Interview: Denis Leary & Peter Tolan from Rescue Me

by Emma Loggins

We had the honor of sitting down with Denis Leary and Peter Tolan to discuss Rescue Me, the characters, the minisodes, and what’s in store for next season. Here’s what they had to say:

I watched the minisodes. I think they’re hilarious and I was wondering would any of the stories in them be, you know, feeding into season – the new season as we wait for that?

Peter Tolan: Well there’s a couple of things as we’ve been writing them that not only foreshadow stories that we know are occurring in Episode Five, but they also weirdly, psychologically tie into some of the past knowledge that we have of these characters and that the audience has too.

So it’s – some of them are just out there for laughs and some of them are – we just shot one that is a little more dramatic. And again, it’s interesting – if you watched all ten of them in a row, I think you’d start out laughing and then somewhere in the middle you’d go, oh that was an interesting thing.

I wonder what that was. And then by the end you’d go hey, I wonder if this is stuff that’s going to be happening in Season Five. And some of this stuff actually will be.

It’s particularly inevitable that we would have ended up writing in little clues and hints, and things like that that sort of bridge the gap, you know.

I wanted to ask you specifically about Timo and Rosemary. Why is it that they kind of both were the siblings that never were?

Denis Leary: Well because it’s a very large Irish family and as there’s (all want), we can’t cover everybody’s story because we have about eight guys in the firehouse and we have the love interests which, you know, includes not only Janet and Sheila from season to season but in general, a couple of guest stars or one guest star a season.

So, you know, then you got the other guys and their lives. So we – I think as a natural course of events, focus more on dad which is Charles Durning’s character and Johnny Gavin, Dean Winters’ character, because that’s where the strengths fell.

But, you know, it’s like I said, a large Irish family. You have to have a (systemic planet) but, you know, like Uncle Mickey – I mean, cousin Mick – Father Mickey — Bobby Burke’s character who has been with us since season one — he is very busy at the beginning of season five.

It depends on where we’re at story-wise, you know.

So Timo and Rosemary were just – they’re sort of satellite siblings at this point.

Peter Tolan: We’ve also established just like a lot of families — even beyond Irish families — there are a lot feuds going on and people who have a falling out. And clearly, Tatum’s character had that with Charlie and the Rosemary character had that with Charlie’s character.

So there have been a lot of – maybe – that was probably a very contentious household, I get the feeling.

I’m just wondering because FX has kind of a habit of renewing really long, you know, lengthy seasons — 22 plus episodes. Do you know once you guys come back are all 22 going to air consecutively?

Peter Tolan: Yeah, they are.

Denis Leary: Yeah.

What are the challenges of writing and filming in five minute increments as opposed to your usual, you know, 42 to 44 minute segments?

Denis Leary: The challenges? Well the challenges, I guess physically we’re adding them into the schedule that we’re already shooting and because we’re shooting 22 episodes we have a lot of work in front of us.

But the (fun) of it is that we know like the first few are just purely comedy for comedy’s sake. And even, I guess yesterday we finished shooting one that has a more dramatic element to it.

The – you know, like Jimmy McCaffrey who plays Jimmy Keefe came in yesterday and worked in a scene, and it just kind of makes you hungry to do some more things with him and he’s not really doing a full blown episode until the next block.

So it’s just, you know, you’re – it’s like you take a person at work that you haven’t seen in awhile, you might want to see more of, you know.

Peter Tolan: If there’s a challenge, it’s just that, you know, we usually have all that time to tell stories and you’re sort of not forced into a beginning, middle and end thing in that short of timeframe.

But it’s a fun challenge and, you know, more than anything we just want to have a good time with those and have them be comedy heavy, and really show off our guys.

Back in May you announced on The Daily Show that the fifth season of Rescue Me was going to be delayed until March 2009. How have the fans responded to that news?

Denis Leary: Fans, oh. Generally – I mean, when I – I’m spending a lot of time working on rescues so it’s not – usually if I see the fans it’s like outside The Daily Show or the David Letterman show the other night.

