Going back in time is an occasional device used in primetime storytelling. For “Cold Case,” however, it’s more than a novelty; it’s how the show earns its living.
The CBS procedural, which hits 100 episodes this Sunday, has found a niche by moving gracefully between the then and the now in crime-solving. Clues and evidence — some from 20 to 50 years ago — are suddenly made relevant today.
Credit the below-the-line folks in making a smooth transition between the present and the past. Be it a production designer who must transform a house from 1973 to 2007 or a casting director who needs to find a suitable actor who resembles someone 30 years his junior, those touches that might go overlooked on another show are key here.
On a recent episode, 23 characters needed to be cast — all in an eight-day time frame.
“We concentrate on which- ever role seems most important,” says casting director Dan Shaner. “We have to focus on that one first.”
As far as making sure the audience can visualize two actors who are supposed to look anywhere from 10 to 50 years older than one another, Shaner notes: “It’s all about physically matching them and the way they carry themselves, plus acting ability. You can’t have one great actor and then another one who isn’t so great.”
Adds Shaner’s business partner, casting director Michael Testa: “Yeah, that’s the biggest problem. You can have an actor who looks like someone else, but they aren’t as good an actor.”
For Sunday’s anniversary episode, titled “World’s End,” the time frame is greater than normal. The plot revolves around Orson Welles’ famous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, which took place in 1938. Shaner and Testa had to find five pairs of actors who could play characters over a time span of nearly 70 years.
The dilemma is similar for production designer Corey Kaplan, who is responsible for building authentic-looking locations that stood over a half-century ago, in addition to current locales — and all on a budget that averages approximately $80,000 per episode.
That’s less than a quarter of what she had to spend when she was production designer on Fox’s hit “The X-Files.”
“It’s a lot more challenging now because we just don’t have the money anymore,” she says. “It’s complicated. You have to understand the writing and the purpose of the episode (in creating a set). You need to put the money where the importance is.”
Kaplan gives credit to “Cold Case” creator Meredith Stiehm and current showrunner Veena Sud for comprehending the financial restraints the production design team often faces.
“A lot of producers don’t want to understand,” Kaplan says. “They say, ‘I gave you a job and give me what I want.’ That happens a lot (elsewhere).”
Digesting scripts rapidly is also crucial.
“It really forces us to be organized and think ahead,” says Testa. “The two days a week we don’t have casting sessions, we spend researching and talking to other casting agents in town.”