June 21, 2024

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Monday was move-in day for the writers of CBS’ Fire Country who spent the morning unpacking boxes in their new (larger) office space on the Radford lot, an upgrade from the crammed bungalow/trailer they occupied last year, possibly in recognition of Fire Country ending the 2022-23 as the most watched new broadcast series.

It was also a return-to-work day for the 11-member writing team (and support staff) of the firefighter drama on the day the first writers rooms reopened after the five-month WGA strike. It is led by showrunner/executive producer Tia Napolitano as well as executive producers Joan Rater and Tony Phelan who co-created the series with star/executive producer Max Thieriot.

As they all gathered around the table in their new writers room for the first time just after lunch, the group shared their thoughts about the strike and starting work on the new season after a very long break and amid ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike, teasing a bit what to expect in Season 2.

While there are some nerves –“I think that we’re all a little bit like, can we still do this?,” Rater said — the long break also has its upside. (Without the work stoppage, the room would’ve reopened in May-June.)

“We’re all pretty rested,” she said. “And we’ve all read books, had life experiences.”

Said Napolitano, “I feel energized, and honestly, Season 2 is not a continuation of Season 1. It’s the next chapter, and I think, having had a rest from Season 1, we feel like we’re ready to come back even stronger and shock everybody from the second the episodes start to air when we’re finally out there.”

Life experiences during the strike

Co-executive producer Natalia Fernandez spent most of her picketing hours with a paperback book in hand, walking and reading.

“I also play piano now, and I started a veggie garden. I went to Italy and traveled a little bit everywhere,” she said, adding, “I have little kids; they were off for the summer.”

Co-executive producer David Gould’s dad passed away during the strike.

“In its own way, I was grateful to have that time to be there with my dad and also to process this loss,” he said.

A big believer in how “it’s very important that I live a life and experience things on a personal level and out in the world in order to bring those experiences into here and hopefully get them on the screen,” Gould and his 22-year-old son went and played baseball at San Quentin prison during the strike. A couple of guys Gould played against are getting into a prison fire program, just like the main character in Fire Country.

The CBS Studios series stars Thieriot as Bode Donovan, a young convict with a troubled past who, hoping to redeem himself and shorten his prison sentence, volunteers for the California Conservation Camp Program in which prisoners assist the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“The San Quentin team, they were very curious and asking about the strike, and they said, we’re super supportive of you guys. That’s a population that, network television is very important to them; they don’t have Amazon and Netflix,” Gould said. “A couple of guys watch the show; they were fans and really appreciated our intention of showing the family stories and the humanity.”

Supervising producer Barbara Friend teaches screenwriting/TV writing in the summer for The University of Texas’ Los Angeles program.

“To see the strike through their eyes — and these are young people about to come into it — was really cool,” she said. “They’re obviously freaking out a lot, very scared, but excited for what their future could be if we were successful in our strike and our deal, and I feel we were.”

Along the way, Friend converted a few Gen Z-ers who had never watched network TV into Fire Country fans.

On the picket lines, in 2007 & 2023

The Fire Country writers, who stayed in touch during the strike via a group chat, were all vey active on the picket lines. The group includes five strike captains, Phelan, co-executive producer Anupam Nigam as well the writing team of Manuel Herrara & Sara Casey, executive story editors, in addition to the show’s script coordinator Joelle Garfinkel.

The so-called “new media” has evolved dramatically since 2007-08 strike where it took central stage.

“The landscape was very different this time. I think a lot of people walked off jobs and felt less supportive about our action in 2007,” Nigam said. “Back then, the big thing we were fighting for was — we didn’t even call it streaming back then, we just called it Internet residuals, and that was stuff like Grey’s showing on abc.com, not even Netflix. A lot of those writers didn’t even watch television that way, so there wasn’t cognizance about, why are we doing this? But they still did it in solidarity. There was maybe a little less unity between writers at the time, versus now where I think many, many more writers had suffered the abuses that we were fighting against this time, mini rooms, streaming residuals, rooms being drained of writers when you need them.”

Phelan and Rater were on Grey’s Anatomy during the 2007-08 strike.

“It was a totally different experience in terms of solidarity, the Teamsters and IATSE and the actors being behind it in a way that just wasn’t happening in 2007,” Phelan said. “I think it’s because everybody realized that the time had come to draw a line in the sand and say, if we continue under this current organization, the profession is going to go under.”

In addition to everyone seeming “more engaged this time,” “I think that the big thing that was different was social media, and WhatsApp,” he added.

Phelan was part of two WhatsApp groups, one for writer-directors and one for showrunners.

“The fact that we were all talking to each other allowed us to hear rumors and immediately tamp them down. For example, when somebody, Variety maybe, put out an article saying, oh, all the showrunners think that this whole idea of minimums is ridiculous, we were able to mobilize 400 showrunners to say, no, no, we all agree. We all agree that it’s a good thing.”

