The new NBC drama series Chicago Fire, from Emmy Award-winning executive producer Dick Wolf (the Law & Order franchise) and creators/writing partners Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, follows the lives of everyday heroes committed to one of America’s noblest professions. The job is both exhilarating and highly stressful for the firefighters, rescue squad and paramedics of Chicago Firehouse 51, who save lives by running headfirst into danger when everyone else is running the other way. The series stars Jesse Spencer, Taylor Kinney, Eamonn Walker, David Eigenberg, Charlie Barnett, Monica Raymund and Lauren German.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas talked about how they got involved with Dick Wolf and came to be working in television, how spending time with real firefighters influenced what they wanted the show to be, what they like about getting to tell an open-ended story in the long-term, what a luxury it is to see what they’ve written make it to the screen so quickly, how it was to see the ensemble cast come together and bring their characters to life, and how they will be able to balance their work on the show with feature films. They also talked about how they’re currently working on the second draft of the Wanted sequel, how Overdrive (starring Karl Urban) came about, what led them to adapt Billionaire’s Vinegar for the screen, and why their partnership works so well. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
Collider: 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.
Is it nice to have the luxury of writing something that you know will make it to the screen, and that it will do so on a pretty quick turn-around, as opposed to writing a film that may never get made?
BRANDT: There’s a movie that Derek produced and I directed last year, called The Double, and that’s a script that we originally wrote eight years ago. The feeling now that we are writing something today that literally will be filmed tomorrow and that will be on the air in four weeks is so refreshing for us.
HAAS: The other thing is that you have room in a show, when you know you’re going to be doing 22 hours. In a movie, you have an hour and 40 minutes, and every scene has to spin off of the theme of that movie. In a show, you can find these little moments or observations that you probably wouldn’t have room for, otherwise.
What was it like to see this cast come together and see how they brought your characters to life?
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.
How will your work on this show affect your feature film work? Will you be able to balance the two?
BRANDT: Well, our showrunner on Chicago Fire is Matt Olmstead. He worked on NYPD Blue, he ran Prison Break, he created and ran Breakout Kings, and he’s an old friend of ours. We’ve known him for over 10 years. We used to play in this really crappy band together. He was the guy, from the minute we found out that our show was going to be picked up, and even before that, who we were pushing for, as the showrunner. We have infinite trust in him. He’s got so much experience, so we hand a lot over to him. He does all of the day-to-day heavy-lifting. He’s an incredible writer, and he wrote the third episode. That gives us a little bit of time to try to keep our toes in the feature world, which we’re definitely doing, but it’s a juggling act right now. We’re still trying to figure it all out.
Are you still involved with the Wanted sequel anymore?
HAAS: Yeah, we’re currently writing the second draft of it. Basically, when the first movie came out, we were supposed to write the sequel. And then, for various reasons, we couldn’t do it and they went on to other writers. Then, four years later, they came back and said, “We’re interested in having you guys do it again.” It was a world that we just loved, so we bent over backwards to make it work and we’re really excited about it.
How did Overdrive come about?
HAAS: That was an original script we wrote for Fox, as part of this writing partners deal that we had done there. When they didn’t want to make it, we got the rights back. That was part of the deal. We got the rights, free and clear. The movie is set in Marseilles, France, and we took it to Pierre Morel, who is trying to get up and running, as a producer. He’s trying to do what Luc Besson did, and produce movies set in France that he’s not directing. And we got this young director, Antonio Negret, who’s fantastic. We tried to make the movie last fall, and it fell apart for financial reasons and scheduling reasons. Now, it’s coming back together for this coming spring and we’re thrilled, to say the least. Our only negative is that, last fall, we could have gone to Marseilles and spent all the time on the set, but if it happens this spring, we’re going to be in Chicago, so we will miss out on a spring in France.
What’s it like to go from writing original material to adapting a book, with Billionaire’s Vinegar? Derek, as a novelist yourself, is that strange for you to adapt someone else’s work?
