Two-thousand and nine is a big year for the Stargate franchise. The second series has come to an end, with plans for an Atlantis movie on the horizon. The radically unique third series, Stargate Universe, premieres this fall. During our visit to the studio in Vancouver this month, GateWorld had the rare privilege to sit down face-to-face with the two men who are shepherding this show.
Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper have been at the helm of the Stargate franchise for 12 years, Wright creating Stargate SG-1 with Jonathan Glassner in 1997, and Cooper and Wright creating Atlantis in 2004.
Though production on SGU is currently locked down tight, the executive producers talked exclusively with us about the series and what else is in the works for Stargate. In the interview they share their reasons for wanting SGU to be different, the large, ensemble cast, and how the series will stand apart. We get answers about aliens, the Destiny, using the Stargate, and more. We also get an update on the SG-1 and Atlantis movies.
GateWorld’s interview with Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper runs about 30 minutes. Listen online at your leisure, download it to your MP3 player, or subscribe now to the iTunes podcast! The full interview is also transcribed below.
GateWorld: For GateWorld.net, I am Darren Sumner. David Read and I are here once again with Mr. Rob Cooper and Brad Wright. Thanks, guys.
Robert C. Cooper: You’re welcome.
Brad Wright: Thank you, guys.
GW: It’s good to see you again.
BW: You too.
GW: We are here to talk mainly about Stargate Universe, obviously. That’s the big thing that Stargate fans are all getting ready for in the fall. But before we jump into that, I just want to ask you guys about the movies, if there is a status update on the SG-1 and Atlantis films that you can give at this point?
BW: Let’s just say that we’re still going forward. There has been a slight delay in going into pre-production, but that’s OK. It doesn’t mean that we are not doing it — either one. In fact, I can almost guarantee we’re proceeding with the SG-1 movie this year.
GW: For shooting in 2009?
GW: Great! Is it the impact of the economy that is perhaps delaying them?
BW: There’s been a little bit of that. I think it’s fair to say that the DVD market has changed considerably in the last six to eight months. But we’re still in the film and television-making business, so it’s just a question of trying to find ways to make things work.
GW: And for SG-1 is this still the original idea that you were talking about last year?
GW: It’s an O’Neill movie? And has Rick [Richard Dean Anderson] confirmed that he’s going to do it?
BW: That deal isn’t set in stone yet. That’s part of the on-going thing. But, yeah, Rick’s doing episodes of Universe. He was just here yesterday shooting an episode of Universe with us. So, that relationship is always on-going, and it’s good to have him back.
GW: Great. The Atlantis movie then: Is that a little bit more pushed back? Is it looking at maybe 2010?
BW: No, Paul [Mullie] and Joe [Mallozzi] are writing the script, and it’s just a question of which one we can proceed with first. There are issues, as there always are. But there have been a few changes in the way the world works right now, especially in terms of DVD sales.
GW: When we were here talking to you last year, Ark of Truth had just come out and seemed to be doing very, very well in sales. Continuum was obviously getting ready for its big summer release and the big Comic-Con push. From our end of the table it looked like those movies did tremendously well for direct-to-DVD with the budgets they had. So I’ve been scratching my head, a little stymied at MGM’s thought process in terms of green lighting more.
BW: Well, the reality is, they did do very well. And they did very well right at the tail end of a time when the economy was still really cooking.
BW: Come on! Things have changed a little bit.
RC: A lot of these things get produced based on projections, not on past performance of other things. So they look at how stuff is doing in the market and they try and predict what the new product will do. And so, those projections get affected by sales of product that is in the market place right now, not the movie that was released last year, the Stargate movie.
There is a certain baseline they can expect based on the franchise’s past performance, but everything is down significantly across the board. So, whether the budget that we think will make a good product is viable for them is where there’s a slight disconnect right now.
And as far as Atlantis is concerned, that’s not just MGM. SCI FI Channel is also involved in that.
GW: Because they’ll be airing it first.
RC: Well, that’s partly what is in question.
GW: Stargate Universe.
BW: We’re in the middle of shooting episode five right now! We keep looking around and touching wood and waiting for the other shoe to drop … but damn, it’s been a good time.
GW: Clipping along.
BW: Everybody is coming together. We couldn’t be happier with our cast.
GW: They’re all twittering like crazy, they love it. [Laughter]
BW: Well, you know, it’s not a guarantee that you’re going to suddenly all start clicking and the stories are going to be working and everything is going to be the way you hoped it was going to be.
RC: I think there is a lot of fear amongst the fans that it’s going to be so different that it’s not Stargate, or that it’s not going to be something that they like. They want a science fiction show to watch. I think that there is certainly a need out there for science fiction product. There is a demand from people. They want good genre programming. I think they are afraid it’s going to be too dark, or that it’s not going to be something they want out of a “sci-fi” show. But I don’t think that’s going to be the case.