The timing of the strike also made a difference, another 2007-08 strike veteran, Gould, said. “I think that this strike coming post Covid — as devastating as it was for so many people — really illuminated what’s important.”

Writers room size matters

Minimum staffing was among the main WGA demands during the negotiations. The size of the Fire Country writing team far exceeds the minimum required as is the case with all broadcast series. And there is value to it.

“Look around this room, everyone has a vastly different life experience to offer, and that’s so important because we want all of the different kinds of stuff to use for our characters; that’s really key,” Rater said.

While the new WGA deal still allows for series to be written solely by its creator(s), Gould prefers the writers room model.

(L-R): Jordan Calloway as Jake Crawford, Zach Tinker as Collin, Troy Bundle as Randy, and Stephanie Arcila as Gabriela Perez. Photo: Sergei Bachlakov/CBS

“This show is about family, the relationships in the fire station, the folks that get impacted in each incident, and we’re very involved in each other’s lives,” he said. “A very important element of breaking our stories is bringing ourselves, our personal experiences in here and being supportive of each other. No one puts out a fire alone. Despite all the auteurs, this idea of one person who writes all the episodes, good on them, but I’m very proud to be a part of a show that is very much a group effort.”

In broadcast TV, where series typically deliver 22 episodes a season on a very tight schedule, a large room is also a necessity.

“The more hands the better, especially with 22 [episodes],” Napolitano said, adding that it is unclear yet how big their abbreviated, post-strike 2023-24 order will be. “We have the ability to split into two rooms. While most of the room works on season, a few of us can peel off and go talk about the premiere. With one writer up on set in Vancouver and someone else off on episode, this group gets smaller as everyone’s peeling off to keep the ball moving.”

Added Phelan, “Between prep and somebody on set and then writers in various stages of drafts, the room does go small but it does allow everyone the opportunity to learn soup to nuts how the whole operation works. We’re fond of saying that your job here is about 60% writing, the other 40% is producing it.”

Training the next generation showrunners

Helping writers grow and gain production experience is another important element the WGA fought for in the negotiations. It is also something broadcast has strong traditions in.

“It’s so important to us to train our assistants and our younger writers to be showrunners, and that’s a big thing that we were picketing for,” said Napolitano, whose first TV job was as a writers PA, working for Phelan and Rater on Grey’s Anatomy. “Where I learned to do this job is from Tony and Joan, from the day I was getting the coffee until today. They gave me my first script.

“Mentoring is such a big part of the culture, especially on this show. We’re open about it, and that’s why we retain writers from other shows that we’ve worked on, and we see these writers go from staff writer to Co-EP, getting stronger every year, learning things, learning about post. Showrunners are going to become extinct if we’re not raising the babies to be the next us.”

This season’s Fire Country staff writer India Gurley is a novice — a former actress who came out of CBS’ writing program.

Monday was Gurley’s first day as a working writer; her first experience in the profession was on the picket lines.

“Everyone was so accepting, everyone was so together in that experience, and it just made me even more excited to join the union, and now getting to have this experience, I feel like it matches up so much,” she said. “I feel like we all have collectively found our voices in a way that has been really exciting to now get in the room and get to put this to paper.”

Top WGA wins for TV writers in new deal

Gurley and her fellow current entry-level TV writers are breaking new ground. Under the new WGA agreement, they will be paid a script fee for the first rime.

“India will not write a script for free; her entry-level staff writers don’t get script fees,” Herrara said, with Gurley snapping her fingers in delight.

Added Friend, “And Sarah and Manuel will get full pension.”

Until now, writing teams had been entitled to a half pension each.

In addition to these changes, minimum staffing, streaming residuals and streaming data transparency, there is another element element of the WGA deal, which Phelan thinks “is not getting a lot of press, but is very important.”

“In the contract for the first time, showrunner is defined as being a writer. That is critical,” he said. “There’s been, I think, a move to try and install non-writing producers or directors as showrunners. And that just ain’t gonna work.”

Supporting Fire Country‘s crew during the strike

(L-R): Riley Davis as Troy, Max Thieriot as Bode Donovan, and Stephanie Arcila as Gabriela Perez. Photo: Sergei Bachlakov/CBS

Friend said she is “excited to get back to set because for me, our crew in Vancouver, they are such a large part of why Season 1 was so successful.” She spoke about the solidarity of their crew members, including the show’s driver texting them every week during the strike, “we’re with you.”

Meanwhile, Fire Country executive producers and cast members raised funds to help their Vancouver-based crew financially during the work stoppage.

“We all got on a group chain and said, we have to do something for our crew because so much of the fundraising down here in LA is for crews in America and our crew’s up in Canada,” Phelan said.

Working while SAG-AFTRA is striking

As Fire Country writers are reconvening to work, the series’ cast, along with the rest of the SAG-AFTRA membership, are still on strike.

