’24’ thrives on the pressure
LOS ANGELES ó Tick. Come up with a concept to span 24 TV episodes, not just the usual 22.
Tick. Break in many new cast members.
Tick. Maintain absolute continuity to keep the integrity of a real-time format.
Tick. And, just for fun, land a jet on a highway.
Jack Bauer’s not the only one with time pressures. Like the counterterrorist agent, the producers, writers and directors of 24 face a ticking clock of challenges in making the Emmy-winning drama.
The spotlight on their work is especially bright going into the sixth season (Fox, Sunday, 8 ET/PT) after a year that yielded 24’s highest ratings (13.6 million viewers) and five Emmys, including best drama, director and actor (Kiefer Sutherland for his portrayal of juggernaut Jack).
But the set of 24ó housed in a nondescript former pencil factory in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Chatsworth ó hardly seems a pressure cooker during a December visit when the 13th and 14th hours are being filmed.
Everybody’s busy trying to meet various demands and deadlines, but there’s a confident air: We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again. Even as the writers try to come up with new angles on a well-mined theme ó Jack vs. terrorists ó there’s less advance script planning each season. “We’ve learned to have faith in ourselves. There’s a lot less panic than there was at the beginning,” says executive producer Howard Gordon during an interview in the producers’ cigar room, the kind of perk that comes with being a hit.
Sutherland, also an executive producer, says the writers, including co-creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, “seem at times almost to invite the stress of backing themselves into a corner. Then they get in a room, all of them, and go to town on it. And amazing stuff will come out of it.”
24’s unique challenge is the interlocking combination of real time and serialization. “Without question it is our most difficult series” to produce, says Dana Walden, president of 20th Century Fox Television. “You take a process that’s really difficult and add on this (real-time) conceit that makes the level of attention to detail so necessary.”
Each episode must connect with the next, weaving separate, simultaneous story lines together and playing scenes out as part of a 24-hour day. Throwing in big action sequences, traditionally the stuff of feature films, adds thrills but also production complexity.
“On any serialized show, one script depends on what happened in the previous script. This show magnifies that because we approach it on a minute-to-minute basis,” says Evan Katz, an executive producer and writer.
Continuity is paramount. Each department head, from the writing staff to wardrobe, has to make sure that all details follow from scene to scene because mistakes would be amplified in a format where one hour follows another. Script supervisor Anne Melville is the ultimate check, with a strong institutional memory and a thick book of detailed character and story notes.
Together, they make sure visual appearances, from hairstyles to ripped clothing, and plot points match. It gets tougher when scenes are shot out of sequence. The book “is a lot of pages,” Melville says.
“If somebody has a scratch on their face on Day 1, it’s there at the end of the” season, she says. “It has to carry over, show after show.”
New information must fit characters’ pasts. When a reference was made to Jack’s premarital relationship 20 years earlier, Melville reminded writers his daughter, Kim, was over 20 and that Jack would have been married at the time. The number was pushed back.
Past must match present
That focus appears to be second nature for the veteran production staff. As Emmy-winning director Jon Cassar choreographs actor movements on 24’s shadowy Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) set, he keeps in mind the past as well as the present.
With a few takes, the actors have the crisscross timing down, but something’s wrong. “He definitely wasn’t there,” Cassar says, pointing to an extra in the bluish glow of the situation room. “There” is the previous chronological scene, which was shot weeks earlier.
For the writers, the clock for the new season starts ticking each spring, before the current season has even concluded. They toss ideas around ó Gordon calls it “a fishing expedition” ó as they look for next season’s story. Sometimes it comes earlier, such as this year’s opener in which Jack, finally freed from a Chinese prison, is asked to sacrifice his life to stop ongoing terror attacks in the USA. Sometimes it’s later, as with last year’s shocking assassination of President David Palmer in the opening moments.
The key, Gordon says, is for the writers to avoid repeating themselves. However, he says it’s impossible at this point in the show’s history to up the ante each year ó considering 24 has exploded a nuclear bomb, released poison gases and featured a president who betrays his country.
