The latest drama of NBC, Chicago Fire was introduced to viewers last Wednesday for the first season premiere. The ratings, which were not up to scratch for this new Dick Wolf produced series — only attracted 1.9 rating in the 18-49 demographic with 6.4 million total viewers. However, on the bright side, TV series finale reported that almost everyone who started watching the pilot, stuck with it until the end.
As a first time viewer myself, I can attest that Chicago Fire’s pilot episode was indeed, worth sticking around for. The characters were emotionally compelling and the rescue scenes were dramatically delivered.
On this interview, we can get to know the masterminds behind the engaging storylines of this new NBC fire-patrol drama. The writers, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, discussed with Collider, the essential elements that gave Chicago Fire a more in-depth structure as a procedural TV series.
How did this show come about for you guys? Had you actively been looking to branch out into television, or were you approached about the project?
HAAS: We were approached by Dick Wolf and Danielle Gelber, who works for Dick. They had talked to NBC, with the new regime coming in, and said that they wanted to do a show about firemen. So, we got a phone call from them saying, “Would you guys be interested?,” and we leapt at the chance. We thought Chicago would be a great city to set it in, since Rescue Me had been done in New York, and Chicago was born out of this great fire. So, we said, “Put us on a plane to Chicago and let us research.” We spent three weeks in fire houses in Chicago, and then wrote the show.
How involved is Dick Wolf with the show? Does he make a visible impact on what’s being put on the screen?
BRANDT: Definitely! Dick Wolf is a television animal, and he’s got an incredible machine in place, which made it great for us because there’s already post-production, there’s already producers on the ground, and there’s already casting people in New York and Los Angeles that he’s been using for all the years Law & Order has been on the air. So, we sat down with Dick, after we agreed to do the show, and what was most impressive was what a great writer he is. What people fail to realize is that he’s not just the creator of the Law & Order series. He started as a staff writer on Hill Street Blues, and then he was a showrunner/staff writer on Miami Vice. The original group of writers on Hill Street Blues was incredible. David Milch was one of them, and Steven Bochco, who also created it. When Dick read our pilot, quite honestly, Derek and I weren’t sure if we got it right, just ‘cause we hadn’t written television before and the moments of drama have to play a little differently. Dick really responded well to the pilot, but he also gave us the most incredible notes that we’ve ever gotten, as writers, because he is a writer. Wolf Films is a writer’s company. We felt like we walked into the perfect storm, for us, to help us grow as writers.
Whether they’re seen as heroes or guys in a pin-up calendar, there’s always been a fascination with firemen. Once you got to spend some time with them and see what it’s really like to do what they do, how did that influence what you wanted to put into the show?
HAAS: What we found is that, if you spend any amount of time with firemen, and you sit at the table and they start telling stories, you find yourself doubled over with laughter or with tears in their eyes, for pretty much any story that they tell. We just saw the show, in spending three weeks, doing 24-hour shifts, as this giant ensemble of characters who are the kind of guys that are not afraid to run into buildings that rats and roaches are running out of. From a drama and storytelling standpoint, when you can make people laugh, and then have them on the edge of their seat, and then have tears in their eyes, that became the goal of writing this series. The word “hero” gets tossed around haphazardly these days. These guys will never call themselves heroes, but they really are. Every day, they’re running into these buildings.
BRANDT: The thrill that I expected to have, when I got to ride in a fire truck, for the first time, was 10 times bigger than my expectations. The idea that you sit up high, you’re racing through the city, people are getting out of your way, and you are going to people that are in need or a building that is in need, it’s really hard to find that experience or feeling, anywhere else in life. Generally, when the police show up to something, half of the population there doesn’t want the cops there, for some reason. When the firefighters show up, everybody wants them there and everybody is glad they’re there. We were in some really tough neighborhoods in Chicago, and the firefighters walk into houses and buildings that, quite honestly, the typical cop is probably afraid to walk into. But, there’s a level of respect that firefighters just naturally get. If somebody shows up on that red truck and he’s wearing turnout gear, it’s unmistakable. It’s nothing against cops. It’s just what the public perception of the firefighter is.
