Make Me a Church & Burn It, Please…

Law and Order: Criminal Intent

Photo from Law & Order Criminal Intent. Vincent D’Onofrio as Det. Robert Goren and Katherine Erbe as Det. Alexandra Eames.

During my years in NY producing Law & Order Criminal Intent, I had many a hairy and stressful episode, but a few do stand out.  You should always be wary of episode titles, like ‘On Fire’…

Criminal Intent was basically Sherlock Holmes of the NYPD. Our lead actor played a very strange, very smart and very entertaining detective who always (almost) got his man. The structure of the show moved to an extensive final, climactic scene; we always called it the ‘aria’ –a last scene that ran 7-10 pages with our hero and the suspects leading to the reveal of the killer. The brilliant Rene’ Balcer, L&OCI’s original Showrunner, always created a structure that used one main set, or world we would inhabit, and that would be the same place we would stage the aria.

So, for the producer, this is an excellent way to produce TV. A teaser, and multiple scenes that will play for 15, 20 or even 25 pages of a 52 page teleplay. A lot of bang for the buck if you write that way for us.  So, most of the resources, Locations, Art, will be used to put up a large, detailed set or make use of a location with, sometimes very extensive Art and Construction work. Create a world our Detectives will inhabit.

Now, we get the script for On Fire’.

It requires a church world: one we can see pre-fire, the church and a woman on fire, the church immediately post fire and change it over for a few days (script time) after the fire. Script specific details means we need to have a church that’s looks ok. Then, it’s on fire. Then, immediately after with smoke, the Fire Department and water. Then–smoke is gone; water mostly drained but extensive damage. A specific burned out hole at the baptismal font that plays in the aria, needs to be prepped at the front of the sanctuary. A clue will be laid in the crime scene.

Initially at our concept meeting, we knew it was too tall an order to build the whole church, interior and exterior– and burn it. We decided we would be using several locations and would search for a burned out church we could shoot in. After initial scouting looked promising, a plan fell in place to do an easier exterior burn at a church found by Locations using a covered walkway and adding windows and propane burners. That way, we are not actually burning any of the church, just using it as a backdrop. Ok, exterior will work, before and after and we can prep it and shoot it in 2 nights. We’ll bring a stuntwoman and light her up too.

But—we still need a burned interior for post fire and the aria. Strangely enough, in the boroughs of NY, there are always some choices for a burned out church. The rub is if it is damaged enough to play for camera, is it safe enough to shoot in?

Safety on set is paramount and responsibilities are divided among the department heads, lead by the Assistant Director and the Key Grip. The Producer who has worked hard to hire a great crew that he trusts can then rely on their judgement. (reference my ‘Casting the Crew’ post)

The best description for the Key Grip I have heard is– The Electrics bring the lights and the power and the Grips do everything else. A pretty tall order on any set, so it’s a good thing the KG is looking out for the safety of the crew.

Interestingly enough, NY IATSE locals have some rules and staffing nowhere else in the US has. I guess having NYC IA Local #1, the rules go way back. Anyway, there are 2 Key Grips on any show—A Key Grip for construction and a Key Grip for the shooting crew.  While this is expensive, it is remarkably better to have this dual staffing for rigging and mechanical. The Construction folks will define their jobs as—the  Carpenters build the flats and the Grips set the walls. Of course, it’s never that simple. While the Carps will have plenty of involved building to do, the Construction KG is able to do amazing things—from strapping a wrecked car on a steep hill with a camera platform to hanging a Camera Operator off the top of a very tall building standing on a set piece.

None of this happens if the KG doesn’t like the setup or it seems there is too much chance for failure. Filmmaking is demanding and dangerous enough without asking for trouble.

Time to scout the burned out church. Of course, it’s perfect. Dana, our KG, gives a reserved—“Not too bad.” But, he asks for an engineer’s report to be surveyed and discussed. Typical for us. We do and it now does all look good. Engineer Reports, KG—all good to go. A week and 2 days from shooting– I am counting on this.

Now the Art Department goes into the church. There is much work to be done to make it shootable and add the details we’ll need for the script. Just as the grips get started—bad news. As he has his crew remove some boards on the floor–damage is discovered that wasn’t previously seen by the engineer or the Key Grip—the floor is unstable. Certainly for the 80 or so person cast and crew we need to bring to location.

Now Dana, the KG says it’s not safe to work there. A smart Producer, does not question this even though we are a week from shooting. All we can do, to guarantee a set to shoot, and do it safely, now– is to build it. Even though we’re down to a week. I would not ask for that if it could not be done. It can be, because I’m in New York.

There are other interesting features about NY and the Art Department. There are 2 Scenic Artists (don’t you dare call them painters!)—1 on the Construction crew—the Charge Scenic –and 1 with the shoot crew. One of the most expensive weekly salaries you’ll pay, but again—fairly amazing. They are truly artists who can work incredibly fast and with such detail. Add to that the highly experienced, deep pool of Production Designers and Art Directors and the upshot of this highly paid and expensive to the producer crew is—you really do have the Pros from Dover. There is nothing these people can’t do given the time or money. Or with no time but enough money, they can move mountains. And many times with less people than you were sure would be needed.

So–  build me a burned out church. Big one. High ceiling. Lots of burn damage. Want a bigger hole in the floor by the baptismal fount now.

At this point, I must get the multi-million $ episode done. It’s the second to the last of the season.  Luckily, I have saved money over the season to do 2 big episodes at the end. But, what we steal for this church comes out of the last epi.  My Executive Producers know this. So the budget goes up to have a great show to shoot and propel us to the season ender.

Our Ace Art Director, Harry, came to me and said he was ready start building interiors about ten minutes after I had said build. Harry had put a warehouse space in Bayonne on hold as soon as he had heard from Dana at the real church. We had no stage big enough to hold the set we needed. Pretty sure Harry ordered materials even before he had made the drawings for the church set.

I think it was Friday when the church started going up. The construction crew had until Thursday at 5pm to build the church. They would work 2 crews, about 20 people each in 12 hour shifts/24 hours a day to utilize all the time available.  Overnight Thursday into very early Friday morning, the Scenics with help from Special Effects, will add all burn damage to have the set ready for an 8am call that morning–Friday. One week. Hey, I gave them the weekend. What a “great” Producer.

photo 1(3)

You can see the progression of the smoke damage on the back wall. In the foreground, you can see the burned pews. I’m pleased to see I am checking the script. On the floor the guys are working on that wacky baptismal font hole…

The damage in the church gets worse.
The pictures attached show me watching the Scenics work through the damage. They asked I spend the night watching them work, so they could adjust anything I could want as there was no going back. “Bigger hole, please.” “More damage.” Oh, I like the way the baptismal thingie tilts over”… It always fascinates me how the puzzle of the set comes together.

Yes, they did it. Of course. Our lead actor was great at roaming around big sets and showing them off and this one looked great.

If you should find yourself lucky enough to produce in NY, take a breath once you’ve seen the prices. Wait until you see the work. Worth the price and amazing in the execution.


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