What would you be ordering if we were at a real bar instead of Molly’s, the bar on set?
I like to drink what used to be called a highball. It’s whiskey, ginger ale and a lemon.
How important was it to film in Chicago rather than a city-like set as many shows do?
When we put the name of the city in the title there was no choice, we had to shoot here and get outside to see the city. You can put a camera anywhere in Chicago and with the architecture, the lake and the river it is so stunning. We keep writing these gigantic scenes at the top of the Sears Tower, out at Navy Pier, on the lake, in the lake. We don’t stop. We try to be specific too. We’ll say, “Outside Manny’s Deli,” or, “Outside Walgreens,” because it’s part of the city. I remember when I wrote a scene last year outside of a Walgreens and somebody from legal called and said, “Is it important it’s a Walgreens?” I was like, “I don’t know other than every time I go to Chicago I end up walking inside a Walgreens, they’re everywhere!”
Not being from Chicago do you have someone filling you in on the city lingo?
We’ll screw up sometimes but thankfully we have enough Chicago people on set that will tell us [when we’re off]. When we got here we took a tour of the Willis Tower so in a script I wrote somebody saying, “The Willis Tower,” and everyone was like, “Nobody calls it that! It’s the Sears Tower!” The main thing too is just finding the real street names and neighborhoods and making sure they make sense.
What are some of the ways you and your writing partner Michael Brandt differ?
He describes it as I’m the painter and he’s the sculptor. I usually start with throwing all of the words on a blank page and then he comes in second and does the rewriting, which may end up being half of the script because I just vomit out whatever and I don’t look back. But then he comes and puts it into shape, that’s our system. When I say it’s a true partnership it’s because by the time we are done I can’t remember what I wrote or what he wrote. Within individual lines we’ll take words out and change things and pass it back and forth maybe five, six, seven times before we turn it in. He also directs as well so he definitely writes from a visual side where I’m writing more from a literal side.
As a writer in Hollywood, how many concepts do you have to throw at the wall for one to stick?
Because we are a serialized drama for television we have to have a plan before we start writing. We have eight writers [on this show] and we all get together before the season starts and look at the first 10 episodes, look at the 10 characters that we have and then we just start filling in the boxes with the big beats of where we are going to be. We might say, “Okay, by episode six we want Casey and Dawson to kiss,” and then you build each square towards that with every character. You pitch all of that and then we assign out the individual episode so when you look at your episode you’re like, “The big thing I have to do in this episode is have [Lieutenant Kelly] Severide beat up [whoever].” Once you get the script you write an outline and you have about a week and a half to actually write the draft. That’s the fun part, trying to surprise people and surprise yourself.
Are you the type of person who wakes up early to check the ratings from the night before?
I am, yeah.
That must be stressful.
It is. I didn’t realize how stressful it would be because Michael [Brandt] and I had only done movies before. With a movie you have a release date and you have what they call tracking so you’re pretty close to knowing what the movie is going to do before it comes out. You also haven’t seen everyone in four or five months while they’ve done post-production so when you see them it’s like a reunion and everyone has fun, it’s a big party and the release is a blast. With television you have these people who become your family and you are all working in the same spot for years, hopefully. Each week you have a new episode that comes out and each week it is stressful. You’re worried about what the numbers are going to be and you’re hoping people will like it. I have way more anxiety in television than I ever did before.
Is there one review you’ll always remember?
Bad ones, yeah! We wrote the second “The Fast and the Furious”, [“2 Fast 2 Furious”]. I’m from Texas and I remember one of the first reviews being from the Austin Chronicle and it said, “As exciting as a Yugo in quicksand.” We were like, “Wow, that didn’t work out so well.”
What will you remember most about Paul Walker?
Paul made everything fun. It couldn’t have been a better time on set. He brought way more energy than you would think, he wasn’t just going through the motions. Every take he wanted to bring his best performance. He’s awesome. That was a great, really fun time. Michael and I were both pretty young and being able to watch this gigantic movie getting made was kind of like our film school.
