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ER: The Story Behind "Hell and High Water"

Writer Neal Baer and director Christopher Chulack look back on the iconic episode 20 years later

Joyce Eng

Many shows can lay claim to a true masterpiece of episodic television. Few can lay claim to two. Even fewer can lay claim to two in one calendar year.

Exactly eight months after the seminal "Love's Labor Lost" aired, ER delivered another landmark episode with "Hell and High Water" on Nov. 9, 1995. Focusing on George Clooney's Dr. Doug Ross, the episode followed the rakish doc as he heroically saves a boy, Ben (Erik von Detten), who's stuck in a storm drain during a torrential downpour, and in the process, saves his job when the rescue is filmed by a local news crew. A pulsating, kinetic hour, it brought the NBC drama to the empirical height of its popularity with its biggest ratings ever, launched its leading man to super-stardom and proved that the show's bold, indelible storytelling had life beyond County General's walls.

ER: An oral history of "Love's Labor Lost"

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of "Hell and High Water," we chatted with the creative minds behind the classic, writer Neal Baer and director/producer Christopher Chulack.

ER finished its first season as the No. 2 show of the season, earning 23 Emmy nominations and winning eight -- five of which were for the Dr. Greene-centric "Love's Labor Lost." Going into Season 2, the plan was to give Dr. Ross a showcase in the seventh episode. In the buildup to it, Doug's life was going downhill fast: He sleeps with med student Harper Tracy (Christine Elise) and is about to lose his pediatric fellowship after one strike too many.

Neal Baer: I was assigned the episode and I was thinking about how to showcase George. The first thing I thought of was the Christmas episode in Year 1 called "The Gift" I had written. I had put George in a tuxedo and he got into a fistfight with Carol's boyfriend, and people said, "Oh, we loved seeing George in a tuxedo!" -- women especially! So I was like, "How do I put George in a tuxedo?" Doug was also at a low point in his career because he was a womanizer, he was always coming in hung over and he was losing his job. I had to figure out a way for him to keep his job. ... I thought, "How do I make him into the reluctant hero?" Put him saving a kid on live TV. I think I was pretty prescient! He becomes the reluctant hero by the end and they can't fire him after this.

Christopher Chulack: It was the first time we went outside the ER, where a majority of the show took place. We as a crew and a team had never done that beforehand. Neal pitched this idea and it just kind of evolved out of what was the best story, not necessarily let's do something different for the look of the show. I think a lot of it came together in the writers' room.

Baer: I remember saying in the writers' room, "It should be George in a tuxedo." So I had him going to the opera with Andrea Parker's character Linda, but he never gets there. Then he can be an action hero as he rips the tuxedo jacket off as he climbs the fence. He can look dapper as only George can. I did think George is like Cary Grant, so I might as well put him in a tuxedo like what Cary Grant did in half a dozen Hitchcock films. It wasn't by accident that those things were done.

Chulack: It was important that he did come out a hero. In "Love's Labor Lost," we wanted Dr. Greene to have a loss because he was so good at his job. He experienced a doctor's worst nightmare. Dr. Ross was on the opposite trajectory -- he was down and out, and he needed a big win.

Baer: It was really fun writing it. I had to call a friend of mine because I knew nothing about baseball. I was like, "Who should George be talking about to this kid about baseball stuff?" So I named the kid Ben after his son because he helped me. I remember which office I had at Warner Bros. and where I was sitting. One of the writers, Paul Manning, who passed away 10 years ago, was really helpful. He was my mentor. I would go upstairs and read scenes to him. I remember [executive producer] John Wells saying, "Just do it like, 'The water's rising.'" Even though that's a cliché, he was like, "Embrace the cliché and let the water keep rising." It was George trying everything -- running back up, trying to get through the grate, but the grate is locked. I was doing Lexus Nexus research on tunnels and people saved in storm drains.

Photos: Look back on 15 seasons of ER

Because of the outside setting, production was more of a logistical challenge than usual. The show had to spread out the exterior shots in Chicago over the four seasonal trips they took to the Windy City a year. Back in L.A., the crew built the culvert and reservoir on The Waltons' Pond in the Warner Bros. backlot.

Chulack: It was a little nerve-wracking because it was our biggest undertaking yet and we'd never done anything like that. We also had the Today show following us. They would be in our meetings and there'd be cameras. It was a little disconcerting for me anyway. I was just trying to prep the show. We shot Clooney's car getting a flat tire and the little boy coming up to him asking him to save his brother near Lake Shore Drive [in Chicago]. We shot the helicopter, him coming out of the woods and putting the kid in it and getting in it and taking off. ... We shot the rain and culvert sequences and when they break the window to get to a phone, because there were no cell phones then, in the backlot.