They – I think they want us to get – because usually we’re on the air now, so they want us to be on the air. But when you tell them listen we’re coming out (next) (unintelligible) coming on for 22 weeks straight, they go oh, that’d be great.

I know when I was a Sopranos fan, when the Sopranos was off for like a year and a half or two years at a time, everybody would complain and say, you know, I’m so mad and I’m so pissed and how can they do this?

And I would just go yeah whatever because it was my favorite show. So when it came on, I would just – I would watch it. So look it, we wish it was on, too but I think when it comes back on it’ll be so – such a giant bunch of episodes, I think it’ll be very – hopefully not sated – not completely sated, but somewhat satisfied.

Peter Tolan: And what I’m saying to our fans now — and it’s not – it’s certainly not hyperbole, it’s the absolute truth — the first six episodes that we’ve finished here are some of the best episodes we’ve ever done in the life of the series.

So when we come back, we’re coming back very strong and in a relentless way. All these episodes are really, really strong. So people will definitely be rewarded for their long wait.

Peter Tolan: And that’s a totally unbiased opinion from the co-creator of the show.

Denis Leary: My wife said that she felt they were really good.

What keeps Tommy together after all the deaths he’s experienced recently: his son, his brother, his chief and now his father?

Denis Leary: Well the thing I think that’s always kept him together — as with a lot of firefighters in real life who – especially in New York, you know, guys who lived through 9/11 and have been through a lot of life and death — is the idea of work.

It’s just keeping themselves off the truck and therefore, they don’t get a chance to think about the past because they’re so involved in the present and the fire that might happen in five minutes or the fire that they just arrived at.

You know, they sort of have that at present sense of like there’s a game tomorrow, you know, and I got to be ready. But I think in a strange way his father’s death is kind of the final straw for him because he doesn’t really – it’s – you know, it’s the death that you most expect because it’s a person who is old or a person who is ill that can sometimes be the most effective one because it’s – you think it is going to be easy and it’s not.

And I think that’s – the first six episodes, seven episodes that Peter is talking about this year underneath everything that’s happening is (unintelligible) Tommy.

I think in the first episode we established the fact that Tatum’s character, his cousin Mickey, his Uncle Teddy, even the guys on the crew – they’re all sort of kind of still upset about the loss of his father and he seems to be unaffected by it.

And then gradually it comes to literally haunt him to the point where he has to finally deal with not only his father’s death, but his father’s death is kind of like the exclamation point at the end of the sentence.

And it involves his son’s death and all the guys on 9/11, et cetera, you know.

Peter, if you had an ultimate end plan for the characters in your mind? Will there be any happy endings because there’s so much drama and a lot of sadness, and anger? And I’m just wondering what you think – if you have a plan?

Peter Tolan: Well Denis and I have talked over the years several times about sort of the – where Tommy ends up and I’m not sure that’s entirely a happy end. But I think for some of the characters we would hope to see some positive finish to their stories as we tell them.

I mean, we always – people always say to me why can’t you guys write a happy – a good – a happy, content male/female relationship or a happy ending for things? And which I always say well you write it and see if you can make it interesting.

Because obviously conflict and, you know, bad choices are much more interesting to write than just, you know, equilibrium.

Peter Tolan: So I think we can’t be mean forever. I think we’re going to give some of our characters a nice way out, you know.

How are you finding it tackling a season that’s pretty much double what you’re used to? I mean, are there going to be plots that stretch the whole length or, you know, what’s the plan there?

Denis Leary: Well listen, you know, I’m a sports fan so I think of it this way.

Going in, we knew that we would be shooting fro the end of the current, most recent football season into spring training, through the entire playoffs in hockey and basketball – and right where we are now, which is the rest of the baseball season to the beginning of the new football season.

Hockey and basketball next year – into those playoffs and back. We’ll be finishing shooting right as…

Peter Tolan: March Madness.

Denis Leary: No, we won’t. We’ll be finishing probably at the end of the basketball playoffs next year.

Peter Tolan: Okay, all right.

Denis Leary: So I’ve never done even a movie that lasted that long. So I think we’re approaching it really like episode by episode. It’s a 12-step program. It’s 12 episodes and then 12 more episodes. So it’s almost like we’re in TV rehab at this point, you know.