Is it true you originally said no to the job?
Yeah, we thought we were above doing a big action sequel. We weren’t very smart. We hadn’t seen the first one to be fair but it ended up being really, really great.
Brad Pitt wanted in on one of the first scripts you wrote with Michael shortly after college. Sounds too good to be true.
We were really lucky and the more I talk to other writers the more I realize there is no straight way in, everybody has a different path and all of it requires a little bit of luck and timing and being in the right place at the right time. You would hope that in the end talent will win out and you will get there somehow and if it wasn’t this way it would be another way but we were also too dumb to realize how lucky that was. We had no idea. But ultimately it never got made so the end isn’t always what you thought it would be.
You once said you believe in knowing all of the rules so you can break them. How have you applied that in your life?
We do it all of the time on this show. The fun thing is that we never listen to the idea that you have to be shooting inside or outside so many days and that you have to write towards a budget. We just keep writing these gigantic scenes and shows and we write them like they’re movies. Somehow this crew and our main producer John Roman get it done every week. I honestly don’t know how they do it. So little is changed from what we initially write to what they do. I remember on “Chicago P.D.” we were writing an action sequence in the second episode where they’re on the hunt for Jon Seda’s son who had been kidnapped. The whole episode is trying to catch the kidnapper. We wrote the scene where he gets this tip for the hotel and then in an eighth of a page he goes into the hotel and shows the guy the picture and then in an eighth of a page the guy points to the keyboard and then you cut to the hallway where they’re coming in and then you cut to the kid in the door. So when I say we write them like movies, in a regular TV show they wouldn’t let you shoot an eighth of a page, then an eighth of a page and an eighth of a page because it takes all of these separate set ups and each one takes time but for some reason on our show they get through it.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
They have asked us two years in a row to do two more episodes than we had originally planned. The first season of “Chicago Fire” was supposed to be 22 episodes and then late in the game they said, “Can you do two more?” We said, “Of course!” but then we have to try and figure out what we were going to do differently. On “P.D.” this year we were building and building to episode 13 which was going to be our finale and then they asked for two more so now it’s episode 14 and 15 that we were trying to do. That is the hardest thing.
What’s a typical shooting day like?
If we’re on set then a typical set day is supposed to be 12 hours but it usually ends up being 13 or 14. You always have lunch at the six hour point, it just depends on when you start. I’ve been working “P.D.” this week and the call time today wasn’t until 1:30 p.m. so lunch is 7:30 at night and you won’t finish until 1:30 in the morning. As the writer of the episode you’re also producing so you’re in charge of the directors. You give the directors as much freedom for their vision as you can but because they’re guest directors on your show but [at the end of the day] you’re responsible for that episode so you have to take charge when you need to. Thankfully, we have awesome directors.
Last movie or TV show that made you think, “Man, I wish I would have thought of that!”?
That happens all of the time! I get writer envy. I get it with books a lot too. I just got writer envy watching “American Hustle”. I love crime movies and that just seemed like a fun Scorsese crime movie up front. A friend of mine worked on “The Wolf of Wall Street” which seemed like a blast to write.
The best book I’ve read in the last five years was “City of Thieves” by David Benioff who created “Game of Thrones”.
Best piece of advice you can give young writers?
A lot of young writers always ask, “How do I break in?” and Brian Koppelman a writer friend of mine said, “Calculate less.” I think what that means is don’t try to spot a trend. If you’re trying to figure out what Hollywood is going to want next based on what’s happening now you’ll have already missed it. Write what you love and what you think is cool and then hopefully everybody else will think it is too. Calculate less.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
Stephen King. He was a huge influence on me. I heard he’s pretty reclusive now but I would love to talk baseball and writing with him. That would be fun.
NBC’s “Chicago Fire” returns on Tuesday, Feb., 25 at 10 p.m. EST and “Chicago P.D.” returns on Wednesday, Feb., 26 at 10 p.m. EST.
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