Stephanie Morgenstern and Mark Ellis are the creators of FLASHPOINT, and extremely nice people. I planned to interview them at the Banff Worldwide Television Festival, but they tricked me by asking me all about my projects for twenty minutes, leaving me only ten minutes to ask them my questions. Fortunately, they very kindly followed up with me by email. So this is a mix of the questions I was able to ask, my notes from the Master Class they gave with their CBS exec, Christina Davis, Senior Vice President for Drama Series Development, and their additions to my transcript.
The idea for FLASHPOINT originated with a hostage taking in Toronto's Union Station in 2004. As Morgenstern and Ellis relate, "We watched it unfold in real time. And in the end, the gunman was shot. And we wondered, what is the rest of the day going to be like for the police offier who took that shot? We'd seen lots of films about criminals and detectives and victims, but rarely the SWAT officers. They're usually just anonymous guys who show up at the last minute, shoot the bad guy, and walk away."
"At the time we were making plans to adapt a short film into a feature - our writing wasn't very TV oriented. We happened to have a meeting with our agents the morning of the Union Station incident, and Lesley Harrison started to think about about its possibilities as a MOW. She made a call to CTV that day and that got the ball rolling. After a few weeks of thinking and research we pitched it over coffee to Lesley Grant. She was intrigued and asked for a one-pager."
From there, the project rose up the pile to a potential series, with exec producer Anne-Marie La Traverse its first real champion. "We had to compress a two hour movie of the week into a one hour series pilot."
"We didn't set out with the goal of making a border-crossing product. It was about the story. We were just curious: what is life like behind the ballistic shield? What is the messy, complicated, human thing that breaks your heart when you have to take someone’s life? This was our point of departure. This is what was keeping us up at night.
"We met a cop, Jimmy Bremner, who had been involved with a couple of shootings. Jimmy was the team leader in a hostage taking incident. And he told us, if you can get a hostage taker talking past his deadline, your odds go up a lot for a peaceful resolution. And they'd got this guy talking past his deadline, but then suddenly he raised his gun and aimed it at the police negotiator. Jimmy had to shoot him from 2 meters away. It was the first time he’d had to shoot somebody. And he was back on the job the next morning.
"There was a domestic dispute two days later. And he got into a struggle with a guy. And suddenly there was blood on his hands, and he realized he'd shot the man.
"It's a rule of thumb that if an officer doesn't get treatment within 48 hours of shooting someone, or takes a drink in those 48 hours, then he's in trouble. Jimmy went through some really tough times before he came out on the other side and his stories went on to inspire some of our stories. The obstacles he faced felt to us like the heart of a TV show. The challenge then became, how do you create a mainstream net procedural show that is going to maintain that level of inner interest and passion along the way?
"As a policeman, you're three times more likely to die of violence from your own hand than on the job. It's safer being at work than being alone with your thoughts. How do you go home at the end of the day?
"So with Anne Marie La Traverse producing, we had a completed pilot which set the tone, the premise, the characters, the world of the show - and its very ambitious, polished look. It was at this point that CTV's Bill Mustos was returning from a sabbatical, and he made the decision to step outside CTV and become a creative producer. Anne Marie teamed up with him and they became the creative-producing engine that set up the foundations with us for full-fledged series. Working closely with CTV we created a package to go with the pilot: full character profiles, premises for future episodes, etc. And it included a second completed script, "First in Line," which established the show's long-term template in a way that the pilot didn't - i.e. one crisis per week, framed by team activity at the station before and after, a montage denouement underscored by Canadian singer-songwriter talent...
We were drawn to RESCUE ME. The show is sort of RESCUE ME with cops, though we don't go into the family life so much. There's darkness, but there's redemption. At the same time, we were watching CSI — single serving shows. And we wanted to stay within the realm of the broadcast network wheelhouse. We wanted to be mostly episodic while finding a way to reward the frequent flyers.
"This was already very close to the writer’s strike in the States. At this point Bill and Anne Marie took it across the border."
Christina Davis continues:
"The writer’s strike started Nov 1, 2007. And the networks were all shocked. And we jumped into, what are we going to do if the strike goes a year? We were looking at every international format: New Zealand, Israel, the UK, Australia. Really canvassing the creative community globally. I developed a relationship with [Executive Producer] Bill Mustos. He said, "I have a filmed pilot." And we watched the pilot and it just clicked. This particular angle had a unique emotional hook — the personal cost of heroism. And Enrico Colantani was someone American audiences are familiar with.
"As a Canadian show, it was strike-proof. And with a beneficial financial model, it was really a no-brainer. But it started because of the creative angle.
"It came to us in a very convenient situation, where they'd already filmed the pilot so you could see the production value, but they weren't so far along that we couldn't have any creative input. The content fit so perfectly, we were able to see a pilot which was really unique, but you guys hadn't moved so far forward that we couldn't be part of it. You had a CTV order, so there was something we could jump on board with. We did a bit of recasting... The tendency is when you go too far down the road, we're not able to collaborate you, but this was an open valley.
"It took place in Toronto, but they didn't make a meal of it, so that worked for us.
"So we said, okay, we need this as soon as possible. We struck the deal in January '08, they started production in April, and we were on the air by July. We had 8.7 million viewers for the US premiere, which worked its way down to 6 million on average over the season. It's working well on Friday nights."
Q. What are some of the things you learned from your experience?
Morgenstern/Ellis: One of the buzzwords in the room was something we got from Christina, which was, "all of your first six episodes should be pilot episodes
". In other words, you have to keep re-introducing the core characters.
