A disaster-themed show such as Ryan Murphy’s “9-1-1” faces the challenge of topping itself in terms of scale when it comes to on-screen calamity.
When the show goes really big, it creates an earthquake in the middle of Hollywood, with manufactured broken streets and the cast learning how to perform on specially designed staircases and hallways built to reflect the damage to the city’s infrastructure.
The centerpiece of Monday night’s episode (9 p.m. on Fox) is the dramatic, split-second jackknifing of a tractor-trailer onto a mini-van on a California freeway — and a 12-foot-long gray tiger shark inside a water tank on the back of the tractor-trailer that’s flung onto the highway. The shark is being transported by a marine biologist to the ocean when the tractor-trailer jackknifes in a scene shot on a stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway near San Pedro by the “9-1-1” stunt drivers and practical effects personnel.
“A gigantic water tank on the tractor-trailer flings out as it spins,” says executive producer Tim Minear. “The tractor-trailer did one extra somersault than we were expecting.”
You may be asking yourself how a shark — even a fake shark — would end up on a tractor-trailer. Minear and his team wanted to come back after the show’s winter break with an episode that had the “right kind of crazy and heartwarming” elements, he says. “We wanted to transport the animal to release it back into the wild. So the episode had its own mini-story,” he says.
‘The tractor trailer did one extra somersault than we were expecting.’
The puppeteered shark makes quite the splash, flailing around and clamping its jaws onto the arm of one of the marine biologists (played by Al Carabello) — creating another set of problems for the crew.
“Not unlike the shark in ‘Jaws,’ the thing broke every time we rolled the camera,” says Minear. “The fin broke, the mouth wouldn’t work. We bent it two or three times to get it right.”
The shark’s trajectory included being rigged to a fire engine and delivered to the water (San Pedro Bay is the backdrop). A second, rubber shark was used for this scene. “It was a three-and-a-half, four-day shoot,” Minear says of the episode. “All the driving stuff. The action of the fire truck showing up. Then you have to hoist the shark on the fire truck. Backing the truck up to release the animal. Then there was another day to pick up some closer shots of the guy’s arm in the shark’s mouth.”
Monday’s episode features a secondary story that some people may find more horrifying: A plastic surgery procedure goes awry when a gas leak from a neighboring construction site knocks out the entire surgical team. Middle-aged Sadie (Christine Dunford) elects to have a nip and tuck and tells her surgeon, just before she goes under, that she expects to look 15 years younger. When Sadie comes to, those expectations are hideously thwarted — her face is literally falling off. The skin on her forehead flaps down onto her eyelids and her upper chest area looks like … well, it’s a bloody mess.
Minear says Dunford was cast because she was “hilarious and believable.” The flap of skin was made by the “9-1-1” special effects makeup crew augmented with some visual effects.
“They have to take the actor and build a cast of her head so that the fake skin is seamless with her actual flesh,” he says. “Beauty is pain.”