Interview: The Creators of ‘Flashpoint’

FlashpointWhether you watch it or not (or have even heard of it), Flashpoint is one of the best dramas (cop or otherwise) on television right now. Action, drama, a hint of comedy, great writing, it’s got it all, and it shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. The show features an amazing cast of TV hard hitters including Amy Jo Johnson, Enrico Colantoni and Hugh Dillon. Now in its third season on CBS (or second if you go by the CTV numbers), this Canadian import has proven to be a huge hit for both networks. Now having been picked up for two more seasons, one of which that has already completed production, it looks like a bright future is ahead for the program. I had the chance to sit down with the shows creators Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern to discuss what’s in store for the future.

FSR: So first up, for any of our readers who haven’t seen the show, can you quickly describe, what exactly is Flashpoint?

Stephanie Morgenstern: Flashpoint is a very new way of approaching a SWAT show. It’s sort of them emotionally sensitive SWAT team that goes on a different case every week and shows a complex human portrait of what happens on both sides of the uniform. So we try and dig deep into that emotional stories, high risk stories and stuff that kind of shows what it’s like to be a member of a team of this kind and also if you were to come across them if you happen to be on the wrong side of the law.

Mark Ellis: Yeah, we’re a procedural with heart [laughs]

Stephanie: [laughs]

FSR: The show is now, depending on which numbers you go by, on CBS it’s on its third season, you’re in your third year yes?

Mark: That’s right; yeah we just finished our third year of filming.

OK, so one thing I have noticed is that the show really hasn’t slowed down at all, it’s really managed to keep its pace up so, how did you avoid the third year slump? How do you keep it fresh?

Mark: Well I think you got to keep looking at what you do and reinventing yourself along the way. In the first season our show, they usually started out with a guest star, we saw all their back story, we saw a bad day start to unfold so that by the team came onto the scene to help them out, you kind of knew who that guest person was, why they were doing something, and then it was up to the team to try and get them to stop doing it. After about eighteen episodes we kind of decided that, that was a difficult format to sustain so we thought “OK why don’t we keep the same heart but we make it a little bit more procedural. We start with the team, hit the ground running with them and they go on a hot call, they don’t know who it is they’re trying to save or what it is they’re trying to do, or why they’re trying to do it and we go on that ride from the point of view of our hero cast.” And I think that really opened up a lot of story possibilities for us. And it also let us explore our main cast of characters a little bit more as well.

Stephanie: I think we throw the team into the deep end and the audience is there with them. And they have to learn on the fly with a ticking clock over their shoulder what exactly is going on, rather than earlier in the season we sort of told a little bit too much up front. So I think this way it’s driven by the same kind of adrenaline and momentum but there’s a little more mystery integrated.

Mark: And we have this a lot with all of our stories where, you know every story has to have a visceral quality to it. We don’t want the audience to have to stop and ever think too much. So we had this saying when we first started up the show and pitching it and all that stuff is “we want people to settle down to watching an evening of Flashpoint and know they are going to be sitting on the edge of their seat with a box of Kleenex handy.”

So in the start of the second half of season 2, you start off by killing one of the team members, you kill Lou. One, why did you decide to do that and two, how did you decide Lou was going to be the one to go?

Mark: [laughs] Um, well it wasn’t an easy decision; it was a really difficult decision. We spent a lot of time in the show talking about, how every call is high risk, how the team faces life and death everyday and that their own lives can hang in the balance, and it was so important that we actually show that we’re not just talking and that stuff can happen. To be honest, killing one of your own team members is like cutting of your own arm. It’s a very difficult thing to write and what we found interesting in particular about it, Lou as his character and the relationship that ripples underneath the surface between Spike and Lou and we felt that Lou was always a great straight man to Spike’s funny man and that their obviously buddies, they hang around together. They’re two younger guys, they’re single, they don’t have the same family issues that our other team members have. And we wanted to explore what that death felt like to a character that was in out show. We’ve never gone to the homes of our characters too often, so we really couldn’t explore what it was like for Lou’s mom or his dad, but we could explore what it was like for his best friend. So I guess that’s one of the reasons Lou drew the short straw and Mark Taylor accepted that episode with great grace and I just though he brought in a tremendous performance. Just a beautiful performance, both he and Sergio Di Zio who plays Spike were outstanding I thought.

And what were you looking for in his replacement?

