I recently spoke with Chicago playwrights and filmmakers Erica Weiss and Caitlin Parrish about their new CBS drama “The Red Line,” which premieres this Sunday, April 28 (8:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT) with four two-hour blocks as a limited event series on CBS. “It will also stream on CBS All-Access, so people will be able to watch it even if they are also watching “Game of Thrones,” Weiss said.
“The Red Line” follows three Chicago families after a tragedy causes them all to consider how race and racial biases affect their lives. It begins after a white cop shoots and kills an unarmed African American doctor. “The Red Line” is based on their 2011 Chicago hit play “A Twist from Water.”
Before I talked with Caitlin and Erica, I watched their codirected film “The View from Tall” (2015), which was based on their play of the same name. The film had such a vulnerability and intimacy you don’t see from most films. Their dedication to each other as a team (dream team in my opinion!) and their powerful storytelling is inspiring. “The Red Line” is directed by Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay and features an amazing cast, including “The View from Tall”‘s Michael Patrick Thornton as a series regular. I am very excited to see their series premiere on Sunday.
HOW THEY MET
REBECCA MARTIN: How did you two meet?
ERICA WEISS: Caitlin and I met in undergrad at The Theatre School at DePaul University. I was a year ahead of her, focusing on directing, and Caitlin was a playwriting major. As we were becoming friends and getting to know one another better, we quickly identified a shared artistic sensibility. Caitlin came to see my student production of “Blue Window” by Craig Lucas, and I think my storytelling style resonated with her.
She asked me to direct it as an independent student production, and that was our first collaboration. We’ve been together ever since. We made a commitment to one another, to be partners. Art-wives.
WEISS: And on the other side of that coin, I got to read the first play Caitlin every wrote, at eighteen years old, and that play was called “The View from Tall.” It struck a chord with me like no play had ever done before. I loved it so much. I just identified with it so clearly and I loved her voice. It was clear, even at nineteen and twenty years old, that we really had the same storytelling goals, and a shared emotional approach. So, when it was accepted to the Young Playwrights Festival in New York for an an off-Broadway run, I flew out for her opening night. She asked me to direct it as an independent student production, and that was our first collaboration. We’ve been together ever since. We made a commitment to one another, to be partners. Art-wives.
PARRISH: There was a very mutually tear-filled couch proposal at Erica’s old apartment in Chicago and since then we’ve had seventeen beautiful years together.
WEISS: We formed Hypatia Theatre Company right out of college, and that’s how we began our professional careers—Caitlin as a writer and me as a director. But as we kept working together, our roles started to blur. We would be sitting on a couch just talking about stories we wanted to tell. Over the next few years, the process evolved.
PARRISH: Basically, we’d sit on Erica’s couch, have a conversation, then I’d grab my laptop and write a scene, she’d read it and we’d talk about it, maybe make notes, and then I’d write some more, repeating that process for the entirety of the play’s development, including in production. We were like an artistic Venn diagram.
WEISS: We eventually dissolved Hypatia Theatre Company and started shopping around the work together—always with Caitlin as playwright and myself as director. It was just a very organic partnership, working as a team while we were still splitting those roles and those credits.
MARTIN: That’s great.
In 2009, we started developing a new play together called “A Twist of Water.” … People were really excited by the script, but they balked at the idea of taking chance on a new play with the requirement that I direct the production. We were two “untested” young women, in our early mid-twenties, who’d only worked on a fairly small scale.
WEISS: In 2009, we started developing a new play together called “A Twist of Water.” At that point, we had yet to break through in a real way outside of our own company, and we had let the company go. But we really believed in this play, so we pitched it to a bunch of established theatres. People were really excited by the script, but they balked at the idea of taking chance on a new play with the requirement that I direct the production. We were two “untested” young women, in our early mid-twenties, who’d only worked on a fairly small scale. There were a couple of counterproposals from theatres who didn’t want to hire me to direct. They wanted me to dramaturg or maybe assistant direct.
PARRISH: Or, even more condescendingly, they’d offer that Erica could kind of direct the play but with a more experienced man in the room the whole time to make sure you aren’t screwing it up. Not exactly their words, but…
MARTIN: That’s awful.
WEISS: So, Caitlin had these opportunities to have her work produced on a larger scale, and she said no. We said no. It was a huge risk, but we had made this commitment to one another, so we stood our ground.
