Graduate sells pilot to CBS and releases debut novel

CBS has picked up the pilot for “The Ordained.” Creator Lisa Takeuchi Cullen is shown above. At left are members of the cast.

By Samantha Matthews—

Many TV pilots never end up on the screen, but “The Ordained,” about a young priest from a Kennedy-like family who one day takes a confession about a violent plot against his sister, the mayor of New York, has a very good chance of making it.

Its writer is Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, J/MS 1992, of Leonia. A journalist long with Time magazine and a fiction author, Cullen sold the pilot to CBS last year and is now thoroughly enjoying the pre-production process and visual creation part of the TV pilot.

“Hiring actors to play characters that have lived in your head for two years is a bizarre process,” said Cullen.

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The storyline has the young priest quitting the priesthood and joining a law firm, where one of the senior partners is the person he thinks is behind the plot. Kind of a cross between “Homeland” and “Boston Legal.”

The talented Cullen, married and the mother of two, is equally focused on the fresh publication of her first novel, Pastors’ Wives. It was inspired by an article she wrote when she worked for Time about the wives of Protestant pastors. She recalls never really giving much thought to pastors’ wives prior to this article because she grew up Catholic.

Later, after interviewing several wives of Protestant pastors, she was blown away by the information she discovered about what they were like and their feelings about the lives they led.

“A question popped into my head: What’s it like when the man you married is married to God?” said Cullen.

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Answers to this question became the beginning of her novel. She admits she “stumbled into” writing for TV when she pitched the article she wrote about pastors’ wives as a TV series. Cullen said she had no clue what she was doing, and the initial pitch became a horrible disaster. Despite the pitch gone awry, Cullen got a taste for the business and grew more interested in it. She dove right in, taking workshops, seminars, and reading dozens and dozens of other people’s scripts. This led to her getting a blind script deal from Warner Bros. in 2011 to write a pilot and selling “The Ordained” pilot to CBS a year later.

Although she concentrates on writing fiction and for TV now, Cullen said J/MS was the staging ground for her first career, the world of print journalism. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa, her first job was as a baby reporter for Adweek magazine. Later, as a staff writer for Money for four years, Cullen was able to write longer stories and conduct extensive research.

“In some ways that might have been my favorite journalism job,” said Cullen in reference to her position as a staff writer at Money. “It was during the financial boom, the last heyday of magazines, when we were flush with edit pages and writers would get to write six-, eight-page stories about stuff that didn’t have a whole to do with personal finance.”

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After she left Money, a major part of Cullen’s journalism career was spent working for Time magazine. She worked there for eight years and at Time Inc. for 12 years. Starting out at Time as a Tokyo correspondent opened the doors to a job of travel.

“Never pass up an opportunity to travel for your assignments!” she advised young journalists. “Even if you think it’s a totally boring place, you’re guaranteed to meet interesting people,” said Cullen.

She still recalls the time she spent in Wilson, North Carolina, reporting on people who work full-time at Wal-Mart but can’t afford health insurance.

The experience that sticks with Cullen the most from her work at Time is an investigative story she did on a rape that occurred in Okinawa committed by a U.S. serviceman. “It was a story of race and sex, war and peace, love and hate… all the great themes,” said Cullen.

This is the inspiration for her second novel that she is working on titled Okinawa Nights.

Cullen had a tremendous career as a journalist and notes three things she did at Rutgers that shaped her career. They are writing for The Targum, obtaining internships at Ad Age and Rolling Stone, and stringing for the New York Times.

She credits J/MS Professor Barbara Reed with most likely having the biggest hand in kickstarting her career. Cullen still remembers Reed pulling her aside after class one day and suggesting she apply for a prestigious summer internship with the American Society of Magazine Editors. Her subsequent internship at Ad Age led Cullen directly to her job at Adweek.

Another Rutgers professor that Cullen recalls memorably is former Professor Gregg Morris, who was the first person to suggest she try out for The Targum.

“If you’re a Rutgers journalism student, and you don’t try out for The Targum, you are an idiot,” said Cullen. “It’s the best laboratory for the practice of journalism, bar none.”

While she waits for her two new projects to gel, Cullen keeps a blog on her own site, www.lisacullen.com, that she uses to write about her adventures in novel and TV writing. She first began blogging around 2006 for Time.com with a blog called “Work in Progress” that covered work-life issues. Cullen notes enjoying the interaction with readers that blogging allows.

Follow Cullen on Twitter, @lisacullen, and like her Facebook author page, https://www.facebook.com/LisaTakeuchiCullen or friend her at https://www.facebook.com/lisa.t.cullen.