Last week NBC announced it is renewing its Wednesday night drama "Chicago Fire" for a second season. The cast and crew are still in town but not for long; they're scheduled to wrap the Season 1 finale on Saturday. They'll be back in mid-July to begin work on the new season.
I caught up with co-creator Derek Haas (who is one of the show's executive producers, along with longtime writing partner Michael Brandt and show runner Matt Olmstead) to talk about the shift to TV — his previous screenwriting credits with Brandt are all in film, including "2 Fast 2 Furious" and "3:10 to Yuma" — plus the likelihood of a "Chicago Fire" spin-off on NBC's schedule next year.
Though Haas lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two kids, he has spent considerable time in Chicago working on the show. He is as unpretentious as they come and isn't afraid to roll up his sleeves when the need arises (he posted a photo of himself on Twitter shoveling snow on set back during the blizzard in March). And he couldn't have had nicer things to say about his experience working with Dick Wolf. TV, it turns out, has been far more satisfying than Haas anticipated. (The following is an edited transcript.)
Q: Congratulations on the renewal.
A: Thank you so much!
Q: The ratings were a little shaky when the show debuted in the fall, but it's become one of the most reliable performers on NBC. (9.4 million viewers in the 18-49 range.) I'm guessing you would have been surprised if they didn't order a second season.
A: You're cautiously optimistic, but I've been in Hollywood long enough to know you don't count your chickens before they're hatched.
Here's my thing: We didn't get crazy-great reviews when it started. They were middle-of-the-road reviews. And I think a lot of it was, "Oh, this doesn't have the flash or the sizzle of something high-concept." It wasn't like: All the energy went off in the world and now people with bows and arrows are going to have to fight together (the premise for "Revolution"). We didn't have the pedigree of T. Bone Burnett producing all the music for the show (as he does for ABC's "Nashville").
We saw the word "procedural" 20 times in every review, and we were like: Oh, that's not our show — just wait. We've got to introduce all these characters. It's chapters in a book, and this is just the first chapter. I think it took word-of-mouth of people telling each other, "Oh, this show is real." And since then it's been awesome.
Q: This is your first TV series. What did you and Michael learn over the past few months about what works in TV but doesn't work in film, and vice versa?
A: A movie has a beginning, middle and an end. And what we realized in TV, we don't need to have an end — we can put a new dangler in this episode that's not going to pay off for two more episodes.
So for instance, we introduced a kid on a bicycle riding away from a fire scene early on in the season. We didn't even come back to him for a couple of episodes, and then the kid showed up at the station around Thanksgiving and there was some suspicion maybe that this kid was starting these fires. It was a fun running story line to be able to do — fun from a writing standpoint, over the course over four or five episodes.
Q: That's a departure from the Dick Wolf brand. All those "Law & Orders" typically exist as stand-alone episodes. Were you influenced by the fact that so many TV shows today incorporate serialized elements?
A: When we pitched the show to Dick, we had gone to Chicago for three weeks of riding-along with various fire stations in the city. And we realized, oh, there's a squad, there's a truck, there's an engine, there's paramedics, there's a battalion chief — we can make a giant ensemble in the vein of "ER" or "Hill Street Blues" rather than, "OK, there's a fire this week: Here's the response to it."
So when we pitched that to Dick, he got very excited about it. And we pitched the first 13 episodes that were all about the characters. Didn't pitch one single fire or what was going to happen in a rescue. It was just: Here's where Dawson and Casey try to get together and it doesn't work out; here's where Severide is going to solve his shoulder problems. Slowly, over the season, these were the rich stories we wanted to tell about these characters.
Q: Do you get a lot of feedback from Wolf or NBC about what they want to show to look like or what kinds of stories they want you to tell?
A: Oh, yeah. Matt Olmstead, who is our show runner, and Michael and I, we come up with the day-to-day. But it goes through Dick — he reads every outline, he reads every draft, he watches every cut of the show, and the same with NBC. And they give us their notes. But I gotta say — and I'm not making this up for publicity or whatever — it's been the greatest creative partnership that we've had as guys who have written a lot of movies.