Now that you have some experience in what it’s like to do a television show, do you like working in this medium and having the ability to tell an open-ended story over the long-term and really getting to explore the characters?
BRANDT: I think that’s our favorite part of it. In features, one of the goals is to have the audience walk out, fully satisfied. In today’s world, it’s maybe wanting a sequel. But, in television, you can leave so many things open-ended. For everything you wrap up, you can open another one or two, and that’s been a blast for us. It’s so different from what we’ve ever gotten to do before.
HAAS: When I have a meeting with Dick, I like to say, “You know, now that I’ve produced five hours of television . . .,” and he just laughs because he’s produced about 500 hours of television. But, it is the difference between writing a short story and getting to write chapters of a novel. In a television season, you’re going to have 22 chapters. Michael and I might have been as influenced by The Hardy Boys as anything else, when we were kids reading those books. Every chapter ended with a car going off a cliff, or something that made you keep turning the page, and that’s what we’re trying to do on Chicago Fire. Every time the hour wraps up, you just can’t wait until the next one starts.
BRANDT: We want to be sure that the message is out that we’re not writing a fire-of-the-week show. This isn’t Emergency. As much as I loved Emergency, sitting in my bean bag as a kid in Kansas City, watching that every afternoon, after school, this is not that. This is not about a fire each week, and then the procedural way that that fire gets put out, and then the aftermath. This is a show, much like E.R. or Hill Street Blues, where you have the occasional action set piece and something goes wrong in the city that our characters have to go deal with, but it really is a character-driven show. There will be weeks where nothing will light on fire, and there will be weeks when we burn down a building, but it’s not about the fires. It’s really about what it is like in a giant firehouse. Ours is modeled after one of the biggest firehouses in Chicago, where there are men and women working together, and there are civilians working in there. So, it’s much closer to E.R. than it is to Emergency.
BRANDT: It’s pretty wild. We’ve written movies for actors, and you know you’re writing for a specific voice. With Wanted, once Morgan Freeman got cast, then we knew we were writing for him. There’s a certain kind of cadence that he always speaks with, so you write for that. When you’re writing for a TV show, what’s great is that you always know what actor you’re writing to. I think a reason why TV is exciting and getting so much better is because we get to play off of an actor’s strengths and challenge them on their weaknesses. On a feature, you don’t necessarily get to do that. You hope that they cast the right guy, who comes in and plays your part. That is an exciting moment, but TV is gratifying in the long-term. We find ourselves knowing who we can go to for a laugh, or who we can go to for a good emotional moment, and then milking those things.
HAAS: The amazing thing with this cast is that it goes beyond their performances on the screen. Michael and I shot the pilot in the spring, and then we started Episode 2 about five months later. While we were there, shooting that episode, all of the cast wanted to get together to play poker in downtown Chicago. So, we all got there at about 10:30 and went until one in the morning. Dave Eigenberg’s wife, Chrysti, came up to me and said, “Dave’s been in a lot of shows and a lot of movies, and I’ve never seen a cast want to get together like this cast does,” and it’s true. It’s been an incredible experience with how much they’ve gotten along and bonded. Everybody wants to hang out. Part of it is that we have a lot of real paramedics and firemen on set, and there isn’t room to be a diva or a spoiled actor when the guy standing next to you put out a fire in a four-story high-raise, the day before. It’s really exciting.
BRANDT: The first time the actors all met each other was in Chicago at the Fire Academy. They spent the next few days, if not longer, training as firefighters, and then they all went to different firefighters around Chicago and did 24-hour shifts. They slept with the guys and they rode with the guys in the middle of the night. They all were thrown in, right away, and that bonded them, really quickly. Three of our actors are all roommates and they were all instant best friends. It was really exciting to see that whole thing come together because Derek and I wrote a script last year.
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