All kinds of things happen at the Television Critics Association semi-annual press tour. However, RESCUE ME’s Peter Tolan, who co-created and executive produces the series with its star Denis Leary, did something on the panel for the show’s final season that even the oldest TCA hands said had never occurred before. RESCUE ME, for its seven seasons on FX, has dealt with the aftermath of 9/11 and its effect on the surviving firefighters of a NYFD unit, particularly Leary’s character Tommy Gavin.

At the panel, Tolan hints at what may or may not happen in the RESCUE ME series finale, which airs Wednesday, September 7, almost on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11. He says he and Leary have known what the series finale would be in the fifth or sixth season. “There were some aborted attempts. Denis had talked about it at one point. We always had rather grim prognostications for Tommy Gavin’s end. One was that he would actually, in the middle of a fire, just sit down in the middle of a burning room in a chair, and that would be the end of the series, the idea that it would either be a suicide or a heroic gesture, that his family would be taken care of after his death, since he couldn’t take care of them in life and that sort of thing. I think we may have run that one by [FX network president] John Landgraf and he was like, ‘Maybe not.’”

Other equally downbeat scenarios were envisioned, but Tolan says, “Ultimately, we came to realize that the idea of the show was, will a man who has actually survived this great tragedy survive it or not? And I think in the face of seven seasons of television, you don’t want to say ‘No’ to that question. You don’t want to bring people along on a journey that long and then say, ‘No, he’s not going to survive.’ It’s just a very negative message. So we decided to, at that point, go with something a little more hopeful.”

The events of 9/11 constitute a tragedy that puts many other things into perspective. Still, there are other things that are just plain sad. For instance, Tolan says sympathetically to the assembled TV journalists, “You all have had to watch everything on television. I watched a lot of the new pilots. All right. I’m stopping right there.” There isn’t anything more Tolan can say on the subject, but this doesn’t mean he can’t demonstrate his feelings. “And now,” Tolan informs us, “the pants come down.”

Yes, in an effort to make sure that the audience isn’t bored, Tolan drops his pants, revealing a turquoise and black Speedo. The Q & A session resumes, but the preceding was necessary to put into context the first question of our post-session interview.

ASSIGNMENT X: Do you have another show-running project lined up after RESCUE ME, or are you going directly into a career as a stripper?

PETER TOLAN: I’m doing the stripping nights, but I still have my days free, and I’ve started a company with my former agent, Michael Wimmer, called Fedora Entertainment. We’ve already sold a bunch of pilots. Haven’t gotten anything on the air yet, but I’m going back out, I’ve got a bunch of stuff, and I just can say right now that Mr. Leary and I are starting to write our next show, which is a half-hour for him to star in.

AX: You had several pilots last season, but none got picked up for series …

TOLAN: You’d think one of those would’ve went. There were different reasons why they didn’t, and I understood them all. Things change all the time, for political reasons or business reasons, and suddenly something that the network is really high on, they go, “Well, we really can’t pick that up.” The only thing I will rail against is the insanity of pilot season, which is in some ways designed to force you into failure, especially because of casting, because there are only so many actors and a situation arises where somebody who they may be talented enough, but suddenly, thirty people want them, and they’re De Niro for two weeks, and it becomes this insane bidding war for somebody who you may not have heard of a couple of weeks before. So it just doesn’t make sense and I had real problems casting, especially one of my shows.

AX: You’re working on a project with Mr. Leary. If this one doesn’t work out, might you go your separate ways, or are you just going to keep doing projects together until another one sticks?

TOLAN: Obviously, since it’s been over ten years now that we’ve [been working] together, there’s some connection between us in terms of our comic sensibilities, the kind of things that we want to say, the things that we want to do, and the next one is a half-hour. It is strictly a comedy for him to star in. It’s nothing like what we’ve done. I wouldn’t say traditional. We’re writing it on spec and then we’re going to take it out. Not necessarily for cable – it’s probably for cable.

AX: This is separate from the project Denis Leary is developing for USA?

TOLAN: That’s a different project that he is doing for his company.

AX: Can you talk about how some of the epic firefighting sequences was achieved technically?

TOLAN: Maybe three or four seasons in, the movie COMPANY OF MEN came out and Denis saw it and was like, “They do these grueling, amazing things that are all a single take.” So he said, “We should do that.” So we did just extremely complicated [shots]. I directed one episode where the floor collapsed. And if you ever see that episode again, the guys enter down a hallway, come into a room, there’s dialogue and the floor goes. And it all happens in one take. And the reason that we did it is because we wanted people to know it wasn’t stunt people, it was our [main cast] guys who are falling through the floor. It took a day to get that one shot, because I had a camera and [the rest of the equipment] and it all had to move smoothly. So there were a number of times somebody went, “No, no, no” and we had to go back to one [starting position].