Mark: We’re always looking for sources of tension between the team as much as we want them to work together when they’re on a case. We like when there’s division of opinion and sometimes it’s good to have that new voice that comes from a different background, a different perspective and unsettled but adds something to the team. When we introduced Leah, you know we had a team that was reeling from the death of Lou, but she came and she showed that she belonged by unpacking that little box with the wrist bands and with every new actor you bring to a series you need to grow with them and discover who they are and then those characters grow and the series grows.

Stephanie: I think one of the things we were able to show by bring the new comer in, Leah is that it’s actually a lot harder than you might think to find exactly the right fit for a team that, the team members choose each other, they are not assigned a new team member. It’s very much like a family and finding a perfect fit is very, very difficult and any kind of natural friction between people because of the way they see the world or their different work habits, it’s all going to be brought out as soon as you bring in a newcomer so we used her character in a way to explore these tensions.



Going along the new character for a moment, one of the things from the first season that a lot of people likes was the underling story line about Jules being the only female team member and by bringing on this new character you take away that dynamic now, is that something you were thinking about, that you were ending the “Jules is the only female” story line of the show?

Mark: Well I think we kind of did that by bringing in Donna in the second season who didn’t work concurrently with Jules but she was there, by replacing her for six episodes we showed that Jules is not unique, that there are woman that work out there and thought it might be interesting to explore what the dynamic might be between two female members on a team and I also feel we’ve explored the idea of a female member on a SWAT team so in a way it was nice to pull away from that a little bit. Although it’s funny, I find now that we’re breaking some of our ideas for our fourth season where, we’re starting to go back a little bit, to what the effects of bring a female SWAT member can be on a women whose mind may be turning to family as well. So as much as Jules career starts to build and she start to become really successful at her job, she also looks at what it costs her at the same time. Which I think is a universal problem that people face.

Stephanie: Yeah.

One of the great things about the show is that its got something for everyone. It keeps a lot of action fans happy, it keeps a lot of drama fans happy, its got a hint of comedy, how do you keep it from going too far into one direction?

Mark: You want to have that mix as a writer you want to feel that it’s mixed up as well. It’s interesting writing action sequences for this show because it’s a tactical show, you become very dependent on what your location is going to be. In your mind you’ll design an episode that is going to be set in a warehouse and you can’t get a warehouse but you can get a glass factory and so you’re prepping an episode seven day before shooting and you have this chance to work with the director and actually on the fly start to write more exciting action sequences. So, we know that every episode has to have action in it because we’re a show about a SWAT team but we also start breaking every episode knowing that there has to be at the heart of it, emotional character driven story so, we know that we’re always going to have those two elements, and you know what fun is drama without a ripple of humor running underneath it, and in a way the reality of a cops job is that humor is there all the time and we probably don’t dip into the well enough because the reality is to uncomfortable for some people. And their humor can be very dark, but that’s how you cope with the job. But I just think that a runner that tickles your funny bone isn’t that much fun.

What’s your process for writing the one off characters of the individual episodes?

Stephanie: It’s funny, there’s a different starting point for every episode. Sometimes we start with the location like Maple Leaf Gardens, and because that was such a potent space to work from, and we started from there, what would bring a person to want to protect sort of a sacred shrine like that and eventually we wanted to give him the tools to be a tactical challenge to the team, so the idea he was ex-military became a part of it so it just snowballed from there.

Mark: It’s sort of ripped from the headlines, you know you want to set something in that arena, and then we had been reading about people that were serving in the military and coming back who were perhaps a bit destabilized, and were venting their negative experience into criminal areas. So that was a bit of a starting point for us and it’s funny, that “Behind The Blue Line” episode, when Stephanie mentions what a rich area that was, you kind of have to be from Toronto to get that because the Toronto Maple Leafs played there for many, many, many years and Toronto I think is the most hockey avid city going, games sell out and its been 50 years since we won a Stanley Cup. *laughs* So we knew that someone attaching an emotional attachment to that arena was going to resonate with our viewers [In Canada where the show is produced]. And that episode was a bit of a love letter for Toronto.

That is actually something I do want to bring up, a lot of show shoot in Toronto and will have the characters in Chicago or NYPD uniforms, this show clearly acknowledges it’s in Toronto and it is a Canadian show that happens to air in the US and do you feel you have pioneered a new setting to set cop shows and other drama in? Because we are starting to see a lot more Canadian imports on US television like Rookie Blue and The Bridge.

