Urban Politics, Big Fires, And Diversity In Casting: A Conversation With ‘Chicago Fire’ Creators Michael Brandt and Derek Haas

Chicago Fire, a new procedural about firefighters and the EMTs who work with them which premieres on NBC tonight at 10 PM, is intentionally a bit of a throw-back. “What we’re trying to do here is a very, very classic, adult, NBC platinum drama,” executive producer Dick Wolf said of the show at the Television Critics Association press tour in July. By that, he means a procedural with a large ensemble cast, full of flawed professionals with good intentions, in this case, the residents of a single Chicago firehouse who are dealing with broken engagements, a foreclosed house, who’s cooking dinner, and an upcoming visit from Mayor Emanuel. I spoke with the show’s creators, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, about the pop culture tropes of fire-fighters and first responders, why they chose Chicago, and how Wolf responds to reminders about diversity from executives. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The expectations audiences have for police and medical procedurals are very well-established, but the character beats and story arcs are less clear for firefighters and EMTs. Were there shows you looked to as models? Were there things you could do because those tropes aren’t as calcified?Michael: One thing that got us interested in doing television was the idea of going back to some of the classic NBC dramas. For us, the drama on network television right now is almost reactionary in terms of how good Law & Order was. We were thinking in terms of ER and Hill Street Blues, where you had a big ensemble. It doesn’t matter if it’s a firehouse, or a hospital, or a police station. Those ideas work. Thematically they work. You have a family, and like any family, they have problems internally, but when the shit hits the fan externally, they come back together.

The Law & Order franchise played a key role in both defining New York and giving New York actors work. Can you talk a little bit about your vision of Chicago? And to what extent will fire and accident victims be actual characters on the show?

Derek: We picked Chicago a because it was a city that was born out of fire, the entire city was knocked down and had to start anew. And the fire service has a history here that seemed a perfect setting and then what we constructed was a firehouse that, when you turn left, you’re in a really poor, dangerous neighborhood, and when you turn right, you’re in the middle of downtown, and skyscrapers, and luxury apartments. [Firefighters] will hear a very short description of what they’re rolling up on. They might hear building fire, they might here man down from unknown causse. For us to throw out an address and for you not know what these guys are rolling up on, are they going to be smashing out of a high-rise? Or rolling up on a gang fight?


Micheal: When the show first came to us, NBD and Dick had decided they wanted to do a firefighter show, and said what city would you want to do it on, and we walked through options. New York is so tied up with 9/11. Los Angeles really doesn’t have enough weather to make it interesting. Chicago’s a city where you can put a camera down and point it anywhere and see something interesting. The Chicago Fire cast is strikingly diverse, not just in terms of race, but in terms of working in lesbian characters, as are a lot of other NBC shows this season. Was that something that you set as a priority when you started looking at actors? Was it a directive that came down from the network?Derek: No, when we wrote the show, we wrote it from thexe experiences of going into 20 different firehouses in the city, and doing 24 hour shifts and ridealongs. If you walk into any firehouse, you’re going to see that diversity, you’re going to see all ethnicities and various sexual orientations and various relationships. Really that theme Michael touched on of this is a diverse family, a dysfunctional family in some way.

Michael: NBC did have, early in a meeting, Bob Greenblatt, the chairman, came in, and he wanted to talk about how we were going to cast the show. And Dick said “I’ve won more NAACP awards than any other producer alive.” It made a point. We didn’t even have to have the conversation.

And what about the political environment the show is operating in? Christopher’s lost his home to foreclosure, we’ve immediately got a union storyline because of the botched rescue. What kinds of issues are going to come up this season? Will there be resource and budget issues? You’ve got Mayor Emanuel in the first episode — how does the show portray him?Michael: That’s definitely something Dick feels strongly about. Law & Order did the ripped form the headlines thing, and Law & Order, every mayor of New York has been on Law & Order. We’re not doing ripped form the headlines, we don’t want to do that at all. It’s great that Revolution is doing well, but we’re an alternative to that, we’re an alternative to Nashville, we’re an alternative to CSI. I like those shows, but they’re a little hyperreal. Very few of us can relate to a fading country star. One thing that Dick has been preaching to us is that people connect to our characters.

Derek: We haven’t really gotten into the Mayoral fire department politics, quite frankly. The fire department and the mayor’s office have treated us so well, and we absolutely could have not the show without the expertise that they’ve given us. We haven’t gone there.  You’ve also got the chance to stage exciting action sequences: are you working with an action choreographer? How will you make the different scenes distinct?

Michael: It’s definitely a challenge, and I think that’s why a real firefighter show, Rescue Me aside, hasn’t been done, because of the challenges of shooting guys who are all wearing the same jacket in a smokey environment. Out of the first 13 episodes, we’re not having 13 fires. This is not a show about fires at all, any more than ER was a show about a certain kind of surgery. They go on all kinds of calls, from domestic disputes, to a guy who died up in a tree. We are going to have big fires, and we have a special effects guy who did the firest on Backdraft, and it’s almost as if he was waiting in Chicago for us to make a fire show. Our show is about the characters in the house. The bulk of the episode is what’s going on with them and their lives and each other. You’ll have someone in an accident who will remain in their lvies throughout an episode, or they’ll have someone and they’ll pop in and save them and don’t save them. We’re not using much digital, but we feel we can create a fire show we couldn’t have created ten years ago.


Derek: The key to writing good action to us is that the action informs the character. It’s not so much “How am going to get from point A to point B, but as does it inform my character? Within the action sequence, what is it saying about me? What does it say about me, saving someone?”