SAG-AFTRA does not have a picket line at Radford but if that changes, Phelan said he and others on the writing staff would go out and join in before work, during lunch and after work, if the strikers are still there.

Rater also said she would join actors outside the studio during lunch while arguing that the writers would not cross a picket line so they may switch to a virtual writers room should Radford gets picketed.

Nigam, who was a strike captain at Disney, said that the solidarity between the two unions has remained strong.

“When we got the deal, I kept picketing at Disney with the actors.” he recalled. “On Friday I went to the SAG-AFTRA captain, saying, ‘Hey, this is my last day with you picketing here, I’m going back to work on Monday.’ They were nothing but encouraging. So I think they’re happy for us, and I think they feel this gives them momentum in getting a great deal for themselves.”

Fernandez agrees.

Stephanie Arcila as Gabriela Perez and Max Thieriot as Bode Donovan. Photo: Sergei Bachlakov/CBS

“It is my impression from talking to other people that we, as a union, paved the way for everything to be restored and for all the other people who are striking to get a fair deal,” she said, noting the SAG-AFTRA and the studios announced a return to the negotiation table shortly after the WGA reached their agreement. “I think that us going back to work is pushing their deal forward, so I don’t think there’s a feeling that our actions go against the grain of what they’re fighting for. I think there’s a sense that we’re all in it together, and we’re trying to get a good deal for everybody in the industry, get the industry back to work.”

Broadcast model making a comeback

For about a decade, broadcast was going out of fashion for many TV writers who were gravitating toward the smaller seasons and fewer content restrictions offered by premium cable and streaming. Not anymore. While there are cancellations everywhere, broadcast still provides better job security.

“I’m so relieved that people have their jobs back and that other people are going to hopefully, when SAG gets what they deserve, get their jobs back,” Napolitano said. “That’s what was keeping me up at night. We knew we had this wonderful job that we’d love to come back to.”

Added Phelan, “We’re very fortunate — and on the last strike too — that we’re on a network drama that we know is going to run so you’re not worried about your job. But for so many of those people on the line, meeting people who are unemployed or looking for work, I really feel for and am concerned about, especially because I think we all sense that there’s a contraction coming in terms of the number of shows.”

Fernandez acknowledges that broadcast writers have always made a good living and their streaming counterparts are the ones who will benefit the most from the new WGA agreement.

“I think a lot of the gains we gain for the people who were in the gig economy of writing for television. I think the broadcast people like us who have been in broadcast for a long time are lucky that we work 34 weeks of the year, that we have orders that are long, that we go to set, that we do pre that we do post,” she said. “So I think this contract is a huge win for people who were piecing together four jobs a year that were 10 weeks at a time.”

The improved digital residuals scheme could also benefit a show like Fire Country if it shows streaming prowess the way fellow linear TV series Suits, Grey’s Anatomy and NCIS have.

(L-R): Billy Burke as Vince Leone and Diane Farr as Sharon Leone. Photo: Sergei Bachlakov/CBS

“Whether those residuals in the end come and add to the success of this show, I think it’s just the cherry on top,” Fernandez said. “it really is for the few writing those amazing shows that went and had billions of people watching and they were getting like $0 on their contribution to the show,” Fernandez said. “I think we already have a good residual model, and I think if anything, this contract has moved streamers closer to a broadcast model, which I think should be industry standard, it’s what allows this as a profession to exist so that people get groomed into showrunners.”

Rater recalled that “sizable Fire Country residuals” she received during the strike “really made a difference getting through the five months.”

Co-executive producer Dwain Worrell had a very different experience with residuals from an original streaming series.

“I was on a show called National Treasure that came on before this show; it was released in December.” he said. “I still have yet to receive a residual check from Disney+ for that show. I’ve gotten multiple residual checks from Fire Country and nothing from the show that I did before that.”

Fire Country cooking shocker of a season

While the size of the new season of Fire Country is still TBD, 13 episodes is considered realistic if the SAG-AFTRA strike ends within a month or so.

Asked to tease the upcoming season, Nigam deadpanned, “There will be fire… and there will be country.”

Napolitano was a bit more specific, promising some jaw-dropping surprises.

“My goal is to, the first time we see each and every character, the audience will gasp and be shocked, everyone’s story will be very, very surprising from the moment you see them,” she said.

The explosive Season 1 finale set up multiple questions for the writers, including how to get Bode out of prison. Ahead of the first day of work, Napolitano Sunday night sent out assignments to writers who are expected to work longer hours to answer those questions, get the season mapped out and start cranking out scripts.

As I left the Fire Country writers, couches, treadmills, exercise balls, headstand stools, puzzles and other toys were still being moved into the room. A slew of dry erase boards were staring at them, all blank.

That won’t be for long.

“What’s really exciting, during this hiatus, we all got to think about these characters because they’re so ingrained in our lives,” Casey said. “It’s not like we’re thinking about them for the first time today. It’s like we’re getting to revisit all these people again.”

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