Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage are TV royalty as the brains behind hit shows like The O.C. and Gossip Girl, and their new series City on Fire (first three episodes now on Apple TV+) is one of their most star-studded projects yet, including Chase Sui Wonders, Jemima Kirke, Nico Tortorella and Wyatt Oleff.
For City on Fire, Schwartz and Savage took Garth Risk Hallberg’s novel and moved the timeline from the 1970s to 2003, notably the year The O.C. premiered and dominated TV for an entire generation.
The show is set in post-9/11 New York City, the background for the case of the murder of a New York University student. Samantha (Wonders) was shot in Central Park on July 4, 2003, and there are no witnesses. Her life involved a mix of characters, from her favourite band Ex Nihilo, to a bond she establishes with a boy named Charlie (Oleff), who's a student at the high school Samantha went to.
Without revealing too much, Samantha is also connected to a wealthy Upper East Side family, including Kirke's character Regan.
Regan's life is particularly chaotic: Her husband Keith (Ashley Zukerman) is having an affair and she has completely lost contact with her brother William (Tortorella), a heroin addict who used to be the lead singer of Ex Nihilo.
Jumping between different timeframes, pre-and-post Samantha's death, City of Fire creates an intimate journey to reveal Samantha's killer.
“Josh and Stephanie masterfully constructed it such that you can experience alongside [Samantha],” Wonders told Yahoo Canada. “How wonderful and surprising it is to see her at different moments across the story, and try to guess what she knows or what she knew, or what she was hiding in that moment, and what she was distracted by.”
'It's a really beautiful, organic exchange in the absence of technology'
Aside from the fact that it's quite stylish to sort of romanticize the 2000s at the moment, with that comes an interesting aspect to the storytelling, a lack of technology. We're trying to solve this mystery and make connections in a time when the portable tech we have today didn't exist, or barely existed.
“You have to talk about things, I think it was such a more original way of connecting,” Wonders said. “I think the way that Charlie and Sam connect is case in point, she's like, I’ve got spoon-feed this kid all this stuff that I've been obsessed with, and my little subculture of things.”
“I think it's a really beautiful, organic exchange in the absence of technology.”
“I honestly think modern technology can, if not used properly, it ruins the plot of a movie, it ruins the connection or the mystery,” Oleff added. “If we had Instagram or modern day cell phones, and tracking, you could solve this story.”
“We don't have enough [technology] to where it ruins the story, no one relies on their technology to find anything. It's purely, how well do you know this person? And do you really know this person? I think that's what's so cool about the setup of the flashbacks throughout the show, as well. We get to find out more about these characters, not through Instagram or any modern day means, but just through personal experience.”
'There's a manic energy to our approach to the work'
Something that stands out in City on Fire is the brilliant casting choice to have Tortorella and Kirke play estranged siblings, who surprisingly reconnect.
As Tortorella explained, finding that sibling connection came "naturally" to the actors.
“I wouldn't say the same cloth, but a very similar cloth," they said.
"She grew up in a vintage store here in New York, I grew up in an antique store in Chicago. Our love for the past and where we came from, and art and culture and music, it's definitely of the same breed for sure. We weirdly look alike, I've always thought that we do. So that was pretty easy to jump into. ... There's a manic energy to our approach to the work that is definitely very clear in our characters and our performance."
Kirke highlighted that she had to "romanticize" Tortorella's character in her head for the role, particularly when Regan is involved in an emotionally-driven intervention scene for her brother William.
"That's not something I can directly relate to, is having that kind of need and that kind of enmeshment with a sibling, and tragedy," she explained. "We had a lot of talks about it, and intimate ones about ourselves, and to the point where when we got to that intervention scene, and we were blocking it, [Nico] wasn't looking at me and I couldn't look at [Nico], because I just would lose it."
"I felt like there was just this understanding between us as people that really helped the characters."
Xavier Clyde, who impressively stepped into his first major TV role with City on Fire, plays William's boyfriend Mercer in the series. Mercer is the sort of grounding force in the show, he's from the South and doesn't fully understand the Upper East Side bubble William was raised in, but Mercer becomes particularly concerned about his boyfriend's drug use.
“Our very first thing together was the emotional height, the explosion of that relationship,” Clyde said. “That for me was such an experience because I never worked with Nico, … there wasn't really much of a history there, but we came in with the knowledge and the trust of our characters.”
“On the day, as artists, you look to the other person, you're at this level for a reason. So you simply just say, 'Let's go. Trust you. Love you. Surrender to you.’ … It’s simply just a natural connection that formed and from that, it just informed the rest of the relationship as the series goes along. I just had such love for Nico, the actual human behind this character, that I didn't have to switch it on.”
'It's been the greatest discoveries and joys of my working career'
Much like other Schwartz shows, the music in the series is critically important, especially in City on Fire where this story of a band is built into the narrative.
"The music was by far the most rewarding part of this job for me," Tortorella said. “The first conversations that I had with Josh and Stephanie about this project involved the music, we kind of hinted at the idea that William was going to be singing, if I would be interested in that.”
“I started singing one of the songs and something just clicked in for me. I grew up singing, I never kind of took it seriously as a career at all. I was always an actor first, but every great actor will tell you they've had dreams of being a rockstar at one point or another.”
Tortorella also stressed that often actors don't really get a lot of time to sit and develop their characters but in this circumstance, the character of William really evolved in the recording studio.
“I got to find this character's voice in the music studio, we wound up recording an entire album, I sing all of my own vocals on this show,” Tortorella said.
The actor, now singer, is actually working with a producer on an album, which is coming this summer.
"It's been the greatest discoveries and joys of my working career," they said. "It’s like I actually started to hear music for the first time all over again.”
'I think the kids do sometimes take a backseat'
When it comes to the relationship between Regan and her husband Keith, what's great about this series is that the narrative never shies away from showing their flaws or stressed out moments as parents to two young children.
"I think the kids do sometimes take a backseat when you're an adult dealing with crisis," Kirke said. "There is no way to be a perfect parent and you're still human once you have a kid."
"Neglect is on a scale, but they are in a moment of neglect because the parents are dealing with so much other stuff that the kids are just sort of a bit of an obligation. You just sort of have to find someone to look after them so that we can go deal with this."
"Regan carries the weight of those issues, Keith doesn't have to and Keith doesn't even have a second thought about it," Ashley Zukerman said. "He sort of spends most of his time being confused and he's quite happy to go along, and play the great father because he's a hero, no matter what."
"He, as we see him early on in the story, is sort of unencumbered by this problem and sort of confused by it. ... He's playing the easy way out while Regan is doing the hard work of getting him to confront issues, so that maybe they might have a future, while it takes him a while to understand that."
For anyone who watched shows like The O.C. and Gossip Girl, you know Schwartz and Savage are experts in mixing characters from different walks of life, having them come together is new and surprising ways. That's where City of Fire really shines as a high-stakes and fiery mystery.