Mark: Well I think Toronto is a big city and we often label ourselves here as being a “world class city” and I don’t think New York or Chicago or LA go around labeling themselves as a “world class city” but it’s something we Canadians feel like we need to do. But I think Toronto is a great looking, big, diverse city and its, you know why not film it there. It’s interesting because, Bill Mustos and Anne Marie La Traverse, the executive producers of Flashpoint, when they went down to pitch the show at CBS with the pilot in hand; CBS asked the question “does it have to be set in Toronto?” And I think it was Bill who went “yeah it does” and they bought into it right away. There’s no reason not to film there. Creatively I think, out inspiration for the show came from the Toronto Emergency Task Force (ETF), we don’t base our show on them but we found the way that SWAT team operates is different from the way a lot of other SWAT teams operate. And we wanted to be true to the roots of where the inspiration for the show came from.

Do you do a lot of research with the ETF? Do you have them on set? Do you consult with them to make sure you’re getting it right?

Mark: Well, anytime you bring a gun on set that has moving parts you have to have the ETF on set.

Stephanie: So they’re with us a lot. *laughs*

Mark: They hang out, but that being said, they don’t officially consult for us but we have worked with them in the past, in one case in particular, there’s a wonderful officer named Jim Bremner who went through some very difficult times as a police officer and went through post traumatic stress disorder, and managed to come out the other side of it and really share his experience with us in a way that was amazingly honest. And he’s actually writing a book which is meant to kind of educate people about what is was like to be an officer, which we are whole heartily supporting right now, but he has been really instrumental to us and discovering some of his stories like “Haunting The Barn” which is about Ed’s mentor, who returns one day to stage his own suicide because he can’t stand the ghosts in his head any longer.

And can I tell you that “Haunting The Barn” is my favorite episode followed closely by “Behind The Blue Line.”

Mark: O, thanks *laughs*

Stephanie: Thanks *laughs*

Mark: That episode to us is kind of the passion play for the whole series. It’s what the whole series is about. In “Haunting The Barn” when Ed takes off his uniform and says “I see things too, I see a kid run under my scope” you know we hope, of course not everyone has seen every episode, that speech that Ed says there lives in his character throughout the whole series and will keep resurfacing as we keep moving forward.



Something I do want to address is, the show has so much vibrant talent in it, Amy Jo Johnson, Hugh Dillon, Enrico Colantoni, how did you go about casting the show originally and finding that mix of known actors at the same time finding unknown actors?

Mark: Well, we developed the script for Flashpoint as a two hour movie of the week originally on the Canadian network CTV. And then that got turned into a pilot order ultimately, and we worked closely with Marie La Traverse and I think most of those casting strokes of genius came from her. We had just seen a show called Durham County which I believe airs on ION in the states and is a TMN (The Movie Network) show in Canada. Which is a terrific limited run drama and Hugh Dillon played this bruiting, intense cop at the center of that series and it’s just a dynamite performance. And I knew him from a movie called Hard Core Logo, a Canadian film which Hugh essentially plays a version of himself, I don’t know if you know this but Hugh is a punk rocker with a very popular band here called The Headstones. He had quite a reputation for living hard. So seeing him in this show Durham County was kind of a revelation because he didn’t have a Mohawk anymore, he looked like Bruce Willis he became an actor and we thought, well he’s this really great actor that is on the verge of becoming probably quite big, but we worried we had written Ed as being a charmer and guy with an easy going sense of humor…

Stephanie: He definitely had that streak of mischief in him.

Mark: That wasn’t really something you get to see in Durham County but, Anne brought this interview that Hugh did on this show called The Hour which is an in depth interview with George Stroumboulopoulos which is in Canada, and here’s this guy that is humble and charming and funny and has a great smile and we just thought “he’s it.” And we really wrote our perception of the character completely to conform to who he is, and we enjoy a really close relationship with him and talk to him almost daily through production, great collaboration.

Stephanie: And Enrico Colantoni was also an Anne Marie La Traverse brainwave. There’s just a beautiful, compassionate, intelligent quality that he has. A guy that doesn’t take himself too seriously but is, he is someone you would want to see come to your rescue if you were in trouble.

Mark: Yeah, and he’s a wonderful actor to write for and we feel very lucky to get him. You know we knew him as Papa Mars and Just Shoot Me guy, and all those projects he’s quite famous for. And he’s the kind of actor where everyone goes “really, he’s Canadian?” We thought, maybe we can see if we can get him and we were lucky because Enrico has a brother that works on the Toronto Police Force for many, many years and I think he showed the script for the pilot to his brother and his brother said “yeah, this is good, I get this. This is something you should think about doing.” And we’re glad to have him, but it’s a big cast and it’s challenging, when you’re a procedural show you don’t get to tell character’s stories every episode then you have to throw out those character’s stories sparingly, we have a vas of both Hugh and Enrico, and also Amy Jo [Johnson], and David Paetkau

Stephanie: Sergio

Mark: Sergio has really been moving forward in season three he takes up even more and more screen time. A great all around actor who comes from the theater.

