Warning: This story contains mild spoilers.
TRINIDAD -- Eric Norris is standing on the running board of a semi-truck cab, which wouldn't be so remarkable if the cab weren't dangling off a bridge about 100 feet over the Trinity River.
By the end of the afternoon, the cab will be in the river, in the climax of a scene from the new NBC Monday-night series Chase.
In the scene, U.S. Marshal Annie Frost (Kelli Giddish) is rescuing a little girl from the teetering truck cab, then grabbing a line dropped from a helicopter, which takes them to safety just before the cab drops off the bridge.
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Norris -- stunt coordinator for the show and son of Chuck -- and members of the Chase crew have been working for several hours setting up this stunt, filmed in early September for an episode that will air this season. And before those hours, there were a couple of weeks of preparation.
"A sequence like this is a big ordeal," Norris says later. "There's so many dynamics. It started with Kelli jumping out of a helicopter onto the back of a semi trailer, running forward, jumping to the front, working her way down to where the window is, and then the truck's out of control. And you've got to plan all that before you can get on the bridge and bring in helicopters with rope. It's been a full two weeks, and we were still scrambling to make sure everything was right."
Carey Meyer, a set designer for the series, says that location scouts drove about 400 miles looking for a bridge over the Trinity not only high enough for the stunt, but with railings low enough that the stunt made sense. Another 400 miles was traversed looking for a backup in case this bridge didn't work. The production had to go through state, county and local agencies to get the project approved and to arrange traffic control. And then there was arranging the stunt itself.
"We've got dirt that hides part of a steel rig that the whole [truck] is teetering on," Meyer says. "It's like a seesaw, so that nothing is actually touching the bridge, so we're protecting the bridge from any sort of damage. Cranes had to be engineered to the right amounts and weight requirements for the bridge and for the truck. We took as much weight as we could out of the 18-wheeler, so it's as light as possible. Also, for environmental reasons, we can't have any petroleum enter the river."
Although Giddish does many of her own stunts -- not only did she do all the running, jumping and truck-top-riding that Norris describes above, but a week earlier, she was jumping across rooftops in Dallas' West End -- she does have a stunt double who occasionally fills in. So Karen Justman, the stunt woman, does the job of hanging from a helicopter by a length of cable.
The director yells "action." With Justman now on the running board, the cab starts shaking, bouncing up and down. Justman reaches in to rescue the girl -- in this case a life-size doll -- while Frost's partner Jimmy Godfrey (played by Cole Hauser) drops the lifeline down to them. (Hauser also often does his own stunts, but in this case Norris is doubling for him, unable to resist the lure of letting his legs hang from a hovering helicopter.) Justman attaches herself to the line, wraps her arms around the "girl," and the helicopter hauls them away, north up the Trinity until they fade from sight. While all this is happening, another helicopter is hovering nearby, with a camera crew filming the action.
Justman does this for a couple of takes, gets to rest a little bit, then does the whole bit again while the real money shot happens. As she's hanging there, with the helicopters making a tremendous amount of buzzing, whirring, chopping noise, there's a bang so loud that it makes even burly crew members jump, and the cab drops off the bridge, turns upside-down and lands into the Trinity, making a huge splash before bobbing to the surface, wheels up.
All for about 30 seconds of screen time. Clearly, these people are crazy.
"I don't know if crazy is the word," Norris says with a chuckle. "Maybe a little bit. But we do so many safety precautions. I think the worst part about the stunt was that she was hanging in the harness so long, she started to get a little sore. But you try to make it look a lot more dangerous than it really is."
Fighting the heat
Chase is about a Texas-based team of U.S. marshals who hunt fugitives through the Southwest, with the added twist that it tells the fugitive's side of the story as well.
And in its Sept. 22 premiere, it lived up to its title in the first scene: Giddish and Hauser chase a suspect through a series of tunnels, emerging in the Fort Worth Stockyards, tearing through what looks like Tim Love's original Love Shack, crossing paths with the daily cattle drive, interrupting cowboys roping cattle in a rodeo arena, finally bringing the suspect down in another tunnel.
"It was amazing," Giddish says during a chat outside a Trinidad elementary school where some scenes were shot that day. "They said, 'OK, we're about to go, and there's gonna be a horde of bulls running at you, and you just run across.' That was the first day I'd actually seen a longhorn steer. If you've never seen one, they're pretty spectacular."
