Turning Edie Falco into Nurse Jackie for Showtime: A few words with the producers of the best new show of 2009
Even through a cross-country telephone line, Nurse Jackie executive producers Liz Brixius (far right) and Linda Wallem come across like an old married couple -- finishing each other's sentences and handing ideas to each other as if they'd been together a lifetime.
Brixius is in New York, fighting the inconsistent technology of her iPhone to conference me in with Wallem, who is sitting in Los Angeles.
Both women approach the debut of Showtime's Nurse Jackie with the nervous energy of expectant parents -- a bit unwilling to believe that critics are already lining up to praise their show, crafted long months ago as Sopranos alum Edie Falco's next TV project, as one of the best new TV series this year. (See the pilot and judge for yourself by clicking here)
I called up the two to discuss how their show shatters TV's old nursing stereotypes, for a story published in Sunday's Floridian. But here's a bit of our conversation which couldn't fit in the article, where the ladies dish on writing the character of a drug addicted nurse after their previous stints in rehab -- something they share with Falco -- and shaping a new series for a three-time Emmy winner.
Your show joins TNT's Hawthorne and NBC's Mercy to make three new shows about nurses. Why so many right now?
Liz – “When Edie Falco attached herself to a nurse project, that hit Hollywood life wildfire. I don’t think I’m overstating Edie Falco’s appeal. When we started, a year and a half ago, there were no nurse shows on the horizon. Then, we started hearing from nurses, 'Hey, there’s another nurse show.'"
Linda – “Its was a year ago we were shooting a pilot. We think these other shows are very brave. When you’ve got Edie Falco, that’s a hard act to follow.”
This started as a more surreal, half-animated script written by someone else. How did you turn it into something Falco would want to play?
Liz – what we wanted to do was put her – we knew she was going to have a drug addition. We knew she was married. Part of the authenticity of this situation would be the crumbling health care system. You put this really flawed woman in a really flawed environment. She has her own code. If Dirty Harry were a lady in her 40s, he'd be Jackie Peyton. Right or wrong, from our point of view, it doesn’t matter. It’s what she thinks is right and wrong. She gets the job done. If there’s anything within her power to do, she will do it. She doesn’t have an exceptional powers, she’s just an exceptional person.
Linda – She’s MacGuyver; she can fix a person with a toothpick and a roll of tape.
Liz – I feel like (Hollywood) thought – 'What’s sexy? A handsome guy with a great job, he’s got a heart of gold.' Doctors are smarter than us and they make more money than us. But I think people are tired of seeing somebody they don’t relate to. You get to a point where you just want to relate to some one.”
You show Falco's Jackie Payton flushing a severed ear down a toilet and throwing out her back while having sex in the hospital pharmacy. Is there anything you wouldn't show?
Liz – A nurse told us about (staffers) eating salads out of bedpans, because there’s nowhere to put their food. But we wouldn't go that far.”
Linda - I watch House every once in a while. They have these big hospital rooms, state of the art equipment, it’s like CSI -- that’s not really what a crime lab looks like. We shot our pilot in a bombed-out hospital. We bought the medical equipment that they would sell us for scrap. All of that crappy mid’90s medical equipment, we bought it from a bombed-out hospital. You go to the dirtiest places on earth and. ERs are filthy and run down.”
(at left, Falco, Wallem, Brixius and Showtime's Bob Greenblatt at a Los Angeles press conference)
Liz – “Men’s stories are all about big triumphs; Climbing a mountain, building an empire. Women’s stories aren’t like that. Women’s stories are generally more internal, more about smaller triumphs. It’s the women in Hollywood who are afraid of those stories. When you have somebody as strong as Edie at the center, you can’t follow any rules about traditional heroes. What we want to do is create a universe where Jackie is the sun and everybody is in orbit around her. She’s that strong. .
Linda – “People are relatively quick to judge this nurse where they wouldn’t judge a doctor. Whereas it’s a guy, they might say he’s a stud, he;’s got it going on. Women are – she’s kinda of – it’s sort of like, there was a double standard at play. If nothing else, its showing they’re every bit as flawed and powerful – there’s too many doctor shows and you can tell the same stories about nurses. They’re less about the exotic bite on the legs. And its more about the person.”
Why would a woman with such a strong sense of values in the workplace also be a drug addict who cheats on her husband?
Linda – The things about being an addict, is that more is better. Whether its sex or pills, you love living dangerously. That’s part of the high. She’s a woman who wants more. That’s part of the fun of seeing someone good as edie play this part...She’s giving 110 percent every day. Part of the reason why she’s taking drugs, is so she can keep that up.”
Liz --“I was 19 years old, I was a sorority girl and a year later, I was in my third rehab with women who didn’t have their teeth. I didn’t quite know how I got there. I couldn't explain why or how, except I’m a drug addict. If you’re working in a hospital and a lot of you job is pain management, you might avail yourself of some of it. You’re basically inside the mind of a very high-functioning drug addict.