We think it’s safe to say that Chicago is officially back on the film and television map. The city’s always been an attractive place to shoot — rich in history and architecture, and possessing an abundance of patina. But until the tax incentives put in place a few years back, it was sadly underutilized as a setting. Now the city finds itself frequently at center stage, from the hit series Boss to NBC’s burning new drama, Chicago Fire. We talked with series regular David Eigenberg (Sex and the City) and executive producer and location scout Joe Chappelle about the new series and the city that holds all the action.
Chicago Fire, which premiered on NBC last night, follows a crew of firefighters as they manage the intense everyday emergencies that a city like Chicago brings, all while maintaining the volatile and incendiary situations in their own lives. According to Eigenberg, the show is aiming to keep things as true to life as possible, and working hand-in-hand with the Chicago Fire Department every step of the way. “We came in and met with Steve Chikerotis, who’s deputy chief — he’s like our point man taking us through everything, and pretty much an amazing individual,” Eigenberg says. “They were saying we could do some ride-alongs with a buddy — four, six, eight hours. … And I said, ‘Is it possible we could do 24s?’ and he kind of lit up and got a twinkle in his eye and was like, ‘Sure, you guys can. We can make that happen.’ And pretty much everybody in the cast grabbed ahold of that and did the shift from 7am to 7am. Everybody jumped onto it, so there was a lot of excitement.”
Training is only a part of the Chicago Fire Department’s involvement in the series. Chikerotis and a number of CFD firemen actually get in on the action from the word go. “We bring them into the process as soon as the scripts come out,” Chappelle says. “First, we get their opinion — we get a reality check. ‘Can this happen? Is this the way you guys would do it?’ And they’ll either say yes or no. … Whatever the situation is, we try to get as close to the truth as possible, to the way they would do it. The way we help ourselves is by bringing the department into our process as early as possible.”
Of course that also includes monitoring the raging fire scenes, which, according to Chappelle, are shot both on set as well as on location. “We were just in a warehouse right near McCormick Place/Center just this past Friday,” he offers. “We had a fire scene, and we were inside — we had a controlled burn. We did some interior fire sequences at night there. We also did, on that same location, an exterior fire and smoke billowing from the building, and did a big fireball explosion. It’s all controlled — our pyrotechnics guy, this guy named John Milinac, is fantastic.”
Far from just shooting in the area around Ogden and Roosevelt where the studios are located, or hanging closer to the North Side, the Chicago Fire crew has been finding its way all up and down Western Avenue casing out optimal locations, even in some of the city’s most notorious neighborhoods. “We’ve worked on the South Side, we’ve been in Englewood,” Eigenberg says. “They’re tough, and we see it in their faces. We’ve been right next to some Section 8 housing and I didn’t even know. … God bless them, but there’s some rough stuff going on in the West Side and the South Side.”
Eigenberg, who grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago, wants people to understand that the grit they see in Chicago Fire is real, that it’s part of the fabric of life in Chicago — but that it’s still a fantastic experience to be able to live and work in this town where they’ve found themselves so welcome. “Chicago is really the meat and potatoes of America,” he suggests. “I’ve had the opportunity to go down to Mount Greenwood — that’s like a firefighter and cop holdout down on the South Side. We’ve been embraced by them. They’ve invited us to quite a few of their activities — block parties, St. Paddy’s Day events … it’s really warm. It’s a little bit different because we’re actors, and [because] I’m visible, and somewhat knowable — especially to the wives, you know. It’s bizarre how wide [the age scope is]. Even, like, 18-year-old girls watched Sex and the City, and we stopped shooting the TV show almost 10 years ago. Girls still click into it — and guys, to a certain extent, if they’ve been wrangled into it by their others.”
And despite having spent most of his childhood in Naperville and other suburbs, Eigenberg says he’s still blown away at the variety of things to do and see if you really get off the beaten path and into Chicago’s many culturally rich and diverse neighborhoods. “This past weekend, I took my wife and our kid up to Rogers Park — there was an outdoor art fair up there,” he says. “It was probably the best art fair I’ve seen in a long time. I was just driving through Denver, and there was a big art fair there. And it was fine, but it was a lot of flowers, sailboats and crap. Horses, landscapes and crap. Rogers Park had some rough stuff, man — it was great! … There was some ‘loneliness in the streets of Chicago’ — some racial tension.”
Chappelle agrees. “I’ve lived in Evanston for 17 years,” he says, “but this is the first time I’ve worked here in Chicago in 15 years, basically. This city offers so many different visual looks, from downtown and the skyscrapers to the neighborhoods — neighborhoods that I kind of knew about before we started scouting locations, like Bucktown, that I didn’t really know that well. And I’m discovering how really diverse this city is, and how beautiful it is.”