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April 24, 2014

Brent Roske’s Big Chase

Brent Roske, the creator of the new Web series “Chasing the Hill,” fell for politics in 1999 when he started watching Aaron Sorkin’s NBC drama “The West Wing.”

“I started watching from the first episode and became a rabid fan immediately,” Roske says.

Like many “West Wing” fans, Roske said the show inspired him to get more politically involved. He started to work with several political campaigns, including a stint helping out Barack Obama’s presidential effort.

Roske isn’t a reliable Democrat, however. He says his personal politics are firmly in the center and he has voted for candidates on both sides aisle.

Then, a year and a half ago, his friend, producer Arvind David, moved from London to Los Angeles, not long after he had produced the film “The Infidel,” starring former “West Wing” cast member Richard Schiff, who famously played Communications Director Toby Ziegler on “The West Wing.”

It was David who invited Roske to join Schiff’s weekly script-writing group.

“We call it script group and — when everybody is in town — every Thursday night we meet at either Richard’s house or someone else’s,” Roske says. Each week the group of screenwriters and actors goes over a new script that one person has written.

One night, Roske recalls, Schiff and another friend, Jordan Belfi, who played Adam Davies on the HBO show “Entourage,” read through a one-act play that Roske had written.

“When we got done they said that the parts about campaigning were really interesting,” Roske says. “What we read [that night] is pretty much the pilot episode of ‘Chasing the Hill.’”

Brent Roskes Big Chase

Courtesy Brent Roske

“Chasing the Hill” is a Web-based half-hour political drama, which draws pretty strongly from elements of the “The West Wing” while using some of the cinéma vérité style of film making made famous by John Cassavetes and updated more for television by shows such as “Friday Night Lights.”

“[The style] is a little homegrown,” Roske says. “It’s certainly not shot for millions of dollars and that freedom, because we’re not beholden to someone else’s checkbook, has opened the door a little bit to speak about things a little bit differently. The pacing’s a little different. ['Chasing the Hill'] is just not something you’re going to find on television because it doesn’t have that overlord of the studio.”

“It’s my show,” Roske says. “For example, Melissa Fitzgerald [another 'West Wing' alum and actress on this show] gave a speech with [Sen.] John Kerry [D-Mass.] at the AFL-CIO building. The camera and the footage is being FedEx-ed to me. I get it Saturday. I’m taking a shot of that and we’re putting it into the opening credits sequence.

“['Chasing the Hill'] has been, artistically speaking, the most fulfilling project I’ve ever been involved in. With no exception. Everything else is a distant second. To get a chance to work with these actors, and this subject matter, in this fashion is truly a dream come true. It’s been amazing.”

The drama follows fictional California Rep. Kristina Ryan (Robin Weigert) after her campaign brings on experienced but troubled consultant Henry Walls (Matthew Del Negro) to give the campaign the kick in the arse it needs. The pilot stars real-life politician former California Gov. Gray Davis and will bring in former Sens. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) to play themselves in later episodes. The show is also filled with “West Wing” alums, such as Joshua Malina, Melissa Fitzgerald and Del Negro.

“Richard [Schiff] was slated to play the role that Matthew Del Negro is playing now,” Roske explains. “Richard’s schedule got quite complicated and we kept pushing back the shoot date. He sent me an email and then followed up with a phone call saying, ‘Look, my September is all clear.’

“I said, ‘Look, that’s simply just too late. If we’re going to do something that’s going to tie into this big wave of political interest, we’ve got to start shooting now.’”

Del Negro, who starred in the later seasons of “The West Wing,” stepped into the role. However, after it was reported that Schiff would be playing the male lead, Roske was suddenly flooded with interest from other actors, including Schiff’s former co-stars.

“As a writer/director, I’m just huge fans of all these guys,” he says. “[Schiff's involvement] was just a nice opening.”

Roske then reached out to Molina, who stars in the ABC political drama “Scandal.”

“He had to get permission from the producers of that show because it is set in the political world,” Roske says. Molina makes a brief cameo in the pilot and is still waiting for clearance to play later episodes in the series.

There has always been a strange sort of fascination between the political world and the entertainment world. Recently, however, that weird obsession has gone into hyper-drive with a glut of politically themed programming on the air.

“The process of this show has showed me how the political world looks at entertainment and vice versa,” Roske says. “First, this is totally pragmatic. A big goal of Hollywood is to create things that are already in the zeitgeist. This is the nature of the animal. I also think that the political world and the entertainment world are completely fascinated with each other.

“Two weeks ago, I had a party at the sailboat for July Fourth and I had a couple folks that are rather high up in political world come over. [They] have to stay anonymous because they are on opposing sides of the political world, but they both are huge fans of this little show,” he says. “[The pols] love the script. They love the idea behind it.”

Also at the party was Belfri. The two anonymous pols were delighted.

“They both said ‘Entourage’ is their favorite show because they feel that it is Hollywood’s version of what [politicians] do: the scheming, the working, the climbing the ladder.”

During filming, Roske continues, “Gov. Davis talked a lot about how two of his best friends are [actors] Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson.

“Warren Beatty, for example, has been wanting to run for office for years,” Roske says. “[B]ut at the end of the day, it is hard putting yourself on the ballot knowing that half of the people will hate you as soon as you do that. I think [former California Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger had a bit of that when he realized his fans would still be divided on his issues.”

Roske says there is genuine respect for politicians, those who are willing to be hated for their beliefs, from Hollywood players.

“I think the entertainment world, again, is [always] fascinated with politics,” he says. “[T]he fact that it’s an election year gives the studios the opportunity to green light these kind of projects.”

Chasing the Hill” premieres today.

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