PARRISH: Eventually Route 66 Theatre Company in Chicago took that chance on us as a team, and “A Twist of Water” became a kind of overnight success. It had an extended run, transferred to a larger theatre, and was then remounted off-Broadway.
WEISS: It changed both of our lives, and careers, almost immediately. And it continues to do so—our new TV series “The Red Line” is based on “A Twist of Water.” We love a full-circle moment.
THEATRE TO SCREEN
MARTIN: I’m curious about how things transitioned from theatre to the screen.
WEISS: Speaking of full circle! That first play we did together, “The View from Tall,” became our first film.
PARRISH: At this time, I had moved to Los Angeles to get my masters in screenwriting and was writing for television, and Erica was holding it down in Chicago. We were still working on plays together. And we were pitching “The View from Tall” for a professional run, and we met some resistance again—commercial producers in some cases being really wary about the material, or again wanting to replace Erica as director.
WEISS: Even after the success of “Twist,” there was a question of do people want to take a risk on a young female writer and director, especially on a play about a young woman’s story, when they’re not even sure people want to see those stories. But The Gift Theatre in Chicago, which is run by Michael Patrick Thornton, was interested. We did an in-house reading of the play at The Gift with Michael playing Douglas, and it was like a million little lightbulbs going off in our heads.
Erica and I said, you know what? F*ck it, let’s just write a screenplay. Let’s just try to make a movie, and let’s do it with Mike. You know? No one is letting us do it and so let’s just do it because we’re tired of asking for permission.
PARRISH: The play was never written for Douglas to have any kind of disability or use a wheelchair. But when we saw him read, we learned that Michael was always meant to play this character. Erica and I said, you know what? F*ck it, let’s just write a screenplay. Let’s just try to make a movie, and let’s do it with Mike. You know? No one is letting us do it and so let’s just do it because we’re tired of asking for permission.
WEISS: A pretty common thread for our partnership, if you hadn’t noticed.
PARRISH: We found another two badass Lady Vikings, Amanda Pflieger and Mary Kay Cook, and we raised the money through private equity, with these women helping get us over the finish line. Because they believed in us, they believed in the story, and they knew how to get it done. A small but mighty and passionate cadre made this indie film happen.
WEISS: So in 2014, immediately after closing another hit show called “The Downpour,” we started filming “The View from Tall.” And in the transition from theatre to film, we decided to become codirectors.
PARRISH: Even though Erica had much more experience directing plays, I had more experience on a set from my work in TV. And given how we’ve worked together for years, it just made sense for us to be directing it together. We became this two-headed beast. It was a revelatory experience and still one of the most rewarding professional experiences of my life.
WEISS: Stage and screen directing are very different for me. The big lightbulb for me was that even though I always considered myself the director, I wanted to be in that constant collaboration and conversation and shared vision, which doesn’t always translate with the division of labors between film director and screenwriter. I wanted to do this with Caitlin. We always said we were a team, so this was the moment we said, OK, we’re going to do it together in a whole new way. An official team in every sense of the word.
We always wanted to make the film we wished had existed when we were seventeen.
PARRISH: We always wanted to make the film we wished had existed when we were seventeen. And we have to single out our two lead actresses, Amanda Drinkall and Carolyn Braver. They bring this intelligence and the fearlessness to these two characters and their complex relationship as sisters.
The energy was the best workplace environment I’ve ever experienced. We had incredible men as a part of that team, but there was a spirit that was held up by strong women at the helm.
WEISS: “The View from Tall” was made by a group of amazing women, that’s a vital part of this story. Caitlin mentioned our stars and our producing partners, and I’ll add our remarkable DP Stephanie Dufford. The film has a uniquely female gaze, and that’s in large part because we had a woman who deeply understood our protagonist behind the lens. We could see the story through Justine’s eyes instead of just looking at Justine. That continued in postproduction with our amazing editor Sarah Beth Shapiro. In fact, 80 percent of our department heads were female, and over 60 percent of our crew. That was huge. We need to be supporting and investing in hiring women in those types of positions where they are traditionally not represented. It’s not just about women writing and directing, it’s about female producers, cinematographers, gaffers, etc. The energy was the best workplace environment I’ve ever experienced. We had incredible men as a part of that team, but there was a spirit that was held up by strong women at the helm.