Baer: The expense of the episode was high back then, but I think because the show was such a huge hit, they trusted us. NBC and Warner Bros. were so supportive. They knew it was a special episode featuring George for sweeps in November. It had all these elements that were important back then. It was like, "Yeah, go for it." They let us build this incredible set out in the back.

Chulack: The tunnel was big enough for someone to crawl in there. I think it was 42 inches in diameter. It was real. It was really difficult to light. We had to cut holes at the top to get some light in there and not see it because it was supposed to be subterranean. The water being warm caused the camera lenses to fog up. We would say, "That was the frost because it was so cold in the tunnel. They were getting hypothermia." And the kid did get hypothermia in the episode. We had to find a way to recycle the water to go through the pipe and how to make it pile up and go deeper. We engineered that -- I use that word loosely -- we figured it out. Scott Forbes, our production special effects guy, did a great job. We were also out there at night. George and Erik had to wear polypropylene suits. Even though the show was a big hit, we were still on a television budget and we had to be economical in how we did it.

Baer: George gave everything to it. They were in the water at night all night long for days. It was an amazing feat. It wasn't fake night; it was real night. I remember the props people. One person was at one end of the tunnel and the other was at the other end, throwing in leaves and branches. They were feeding the debris into the tunnel, and then it was coming out and they would gather it and do it again.

Chulack: They got pruny. George got pruny. What was difficult was that the grate the kid was entangled in that was stopping the debris was really steel. It had to be strong and fortified, and there was this wire mesh through it. And so George, as he's doing the scene and reaching through and talking to the kid and trying to loosen the grate, he really cut up his hands pretty bad. And then that would be saturated with water, so that was not a great combo. It was not comfortable. It was a rough shoot. We were out from sundown to sunrise. You're having dinner at midnight while drenched.

Baer: I remember Cameron Diaz came to visit. That was quite shocking and amazing. She was a friend of George's and she came to the set one night when we were shooting, just hanging out. I was like, "Oh, my God! Cameron Diaz is standing right here!" She was very sweet. I've run into her several times since and she's like, "You're the one who shot the episode with George in the tunnel in the rain."

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ER had pioneered long, continuous Steadicam shots, but those took a reprieve -- for the most part -- in the tunnel sequences as Chulack found a way to make them simultaneously epic and claustrophobic.

Chulack: I wanted this to feel a little more nervous. I knew I was going to do a little more handheld camera pieces to give it a frenetic feel. I knew when we were in the helicopter, I wanted to pipe into the real sound of the helicopter and record what it would really sound like through the headphones, and we did that, as opposed to recording it straight and then treating the voices. We were able to do little things like that. I wanted it to feel like an episode of Cops. There's an anxiousness and suspense to it that's different than when you're in the ER.

Baer: I love how Chris directed it. You can feel the tension in the tunnel. People really didn't know what was gonna happen. There are these incredible shots, like when they throw an object through the glass to break in to make a phone call and when George opens the trunk and you see the background of Chicago. You see the building with the diamond light. It's shot so beautifully. ... There's this amazing moment where the camera does a 360-degree circle above where the water's rushing out and George is wading through the current to get in, and it does this 360-degree turn to get in. You feel the vertigo of it.

Chulack: We tried to mix up all the medium we had available to us. I look back on it, and now the cameras are all digital and they're smaller, you have more latitude, you move around a lot more. I thought for what we were in 1995, it was pretty good.

The episode's most iconic shot comes after the two are hurled out of the tunnel and Doug has to find Ben underwater. On his third dive, he lifts him up and is bathed in light by a news chopper.

Chulack: It was in the script that he goes under a few times to find him. When I first read the script, that was the first image that I got. I knew that I was gonna bring him out of the water and hit him with the helicopter lights. That day that we got the script, I walked into that backlot and stood in the empty lake. That's how I work as a director. I back everything in. I find an emotional hook or a visual hook and I back everything around that. "OK, this is how I want to end, so how am I gonna start?" That's the truth. That image was the first thing that came to my mind.

Baer: My favorite moment is when he lifts the kid up into the light. That just gives me chills. I just went back to look, like, "Did I write that?" It's like, "He goes down, comes up, no Ben. He goes down, comes up, no Ben. He goes down, lifts him up." I was like, "Oh, I did write that." There's also the religious iconography, which I absolutely love, when he lifts him up into the light. It's like, "Whoaaa."

