Posted on Tues April 10, 2003
Philadelphia Daily News
'Hack' weathers first season
And the Philly-based cab drama has finally got it in gear
BY ELLEN GRAY
THERE HAVEN'T been many perfect weather days in Philadelphia in the nearly nine months that CBS' "Hack" has been shooting here, but last week there was at least one.
It was midafternoon in Washington Square as filming began on a scene that will be part of the show's season finale next month. Sunlight glinted through trees just beginning to bud. A man reading a newspaper perched on the side of the bubbling fountain as boys on in-line skates raced round and round. Extras all, they stopped and started on the director's command.
With the temperature in the 70s, "Hack" co-star Andre Braugher wore a short-sleeved shirt, and as some of the cast and crew relaxed on park benches between takes, it was easy to imagine that days like this were what the show's star, David Morse, had in mind when he first suggested filming the series about a disgraced cop-turned-cabdriver in the town where he and his family have lived since 1994.
That would have been before the string of 90-degree-plus days that baked the city when the series began filming last July.
Before the weeks of numbing cold in January that "Hack" producer Nan Bernstein recalls as being even worse than the February snowstorm that shut down production for a day.
Certainly before the months of 18- to 20-hour workdays that it took to put together "Hack's" early episodes, as the show struggled to find its footing in a city that's never hosted an enterprise of this kind.
Bernstein, a fast-talking dynamo who seems to have a cell phone pressed to her ear most of the time, seemed noticeably more relaxed than she had last summer.
"I've been through the changes of the guard, the financial difficulties, getting started," she said, alluding to a shift about a third of the way through the season, when executive producer Robert Singer replaced Thomas Carter as show-runner.
"We were learning in the beginning," she said. "It was like totally alien territory."
Philadelphia, she quickly discovered, is a city whose neighborhoods can stretch for miles, so that shifting to a different-looking location for the next scene often means a company move that can take an hour or more.
"Learning what can be accomplished in a day was a big thing," she said.
That works for actors, too.
Morse, who's looking less tired than he did in the early weeks of filming, is feeling the effects of one change Singer instituted: scripts that don't require Morse's character, Mike Olshansky, in every scene.
"You can't do that to an actor. I mean, you're going to burn him out," said Singer, who spends most of his time in Los Angeles, where the show is written, but is here directing the final episode.
"Even if it's only three or four scenes," it makes a difference, he said.
Before, "you shot 13 or 14 hours and you felt like, 'This has got to be the end of the day' and you've still got a big scene to do. And it just doesn't feel that way anymore. We've really figured out how to tell the story and not kill everybody. And just that little bit of break for me is a great relief," he said.
"Before they started writing for other characters, I wasn't seeing my kids at all. I'd say good night to them on Sunday and I'd see them the next Saturday afternoon. Even though I'm right here, I just wasn't seeing them. But that's different now."
Bernstein and Morse both said the return from the Christmas break was a turning point.
Things were "dramatically" different, Morse said. "And you couldn't even pinpoint why. It's like something just jelled. It was like everybody suddenly knew how to do the show. And we're doing it."
As filming wraps up tomorrow on the season finale, no one seems to know whether they'll be able to keep doing it.
Most years, only about 15 percent of new shows make it to a second season. "Hack," which averages 9.5 million viewers a week, usually runs second in its 9 p.m. Friday time slot. And though CBS president Leslie Moonves told reporters in January that he was "extremely pleased" with the show's performance, no one connected with the show appears to expect to hear any earlier than next month whether it will be on next fall's schedule.
"There's a kind of positive buzz about it, but I don't believe anything until I actually get the phone call," Singer said. "They say they're happy now creatively with the show, and we're doing better in the time period than they did last year, so those are all good things. But they could fall in love with some pilot that they just absolutely have to put on Friday at 9 o'clock, and who knows?"
The one thing that seems certain, though, is that if "Hack" returns, it will return to Philadelphia.
Any pressure to move the show to a less-expensive location had gone away by Thanksgiving, Bernstein said. "The [production] company realized our intention was to make it work."
Bernstein's already making plans.
If the show returns, she said, "Hack" would like to "put some money into the Civic Center [where some of its interiors are filmed], make it a proper stage. We'd want to give back to the city a bit."
As for Philadelphia's ever-changing weather, well, "Hack" can hack it.
"It's been cold," acknowledged Braugher, a Chicago native who marvels at how a snowstorm can shut down East Coast cities. "It's taken its toll physically. People have been sick. We've hung in there and made it happen."
But the shows "are still really good, despite the weather," said the actor, who commutes daily by Amtrak from his north Jersey home.
"Truth is, I kind of like the inclement weather on film," Singer said. "I know it's a pain in the ass to shoot and everybody's cranky and cold, but it looks great on film."