EP Chappelle ensures that ‘Chicago Fire’ keeps it real

If you happened to see an overturned car perched on an embankment at Wacker and Madison, threatening to lay waste to Lower Wacker, you have Joe Chappelle to thank.

The longtime Evanstonian is the executive producer/director of “Chicago Fire,” Dick Wolf’s new drama that’s scheduled to premiere Friday, Oct. 12.  Only a local, of course, would understand the enormous challenge of filming house fires in Chicago’s 100-degree summer weather.

“Our actors were in full-turnout gear running around,” says Chappelle. “It was brutally hot. I’m really surprised no one passed out.”

This is the first time in 15 years that Chappelle hasn’t had to commute to another city for work. Chappelle has an impeccable track record as executive producer/director on the cult favorites “The Wire” (HBO) and “Fringe” (Fox) and produced and directed many “CSI:Miami” episodes.

If picked up, series will film four months next year

EP Joe Chappelle on locationThe pilot was filmed in March. Local crews got back to work in July, with locations manager Bob Hudgins pointing them everywhere from Logan Square to South Englewood. The series is based out of an operating firehouse in Blue Island, with offices and stages at Cinespace Studios.

Chicago Fire has an order for 13 episodes for what Wolf has described as “’ER’ at the firehouse.” Shooting will continue through early December. If the series is picked up, Chappelle will film the back nine episodes January through May.

He knows that authenticity is the name of the game, within limits. “We’re not forcing any of our actors to do a Chicago accent,” says Chappelle. Writing and post-production is being done in Los Angeles, although “we’re casting as many locals as we can,” says Chappelle. “Local firefighters, local police. We’re hoping to help give them plenty of overtime.” Paskal Rudnicke Casting has overseen the process.

“We want to get the details right,” says Chappelle. “If there’s a scene where someone comes in with grocery bags, we try to get Dominick’s.”

Ketchup has not been officially banned from the set, although Chappelle notes, “We haven’t had any hot dog scenes yet.”

NU grad Chappelle calls Evanston home

Chappelle grew up in North New Jersey and earned his master of fine arts at Northwestern in 1985.  After graduating, he got a job in advertising spending four years at BBDO as an AV coordinator and assistant producer. It wasn’t bad training for a career in TV, he says.

“It teaches you how to work with clients,” says Chappelle. “There’s the studio and the network, you have to work and communicate with them. And every commercial is a different type.  Working there basically helped me hone my craft.” 

‘Chicago Fire’ stars Jesse Spencer and Taylor Kinney“Chicago Fire” won’t be a fire-of-the-week series. “Even though we have spectacle, fires and accidents, real firemen don’t always go out in fires,” says Chappelle. “They do other things. The core is emotional connections through other people.”

The emphasis will be on developing the backgrounds of the 10 main characters, including “House’s” Jesse Spencer and “Sex and the City’s” David Eigenberg, who graduated from Naperville Central.

Chappelle wouldn’t comment on the beefcake factor, except to say, “We happen to have a very attractive cast.” One notable actor: Taylor Kinney, who is generating publicity for the show by dating one Lady Gaga. They met a year ago during the filming of her video for “You and I.”

It all serves to put Chicago in the spotlight. “I wanted the opportunity to show another great city,” Dick Wolf said at the recent TV Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills.

“Chicago has been fabulous,” Wolf said. “This show would be impossible to produce the way it’s being produced without the cooperation of both the city and the Fire Department.”

Paige Wiser is a freelance writer and reviews movies as half of “Paige & Plummer” on “Windy City Live.” You can reach her at paigewiser@me.com.