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A Shift on the Mean Streets

NBC's 'Third Watch' films in tough New York neighborhoods to get that rush of authenticity.

April 15, 2001|JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN | Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

NEW YORK — This must be hell.

That's what it looks like in Red Hook, amid the abandoned industrial buildings and brick warehouses: the dumping ground for old mattresses, rusted oil drums, a stripped and burned Mercedes-Benz and whatever useless trash that's been tossed vicariously out a car window. It's Brooklyn's junkyard district, a place God has forsaken, where the Manhattan chic wouldn't be caught dead.

Nothing grows here, especially not in the winter, except maybe a few weeds. Children don't play here. No one comes to this place, except, as the locals call them, "the less desirables," and the audacious production crew and cast of "Third Watch."

There, in the midst of this urban squalor, in the wreckage of what was once upon a time the Revere sugar refinery, the cameras are rolling on Michael Beach, who plays sage paramedic veteran Monte "Doc" Parker on the NBC emergency trifecta about paramedics, firefighters and cops. Beach is sidelined working triage with co-star Anthony Ruvivar, as his cocky, young partner Carlos Nieto. Meanwhile Amy Carlson, as able firefighter Alex Taylor, in the line of action, backed by a team of some 40 extras from the New York Fire Department, is tugging at a hose, readying to battle the flames that are yet to come in the next scene.

From 12 open widows of an empty six-story structure the smell of kerosene is wafting through the air as the high winds whip off the New York Harbor, making for one of the coldest days in New York this winter, around 28 degrees according to a weather report. But it's at least 15 degrees colder, according to my numbed fingers and toes.

"This is nothing," says Beach, stopping in the middle of the interview, to rescue this shivering visitor, stuffing hand warmers he's taken from his pockets into my insulated mittens that are on loan from the wardrobe supervisor, who also provided a thermal parka to layer over my wool winter coat. "If you're freezing now, we're freezing all the time, but it really adds to that stuff you can't get on a set somewhere in L.A.," he says. "You feel how cold you are? This is what it is."

Consider this guerrilla filmmaking, says Christopher Chulack, who executive-produces with co-creator John Wells and is one of a handful of directors for "Third Watch'-the name referring to the shift from 3 to 11 a.m. Unlike such Gotham-based dramas as NBC's "Law & Order" or CBS' just-canceled "Big Apple," which primarily shoot on enclosed sets, "Third Watch," on average, shoots 90% of its July-through-April schedule outdoors under some of the most extreme conditions imaginable for a network television show.

The cast and crew are in tenements in Harlem at 2 a.m. and crack houses in Queens. They're uptown dodging the traffic of taxicabs, messenger bikes and actual emergency crews whizzing past. With the exception of a hurricane last year, which shut down production-and New York-for a couple of days, they're shooting: in driving rains and blizzards, in snow flurries, in 90-degree heat with humidity to match.

"We know we're going to be out in the elements," says Chulack, "so we're prepared to deal with whatever is dealt. If we have four inches of snow the night before we shoot a scene, we try to integrate that into the scene. Obviously it makes it hard if you're doing a trauma scene where we've created a car wreck, and you've got people lying on the ground that's now covered with snow. It makes it really difficult for the actors."

"We're in the most ridiculous scenarios," says Ruvivar, shivering during a break on-set here in Red Hook. He's referring to a recent episode in which it snowed during a scene as he and Beach teetered off a bridge in a Winnebago. "We do all of our own stunts unless it's something extreme. I've been hanging out of 20-story windows with just a hook on my back-but explosions are fun," he jokes. ' 'Although it's a little weird when [the director] is like, 'You can be right by the explosion, it's no problem.' But you realize he's telling you this through a bullhorn 200 yards away with a long-lens camera yelling, 'It's fine!' That's when you need to worry."

It's a bit later, and Carlson is sitting on a pile of bricks, still wearing the 35-pound fire-equipment pack on her back. "I get to do all kinds of things I would never get asked to do as an actress-climbing ladders, carrying hoses, and getting the gear on-just the whole experience of working with the firefighters and the fire. But there have been times when I've gotten nervous because it is still fire.'?

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