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Creators of 'Chicago Fire' Explain Why Firefighter Shows Are So Rare

By Michael Arbeiter, Hollywood.com Staff

With so many shows about police officers and doctors, it seems a bit bizarre that there have been, historically, very few programs focusing on firefighters. NBC's newest drama Chicago Fire, created by feature film writers Michael Brandt and Derek Haas,is a rare example of an oddly sparse drama. We got a chance to talk to the creators about their new series, which they were set on differentiating from the procedural formula. It's a show about the ""dysfunctional family"" of a Chicago firehouse, they say, and the characters are their biggest investments.

What exactly made you guys want to make a show about firefighters?

Michael: We got a call last year from one of our agents at WME saying that Dick Wolf and NBC had already figured out that they wanted to make a TV show about a firehouse, and asked if we were interested. As feature writers—most feature writers get the phone call every fall: "Do you want to do a pilot?" It's really hard to find the right scenario. TV is so all-encompassing. We sat down with Dick and the guys from Wolf, and talked about what kind of show we would want to do if we were going to do it. We weren't interested in making a straight procedural. I mean, Law & Order is the ultimate straight procedural. We said that if we were going to do this, we'd want to make the classic NBC ensemble drama. A Hill Street Blues or ER. And Dick said, "I used to write for Hill Street Blues, and that's exactly what I want to do. I don't want to do any more procedural shows." It just felt like the right fit. So, we got on a plane, went to Chicago, and spent a week or two there with firefighters to learn about what it takes to be a firefighter. And we went away saying, 'This is a perfect idea. This is a perfect match for what we want to do.'"

You say you spoke to a bunch of firefighters. What about their stories spoke to you and made you think this would be a good project for you?

Derek: When you sit around a firehouse table and you spend any amount of time with firemen, you will be in one minute crying — because they're telling you some heartbreaking story about trying to save a victim and not being able to — and then you will be doubled over in laughter ten minutes later because they have another story about coming upon some scene, and what they witnessed. They are naturally good storytellers themselves. We realized that there's an abundance of material there to craft a show around. An abundance of characters. Also, the entire psyche of [someone] who would go into work every day, put on their gear, and run into a building on fire. What makes up that kind of a person? That is what attracted us.

Michael: One way they described it was, "We run in when the rats and roaches are running out." And we thought wow — and they don't get paid that much. So what drives that? That's interesting to us.

I've got to say, one of my closest friends is a firefighter.

Derek: Oh, great!

I've spent time in his firehouse with him and meeting his colleagues. My favorite part of Chicago Fire was the attitude of the firehouse itself — the general community feeling. It felt exactly like being in his firehouse with him.

Michael: Oh, that sounds great.

Derek: I feel like we get that even more and more as we go forward, because we've gotten to know these actors, and we get to write toward their strengths. And three of them—the guys playing Otis and Joe Cruz and Mills—all even got rooms together. They didn't know each other a year ago, and now they're all roommates. This entire cast hangs out. If you go to Chicago on a Saturday night, it's not "Okay, now we're going to all go our separate ways." They all get together, they watch sports, they drink beer. It's exactly that same camaraderie that's in a firehouse in this crew. I think that's going to start showing up even more and more on the screen.

With all the flavor to this line of work and these kinds of people, how come there haven't been more firefighter shows? There are so many cop shows.

Michael: I think there are two things that keep a firefighter show from being successful. The biggest one is that, for the most part, when they arrive on a scene, they take care of a victim — in terms of stabilizing them, or they put out the fire — but then they move on. The follow-up with the victim, what happens to the person who ends up in the hospital and all that, is somebody else's job. The same thing with the police officer. If you make your arrest, you follow that all the way through, and you decide whether or not that guy goes to jail. In terms of first responders — the paramedics and the firefighters — if you're going to do a procedural-type show, it's more difficult because ultimately you're handing off the victim to somebody else. We can't do a procedural show. It's not Fire of the Week. It's not Victim of the Week. Because we're not going to follow those things all the way through. It's about the guys in the house, it's about a dysfunctional family. Women and men who live together and work together, and have to become functional when the bells go off. I think that's a big challenge, and why there haven't been a lot of firefighter shows.

