When I’m traveling alone I tend to fixate on strangers, and my recent trip to Portland was no exception. As I rode the TriMet MAX light rail from the airport into the city, a collection of individuals caught my attention, as they drifted on and off through the sliding doors like ghosts – Rose McGowan lookalike in dreadlocks and cut-off denim shorts; stocky kid in his early 20s, black baseball cap, sullenly mumbling into his cell phone about a girl; tattered, strung-out homeless man with long, dirty hair and full beard, slouching from one of the handholds.
I couldn’t help but wonder who these people were during my 45-minute stretch on the car, the vivid landscape of the Willamette Valley rolling by; how “Rose” could look so content and so sad all at once, a slight smile perennially curling at the corners of her mouth; why the stocky kid in the black cap found it necessary to hide his face while he spoke; when the homeless man had become homeless, and why, and how, and if there was anyone left out there who cared enough for him to worry where he was – a mother or father or sister in tears, gripping phones and driving the gray Portland streets day after day, hoping to spot him on a street corner, or glimpse his ragged form drooping in an alleyway.
There is just something about Portland, located at the very northern end of Oregon, tucked between the majestic Columbia and Willammette rivers as they split in two and drift on alone, that engenders this kind of thinking. Whether on account of the crisp autumn air, or perhaps the steely clouds bunching from one horizon to the next, threatening never to move, to stay there forever, or the abundance of fir and hemlock and red cedar and cottonwood trees massing on the hillsides above the city, there is a dreamlike quality to the area, a tendency for one’s mind to wander – drifting across faces and buildings and bridges and wondering at their particulars – for longer than one might in a sunnier climate like Los Angeles or Houston or Miami.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that “Grimm” co-creators David Greenwalt and Jim Kouf chose to set the show, a hybrid of dark fantasy and procedural, in the northwestern city and its surrounding area, an area that has served as the setting for a multitude of other recent films and TV shows including “Twilight”, “Extraordinary Measures” with Harrison Ford, the TNT original series “Leverage”, Portland native Gus Van Sant’s “Paranoid Park” and “Untraceable”, the 2007 serial killer film starring Diane Lane.
“It’s like the Black Forest in Germany,” said Kouf as he and Greenwalt settled in for an interview shortly following my arrival on set the next day.
“You couldn”t just shoot the show anywhere else,” concurred Greenwalt, who also co-created the “Buffy” spin-off “Angel” with Joss Whedon and served as showrunner for its first three seasons. “You couldn”t shoot this in L.A. You couldn”t shoot it in New York. I suppose you could kind of fake in it Vancouver, but we – we”re shooting Portland for Portland and we wrote it that way in the original script.”
We spoke with the two men in a trailer near that day’s set, a four-story extended living facility located in a modest residential area about a 15-minute drive from downtown Portland. The two men described how they met in the late 1970s through mutual friend Dan Petrie Jr. (who was working as a talent agent’s assistant at the time but would later go on to write “Beverly Hills Cop”, among other films), and later collaborated on the script for a 1982 Joe Don Baker-starring horror-comedy entitled “Wacko”.
“We had a lot of fun doing it, and we started writing all kinds of stuff in the ’80″s,” said Greenwalt. “And then Jim became a director and then because he became a director, I became a director, because he helped get a movie started for me and then we got so busy being directors and stuff. And then I got into television [and] I dragged him finally many years later in TV and with ‘Angel’. He came in and worked on ‘Angel’ and I knew he”d love TV and that was the end of it.”
The opportunity for “Grimm” came last year when Greenwalt received a call from Hazy Mills, the production company started by Sean Hayes (“Will and Grace”) and Todd Milliner, during which he was pitched the idea of doing a modern-day update of the Brothers Grimm as an NBC TV series (Milliner had set up a version of the project six years prior at CBS, but the show never went to pilot). That was when Greenwalt called in Kouf to help flesh out the story, which NBC was envisioning as a procedural with fantasy elements.
“We knew right away we didn’t want to do two worlds, you know, like a fairytale world and a real world,” said Greenwalt. “We knew right away that we wanted to do it [so] that…these critters exist in our world.”
In other words, viewers won’t find any extra-dimensional portals in “Grimm” (as in ABC’s “Once Upon a Time”, for example), nor will they find an easy delineation between good and evil. This fresh angle to the old tales is brought to light through the character of Eddie Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell), who plays an updated, far more sympathetic (and comedic) variation on the “Big Bad Wolf”.
“The big opening was Monroe”s character where we were able to tell the Grimm creature side of the story because he grew up on the opposite side of the coin,” said Kouf. “We always heard about the Big Bad Wolf, but we never heard the Big Bad Wolf side of the story. He grew up, you know, [with] his family being killed by Grimms. So, not every Grimm creature is bad. …Some are good, some are bad.”