We don’t really get to see much of the outside world except when we’re shooting in the streets of New York and – but I’m not complaining. Believe me, this is way better than sitting around waiting for a strike to end.

Peter Tolan: But we have worked in enough time over the next year that we can sort of have some room to breathe. So it isn’t like the Bataan Death March. I mean, we’re getting – we’re going to get through it.

Denis Leary: We’re having a good time, actually.

Peter Tolan: Yes, definitely that.

Whose idea was it to do the mini episodes in the first place?

Denis Leary: Oh, you know, I…

Peter Tolan: I think John.

Denis Leary: John Landgraf who is the head of FX, who has come up with a lot of good ideas over the year – more than Peter and I would like to admit because he has (done) so many times on Rescue Me, he has said but if you guys did this and we go god dammit, why didn’t we think about that?

He’s a very bright guy and obviously a big fan of the show. And so when he said to us look, the best programming idea for us is to – we have the last season of The Shield which is kind of the flagship show for that network and that needs to run in its entirety.

Meanwhile, we had been pushed back already in terms of – you know, Peter and I and Evan Reilly, the other writer on the show, we’re not the kind of guys who actually wrote anything for the show while we were on strike.

You know, we actually – we would talk but we didn’t actually punch any keys on the computer. I love this thing when the strike ends on a Sunday night and Monday morning some of these shows have four scripts ready to shoot that they saved – apparently wrote Sunday night.

So we were pushed back on the writing anyway. John wanted to run The Shield after the two conventions and the Olympics which occur in August and September this year – which automatically meant that we would have to go in either January which when I think 24 comes back after having like a long hiatus because of the strike or we would wait until the springtime which is closer to when we normally air.

And that would leave 18 or 19 months with us off the air. And so this show is built on comedy and drama. That’s always been one of our things from the beginning which is organic to any firehouse, the idea of black humor versus absolute black sudden death.

So we have something that other dramas don’t have. I don’t think you could do a three to five minute mini episode of the Sopranos because you’d have to what, like wax somebody, have a meal, you know what I mean, and then have Tony having sex with a prostitute.

You know, it doesn’t work. But on this show, because we have these comic conversations that occur in the firehouse and in the truck, it was a natural element that we could pull off.

And I think when John said I’d like to have you guys go on the air and give people something to remember the show by while we’re on hiatus, we thought it was a really, really good idea.

Denis, you mentioned Sopranos layoff and how long you waited for that sort of stuff. Were you concerned when you found out how long it would be before you came back with regular episodes, about people maybe losing the thought or sight of the series?

Denis Leary: Yeah but, you know, everything happens for a reason so I kind of – especially when it involved the strike, your first reaction is wow, that means we’re not going to be on the air.

The second reaction as a writer is well we’ll have more time and Peter’s a director on this show, too. We’ll have more time, which we don’t normally have, to write and to dwell on things.

And the truth is – I mean, I can’t speak for other people, but I was a Sopranos freak and I don’t care if they took three years off between, you know, (strike) because I still would’ve watched it with – I was really invested in that series.

So I think it’s – for people who are really into it, they will come right back to it. And I’m – look it, I’m totally biased about this and so is Peter. But I’m telling you, Peter has a lot more experience than me and way more Emmy’s by the way because I have none.

When I tell you that I really – I got to believe that layoffs and the strike, not only did it help us to come back with a lot more energy, the actors came back and the thing is really cooking.

So I really think that the extra time has, for some reason — and the strike — reminded all of us of how lucky we are. And it’s really – the episodes are really good – really, really strong and the actors have brought an extra – I think they were on steroids, actually, the actors at this point because they’re just – they’re better than they’ve ever been, you know.

You know, that’s the secret acting – they’re on acting HGH. I don’t know where they’re getting it. I think they’re getting it from (Clemens).

I feel like Tommy is the longest time you’ve played a character and I just wondered as an actor does that present unique challenges having the length of time playing the same character?And does that – and do you look for specific things in your outside Rescue Me projects that are – characters that are un-Tommy like or really give you – push you in a different direction than Tommy might?

