'Chuck' vs. the Retrospective Interview, Part 4
Timothy Dalton and Linda Hamilton join in the fun, and Chuck and Sarah get hitched and
"Chuck" airs its series finale Friday night at 8 on NBC, and it's time for the penultimate installment of our 5-part retrospective interview with creators Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz, to discuss the show's fourth season.
Schwartz actually only cameos at the beginning of this one, as he had to leave early to attend a meeting for another show he works on. After he left, Fedak and I took a ride to the empty stage on the Warner Bros. lot that used to house the Buy More set, to get one last look at a place where so many crazy things (including shootouts, sexy entrances and the inaugural Jeffster! performance) had happened over the life of the series.
Now, season three ends. Chuck has told Ellie he is going to quit the CIA and he’s going to work out of his dad’s basement and all of that, and then you walk that back pretty quickly at the start of season four.
Josh Schwartz Yeah, we were kind of made to.
Chris Fedak: Yeah.
Chris Fedak: The one thing you brought up — what would we have done earlier? — and keeping Ellie out of the loop for so long, if we could do it all over again, that would have been something (to do sooner).
Well, in both the season three finale and then the season four finale, there were big changes, but then reverted back to other things quickly.
Chris Fedak: How so?
Like, Morgan is only the Intersect for about four or five episodes.
Chris Fedak: Yeah, but it’s still four or five episodes.
Josh Schwartz It’s half the season.
Chris Fedak: It’s a third of the season and we kind of built it that way, but when we talk about the money on the show, Carmichael Industries uses Castle. That’s a dynamic where you make the show make sense, but it is a different type of entity. It’s much more of a freelance operation, especially in that first half of the season.
If the budget had been different, and you're not married to the sets as the ones you had to keep using, would they still be operating out of the Buy More and all of that or might you have done something else?
Josh Schwartz Well we flirted with it. Look, we blew up the Buy More. We were prepared to walk away from the Buy More and find new jobs and reasons for keeping Big Mike, Jeff and Lester in the show and I think there was a lot of concern about the Buy More an iconic element of the show. "It’s fine if you want to blow it up, but it better get rebuilt," and that led to a lot of fun of like the new kind of-
Chris Fedak: Spy version of it.
Josh Schwartz Yeah, high end and version of Buy More. It was basically, we vacuumed the carpets.
(Schwartz's assistant tells him he has to go to a meeting.)
All right, I will continue with Fedak.
Josh Schwartz Yeah, I don’t get to be part of anything else after the end of season three? Linda Hamilton? Timothy Dalton? Can I tell the Timothy Dalton story?
Chris Fedak: Please.
Tell the Timothy Dalton story.
Josh Schwartz So we’re obsessed with Timothy, with James Bond obviously and Timothy Dalton being one of the only—what—four guys, five guys and we wanted him forever. We’ve always wanted Timothy Dalton on the show. So we finally get him in the room and we’re told one thing: "Don’t mention Bond." So I have to scrub my office because I literally have James Bond trading cards and the mug Chris gave me. A lot of James Bond paraphernalia in the room and so we’re sitting there. We’re not talking about James Bond and talking about Volkoff and the character and all that and there is this rack of books, which was over here before and this is from my old office. I haven’t looked at it in forever and we’re like almost done with the meeting. We’re like five minutes from closing and this book (a James Bond coffee table book with a "007" on the spine) is literally in the back. And all of the sudden he just looks over from across the room and he sees it in the tiniest font and he goes, “Well there it is: 007.” Fedak and I are like, "He just said 007 in front of us! It was amazing!" And then he started talking about it. I don't know who said it was his issue because he was very upfront. It was thrilling for us.
Chris Fedak: But we thought we had been found out. We were trying to be so cool: "He’s not going to be anything like James Bond. We don’t even know what that is."
Josh Schwartz Yeah. "We’re fairly familiar with James, but you were James Bond? That’s so weird!" And we were terrified afterwards that we had blown it, but he signed on. And he was the most fun.
(Schwartz exits, and we go to the empty stage, where a crewmember asks Fedak to pose — in front of where the Nerd Herd desk used to be — for a time-lapse video they're doing of the set's deconstruction. I stand off to the side and snap this picture, and then we go to Fedak's office to continue the discussion.)
We'll take a break from the chronology for a minute to talk about what just happened there. How did that feel?