HAAS: Yeah, that’s why I’m always reluctant to have somebody adapt my own books. But, I will say that Billionaire’s Vinegar was 100% Michael Brandt’s discovery and find. He is an oenophile. He loves wine. He read the book before it was ever a project at Sony. And when he heard there was an interest in adapting it, he was the one who called and pursued it. It’s really one of our favorite scripts that we’ve ever written, and our fingers are crossed, hoping that the stars are going to align and that one’s going to come together at Sony.
BRANDT: We’ve adapted a couple of books and you really have to be tough on the book itself ‘cause you want to maintain the themes of the book and, as much as you can, the characters of the book, but quite often, the plot doesn’t lend itself, in a word-for-word way, for what would work as a movie. We adapted a [Robert] Ludlum book, a few years ago, that was 700 pages and set in the ‘70s during the Cold War. When you take on something like that, you have to take a little bit of creative license. And with the Billionaire’s Vinegar story, while there is tons of intrigue in the real life events of what happened and what is still happening, we had to do a little bit of juggling, in designing characters and changing some characters around, for legal and purposeful reasons for storytelling.
HAAS: I give Michael all the credit. I even said to him, “I’ve read this book and I don’t see what the movie is.” And Michael said, “Give me a day. I’m going to break this story and show you what the movie could be.” And then, he sent it to me and I was like, “Oh, okay, now I get it!”
Derek, what can you say about your next novel and what you get, creatively, from writing novels that you don’t get from writing screenplays?
HAAS: My next book is called The Right Hand, and it is a spy thriller. The backbone of the story is about a guy who goes in and does whatever the United States needs done, but they will not acknowledge even his existence. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, and he’s the right hand. What you get from writing books, that you don’t get from writing scripts, is that you just don’t have to worry about budgets, set pieces, casting, focus groups, and all of the other things that you do have to take into consideration, when you’re writing a movie. You also get to explore the thoughts and various points of view that are much harder to adapt into a film. Where screenplays are so much about dialogue, with books, you can really play with the prose. But ultimately, the similarities are probably more than the differences, in that the equivalent of making somebody sit on the edge of their seat while they’re watching a film is making them flip pages. Pace is so important, and having written scripts has helped me understand editing and pace. To me, you still have to have a big commercial idea that’s going to make people want to read the book. I’m very excited about The Right Hand.
How did you guys original come to be working together, and how did you know that your partnership was really working?
BRANDT: We’re still trying to figure that out. The way we work came out of practical reasons. It’s pretty rare for us to be in the same room while we’re working. We pretty much never do. We just go our separate ways. So, we actually work on different projects, and then, at the right time, we’ll just send each other the file and we’ll rewrite each other with full liberties. The only rule is that you have to make it better. That all started because, when we were writing our first script, Derek was in Atlanta and I was in Los Angeles. We were emailing it back and forth, and that just seemed to work. So, even after Derek moved to Los Angeles and became my next door neighbor and we shared a wall, we just never sat in the same room and worked together. Even our offices over at Wolf Films are about as far apart as we could make them.
HAAS: It’s hard to kill each other when you’re not in the same room together. I always council people. We’ll get young writers or people who want to be screenwriters asking us if they should look for a partner, and I always say, “Absolutely, you should look for a partner! The benefits are unbelievable.” You get to write with the freedom of knowing that somebody else is going to come in and make it better. It helps keep you from getting stuck or having writer’s block. And Hollywood is tough, so you get to have someone who will help share the victories, as well as the defeats. It’s a roller coaster ride where, even when you tell your spouse, they can’t really understand what just happened, on that day. However, you have to understand that it is a marriage. You will be known in town as, “the two of you,” so you better make sure that you guys get along. For me, when Michael would send over a file, having rewritten me, I would get so excited because I could see how much more improved it had become. The sum of us was just better than the individual parts. We felt it from the beginning, and you could feel it when you read our stuff. It felt like we shared the same voice, and it’s been great. We’ve been doing it for 14 years now.
Chicago Fire airs on Wednesday nights on NBC.