Giddish, whose other projects included Fox's short-lived spring series Past Life and a run as Di Henry on All My Children, says that Chase is the most physical thing she has ever done. The series' executive producer is Jerry Bruckheimer, and the show follows the formula of many other Bruckheimer-produced TV series such as the "CSI" franchise, with an eccentric, high-powered personality leading a team of crime-solvers. But it's also the series that's the most like a Bruckheimer movie, with lots of action and crashes and things getting destroyed.
"I was a big runner before the show started," Giddish says. "Now when people say, 'What do you do to work out?' I say, 'Go to work and play Annie Frost.' I'm hanging off the sides of trucks, I'm sprinting, I'm grabbing onto the sides of planes, I'm jumping out of buildings onto balconies. You just put your head down and do it."
Of course, "doing it" becomes more complicated when several of Chase's initial episodes were filmed during an August heat wave in which temperatures in some North Texas locations reached 109, with even higher heat indices. Not that the heat fazes Giddish all that much.
"A touch-up here in Texas is just mopping up my face and goin' on with it," she says (a couple of beads of sweat are trickling down her face as she speaks, and it's only about 90). "But you sweat a lot and you don't get pimples, you know? I mean, there's great sides to it. And I'm from Georgia, so I'm used to the humidity."
Hauser has a different point of view.
"Certain days, it's like breathing out of someone else's mouth here," he says. "And we're wearing flak jackets most of the time and dressed in SWAT gear. I lost some weight, but it's not a bad thing to lose a little weight. One day, I drank about 18 bottles of water."
The cast includes Amaury Nolasco as the team's most talkative member; The L Word's Rose Rollins as a weapons specialist who doesn't talk much and Desperate Housewives' Jesse Metcalfe as the team's newest member. Nolasco has experience with the North Texas heat, having worked on Fox's Prison Break, which shot a couple of seasons in Dallas-Fort Worth.
"It's a lot of running, like I did in Prison Break," Nolasco says. "It's funny how I was being pursued, and now I'm pursuing people. A lot of up the stairs, down the stairs. ...I'm from Puerto Rico, where it's 90 degrees all year round. I hate cold. I love Chicago [where Prison Break] also filmed, but from November, December till March, I was miserable."
Among the shows shooting in North Texas, Chase is the one that's using the most North Texas locations (including a lot of shooting in Fort Worth). The Good Guys, set in Dallas, stays pretty close to Dallas-Fort Worth and surrounding cities. Lone Star -- which had such a low-rated debut last week that airing a second episode was in doubt for a while -- uses Dallas locations as stand-ins for Houston and Midland. Chase gets around. Its premiere featured a scene filmed over the Brazos River (doubling for the Rio Grande outside El Paso) in Parker County, and then there's this episode in Trinidad, which is around where North Texas starts becoming East Texas.
"We try to stay within a 30-mile radius of downtown Dallas," says Garry Brown, one of the show's executive producers and a veteran of Walker, Texas Ranger. "But on a show like this, we sometimes travel outside that 30-mile zone to find the right locations, based on that this is about a special task force for the U.S. marshals throughout the Southwestern region of the United States. So we travel wherever it's appropriate, as the scenes dictate to us."
In the opening episode, there were North Texas scenes as well as scenes in which North Texas doubled for Houston, San Antonio and the outskirts of El Paso. Brown says that the show's settings will go beyond Texas, while filming will remain here. And his experience on Walker, on which he spent six years as a producer, helps.
"When you're on a show that travels as much as we do, it's good to know the area," Brown says. "And I've got a fair amount of experience within a 100-mile radius of Dallas. So it really comes in handy....What's so important about shooting in Texas [is] the versatility in topography. Not only do you have one major city, with Dallas, but you've got two, with Fort Worth. It gives you a lot of opportunity to change the look on a regular basis."
For the cast, it's been a geography lesson -- and a cultural one as well.
"My favorite thing to do when we shoot so far out is to go into the local convenience store," Rollins says. "You get all types of different reactions, but I'm sure the first thing people are asking is 'What the hell is she doing out here?' ...But this morning, Kelli and I had drove together, and we stopped in this convenience store that was probably about 10 miles out. No lie, it was probably 4 in the morning and all the tables outside were full. People were having their coffee, their cigarettes and we were like, 'Do you realize it's 4 in the morning, and the sun's not even up?'"
Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872