LOS ANGELES (CP) _ Jack Bauer gets all the glory, but the unsung hero of "24" is the guy one step ahead of TV’s toughest counter terrorist _ director Jon Cassar.
Cassar, who grew up in Ottawa and attended that city’s Algonquin College, has directed 48 episodes of "24" _ the most by far of any director.
Last August he was rewarded with the best director Emmy. This season, he was made an executive producer and is now busy developing a spinoff for Fox tentatively titled "NSA Innocent."
The 48-year-old was easy to spot on a recent visit to "24"’s main interior set in suburban Los Angeles. Cassar was the one wearing the Toronto Maple Leafs cap.
"If I had known all of you were coming I would have worn something more formal," he told a group of TV critics from across North America.
Cassar walked us through the concrete bunker that is the CTU set, complete with state-of-the-art video phones, high-def LCD screens and other nifty gadgets. Along with series star Kiefer Sutherland (Bauer), he is part of "24"’s Canadian connection responsible for airlifting so many Canucks into the show’s mix. If you are looking for Canadian beer and cigarettes in L.A., CTU headquarters is definitely the place to start.
This season, the sixth of Bauer’s staggeringly bad days (a special two-hour episode airs Monday on Fox and Global), Carlo Rota ("Little Mosque on the Prairie") is smack in the middle of the latest crisis. His character, CTU operative Morris O’Brian, was kidnapped at the end of last week’s episode. Another familiar CBC face, Shaun Majumder of "This Hour Has 22 Minutes," snuck onto "24" briefly before blowing up real good in Valencia, where his character just detonated a nuclear bomb.
Cassar, who claims to be "out of it" on the Canadian scene after six years in Hollywood (although he did just pick up DVDs of "Bon Cop, Bad Cop" and "The Rocket" while home for the holidays), says he had nothing to do with casting Rota and Majumder. But at least one of those hires dates back to Cassar’s previous series, "La Femme Nikita." The low-budget, Toronto-based drama was produced in the late ’90s by Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, who went on to create "24."
Rota, also on set for the critics tour, was a "Nikita" grad. When he moved to the States about a year ago, he picked up the phone to say hello to Surnow. That led to a two-minute meeting with the producer and Rota was suddenly part of the CTU team.
It’s all who you know, admits Cassar, and he and Surnow and Cochran know Canadian talent. The ever-revolving door at "24" has seen several Canadians come and go, including Leslie Hope, Elisha Cuthbert, Alberta Watson, Cameron Bancroft, Wendy Crewson, Mia Kirshner, Geraint Wyn Davies, Shawn Doyle, Peter Outerbridge, Justin Louis and Jeff Wincott.
"I’m one of the guys who have been fighting for free trade in the business for years," says Cassar, who worked with Wyn Davies on "Forever Knight" and Watson on "Nikita." "It affected me when I was a camera operator."
At that junior level, Cassar had to turn down a job on a Clint Eastwood film due to labour and border restrictions. (More cross-border latitude is given to directors.) "I watched my career right there crash and burn," he says. "This is a business built on relationships and that border stops that from happening."
So, if he can help a Canadian across the border now, why not, says Cassar.
Besides, our actors and crew members get "24"’s slick and quick shooting style _ we’ve been forced to do it that way for years. "It’s not about beautiful shots of the star on our show," says Cassar. "The stars are in the action. The actors do the scene and your job is to cover it. It’s not the other way around."
As a result, there are fewer takes on "24," maybe three or four per scene. Actors aren’t forced to hit their marks, the camera finds them.
Cassar credits pilot director Stephen Hopkins for setting the speedy standard. Cassar makes sure new directors, including Canadian Milan Cheylov, who made his mark on Toronto-based shows like "Relic Hunter" and "The Eleventh Hour," sticks to the game plan. "We don’t want a guy who comes in and changes our camera style. We have our camera style. We want a guy to come in and understand it."
A brisk shooting pace also helps maintain the heightened emotional level on the series. "Do you really want to stop Kiefer Sutherland in the middle of an interrogation," Cassar asks, "and just say to him, ‘Pick it up at "Where’s the bomb?" ‘ It’s not going to happen. You’re in the game right away."
Cassar will be working with at least one other Canuck on the new series, actress Stana Katic. Written by Cochran and David Ehrman, "NSA Innocent" is reportedly about an everyman stuck in Jack Bauer’s kind of scary spy world.
He hopes to work with a few more. One of the hard parts about working on "24" is having to say goodbye to great actors who get killed off every season. "Again, it’s people we know and trust," he says, singling out Hope along with Carlos Bernard and Sarah Clarke as actors he’d love to work with again.
He might even finally sneak another "Nikita" cohort across the border: "Rocket" star Roy Dupuis. "We’ve talked to him now for about three years," says Cassar. "We know he’d be great. It could still happen."