Another expression we used was using the "eyedropper." We picked this up from Dick Wolf, as seen on LAW & ORDER: you get to know your regulars at the same pace as you do real people, a little more each day, instead of in huge chunks of backstory exposition. You do it by 'eyedropper' rather than by 'soup ladle.'
For example, at the end of our bottle show, we show Ed going home, and inside his garage he's got a secret locker filled with articles and press clippings and souvenirs of every screwup, everything near miss where he almost got somebody hurt. And his wife comes in unexpectedly, and instead of shutting it, he thinks a sec, then opens it for her to see for the first time. We play the whole thing silently. A moment like that can take the place of a monologue.
Q. What do you think about Canadian government support for TV?
M/E: We are really public funding babies. We've been supported by everyone from the Canada Council to Telefilm to the OMDC to Women in the Director's Chair. And that has opened so many doors. Doing the short film — every step of our careers was supported by emerging artist support. And we come from Canadian theatre, where actors are often involved in workshopping new plays. We even met doing Fringe Theatre — public funding makes all of those possible.
Stephanie Morgenstern: It might look like this all happened very suddenly - out of nowhere these two actors suddenly know how to write a TV show. But it's not true. We're part of a culture that cares about the arts, and we would be nowhere without that support. Grants make career growth possible. So "should we be investing in Canadian television?" Absolutely. It wouldn't exist without that support. And we have to not only invest in television funding, but also in grass-roots artist support. That's the research and development branch of the business.
Mark Ellis: And there's a message buried in FLASHPOINT that I think is very Canadian: let's keep the peace. We're comfortable with that as Canadians. We're a nation of peacekeepers. Canada is a model for nonfatal outcomes. The show is about trying to understand what's going on, and using confrontation only as a last resort.
Stephanie Morgenstern: The show conspicuously takes place in Toronto, though we tend not to refer to it by name, any more than real Torontonians do on an average day. We use Toronto locations and landmarks and street names, and the mailboxes are red. The uniforms have little Canadian flags on the shoulders. Most of us Canadian actors who get cast in American shows that shoot up here have had to train ourselves to say "praw-cess" instead of "pro-cess", or "saw-ree" instead of "so-ree." Well, we had a Canadian actress on Flashpoint who'd worked a great deal in LA, and I noticed that by habit, she was doing the American version of "sorry." It was a real pleasure to whisper to the script assistant to let her know her, "It's OK to say "So-ree."
Mark Ellis: And we had a scene where one character sends another out to Timmy's for a double-double.
[Note: It was interesting to hear Stephanie and Mark talk about how proud they were about the Canadiana that they were able to put in the show, while from Christina Davis's point of view, it was good that they "didn't make a meal of it." It makes sense, though: the Canadian audience doesn't need maple syrup to know a show is in Canada, while the Americans aren't going to notice the references to Yonge Street and Tim Horton's. So long as you don't put up too many portraits of the Queen, all the local color just reads to Americans as flavor.]
Q. As you took the project from concept to MOW, to pilot, to series, who was guiding you?
Mark Ellis: Tassie Cameron came aboard during the transition from pilot to series. She has a tremendous experience in Canadian TV. She's a fantastic human being and understood the show. The way the show is structured, there's no single showrunner as the voice of the show. That's a bit rocky when there is conflict. But it means we've been able to retain a lot of say in the process. We get the final rewrite on every episode.
Christina Davis: CBS was a little more nervous launching the show not knowing who the showrunner was and their experience. Bill Mustos and Anne Marie La Traverse are such creatives, but on the American iside it all goes back to the idea and the writer. And an idea is an idea, but who's going to execute it, and create a template for the life of the series, which hopefully is 150 episodes. But with Tassie Cameron coming in, we had a comfort level. Those 13 episodes gave us a great opportunity to understand you guys [Stephanie and Mark] better, how you stepped up as a producers. Now she's on to other projects, we'll let you figure out how to work it out.
Q. You started as actors. What made you decide to write?
Mark Ellis: It was never a decision to start writing as such. We came across a true story that Stephanie and I wanted to turn into a short film — it wasn't "I want to be a writer," but "I have a story I'm burning to tell." This was "Remembrance," which is in development as a feature.
Q. What lessons have you learned about the craft of making TV from your experience working with an American network? Or to put it another way, what do you feel Canadians can learn from the American system, to the extent you’ve been exposed to it.
Mark Ellis: We're learning as we go along, to keep re-rooting yourself in the vision of the show. To stay true to your voice. Personalities and execs will change, but the creative is the constant in the show.
Of course it’s your job to be open to notes and direction and you must consider every scrap of wisdom. And the first time you're on a call with CBS, you think, "I'm on a call with CBS!" It takes a while to get over that.
Stephanie Morgenstern: They bring a vast amount of experience and context to the notes and ideas that they offer. Over time, though, you also develop a sense of them as human beings, and you learn to trust your own judgment in that mix, to get past the surface, and find the essence of what they're saying... and of course to find an organic balance with the notes of the other network.
Mark Ellis: The collaborative process is ingrained. We were never the kinds of writers who never wanted anything changed. We've workshopped plays. And, like theatre, TV is extraordinarily collaborative. So a good position to take is to be humble and yet to stay true to a vision. We're not confrontational. I know there are US showrunners who are confrontational, who will kick chairs... and maybe we’ll get to that... (They laugh.)