PARRISH: So this collaboration and female-powered first film as codirectors led us to our next step—writing as a team. Our first cowriting credit is the pilot for “The Red Line,” which we wrote while we were in postproduction for “The View from Tall.” “The Red Line” was an adaptation of the play “A Twist of Water,” that game-changing artistic moment for us. So just like we went full circle with
The View from Tall,” we returned to the stories and characters that we loved so deeply, and found a way to bring them into a whole different medium.
“THE RED LINE”
MARTIN: Let’s talk about what the series is about, and what the story is that inspired you beyond just taking place in Chicago. Could you expand on that?
WEISS: First of all, we wrote “The Red Line” thinking it would just be a spec script with both our names on it. But we sent it to our agent and all of a sudden it wasn’t a spec anymore, it was owned by Warner Brothers.
PARRISH: It was always about Chicago. But “The Red Line” differs from “A Twist of Water” in a lot of a huge ways, even though the central characters and their relationships are fundamentally pretty much the same: A widowed white gay father and his adopted black daughter who are unable to connect in their grief in the wake of his husband and her other adoptive father, which spurs her to try to find her birth mother. The conflict in the play was specific to the time in which it was written—the deceased father was not African American, and he was killed in a car crash. But this was not only prior to the legalization of gay marriage, it was also at a time when people in same-sex couples could be denied access to their partners in medical facilities even on their deathbeds. They weren’t considered “family.” And in the play, the surviving father sends his daughter back alone to be with her other father as he dies, and she’s furious at him, she sees it as a moment of weakness. So when we start the play they’re at odds, and she’s seeking more family in the form of her birth mother, but it was a closed adoption, so neither of them know who she is.
WEISS: But when we wrote the pilot for “The Red Line,” laws had obviously changed, and there was a different cultural conversation to be had with these characters at the center. Here you have two family members sharing loss and grief, but living two very different American experiences in the same house. Two Chicagos, under the same roof. And there was a national conversation coming to the forefront about racialized police violence and lack of accountability, which has particular resonance in a very segregated city like Chicago. So we changed the story to reflect that more relevant, more thorny conversation, and acknowledge even more the racial divide between them.
PARRISH: We changed the cause of the deceased father’s death from a car accident to a shooting by a police officer. And we exploded the story out from there. We made the birth mother character, who was only seen at the very end of the play, a main character for the audience to get to know. And in the biggest change of all, we added the character of the police officer and decided to track him throughout the story of the aftermath. All the while holding onto the central DNA of the story: two very different people who nonetheless love each other desperately, who are family, and just trying so hard to make it out of the worst year of their lives.
We try to explore themes and issues we’re really passionate about in our work, and ultimately our way is always character-based. “A Twist of Water” was a play about family and “The Red Line” is a show about family. They’re tackling these capital “I” Issues, because those things are affecting their everyday lives.
WEISS: We try to explore themes and issues we’re really passionate about in our work, and ultimately our way is always character-based. “A Twist of Water” was a play about family and “The Red Line” is a show about family. They’re tackling these capital “I” Issues, because those things are affecting their everyday lives. It’s the same thing we try to do in every story we tell, whether the plot is more or less overtly sociopolitical. There are things we want to say, and the way we want people to feel when they hear them. We’re all about creating empathy through complex characters.
PARRISH: Ultimately, Erica and I are unapologetic about our desire to change hearts and minds. And we don’t do that with a punch to the face or with a lecture. We do that by creating a character that an audience can identify with and even grow to love, whether or not they’ve ever had a relationship with that kind of person in real life. I always think of it as the Harvey Milk philosophy. If they know one of us, they can’t hate all of us. Trying to open up perspectives just a tiny bit.
Another guiding principle in our work is actually a line in “The View from Tall”: Everybody wants to be seen.
WEISS: And there’s an equally important flip side to that approach, because another guiding principle in our work is actually a line in “The View from Tall”: Everybody wants to be seen. In all our work, we want to make someone in the audience feel seen, and we want to help someone else in the audience to see them. It’s the most powerful feeling that art can give you, and so important across all kinds of lived experiences. In “The View from Tall,” it’s so that anyone who’s ever been or felt like a Justine can feel seen, and also for the audience who may not naturally take a story seriously because it’s a teenage girl’s story. In the case of “The Red Line,” it’s helping people see across racial lines and also hopefully feel authentically and responsibly represented. We’re telling stories about different kinds of people, and in our ideal world, we’re getting all kinds of folks to watch the show where everyone can have the experience of feeling seen and seeing each other.