Stephanie: And Michael Cram as well rounds out the team because we feel very lucky to have this massive amount of Canadian talent pool that has not been over exploited yet and that these are unfamiliar faces perhaps to American audiences who don’t have any preconceptions about the people that they are meeting and we get to start from scratch with them.

I did notice some people that I have turned onto Flashpoint and the two faces that immediately pop to them are Enrico and Amy Jo because a lot of the people I’ve turn onto the show are 20 now which means they were 5 or 6 when Power Rangers was still running on television. And Enrico a lot of people still know thanks to Just Shoot Me reruns.

Mark: Enrico is always happy to do his Galaxy Quest character any time you ask.

FSR: Are you surprised at the reception the show has received?

Mark: Of course, yah know, we’re very surprised, I mean we’re surprised its done well in the states, we’re surprised its done so well in here in Canada as well. We traditionally her in Canada have a stable diet of US television shows, and Canadian dramas have historically been harder to get Canadian’s to watch. The fact that Canadian’s watch their own shows as much now is tremendous. I mean, being on CBS is the icing on the cake for us and it’s amazing to think that something you and a bunch of writers are thinking up, and a team that work real hard to make these little episodes happen every week are being watched by millions of people and I think the biggest thing that it’s done for us is just that there’s been a lot of cops watching the show. I think what personally makes us feel proud isn’t so much our demographic numbers or anything, but it’s when we get a letter from an officer that says you get this right in a way that I don’t see has gotten right with a lot of other shows.

My last question is, In “Behind The Blue Line” we see Sam really get hit by the effects of a bad call, so what can we look forward to in the know wrapped third season and the upcoming fourth season?

Mark: Well, in that episode, Sam goes through what I think every person on that team has gone through at one point or another. Where you let someone get really, really close to you and you identify with them and you lose objectivity and I think that it doesn’t matter how good an officer you are or how much insight you have into human psychology. It’s impossible to put your own humanity aside and the cliffhanger isn’t, is Sam going to leave the team? We sort of wanted to restate the theme of the series in that episode. The human cost of heroism, and show it reflected with the guy who was newest to the party, and he comes full circle and has truly now learned what it means to take on that job. Looking forward to the third season, the first episode we shot of season 3 airs this Friday, it’s an episode called “Unconditional Love.” And we set up a story line in that episode that will ripple throughout the next 13 episodes. And it’s a story line that concerns Ed and a new arrival in his own house hold. I think we’ve spent a lot of time talking about Parker’s past and his son Dean, and that character we’ll see in season 3. And Parker get’s to know his son and he hope that’s the beginning of an ongoing story as we move forward to the fourth season as well.

Stephanie: We look through the third season through the prism of family. So a lot of profound questions are being addressed through our team about belonging, about the bonds that bind them closely to their own blood or their other commitments. They’re going to be going up against a pretty frightening team of white supremacists. They’re going to be dealing with some challenges that they never faced before. We get to learn about Ed’s troubled younger brother who’s also a cop. And that’s an extended story that we really, really enjoyed working on.

Mark: We’ll see more of Jules and Sam. And I know it’s probably ways down the road but we love the finale for season 3 as well. It stars Victor Garber and it’s sweet.

You just keep finding so many great actors that the nerd community just loves. Like Victor Garber from Alias, love that guy.

Stephanie: [laughs]

Mark: Yeah, and he’s Canadian.

Mark: The only non Canadian actor that has ever been on Flashpoint is Amy Jo and she’s actually in the process of getting her citizenship. She was living in Montreal when we cast her so it’s a point of pride that we bring so many Canadian actors back up from Hollywood to guest star on Flashpoint.

And that will do it. Thank you both very much for your time.

Flashpoint airs Fridays at 9pm on CBS. If you want to check out some older episodes of the series you can watch the most recent on CBS.com. Or pick up seasons 1 and 2 on DVD at your local retailer, Amazon.com, or rent them on Netflix. You can also check out an audio version of this interview on Fat Guys At The Movies where you can also find more of my TV reviews.

From a young age, TV guru Merrill Barr has been obsessed with the small screen. And one day he decided to put that obsession to good use.

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