‘The Bear’: Behind the Scenes of the ‘Fishes’ Christmas Episode

“There's degrees of messiness,” The Bear’s prop master Laura Roeper tells me over the phone from Chicago. “Chris [Storer, the series creator] is like, ‘no, [it has to be] chaotic craziness’… So we’re in the kitchen, and we got to throw spaghetti sauce over everything, because the mess wasn’t big enough for Chris. He goes, ‘no, way more’,” Roeper laughs. “We threw spaghetti sauce all over. It's on the ceiling, it's everywhere.”

This anecdote could illustrate almost any episode of The Bear, now raking in Emmy nominations and sitting pretty on several best of 2023 TV rankings. Each ep is cooked up with degrees of chaos, peppered with characters getting their anxiety out through wild culinary exploits. But no episode features more “chaotic craziness” than the second season’s sixth Christmas-themed episode: Fishes.

Suddenly, it’s five years ago. It’s also Christmas, a notoriously calm time of year. The extended Berzatto clan gather at the house of Carmy, Sugar and Mikey’s mother, Donna, who is played with formidable aplomb by Jamie Lee Curtis. Curtis isn’t the only star turn in this guest-studded episode – Bob Odenkirk appears as Uncle Lee, Sarah Paulson as Cousin Michelle, John Mulaney as her partner Stevie, and Gillian Jacobs as Richie’s pregnant wife Tiffany, who spends most of the episode recovering from a bout of morning sickness.

She’s far from the only one feeling out of sorts: Pasta sauce splashes the walls as Donna attempts to cook a traditional Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes, while clutching a large glass of red wine. Abby Elliott’s Sugar pours booze down the sink when Donna isn’t looking, and keeps asking if her mom’s okay. Kitchen timers keep going off, Uncle Lee keeps antagonising Mikey, and everyone seems caught in Donna’s gravitational pull. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it turns out that despite the Seven Fishes dinner menu, the only thing getting served up is a family-sized helping of trauma. Fishes concludes with Jon Bernthal’s Mikey throwing forks at Uncle Lee and Donna driving her car through the wall. It’s a frenetic and deeply affecting hour of television, which leaves you winded. Almost as soon as it dropped this summer, it was hailed as not just one of the best Christmas TV episodes ever, but one of the best TV episodes full stop. So how did the crew pull it all off?

“The Fishes episode was shot at two different places,” Roeper tells me. “It was shot at a house, a location home, and then we also rebuilt the dining room on our stages so we could crash the car through it.”

Before the shoot, Roeper went on the location scouts for the perfect house – one that could be loaded with A-listers and abrasive timers for a few days, and have sauce chucked at the ceilings. Eventually, the team found the ideal setting in Evanston, 12 miles north of downtown Chicago.

Then the real logistical challenges began. “We had a lot of actors that day, obviously,” Roeper says. “And I have to make sure everybody has something to drink, everybody has something to nosh on.” The prop department had to set up certain things that could be eaten on camera, for instance. “So, knowing I had all these people when we were on the location shoot, I looked at my producer and I was in a panic. I'm like, ‘I need way more room’.” Space wasn’t the only dilemma: “This is Seven Fishes Dinner,” Roeper adds. “Fish stink. Nobody wants to be with 15 actors and stinky fish.”

The crew considered getting a food truck and cooking outside, but they soon landed on a better solution. “We rented a house to shoot in, and we rented the house across the street for our green room for the actors, and then we rented a house kitty-corner that was strictly to cook in,” Roeper explains. This set up a “little triangle” in the neighbourhood, with a dedicated kitchen for culinary producer Courtney “Coco” Storer to prep food in: “We literally had people running back and forth.”

The way Roeper tells it, the shoot sounded a bit like actual Christmas Day, complete with peckish guests depleting the snack stocks. “Sarah Paulson – she started the scene by eating one of them,” she says. “Actors know this: If they eat once, they're going to eat 20 times. But everyone really likes nuts and olives, so if you watch the living room scene again, you'll see them popping that stuff in their mouths.”

For other programmes, this might present a continuity nightmare. But The Bear’s a bit unique in this sense: “They shoot so fast on our show that it's a little bit different,” Roeper explains. “We're not refilling every dish between takes.” The prop team don't go in and match everything perfectly, “unless it's a specific thing”, Roeper says, “like when Carmy made the fake 7 Up for Richie's wife.”

Roeper’s favourite “little detail” in Fishes is something she sourced close to home. “Bob Odenkirk, who plays Uncle Lee, he walks in with a casserole dish,” Roeper says. But she couldn’t find the right prop: “Then I was like, ‘oh, I know what I want. I want a red dish.’ That's actually my mom's.” Both she and director Christopher Storer agreed it was the perfect item: homely and slightly battered from use. “Sometimes the perfect prop isn't something you can rent from a prop house,” Roeper says. The red dish has now become a Roeper family joke: “I'm like, I'm going to put it in every scene I work on!”

The whole show spins on family dynamics both in and out of the kitchen, but, thankfully, the ones behind the scenes are far less fraught than those depicted on screen. “We're really tight,” Roeper says of the cast and crew. “We're a family.” She’s worked on the show ever since the pilot. “It changes your dynamics when you do a pilot with someone and you grow the show together,” she says.

In Fishes, however, toxic familial relationships were perfectly choreographed to wrench at your guts, including, of course, the scene where Jon [Bernthal] antagonises Uncle Lee by repeatedly throwing a fork at him. This projectile, of course, fell under Roeper’s remit.

“I get the fork that we're going to use, and we bring that to a prop maker,” Roeper explains. “A custom mould maker. He made me five hard rubber forks that you can throw at people.” Roeper works with the people on stunt and special effects to test her props. “So, obviously with the fork, what do you think we did?” she laughs. “We threw it at each other.” They weren’t playing around either: “We'll throw it hard,” she says. “Jon is a really strong person, so he broke three of them during action.”

The best story Roeper tells me about the fork scene though, concerns a sheer fluke. “When [Bernthal] threw it one time, it landed in the cannoli,” she says. “And we captured that as part of it, where the fork actually landed.” Talk about a happy accident.

“The chaos is part of it,” Roeper says, when she thinks about the way Fishes has resonated with people. “I think the reason so many people related to it is because everybody has a certain amount of chaos in their family,” Roeper says. “Unfortunately, I think alcoholism and drug addiction are so rampant that when you talk to people, everyone says, ‘oh, my uncle was an alcoholic’, or ‘my cousin did this at a family party’. So I think that part of the episode was also really human for people.”

This really gets to the heart of the whole show. “You know, The Bear itself isn't a show about a restaurant,” Roeper says finally. “It’s a show about the people that work at a restaurant.” And, as at any restaurant, the fare seems that much more spectacular when you get to know the people lobbing forks at each other.


You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress | Designed by: Premium WordPress Themes | Thanks to Themes Gallery, Bromoney and Wordpress Themes