Posted: 27 Apr 2013 07:23 PM PDT
In the new drama Chicago Fire, firefighters get the limelight they deserve.
THE last thing one would expect to see in a male-dominated firehouse is a magazine with pictures of cute babies and toddlers. Yet there it was, a Parents magazine featuring a blonde baby on its cover, placed on a table among numerous muscle magazines.
Even though the firehouse was just part of the set of Chicago Fire, a TV drama from NBCUniversal, the sight of that magazine there was still a little strange.
Further down the hall lies the kitchen and dining/living areas which are equipped with a sink, a refrigerator, an oven and burners, pots, pans and utensils, as well as a fully-stocked larder. You will see a lot of this part of the set in the TV series, which revolves around the lives of a group of firefighters, rescue squad and paramedics of Chicago's Firehouse 51. For example, in the pilot, one of the main characters – Lt Matthew Casey (played by Jesse Spencer) – cooked a meal of corned beef and vegetables for his colleagues.
Spencer says that Casey is a bit of a caretaker that way. "(He's) the lieutenant of Truck 81 and he's got people to take care of. He's a caretaker and a brother but he's also a disciplinarian on top of everything else. He's a teacher as well, but he's got a lot of heart, and he's a fighter," the actor describes his character.
Spencer, 34, stars alongside a diverse group of actors including Taylor Kinney, Eamonn Walker, David Eigenberg, Monica Raymund, Lauren German and Charlie Barnett. While the pilot may suggest that Spencer and Kinney play the key roles in the show, Chicago Fire creators Derek Haas and Michael Brandt assure that each character is developed almost equally throughout the season.
"We worked hard not to make the other guys riding along in the truck the comic relief or the fool, and give (those characters) some weight. It's great to not have to just rely on one character who's the mastermind of the whole show and solving mysteries about bones," says Haas.
From the interview sessions that day, one can surmise that Chicago Fire is pretty much a show about "family" and just like any family, everyone relies on one another for support and encouragement.
"They all have strengths and weaknesses, but they're also a family. They can hold each other up as a unit even though they're failing in their personal lives, but at work, they're good," says Walker, who plays Battalion Chief Wallace Boden.
Just like a family, everyone has their own issues to deal with. For example, Kinney's character Lt Kelly Severide, who's with the Rescue Squad, is a little brash and seems to have a substance abuse problem. He's deemed the "bad boy" of the show and initially does not get along too well with Casey.
"I don't think he's troubled. He just has personal conflicts and things to overcome like anybody else and works through those problems the best way he can. Sometimes, he falters along the way. Severide also believes in what he does and pursues it with reckless abandon at times," says Kinney, 32.
Meanwhile, Walker thinks that his character is very much the father figure of the team. "Casey and Severide, I treat them as my right and left arms, they're like my two sons, while Dawson (Raymund's character) and Shay (German) are like my daughters and they've all got different attributes.
"I know I treat them all like my kids at some point, and when my children go astray I admonish but in a gentle way. I definitely put my foot down ... or somewhere else (laughs) whenever necessary," says Walker, 51, in his thick British accent. To play Boden, Walker trains with a vocal and dialect coach to get his American accent just right.
Spencer adds that one of the best things about the show is that it focuses on the characters rather than the drama or action. "The thing that really attracted me to the show was (that it was about) the group of good people dealing with situations. A majority of the stuff on TV now is very dark and twisted, and feature antiheroes – that's great entertainment. But our show is about much more real people, good people trying to do good things. And they mess up, they're flawed. I just find that a lot more organic.
"I think the brotherhood and sisterhood of the people who work in the firehouse is the heart and soul of the show," Spencer notes.
Before they started filming, the actors underwent about a week of training at the Chicago Fire Academy, a training facility for Chicago firefighters (which is located on the actual site where the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 first began).
They worked with a group of real firefighters led by the Chicago Fire Department's deputy district chief Steve Chikerotis, who along with a few other colleagues, work as consultants for the show.
During training, the actors were placed in simulated fire situations and taught the different aspects of fire safety. Basically, they learnt how to be actual firefighters, or at least how to pretend to be one.
"They brought us through a whole bunch of stuff. They sat us down in like a class and showed us different structures of housing that are common in Chicago, different types of fires, what you can expect (in certain situations).
"And then we had to learn how to put on our gear, we had to put them on and take them off a whole bunch of times, went up flights of stairs with all the gear on and our masks, learned how to breathe," reveals Barnett, who plays the "new guy" Peter Mills.