It is a show about the characters and their relationships, but of course the action and the fire scenes are an element to it. Are you intimidated by the fact that there is a little less versatility — it's always going to be a fire. Is that going to be a challenge?

Derek: Yes. Originally, that was intimidating. How are we going to differentiate between fires? And then, if you do one 24-hour shift with a busy Chicago firehouse, you go out on 25 different calls. They're all interesting. The bells go off, and you hear something along the lines of, "Man down from unknown causes." And you say, "What is that going to be?" And you can either roll up on a drunk lying in the street, a guy who fell off the L-tracks, a guy who has jumped out of a building. To us, that's going to be the hallmark of the show. We're going to hear these short descriptions, and then you have no idea what you're running up on.

Were you both familiar with Rescue Me?

Michael: I watched the whole run of the show. I knew Rescue Me really well.

Oh, so definitely a fan of if then. They're two different types of shows, but was there anything you wanted to accomplish that you thought maybe Rescue Me didn't get a chance to say about the profession?

Michael: Rescue Me was such a specific message. It was the guys who had gone through September 11, and how they coped with it. That's what it was. It was dark, and it was nihilistic in a lot of ways, and the guys were very self-destructive. It was wildly interesting if you were looking for that. But other than the fact that our guys are firefighters, our shows have nothing in common. It's no different than ER versus Grey's Anatomy. Grey's was going for one thing, ER was going for another. I think that our show and Rescue Me are comparable in a way that the profession is the only thing that really links them. The sentiment, the way we look at our characters, is wildly different than what they did on Rescue Me. On Rescue Me, you felt like the writers were constantly trying to knock the characters back, and see how much s*** they could possibly take before they break. And that's not what we're doing on our show. It's a dysfunctional family that we want to be a part of. That's not really, to me, what Rescue Me was about.

You definitely have a way more optimistic view than Rescue Me, then.

Michael: I think that's accurate.

Derek: One of the things we heard when we were there, doing our ride-alongs, was, "When the cops show up, people scatter. When we show up, they yell, 'Over here, over here!'" We got to see that firsthand. That's sort of an optimistic view firemen have of themselves anyway. And it's infectious. So we wanted to do right by these guys.

Matt Casey and Kelly have been the meat of the show so far. Are we going to get more exploration of some of the smaller characters, like Otis and Cruz?

Michael: [At the beginning of a show], you have to lay the pipe so fast. You have to focus on Casey and Severide, and you get a little taste of the other characters and this new guy showing up. Now, we're going to have much more opportunity to learn about the other guys.

Derek: We have full storylines for all of those guys. It's actually kind of fun to write for them because we'll look at the script, which is 55 pages, and as we're handing it over to the actors, I always think, "Man, this guy is going to be happy this week. This guy is going to be happy this week. This guy is going to be happy this week." Because these ten characters, we feel, people are going to end up falling for. They're fun, different, each one has his own tale to tell. For us, it's a challenge, but in an interesting and provocative way.

I know you two have a lot of experience writing action movies. 2 Fast 2 Furious and 3:10 to Yuma. When you were writing these scripts, did you feel like you had to dial back your proclivity for writing action sequences?

Michael: We had to dial back eventually, because of budget and realism in terms of shooting a pilot. But when we first sat down with everybody at NBC, they said, "Write it like a feature. We wanted feature writers, and we want you guys to write this as big as you possibly can. And write it your way. And then we'll figure out if we can make it." So we did, and originally we had a train that derailed off the L, and that's what caused the big fire at the end. It was a lot of big stuff in there. But it turned out to be like a hell of a million dollar gig to pull that off. We couldn't have it in the pilot. I think our tendency is to write it big, as long as it services the character. And you can dial it back within the budget or time constraints, if it still works within the context of the episode.

So shifting from movies to television was not that big a change?

Derek: The biggest change is not wrapping up a story in a neat hour-and-a-half package. It's getting to open doors, close other doors, keep some strings going, keep all these balls in the air. And do it over multiple scripts. That, to us, has been the biggest change.

Michael: It's so satisfying to do TV. We made a movie two years ago that I directed and Derek produced that we had written a script for eight years ago. For the pilot, we wrote a scene three weeks [earlier] that we shot one week [earlier]. That, for a writer, is so satisfying.