Denis Leary: Well I’ll be honest with you. I’m old enough and experienced enough with movies that I turn down almost everything that people offer me because it – you know, I have – I enjoy doing Rescue Me.

When I have time off, I’d rather be producing and not in front of the camera. Yeah, there are certain people like Martin Scorsese or Peter Cohen – certain directors that I’d work with and (unintelligible) even if they were shooting in Thailand, you know.

But I – you know, like anybody, you know look it – the truth is everybody gets pigeonholed so you’re only going to get – I’m not going to get called up for the flaming gay, homosexual parts, you know, in the next Meryl Streep project, you know. Like the…

Peter Tolan: As he mentions that, I’m sitting here praying that the phone rings any minute.

Denis Leary: So, you know, I look – I want to do something different. I want to, you know, like any actor get pushed in a different direction. But I’m also a selfish, greedy son-of-a-bitch so I’ve – basically shows and film projects that only shoot in New York and involve friends of mine.

I did Recount because Kevin Spacey called me up and said come on, it’s mostly me and you. We’ll be working together. And I like Kevin, and he’s funny. And I thought the script was good.

But I’m pretty selfish. I like to work with – I like to have a good time at work. Most movies suck because no matter what happens, the odds are against you so I’d rather do it with somebody that I’m really going to laugh my ass of with every day and then take my chances on whether it’s good or not, you know.

Rescue Me is one of the earlier shows to start filming in New York and now big – a lot more shows are. And I just didn’t know does that affect production at all? Are you finding yourself running into other shows at all or anything like that?

Denis Leary: No, we think it’s really good that New York is now – I think there’s 15 movies and television shows besides us coming in, in the next few months. And our plan, quite frankly, is the shows that we don’t want to compete with we’re just going to start fires on their sets and then we’re going to drive over there in our truck and put it out. And we go you guys can’t shoot here. It’s all wet.

Peter Tolan: It’s a – it’s our equivalent of just having a rumble with all the other shows that are shooting in New York.

Denis Leary: We’re pretty sure we can take Ugly Betty’s cast on, you know, in hand to hand combat. So…

Peter Tolan: I would say – I could say we could do it as long as America Ferrera is not working on the day. I think then we may – that may tip the scales to their favor, but I think we can do it. She is a lovely girl by the way.

And by the way, we really shouldn’t be talking to the Herald because I delivered the Patriot Ledger as a kid.

And so this is a conflict of interest for me.

Did the long layoffs and the extra time, you know, getting – did that kind of change anything you were doing or refocus any stories you’re working on for the coming year?

Denis Leary: I think it just made us – it made us…

Peter Tolan: It probably…

Denis Leary: …more than anything, anxious to get back to work.

Peter Tolan: Yeah.

Denis Leary: And as we were more – as we – the more anxious we got about let’s get in there, we started to actually get more excited. And, you know, you want to go into the fifth season of a show facing 22 episodes when you normally do 13 fully excited about the project you’re working on.

And we really – we got there and we’re still there – now six or seven, or eight episodes in as we’re breaking them. So it’s really a – it’s actually great. And I think it actually helped a little bit.

Kind of – you know, I think now I realize, you know, Peter and I are both from Massachusetts and I’m finding a link between how well the Red Sox are playing and how good our writing is.

It seems to me that the Red Sox play well, we write well and so I’m hoping they’re not going to go into a slump because then we’ll find out for certain.

How many of the mini-episodes are you all doing?

Peter Tolan: Ten.

Joel Brown: Does anyone know? Ten, okay.

Peter Tolan: Ten.

Is it different – we’ve been hearing so much in the contract negotiations and in pretty much every business story that goes on now about, you know, Internet distribution and mobile distribution and all that. And I’m just wondering if that – you know, does that affect the way you do things technically? What do you think about the idea that somebody might be watching these on their cell phone two days later? I mean, this whole – it’s kind of this whole brave new world and I’m just wondering what you think about that from your end of the business.