Chulack: I think we did maybe two takes. We had to do it in sequence where he goes underneath the water, cut, stand up, come out. It's three dives and the one where we put Erik under the water, we just had him stand up for that shot. We hit him with the light, it's bright and it looked beautiful. It's pretty good. I have a big black-and-white still of that in my office. I'll never forget it.

Baer: It's all in the script, but it was translated in such a visual way that it was profound. It does show Chris' amazing talent as a director. Chris won the DGA Award for it, which was so well deserved.

Chulack: [Clooney] had to walk out of the lake and perform CPR. Erik was a really good actor, but he wasn't a little kid. He was not a small 13-year-old. So George picked him up and moved to the shoreline -- that was fine -- but when he had to climb out, he had these diver booties on and could barely lift him out of the lake in one shot and look good doing it. I remember he was like, "Why the hell did you cast such a heavy kid?" He was mad because he couldn't do it. I had to break it up and do it in cuts. "Just get to here and we'll change angles and we'll put you closer up top and to the ground." He didn't like doing that. He wanted to do it all at once. The kid was soaking wet too! It was not a lot of fun. But maybe that's why George was good in The Perfect Storm -- because he did a lot of water work in this. We prepared him.

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After Doug takes a risk flying a hypothermic Ben to County in the news chopper, the final act is vintage ER trauma chaos. In the trauma room next door is a little girl, Molly (J. Madison Wright), Harper and Carter's (Noah Wyle) hit-and-run patient who crashes just as Ben is brought in. While Ben survives, Molly dies -- a deliberate study in contrast.

Chulack: Everyone thought the boy was going to die. Neal wrote a great script and it was important to have both stories. You had this grandiose thing going on outside the hospital and you had this grounded thing inside. The counterbalance between the two and the two kids being parallel in the trauma rooms, that was all designed. I had to storyboard it all out and the high angles and where we were gonna be and the blood-warming machine. Obviously I wasn't doing it alone. I had technical advisors in the room telling me what the topography of the room was going to be, but once all that is set, I had to figure out how to emotionally connect all of it. Those stories are very emotional, especially when you're dealing with kids and you're creating these images of them in stress. It's all make-believe, but when you're looking through that monitor, what you see is a sick child, and you get emotional about it.

Baer: Molly gave Harper her necklace earlier in the episode. We used to joke, "Uh-oh. Never let the patient give the doctor a necklace." That's something to remember you by! We have the hero saving the boy at all costs and we have the girl who fell and dies, and Noah Wyle's character is just completely bereft. They're both heroes. One is dealing with a tragedy and one literally thrust in the limelight.

Chulack: The last shot [of Doug walking out to a flood of news cameras] was another visual I had. You get these visuals and you go with them. I try not to do a shot for a shot's sake. It also has to have emotional resonance for me. That's what I've learned as a director. That said a lot about his character too. He didn't want the recognition.

Baer: He was the "bad boy," but he loved kids and would do anything to save them, and that's all he wanted. He's the reluctant hero. I wrote a lot for George and Noah. ... I was a fourth-year medical student when ER started and [Carter] was a third-year, so we went through everything together, and I was doing my pediatric residency during ER, so I saw a lot of things that inspired me for the show. I came up with three ideas that I pitched when George was gonna leave [in Season 5]. One was the detox episode when he detoxes the baby, the second was when he breaks the double blind study to give pain medication to Scotty Anspaugh and the third was when he helped the mother end her child's life who had ALD. I loved writing for George. ... This episode was the beginning of Doug Ross' ascendancy. It was a defining moment for Dr. Ross.

Chulack: The editor showed me his cut and then I spent four or five days making it my cut. Whoever directed the episode [would be] in the screening room. If it was an outside director, they would just present it to us. We would all sit in the room and watch the episode, all the writers and producers, and then we would give notes to the editor. I was nervous to show it to all my colleagues. The lights came up and there were not a lot of notes. That made me feel really good. Again, it was really different for us. I didn't have an equilibrium of how people were gonna react to it and I don't think John Wells did. The cut was good. We showed a rough cut to the network. They didn't have a lot of notes as I recall.

Baer: I don't recall any notes. The executives were so wonderful to work with, David Nevins and John Landgraf. One runs Showtime and one runs FX now. I think it was David [who was there then] and he was very supportive. I was amazed when I saw the cut. I thought it was really compelling and beyond what I had hoped.

