As a writer, producer, story editor, executive producer, and show-runner, Robert C. Cooper has been with the Stargate franchise for more than ten years. With SG-1 entering a new era and script-writing on the third television series about to begin, he recently sat down with GateWorld.
In Part 2 of our interview, Cooper talks about The Ark of Truth and what it will take for more SG-1 movies to be made. He also reveals the current plans for the third Stargate television series, and shares his experience in writing and directing the upcoming Atlantis nightmare episode, “Doppelganger.”
Beware of spoilers for “Doppelganger” and the SG-1 series finale “Unending,” as well as details on the upcoming movie Stargate: The Ark of Truth in this interview.
GateWorld’s interview with Robert Cooper is available in MP3 audio format for easy listening, and runs about 25 minutes. It is also transcribed below. You can also download the interview to your MP3 player and take GateWorld with you!
GateWorld: What is the future of SG-1 past these two movies? How successful do they have to be for us to continue to get an ongoing franchise of stories?
Robert C. Cooper: Well, I don’t want to sound over-confident, but there’s a built-in success to these projects. They’re being paid for based on the projection of sales that is probably going to be reasonably reliable. We know how well the DVDs sell. Basically, if these DVDs sell within reasonable numbers compared to what the boxed sets sell, then it’s going to make money. MGM’s not going to lose money on these things unless some bizarre marketplace situation unfolds.
GW: It’s nice to have ratings completely taken out of the equation.
RCC: Well, yeah — and the fact is there will be some sort of a broadcast, and potentially some involvement with broadband on some level. But all of that is additional revenue. It’s really more about the overall success and value of the franchise and the health of the franchise — the game Stargate Worlds, the third series, Stargate Atlantis.
If … and we hope and believe that the Stargate franchise is going to continue to grow and get bigger and be as strong, even stronger than it’s been in the past. And if that’s the case, then we believe there will be a continued demand for SG-1 movies.
Obviously we’re hopeful that people like these, and that there’s a positive response to them. I think it would be a very, very tough situation in which to fail. We’re not releasing the movies theatrically so it’s not like we have to meet a certain box office. It’s not like if these movies tank [there is] never going to be another one. It’s going to be very hard to be perceived as “tanking.”
GW: What’s the international availability going to be?
RCC: The plan is to release them internationally on DVD at the same time, I believe. Distribution will occur through FOX. I think it’s MGM releasing them internationally. FOX is domestic.
The truth of the matter is that’s how they have been financed, but it hasn’t been 100 percent nailed down. There’s still opportunities for other entities to get involved prior to that. MGM has a business plan as far as how they’ve financed them and how they’re planning to recoup those finances. But if, say, SCI FI wanted to step in and say, “Look, we want to air this as a premier prior to the DVD release,” then they just have to pay X dollars in order to make that fit that into MGM’s business plan.
Similarly if iTunes, for example, said, “No, no, no, we want to debut it on iTunes and have this be the world premiere,” they would have to step up with a certain amount of money in order to make that financially viable.
GW: Is there any news on the third series yet? Have there been any developments? I know you guys are obviously busy doing other things.
RCC: Brad and I have written up basically a one-page document that outlines the concept and the characters for the series. That’s being used as a sales document to put together the financing. It is definitely very, very high on the agenda of things for MGM to get going. They’re asking us. Basically, MGM is saying to Brad and I, “When can you have it ready? When can you physically, actually write the script and start production?” These things take time. They aren’t just born and grow on their own, unfortunately.
And we’re kind of busy right now. That’s really the big problem. Brad and I are very much in the world of Ark of Truth and Continuum. Our intention is, when we’re done [with] that, in mid-June , to jump on a script for the pilot of the third series.
In [the] typical Stargate world, it’s not really a pilot. It’s a premiere. We generally sell and proceed with a full season of television. The real question is: “How is it going to get to viewers?” And the answer to that is unclear at the moment.
GW: That’s a big question.
RCC: Yeah. And it’s not so much a problem as it is a choice for MGM at this point. It’s not like they’re scrounging around to try and find someone to take it. It’s more what makes the most sense going forward into the new age of content distribution, shall we say.
GW: Would the new series, content-wise, have anything to do with the events of “Unending?”
GW: Because a lot of fans are wondering, “Hmm … a space-age Stargate story, perhaps?” After all, the Asgard technology has basically been handed to us on a silver platter.
RCC: You know, that may factor in in a small way. What I can tell you about the third Stargate series, conceptually as we’ve conceived it, is that it is a completely separate, third entity. Much more so than Atlantis was. Atlantis was much more of a spin-off series of SG-1. It was born out of SG-1.