Chris Fedak: It feels—it’s amazing. Five years ago, we started working on the show and when people are building stuff it’s kind of like you can’t believe that it’s stuff that you’ve just written on paper. It’s not a blueprint. It’s not like you’ve done any like structural work, but someone is actually taking those words and turning them into a store and the Buy More set, just from a production perspective was always an amazing set. You could shoot it. Anybody could shoot it and it always looked great and I think early on in season one we realized that the Buy More was a fun place to be and so much of it had to do with that set . To say good bye to it is an incredible thing.
I should have touched on this back when we were talking about Subway before, but it feels like the way the show survived after season two gave you guys license to be incredibly shameless with the product placement after that, especially for Subway. The fans have sort of accepted it because it was part of the story of the show at that point.
Chris Fedak: When we were looking at the new budget for the show, we knew that product placement was going to be integral to how we made the show work. So there was certain points where we were kind of in the tradition of the Texaco Theater. You know, if we're going to do a mini-commercial, it should also be funny. So when we did the peace treaty scene between Big Mike, Casey and Jeff and Lester in the Subway we always felt like it had to be somewhere and like it was a usual show. You could just put it in the Orange Orange, but instead it fits into a Subway and it’s a fun place to be. Of course the laundry list of ingredients was always the tricky part, but there is nothing more fun than having our writers try to figure out you know like how do we make banana peppers fun.
The other part of it too though is there is product placement that people identify as product placement, which isn’t product placement.
So what is something on the show that people would have thought was product placement, but wasn’t?
Chris Fedak: The white wine that Chuck drinks in our hacking episode was not product placement. The Tide stain stick, not product placement. At certain points we just want to be able to say the product name as opposed to the made-up thing because people know what the product is. It makes sense. There is a funnier word to say, but it’s much funnier to say those words, to say the specific product. If it’s the white wine that Chuck is obsessed with then it might as well be the white wine I drink because I have gout.
You come back for season four. You guys alluded to it earlier: Why exactly did you have to walk back some of the "Chuck is retired, Chuck is now operating out of Stephen’s basement chasing down all the Agent X people" stuff?
Chris Fedak: There was a notion that people wouldn’t know what the show was if the Buy More was not a part of it. That component of the show was something that people understood. The powers that be understood the show and it was the show that was part spy show, part situation comedy and it was a fear that if you left that part of the show even if you kept the characters - which was always our intention - then it wouldn’t be the same show anymore. So that’s where the Buy More spy base came about. It was us adjusting to keep the Buy More still part of the show.
Now one of the things that happened at the end of season three especially was the Morgan/Casey duo was created. Baldwin and Gomez had done some stuff together before, but not to that extent. At what point did you realize, "Hey, wait a minute, this is a combination we can do a lot with"?
Chris Fedak: hat’s an interesting question. When we had them on the train episode ("Honeymooners") looking for Chuck, searching for him, those scenes were so fantastic, just simply those two guys on a plane going to Europe. I think any moment after that we just knew that they were gold together because they both Adam is a very, very funny actor and Gomez is an incredibly talented comic actor and they just played amazingly together.
This is dialing back even further: with Baldwin, it seemed to me like Casey certainly had a role on the show and was good, but Casey didn’t seem to become consistently funny until the second season. Would you say that’s fair?
Chris Fedak: Well I think what you had in the first season was the man was instructed to kill Chuck. There was this very heightened kind of relationship between Chuck and Casey and that’s funny. I can watch those episodes and go, "You know, I have no intention of actually having Casey kill Chuck," so I can enjoy those lines, but I think that there is definitely an intention there that is different people watching for the first time.
Josh told the Dalton story before. With Linda Hamilton, how did you land on her as Mrs. Bartowski?
Chris Fedak: Same way as we landed on Dalton in that there is a short list that we put together and Linda was always if not at the top, always in the world of the person that we were looking for. So we sat down with her as well and we had a great meeting and she was just lovely to work with and she was also interested in doing something on a lighter show. She wanted to do something that was a little more comic and a little warmer than some of the stuff that she had done, the kind of iconic Linda Hamilton stuff, almost like back to the "Beauty and the Beast" days. That was a great conversation and she was phenomenal for us.
Were you prepared for how funny Dalton was going to be?
