‘Shameless’ executive producer John Wells shares memories of filming in Chicago

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The final season of “Shameless” kicks off Sunday with an episode called “This is Chicago!” The title is not quite accurate since the cast of the Showtime series did not film in Chicago this season because of the coronavirus pandemic — much to the chagrin of fans who travel here each year to spot a Gallagher.

“Shameless,” which follows the exploits of a poor and dysfunctional Chicago family led by an alcoholic patriarch, is mostly filmed on a Warner Bros. back lot. But for a decade, cast members have braved the elements — including a particularly brutal winter in 2011 — to shoot exterior scenes here to make the series more authentically Chicago.

Crowds at the Chicago filming sites, especially the West Side house that represents the Gallagher home on the show, have grown since the series became available to stream on Netflix in 2016. Some fans made it their mission to track down cast members such as William H. Macy (Frank) and Emma Kenney (Debbie) while they were in town for a week or two each season.

Andrea Szkwarko, who lives in the Bridgeport neighborhood, said she and a friend drove around looking for white crew vans and followed them to “Shameless” sets. Later, they used sightings and film permit information posted to social media to aid their search. Szkwarko, 44, said she formed lifelong friendships with other “Shameless” fans as they tried to piece together clues they gleaned from Chicago set visits and speculate about plot lines.

“People who were complete strangers stalking a film set one minute ended up being people who all went on vacations together later on,” she told the Tribune. “I’m sad that the show is coming to an end and there will be no more opportunities like these to mingle with other fans, but there was some kind of magic that happened on those sets that will stay with me forever.”

One of the friends Szkwarko made through “Shameless” is Erika Nutting, who said she twice traveled from Iowa to Chicago to watch filming. She said she met and chatted with Noel Fisher, who plays bad boy Mickey Milkovich. Last season, Milkovich married Ian Gallagher (played by Cameron Monaghan). That love story is what Nutting enjoys most about the show. “I never know what to expect from them, and I think that’s the surprise that keeps me interested,” said Nutting, 37. “I feel like I can go escape in the world of ‘Shameless.’ I made some good friends and had a lot of fun. It’s a shame it’s got to come to an end.”

Even Chicago businesses got into the excitement. Beatrix, a mini-chain of local coffeehouse-restaurants, named a pastry for “favorite guest” Emmy Rossum, who played Fiona Gallagher. Executive partner and divisional president Marc Jacobs said in a statement that it was “a no-brainer and truly an honor” to name the gluten-free cream cheese coffee cake for Rossum.

The hoopla surrounding the show — which was adapted from a British series with the same name — surprised “Shameless” executive producer John Wells. He wrote the Season 11 premiere episode, which is scheduled to air at 8 p.m. Sunday. Wells, a veteran of Chicago filming also through his time as executive producer of the long-running medical drama “ER,” talked to the Tribune by phone about the final “Shameless” season and the show’s die-hard fans. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and condensed for space.

Q. What were your Chicago filming plans for this final season?

A. We were only a few days away from beginning filming in March — three days away, literally — when everything shut down. So that changed all of our plans. We would have already completed the season by now and made two trips to Chicago to do our usual one week to two weeks of filming in Chicago for the series. But that hasn’t been possible, given the pandemic, sadly. We are back in production now. We’ve been shooting for about 10 weeks. We wanted to come back and see our neighborhood; and all of our friends; and all the people who have been so gracious to allow us to use their homes; and the neighborhoods that have put up with us being there. So far we haven’t been able to figure out how to get back safely with everything that’s going on.

Q. So is there still a chance you could come back this season?

A. I would love to be able to come back to at least do something small at the end of the season. As this progresses and the pandemic continues to get worse, that seems less likely, but never say never.

Q. How much rewrite did you have to do this season to incorporate the pandemic and the fact that you couldn’t film in Chicago?

A. We had to completely rewrite this season. Now, just to be clear, we didn’t change a lot of the storylines because they conformed fairly easily (with) the difficulties that everybody is experiencing with the pandemic. We’re making four shows right now, and “Shameless” was the one that we felt really had to address the pandemic because as difficult as it is for everybody, it’s been particularly devastating for communities of working people who are living closer to the poverty line. It really was necessary to redo it. We didn’t rewrite a lot of storylines for not being in Chicago. We just had to compromise on our love of seeing Chicago, and being out on the streets in Chicago, and going to spots that were so important to the series. That really wasn’t an option. We couldn’t really get through the quarantines and getting people on the planes, etc.

Q. So how did you recreate Chicago for this season?

A. Ugh (laughs). We’re doing a lot of visual effects. We built the facade of the houses that we use in Lawndale on the back lot. Interestingly enough, there was a lot more space on the back lot now at Warner Bros. because none of the executives are coming in because everybody is working remotely. We took over an executive parking lot and rebuilt the front of the street. It will involve some extensive visual effects because we couldn’t build two blocks. We’re shooting very tight shots on L.A. streets and just trying to put things in that look like Chicago — a Chicago bus passing a Chicago police car. It works, and I think for many fans, they won’t really know. But for anybody who knows Chicago and knows how hard we’ve tried to really make it be Chicago, you’ll notice.

Q. Yeah, I spotted a bus sign (on the premiere) that was clearly an L.A. area bus sign.

A. We’re changing as much as we can, but there is a limit to how much you’re going to do in visual effects to bus signs. Or are they the right parking meters? Are there parking meters, period? All of those sorts of things.