The idea for this — this is going to sound like a broken record — but it started as a movie idea. We originally were sitting around talking about this. We were trying to come up with ideas for a Stargate feature. Not an SG-1 feature or an Atlantis feature, but a feature that would fit into the Stargate franchise that we feel we’ve created. Because the studio, if they’re going to spend whatever X millions of dollars on a movie, it needs to appeal to a broad audience. Maybe even a bigger audience than is loyal to the show.
Although mathematically, if everyone around the world who watched the show went to the movie, it would be a tremendous success! Still, the studio is thinking bigger. And I think we were thinking bigger too. We were thinking, “How do we create a third arm to the franchise that is very connective, and that fans will feel is born out of the material that has come before, but at the same time is very-much something that stands alone?”
So when it became clear that a third series was a more realistic possibility at this point, from the studio’s standpoint, we figured out how to tweak that idea and give it a little more legs than it would have had as a one-off story. We always, in the back of our minds, even in coming up with that concept, felt it could launch a third series. The idea was we do this big movie and then use that to launch the series. But now that story has become the core idea for the new show.
GW: Is it separated from SG-1/Atlantis to the degree where there might not be cross-over? It’s maybe even set in a different era?
RCC: No. I’m not a big fan of prequels. I don’t think that really works and I don’t understand people who do think that works.
One of the things that we love about Stargate is that it’s us. It’s our military. It’s our scientists. It’s our people. And we’re going out into the galaxy and the universe to discover all the wonders that are out there, and dealing with our own limitations versus things that are far more advanced to us. That’s identifiable. It’s what we deal with every day in terms of medicine and science and astrophysics. We’re just babies. We would always want to maintain that in anything that was Stargate-related.
It certainly plays into mythology that’s been pre-established, but it doesn’t directly relate to anything that has been in either series, SG-1 or Atlantis.
GW: Does it have a working title at all that you can share?
RCC: I guess there’s no harm in talking about the working title. It is just a working title. “Stargate Universe.”
GW: Cool. It just gets bigger and bigger. Talk to us real briefly about “Doppelganger” and your work on Atlantis this year.
RCC: Yeah, “Doppelganger!” It’s just a fun one-off. It’s one of the old-school Stargate “we go to a planet, we get into trouble, we get out of it” stories.
You know, when I write an episode and when I write an episode to direct, they are two different things. Directing is really hard. Directing is not something that you just do … you just go and direct something. It’s not just [mentally demanding] but it’s an incredibly physically demanding, energy-sapping thing. And it’s an ordeal. I look at guys like Andy and Martin and Will and I don’t know how they do it on a regular basis. I really don’t. I bow at their feet for the endurance that they have to [have].
So, when I say I’m going to direct something, I want it to have something personal in it, something that I can really be passionate about. Because otherwise I won’t make it — I won’t get up every morning to do it. You’re talking about getting up at 5 in the morning and working 75-hour weeks, and dealing with levels of frustration and stress that you don’t experience when you’re just a writer-producer.
I mean, producing — believe me — producing is a stressful thing! It’s not brain surgery, but it’s a stressful thing. But it’s nothing compared to directing and having the weight of the world on your shoulders as far as “making your day” in a television world and just the volume of issues you have to handle in the incredibly dense and short period of time.
So, for me, if I was going to write something to direct I wanted it to be interesting to me. And I’ve always been fascinated by nightmares and dreams. So that’s what this is about. It’s about an alien entity that lives in a crystal form. I’ve kind of paid a little homage to “Cold Lazarus” and said, “Well, OK — there’s something we’ve established in the Stargate universe that we’ve never really dealt with before. And that is, again, lifeforms that can exist in that state.”
O’Neill went out, touched a crystal and all this stuff happened. We’ve never done that again. And I thought, “Well, wouldn’t it be interesting if we found another crystalline life-form like that.” But in that case we were kind of lucky that it had reasonably good intentions.
GW: Yeah, it was a pretty nice guy.
RCC: It was pretty benign. There was a sinister aspect to it in that we didn’t know what was going on, but at the end of the day it was kind of just curious. So I took the flip side of that and said, “What if it’s a psychopath? What if it’s truly evil?” And it induces some pretty freaky nightmares. And each of the nightmares has some little touchstone to my own tortured, subconscious past. So I had a lot of fun with that.
GW: You don’t strike me as a real tortured guy.
RCC: My dad took me to see Jaws when I was seven years old. I was seven. There’s a line in the script: One of McKay’s histories is that his dad read him “Moby Dick” when he was seven years old. The line is: “What was the man thinking?!” And, you know, I actually talked about this one time. I think it was in the DVD commentary. No, it was in the behind-the-scenes thing that Ivon did on “Crusade.”
