell others what to say, either.

"What I like about being a playwright is that you're involved just enough. They're happy if you're there, but if you leave, they don't mind."

Seminary

When Wright first moved to the Detroit Lakes area, he wasn't religious at all. But he lived with a born-again Christian and knew some others, and became a born-again Christian around ages 15-16, until about age 19.

"I left it for a long time, but then when I had a couple setbacks in my career, I thought, 'what should I do?' I had never decided my experiences in the church weren't real. I knew they were real. What I decided was the church was different from those experiences and I didn't agree with the church. Church isn't God. God's God."

So, he decided to attend seminary in the Twin Cities. He graduated and got a job in St. Paul, until one day he received a phone call from an agent in Los Angeles who said he had read one of Wright's plays and wondered if he would like to come out and interview for TV work. He did, and got a job on the HBO show "Six Feet Under."

Wright said that although the money was nice, the main reason for his move was his disagreements with the church.

"It began to seem to me that after five years of studying, in my opinion, just for me, the only valid expression of Protestantism was Quakerism."

Some Protestants, he said, were hanging onto aspects of Catholicism. He said Catholicism and Quakerism make sense, but not the others in between, especially when it comes to Communion.

"It doesn't make sense. If you don't believe in transubstantiation, then you don't need an ordained minister to do Communion. It's not flesh and blood, therefore you don't need a priest. It doesn't make sense.

"We keep putting these people in magical positions, and they're not magical people."

He said although he's not a Quaker, he likes Quakerism because the people all sit in a circle with no one in the middle, only God is in the middle.

"That makes sense," he said.

"So, I was already having trouble with it, so when the call came to interview, I just thought, 'well, maybe. I don't want to support this structure anymore.'"

Writing for "Six Feet Under," Wright said he got to use his spiritual and religion influence.

One of the best moments, he said, was when the character David was trying to decide whether to break up with his partner Keith and he's talking to an Episcopalian minister Father Jack, and Jack says he should do whatever draws him (David) deeper into the reality of his life. Not the life he thinks he can have, or the life he wants to have, but the life he has.

"The number of people over the years, I've heard, said they were in an AA meeting where somebody quoted that ... That's as real, important and valuable as anything I ever preached on a Sunday. And it reached 5 million, 10 million people."

Coming from a small town

"Coming from a small town helped me in the sense that I think I have a pretty strong sense of community and loyalty."

That community and loyalty has helped keep him grounded in Hollywood, he said.

But coming from a small town does hinder him in a way as well.

"I don't think of myself as parochial, but I need a lot of simplicity. I think that might come from being in a small town where you have that."

He doesn't have a television, doesn't get a newspaper, and likes to avoid a lot of input for sanity and creative reasons.

"I think I might have been trained coming from a small town to need a level of quiet, focus in my life.

"Last night we took a walk out under the stars -- snow, quiet. That still feels like a necessary reality. The quiet, simple realty of nature. It's very much important to me.

"So whether it helps me or hinders me, I don't know. But coming from a smaller town has made it so that I keep my life in L.A. very truncated."

Wright has written 15-20 plays and had 10-12 produced.

"The ones that haven't been produced were written in the first three years of my career. I just kept writing plays no one would do."

He has a series of plays that reflect Detroit Lakes, or rather a fictitious town called Pine City. The collection includes "The Pavilion," "Orange Flower Water," "Molly's Delicious" and "Melissa Arctic." One more, "Grace" takes place in Florida, but is about people who come from Pine City.

Pine City, he describes, is half Detroit Lakes and half New York Mills, which he also spent time in, working with the cultural center.

Wright said if he had to pick one play that stands closer to him than the others, it would be "The Pavilion." "Melissa Arctic," which he said needs to be re-written, is also a personal favorite. It's been produced once, and really just needs to be produced again and be reworked, he said. It's being produced next year in Philadelphia, and Wright plans to be a part of that.

Inspiration

Where does he find his inspiration?

"It's not a very exciting answer, but life. Just from people I meet and things that are happening."

"I think for a long time I have created drama in my own life in order to give myself things to write about. But I think that period might be coming to an end."