Q. Was there anywhere you wanted to film in Chicago, but didn’t get a chance to?

A. No, Chicago has been remarkably open to our shooting all over the city. I don’t recall a single time that we were ever turned down for doing anything that made sense for the show. We shot 15 years of “ER” in Chicago as well, and throughout, the city has been very welcoming. We try to be good neighbors when we show up and not disrupt too many businesses, and if we do, make certain that they are fairly compensated. Chicago is a great city. I was telling someone last week that between the 15 years of “ER” and a short-lived series that I did there before (“Angel Street” in 1992), and all the “Shameless,” I think I’ve made well over 100 trips to shoot in Chicago. I love the place. It’s a great city. A little chilly in January and February, but yeah.

Q. Were you surprised to see the number of fans who came out to these Chicago filming sites?

A. Yeah (laughs). And part of that was because we were there for so many years before that started to happen. It really changed when the show showed up on Netflix and then gained a much larger audience because Netflix is available in so many more homes than Showtime is. The first time it happened, it was a real shock because we had, for many, many years, brought the same amount of security personnel. Not because we were worried about anything bad happening, but just to keep people safely away from the set and all the equipment. So, yeah, the first time it happened was right after the season had dropped on Netflix. Suddenly we had hundreds of people showing up, just hopping off the train in Lawndale and walking down the street. We had to set up some areas where they could safely be out of our shots. It was very gratifying to see that many people who cared that much about what we had already been doing. It was definitely a surprise.

Q. Did it ever become a problem? Did the crowds ever get so unwieldy that it affected production?

A. No, because mostly it was people who just wanted to see what we were doing. The only time we’ve ever had any kind of problem in Chicago was during the first year of “ER” when it became such a huge hit. We weren’t really prepared for it. We just had thousands of people showing up. We were downtown on Michigan Avenue, and it just got a little unwieldy. It kind of turned into the Beatles. Poor George (Clooney) and Anthony Edwards had to retreat into a restaurant down there with a bunch of us trying to hold the door, which all just sort of felt silly, to tell you the truth.

We’ve never had any problems with it being aggressive in an unpleasant way. I don’t think we really anticipated or understood how some of the (“Shameless”) fans were such ardent fans. I was walking down the street from the base camp, where the trailers are, past where a lot of the fans had congregated to get to the set. One of the fans was really happy to show me a big tattoo on her arm of Mickey and Ian in an embrace, like a six-inch-by-eight-inch tattoo (laughs). That was a bit of a shock. I didn’t realize we had engendered that kind of fervent fan base.

Q. Especially that one relationship (Mickey and Ian) seems to have really resonated with the fans.

A. Depending on the year, it has been different things that really resonated with the fans. I think Ian and Mickey, in particular, are a couple that a lot of fans identified with, the timing of doing their wedding last year and the difficulties that they had gone through. A lot of fans have really identified with them. And then really from the beginning what startled me is how many people identify the family’s experiences with Frank with their own family’s experiences.

People stop me all the time and say a version of, I love Frank. He reminds me of my dad. Which I’m always a little surprised by (laughs). But I think that a lot of people have experiences with or struggle with mental illness and alcoholism, so there’s an identity to it. The same thing happened with the Fiona character and her having to really step up and be the caretaker in the family for everybody. There’s been a lot of identification with that. When you can do shows where you are fortunate enough to have characters who can become representative of a lot of your viewers’ own experiences, it’s always gratifying.

Q. What can fans expect this season? How many loose ends are you guys going to tie up?

A. We’re not very good at tying up loose ends, mostly because life is messy in general, and the Gallaghers’ life is particularly messy. That’s not really a goal of ours. There will be things that we do that do that, but we’re not really focused on, how can we wrap things up? So much as just, what are the proper and crucial ways in which this family will move forward?

Q. Are there any plans for a movie or a spinoff of “Shameless?”

A. Oh, no. I hadn’t really thought about that. Maybe we should. We’re all going to miss everybody who writes for the show and everybody who is on the show. We really loved writing it in all the years that we’ve had the opportunity to do it. It took a long time to get it on the air. We tried to get it made for almost seven years before it was actually made. To have it then last for 11 seasons has been really a remarkable experience with this wonderful cast, and a lot of great writers and directors and production people. I hadn’t really thought about it. It kind of feels like we’ve told a lot of the stories. I felt like we could tell a lot more because the world is so rich. I don’t know. Maybe we should do a movie. I haven’t thought about it all.

Q. Is there anything you would like to say to the fans who made the pilgrimage out to Chicago all those years to watch you guys film?

A. You just can’t know how gratifying it is and how thankful we are that we had people who cared enough about what we were doing to want to come out and see where we did it. It’s a wonderful feeling to think that your story telling may have touched people enough that they would actually take some time out of their day to get on the train or whatever and come on down and see us. Very reassuring because we’re working 12-, 13-hour days. A lot of times it’s pretty chilly in Chicago and then to see people come out and brave that is a wonderful feeling. So, thank you.

Q. Any plans for any other Chicago-set TV shows? Any chance of an “ER” reboot?

A. (Laughs) I don’t think there will be an “ER” reboot. We made an awful lot of “ER,” so we had a wonderful experience doing it. I love Chicago, and I have no doubt we’ll be back shooting something in Chicago because it’s just a great town. There are wonderful crews, and there are wonderful actors who are available. There are beautiful places to be and fantastic restaurants that I get to go to when I’m there. I’m sure we’ll be back with something.

Source: chicagotribune.com