Denis Leary: Well I have a hard time. My – I have kids. I have teenagers and they watch stuff on their iPods and on their telephones. And, you know, to me it’s like for the first time in my life pretty much wherever you go there’s giant plasma television screens which are barely big enough for me.

I really like gigantic televisions. So the idea of going back to look at something on my – I can barely see the telephone numbers on my phone, you know. I really don’t care how they watch them, as long as they watch them.

But I like to watch stuff like on the – remember when we used to go to the drive-ins?

Peter Tolan: Sure.

Denis Leary: That’s the size screen I want for the living room.

There was a USA Today article that ran today where the head of FX mentioned he thought the minisodes would do very well online because of the length. Are you guys hoping that there’ll be a way to reach new viewers?

Denis Leary: Well yeah. I mean, obviously the attention span – well I have a very short one myself, but kids today have a very short attention span. That whole You Tube thing, which I’m guilty of – going on You Tube and watching the, you know, overly dramatic squirrel and all that stuff.

So if you can get something that – that works in our favor again, the comedy element of Rescue Me. The fact that we’re a drama that has comic elements in it. If you can get three to five minutes or six or seven minutes and people can get on and watch it, and all of a sudden you go I’ve heard this show was good and I just watched this really funny thing, it’s – that’s a form of advertising I guess, you know.

It’s – it may hopefully bring some people to the show that haven’t been there before.

Peter Tolan: That would be a great side benefit to pick up some extra viewers. I’ve always sort of look at these as our – as a little gift to our fans to say, you know, here we come. Don’t worry, we’ll be back. But yeah, it would be great if we could get some other interest in the show.

Denis Leary: It never ceases to amaze me. You know, my wife never watched the Sopranos but I was a freak for it. And then my wife decided because it was so hot as it was approaching its final season, she’s like I’m going to watch the final season.

And I was like how could you watch the final season without knowing what was going on in the other seasons? But people do that stuff, you know. So if they just join us up for season five, hey welcome in.

And I’m wondering what characters do you miss that have died – have been killed off?

Peter Tolan: Oh really.

Denis Leary: Oh boy.

Peter Tolan: They all tend to come back even if they’re dead, so it’s not a question of missing them I guess. I don’t know, who would it be?

Denis Leary: Well I got to – I don’t know. I mean, because they do come back – like we’re writing a big scene. I guess it’s sort of a tribute to the Iceman Cometh where Tommy is visited in the bar by several of the ghosts and, you know, I always look forward to those scenes because you get to see – we’re the only show – actually, I guess the Sopranos did it too when (unintelligible) Big Pussy would come back.

But, you know, you get to see Charles Durning, you know, come back for three days’ work and, you know, Dean Winters and Jimmy McCaffrey. So I don’t really – I don’t miss them because we know they’re going to be around.

Peter Tolan: Yeah, nobody dies forever on Rescue Me.

Denise, you’re wife is an author. She’s got a great book out and I’m wondering if you ever – if she ever offers any ideas to you and Peter about certain arcs for maybe the women characters?

Denis Leary: She doesn’t offer ideas but she definitely mentions the stuff that she really likes or, you know, this performance was great or that scene was fantastic. She’s not specific unless it’s that – in sort of that fashion, you know.

Peter, can you give us an idea of how the season – just an overall picture of how the season is going to wind up for Tommy?

Peter Tolan: You’re going to have to call us back in about a month and a half because we’re, as usual, flying by the seat of our pants. We have wonderful ideas for the entire end of the series as a whole.

We have what we think is an idea that’s never been done by anybody and I think we’ve committed to that. But that’s a little ways off for us now. So…

How many scripts you guys have already written for Season Five.

Denis Leary: We have written six and we are about – well actually we’ve written – I’ve written into eight. Peter has written into seven, but we have six full finished and we’re going to have seven and eight done probably this week.

And, you know, we’ve always done Rescue Me the same way, which is we’re two episodes ahead of ourselves as we shoot and a lot of that has to do not just for the storytelling, but we’re watching the actors as they play out what we’ve written already.