Chris Fedak: Yeah, we knew, especially coming off of what he had done with "Hot Fuzz" the fun Dalton side of his characters that are outside of the Bond world, like "The Rocketeer." You could see that Timothy really enjoys having fun and likes the more comic tone. He also really savors a villain and he loved Volkoff. All the stuff that we came up for Volkoff was based very much around the conversation we had with him, because with Timothy what’s very different from any other actor is that Tim likes to come in and talk to the writer and perform the part with the writer before the show shoots. And it’s great because he comes in; he wants to talk about everything and then he’ll perform bits and pieces of it, so you’ve written the monologue and Tim is like, “I want to really run at it.” And then he’ll do it and it’s Timothy freaking Dalton doing a big performance here in your office and you’re just like, "Please, please, please deliver 50% of that," and he always did more. If you look at season four it’s definitely a love letter to villains. Dalton was a fantastic part of the show and it was a character that we more and more obsessed over.
Had you planned for "Ring: Part Two"? "Other Guy" was clearly, "The show is over, this is it." "Ring: Part Two "obviously leaves some things open, so when you did that, that was more of a "maybe we’ll come back, maybe we won’t" kind of finale.
Chris Fedak: For the end of season three?
When Chuck and Shaw fight in the Buy More and the Buy More blows up and all of that.
Chris Fedak: In truth, we built all them the same way, which is that we wanted to blow them out in such a way that we thought it was like this will be a great finale as well as a great episode. I think that we might have felt a little more confident with the mom reveal because we were also setting up essentially what we wanted to do in the next season of the show. And it was also something we were doing because we were in a place with the ratings that we had some confidence that the show would come back and then we wanted to definitely tee up a big next season of the show.
The reason I ask is because "Push Mix" is much more in the vein of "Other Guy" where, again, it’s you ending the show.
Chris Fedak: Yes, we’re ending the show.
So this time: baby born, Chuck proposes. How did you decide, "All right, if this is the fourth time we’re ending then we’re going to end it this way"?
Chris Fedak: I think there was a point when we were working on that episode where that was a big conversation that Josh and I had was whether (episode) 13 would be the wedding of Chuck and Sarah or would 13 be where he actually proposes to her. I think that the thing we were struggling with is we didn’t think we had enough time to get to the wedding for 13, so we built the first 13 episodes around Chuck kneeling down and asking Sarah to marry him, and that definitely the Chuck/Sarah through-line of that side of the season, where you get the false proposal in 11, Chuck searching for Sarah in 12 and then in 13 finally getting that chance to ask her in the most unromantic place in the world in a hallway in a hospital with a man cleaning the floors.
Whose idea exactly was it to background them and foreground the floor cleaner guy?
Chris Fedak: When we were sitting in the room I got excited about the idea of it, the idea that in episode 11 — which is one of my favorite episodes, the Paris, France episode — it’s ridiculous and there is this great romantic moment and then with a beautiful view of the moon and him going to propose to her and it’s interrupted, and then we knew the place that would be the truly perfect place would be in the hospital, and that was part of our pitch. Usually, when we pitch the season we pitch like these big pieces and that was always going to be a part of it is that there would be a proposal, one proposal would be the perfect beautiful one and one would be the real one, which would take place in a real place with real people, and I got excited by the guy cleaning in the background because this romantic moment is taking place and (writers) Rafe (Judkins) and Lauren (LeFranc) did a fantastic job scripting that episode. It was also directed by one of our directors Peter Lauer, who has an amazing eye and he just killed it with the scene. He really understood what we wanted to go with and it’s one of the great moments of the show.
Now I'm trying to remember. I know that there had been little bits and pieces after, but is "Push It" the last actual full-blown Jeffster performance so far? Do they perform at all in the back half of that season?
Chris Fedak: I don’t think they do. I don’t think they do.
There is the joke in the fifth season premier or the second episode where Big Mike is like, "I'm getting tired of the whole Jeffster thing" and Lester admits he is too. Did you feel after a certain point like everybody loves this, but maybe enough is enough?
Chris Fedak: I think that we wanted to go a different—what we did—first of all, I loved Jeffster. It’s fantastic and I think that we’re not done yet.
I wouldn’t expect that you would be.
Chris Fedak: No, but we wanted to take it in a different direction and I think that you see that very much this season. It started very small stuff in the first couple of episodes, but then the moment we realized that Jeff has been inhaling carbon monoxide every night of his life and that if he just gets clean he’s kind of a different person, that was the opening — we really wanted to tell that story this year and how their relationship changes and how Vik would try to kill him and then Vik would wind up in jail. That just made us very happy because much like Gomez and the thing that we talked about before is that you need to find new things for characters and for them I think Smart Jeff was the beginning of their next phase.
