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Behind the scenes of “American Takedown”

Warrior Poets' Jeremy Chilnick discusses A&E's American Takedown, which follows eight law enforcement units across the U.S.
June 25, 2015

Nearly 35 years on since the unscripted crime genre saw its debut with Cops, demand for the content has yet to show any sign of slowing down with a raft of successful series – Spike’s DEA, the long-running Forensic Files currently airing on truTV, and A&E’s The First 48 – forcing the camera’s eye to the crime blotter.

A&E will once again aim to capture the enduring battle U.S. investigators, specialists and enforcement agents undertake to bring criminals to justice in its latest anthology offering American Takedown(pictured) produced by New York-based prodco Warrior Poets.

“Anthology is always more difficult in a lot of ways, because rather than just finding one unique world that you can be in for eight episodes, in an anthology you have to find eight unique worlds to be in for every episode,” Jeremy Chilnick, president of production for Warrior Poets and an executive producer on American Takedown, tells realscreen.

Set to bow tonight (June 25) at 10 p.m. EST/PST, the series details a variety of investigations into illegal activities, and brought the prodco – co-founded by Chilnick, Matthew Galkin and Morgan Spurlock – to such states as Utah to document S.E.C.U.R.E. Strike Force’s probe into the procurement of forged government forms for undocumented workers and to Tennessee, where crews followed the Humane Society of the United States’ inquest into a dog fighting scheme.

When the Warrior Poets team first set out to determine which American law enforcement units they would shadow, they narrowed their search to two elements: would the crew and audiences find a specific agency’s beat interesting enough to document; and can the characters tell a compelling story?

With the program’s eight stories selected, the team began working backwards to flesh them out. By gaining the trust of each tactical unit during the two- to four-week chain of production, crews were able to ensure cameras would be on set and in place to capture the benchmarks law enforcement comes across when gathering evidence to detain a suspect.

“Getting law enforcement to trust us is huge,” says Chilnick. “Having a good relationship where we are ensured we can keep our cameras on – that conversation is crucial so that we know that when we get on the ground we’re actually going to be able to shoot and tell the stories we wanted.”

While Warrior Poets aimed to minimize the overall production footprint – as evidenced by the self-contained crew on the episode “Sexual Assault,” which utilized a cameraman, first assistant camera, sound producer and executive producer – a skeleton crew wasn’t always possible.

For example, four crews ultimately descended upon Puerto Rico to follow the U.S. Coast Guard’s Maritime Safety and Security Team, which tries to prevent couriers from trafficking illicit drugs and weapons into the U.S. With the Coast Guard deploying multiple assets to scour the ocean for smugglers in go-fast boats, the story was simply too complicated from a logistical standpoint. Thus, the prodco employed two camera crews aboard two air carriers, another aboard a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter and a fourth smaller crew on land at the USCG Sector San Juan base.

While unscripted storytelling aims to get as close to the action as humanly possible, regardless of crew size, ensuring each team remained safely out of harm’s way was of paramount importance for all concerned.

“Obviously, law enforcement gets the final word,” Chilnick says, noting that crews wore body armor when the situation appropriately called for it. “If they think something is predominantly unsafe or adds a level of violence either to the crew or to the local enforcement on the ground, they’re pretty great about saying, ‘This is not a smart thing for you guys to be doing’ or, ‘Why don’t you stand over there instead of standing over here?’”

Ultimately, Chilnick is optimistic that viewers will come away with an appreciation for the dedication each investigator, agent and officer possesses in doing their jobs.

“It’s scary walking into rooms and not knowing what’s on the other side.”

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