On the Set of Rescue Me

Posted on 02. May, 2009 by in Film/TV

words by Devoe Yates, photos by Chris Felber 

On a dingy small street in the Sunnyside area of Brooklyn, the cast and crew of Rescue Me are finishing up their last day of filming for the fifth season of their critically acclaimed series. Unlike some other film and TV sets, there is an air of ease and comfort, perhaps because the season’s almost done, but most likely because it seems that there is a close and unpretentious bond between everyone here, like a team of old high school friends doing what they’ve been doing, and doing it well, for many years.      When Rescue Me premiered on the FX channel in July of 2004, it was something wholly new and unexpected, and a bit of a revelation for TV. What began as the tale of Leary’s Tommy Gavin and his fire crew dealing with the aftermath of 9/11 has gone on to follow Tommy’s trials and tribulations with his ex-wife, alcoholism, the loss of his child, the loss of good friends, burning buildings, and visitations from the ghosts of his best friend and the people he wasn’t able to save over the years. While the edgy show focuses mainly on Tommy, it’s also an ensemble show, with the tales of his closest friends and family woven through in twisting rollercoaster type plotlines. Many characters have come and gone, some have stayed, but to go any further would be on par with trying to explain all the story arcs in The Sopranos, with which Rescue Me could be closely compared with in terms of its brilliant storytelling that is both controversial and brutal in its realism.  

Denis Leary & John ScurtI take a break

Over the past four seasons, Rescue Me has continued to cross the boundaries of taste and taboo subject matter, eliciting tears, laughter, shock, and anger from its audience all in a single episode. It is this uncanny ability to move between different types of cathartic, emotional moments that the puppet masters behind the show, Peter Tolan and Denis Leary, are known for - first with The Job and now with Rescue Me

Down a nearby sidewalk, the co-writer, director, and executive producer of the series, Peter Tolan, strolls with his head bowed in thought and his hands sunk in his pockets. As he is stopped and introduced to me, he immediately cracks the question, what does the h in h magazine stand for? Heroin? Denis and I think it’s a heroin magazine.” He brambles on with  wicked, rapid-fire dry humor that makes it easy to understand how Rescue Me maintains its constant and clever wit.

Andrea Roth and Peter Tolan discuss a scene.

While the crew preps the lights for an exterior night car scene, Peter and I journey into the warmth of a nearby house that they’ve just finished shooting in, plodding over cords and cables and taking seat on a worn couch. With the new season about to begin it’s reign on TV, I ask Peter which of the new episodes he’s had the most fun directing, and without skipping a beat, he replies, “There’s an episode where Tommy’s daughter Katie is making an attempt to escape her parents. So, without Tommy knowing, his ex-wife Janet sends her off to a private school in Connecticut; Katie’s just had enough of this fucking family. So Tommy finds out and he and Janet go up to visit for a weekend, and the whole idea of it is that Janet is saying, ‘We owe it to her to go up there and behave, and not make a scene,’ and of course it turns out that Janet’s the one to fuck it up. She gets drunk because she’s nervous and completely fucks it up. But what’s great about the episode is that it’s really funny because you have the Gavins staying at this bed and breakfast with all these assholes and they end up fucking against a door and breaking the door down, landing out in the hallway and fucking. It’s craziness. But ultimately, it’s really about Katie getting sucked in by her parents, thinking that maybe there’s a chance that she could have a normal thing and it just blows up completely and she’s crushed. It’s really about her accepting this reality and realizing it’s never going to change. It’s really sad…but hilarious at the same time (laughs). I enjoyed that.”  

On the flipside, the show also has its unhappy moments for Peter, “It’s not so much the fires, but I don’t like working with smoke, that I hate, I fucking hate the smoke. I will be so glad when this fucking show is over and I don’t have to breathe the smoke, let alone the second hand smoke from the fucking actors (laughs). The smoke that we use, I’m still completely unconvinced that it’s not some fucking cancerous thing and we’re all going to go down. After six years of shooting the series I asked one of the crew guys about the smoke the other day, ‘This is safe right?’ And he goes, ‘I’ll check.’ What? Fuck you! Pissed me off (laughs).”

The time has come for Peter to head outside into the cold and help prep the upcoming scene. I head up the street and around a whistling windy corner where a honeywagon stands, and inside the door labeled “Janet” is Andrea Roth who plays Tommy Gavin’s ex-wife and on-again off-again love interest. Having just finished her last scene, she’s preparing to head back to L.A., her work on this season complete. 