He adds that some of them also went on ride-alongs with the firefighters, who do a 24-hour shift each time (they take the next 48 hours off to rest). "It was the best experience because you're living in the house with them and you really see what it's like," says Barnett.
While almost all the actors are fit and buff, most of them find that playing a firefighter is physically demanding, especially when it comes to putting on all that heavy gear and trying to breathe through a mask.
"I had to do a scene the other day. I was dragging someone who my character knew very well, trying to save the person, and I was dragging him or her down this hallway for hours in my gear. I'm fit, I've been trained, I've been doing a lot of boxing training and stuff. But everytime I ran out of there, I was suffocating in my mask," says Spencer.
"I can't tell you how hard it is. How do you do that in real life? Your heart rate increases and you've got to stay calm and if it's someone that you know, it's even worse. I have massive respect for those guys."
Kinney, too, has nothing but awe and respect for firefighters. "These guys are strong, strong gentlemen. They're not sitting around doing yoga, they're lifting weights and eating hearty meals!" he says, adding that being on the show has made him look at firefighters in a different light.
"I think anytime you have a first-hand experience in any medium ... you can sit and cheer on a boxer in the seventh round and tell him to keep his guard up but until you get into a ring and know how tiring it can be, it changes your perception. So, putting all this gear on and coming in and getting to tell the stories, you get a greater appreciation of what these guys do," he explains.
Apart from the physical demands of the show, what the actors find to be the most challenging aspect of their job is how to portray firefighters as realistically as they can. Having real firefighters on set and hearing their war stories – many of which are then used as actual scenarios in Chicago Fire – seem to help.
"Trying to see through Steve Chikerotis' eyes, who gives us loads of stories of his real life in his 30 or 40 years as a fireman, and trying to emulate him and the amount of knowledge that he holds within his body – that's my challenge," says Walker.
Kinney shares that it is a big deal for him to get things done right, so he spent a lot of time picking up little nuances and traits that a firefighter would typically do. He says: "The challenge is in trying to pursue this character in a light that's honest and real so that when I walk by firehouses there are guys that want to shake your hand and not have them tell you that you're doing something wrong."
Spencer says that the cast and crew do try to get as much feedback as they can from firefighters. "We've always been nervous about playing firefighters. But it's hard for lawyers to watch lawyer shows, hard for doctors to watch doctor shows and I'm sure it's hard for some firefighters to watch this show. But I must say, when we talk to them, they've always got lots of positive things to say. I think they know that we're making a drama and that they recognise the elements they've given to us for the show."
So far, it does seem like the actors have been doing a good job of depicting the lives and work of real firefighters. In a story published in TVGuide.com, Chikerotis was quoted as saying: "Our story doesn't get told too often because camera crews can't follow us where we go to work... Chicago Fire is making an attempt to do it real and sell the emotions that go along with it. The average firefighter throughout the nation will be pretty proud of this show, I think."
Now that's the kind of endorsement the Chicago Fire team can be proud of.
Chicago Fire premieres today on Universal Channel HD (HyppTV Ch 612) at 10.40pm.
Posted: 27 Apr 2013 07:04 PM PDT
Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, creators of Chicago Fire, are more known for their writing work on a handful of movies including the critically-acclaimed film 3:10 To Yuma, 2 Fast 2 Furious and Wanted. In an interview in Chicago, Illinois, the duo revealed that working on the TV drama has so far been a satisfying venture.
"The movie industry has changed so much ... the kind of movies that Hollywood makes now, they tend to be sort of these big summer movies. And if you wanted to make something smaller ... the studios have become places where they only make them if you consider taking a project that's already put together," shares Brandt.
"Personally, I was getting a little tired of the kinds of movies that we were being offered so when the opportunity to work on a TV show came along, we took it thinking that we'll probably just write the pilot and then go back to writing features (films)."
However, when their script for the pilot was picked up, Brandt and Haas were roped in to the production team and asked to come up with more scripts. With the multiple Emmy Award-winning Dick Wolf on board as one of the show's executive producers (the others include Matt Olmstead, Joe Chapelle, Danielle Gerber and Peter Jankowski), it's a little hard to turn down the offer.
While working in Chicago, the pair discovered a new found love for writing for television.
"Unlike in features, the writers for TV are in charge of the show, or at least are in charge more, and people actually listen to us! It's so satisfying to sit and talk to the director about what we had in mind for a scene and then the director would try and do it.
"So here we are a year and a half later – Derek and I realised that we've had more of our words spoken exactly how we want it in the first couple of episodes (of Chicago Fire) than in our entire features career combined! It's just so satisfying to write something one day and shoot it the next, then see it on TV a few weeks later," Brandt says.
