Ever have one of those days? Time is of the essence for ’24’ creators

Jun 3, 2002  •  Post A Comment

When Joel Surnow first suggested to his producing partner Robert Cochran that he had an idea for a TV show that would consist of 24 one-hour episodes, each representing one hour in a single day, Mr. Cochran was not exactly overcome with enthusiasm.
“He had no characters, no story, just that notion,” Mr. Cochran recalled. “I didn’t see how that would work or how we would sell a show like that.”
“I agreed with him,” Mr. Surnow said. “But it stayed in my head, and I said, `Let’s think about it some more.’ We didn’t really know if it would work until the last episode finally ran.”
“24,” starring Keifer Sutherland as a heroic CIA agent trying to stop a political assassination, not only made the Fox lineup last fall but became one of the critical hits of the season.
“It was a challenge to figure out story lines because, with the concept, you had to have people not sleeping, going through the night. So we came up with the idea of a political assassination, thinking of `Day of the Jackal’ and `In the Line of Fire,”’ Mr. Cochran said.
And there had to be multiple subplots to fill in such a large canvas. One possibility presented itself right away. “Both Joel and I have teenage daughters and you’re always worrying about them, so we figured if the main guy involved in the investigation also has a teenage daughter who’s in trouble and you can tie all that together, you’d have something,” Mr. Cochran said.
Much has been made of the novelty of the show’s playing out in real time, with a digital clock often visible on the screen, counting down the seconds of each 60-minute episode. But Mr. Cochran said this is not all that unique. “Every scene in every film and TV show is in real time if you think about it,” he said. “The difference is that when you cut away, you’re not thinking about what time it is in the next scene.”
What is unique is that “24” frequently reminds viewers of the time factor. “A lot of pictures put a clock in the last act to create a sense of urgency,” Mr. Cochran said. “We just have the clock going all the time.”
Mr. Cochran and Mr. Surnow met in 1988, when Mr. Surnow, then executive producer of “Falcon Crest,” offered Mr. Cochran his first staff job as a story editor.
“I had read one of his scripts and called him in. I liked him in the room immediately, and he turned out to be the star of the staff,” Mr. Surnow said.
A former lawyer, Mr. Cochran broke into the television business writing episodes of “L.A. Law.”
“Ever since I was young, I wanted to be a writer,” he said. “Law was a good background for understanding the way society works, but I never really liked it. I hadn’t exactly found a niche as a writer, but when I started to read screenplays, I thought, `I can do this.”’
Mr. Surnow, who grew up in Los Angeles, the son of a carpet salesman, went to UCLA and tried his hand at writing feature films before switching to television in the late ’70s. “I wasn’t that keen on TV,” he said. “In the ’70s there was a snobbery about television because what was happening in features was so exciting.”
But after writing his first spec script for “Cheers,” he started getting jobs. Steven Bochco hired Mr. Surnow to write for “Hill Street Blues,” and Mr. Surnow subsequently became the head writer on the first season of “Miami Vice” and then executive producer of “The Equalizer.”
Later, when Mr. Cochran became co-executive producer of “The Commish,” he returned Mr. Surnow’s earlier favor and hired him to work on the show. The two then teamed up to run “La Femme Nikita” for five years before writing the pilot for “24.”