A lot of times (in movies) the writer is replaced or isn't needed on set. And to have the writing supported the way it's been by Dick Wolf and NBC has been extremely satisfying.
Q: That makes it sound like when you write a movie script, they basically give you a check and say, "Thanks fellas, see ya later."
A: On a film, a hundred percent the director is the boss of the movie. We had a great experience on the second "The Fast and the Furious," where John Singleton for whatever reason liked us, so we were on from prep all the way through post. And same on "3:10 to Yuma," we get along great with Jim Mangold. But on a couple of our other movies, yes, it's been, unceremoniously: "We will no longer be needing your services" or "You're not welcome on the set."
And on television, the writer is really king. The writers are the bosses of the directors because we have new directors each week. I spent a ton of time in Chicago with Matt and Michael because you want the show to look the same as it did three weeks ago, and you want the characters to react in a way that makes sense. So it's important that you as a writer are there to make sure that everything stays consistent.
Q: All the scenes in "Chicago Fire" that take place inside the firehouse (kitchen, offices, locker room) are shot on a set you built on a soundstage at Cinespace. But the scenes in the garage are shot at a real firehouse — a working firehouse — at Blue Island Avenue and Maxwell Street. How often do you have to yell "Cut!" because a call is coming in over the PA system?
A: It happens all the time. I thought it was going to be every two minutes, but because we shoot during the day, and I think there's more fire activity at night, we don't get interrupted as much as you might think. But it does happen. They'll be in the middle of a line and it's like (makes siren sound) "Man down; unknown causes."
Q: What can you tell me about the possible police-themed spin-off that you're testing out in an episode of "Chicago Fire" (airing in two weeks)?
A: Last fall, when we first introduced two cops on the show, Dick Wolf — half with a smile on his face — said, "You know, we could do a cop show!" And Dick's a great writer himself, so he was already talking to the network: What if we did this? What if we did that? And I think as they picked shows for pilot season, they realized, "Oh, we don't have something like 'Chicago Fire' this year," and I think they called Dick back and said, "So what would that cop show look like?"
We already had a story line in the 23rd episode we knew would involve the police, so all that was involved was making that bigger. It's not the finale, by the way, which is what everybody's reporting. All this happens in the penultimate episode.
Q: What's the term for this kind of pilot spinoff?
A: They call it a back-door pilot or a spinout or an embedded pilot.
It's definitely a "Chicago Fire" episode — it's not like, all of a sudden you're watching "Chicago Police Show." But within that you'll meet some new characters.
So the network will look at it and decide from there. They know what we can do, what we've done with the fire department. We're going to try to do a "Hill Street Blues" type of show. But it's up to NBC. We have no idea if it will get picked up.
Q: With the exception of "Southland," which probably isn't coming back, you don't see those kinds of workaday cop shows anymore.
A: Exactly. The cop shows have been like, "Here's the detective who can always tell when you're lying!" or "This is the unit that only tracks down serial killers!" Our thing was, Matt, Michael and I spent four days riding around with cops and detectives and we got to see the inner workings of the police department, and it was like, why isn't this a show? The same way that we did it with the fire department, there's a show in what it means to be a policeman in Chicago. So that's what we're going for.
I will say that the "Chicago Fire" experience helped us in telling the network, "You can do a show like this." Because I think if we had just come in and said we wanted to do a police show in Chicago, they would have said, "What's the hook?" That's the big expression. But we were like: No, it's going to be day-in-the-life of Chicago policemen.
If we do this right, as Dick Wolf said, it'll be like Dickens' London, where we can have a character appear on both shows. There's a way to do it where these characters just intertwine. And the only way to do that is both shows shooting in Chicago, shooting close by, having the same people in charge.
Q: Not to get on your case, but what is the likelihood that we'll see Chicago actors cast in principal roles if the spinoff gets picked up? It seems like so much casting comes out of LA.
