Spring 2014

Hot Time in the Cold Town

Director-producer Joe Chappelle and a fine-tuned directorial team balance some of the biggest, most daring visual effects on TV with everyday human drama on Chicago Fire—and all this in the dead of winter.


Chicago Fire 

Chicago Fire 
REALISM: (top) Director-producer Joe Chappelle, in the thick of the action, balances action scenes with character development; (bottom) Every episode has at least one major incident, and constantly dealing with fire requires major preparation.

On a frigid day at the tail end of an awful winter in Chicago, actor David Eigenberg of Chicago Fire is scaling a ladder to rescue a female character teetering on the edge of a thirdfloor hospital room that happens to be missing a wall. A bomb has gone off at a charity marathon, taking part of the medical facility with it, leaving burning cars, piles of debris, and bodies in the street. Dozens of extras, many of them in blood-red makeup, race across the background. This is the most expensive scene the series has done in its two seasons, and even director-producer Joe Chappelle admits he needed extra prep time and an extra three days of shooting. “We couldn’t have done it in the normal eight days,” says Chappelle. “By having the extra time, we were able to deal with the logistics of it all, and still concentrate on the heart of the story. As a director, I could see how it would enhance the drama going on with our main characters.”

While the episode, “A Dark Day,” may have had a slightly larger bottom line, in many ways it was just another day at the office on this hectically paced series—a program that seemingly pulls off the impossible week in and week out. With a scope that would leave many productions exhausted, Chappelle and his team have fine-tuned a process that allows them to deliver a show that balances a remarkable number of practical, ambitious effects with human stories that keep viewers emotionally engaged—typically on an eight-day shooting schedule with eight days of prep. It’s a series built on a foundation of teamwork and meticulous planning that uses its titular location to elevate it in ways that wouldn’t be the same in any other city.

Directors on Chicago Fire execute at least one major incident per episode: whether it’s a car balancing on the edge of a bridge, or a boy impaled on a metal pipe, or the power outage in the season two episode “Tonight’s the Night,” directed by Jann Turner. That episode presented a unique directorial challenge because the standard lighting design within the firehouse set had to be altered due to downed power lines in the story. Turner worked with DP Lisa Wiegand to shoot in relative darkness while constantly staying in touch with Chappelle, who serves as a resource for each director, offering insight without being overbearing. Turner calls him the “quarterback” of the series.

“Whenever I arrive for prep, we sit and talk about what’s happened since I was last on the show, what’s going on with the characters, what’s going on with the cast, and what things I need to bear in mind; all the things that I need to hear before I hit the floor. Then we’ll go through storyboards or shot lists for the choreography of the big incident. He’ll just mention anything I shouldn’t forget, and give me a great list of thoughts.”

Chicago Fire 
Chicago Fire 
MAKING PLANS: (top) Despite obstacles present by the logistics and the weather, director Michael Slovis, working with the cast on a scene, says the Chicago crew is as good as any he’s worked with. (bottom) Chappelle is known as the “quarterback” to his team.

After 20 years of experience as a director-producer on CSI: Miami, director-co-executive producer on The Wire, and director-executive producer on Fringe, Chappelle understands the importance of communicating clearly with directors, cast, and crew, especially for a show that features fire in every episode—safety is a constant concern. “Every fire is different,” he says. “You may think, ‘It’s just a fire,’ but it’s not. Walls actually need to go up, and you need to bring in the safety concerns, which affect the stunts, which affect how you build the set. It affects all departments; it’s all communication.”

Chappelle emphasizes that for Chicago Fire, keeping the set safe involves everyone on the show. “Of course, cast and crew safety is of paramount concern when designing and executing our fire and rescue scenes,” he says. “We work very closely with the Chicago Fire Department in all this. And the directors and ADs work closely with the producer, production designer, stunt coordinator, special effects coordinator, Fire Department consultant, and myself, to ensure safety while achieving the aims of the script. It’s a true team effort to orchestrate mayhem like we do, week after week, safely and efficiently. You can’t just show up on the day and say, ‘OK, we are going to do a fire today.’”