In the flesh, she’s even more beautiful than she is on screen, and quite possibly the nicest and friendliest creature I’ve met in quite some time. I ask her about a rumor I’ve heard, one concerning a new love interest for Janet. “I do have a new relationship, or I did early on, with a character played by Michael J. Fox. Michael’s a very extraordinary soul, he’s such an inspiration because of all that he’s gone through with Parkinson’s disease, he loves and embraces and grabs on to life. Jumps into it. As he did in one scene, he actually adlibbed this part where he was in a wheelchair - his character’s supposed to be paralyzed, which was also a feat for him because of the shakes he has from Parkinson’s - and he hurled himself out of the wheelchair and was crawling on the ground on all fours, and he made the funniest jokes to where I was off camera pissing myself laughing.” As it has in the past, it would appear that Rescue Me is continuing to push the boundaries of its medium. 

As for other upcoming moments of brilliance, Janet and her opponent in the battle for Tommy’s heart and penis, Sheila, finally have the showdown that we’ve been waiting four seasons for. As it goes, both Janet and Sheila end up at the firehouse at the same time, and when the boys are called out on a fire call, the women are left alone to their own devices. And while it may not rival the Daryl Hannah and Uma Thurman fight scene from Kill Bill, there will definitely be some savagery. “Finally all the tension comes to a head with the two women, it’s pretty spectacular, there’s some big fireworks. We have animal angry women shit (laughs).”

With that, it’s time to let Andrea pack up her belongings, and I enter out into the frigid sunset outside. As luck would have it, Daniel Sunjata happens to be on set, stopping by to say hello though he has no scenes today. On the show he plays the ladies’ favorite firefighter, Franco, and when we left him at the end of season four, his girlfriend had left him and his daughter had been taken from him. He is a jovial and literate man, and I ask him about this season and how much of it will be dealing with the continuing offshoots of 9/11. Daniel offers, “For one thing, you’re going to see some of it through Sean Garrity, Steven Pasquale’s character – he’s going to be a first responder dealing with some health issues, let’s just say – without giving away too much. I have to say, Peter and Denis are so genius in the way that they address these very, very serious topics. They do so in a way that you don’t know if you’re going to laugh during one scene or cry. Sometimes, I think that’s the only way to address such serious topics and issues, otherwise it could just be too much to deal with.” 

“As for how the 9/11 storyline applies to my character, a French journalist comes to the firehouse to interview all of us about our experiences and our respective takes on 9/11. Franco tells her, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that 9/11 was an inside job perpetrated by criminal elements within our own government. If you were to Google search the facts that Franco lays out, they happen to be historical facts and they raise some very disturbing questions about what we were told versus what actually happened. What are the implications? What has 9/11 been used to justify? I subscribe to this same view and there’s a lot of people who do and they’re not just celebrities - it’s structural engineers, people from inside the intelligence community, the FBI, the CIA – we need a new, independent investigation into 9/11. Until we have that, we’re not going to know the truth.” And with this, night falls, and I must bid adieu to Daniel. 

Down the street, the crew has finished setting up lights and are fine tuning technicalities. A car sits with stand-ins filling in for Tommy Gavin and Lou, Gavin’s best friend and the lovable bulldog of the firehouse. John Scurti, an old acting chum of Leary’s from Who’s the Man? and The Ref is the man who fills the shoes of Lou, and he stands outside the car going over his script and having a smoke. Oddly, his trademark mustache seems to be missing. I ask him where it went. He chuckles, “It’s kind of a lot of work to keep it up. I decided it was such a long season with 22 episodes rather than 13, and I really didn’t want to deal with it. So, I put the word out that I didn’t want to wear the moustache anymore and it became something that we had to discuss with the powers that be. Then I was told, ‘Grow it, show up with it and we’re going to work the removal of it into the story,’ which they did and I think in a really, really funny way.” I ask John for the skinny on this story point. “I do it for a woman. I do it for a woman who doesn’t like facial hair (laughs).” 

Other than mustaches, this season brought its own challenges to Scurti in the form of some very dramatic scenes. “One of my ex-loves comes back in a big way. She’s writing a book on 9/11 and to some degree it stirs up a lot of feelings on 9/11 that had been kind of dormant until then and it kind of gets away from him one night at dinner with her. When I first read the scene, I thought to myself, ‘Wow!’ — It was one of those red flag scenes where you’re being asked to basically have a complete breakdown. That’s a day’s work for an actor and you immediately start thinking about how you’re going to get there. On the first take, I didn’t get there. But on the second take, I think we nailed it. Peter asked me how I did it, and it was hard, I’m telling you.”

