fine cut

Sniping the South
by Stephanie Skenderis



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The briefing room where members of a tactical police force meet to discuss cases and strategies is empty. The machines in the gym stand unused - dumdbells idle on the floor. A few steps away, a nursery is vacant, the crib empty. A dining room, decorated with pictures of children has no life behind its makeshift walls. The air holds the smell of sawdust.

In a few short hours, these rooms will be filled with people as the cast of Flashpoint takes its position on set.

In the past year the hit Canadian series has exploded onto the international stage after becoming the number one Friday night show, averaging almost 10 million viewers a week in the U.S.

The success of Flashpoint has brought a new found pride to Canada’s television industry, showing Canadians have what it takes to compete in a tough, American-dominated market.

The people behind the scenes of the popular show have one thing in common: in the early stages of development, no one imagined how successful the series would become.

“The idea came from a real incident that happened in 2005, when a hostage was taken in front of Union Station,” says Stephanie Morgenstern, who, with her husband Mark Ellis, created the series in conjunction with CTV’s Writers-Only group. “We had not put our minds at all into the tactical world,” she adds. “It was simply the extraordinariness of this case that caught us off guard. It was so public, so shocking.”

What interested Morgenstern and Ellis most of all was the part of the story that was not told. “We got to wondering what the rest of the day was like for the cop that had to take the shot, who became the public executioner,” says Ellis. “It’s 9:30 in the morning, how do you do that and then how do you go through your day and go home to your kids and mow the lawn and do all that stuff?”

The concept was initially pitched as a movie of the week, but executive producers Bill Mustos and Anne Marie La Traverse saw Flashpoint’s potential and the series was born.

For La Traverse, the opportunity to highlight the human cost of heroism was appealing. “When I produced the pilot, I met a particular police officer who thanked me for all of the good he saw in the project,” she remembers. “He had suffered from post-traumatic stress and felt that it wasn’t portrayed enough in television drama. That was a turning point for me, because I saw the opportunity not only to create something potentially commercial, but also something meaningful.”

La Traverse says she and Mustos sent the pilot to CBS because it “prides itself on being the network of successful procedurals.”

CBS executives loved it and bought the series.

Morgenstern calls the moment surreal. “I don’t think any of us could have imagined the scope that it would take,” she says.

She and Ellis believe part of the series’ success is due to its ability to blend procedure with emotional storytelling in a compelling way. What really sets it apart, though, is the audience’s ability to connect with the show’s distinctly Canadian content.

“It would not make sense to say we’re inspired by a Toronto force but we’re pretending it’s not Toronto,” says Morgenstern.

“Bill and Anne Marie poured a lot of their love for the city into what we see on screen,” adds Ellis. “It’s about celebrating Toronto and making each location look big and beautiful and really reflective of the city.”

One particularly memorable moment for Ellis was during the initial shooting when the set dressers wheeled in a big red Canadian mailbox. “I spent so much time working on U.S. service productions here and people trying to hide the fact that it’s Toronto, and watching this one damn U.S. blue mailbox that’s carted out and put on street corners everywhere. It was so great to see that Canadian mailbox,” he says with a laugh.

“It makes me so proud to show the city as the city,” he says. “Sending Sam on a run to Timmy’s for double-doubles – things only Canadians truly understand.”

After two strong seasons on the air, Flashpoint has proven that being Canadian doesn’t have to be detrimental to a show’s success.

Jim Mirkopoulos, vice-president of Cinespace Studios, the home of the Flashpoint set, says he’s proud that a Canadian television show – what he calls the ‘bread and butter’ of Toronto’s television industry – has had international success.

Historically, the difference in production quality between Canadian and U.S. television has been obvious, he says, but over the years, “the gap has started to close. Americans began looking at our pilots and saying ‘hey, those look really good’.”

Mirkopoulos says the initial reaction from CBS was great and Flashpoint’s success has translated into “huge advertising dollars coming in for the network as a result of Canadian television.”

Phil Gonzales, vice-president of communications at CBS, says the network is very satisfied with the numbers the series is racking up. The Canadian show fits so well into CBS’s roster of successful dramas, in fact, the network has picked up another Canadian procedural show, Bridge, which is still in pre-production.

Having strong international network support has other benefits as well. “Canada has struggled for years with telling Canadian stories and we now have an audience that is paying to see our programs,” Mirkopoulos says. “We can start to tell our history with our actors.”

Morgenstern’s national pride also shines through when she talks about the Flashpoint cast. “We know the stories are here, we know the vast pools of talent that are here and if people on a broader scale are starting to take notice, then we’re thrilled to be a part of that.”

Flashpoint’s rise, however, hasn’t always been an easy one. As La Traverse remembers, “the American press was particularly unreceptive to us last July when we launched.” The “Canadian-ness” of the series isn’t mentioned in every article anymore, she adds, “and that’s good, because now Flashpoint’s being judged as a series on its own merits.”

Before the show is labeled a “Canadian” success, La Traverse says her priority is just “to make sure we survive long enough on the air – that’s where our energies have been focused.”

At this stage, it’s about writing and producing the “very best of Flashpoint, telling meaningful stories about the humanity of people pushed to the edge, and the humanity of the cops who have to save them – all in a way that touches people.”

Ellis agrees. “We live our lives episode by episode right now,” he says, adding that the production process becomes faster, easier, and more enjoyable by the day.

“The machinery is up and running,” he says confidently. “Once your sandbox is built, you have more time to play.”

Image:
Courtesy of CTV

 

Fine Cut 2009