Chulack: On the day the show aired, Thursdays, at lunchtime we would have the cast watch that night's episode. I'll never forget this. We broke for lunch, the cast came in and watched it. I was on Stage 11. They were coming back and they all came up to me. Sherry [Stringfield] was like, "Chris Chulack, you rock!" Jules [Margulies] and Tony [Edwards] and everyone came in and were thrilled with the episode. George was the last one in and I remember he came over and he didn't say a word to me. He lied down on a gurney while we were lighting. I know George pretty well and I walked over to him and said, "So what'd you think?" And he was all puppy dog-eyed and sat up and said, "Chris, it's really good." But he was self-conscious that it was a Doug Ross-centric episode, I think -- this is just my opinion -- he didn't want to make a big deal in front of everybody and seemingly make it all about him. I thought that was really nice. It's typical George. He's pretty humble that way. But it pissed me off a little bit! Like, he's the guy, right? "Dude, what'd you think?" But then I understood. He was just a little self-conscious. I'm not the most secure person, but I knew it was good!

The episode set all-time ratings records for ER, drawing 48 million viewers and a 45 percent market share. It would go on to earn five Emmy nominations, including for Baer and Chulack, and propel the show to a drama series win. Clooney, who submitted it for his drama lead actor nomination, did not win, but saw the next phase of his career kick in.

Baer: The numbers were crazy. We got like a 45 share, which will never happen now. It was early days of the Internet and people could go online and talk about it in these forums. People were flabbergasted and loved that George was this hero. It was a very different response from "Love's Labor Lost," but just as passionate. People were devastated by that one. This was like, "Oh, my gosh! My heart was pounding in my chest! George was fantastic!" They just loved that he was the hero.

Chulack: Here's what I know. The show aired that night, got a 45 share and 48 million people watching. Eight o'clock in the morning, I got a call from [NBC executives] Don Ohlmeyer and Warren Littlefield saying, "You gotta come do movies of the week! That was f---ing great!" I'm pretty sure it was that day that [Warner Bros. Chairman] Bob Daly walked out and knocked on George's trailer door and said, "We want you to be Batman." It was after that episode. He got Batman and Robin. George was a star already, but he was so heroic in that. It was such a terrific, visceral performance. Truly fantastic. He got a lot of attention, deservedly. People still bring it up.

Baer: I take credit for putting him a tuxedo and I'm not being facetious about that. People loved George from the beginning, but I feel like I recognized the Cary Grant charm. If I could do a North By Northwest and make him look particularly smashing and have him save a kid's life, it wasn't going to hurt. People ask me, "Is he really as nice as he appears?" Well, nicer. He really is. I think that charm and caring and fun come through in his performances and also a quality of seriousness that attracts people. That's why he's so compelling because that's who he really is. ... I was able to tap into all of those elements of George's personality when I wrote that. And it was one of those episodes where it all came together. Marty Davich, who did the music, did a great job. Jacque [Elaine Toberen] was the editor and I still work with her. These wonderful craftspeople -- everyone, the set designers, the set decorators, the DP, the editors -- I stayed working with a lot of those people. They're the best craftspeople in the business.

Chulack: I've always said the star of the show was the show. Nobody got fat heads. We'd come in on Fridays. "Oh, what'd we get? A 38 share?" Shake everybody's hands, hugs, great. "What are we doing today?" There were no egos. Everyone worked hard. We knew this was a huge challenge and we dug our heels in and gave it our all, like we did every episode. I think we did pioneer these big disaster-type episodes other shows started doing with more money and better technology. I wouldn't say we set out to do that. We knew it was different. It was a good story to do and we just tried to keep the story -- not because it was a disaster episode -- real and keep it about the characters.

Baer: What I particularly love about it now is that it predicted the rise of reality medicine, putting saving lives on television and questioning that, like Doug questioning it. And I question it. I've written a lot about it recently in JAMA. And I just love the pacing and the hold-your-breath suspense. It had so many tropes in that one episode. I don't think tropes are bad, but there are a lot of them and we tried not to make it cliché. Even though it's sad that the little girl died, there's this unpredictability in life. You think this little boy is doomed, but he lives and something unpredictable happens to someone else. That's what life is like. I think that epitomized ER.

Chulack: I think it's right up there as one of our best episodes. I think that and "Love's Labor Lost" are the quintessential episodes. It had everything -- action, emotion, heart, suspense. It was big and intimate. I think it made me a better director, I'll tell you that. I'm very proud of that. I think that episode validated me as a director. I think it reran four times on NBC. People kept watching it. I knew it was special because they reran it in the summer and they reran it again in the summer. The rerun numbers were pretty darn high. It obviously touched a chord. We're still talking about it 20 years later!