The writers also said that Chicago had always been the original setting for the show, citing the Great Chicago Fire as one of the reasons for it.
(The Great Chicago Fire is considered one of the largest disasters to happen in the United States. The fire started on Oct 8, 1871 and went on for two days, killing hundreds of people and destroying close to 10km² of the city. Today, the Chicago Fire Academy stands on the original site where the fire first began, and serves as a reminder of the horrific event.)
"We didn't want to do it in New York because of Rescue Me (another show about firefighters that's no longer airing), and we also thought about setting it in Boston before realising that Chicago is a city that was born out of fire. Plus, the architecture is beautiful, so you can just about put the camera anywhere in the city," says Haas.
Apart from David Eigenberg, who plays Christopher Hermann, the rest of the main cast of Chicago Fire are not Chicago locals. But everyone seems to have a lot of love for the city, even though some of them are not too crazy about its infamous "bipolar weather".
"The city of Chicago serves as a character in its own right. I don't think we'd have the same show and the same chemistry (among) the cast if we're not shooting in Chicago. There's no excuse not to hang out with one another because most of us are from out of town and we don't have families or friends to go home to here," says Taylor Kinney, who is the boyfriend of pop star Lady Gaga.
For Australia native Jesse Spencer, being on the show was a whole process that he took in his stride. "Yes it was a process, coming here to Chicago, stepping into a new role. I've been doing the same thing for eight years, so stepping into something else and playing American – I played Australian for eight years (in medical drama House)! – it was a departure for me. But it's grown on me over the year or so."
The show, too, has gone through a few processes of its own. It started as a 13-episode season, but midway through, the network decided to extend that to 24 episodes. Rumours are rife that there will also be a second season, with executive producer Dick Wolf announcing at the NBC Summer Press Day event in Los Angeles earlier this week that, "We even know what the first episode of the third season is ... we are definitely looking at the remainder of this season as a jumping-off point for next season." At the same time, there are also reports stating that Wolf is considering making a spin-off of the show, this time focusing on Chicago's police department.
Looks like the Windy City may get to see a lot more small screen action in months to come.
Posted: 27 Apr 2013 07:02 PM PDT
The sensational TV musical drama Smash returns with a big bang.
As far as architecture goes there is nothing remarkable about the grey square blocks of buildings that line the stretch of Eagle Street in Brooklyn, New York. However, this is where TV's boldest musical fare Smash is filmed and the transformation that unfolds onscreen is simply magical.
The recent backstage pass to the show's second season not only offered a glimpse into the making of Smash but also provided up close-and-personal access to some of its biggest stars. These include actors Debra Messing (who plays Julia Houston), Anjelica Huston (Eileen Rand), Katharine McPhee (Karen Cartwright), Megan Hility (Ivy Lynn), Jack Davenport (Derek Wills) and Christian Borle (Tom Levitt), as well as their new co-stars.
With such a high-profile TV pilot, expectations for the second season of Smash ran high. The show's stellar cast and big-time executive producer (that would be Steven Spielberg) also added to the assumption that Smash would be a huge success.
Unfortunately, it didn't quite pan out that way.
Despite the strong storylines, fantastic costumes and brilliant performances from its stars, viewer response has been a mixed bag of positives and negatives. Entertainment Weekly described it as "the show everybody wanted to love and everybody loved to hate". Online forums were abuzz with discussions and Twitter was rife with armchair critics actively sharing their opinions.
Luckily, the creators of Smash took note of all this. When they sat down to brainstorm for the new season, they were determined to iron out the kinks and address the show's shortcomings to ensure that Smash's season two reboot would be beyond reproach.
Needless to say, Smash has been given a complete revamp. Where the first season was all about setting the stage for a musical drama to unfold within Broadway, this time around, Smash is all about character development.
Gossip Girl executive producer Joshua Safran has been brought in to give a fresh take on the show while the stars bring their A-game onto the set with unmistakable swagger. Also, big-name guest stars from the likes of Jennifer Hudson to Liza Minnelli add panache to the musicality of the production.
"I feel like, obviously I'm going to say this, but I think the season is really strong, and I hope that people will see that," Safran says. "We have a very strong line, in that you have Bombshell trying to make it to Broadway in big bumps, and then there is a new musical group that begins to be revealed. And I feel that as the episodes progress, those two paths are neighboured more and more, and that's really exciting."
Everything from story arcs and relationships to drama has been heightened. Certain characters from the first season have "faded" into the background to make way for a new lineup of young hopefuls, namely Tony Award-nominee Jeremy Jordan (playing Jimmy Collins) and Andy Mientus (Kyle Bishop).
