Baby, it's cold outside — especially if you're filming TV shows during the worst Chicago winter in nearly 20 years.
The polar vortex is making it a tough season across the U.S., but it's especially brutal in the Windy City, where in January temperatures averaged 15.1 degrees and 33.5 inches of snow fell (the city's third-highest total on record). "It's even taken the die-hard producers who live here by surprise," says Peter Jankowski, the president of Wolf Films, which makes NBC's Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. "When our fire consultants, who work for the department here, have to run inside between takes, you know it's cold."
A couple of inches of snow paralyzed the Atlanta metropolitan area in January, causing The Vampire Diaries and The Originals, the CW dramas that film there, to shut down for two days. But it was a different story in Chicago, where casts and crews often work through deep freezes. None of the four dramas shot in that area ceased production, despite weather deemed dangerous enough to close the city's public schools.
"Our motto here has been, 'We shoot through the elements,'" says Timothy Busfield, the executive producer of ABC's Mind Games, which premieres Feb. 25. But members of the production have had to seek shelter a few times, including during the last scene of the season finale, which was directed by series creator Kyle Killen. He had originally planned to have stars Christian Slater and Steve Zahn standing on a bridge over the Chicago River, near the mouth of Lake Michigan, where gusts are at their fiercest. "It was a beautiful shot of our actors down by the water," Busfield says. "But it was 30 degrees below zero with the windchill, and it was just too much. We couldn't get the performance."
Still, Busfield believes the cold weather adds authenticity to the look of Mind Games. "After years of doing shows that took place elsewhere and having to create winter — Without a Trace, for example [which was set in New York but shot in Los Angeles] — I really like all the elements we've had in Chicago," he says. "The actors act better. It feels real. It doesn't feel like L.A. and that L.A. sun." No doubt the tax incentives provided by the state of Illinois, which reduce the costs of production, also take some of the sting out of the bone-chilling conditions.
For NBC's upcoming political thriller Crisis, premiering March 16, the freezing temperatures pose more of a problem, considering that the serialized drama depicts a hostage situation set in Washington, D.C., during the first two weeks of September. "We have this candlelight vigil in front of the White House, and all the actors' breath can be seen," says producer J.B. Moranville. "Lance Gross is in a light cotton shirt and Rachael Taylor is in a silk blouse, and you can see their breath. People are saying, 'Well, tell them to hold their breath!' And I'm going, 'They have lines! You want them to hold their breath while they're speaking lines?' It's crazy."
"When I went to college here, I used to ride my bike to and from campus, and I don't remember it being this cold ever," says Crisis star Gillian Anderson. "This
Crisis has had to reschedule some outdoor location shoots to avoid snow on the ground and has moved some scenes inside. Actors flying in from Los Angeles have had to arrive in town a day earlier than their scheduled shoot time to account for possible weather-related airport delays and flight cancellations. Crew members who live locally have been put up in hotels so they wouldn't have to travel during the early-morning hours, when daily temperatures are typically at their lowest. Craft services provides hearty soups and specialty coffees to keep actors, wardrobe people, makeup artists and technicians going. "You feel sorry for the cast and crew," says Moranville. "But we've got to get the show done."
At NBC's Chicago Fire, Jankowski says there have been few problems thanks to a "cover set" — a replica of the firehouse where much of the -action takes place—built inside a climate-controlled studio. "That's really saved our butts," he says. The cast also keeps warm with layers of clothing worn under their firefighting gear.
The stars of the spinoff series Chicago P.D., who wear T-shirts and leather jackets in most outdoor scenes, aren't so lucky. Fortunately, the work is more important to the actors than is keeping warm. "I'm outside when it's 8 degrees and a 6-below windchill because I love my job," says Chicago P.D.'s Sophia Bush. "We're freezing, but we love it." —With reporting by Bruce Fretts