TV

My Favorite Scene: ‘ER’ Producer Neal Baer on Fulfilling a Dream to Write for Sally Field

by Shana Naomi Krochmal 7:35 AM PDT, July 29, 2016
Photo: NBC

No one loves a great scene more than the person who first dreamed it up -- the writer. We're asking shows' creators and writers to tell ET all about getting to see their most cherished moment on their series make it from script to screen.

When it comes to his time writing and producing ER, NBC's award-winning medical drama, Neal Baer looks back fondly on "Rescue Me," the last episode he wrote for the series featuring an emotional showdown between Abby Lockhart (Maura Tierney) and her bipolar mother, Maggie Wyczenski (Sally Field).

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The Thanksgiving-themed episode saw Abby pushed to her limit after Maggie refused to go home. Outside of the hospital, the two argue about the reality of Abby's childhood growing up with a mother who refused to get the proper treatment she needed. "You chased me around the house with a knife," Abby says as rain comes down on the two women.

The role, which spanned 12 episodes over seven seasons, ultimately earned Field an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series in 2001 and second nomination in 2003. Tierney, who is nominated this year for her role on Showtime's The Affair, was also nominated for her work on ER the same year Field won. After ER, Baer was the showrunner for 11 seasons on NBC's Law & Order: SVU and also led Under the Dome on CBS

Neal Baer:

I remember when I was young, watching The Flying Nun and Gidget on TV, and how much I loved Sally Field. I think I was in high school or college when Norma Rae came out. I was so moved by her performance. So, this scene is all because of how much I love Sally’s work. I was like, “How can I write this incredibly intense, dramatic scene for Sally?” How do I do that and put it in the rain and do everything possible to make it intense and crazy? 

We were at a retreat in Hawaii -- producer John Wells would take us to these retreats -- and we talked about Maura’s character and how to really get at Abby’s alcoholism. Having gone to medical school and being a doctor, I knew that if a parent is bipolar, there’s a higher risk for the child being bipolar or having alcohol problems. I pitched to John and the group that we should get Sally to play Maura’s mother. That was not the first episode that Sally did, but that was the beginning of her arc: her bipolar disorder and how it affected Maura’s character. It was a really great way to get at Maura’s character. 

In the scene, I love when they’re not listening to each other and it is so intense. They’re both telling their own stories and not listening to the other’s story. I loved writing that. I remember talking in the room as everybody was sharing their horror stories about Thanksgiving. The line Maura says, “You chased me around the house with a knife,” was inspired by one of the writers’ similar story. You gather stories together, synthesize them and make it work for those characters. I did not, thankfully, experience a Thanksgiving where someone chased someone with a knife, but we draw on different things. 

We shot that scene on a Friday night on the set of the Warner Bros. studio, where we had recreated the exterior of the E.R. It was a complicated shot because Sally and Maura start arguing inside, and then they move outside into the rain. So we had to make it rain, which involves shooting, calling cut, and then doing it again, and again, and again. Each time, the actors have to go into their trailers, completely dry off, and start over. It’s a crazy thing to make them do. You have to do a lot of setups because there was coverage. There would be close-ups of Sally, close-ups of Maura, medium shots, and then side angles of the two of them. 

It was a long night and really complicated, and I remember saying to Sally -- it was around one in the morning -- that I admired her and as a writer, the one person I dreamed of writing for at that point in my career was her and she kind of broke down and cried. It was so sweet.

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In addition to his work in TV, Baer is passionate about bringing attention to social issues. Check out ActionLab, a platform that Baer launched with UCLA to channel the inspiration that audiences feel when moved by a story into hands-on action. 

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