AX: What did you have under the floor to protect your actors?

TOLAN: There’s nothing there. The floor is built on a former garage. It had a bay, so the floor could actually be built here and then tilt down into this bay. They wouldn’t hit the floor. We didn’t foresee them actually falling that far, so they would fall, but they would sort of stop themselves. And then we had to build a second floor on a much more tilted, separate stage with a green screen at the bottom of them sliding down. It was wild. [Another sequence was shot] in a very large warehouse in Brooklyn. What was unusual about that [sequence] is that it moved a great deal. I mean, we moved in real time. There was no kind of, “o around the corner and now we cut.” It was a very, very long extended take. When we go into an elevator, that’s all in real time. So they’re moving from one place to another. And the other thing is that there are crew members moving with them. So it’s not just the cameramen. There are sound people, the script supervisor – everybody is moving with them in that thing and staying out of the sight of the camera. And when they went into that elevator, the script supervisor didn’t make it. She got left behind on the burning floor and it was like this thing of [worried tone], “Ooh …”

AX: Do you ever use CGI?

TOLAN: We very rarely use CGI. We did do it, but we would do it in a supplemental way. So we would build one window of a building in real time, and then they would duplicate it and put it into the other windows of the building in post. Some things we had to do for CGI. It just wasn’t safe to do it otherwise. But in the case of that fire, we took a big risk in terms of shooting it all of a piece on multiple floors of the building. All those pyrotechnics are timed, so technically, when they go down to the second floor, that floor lights up just as they get there.

AX: Have other productions come to you over the course of RESCUE ME and say, “Hi, we’ve got a fire sequence, how do you suggest we do this or that?”

TOLAN: Never to me. They may have gone to the d.p. or somebody like that. We made a choice right from the beginning where we said, “We’re not going to do Hollywood fires, where it’s just this amazing amount of flame that you can see perfectly, because there’s no smoke.” We said to firefighters, we said to [firefighter consultant] Terry Quinn, “What’s it really like?” “It’s terrifying – you can’t see anything.”

AX: What was the last day of shooting like on RESCUE ME?

TOLAN: It was funny, because it ended in a church. And I remember saying, “Well, this is perfect, for RESCUE ME to end in a church.” Because we always had such a challenge finding a church that would [permit filming] – we got kicked out of all these churches.

AX: Why was that?

TOLAN: Either they knew the show or somebody would read the pages and go, “Well, wait a minute.” But we found a church that was in great disrepair and they desperately needed the money. And the Father looked at the pages and said, “Okay, I’m going to be in the back.” He just would not hang out [laughs]. And that’s where we ended. The thing that I remember is, of course, there were a lot of tears, but I remember mostly that our young girls [Olivia Crocicchia and Natalie Distler], who came to us when they were seven and fourteen, were now fourteen and twenty-one. And just seeing them grow from young girls into young women and the horrible things that we’ve exposed them to [laughs], but it was just sweet. That was the thing that I remember, just the girls growing up and how much time had passed.

AX: What was Denis Leary’s last take like?

TOLAN: I honestly don’t remember what we were shooting. I don’t remember what we shot with him that [last shooting] day, or if he worked. He was there. But we actually stopped shooting and did a little ceremony where we thanked some of the members of the crew, and some are real firefighters, and it turned out to be a very emotional thing, where the firefighters – they may not have been the most eloquent guys – suddenly got up and just this wonderful tribute back at us that flowed out of them. It was just really sweet. That’s what I remember more than anything.

AX: As a writer, what else do you want to talk about going forward in addition to 9/11?

TOLAN: This has been explored, so I don’t think we’ll be talking about that again, but I’m just always attracted to flawed people trying to get through life, so I’m always going to do some variation on that. I think that probably at some point I’m going to try and do the next generation of a show that accurately depicts a gay couple in real life where they’re not some characters who are solely defined by their sexuality. That’s an important thing to me.

AX: And what would you most like people to take away from RESCUE ME?

TOLAN: Just that positive message about survival and the ability to overcome whatever life throws in your way. There is, in the midst of all the dark shit [laughs], I think a positive message to that show.


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Article: Exclusive Interview with RESCUE ME executive producer and co-creator Peter Tolan

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