NBC’s “Chicago Fire” is being promoted as the new drama from Dick Wolf, but the firefighter saga doesn’t necessarily feel like what some viewers might expect from the “Law & Order” guru.
While there have certainly been exceptions, Wolf’s more successful shows have pioneered a procedural structure in which strong actors have played frequently interchangeable characters, about whom audiences have learned very little.
“Chicago Fire,” at least in its early going, is more about the men and women of Firehouse 51 than their professional emergencies. The concentration is on the ensemble — featuring Jesse Spencer, Taylor Kinney, Lauren German, Monica Raymund, Eamonn Walker, David Eigenberg and more — rather than weekly infernos.
Much of that is certainly attributable to the approach taken by “Chicago Fire” creators Derek Haas and Michael Brandt, making their first foray onto the small screen in the midst of a feature career that includes the exceptional remake of “3:10 to Yuma” as well as the blockbuster adaptation of “Wanted.”
I had a long chat with Haas and Brandt and, to be frank, I got a little myopic regarding the show’s narrative approach and focused on that to the exception of a slew of other questions. So this interview goes into great depth on character-driven storytelling versus procedural storytelling, but maybe not as much depth on the rest of the series, which premieres on Wednesday night on NBC.
We also covered reshoots to the pilot, inevitable “Rescue Me” comparisons and… more about serialized, character-driven storytelling.
Check it out…
HitFix: You guys have a busy feature career. Why was this the time to transition to television?
Derek Haas: We have gotten the call every year, “Do you guys want to do television?” And we always said “No,” because it just seemed like it was too much work. And then we got the call last year and it was basically, “Dick Wolf and NBC want to do a show about firemen.” They didn’t have anything more than that, so Michael and I came in and we met with Dick and we said, “We don’t know anything about firemen, but we like the idea of doing a show that was set in Chicago, because the city was born out fire. So put us on a plane to Chicago.” And that Friday we left and we spent three weeks basically bouncing around different firehouses in the city and doing 24-hour shifts and meeting firemen and when we came back, we just said, “OK. this is what we want to do.”
HitFix: Was there *any* core to what you guys pitched to Dick and his people?
Derek Haas: Nope. Nothing when we first started. And then when we came back, we said, “This should be a big ensemble in the tradition of ‘Hill Street Blues’ and ‘E.R.’ and sorta the classic NBC dramas.”
HitFix: We’ve obviously seen countless dramas about cops and doctors and lawyers over the years. What have you guys discovered about why there haven’t been as many shows about firefighters?
Michael Brandt: I think the most obvious reason is that the typical first-responder — the firefighter, the ambulance driver, the paramedic — they get there, they get people stabilized and they get them to the hospital and then they leave. And so you don’t follow that storyline of what happens to the person all the way through, if you’re just telling the story of the firefighter or a paramedic. Between that and the fact that guys are in uniform and all look kinda similar, those are the two biggest challenges I think that we’ve realized and we bumped into when we started making the show.
HitFix: How, then, did you guys decide to play off of those potential problems?
Michael Brandt: What we decided to do was not make it a procedural. A procedural inherently has a beginning, a middle and an end for that episode, usually tied to a particular victim, somebody’s dead or somebody’s a hospital, and you’re following them along or it’s a crime. On our show, what we’re trying to do and what we hope we are doing is focusing completely on the guys and the women in the firehouse. The calls come in and we’re creating calls that challenge our characters emotionally, depending on what’s going on in their life. It’s not just a car wreck for the sake of going to a car wreck, but what is going on in our characters’ lives that this particular kind of car wreck and these kinds of victims that they come across challenge them. Our show is really not so much about the people in the car wreck or the people in the fire, but it’s the people putting out the fire and the people taking care of the car wreck. What we found is that the drama that’s going on in the firehouse is constantly being interrupted by calls to go do things and that, instead, those calls can elevate the drama in the firehouse when they get back there.
HitFix: But in your basic medical show or police show, whether the patient lives or dies, whether the crime is or isn’t solved, that’s where you get the last-act payoff to build the show to. How much do you take that into consideration when you’re arcing episodes?
Michael Brandt: Well, we just don’t consider that much at all. The second episode, we do deal with one particular victim at a construction site accident and we kinda follow his storyline through Taylor Kinney’s eyes, but ultimately we’re not making a show about the victims and we’re not making a show about the people in the hospital. So our final act or denouement comes from what happened with what happens with our characters in their own storylines, not from “Who was it that came through the doors of the hospital that day” or what case they were assigned that morning.
Derek Haas: Yeah, it’s funny. With the traditional procedural, the guest stars are also the stars of that episode and that’s just not the case on our show. Our guests are always there to inform our characters. Those challenges, for us, are what’s made writing the first 13 episodes interesting. Brandt and I love puzzles and love to solve things and how can we shut one door and open three more doors and have a storyline that takes places over four episodes and another one that’s all self-contained in one and mesh all of those things together. For us, that’s what makes writing fun.