Further exploring the moment at hand, I ask Scurti how he got to that place as an actor. “It’s kind of hard to describe, either you’re going to do it or you’re not, and hopefully you have enough control over your craft to be able to get there.” Scurti sighs and lets forth, “But as we were getting ready to shoot the scene, I started thinking about the mortgage I had then. I mean, it’s true. That’s how I got there (laughs).” 

And with this secret revealed, Scurti is off to finish prepping his upcoming car scene. Not too far away, near a tent of video equipment, Denis Leary is puffing a cigarette and conferring with Peter as to what needs to happen in the upcoming scene in which Tommy and Lou attempt to kidnap Tommy’s daughter from Janet’s house. Peter points at me and sends Denis over, presumably to do his time with “Heroin” magazine. He approaches, tall and slender and a little larger than life. His eyes measure me, and immediately a snake of intimidation wriggles down my spine. He finds my name interesting, and is convinced it’s French and Irish. I seem to get points for having a good name and being part Irish, so I light up a smoke to further my good standing with the man.

Since his cousin became a firefighter long ago, Leary has been hanging with fire crews, but it was his buddy Terry Quinn (who is now a technical consultant on the show) that introduced him to the real firefighters that would become the basis for the characters of Rescue Me. Leary explains, “A lot of the storylines come from those guys. My character is a combination of two guys who are still working. A lot of the general fire stories come from real firefighters that we hire to play the firefighters on the show, the guys who do the smaller parts in the firehouse and drive the engines, these are all guys that are extended friends and those guys keep us up to date on crazy stories as they come in.” 

Being so close to so many firefighters, Denis lost a lot of friends on 9/11. I ask him about that day. “I was out on the West Side Highway that morning. I was on a late call for The Job and a lot of the guys on the show were playing hockey. So I was there in Chelsea Piers when the buildings got hit. Right away, the West Side Highway was closed down for the fire trucks, they’d come down from both sides. So, we got stuck in the island in the middle, and we were out there for awhile. Then they turned the rink into a temporary morgue. They brought up some of the first bodies and they had to put them there on the ice. As it became more organized, they started lining up ambulances and the other trucks to carry people out there, but it was a long day.” In the wake of that day, Rescue Me was created, confronting the aftermath of 9/11 and how New York firefighters were coping. 

I ask Denis if he’s gotten feedback from actual firefighters about the show, and whether or not it might’ve been therapeutic at all. “I think in the beginning, it was troublesome for some of the older guys because they never wanted the curtain pulled back. It was even intense for some of the younger guys, particularly because we went out of our way to make the fire scenes realistic, as opposed to the way they’re portrayed most of the time, which is very well-lit. We try to make it as murky and scary and dark as they usually are, with Terry’s help. I just did a book tour last fall, and every city I went to, firefighters would come and say, ‘This is our truck, we watch the show,’ and ‘On Tuesday nights, we all get together,’ and ‘Our truck is like your truck. We got the same call you guys had.’ So, I think they kind of identified with it. It’s good to know that it resonates with them.”

Leary first began writing a long time ago in college, and went on to help pen some movies, but it was working with Peter Tolan on The Job that really taught him how to write for TV. Here he explains his take on their partnership. “It just happens organically. Writing is my favorite part. We only write two episodes ahead. We never get beyond that. It keeps us scared, fresh, nervous, on our feet. I don’t find acting that easy, especially with drama. I’ve learned how to do it in certain ways, not the easiest way. But when you’ve got actors that are as good as the ones we have, it just makes it that much easier because they can make you comfortable in front of the camera, to the point where you’re so relaxed as the character you do shit that’s just coming naturally. And with such good actors, good writing can become magnificent in their hands. The actors constantly do stuff that makes us go, ‘We’ve got to extend this story arc. This is just unbelievable.’ And so it is that Rescue Me is a constant birthing process, a living thing that is constantly growing and mutating as it must. It truly does seem to have a life of its own, constantly shining light on the human condition, however ugly, upsetting, enlightening, or amusing it can sometimes be.” 

At this point, an Assistant Director approaches, and it’s time for Denis to film his scene. Denis lights up another cigarette and journeys off to perform the final scene of the night, the car scene with his partner in crime, Scurti. Indeed there is some improv, which oddly enough involves a reference to The Transporter and Jason…Stagram..Stayfoam…Lou can’t seem to remember.

A crisp wind kicks through the neighborhood and I journey back to my own corner of New York, passing several fans on the sidewalk, anxious to have Leary sign a copy of his book, “Why We Suck”.  Though I’ve been told some of what will unfold this season, and it would seem that many presents have been peeked in already, I have to say I’m still ready to sit down with my own crew come Tuesday, April 7, and see where the ride takes us. 

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