A: Well for "Chicago Fire," we got people out of New York, LA and Chicago. Joe Minoso (Cruz) is from Chicago; Yuri Sardarov (Otis) is from Chicago; Christian Stolte (Mouch) is from Chicago. And David Eigenberg (Hermann) was out of LA, but he grew up in Naperville. So four of our main 10 are from Chicago. And yes, we will do the same thing on any other shows, looking for Chicago talent.
It's that age-old game of, you gotta have good agents and good relationships with casting directors. Ninety-five percent of our guest roles have been Chicago actors. And it's all from Claire Simon Casting, so it's who she knows and who she brings in.
I will say Matt and I, two weeks ago we were in town, we saw a couple of plays. I saw "The Whale" (at Victory Gardens), which was amazing by the way, and you look at these actors like, "Oh, maybe could we use them at some point." We try to see a play every time we're in town.
Q: When will you know if the spinoff is a go or not?
A: There's no rhyme or reason. The upfronts (when the networks announce their new slate of shows) happen before the (back-door pilot) airs. So I'll be surprised if we don't hear either way by next week. We're screening it for them on Tuesday, I believe. I don't know what they'll say — you don't know, it might be something they pick up for midseason, or they decide to order a few scripts and think some more on it. So nothing's sure.
Q: You're also a novelist. (His most recent, a spy thriller called "The Right Hand," was published in the fall.) Do you still have time to write books?
A: This one that came out in November may be the last one for the next couple years. The TV show took up more time than I thought, but it's been so creatively fun and vigorous and satisfying. I think in our minds we thought, "Well, we'll just write the pilot and go back to doing movies." And then we had so much fun doing the pilot that we were like, "We'll do the first season and see how it goes." And we've had such a great time and been viewed as partners by everybody involved. So we're in the for long haul. We told Dick, we're doing television until they pull us from it!
I did sell the rights to "The Right Hand" to Universal, and thankfully we have such a good relationship with them, we've done two movies with them, that they haven't been like, "Where is that draft?" So during our hiatus, I'll have about four weeks off and I'll try to get something on paper.
"Chicago Fire" airs 9 p.m. Wednesdays on NBC.Girl cult
Freelance writer Lauren Whalen will analyze the dark 1999 comedy "Drop Dead Gorgeous," which takes aim at teen beauty pageants, small-town Minnesota and dysfunctional families. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Allison Janney and Kirstie Alley, it screens midnight Saturday as part of Facets' weekly Night School series. If you're curious to look up the film on Netflix, don't bother; a different movie from 2010 with the same title (a numbingly bad comedy about the world of modeling) is the only one available. And if you thought you'd just buy the DVD on Amazon, you'll have to fork over $50. "That price is insane, and the movie is just really hard to find, so I'm hoping this will get people to come," Whalen told me. "It's funny, it's quotable, it's dark and kind of weird. I really wanted to do something female-driven because cult films can sometimes be a boys club." Go to facets.org.
Women behind the camera
Chicago-based sketch comedy actor and fledgling filmmaker Aemilia Scott's comedic short "Best If Used By" will have its local premiere Tuesday at the Midwest Independent Film Festival's Female Filmmakers Night. Scott (who made the dark comedy for just $5,000) stars as a grocery store clerk stunned by the sudden death of her boyfriend. She steals his corpse and transports him to walk-in freezer at work, where everyone comes to pay their respects. "Chicago Fire's" Christian Stolte plays her boss. Scott will be at Tuesday's screening along with other Midwestern directors including Fawzia Mirza (featured in this column last week for her "Kam Kardashian" web series) and Janina Gavankar (better known as Luna on HBO's "True Blood"). Go to midwestfilm.com.
The Danish director Nagieb Khaja gave cellphone cameras to men and women living in rural Afghanistan and asked them to film their daily lives. The results are edited together in the documentary "My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone," which screens at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Siskel Film Center with producer Lise Lense-Moller present for a post-show discussion. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org.
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