Michael Brandt: Probably because of “Law & Order,” network TV has gotten fairly boring because the procedural is so prevalent right now and there’s a reason why “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” are so fun to watch, because there’s no procedure to those shows. It’s all about the characters. It’s all about what’s happening to them. When we came in, not having ever been procedural-type guys, the first conversation we had with Dick was, “We can’t imagine doing a fire-of-the-week show” and Dick said, “Thank goodness. I don’t want to do a fire-of-the-week show either.” Dick started as a writer on “Hill Street Blues.” He was a staff writer. So that’s right where we went. We want to write about the guys in the house, just like “Hill Street Blues” was about the guys in that room every morning before they went out and hit the streets.
Derek Haas: That’s why, also, we’ve hired directors on the first 13 from “The Wire” and from “Breaking Bad” and from “Rescue Me,” instead of going and getting the director of “Baywatch” or something like that. We’re trying to do some really elevated drama.
Michael Brandt: I will say one last thing on this procedural deal: There’s a couple shows this year that will go unnamed that I was so excited to see and now I’ve watched a couple of them and I’m like, “It’s just another procedural, but it’s it’s just set in a different world.” I wish that the networks could get back to writing dramas that aren’t just about the case-of-the-week.
HitFix: But you’ve mentioned cable shows as the inspiration. Are you worried about the challenges of this storytelling if you get a back-nine, if you have to do 22 episodes in a season?
Michael Brandt: If you spend 10 minutes in a firehouse, you’ll walk out with with 15 ideas. The guys are just filled with interpersonal dramas, practical jokes they play on each other. One minute you’re crying, the next minute you’re laughing talking to these guys, once you get them to kinda open up and start talking to you. So no, in the same way that “Grey’s Anatomy” or “E.R.” or any of the non-procedural, more highly elevated soap-dramas have no problems coming up with storylines, we certainly don’t plan on having that. If anything, we hope that the audience gives a show like ours a chance because of the fact that we’re not a case-of-the-week show.
Derek Haas: The great thing about having both Dick Wolf and our showrunner Matt Olmstead is that these are two guys who never look at, “Oh, what is that morass I’m now going to fall into?” Everything is a challenge that is something we’re gonna overcome, is a chess match that we’re gonna win and we love being around that, those kinds of guys.
HitFix: You mentioned the puzzles or the mysteries that you’re setting the show to solve or unravel, but the pilot originally contained one of those mysteries involving a character whose death was something unexplained and only hinted at. Then you went back and shot a new cold open to the show in which that situation is entirely explained upfront before the opening credits. What was the thought process of the new opening?
Michael Brandt: Well, we knew that this was coming. We wanted to drop the audience into a firehouse in the middle of something that was going on. Originally, the thinking was that we’re dropping them in to a time where a guy has passed away, due to a fire, and we’re not sure whose responsibility it was, but we know that our two leads both have some culpability in this whole thing and we wanted to drop in the middle of that and play the tension out from that point forward. Even as we shooting the pilot in March, Derek and I were saying to ourselves, “You know the first thing the network’s gonna want is ‘What happened to Darden?'” Darden was the guy who died. Sure enough, that was the first note we got was, “Guys, we really want to know what happened to Darden. Can we shoot that?” I think part of it was that we were trying to maybe be too clever in terms of getting an audience to be interested in our show right off the bat? I mean, “Lost” had this plane crash on this Island and that’s where it picks up and ours was after the plane crash, essentially. So in some ways I think we outsmarted ourselves and then we just had to kinda go with what Dick and NBC wanted to do, which was, “Let’s make sure people watch this and continued to be fascinated and then you guys can have a little more free-rein to go from there.”
HitFix: Was there a different way that you guys had hoped to gradually reveal the information about Darden that’s now in the first five minutes?
Derek Haas: I don’t think we ever thought about doing flashbacks, so you’ll see what we did in Episode 2 to sorta keep that storyline or maybe close it off a little bit. I don’t think we wanted to do the “Rescue Me” thing of where our characters were going to be seeing ghosts. We knew comparisons to that show were inevitable, but we wanted, honestly, to get to know that guy just a little bit in the first two minutes so that when he dies, we see why these guys were…. That was a challenge, but it was fun, of writing a guy that you’re gonna like in the first five minutes, we’re gonna kill him and then you’re gonna see the effects of that.
Michael Brandt: If you’ve been around a little bit, you know that pilots, in some ways, it’s kinda just futzing around. That’s the reason why reshoots on a pilot don’t always mean the kiss of death. You get there and you realize the relationships that work and some that done and then you adjust, because you’re setting the bar on something that you hopefully will do for years to come. So we went there and we tried somethings on the pilot and then we rejiggered a little bit. Not drastically, but we took one character out and we changed Eamonn Walker’s character a little bit in terms of what he was in charge of, but other than that, most of the storylines remain.
HitFix: “Rescue Me” is obviously going to be everybody’s basic point of comparison, because it was the most recent firefighter show and it was very success. How much, then, is that show a model for things you want to avoid when you’re making your own show and trying to have it be distinctive?