Now getting back to the back half of season four, again you get the unexpected pick up. You had already basically completely the Volkoff story. You have to start over from scratch. In hindsight how do you feel like Vivian worked out as the villain of that half of the season?
Chris Fedak: I think 11 episodes is a lot of TV. That was a lot of TV to kind of to build. It did allow us to do shows like the General Beckman/Roan Montgomery episode. I wanted to meet the C.A.T. Squad because I love that opening sequence, but I do think that if we had had more time we might have done a different villain to a certain extent. But we also felt like Vivian was a way to look at the Chuck story from a different perspective. But in truth, the dark side of the Chuck story was something that we had played with for many episodes, even going back to season one with the "Sandworm" episode, the idea that Chuck is very lucky. He has fallen into the right hands, and then with Vivian we wanted to tell a story of someone who had fallen into the wrong hands and I think that that was a lot of fun. It was definitely different from what we usually do, because usually we don’t spend that much time with the bad guys. And we had a lot of scenes with her —
Her and Ray Wise, yeah.
Chris Fedak: And I think that that was a little bit different for the show and I think it was neat for us to do, but it was also different from our usual thing.
One thing I didn’t mention in the first half of season four is "Phase Three," which you two have listed among your favorite episodes. Everybody seems to love that. It feels like that was almost an accident because you just you needed a Zach-light episode since he was going to direct the next one. Talk about how that came together and what your reaction was both to it and then the fan reaction to it, because people went nuts for that one.
Chris Fedak: Oh yeah, absolutely. "Phase Three" was a lot of fun to do. It was incredible. We had a great young director on that episode, Anton Cropper, who is fantastic and it was an episode that we kind of knew that we needed to be Zach-light, but we also we had always wanted to do a "Sarah on fire" episode. We wanted to see that. We wanted to see what she would do when Chuck would be taken and she is all by herself, and that was something that we just really savored. And from the outline on, that episode had such energy, and every moment was driven toward Chuck and it also had like a great kind of like "Twilight Zone" story with Zach, and I think that that was really cool and we got the execution right throughout. And the writer on that episode, Kristin Newman, wrote just a great female action show. You know it’s like a great show in its right and I think that’s been the neat part of the show is to kind of be able to refocus on different people and just let them be the star of the show for an episode. And I think Yvonne of course is a person who is going to have many TV shows, if not movies in her future.
Yeah. "Anyone else want to be my boyfriend?"
Chris Fedak: She is so good. It’s so funny and we spent so much time on that episode. We started working on it and it was just like, "This is so complicated, so big. Can we do it?" But the "Chuck" team has always been able to do it — like on other shows, you would say "No, we can’t do that," but the "Chuck" team is always, "Let’s figure out how we can do it."
So you get towards the end of the season. A number of really big things happen again: Obviously the wedding, but before that Sarah is poisoned, they’re kicked out of the CIA, Chuck loses his powers, Morgan gets the Intersect power. What was your confidence level going into that finale that there would be a fifth season?
Chris Fedak: The same as every year, which is like, what, 50%? I would say there was a 50% chance that we would come back.
It's funny, because a few times you’ve ended the show in what turned out to be the middle of the season, but when you get to the end of the season you set up the cliffhangers.
Chris Fedak: And we wanted to do the wedding. I remember the notion of beginning act five of that episode 24 last year with the funeral and the pan down to the notice of the Sarah and Chuck Bartowksi wedding. What a bummer to show up for your wedding and then still have the funeral announcement up there. We wanted to do that big emotional story, but we also wanted to tee up something exciting and the idea of Morgan getting the Intersect was something that made us giggle. And also we knew that Morgan was so much the heart of the show, but what if he turned into a giant douche when he had the Intersect? And that was the beginning of season five, and the more we talked about it that the Intersect became a little bit of a different thing for the show. It became a bit of a dangerous thing of what happens if it’s in somebody else.
So it was more about giving it to Morgan and less about "We’ve told as many stories with Chuck with the Intersect as we can."
Chris Fedak: Sure. Now there was more along the lines of like what happens when Morgan gets it and what does that mean. Because one of the funny parts of it is, is like the first episode of Morgan trying to be a super spy and him having some of those abilities and what does that fish out of water story look like. But the second part of it was what happens when it affects his personality and why does it affect his personality.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Coming up tomorrow: Morgan has the Intersect, Casey gets a girlfriend and the series heads towards the finish line.