The directorial responsibility to balance the fire scenes with the character-driven moments means that the two elements often have to be approached separately. Chappelle explains: “We usually have two big action sequences or rescue sequences per episode, and those usually become days unto themselves; not that you can keep them totally separate. On rescue days, we have about 10 or 11 main recurring characters that always show up at the scene. The hard part for directors is giving everybody something to do. The script might read that we need one or two of our main guys at any moment, but then there are nine or 10 who are supposed to be doing something. You really have to choreograph where everyone is at the same time.

“Then we have our dramatic scenes,” Chappelle continues, “which you would approach like any other show, working with the actors and blocking scenes when we’re on stage. The interior firehouse is all built. They shot the pilot at a real location, but we built it all [after that].” In addition, a burn stage was specifically configured at Cinespace Chicago, with the guidance of the Fire Department, to ensure proper ventilation of smoke and flame.

Chicago Fire 
THE REAL DEAL: 1st AD Haze J.F. Bergeron III says the challenge of the series is “to make the spectacle absolutely safe, but make it look scary as hell.”

“We are able to go in and schedule days where we are just on set, and are working on those kinds of things,” adds Chappelle. “It is a jumble for a director because you have to balance the spectacle with the dramatic side of the story. I have heard more than one director say, and I agree with this, that this show is harder to prep than it is to shoot.

“Directors have to really think about what they want and what they need,” continues Chappelle. “If you look at the whole thing, and ask how you can do it in eight days, it seems impossible. It gets done, but on day one or the last day of prep, you look at the schedule and think, ‘Oh my god, how are we going to do this?’”

The ADs on a show as complex as Chicago Fire are invaluable, as one episode is prepped while another is shooting. 1st AD Haze J.F. Bergeron III might be out on a scout with the director, the 2nd AD, and location managers Bob Hudgins or Kwame Amoaku to find just the right Chicago roof for a firefighter to fall off of, as he gets another scene ready to go in the studio. “Yesterday and today, we are doing a scene where a building collapses, leaving a big pile of rubble. There are 250 extras involved. So the strategy is to have the 250 extras in a lobby, have the camera ready, say ‘go,’ and everybody rushes out with heat pads the production staff gave them. They lay down, and as soon as everyone is situated, we say ‘action,’ and then they run off and we start over again.” Meanwhile, veteran Chicago 1st AD James Giovannetti Jr. encourages the extras, directing them over a megaphone to keep their energy up through multiple takes in the bitter cold.

The ADs and episode directors stay in touch with Chappelle to maintain the visual continuity across multiple shows. Much of the series is shot from the firefighter’s perspective, so episodes that include a rescue need to have a shot from the firefighter’s POV. There’s always an establishing shot of a firefighter in the truck’s cab, and one from the ladder. The majority of these shots are handheld, but there is also a camera attached to the truck. Directors take advantage of a 50-foot Technocrane that offers viewers an overhead perspective on a dangerous situation, while locating the characters physically within the intensity of a fire and rescue mission. “With our stories,” explains Chappelle, “some characters get trapped, they’re alone or they’re caught somewhere, and we need to keep the geography straight. The audience doesn’t have to know exactly where everyone is compared to everyone else, but you have to give them some sense. Are they above? Are they below? Where is the fire that divides them?”

Michael Slovis recalls the detailed planning that went into an episode he directed this season entitled “No Regrets,” which featured a heart-racing, blockbuster-sized train derailment on the outskirts of Chicago. The episode, says Slovis, was “a challenge from every single point of view.” To make it work, Bergeron devised a grid system with 2nd AD Stefan Rand to track every character’s movement through the location. This matrix ensured the background action wasn’t just consistent, but also physically possible. Charting each character’s arc—both primary players and background—made the realism demanded on the day of the shoot attainable.

Chicago Fire 
KEEP MOVING: On the day you show up on the set, says director Jann Turner, you have to take all the prep and make it work in 3-D, while you’re fighting the clock.

Slovis, Bergeron, and Rand worked with a scale model of the train for two or three hours every day during prep, talking out each detail and then taking any practical concerns to the writer if they felt a character couldn’t cross the physical terrain of the shoot in a believable amount of time. It came down to “really hashing out where everyone was meant to be, and accounting for every single body, so everything was organic and made sense,” says Bergeron.

Adding to the complex nature of the series is the basic fact the team is constantly dealing with real fire. As Bergeron says, “Our challenge is to make the spectacle absolutely safe, but make it look scary as hell. The fires you see are 95 percent practical. Every now and then we’ll have to dial a fire down because it’s just too close to an actor, and, in post, they’ll sweeten it up. But we always shoot for 100 percent practical.”