I mean, dark and edgy is kind of a couple of buzz words that people like to attach to things. At the end of the day, it’s going to have a lot of the things that I think people have always liked about Stargate. The sort of sense of adventure and exploration …
RC: … and hope. I think there’s going to be a little more reality in it. We’re trying to get more realistic about the characters. It is more character driven. If I could compare it to the old shows, the old shows were more of an action/adventure series. This is more dramatic.
It’s not to say we’ve completely lost our sense of humor! It’s not going to be, hopefully, not pretentious or take itself too seriously. But at the same time, I think, it’s going to be more dramatic and take itself a little more seriously — which I think some fans will embrace in a more positive way.
I think there was occasionally a sense that maybe we weren’t taking the show seriously enough from fans. I don’t think that’s the case with this show.
GW: I am certainly looking forward to the more serious, more dramatic, more character focused. Which is something that David and I talk about a lot in the context of the new stuff that were airing. But can you guys talk a little bit about your reasons, your thought process that went into the idea of doing a show that is so stylistically and tonally different from what we have been doing for 15 seasons?
BW: I have to give Rob the lion share of the credit for that, and in part it comes from a mutual desire to raise our game. But also, Robert as a director and as a filmmaker really wanted to explore new ground that Stargate has never explored before.
RC: Neither one of us really wanted to do the same old thing again. We looked at it as an opportunity to say, “Look, we don’t really want to do another version of the show — you know, SG-3 or whatever.”
I think, again, fans react as though we’re somehow rejecting them if we say we want to attract a broader audience, or we want to change things up. For us creatively we want to do something different. That’s important that we feel … I mean, when you’ve done 300 hours of a particular franchise, you kind of get to the point where [you say], “Well, we’ve told that story a million times. What can we do differently?” And what always makes something different are the characters, the point of view that you’re telling the story through.
I think we wanted to do something that was maybe a little more grown-up, a little more mature in terms of the way we attack the characters, and also something that was … Again I don’t mean to sound critical of past shows, but I think one of the things that sort of bothered me as a producer was that we tried very hard to make a little movie every week, a feature film.
The production value was spectacular, but yet we didn’t have the money. And, you know, I am a television fan. I love television and I think there are things that television does very, very well, and that is telling stories over the long term and getting you invested in characters and people.
And not to say that Stargate Universe isn’t going to be spectacular. I mean if you’ve seen the sets, and … Well, one day you will … [Laughter] You’re going to see, it’s got tremendous production value.
I’m not selling it short, but my point is that the mentality was to go into it with the idea of not trying to reach beyond the means of our budget. Not trying to make a hundred million dollar film with significantly less than that, but rather make a great television show and shoot it in such a way that would embrace the elements that are going to be spectacular, which are the actors and the stories and the characters, and not reach beyond our capabilities — budget wise — of making something that, at the end of the day to certain audiences might come across as being silly.
One of the good examples of that is the aliens. What are aliens going to be like in Stargate Universe?
GW: That’s one of my questions!
BW: The reality was, SG-1 was an extension of a feature film. And there was a rationale for the aliens that we met, and [for] the Goa’uld. And because it was a television world we made them English-speaking. And then the Wraith was the rational for that universe.
But still, Rob and I looked at each other and said, “Can we get away from latex-faced, English speaking aliens?”
GW: Or just humans walking around out there.
RC: Speaking English.
BW: Exactly, speaking English.
RC: I think there is a segment of the television watching audience who would watch a show like that, and say, “I don’t like that kind of show. There’s latex faces, and puppets, and …”
GW: It’s the pointed ears, it’s the show with the pointed ears …
RC: Yeah, and I don’t watch that. I’m not a “sci-fi” fan. What we are trying in some ways to do — it’s not a sort of cheap, commercial move on our part to try and attract that audience. It’s rather the idea of trying to make a show that we want to make that is more of a drama, that happens to be set in a world that allows us to put characters in situations that are interesting to us. “Sci-fi” genre situations.
GW: When your show is fundamentally about the characters and their relationships and their interactions with each other, I would think you can do a lot more on standing sets.
BW: But that isn’t even really the goal. It’s not a question of trying to be on standing sets. Although our ship is amazing, interior and exterior.
RC: But you would spend so much time going to a planet that was supposedly an alien planet and worrying about what the doorknobs were going to look like and trying to create a world on that planet, and yet kind of fall short because you didn’t really have the money to create it. You would create one room and then a matte painting.
Because this show is about a ship that’s out in the universe, trying to explore what’s really out there, we wanted to try and capture some of those emotions of being out on that frontier. Anything could be out there. It’s a completely new canvas.
And let’s not do all the things we’ve done before. Let’s try and bring a new sense of wonder so that the audience and the characters are experiencing something that none of us have seen before, that is fresh and feels like adventure, as opposed to falling back in on the mythology that had become so tied in to itself.
BW: Exactly. When the show goes for 10 years and 5 years, respectively, you create a mythology and a world within which the stories take place that has to acknowledge each other. And we are so far away now from the Milky Way and/or Pegasus [Galaxies]. It’s such a completely new start.
