Last week NBC announced it is renewing its Wednesday night drama "Chicago Fire" for a second season. The cast and crew are still in town but not for long; they're scheduled to wrap the Season 1 finale on Saturday. They'll be back in mid-July to begin work on the new season.
I caught up with co-creator Derek Haas (who is one of the show's executive producers, along with longtime writing partner Michael Brandt and show runner Matt Olmstead) to talk about the shift to TV — his previous screenwriting credits with Brandt are all in film, including "2 Fast 2 Furious" and "3:10 to Yuma" — plus the likelihood of a "Chicago Fire" spin-off on NBC's schedule next year.
Though Haas lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two kids, he has spent considerable time in Chicago working on the show. He is as unpretentious as they come and isn't afraid to roll up his sleeves when the need arises (he posted a photo of himself on Twitter shoveling snow on set back during the blizzard in March). And he couldn't have had nicer things to say about his experience working with Dick Wolf. TV, it turns out, has been far more satisfying than Haas anticipated. (The following is an edited transcript.)
Q: Congratulations on the renewal.
A: Thank you so much!
Q: The ratings were a little shaky when the show debuted in the fall, but it's become one of the most reliable performers on NBC. (9.4 million viewers in the 18-49 range.) I'm guessing you would have been surprised if they didn't order a second season.
A: You're cautiously optimistic, but I've been in Hollywood long enough to know you don't count your chickens before they're hatched.
Here's my thing: We didn't get crazy-great reviews when it started. They were middle-of-the-road reviews. And I think a lot of it was, "Oh, this doesn't have the flash or the sizzle of something high-concept." It wasn't like: All the energy went off in the world and now people with bows and arrows are going to have to fight together (the premise for "Revolution"). We didn't have the pedigree of T. Bone Burnett producing all the music for the show (as he does for ABC's "Nashville").
We saw the word "procedural" 20 times in every review, and we were like: Oh, that's not our show — just wait. We've got to introduce all these characters. It's chapters in a book, and this is just the first chapter. I think it took word-of-mouth of people telling each other, "Oh, this show is real." And since then it's been awesome.
Q: This is your first TV series. What did you and Michael learn over the past few months about what works in TV but doesn't work in film, and vice versa?
A: A movie has a beginning, middle and an end. And what we realized in TV, we don't need to have an end — we can put a new dangler in this episode that's not going to pay off for two more episodes.
So for instance, we introduced a kid on a bicycle riding away from a fire scene early on in the season. We didn't even come back to him for a couple of episodes, and then the kid showed up at the station around Thanksgiving and there was some suspicion maybe that this kid was starting these fires. It was a fun running story line to be able to do — fun from a writing standpoint, over the course over four or five episodes.
Q: That's a departure from the Dick Wolf brand. All those "Law & Orders" typically exist as stand-alone episodes. Were you influenced by the fact that so many TV shows today incorporate serialized elements?
A: When we pitched the show to Dick, we had gone to Chicago for three weeks of riding-along with various fire stations in the city. And we realized, oh, there's a squad, there's a truck, there's an engine, there's paramedics, there's a battalion chief — we can make a giant ensemble in the vein of "ER" or "Hill Street Blues" rather than, "OK, there's a fire this week: Here's the response to it."
So when we pitched that to Dick, he got very excited about it. And we pitched the first 13 episodes that were all about the characters. Didn't pitch one single fire or what was going to happen in a rescue. It was just: Here's where Dawson and Casey try to get together and it doesn't work out; here's where Severide is going to solve his shoulder problems. Slowly, over the season, these were the rich stories we wanted to tell about these characters.
Q: Do you get a lot of feedback from Wolf or NBC about what they want to show to look like or what kinds of stories they want you to tell?
A: Oh, yeah. Matt Olmstead, who is our show runner, and Michael and I, we come up with the day-to-day. But it goes through Dick — he reads every outline, he reads every draft, he watches every cut of the show, and the same with NBC. And they give us their notes. But I gotta say — and I'm not making this up for publicity or whatever — it's been the greatest creative partnership that we've had as guys who have written a lot of movies.
A lot of times (in movies) the writer is replaced or isn't needed on set. And to have the writing supported the way it's been by Dick Wolf and NBC has been extremely satisfying.
Q: That makes it sound like when you write a movie script, they basically give you a check and say, "Thanks fellas, see ya later."
A: On a film, a hundred percent the director is the boss of the movie. We had a great experience on the second "The Fast and the Furious," where John Singleton for whatever reason liked us, so we were on from prep all the way through post. And same on "3:10 to Yuma," we get along great with Jim Mangold. But on a couple of our other movies, yes, it's been, unceremoniously: "We will no longer be needing your services" or "You're not welcome on the set."