Prison Break--Inside, looking outShooting on location can sometimes mean an extended stint at an exotic locale,
but for Paul Scheuring's new series on Fox, all it meant was prison
By Maria Elena Fernandez Los Angeles Times
Staff Writer August 28, 2005
Paul Scheuring thought he was ready to do his time.
Scheuring had fleshed out his new series "Prison Break" from a jail-break thriller to a love story between two brothers. He had read dozens of books about prison, visited several, and had become addicted to the website www.prisontalk.com
But what Scheuring never counted on was what it would feel like to step on the grounds of the former Joliet prison in Illinois, a 147-year-old penitentiary that once housed such infamous prisoners as serial killer John Wayne Gacy. The prison, now empty, is where much of "Prison Break" was filmed, and if the location looks familiar when the Fox show premieres Monday, that's because it's the prison John Belushi walked out of in the opening scene of "The Blues Brothers."
"My first day there, I got depressed," said Scheuring, a 36-year-old screenwriter ("A Man Apart") who's making his TV debut with this show. "I didn't know if I could film there. I didn't know if I could make a story that was fun and exciting in that place. That prison was built in 1858, and it's just gorgeous, so we're trying to show that side of it as well. That's why there's a sense of light from above in every scene. It's important to me to have this sense of an open feeling because at the end of the day, it's a show about hope."
Stars Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell, who play imprisoned brothers Michael Scofield and Lincoln Burrows, respectively, also were taken aback by the visceral responses they had to the buildings, tiny cells and air of despair that permeates the facility. (Michael, who never knew his father, opts to keep his mother's maiden name.)
"It's got a stark beauty to it: the yellow brick of the walls, the green of the prison yard, the blue sky overhead," Miller said. "It has its moments of haunting beauty, but then when I'm sitting in the prison yard hanging out with the cast and crew getting ready to shoot a scene and enjoying myself, suddenly I'll remember that if I were an inmate at that facility, I'd only be outside one hour a day. The main surprise is how sad the place still is. It's got 150 years of pain and fear and violence soaked into those walls."
Purcell perceived "a lot of horror in that place. When you think of who's been in that place and that capital punishment was administered there in the '50s and '60s, a lot of really bad, bad people went through there. You can feel the energy in the place."
On the show, Scheuring and director Brett Ratner (known best for the "Rush Hour" films and "Red Dragon") hope to bring that sense of horror and hope as well as Joliet's dark energy to the small screen.
When the pilot opens, Michael robs a bank and deliberately gets caught so he can be sentenced to the Fox River State Penitentiary, where his older brother, Lincoln, is sitting on death row for killing the brother of the vice president of the United States. With 30 days until the execution, Michael thinks he can break them both out because he is an engineer who worked on the prison's blueprints and now has them tattooed all over his body.
The tattoo, which Scheuring designed with artist Tom Berg, covers Miller's entire torso and depicts an ascension of angels up one arm and an ascension of devils up the other, and an angel and devil fighting on his chest and on his back. Hidden in the artistry are codes and information about the design of the prison to aid Michael in his plan.
"It's the struggle that Michael has: doing an illegal thing to do something that's good," Scheuring said. "And that will be his perpetual struggle in the series: 'I've got to do something that's right, but at what price?' "
It takes two artists four to five hours per episode to transfer the tattoo onto Miller using a series of decals that fit together like a puzzle and must be scrubbed off with solvents.
"I have no complaints," Miller said. "It's such a genius special effect that it's worth the time."Building the back stories
BEYOND the story of the brothers whose mother died when Michael was 11 and Lincoln was 16, there are several other mysteries and characters that Scheuring explores in the two-hour premiere: The warden who wants to build a model of the Taj Mahal for his wife; a cat-loving, aging con; a mob boss; and a beautiful infirmary doctor, all of whom figure inexplicably into Michael's elaborate plans.
Played by Miller with smoldering sex appeal, Michael is an intellectual and enigmatic protagonist. Clues about his planned escape are littered throughout the pilot: He drops a magazine down a drain, pretends to have diabetes and extracts a particular screw from the bleachers in the prison yard. "It's a very rich script and will be really rewarding for the attentive and patient viewer with lots of little puzzles to solve every episode," Miller said. "I think this show has a little bit of something for everyone. It's got some 'Oz,' a little bit of '24,' and a little bit of 'The Sopranos.' Prison is such a fascinating subject. I think it speaks to our deepest and darkest fears, and add a little bit of Houdini to that, which people also love."
Fox, which has been developing the series since 2003, is counting on this to be its next signature show, a serialized drama to carry the No. 1 network in young viewers beyond its success with "24," another action-adventure-thriller that changed television with its real-time approach to a single day in the life of its main character, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland).
By launching it earlier than its competition and airing seven consecutive episodes before postseason baseball takes over Fox's prime-time schedule in October, executives hope to build an audience that will return in November. Fox has been challenged in previous seasons when it waited to premiere shows after baseball, two months after the competition.
With the jail break at the center of the action for the first season, Scheuring and company face the daunting task of continuing the story outside Joliet's walls should viewers tune in the way Peter Liguori, Fox's president of entertainment, is hoping they will.
"There is no doubt that most series, upon their inception, pretty readily lay themselves out there for a 10-year life," Liguori said. "Given the time pressure of this show, much like the time pressure of '24,' it breaks what you typically try to do with TV. How do you easily create a blueprint, which easily lays out a number of years? This show lays out a time clock that is ticking pretty quickly the month until the execution. I wish we had all the answers about what's going to happen. We don't. But in a bizarre way, that's great. It is showing that we're basically breaking some bones here to move the medium forward."Beginning, middle and end
BUT the calm and collected Scheuring is confident that he's got his prison-escape story under control. Coming from the features world, Scheuring wasn't satisfied with knowing just where Michael and Lincoln were headed. He also had to figure out where all their cohorts would wind up, whether the show survives or not.
"I know the beginning, middle and end," Scheuring said. "It's a matter of how dense we make it or how protracted. The second season is way bigger because it's like 'The Great Escape,' where they broke out 20 characters and went in all these different directions."
The success last season of ABC's complex, heavily serialized "Lost" demonstrated to the industry that viewers are willing to stick with a show as long as the characters and stories are compelling, said "Prison Break" executive producer Dawn Parouse.
"When you take a risk, if people get invested in the characters, as long as you can take the time to figure it out, they'll be with you," she said. "By season's end, you're going to be really invested in the plight of these people who break out of prison, and you're going to want to see the satisfaction of these stories and the hunt."
"I know where Season 2 ends for all the characters," Scheuring assured. "The ones that make it to the end of Season 2. All one of them."
Scheuring was joking, but Purcell, whose character is awaiting execution, is a little worried: "If we do break out, the show becomes like 'The Great Escape' or 'The Fugitive.' We'll have to wait and see. If the ratings break through the roof, we might be stuck in prison for seven years. I hope that's not the case, trust me."
Meanwhile, Scheuring is enjoying another kind of break. The features writer, who sold 15 scripts but has only had one film made, has signed a three-year (reportedly seven-figure) deal with 20th Century Fox Television. "TV stuff is easy. I really recommend it," he said and laughed. "If you're not liking your job and you're in Topeka, Kan., come on out, they're minting money in L.A."