GateWorld’s interview with Michael Greenburg, one of the architects of the franchise, has been a long time coming. Co-founder of Gekko Film Corp with Richard Dean Anderson, Greenburg helped develop the short-lived television series Legend, as well as working on MacGyver, where he and Rick met and began their partnership.
We caught up with Greenburg at Gatecon 2008 in Vancouver. In this interview, Michael takes us back to the very beginning of his work in the industry from the Olympic love story The Golden Moment, through his years on MacGyver and Stargate, and back to his current life in sports. He talks about the stimulating atmosphere of SG-1 and dabbles on his upcoming 2009 TV movie, Game of Shadows.
GateWorld’s video interview with Michael Greenburg runs approximately 13 minutes, and is also available in audio format. The interview is also transcribed below!
GateWorld: For GateWorld.net I’m David Read. I’m here with Mr Michael Greenburg. You were an executive producer on Stargate Atlantis for 8 seasons.
Michael Greenburg: Right … No, Stargate SG-1!
GW: SG-1! What an idiot I am!
MG: That’s OK. No, I’m the idiot! Just ask my son! [Laughter]
GW: You are in sports now.
MG: Well, I started in sports. Right after SC film school, I started in sports, and actually I worked for NBC, for Don Ohlmyer, to be specific. Don Ohlmyer had his own production company. He actually gave me my producing break. He was executive producer of sports for ABC, and then NBC, and then in his NBC contract he got into film. I was always into film, and I knew Don from when I was a production assistant in high school back in New York. He actually gave me my producing break on a mini-series called The Golden Moment.
So that’s when I made the transition into film, which is what I’d been studying at USC, and just sort of from The Golden Moment I ended up spending five years at Warner Bros. working with George England and Joanne Woodward there. I got a call from the head of production at Paramount, Mike Schoenbrun, who I actually took a production course when I was at USC at Paramount, and I met Mike there. He was the assistant director of Mannix and Mission: Impossible — the series, the original series.
He called me [and said] that they were having trouble with this show that was a big action adventure television show and would I consider coming over to produce it. And it was MacGyver. He said, “Just come over for a few months, get it back on track, then you can get back doing your films.” Seven years later I was still with MacGyver!
GW: So in the process you fell in love with the show?
MG: Yeah! MacGyver was a great show. It’s an iconic television show, and Rick made it what it was. I mean, his on-camera persona was television’s answer to Harrison Ford. I mean, he really made it what it is. Without his personality I don’t think it would have been as iconic as it ended up.
GW: It wouldn’t have been the same.
MG: It’s still talked about today. My kids are watching it now! They’re watching the box sets, and their friends are watching it, and loving it. I mean, it’s a great show!
GW: Well I mean, it’s become a part of American lexicography. You know? It’s as real to us and as true to us as “Live long and prosper” and “Beam me up, Scotty.” “Oh, I need to MacGyver a way out of this!”
MG: Right! And The Simpsons picked up on it, and Saturday Night Live.
GW: That’s exactly right.
MG: You know you did something when you’re being spoofed! [Laughter]
GW: Its’ the highest form of praise! So, had you not known Rick before then?
MG: No, I met him on MacGyver, first day on the set. I went to his dressing room [and] introduced myself. I think Henry Winkler may have been there, too. We immediately hit it off, because the first thing I wanted to do was to get rid of all the voiceovers. I just thought that was more indicative of a radio show, I think I said at the time.
We’re doing film. Let the pictures do the talking. I don’t know why the character has to talk so much, that was the one thing that stood out in the tapes that they sent me. Back then it was tapes, not DVD’s. I think he got up, and gave me a big hug, and said “This is going to be great, because, yeah, I don’t want to do that anymore either!” [Laughter]
GW: Rick did?
MG: Yeah. So I think that’s when we first hit it off, over the concept of where to take the show from that point. But it wasn’t me. It was a collective creative environment with Steve Downing, and John Rich, and Henry Winkler, all the way down through our writing staff. Everybody got in sync and that’s how we were able to sustain seven years. And the two movies, that we shot in London.
GW: Well, exactly. Yeah, it’s such a visually-oriented show. Dialogue, of course, is key in any show, but for me it was always, “What’s he going to come up with next?” “How is he going to solve the next problem?”
MG: That was our problem, too!! [Laughter]
GW: Was there a lot of research involved?
MG: Oh, a ton of research! Yeah, a ton of research. And we had a great staff. One of them was Chris Haddock, who went on to be incredibly successful here. One of the more prolific writer–producers in Canada, with Mom PI and Da Vinci’s Inquest. We’ve stayed good friends, and we had a great staff.
GW: When did Gekko [Film Corp] start?
MG: Gekko started the last couple years of MacGyver. Before that it was called “PigDog.”
MG: Yeah, but our agents and business managers thought that we should have more of a serious name.
GW: And you once told me, I think at Gatecon , the origins of why you chose Gekko?
