‘Five Days At Memorial’ on Apple TV+: Director Carlton Cuse Talks 4 Million Gallons of Water, a Coast Guard Helicopter in Toronto, and the Crumbling Helipad 

Carlton Cuse sat down to discuss his new Apple TV+ limited series, Five Days At Memorial in an exclusive interview with Showbiz Cheat Sheet. John Ridley and Cuse created the series based on the book by Sheri Fink. In this interview, he delved into the special effects of recreating Hurricane Katrina. How did the production get a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter on set? How did they recreate a helipad 85 feet over a six-story parking garage?

The series focused on the heart-wrenching events at one specific hospital in New Orleans when the levees broke, and 80% of the city ended up underwater. It stars Vera Farmiga, Robert Pine, Cherry Jones, Julie Ann Emery, Cornelius Smith, Adepero Oduye, Molly Hager, Michael Gaston, and W. Earl Brown.

How did you get an actual U.S. Coast Guard helicopter into the filming of ‘Five Days At Memorial’ for Apple TV+?

In Five Days At Memorial on Apple TV+, U.S. coast guard helicopters rescue patients from the hospital by landing on a very old helipad. The scenes look incredibly real because they are as authentic as possible.  

“We actually were able to get a Coast Guard helicopter into Toronto across the Canadian border during the pandemic, which was a real feat and an accomplishment,” Cuse explained. “But the Coast Guard really wanted to participate. One of the guys from the Coast Guard said to us, ‘It would be a disservice if this story about Katrina didn’t feature the Coast Guard.'”

“So they really moved heaven and earth to come and participate,” he continued. “And not only did they actually come to Canada where we were filming, but one of the crew members on the Coast Guard rescue helicopter that we used was the son of a Coast Guard serviceman who served during Katrina and did rescues. So there was a real resonance and poignancy there.”

What about all the water in ‘Five Days At Memorial’ on Apple TV+? Were there any setbacks?

“Yeah, we built a 4 million gallon water tank,” Cuse began. “And of course, any time you try to contain 4 million gallons of water, there are challenges to it. We had to make it safe for people to operate in. We had to color it so it looked like flood waters. But we had to make sure that that coloring was safe and we had to operate boats in it. So, there was a lot of focus on safety and a lot of focus on engineering. It was very technically rigorous to recreate the circumstances of the hurricane and the flooding that followed. But it was really important.”

After Hurricane Katrina passed, the feeling at the hospital was that they had survived the worst. However, when the levees broke, the basement completely flooded, shutting off the generators and burying the food and water supplies under water. Cuse recreated those water scenes from Hurricane Katrina impeccably.

“I really felt like the authenticity of the story required the audience seeing, feeling and understanding what the circumstances were like in and around that hospital,” Cuse continued. “And so we did that. Fortunately, we were really lucky enough to have the resources from Apple to make the show the way we wanted to make the show.”

How did you recreate the helipad in ‘Five Days At Memorial’ for Apple TV+?

“It’s a little bit like asking a magician, what is the secrecy or trick,” the director teased. “I think the goal is that you won’t understand how we did it, but we combine a lot of different elements. The intention there was to just show how perilous it was. The helipad was 85 feet above the top of a six story parking garage.”

“So imagine trying to carry an infirm patient who couldn’t walk in 95 or 100 degree heat through the hospital, often down seven flights of stairs in the hospital through a hole in the machine room, up the parking garage, up these 85 perilous steps on this helipad, which was not in good condition. It’s vertiginous and scary and you don’t know if the thing is going to collapse. We really just wanted to try to create the sense of that for the audience as best we could. And so we did it in a lot of pieces and then put it together and used some visual effects.”

Scenes or stories that you wanted to include that you didn’t get a chance to?

“Not really,” Cuse responded. “Fortunately, Apple gave us the resources that we needed to tell the story the way we wanted. Often in these kinds of stories, you end up having to make compromises for budget and cut something that was really great. But John and I were able to tell the story that we put on the page and that was really fortunate.”

'Five Days At Memorial' scene of Hurricane Katrina hitting the hospital
A scene from ‘Five Days At Memorial’ | Apple TV+

“We were lucky enough to get a wonderful cast to collaborate with in the telling of that story,” he added. “And we really tried to have the casting of the show be authentic. We put a lot of effort into what I would say is sort of the naturalism of the casting to make everybody feel like they belonged in this world. When you have Vera Farmiga and Cherry Jones, you can’t really go wrong. They’re both so brilliant.”

The first three episodes of Five Days at Memorial hit Apple TV+ on Aug. 12, 2022. The remaining episodes drop every Friday following the premiere.