And they almost always bring something extra and make us go oh, that’s really interesting. Let’s stick with that for a little bit longer or we hadn’t thought of that, you know, so it’s almost – it’s a very exciting process.

And it’s scary and everything else, but because we have such a terrific core set of actors in our main characters, it’s – really, it’s not only comedically, but dramatic.

Last night John Scurti did something at the end of a very funny scene that was supposed to be dramatic and he did something with it that was really unbelievably scary and good.

And it came out of nowhere. It was an idea that he had in his head and he – I stopped cameras because I was in the scene with him and I – and as soon as he did it, I thought my God this is great.

So that raises the stakes a little bit in the relationship between Lou and Tommy this year.

Are there any little spoilers you could give us for the first episodes you’ve written?

Denis Leary: Oh, you know, the problem with us is we’re – now that we’ve writing seven and eight, we’ve forgotten what’s the first episode. The only – we can only remember – and after four full seasons, you’re like what was on that show? You know, I mean, it’s really hard to remember.

I just know that in terms of fires, I think you’ll probably see the most amazing fire we’ve ever done in the first episode.

Peter Tolan: Oh that’s right. Right.

Denis Leary: Yeah. In which, you know, frankly I nearly gave up my life several times to shoot.

Peter Tolan: You’re talking about the thing in the warehouse?

Denis Leary: In the warehouse.

Peter Tolan: Oh, yeah that’s a big – yeah, there’s a pretty big, exciting fire.

Exciting. You know, this is – we get so excited about fire on this show. It’s a very scary fire – especially scary for you.

Denis Leary: Yeah.

Peter Tolan: But for us it was exciting to see.

Denis Leary: It’s a great fire.

Do you have any guest stars or cameos that are going to be appearing in season five?

Peter Tolan: Yes.

Denis Leary: We do, we have – yeah, probably by the end we’ll have three or four but we have – one I can’t tell you yet because we’re not legally allowed to tell you.

I mean, one is Karina Lombard who, in this country, is probably most famous for The L Word. And she is playing a French journalist who is working on a tenth anniversary 9/11 book and she…

And she gets involved with Tommy, I’m sure.

Denis Leary: You know, I’m not going to tell you what she gets involved with. It might be a surprise to you, but she gets involved with everybody in the firehouse to begin with because she’s trying to get their feelings and their experiences of 9/11 written down so she can put them into this coffee table book that’s due to come out, you know, on the tenth anniversary. So… It’s complicated, but it’s really interesting.

So I would go out on a limb and say that in terms of another bit of stunt casting, given what we’ve written for that character and given the person that we hope to get to play it, I would fully anticipate an Emmy nomination for best guest starring role.

Denis Leary: That means Peter’s hoping to play that part himself.

Peter Tolan: No, once again I’ve been found out.

Denis, your Leary’s Firefighters Foundation does a lot of work with firefighters across the country. Can you please talk about any recent projects you’ve undertaken with the foundation?

Denis Leary: Yeah, the project that we’re — amongst other things — we’re finishing up rebuilding a number of firehouses in New Orleans which is an ongoing project. But the thing that we are working on in New York right now is building the first high rise simulator.

A high rise simulator is what it sounds like. It’s a building that allows firefighters to reenact or enact circumstances that involve going up into a skyscraper as they did on 9/11.

And this building that we’re building for them will allow them to change the outline on the floors of the simulator so that it can actually almost match any setup that they would find in any given old building or brand new building that’s, you know, 20, 30 or higher story wise in the city.

And they’ve never had one, which is really hard to believe that in the biggest, you know, city in the world with the biggest fire department, they’ve never had a high rise simulator and it was something we set out to do years ago.

We broke ground last spring. We’ve already got two or three stories up and it’s really – I mean, the firefighters can’t wait for this thing to get under full operation.

But that’s one of those – you know, the more you investigate this in whatever city you live in, the more you’ll find out that every single fire department in North America has a lack of equipment and a lack of training facilities.

So I’m proudest of that one right now in New York. We can’t get it done soon enough. And as soon as it’s finished, they’re going to be using it, you know, around the clock.

Rescue Me


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