“We take ourselves off the hook on that,” he says. We write “what’s interesting for us. If it’s interesting for us, chances are it will be interesting for the audience.”
Gordon acknowledges that writers take liberties with some details, such as driving times in L.A. and physical recovery from injuries. “But what we try to do is hew toward an emotional integrity, to have (the characters) react the way they would react. With emotions, hopefully, there’s not too much disbelief,” he says.
Cassar credits the writers with “keeping all the characters in play,” noting that even successful serials, such as Lost, can have trouble balancing a large cast. At the same time, he notes continuity sometimes makes individual episodes and seasons “seem like a blur.”
Writers are typically only two to four episodes ahead of production, allowing for a quick shift in the season’s direction with a new idea, such as last year’s revelation that President Logan was secretly betraying the country.
“We didn’t decide Logan was crooked until episode 8 or 9,” Katz says. “Once we knew that, we knew the season had to culminate with Jack against Logan. But first, we had to go back a little bit” to make sure the new direction wasn’t contradicted by past events.
That flexibility wouldn’t be possible without an experienced production team. 24 has a large number of personnel who remain from the beginning, unusual for a show entering its sixth season.
“The crew operates like clockwork,” says Mary Lynn Rajskub, who plays Chloe.
Producers and directors can accommodate changes in story direction and produce two episodes at the same time, a rare feat that saves time and money but requires precise organization.
Sutherland describes it as a well-oiled upstairs-downstairs, with the division being task, not class. “In our building, all the writers and producers work on the second floor, and Jon Cassar and I basically work on the first floor, where we shoot everything. The writers write it, we make it and Joel cuts it. Rarely do we ever cross paths,” he says.
The directors and producers don’t flinch when given scenes featuring big, eye-catching effects, such as landing a plane on the freeway ó they used a real plane on I-210, along with some computer graphics ó or arranging for real Marines to participate in an assault on terrorists in Season 4.
(When asked if 24 had a bigger budget than other series, Gordon said, “No, smaller than many,” but wouldn’t specify a figure.)
The biggest coup, according to production supervisor Michael Klick, was getting the Navy’s permission to use a real nuclear sub for last season’s confrontation between Jack and his former mentor.
“Most producers would say, ‘We can’t do this,’ ” Gordon says. “We say we want to land a 747 on the 118 or, on two weeks’ notice, I need two F-16s for a flyover, or we want to shoot on a sub. Michael will call the Navy and get it done.”
Klick says his biggest challenge is arranging actors’ schedules. With more than 500 speaking parts over the seasons, many actors aren’t signed to exclusive contracts and shooting must be scheduled around their other projects. For scenes involving Jack and his father, Klick could find only one two-day weekend window for Sutherland and James Cromwell.
Over five seasons, 24’s producers, cast and crew have painted themselves into the occasional corner, such as Teri, Jack’s wife, coming down with amnesia in Season 1 or Kim being cornered by the infamous cougar in Season 2. In the process, they’ve learned lessons that have improved the show.
Some are practical. Since Season 2, Jack’s bad day has started near dawn instead of midnight, making use of extra hours of light when production starts in summer and shooting night hours in winter.
The right point of view
Other lessons affect how the story is told. At the start of Season 3, the audience didn’t know that Jack ó in his heroin addiction days ó was doing undercover work unknown to CTU. The surprise and the addiction had little payoff.
“It made us see the audience needed to understand the show from Jack’s point of view,” Gordon says. For the same reasons, the show is filmed with two cameras ó one on wheels and one handheld ó at human eye level.
In some cases, limitations become assets. Phone conversations and car travel in TV shows can be dead time, but 24 combines them, conveying plot information and updating parallel story lines during calls from the road, Cassar says.
“The secret to the show is that we give each other room to contribute. Everybody feels like they’re contributing ó the editors, actors, wardrobe people,” Gordon says. “They feel like they’re contributing to the telling of the story.”
’24’ thrives on the pressure