On "Dirty Sexy Money," there is the character, Brian, who is an ex-minister. In an episode aired earlier this month, Brian leaves the church to work for the family, "which to me is very much me leaving the church to go to Hollywood. On the show, the Darlings really represent Hollywood to me."

Wright explained that walking through life, people take in ideas and inspirations. Different people take different things out of experiences, and therefore everyone's take on the same story could be different.

Whether it be original or based on another's inspiration, Wright's working on plays, a movie, television, and possibly a musical.

In contact with two lyricists about writing a musical, Wright said it would be based on a French play -- the name slips his mind -- about a hotel where people end up killing themselves. A guy goes to investigate, falls in love with the innkeeper, and when the relationship goes south, he kills himself.

That's the kind of material that fascinates him.

"You're going to make a musical out of that," questions Jim Knapp with a laugh of disbelief.

"Possibly," Wright replies.

Wednesday at 9

He said all people are doing the same thing, talking and communicating, including characters on television.

"Although I have to say, people watch too much TV and should stop," he said.

Between the Internet and television, people are staring at screens multiple, multiple hours a day.

"I don't believe that's what human beings were made to do. I don't care if I had 10 shows on TV, you should only watch an hour or two of television a day."

"Nine o'clock on Wednesday night," pipes Jim Knapp.

"And if nine o'clock on Wednesday night happens to fit into your schedule, well all the better," Wright adds with a laugh.

Although there are a group of writers that work on Dirty Sexy Money, as executive producer, Wright has the last word on what the characters will say. He said the writers will get together and discuss what's going to happen, write it and then rewrite it.

"The whole reason to be a writer is to have a voice. But then people decide to be TV writers, and they decide to subsume their voice to another person's voice. Well, that's not the best use of humanity and everyone knows that, so they pay them a lot of money to do it."

"So, I have nothing but sympathy for the writers. To some degree, they all try to mimic my voice, but then I rewrite it. I just try and encourage the writers who work for me to write their own pilots and get on with it. Pay your bills for now."

Dreaming of growing up to be a writer and then pass that voice onto someone else, he said, isn't a great destiny.

"If you're going to be a writer, you should say what you came to say."

"Dirty Sexy Money" has gotten picked up for the remaining nine episodes of the season, but with the writer's strike, Wright said it's in trouble for next season.

"If the strike goes on too long, the show will die."

He is contracted to write a movie for Warner Bros. based on "The Flash," the comic book. Other than that, he said, he's uncommitted and could quit the business.

"I've never done any job in my life more than seven years. I've been thinking lately about doing something else. I don't know what it would be."

He has a play opening this spring in Chicago called "Better Late," which he wrote with Larry Gelbart, known for "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Tootsie."

"I'll probably always write something, but I don't know that. I need to stop a minute to think about it."

He said he's always used his writing to deal with his own form of mental illness, "been a little crazy."

"If I suddenly was happy, I could stop maybe because I wouldn't be working anything out. Or, I could stop for a minute and then start again but write it in a different way, not writing to fix myself, but writing just to make something up."

He said what seems attractive right now is to pack up and move to Santiago, Chile, open a bookstore and just read.

"Who knows, these are all just pipe dreams. I do need to just stop, though."

A move back to Detroit Lakes isn't likely. The Midwest is a possibility as long as a large, open lake is involved. He said sometimes he thinks it would be nice to move to a small town and teach.

Until he leaves Hollywood, though, Wright's always got a spot at the Knapps' when he needs a breather. And he's got his friend by his side -- though not geographically -- until then.

Chris Knapp, who is a lawyer in Everett, Wash., consulted with Wright when he started developing "Dirty Sexy Money." Wright would call Knapp to see what his lawyer character, Nick, should do or projects he should be doing.

"Little by little, he just got more integrated into the process. When the show got picked up for series, he came down and met with all the writers."

Wright and Knapp talk as friends on a daily basis, but now the other writers on the show also contact Knapp for advice on what Nick should be doing or saying.

Although Hollywood may be where it's at, there's nothing like returning to the simplicity of home.

"Walking out in the snow last night, I gotta say, it seemed like an attractive idea, coming back. But I don't know that I could come back to Detroit Lakes. It's weird to go back anywhere."

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