MG: Well, we were in Tahiti, just on holiday from MacGyver, and the Legend of a Gekko is that their eyes move independently. In the South Pacific, they’re known for keeping one eye on the road and one eye on the future. So that was the …
GW: And so Brad and …
GW: Well, not at that point. When Brad got together with Jonathan Glassner, how did you guys get all roped in?
MG: I got a phone call from John Simes. John Simes was our executive at Paramount on MacGyver. He went over to become president of MGM and he called saying that they were making “Stargate” the movie into a television show, would we be interested.
GW: Had you seen it?
MG: Yeah, I’d seen the film. I think Rick’s first reaction was he didn’t see how he could do that character.
GW: It was a different guy.
MG: But then Simes said, “What if I told you it was a 44 episode commitment?” Then I said “Yeah, well then, that’s definitely something to think about!”
Rick looked at the movie, and [had] a couple of creative sessions with John and Brad and Jonathan, and showed Rick that he would have the ability to stretch the character, and make it more like he is. Not quite as stretched as Legend, but at least he had room to work.
GW: Yeah. Even at Comic Con [Rick] mentioned the episode “Cold Lasarus,” which was kind of the turning point. It was a closure on the Kurt Russell character, and kind of like Jack — not necessarily forgiving himself — but at least moving on and becoming much more interesting as a character. And you hung on for eight seasons with that show?
MG: Yeah, eight seasons. It was fun! It went by pretty quickly. And what I loved about it is that I got to stay current with the state of the art technology, and composite work, the computer generated stuff that we were tying into live action.
To me it was eight years of a phenomenal grad school where you just stay current with all the state of the art technology, which in today’s age is so important. I mean, just look at the Olympics opening ceremonies. That just blew everyone’s mind.
That was the thing. If we could keep blowing people’s minds week after week, and testing everyone’s technical ability as well as the dramatic work that we were doing on the set, leave that up to the actors and the words that they say up to the writers.
But production challenges just gave us more goals to strive for and accomplish, with a great special effects team, with James Tichenor and John Gajdecki. They’re great guys who are conversant with that arena of composite work. It was a lot of fun just testing our abilities in filmmaking.
GW: What do you miss about the eight years the most? Of that whole experience?
MG: What do I miss? Oh, probably just hanging out with everybody. It’s an old cliché, but you do become a family, and it’s like playing on a sports team. Probably just hanging out, hanging out with everyone. Work is work, but then at the end of the day it’s relationships and hanging out.
GW: So much of the television business becomes very apparent when you’re an executive producer. When you’re an actor there’s this whole political and relations with TV executives that they don’t have to deal with. Did you have to put up with a lot of that? Was that a lot of the day to day?
MG: I really didn’t. I was on the set the whole time. Brad Wright and Robert Cooper dealt with the network executives and studio people. I really didn’t have to. So that was a blessing.
GW: So you got to have fun!
MG: Yeah! I got to have fun. They shielded all that.
GW: Alright. And what happened after Stargate? Where did you move onto next?
MG: After Stargate I started developing stuff on my own. I got the rights with my brother to the New York Times Bestselling book “Game of Shadows”, which is about Barry Bonds, BALCO, Marion Jones and the whole steroids scandal, that sort of rocked track and field, and baseball, at a time that baseball was just coming back into popularity and financial success.
Everyone knows that this is the “steroid era” in sports, and it cast a gray cloud over everything. All the Olympics, not so much this Olympics, but of course the testing hasn’t come back yet. They all get tested after the event and two weeks later we hear the bombshells.
MG: Anyway, we’re doing that movie for HBO films. Ron Shelton and John Norville are writing it, and they’re actually polishing it now. Ron Shelton will be directing it, and he’s probably the most prolific and best sports drama filmmaker of our generation. He’s a good friend of mine and my brother’s, and we’re having a blast.
GW: Cool. And you’re also in the sports field right now?
MG: Yeah, I’m also executive producer of Score Productions, which is the production arm for The Score Sports Channel Network. It’s a full media company. We also have hardcore sports radio on Sirius satellite channel 98. So it’s 24/7/365 sports. We eat up a lot of programming. We’re the basketball network in Canada for the NBA. We carry 60 games a year, plus 20 Raptor games.
So it’s fun. It’s a great. A great group of people. So I’ve got my family back in the business world as well.
GW: Good, yeah.
GW: As long as you’re still having fun when that’s working. And getting paid for it!
MG: Yeah, it’s a lot of fun! A lot of travelling, but a lot of fun.
GW: So, you’re still making time for family, everything like that.
MG: Oh yeah. That’s the most important.
GW: Great young man you have.
MG: Thanks! DJ grew up on the Stargate set.
GW: Yeah, he knows Wylie!
MG: Oh, he’s known Wylie since she was two days old. They were first friends, you know. They grew up together on the set.
GW: So, you’re still in touch with Rick a lot?
MG: Oh yeah, sure, for life. We’re brothers.