You know, honestly I don’t think my dad knew what it was. I don’t think anybody knew what Jaws was when it first came out. They knew it was a scary movie about a shark and stuff. But I was a fairly imaginative kid. I was an impressionable kid. I got scared by stuff easily because I was sensitive. And I think I probably didn’t sleep for two years. Honestly, I probably needed therapy! This was not the sort of thing you did back then, but I probably should have gotten some sort of counseling. But instead I spent my nights thinking to myself, “One day I shall control the power that has left me so terrified!”
It was amazing because I was just getting over it — so I was about nine or ten. My parents are very intelligent people; they’re wonderful, I love them. Don’t let this mislead you into thinking they don’t know what they’re doing as parents! But I guess, for some strange reason, they thought that, “OK, he seems to be starting to get over this thing — this irrational fear of sharks attacking him on the land.” And so they thought, “Maybe he should watch a documentary on sharks,” so you get to know them a little better.
GW: Oh, I thought you were going to say they took you to see Jaws 2!
RCC: Oh, no, God no! That might have solved it because it was so ridiculous. I would have felt silly. No, they made me watch a documentary. And I’m not kidding you: It was called “Shark Terror Death.”
RCC: And that sent me into about another year-long remission. It was like these giant close-ups of these sharks coming up and eating whole cows. Other movies that did that to me were Alien — there was a scene that terrified me, and it was crazy — American Werewolf In London.
GW: Mmm-hmm! The transformation.
RCC: Well, no, it was actually the opening scene in the mist in London, when he first gets attacked. Obviously these things had a tremendous impact on me. I think they’re probably why I went into the business. These movies affected me, and I saw what you could do to people — not just scare them, but affect people through entertainment.
So this episode is kind of my own self-therapy of working out the issues.
GW: Expelling your inner demons.
RCC: Yeah, exactly. You know what? The truth of the matter is it’s just fun. It was just fun to play with — and it’s a bit of an old chestnut, I admit that — What would our characters dream about?
And the fun part of the episode is that because it’s Sheppard who initially engages and touches the crystal, and thus unleashes the entity on everyone, the physical form it takes in the nightmares is Sheppard. And so everyone is having these nightmares that are being pulled out of them by the entity, but Sheppard is appearing in those dreams as the sort of negative inciting force.
GW: The Freddy Krueger!
RCC: Well, yeah. I mean, the joke is in the show. Sheppard at one point, when it’s explained to him, says, “So are we talking Freddy Krueger here?” And it’s him. He also turns to Teyla at one point and says, “Did I have a goatee?”
It’s a chance to kind of play, stylistically, as a director. I think that what I’ve tried to do in my short directing career is give myself opportunities to do really interesting and experimental things, to play. If you look at the four episodes I’ve done now, “Doppelganger” included, they’re a really interesting spectrum of styles. And I don’t mean that I’m all over the place and I don’t know what I’m doing — I’m trying to learn about how to tell different kinds of stories as a director. I think “Crusade” and “Sateda” were two opposite ends of the spectrum, both storytelling-wise and directorially.
And I think “Unending” was, again, a completely different visual and directorial experiment. And I think, hopefully, “Doppelganger” will be that, as well. And hopefully I can take what I’ve learned there and bring it to a bigger canvas on the movies.
That’s really what we’re trying to do, is to find a way to elevate the television world of Stargate to the bigger canvas. We’re very excited about a couple of different things. One: No act breaks. It’s one long film, from start to finish, a fading in and fading out.
Sixteen-by-nine. We’re not protecting for television — we’re going to frame this as though it was a movie. We’re very happy to be able to — I don’t think we’ve said this publicly yet; we just decided on it yesterday, not that anybody out there really cares about this but me — but we’re going to be shooting them in 35mm film, which is … I can’t even tell you how much of a difference that makes, visually. HD is great, but it’s not film.
And you might watch it on your iPod, but if you do have a big television or a projector it’ll look like a movie. And that’s what we really wanted to do.
GW: Will Joel [Goldsmith, composer] be getting a budget for an orchestra?
RCC: We’ve included a certain amount of money for some orchestral score, yeah. Joel has a way of making everything sound orchestral, but yeah. It’s a huge deal for us to make sure. Everywhere we can, with the money we’ve been given, we’re trying to make these as spectacular as we can.
At the end of the day, they’re still TV movies. These are not $80 million features and we can’t even begin to compete with those. But compared to the series, compared to a double episode like “Lost City,” we’re hoping they look spectacular.