The set of the most expensive television series ever produced in Canada - CTV's new cop drama Flashpoint - oozes testosterone.
Costing roughly $1.6-million to $1.8-million an episode to make, the producers could
afford to outfit the first floor of Toronto's Cinespace Film Studio with all the high-tech muscle befitting the so-called Strategic Response Unit (an elite tactical unit modelled on Toronto's own police squad).
Besides a fully equipped gym, there is also a massive locker room (with a separate quarter for the sole female cast member) stocked with intimidating combat gear such as sniper rifles, snake cameras, flash-bangs, night-vision equipment and tasers.
The walls are decorated with placards instructing the team on how to deploy - in one instance - a time-delay pipe bomb with horseshoe magnets.
And in the midst of all this machismo are the show's two male leads, Enrico Colantoni (who plays the team's head negotiator, Sergeant Gregory Parker) and Hugh Dillon (lead sniper Ed Lane).
Dressed in SWAT gear and appearing totally comfortable toting rifles, the two actors look very much the part of the resident tough guys.
"I started prepping for this role a year and a half ago when we started doing the pilot," says Dillon, 45, a Kingston native who won raves recently for his role in the suspense thriller Durham County. "I was working with some of the ETF [Emergency Task Force]- guys who I really got to know. It helped me gain a lot more empathy and passion for what I'm trying to do in this role, because suddenly you know them, and you want to do them justice." Each episode involves a "flashpoint" crisis that occurs at the start of a SRU shift.
"I was never on the right side of the law in my earlier years," adds Dillon, a former member of the now defunct rock band the Headstones, who credits his wife, Midori Fujiwara, for helping him get to rehab (five times) to quit heroin and alcohol addictions. (He's now the front man for a band called the Hugh Dillon Redemption Choir.) "Now I have this admiration and respect for these guys," Dillon says. "When the scripts came along, they were so genuinely passionate, that it was impossible for me not to get totally into it."
The 45-year-old Colantoni also takes the badge seriously. "My brother was a cop here in Toronto for 30 years," says Colantoni, best known as the womanizing fashion photographer Elliot DiMauro in NBC's long-running hit, Just Shoot Me. "I read the script. Loved it. But more important, it was like coming home. Growing up, [my brother]was my hero. So it was a chance to pay homage. My brother came on set and said it rings true to him. He looks at me with pride, which he hardly ever does. He's also been my biggest critic."
The 13-part series - the first Canadian drama to be picked up by a major U.S. network (CBS) since Due South 14 years ago - is in frantic production. With the first episode slated to air on CTV and CBS tomorrow night (10 ET), the show's producers Anne Marie La Traverse and Bill Mustos are under the gun to deliver episodes. To date, they've got eight in the can, with five more to go.
The co-producers - who are fully aware there is a lot riding on the success of the show - admit that they're pretty much running on empty. "Everyone hopes the show is going to succeed," La Traverse says. "And that this kind of marriage [between CTV and CBS]is going to happen again. But right now we're just exhausted, and working very hard at simply doing the best we can. Now it's up to the audiences."
Each episode is shot over the course of seven days. Proudly Toronto-centred, the filmmakers have shot in venues ranging from Commerce Court, Queens Quay, York Mills and Rosedale mansions, Osgoode Hall and the Fairmont Royal York Hotel.
The first hour, which involves an angry man who shoots his wife and then takes another woman hostage, was inspired by 1994's Union Station standoff between an armed gunman and police. Co-creators Stephanie Morgenstern (who plays the hostage in the first episode) and Mark Ellis were transfixed by the situation when it unfolded live on the news four years ago. They pitched the idea to La Traverse and Mustos (a former CTV executive, turned independent producer) who took it to CTV. The network green-lit a splashy pilot, which was the pivotal selling point for CBS, last January.
To ensure the authenticity of the show, the creators turned to Barney McNeilly, a retired veteran with 35 years on Toronto's police force. They also brought members of the city's Emergency Task Force on set. The cast - which also includes David Paetkau, Michael Cram, Sergio Di Zio, and Mark Taylor - were also shipped off to a training camp for Israeli soldiers.
Mustos and La Traverse fought hard to get Dillon the starring role as the SRU team leader. Long typecast as the silent, brooding bad guy, La Traverse says she saw more behind that façade. "It's crucial that the audience care for our characters," she says. "As soon as I saw a sneak copy of him in Durham County, I realized there is a life lived behind Hugh's eyes. I knew we'd found our Ed Lane."
As for Colantoni? A week before going to camera, they had still not found Sgt. Parker. Then La Traverse stumbled across the fact that Colantoni was Canadian. She called his agent. He jumped at the opportunity to come home for a stint.
"I was born here," says Colantoni, who grew up in Toronto's St. Clair/Oakwood neighbourhood and is currently renting a house in the Beaches. "This is the first time I've been back in a way of any substance," adds the actor, who lives in Los Angeles.
"In the past two years, I've become very nostalgic for home," says the divorced actor, who studied at New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts. "I'm watching my kids growing up in L.A., and all I can think is Toronto was a great place to be a kid. I guess I'm pining for those days, and thinking about retirement. I think we all end up going home eventually."
CTV has two homegrown shows heading to U.S. networks in the next few months. First up, is Flashpoint. In the fall, on CTV Sundays at 10 p.m., is The Listener, from Shaftesbury Films. NBC has said it will air that program in the summer of 2009.
Mustos and La Traverse are candid about the fact that they were at first worried about going out with a new series in the summer - when many people tune out of TV land. But after mulling it over, the long-time colleagues say they've come down on the side that a July release may be a good thing.
"The American networks now tend to launch their entire schedule in the third week of September, which creates this unbelievable collision of shows," Mustos says. "We think being one of two original dramas being launched on CBS this summer [the other is Swingtown]is an advantage for us. In the fall, you also don't get the same media attention and promotion from the networks, who have their plates full."
Meanwhile, back on set, Dillon and Colantoni are giving each other some pointers on how to handle an emotionally tense scene in the locker room. Jokesters when the camera is turned off, they both become incredibly focused when the red light flashes back on.
"When you watch this stuff go down on the TV news, it seems surreal," Dillon says. "But when you meet - and hang out with - the guys who do this line of work, it gives you a whole new perspective. They deserve our respect."