I can imagine. I did want to ask about some of the advertising for the show. There has been a lot of focus on the male cast… physically.

Derek: You mean the beefcake. [Laughs]

It's interesting that the shift in that kind of advertising is veering towards men, when in the past — in perhaps a more volatile way — the focus has historically been on women. I don't know how involved you guys are in that aspect, but do you have any thoughts on that?

Derek: What we've learned is, we don't really have a say in the marketing. We had a big meeting with NBC. We talked about that the show is about a family. I think they've captured a lot of those elements in the television ads. But the print ads, they're just trying to put beautiful people up onto a board and sell the show. Which is fine. Whatever gets people in to watch the show. I will say, NBC has been great in that they haven't dictated, almost at all, of what is going to happen in each episode.

Michael: It was interesting. When we were casting the show, Taylor Kinney comes in and gives an incredible audition. We didn't know who we was, we didn't know who he dated. We didn't consider him for his looks. He came in and blew us away. We said, "We found our guy. We found Severide." There was no consideration or knowledge of who he was or what his looks were. Same with Jesse [Spencer]. We were a fan of Jesse's from House, but Jesse got the part because Jesse was the right guy for the job. As a creator or a writer of something, all you're thinking about is casting who is the best guy for the job. We never once considered looks. And then you stand back and look at NBC's version of the billboard, and you're like, "Oh my God, look at what they've done to our guy!" [Laughs] So, there's a little bit of that going on. For me, it's not the greatest, because it doesn't fully represent the depth of the show. But like Derek said, if it gets people to come to the show and then they find something else when they're there, all the better.

You have to give a little, but you get a lot back.

Derek: [Laughs] Exactly.

You talk about not knowing Taylor's work. Were you particularly interested in casting unknowns in a lot of the roles?

Derek: That was important to us. We said to NBC, "It's going to be to the detriment of the show if all of a sudden you say, 'There's Ethan Hawke wearing a fire hat.'" We wanted guys who came out of nowhere, and who you wouldn't have a previous association with. That could be our show. That's why almost all of these faces — they've been in shows, but they haven't been the leads and they're not household names. Hopefully they will be when they're done.

Are there any specific characters you're most interested in exploring?

Michael: I think we have a lot to do with Peter Mills, who is played by Charlie Barnett … We have a long way to go with him. He's the guy — just like Noah Wyle on ER. He was the new guy in that pilot, and then he was with that show for all 15 years it was on the air. Then he became the guy running the whole place. I think Charlie has tons of potential, he's an incredible actor. But the character is something that we haven't dug into yet. At least in the first couple of episodes. He's a character we'll dig into more as we get down the line for sure.

Derek: I just watched a cut of episode 7. You're going to see awesome storylines for Otis and Mouch and Joe. All three are going to have full on character reveals that are going to be surprising and touching and all of those things.

And how come you wanted to set the show in Chicago, specifically?

Michael: New York had kind of been covered by Rescue Me. So 9/11 heavy, still. And any of the West Coast cities really didn't provide enough weather, we thought, for what we wanted to do. And Chicago is a city that I had lived in as a kid. But also, the Great Chicago Fire really defined that city. That city burned to the ground completely, except for a firehouse and a pump station … and it was rebuilt. It's truly, for me, the most beautiful American city. And that's 100 percent because they had the chance, during the Industrial Revolution, to rebuild the city. So, it's a city that was born out of fire. It's got weather, and it's got a lake, and it's got skyscrapers, and it's got rough neighborhoods, and it's got beautiful neighborhoods — it's incredibly cinematic. Put the camera down anywhere and you've got something really great to look at. But we hadn't been sold on Chicago until we met a guy who became our technical advisor. And then when Chicago rolled out the red carpet for us, we were like, "This is our place."

So does the city take a big role in future episodes as a character of its own?

Derek: It does. It definitely does. That's the great thing about shooting there, and shooting on location. We are writing to that city, and to its strengths and to its beauty. We were the number 1 show in Chicago [on the night of the pilot], I hope we continue to be. It's really important to that the city is shown in an interesting light.

Catch Chicago Fire Wednesday nights at 10 PM on NBC.

[Photo Credit: Matt Dinerstein/NBC]

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