Atlanta’s “Cold Cases” get TV Treatment
This article was originally printed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution and on AccessAtlanta.com.
Atlanta’s ‘cold cases’ get TV treatment
New cable series based on true crimes filming in Roswell
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/20/2008
The idea is to take crimes from the streets and put a fictional spin on them to produce an Atlanta cop drama that will alter the image of this city the way the HBO series “The Wire” has reimagined Baltimore.
But there are problems on the set of “Atlanta Investigations: HD,” a shoestring production that, at this moment, is shooting an episode in an abandoned gym without air-conditioning on a boiling June afternoon that makes everyone on the set feel like something in the oven for dinner.
PHIL SKINNER / AJC
|Actress Angelina Cortez gets ready for shooting scenes of ‘Atlanta Investigations: HD’, a new TV series based on real Atlanta homicide investigations.
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The generator powering the lights just ran out of gas. Carl Millender, the show’s creator and video camera operator, groans. “I only brought enough gas to run it [the generator] two and a half hours,” he tells the actors.
He pauses, thinks a second.
“Everybody move over by the window — we’ll shoot it there.”
If there’s an instinct vital to survival in the industry of TV on the cheap it’s knowing how to adapt. Millender, 38, the owner of Alpharetta-based StarMaxx Media, has honed that instinct in nine years of trying to survive on the margins of television production in Atlanta.
“They say we’re supposed to shoot an episode on a budget of $100,000,” he says of the show, which will begin airing on The Dish satellite network Thursday. “We’re more like $20,000.”
There’s no disguising the cut corners from viewers used to watching slick cop productions such as “CSI” or “Law & Order,” which carries an average per episode production budget of $4 million.
In early episodes of “Atlanta Investigations: HD,” the lighting, camera work and sound are patchy. And for actors — who are unpaid until the series airs — the work has been a test of mettle.
“We’ve been at both extremes shooting in this gym,” says Chris Durant, 34, who plays strictly-by-the-books Detective Stephen Winslow. “In January we were freezing. The beginning of June we’re sweating our tails off.”
Yet, says Millender, “Atlanta Investigations: HD” (the HD stands for homcide division) is about more than just making a hit show.
About 90 shows and series have been shot in Atlanta in the last 35 years, most recently Tyler Perry’s “House of Payne,” but “Atlanta Investigtions: HD” would be the first dramatic series set and shot in the city with Atlanta in the name.
And that’s huge, Millender says.
“Atlanta is the Mecca of the South, and the center of the music industry, but there’s no TV show ever been based here, and there’s no TV industry here. This is what we’re trying to do. And we’ve been getting a lot of help.”
And they’ve needed it. Millender and co-creator and director Hattie Lemon know their way around the TV business. And they’re doing what they can to juice the show’s appeal, such as casting celebrity guest appearances (comic Arnez J) and hiring Michael Moore — who produced music for episodes of “The Sopranos” — to write the show’s high-energy theme.
But, when it came to running even a fictional homicide division, Millender and Lemon were complete tyros.
They asked for help in a most unexpected place: The Andrew Young Foundation. Millender got in touch with former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young’s brother, Walter, an Atlanta dentist who works with the Foundation, and told him he was trying to produce a cop show in Atlanta that would help solve crimes and give the city a lot of publicity.
Within two days Walter Young arranged a meeting with local police chiefs. Over dinner at the Four Seasons restaurant, Millender bounced his ideas off Atlanta Police Chief Richard J. Pennington, DeKalb Chief Terrell Bolton and former Atlanta chief and current Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell.
Bolton, for one, told the producer Millender he should change the name of the show, which was originally titled “Atlanta Homicide,” recalls Millender. “He said that wasn’t the right image for the city.”
With Pennington’s blessing, Millender met with the head of the Atlanta Police Department’s homicide division, Lt. Keith Meadows, who watched one of the early episodes and offered advice.
“I thought it was pretty good, though you could tell it was low budget,” said Meadows, who teaches a crime scene class in the department’s Citizens Academy. “But they had a lot of unrealistic parts I told them they needed to fix.”
Meadows told Millender and Lemon, who attended this crime scene class, to clean up the language — “Homicide detectives don’t talk in the kind of slang they did” — and put coats and ties on the crime scene detectives.
“Their investigators were wearing T-shirts and bandannas,” Meadow said. “That’s a no-no. If an investigator of mine showed up like that I’d send him home.”
The show now has a full-time cop consultant and, for script ideas, a pipeline to Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue’s “Rewards Office,” which offers money to help solve hard-to-crack crimes.
At the end of each episode, which are fictionalized versions of the real-life crimes, viewers are asked to come forward if they have evidence in the case.
“It’s a great show, good for the police and good for the city,” says Billy Johnson, a specialist in charge of extradition and rewards in the governor’s office who is also on the board of the Georgia Film, Video and Music Office.
The show is fictionalizing: gang-related drive-by shootings in Clayton County in 2005; a 2007 triple murder in Powder Springs; the case of a woman missing from LaFayette since 2007; and the case of a newborn found dead and abandoned in 2007.
All that will come to naught if the show doesn’t catch on with viewers, concedes Arthur Thomas Sr., VP of Colours TV, which is syndicating the show on The Dish satellite network. Locally, the show will air the evening of July 3 on The Dish at Channel 9407.
But the show’s appeal may be its lack of polish.
“It’s got a great cast, real stories, and a kind of gritty indie feel to it,” says Thomas. “If it’s a good story, people will accept the production values. And I think Atlanta is hungry for a show about Atlanta.”