The procedural element of the show comes in with the protagonists, two Portland homicide detectives named Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) and Hank Griffin (Russell Hornsby). In the pilot episode, Nick discovers he’s descended from a long line of Grimms, a group of warriors who have the unique ability to see what others don’t – the supernatural creatures that exist among us in the ordinary world. He also learns that to fight these supernatural beings is his birthright, which forces him to grapple with the decision of whether to break off his relationship with his fiancee Juliette (Bitsie Tulloch) as a means of protecting her from harm.
Interestingly, and perhaps understandably, despite the show’s title not all of the supernatural beings to be featured in the series have been lifted from the Grimm storybook.
“We”re gonna be drawing on fairytales from all over the place, from all over the world,” said Greenwalt.
“‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ is not a Grimm,” noted Kouf, referencing an upcoming episode.
“I don”t think the ‘Three Little Pigs’ is either, is it?” asked Greenwalt, referencing another. “We do the three little bad wolves.”
“Yeah, pig”s revenge,” added Kouf of the episode’s subversive angle on the old story.
Given the rather gory sights we were treated to in the makeup effects trailer later on, Greenwalt indicated that while the show is certainly dark, it probably won’t ever venture into “adults-only” territory.
“Almost the whole family can [watch],” said Greenwalt. “I wouldn’t have young children watching this show, but [it’s a] sort of a fun, quirky show…that much of the whole family can watch.”
Kouf and Greenwalt also hope not to makes the series such a commitment that if you miss one episode, you’ll find yourself feeling lost when you return the following week (though there will, of course, still be some narrative throughlines to keep the show’s more regular viewers satisfied).
“Our goal was that you can just sit down on a Friday night and watch an episode of ‘Grimm’ and you don”t have to have a scorecard to keep up,” said Greenwalt. “Because some shows get too much mythology and you feel, ‘I don”t know enough about it to keep up.'”
One interesting aspect of the series is the producorial involvement of Hayes, someone you wouldn’t immediately think of for a genre show given that he’s best known for his acting work as the flamboyant Jack McFarland on the sitcom “Will and Grace”.
“He”s a real producer, you know,” noted Greenwalt when Hayes was brought up. “He’s got a great imagination and he always wants to say [things like], ‘well could the house suddenly move’, or something…we”re like, ‘well that might be too far, but that inspires something else good in us.’ And he was up here during the pilot. We did the whole pilot up here all together.
So is there a guest arc in the cards for the former sitcom star?
“We”re hoping to get him in,” said Greenwalt. “I want him to play a bad guy really, really badly. I want him to play a bad guy, so I don”t know.”
For the show’s main cast, the co-creators also mentioned their desire to go with less-known actors to give the show a “fresh” feel. As an example, they made sure to mention their choice of Hornsby over Anthony Michael Hall for the role of Hank.
“[Hall] was terrific, but Russell blew them all out of the water,” said Greenwalt.
While the show is currently short on female cast members (Tulloch is the only credited regular with two “x” chromosomes), the creators stated their willingness to potentially add more in the future – including one villainous beast called an “Ahexen” (portrayed by Claire Coffee) who plays a small role in the pilot but will enjoy an expanded role in future episodes. So what exactly is an Ahexen beast, you might be wondering?
“It’s a witch bitch,” replied Kouf, grinning slyly at his purposefully vague two-word explanation. I guess that would have to do for now.
Later in the day, we made our way through a side entrance of the red brick facility where the day’s shoot was taking place – a rather static dialogue bit in a hospital room that will be featured in episode nine. The scene had Giuntoli’s character, covered in bandages and purplish bruises, recovering from a brutal attack.
While we weren’t allowed into the cramped space where the cameras were rolling, we did sneak a peek over the monitors set up next door.
Hank steps into the hospital room morosely and looks upon Nick with a sense of grim resignation. He hesitates for a moment and then delivers the news – someone has died. His eyes are dewy in the dim light…
And then Hornsby breaks character, distracted by a whisper of voices in the hallway. He steps out of the room in agitation, shouting for the noise to be kept to a minimum. The annoyance in his voice is palpable, and I simultaneously imagine some wispy P.A. or craft services person scurrying into a corner.
Hornsby tries it again.
Hank steps into the hospital room morosely and looks upon Nick with a sense of grim resignation. He hesitates for a moment and then delivers the news – someone has died. His eyes are dewy in the dim light, but he manages to hold it together. A palpable tension simmers against the sickly green walls. “I’m glad you’re okay,” says Nick, just off-screen. “You too,” answers Hank. Hanks turns and leaves, disappearing into the flourescent-lit hallway.
No monsters, no bullets, no fire…just two detectives sharing a moment. But don’t worry – in next week’s second and final “Grimm” set visit installment, a host of grisly delights (and cast member interviews!) await.
“Grimm” premieres tonight at 9 PM on NBC.