Another resource for directors is the counsel of technical advisor Steve Chikerotis, a 30-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department. Chappelle used Chikerotis’ account of the terrifying, claustrophobic process of crawling through rubble in search of survivors on 9/11 to direct his ensemble to a similar space as they seek out survivors after a bombing in “A Dark Day.” Says Bergeron, “There is nothing that humans have done to themselves that Chik has not witnessed or saved them from. Without his input I don’t know that we’d be able to do half of what we do. We’d certainly be doing it less credibly.”

The teams’ focus on realism enhances the drama of every episode. “We go into rooms that are 300 degrees Fahrenheit,” notes Bergeron. “If you’re going to a set that is 72 degrees, the actors won’t sweat, they won’t crash, they won’t recoil. This is the stuff they do naturally—it’s not CG.”

Director Alex Chapple was faced with all 300 degrees on an episode in which an apartment building was on fire. “The practical side of it just looks so much more real,” he says. “You go into these things and these sets, and there’s nothing supplemented. It’s room after room of raging fire. And then there are people above the bed throwing burning embers on somebody. It’s like the most dangerous haunted house ever. It’s fake but there is a whole lot of risk involved when you play with fire.”

Regardless of how much you prepare, says Turner, “On the day you get to the set, you then have to deal with this thing in 3-D and make it work; you’re fighting time.”

And through all the preparation and practical concerns, the directors can’t lose track of their characters’ dramatic arcs. At the end of the day, Turner says the show is about the men and women who head into places most of us would flee from. “Sometimes there’s the question of how you are going to shoot, because it is absolutely critical that we realize an emotional moment, and that it has a certain emotional impact on a character. So tone is the last thing I talk through before I get into the shoot. Ultimately, the heart of my job, in the middle of all of this, is to make sure that we are getting that in motion.”

Chicago Fire 
DAY JOB: Chicago-based 1st AD James Giovannetti Jr. encourages extras to keep up their energy and spirits through multiple takes in the cold.

For his part, Chapple breaks his scripts down beat-by-beat, crafting cheat sheets to track the story lines. “I did the season finale for the first season and there were so many interdependent story lines,” he recalls. “[I was] tracking each of the 12 characters in various places in a prison fire and I actually colorcoded each group of characters in order to see them all and to keep track in my head. You have such a limited amount of time: you’ve got one little piece, and you need to know exactly where it goes. You can’t be spending precious daylight time going back to the script and re-reading it. You have to know. [With] this cheat sheet, you can look at it and know where you are in terms of the arc and where you’re going next. Really, that’s the way through these big ensemble pieces.”

It hasn’t helped that season two of Chicago Fire has taken place during one of the worst winters to ever hit the city. Slovis, who has directed on both Chicago Fire and Chicago PD this season, recalls shooting an episode of the latter when, with the wind chill factor, it was 30 degrees below zero. “It really did pose challenges. You’re pushing through, and it’s slow moving. But in my experience, the crews that I see on these shows in Chicago are as good as anywhere,” which includes UPM Carla Corwin, 2nd AD Chris De Angelis, 2nd 2nd AD Michelle Gonsiorek and additional 2nd 2nd AD Tyler Ventura.

Chappelle, who has lived in Chicago for 18 years, makes an effort to use as much of the city as possible, noting how each of the various neighborhoods and locations allow for distinct flavors and feels, to serve as a background for the program. “We’ve shot on Michigan Avenue,” he says. “We’ve closed down intersections right in the heart of the Loop. We’ve shot on the train. We try to shoot the city as much as we can, not just downtown. And we try to shoot in different neighborhoods like Logan Square, or down in Englewood.”

So as Chappelle gets the coverage he needs of Eigenberg dangling on a ladder three stories off the ground with no harness in sight, police cars and fire trucks on the street below, all of the team-oriented preparation comes to fruition to create powerful television drama. Through all of it, Chappelle never loses sight of why he loves the show. “What’s great about Chicago Fire is that it’s hopeful. These are basically decent folks; they are not superheroes. They do heroic things, for sure, but they’re basically regular people. While a lot of television now is really grim, I think this show says there is a hope for the human condition.”


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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