Successful mission

_This article first appeared in the February 19, 2009 issue of [The Stage](http://www.thestage.co.uk/)_

**Jon Cassar, executive producer of hit US series _24_, tells Scott Matthewman about how the writers’ strike affected the show, how it mirrors current affairs and its future**

When it first hit the air in November 2001, Fox Broadcasting’s **24** quickly established itself, becoming known worldwide as much for its adrenaline-fuelled, split-screen real time drama as for its post-9/11 relevance.

With each series spanning a day in the improbable life of counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer, it won leading actor Kiefer Sutherland a Golden Globe.

After six successful seasons on air, when the writers’ strike hit in 2007, filming was halted. Rather than broadcast the eight episodes already shot and wait until the strike was over before continuing the series, Fox delayed broadcast of
the seventh season for a full year so that all 24 episodes could run in a continuous block. For 24’s executive producer Jon Cassar, this was a mixed blessing for the show.

“The strike was a horrible thing, especially for the business,” he says, “but we are probably the show that benefited the most from the strike, for many different reasons.”

One benefit was the commission of one-off TV movie **24: Redemption**, which relocated action to Africa and guest starred Robert Carlyle. “It gave us the ability to move Jack away from his usual confines, so that was really interesting to us. And then there was this massive anticipation by the time we aired [season seven]. We thought it was probably going to be a death knell for us, being off the air for a year and a half. But in fact, the exact opposite happened. The fall season was pretty well a disaster at this point and nothing new came out that had anybody’s interest, so there was this real yearning for the old shows to come back. So it kind of worked out in our favour.”

The enforced gap in the production schedule also enabled some creative tweaks. While the plot structure of the episodes in the can did not change, Cassar says that it gave the writing team a welcome ability to rewrite and reshoot some scenes.

“You usually don’t have that luxury because you’re moving at a pace that has all these deadlines, none of which you can miss, because then you won’t have the show ready in time. So what it did give us the ability to do is look at those eight [episodes] that we had shot, in the knowledge of what we were writing for episodes nine, ten, eleven and so on, and say, ‘Gee, we put this new character in nine, let’s go back and throw him in a scene in episode seven,’ for example.

“Actually, the very first scene of the year was a big action scene that we put in virtually a year after we shot episode one.”

Since debuting just two months after the Islamic terrorist attacks of September 11, 24 has acquired something of a reputation for dealing with big issues that very much reflect current affairs.

“It’s not just a matter of luck,” Cassar says. “There is a thought process to it. My writers, all of them, are news hounds. I mean, if you ever sit with them at lunch, it’s all about news, it’s all about politics.

“But they can’t write what’s in the news right now. People who don’t understand production go, ‘Oh look, it matches because that happened yesterday, so they wrote about it’. But we’re producing nine months ahead of time, so the writers look at a situation and say, ‘What is escalating in Africa? What if the Americans did this? What if we got involved?’

“Because it comes from such a knowledgeable place and they’re very smart people, a lot of those what-ifs have come true. This year, I think they’ve done it again, and it’s pretty uncanny.”

The parallels with contemporary politics continue to bleed through, with increasing concerns voiced about the series’ portrayal of torture as a valid interrogation technique. Cassar, though, is having none of it.

“There’s no doubt we’ve been in the news a lot for it. It’s a little disheartening for me, because quite honestly you can actually go back year by year and it’s not like we’ve increased our torture or made any year different than another. We’ve actually been the same right from season one.

“But, we get put in the news when it really happens. I equate it to what happens when kids go into high schools and start killing people. The video games that they watch are as violent when they first came out as the day before these kids went in, but, of course, once those kids do that, then it’s the video games’ fault.

“We get kind of clumped into the same boat. When there are things happening in the world that are related to what we do, everyone points at us.”

The seventh season has seen something of a change in approach, though. The Counter Terrorist Unit that formed the precinct of the first six seasons has been disbanded, and Sutherland’s character starts the season being questioned by politicians about unnecessary torture techniques.

“Jack is in a position now where he has to work for the FBI and they’re the rule-makers, not the rule-breakers,” explains Cassar. “And so we’ve given him a partner that all year questions everything he does – much like the people out there question him. So we’re giving them a spokesperson, in a way.”

Cassar himself joined the show in its first season as a jobbing director, working on two episodes under the gaze of the show’s co-executive producer Stephen Hopkins. After a year on the show, Hopkins decided to return to his preferred medium of film direction. Show creator Joel Surnow then approached Cassar – with whom he had worked on a previous series, **La Femme Nikita** – to offer him a permanent producer’s job.

When Surnow himself moved on at about the same time as the writer’s strike hit, Howard Gordon took over as the lead writer and show-runner. The personnel changes do not mean any change in focus for the show, Cassar insists.

“Howard Gordon has been with us since season one, so there’s no doubt he knows the show. And creating a show and running a show are two different things. Creating a show is really a very difficult thing to do, and it’s sometimes a once in a lifetime thing. I did a pilot **[Company Man]** with Joel, for Fox, and he had this great reputation from 24. It was a good pilot, we did a great job, but it didn’t get picked up. So it’s a real against the odds thing to get a show on the air.”

Despite the difficulty in developing new programmes, Cassar says he feels that American studios are happier to take risks on people than their counterparts in either the UK or his native Canada.

“When I was in Canada, I did nothing but direct American shows that came up to Canada for budget reasons, because I still couldn’t get Canadians to give me a job. That was pretty depressing. And every country has the same problem, which is, ‘How can they do what they do, and we can’t?’

“Budgets come into play all the time, but really it’s about storytelling. And one thing I’ve realised is that the Americans are way more willing to take a chance in the storytelling, in the actors that they hire, in the characters that they write, whereas I find Canadians and probably British are so much more conservative. They feel to me like they’re always telling the same story as opposed to telling new ones.”

Despite the big US shows having large teams of writers, Cassar thinks that successful series have something more fundamental at their core.

“Every show has a heartbeat. In our case, it was Joel Surnow. It was really out of his head, *a la* David E Kelley, Steven Bochco… All these guys are really the ones who break all the rules. They put out shows where someone took a chance and threw money at them and let them do it. And that, I
think, is really the big advantage the Americans have.”

As far as the future for 24, an eighth season is a certainty, but beyond then things become a bit more fluid.

“It’s really a matter of appetite, from an audience point of view – which will obviously influence Fox’s appetite to continue putting the money into the show. And then of course, the third one, almost the most important, is if Kiefer has an appetite. That doesn’t necessarily mean that 24 wouldn’t be back, because there has always been talk about, can 24 survive without Jack Bauer? Can they do what they did on The X-Files – not that that’s a good example, because I don’t think that did survive without the two main characters – but there is a possibility of having Jack move on and continuing the series.”

With a new resident in the (nonfictional) White House and a change in policy direction within the real world, some have speculated that 24’s whole appeal may be on the wane. Cassar disagrees.

“I don’t think it means the death of us, like some people have suggested. What we really are before anything else is your good old-fashioned spy thriller. It’s edge of your seat espionage and that’s really what our writers love, and have done right from the beginning.

“That genre’s been around for a long time, through many different governments and around the world, so as long as we stick to that genre, we’ll have an audience.”

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.