Messing's character Julia also appears to have ditched her signature scarf, which audiences apparently took offense at.
"The scarves went because there were so many eviscerating blogs and articles that were written about how my character was dressed last year," Messing reveals. "I tried to defend it. I liked the scarves. I thought, you know, she's Bohemian, she's creative. It makes sense to me. And in cold New York, it's practical.
"But, clearly, the people at NBC and Dreamworks read the blogs and they read the tweets. I personally got tweets saying, 'But I love your scarves, bring them back'."
In the second season, the Bombshell team is one step closer to achieving its Broadway dream. The group had a successful run in Boston, but producer Eileen, writers Tom and Julia, director Derek and star Karen are all about to learn that sins of the past have a way of creeping up on you.
Many things will be revealed this season. For example, does Eileen get away with mixing business and pleasure with her shady paramour? Will Julia's marriage to Frank survive the revelation of her infidelity? Will Ivy Lynn bounce back from the shame of losing the lead role to rival Karen and bedding her fiancé in retaliation? And lastly, will Tom and Julia's long-time partnership endure the changing tides of opportunity?
Though the cast members were hesitant to divulge too much about the storylines, they were eager to talk about the prospects of working on the "rebooted" production.
"I haven't done a musical before and I thought that would be the most challenging part because that's a creative thing, and amazing," Safran says. "I think that maybe the most challenging part is that the cast is so incredible, it's so large, and there's so many of them (that) you want to make sure you service all of them. That has been challenging, but I think we've been successful at it. It is a testament to my writers, and you know, it's pretty great."
Hilty's favourite thing about the new season is that bigger musical numbers have been added into the mix. "We have a brand new musical called Hit List, which brings an entirely new genre of music to the show. And there are actually other musicals that we visit, too.
"There's even a point where I sing a classical piece, like it really runs the gamut. It's really interesting this year in how many different types of music are covered. And there's a lot more per episode. I'd say there's a good three or four songs per episode now."
One of the highlights of Smash is the addition of a younger cast that adds a new spin to the dynamics of the storyline. It also brings a kind of "hipster vibe" to the show.
There's Jimmy and Kyle, who are young talents working on a current-day rock musical that could become Bombshell's biggest rival, while Ana Vargas (Krysta Rodriguez) is Karen's new roommate.
"We are just so just excited to do this and are happy to be here," says Jordan. His character Jimmy is also slated to be Karen's new love interest.
"There will be definitely more than one love triangle," says McPhee as she teases the media with a spoiler. "It is safe to say that there has been something brewing between Karen and Derek. I think the audience will get a little bit more information on that and will see where that goes."
As for her character's relationship with Jimmy, McPhee explains: "Their relationship starts off rocky. We didn't know each other either, but as we've gotten to know each other, the chemistry built up and that carried onto our onscreen relationship."
McPhee adds, "I am a firm believer that you can't create chemistry, but you can get more familiar with people in time and realise that you do have chemistry. I think when we met each other it wasn't electric, but when we got on screen together we realised that we clicked. That's something you can't plan."
Safran consciously brought his Gossip Girl perspective to the second season as he explains: "My only thing there was to start to acquaint more young people to the cast, because musicals would mean a lot to younger people. As they download music and they know music, it was important that we added more music."
With the inclusion of Hudson and Minnelli into the storyline for the new season, Smash certainly has a lot going for it. Besides adding more glitz to the glamour, having the two stars on board was also a welcome treat for the cast of Smash.
"It's unbelievable. I mean, they're all so incredibly talented and bring such different energy to the show. I think that's one of the most exciting things about this season – there's always a new face coming in. There's Sean Hayes (who) is hilarious and brings a sense of comedy to the show that we haven't really experienced in that way before. And Jennifer Hudson's voice ... I mean, she's unbelievably talented. And Liza Minnelli is a living legend. So it's really exciting to get to work with all of these incredibly talented people," says Hilty.
Smash has a lot to offer in its re-energised new season. There's more edge to the drama and deeper insights into character development. The cast has poured its heart and soul into giving audiences something different. There may have bumps on the road to success but, as Messing sums up, the show is on the right track.
"The battering of the ego is a constant, in whatever medium you're in, whether it's TV, film or on the stage. I think it's very hard. You get very invested in whatever you're doing, and it's hard to be criticised, but I also think it's dangerous and unhealthy to be overly lauded. So I think it's dangerous waters no matter what, and keeping level-headed and balanced is a tricky thing."
Smash airs on Diva Universal (Astro Ch 702) every Monday at 8pm.
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