Posted on Tue, Dec. 3, 2002
On location, location, location
TV shows shot in the East - "Hack," "Dawson's Creek" and "CSI: Miami" - gain much in atmosphere. But with writers and producers in Hollywood, the logistical headaches are many.
By Robert Strauss
For The Inquirer
The interior of St. Gabriel's Church at 29th and Dickinson in Grays Ferry is magnificent - a block-long, cavernous space of wooden pews, marble floors, stained glass, and three-story-high pillars. It is in an unlikely neighborhood for Hollywood types, but during the last several months, a lot of them have walked through as members of the cast and crew of Hack, the first network series to be shot entirely in Philadelphia.
"It's marvelous. It's certainly no soundstage in Santa Monica [Calif.]," said Dan Lerner, a University of Pennsylvania grad (class of 1969) who flew in recently from Los Angeles to direct episode 12.
St. Gabriel's plays St. Vincent's, the church overseen by Father Tom Grzelak (George Dzundza), one of the main characters in the CBS drama (9 p.m. Fridays) starring David Morse as a disgraced cop turned crime-fighting cabbie.
"You look at American Dreams [8 p.m. Sundays, NBC], and that's supposed to be set in Philadelphia, but it's done in L.A.," Lerner says. "This show, on the other hand, looks where it's supposed to be."
Still, a big part of Hack is a Los Angeles show. For instance, head honcho (or "show runner") executive producer Robert Singer spends most of his time in Los Angeles, primarily supervising the writers, all of whom are there, and dealing with CBS executives.
Nan Bernstein runs day-to-day operations in Philadelphia, and sometimes the logistics of dealing with the L.A. powers are positively nerve-racking.
"Fun? No, I don't think so," said Bernstein, who at 10 a.m. one day last week was already six hours into her 14-hour shooting schedule at St. Gabriel's. "There is always a time delay with shipping tapes across the country, and then you are starting on a morning shoot and they aren't even up yet. Script meetings are done by phone and, frankly, everything has to pass through L.A.
"But if you want a show with a different feel, like this has, you do what you have to do."
Whatever problems shooting here might present, Hack's producers love having Philadelphia as a backdrop, and strive to get the city's details right.
"When we shoot in Rittenhouse Square, we make sure the scene is accurate, and that the place is mentioned correctly," Bernstein said.
Though the writers are in Los Angeles, she added, Morse and many crew members have lived here for years, and they help Hack feel real - making sure that the characters call what they're eating "hoagies" and "cheesesteaks," and that it's "Center City," not "downtown."
More and more, networks are trying to get that different feel in their shows. Because sitcoms are pretty much all interiors, they are easily created on Southern California soundstages. Yet dramas, with their location shooting, present different opportunities.
Paul Stupin wanted to take advantage of that when he helped create Fox's Dawson's Creek, which premiered in 1998.
"This was a show I wanted to have take place in a Cape Cod-esque community," Stupin said. "We found a great locale in Wilmington, N.C., where there was already a studio, that gave us the look we wanted. It's almost another character in the show."
Though executive producer Stupin has been to Wilmington many times since Dawson's started, he primarily stays in L.A., close to his writing staff and 3,000 miles from his characters, human and scenic.
"There is a price to be paid. We don't have that day-to-day, person-to-person contact, even if you are on the phone constantly, between the cast and production crew and the producing and writing staff. You can get an us-versus-them attitude."
Writers once created a scene calling for an outdoor party in December, Stupin said. "We had 200 people in freezing cold, grumbling about the stupid writers in L.A."
For Hack in Philadelphia, there are more substantial problems that come from having masters in more than one city.
"In a lot of ways, this is a three-city show - Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York," Bernstein said. "We do a lot of casting in New York, and a lot of the equipment either comes from there or has to be repaired there. Somehow, even being this close to New York doesn't help."
She noted that on an early episode, the production was down to its last reels of film. Because no place here had the quality of film she needed, Bernstein called for a special delivery from New York.
"The Kodak truck got into an accident," she said, recalling the frustration, the heel of her hand to her forehead. "Doing this can sometimes be a nightmare, but getting the logistics done is what we are paid to do."
Another frustration is that housing costs for out-of-town actors and crew have taken up a substantial part of Hack's budget. Initially, the show got the go-ahead for only nine episodes, so no one wanted to commit to a standard one-year lease.
"Philadelphia may be cheaper than L.A. for housing if you are buying or have a long-term lease, but... short-term, things are just as expensive," she said. "... We employ a lot of people from Philadelphia, but we have to supplement them from New York and L.A."
Though veteran producer Thomas Carter initially ran things on Hack, Singer replaced him early on, partly because CBS wanted someone used to dealing with shooting outside Los Angeles. Singer has produced such shows as NBC's Midnight Caller, which was shot in San Francisco in the late '80s.
"It's just something where you slog through and make decisions on the run, and have faith in the people who are there on the scene," Singer said from his L.A. office.
Sam Strangis, coexecutive producer of CBS's first-year hit CSI: Miami, said he mitigated some problems by having a writer on location, even though the rest of the writers are in L.A.
"It's penny-wise and pound-foolish not to have at least one writer on the scene," Strangis said. "Unless a writer has been on the scene and knows the problems and benefits, how can you do it right?"
That show - a spin-off of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, shot in Las Vegas - is in Miami in the first place to take advantage of scenic differences, he added.
"Miami has a hot-blue sky, not a gray-blue. The ocean has no waves, where in L.A. there are waves. It's flat in Miami, no hills like L.A. People dress differently, and the architecture is '40s and '60s deco. You get a different version of Vegas here, but with that same energy and glossy look. If you write it like you are in L.A., it is glaring."
Some two-city problems can be eased through technology, Hack director Lerner noted.
"Having lived here, I knew what a good location the Fairmount Waterworks would be, so I went there with a digital camera, and within a few minutes they could see those photos in L.A.," he said.
Then there is the most important piece of Hollywood personal electronics, the cell phone.
"You go in a limo - either here or out there - with eight people and there are nine different conversations with someone in L.A. going on at once," Lerner said with a knowing laugh. "The answer to everything, I guess, is only a cell call or two away."