Michael Brandt: I watched “Rescue Me” and thought it was a great, great show and, of course, when we got the phone call show saying, “Do you want to do a firefighter show?” I went through the same emotions, “Really? Do we need another one? ‘Rescue Me’ covered that ground really well.” But, “Rescue Me” was really f***ing dark and really sordid in a lot of ways and it was dealing with something very specific with the 9/11. The firefighters we met in Chicago, while having a love for “Rescue Me,” just because they liked watching shows about themselves, the guys we met with, they didn’t have that darkness that I think the firefighters did on “Rescue Me,” or certainly Denis Leary’s character did. I think our eyes were opened a little bit when we started spending time with firefighters in Chicago, seeing that there’s an “E.R.”/”Hill Street Blues” version of a fire show that doesn’t have this darkness and kinda the anger that “Rescue Me” had.
Derek Haas: When we asked firemen — and we did this in every house — we asked, “What’d you think of ‘Rescue Me’?” They would all say, “They got the dialogue right, but they sure wallowed in a lot of depression and drugs and stuff that’s just not applicable to my life.” We heard that 20 times.
HitFix: So that’s a promise that “Chicago Fire” is not going to be a wallowing type of drama?
Derek Haas: I think so. Yeah. The thing that we loved is that these guys who you’d be laughing with, 10 minutes later would be running into a building that everybody else would be running out of. That’s what we said to Bob Greenblatt and Dick when we got back is, “Let’s explore THOSE guys.” Who’s the kinda guy who gets up in the morning and kisses his wife and comes to work and, no matter what that call is, they’re getting on the truck and they’re going. We have just little things in the pilot that I think are a pretty accurate glimpse of a Chicago firefighter, like on the way to the first call, [David] Eigenberg is in the back, reading a newspaper on the way there and that’s exactly what it is: It’s a job to them and to us, we’re in the firetruck and it’s just as fun as you’d imagine it would be when you were four years old.
Michael Brandt: One last thing on “Rescue Me”… As soon as, I think it was Season 3, when Denis Leary’s character started to kinda come out of his funk and regain a little bit of his health, then on the show, they just his kid over with a car. So that show definitely embraced knocking their characters down a peg at every possible minute they could. And yes, that really does happy, but that’s not the show that we’re gonna make. We’re not gonna make a show where we keep knocking our characters down just because we enjoy them dragging themselves through the dirt.
HitFix: Though when we get into the third episode, there’s a potentially dark plotline set in motion with Jesse Spencer’s character and another with Taylor Kinney’s Severide. How long do you expect certain arcs to run? And is there a consideration to keeping those arcs tied up quickly for things like repeats and whatnot?
Derek Haas: That’s been the really nice thing is both the network and Dick have said, “We’re not doing a one-episode, one-story procedural.” They’re given us pretty much carte blanch to come up with… Originally all you have is 13 episodes, so we put 13 episodes across the top of the board and then on the Y-axis we put 10 characters and we we just started saying, “OK, what about this storyline? What about that storyline?” In that episode you’re referring to, the third one, that’s something that’s going to go for a number of episodes and same thing with Severide and his painkillers. We have a character coming up for [Lauren German’s] Shay, an old girlfriend who’s going to be around for a while. It’s fun. Those things, they’re a blast to write, because when I was a kid, I read Hardy Boys mysteries and every chapter ended with “Oh and the car went off the cliff.” And you’re like, “Well, I can’t stop reading there. I’ll keep reading.” We like writing these kinds of episodes that are going to make you want to come back the next week.
HitFix: And have there been any limitations to the city of Chicago’s receptiveness to the production?
Michael Brandt: Really, zero. We flew out and we met with Rahm Emanuel and Dick in the spring… And Rahm gave us the keys to the city. But I will say that we had already earned the respect of the fire department in terms of we met a guy there named Steve Chikerotis, who was actually a technical advisor going back to “Backdraft” and he’s one of the bigwigs in the Chicago Fire Department and really one of the greatest men I’ve ever known and when he realized what we wanted to do was try to make a great show… I mean, warts and all, we want to show the fire department in its true light and between Steve and the commissioner of the fire department, by the time word got to Rahm about what we wanted to do, he gave us all of the support that he possibly could in terms of opening the city for us.
HitFix: And how long was Rahm Emanuel actually there for his appearance in the pilot? And could he make an additional appearances in the future?
Derek Haas: He was there an hour. I think he shot for 15 minutes and then he talked to the crew for another 45 shaking hands… So yeah, if Rahm pops back up, that would be great for us. He was funny.
HitFix: Now that you’ve had this experience and you actually said “Yes” and signed on to do a TV show, how has that changed your approach to the feature scripts?
Michael Brandt: They’re going to feel really long, that’s for sure. We’re keeping our feet in both worlds. We have feature projects. We’re writing “Wanted 2.” We have feature projects that we’re really interested in that we’re still working on, but we are coming into the office and we’re actively engaged in “Chicago Fire” every day. We’re in Chicago every other week, it seems like. So we don’t want to give up either one at this point. But television being such a writers’ medium, the respect that we get and the creative satisfaction we get on TV is really hard to beat and I can understand why so many feature writers are trying to come over to TV.
“Chicago Fire” premieres on Wednesday, October 10 at 10 p.m. on NBC.