It allows us to imagine stories take place where we don’t have to worry about “Where are the Wraith?” “Where are the Goa’uld?” “Where are the Asgard?” Where are this? Where are that? That mythology can, while we are still talking about Earth — now — the events that are happening to us are so removed from events in the Milky Way or Pegasus for that matter that it’s a different canvas.
GW: David and I are continuity geeks, and I would imagine that after 12 years, the mythology of the show might be something of a handicap as a writer.
You are carving out a lot of boundaries every time you put a new episode to screen. Now we have established this, so we have to work around that every time we want to tell a new story.
RC: That’s why being past the galaxies we’re used to dealing with sort of frees us up from that.
BW: The other thing is the old series, SG-1 and Atlantis: As much as the Goa’uld were the rational for the Milky Way and the Wraiths were the rational for Pegasus, they were still “good” versus “evil.” Whenever we had our characters fighting each other in any respect, it seemed petty in comparison to the larger battle that was going on between us and them.
And now, not only are we removed from our galaxy, and going home is not an option right now, the ship is also populated with the wrong people. These are not the folks that were supposed to go here.
RC: And hopefully more real people. People who are not mythological archetypes but rather flawed human beings who are going to interact in the way that a microcosm of society will interact in that situation.
You look at a show like Survivor, where you take a bunch of people and put them on an island, and how they act, and the best and worst of them comes out. That’s something we want to try and reflect on the show. Nobody is going to be a perfect hero and nobody is going to be a perfect villain, either.
BW: That isn’t to say there won’t be extraordinary acts of heroism, because that’s what you need to do to survive.
RC: This sounds, again, pretentious, but in terms of how to describe these things, I was talking to Joel Goldsmith about the music the other day. He was like, “I don’t understand, what’s the tone?” Because he was trying to capture what the idea is for the show.
And I said, “Well, do you remember how you felt when you were watching the events of 9/11? And how horrific it was initially, and how you got that feeling in the pit of your stomach of, ‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen and it’s terrible?’ And then moments later you were seeing images of people walking down the street covered in dust, and other people coming out to help them — and the way in which human beings just came in?”
There was an emotional reaction you had to that, and you felt, “Somewhere in the midst of this, there is hope.” And I think that, that sort of fear and terror of a tragedy combined with the sense that there is hope for us in the basic ways in which human beings survive, is the essence of the story we’re trying to tell.
There’s people who are thrown into a situation where they are not prepared and potentially are not capable of dealing with but at the same time [they] have to survive and come together and work together.
So, when we say “dark and edgy,” yes, there is death and there is jeopardy and danger and behavior that is probably unheroic. But at the same time you see all that positive things about people come out, too. And the idea works in doing that juxtaposed to exploring the wonders of the universe. I do believe there is still the core essence of what is Stargate that will appeal to people.
GW: If they are not archetypes, they are still heroes that you want to root for and characters that you like.
RC: Yeah, who then turn around and act in flawed ways.
GW: “Why did you do that?!”
RC: Well, yeah, but that’s what people are like. I think that’s fascinating — and hopefully more engaging.
GW: You don’t have super boys who can speak 25 different languages and they’re only 28.
RC: You have geniuses, but they have flawed aspects to their personal lives which makes them more realistic. Or they aren’t always right. They say, “Pressing this button is going to save the day.” And then it doesn’t.
And then the other things people are going to notice — and I am sure is going to be a big question — is the way we are shooting the show, which is markedly different.
GW: There is a new director of photography.
RC: Well, he did the pilot — Ronn Schmidt, who shot The Shield, did the first three episodes [“Air”]. And then Jim Menard and Michael Blundell [are] taking over, alternating after that. We have some new directors in the mix, too.
The idea was, again, in the spirit of changing things up, I think there will be those who accuse us of copying other shows. But the idea was to, again, in the spirit of trying to feel as though this was more reality, to shoot it like a documentary. To say, “What would happen if a documentary crew were to ride along on this adventure to outer space? What would it look like? How would you create an atmosphere for actors to act more as though it was a naturalistic vérité [true] feeling?”
That we could light the scene, have them walk into the scene, behave as though they were really there, and then let the cameras capture that. I believe that there’s a difference between what we are doing and just constantly waving the camera around for style’s sake. [Laughter]
People, I’m sure, will disagree. But if you watch The Shield, which was the show that Ronn did for seven years, their first idea was — they looked at a lot of Vietnam War footage — and the idea was, “What if we took a camera crew and dropped them in southeast L.A. and shot the gang wars from the point of view of this guerrilla-style camera crew trying to capture that action?”
Suddenly the sets and the visual effects become part of the backdrop rather than the foreground, and maybe they will feel more realistic, as though it’s really happening. And hopefully have audiences that maybe couldn’t embrace those aspects of sci-fi feel as though it was really happening. Another good example is Cloverfield which, I think, went to a real extreme but did a great job of making you feel as though the sci-fi elements — the vis-effects, the monsters — were just happening, and that the people that were going through this were the focus.
It was about those characters that you were following through the story and that everything else just happened to be happening around you. There was a sense of realism to that that was, I found, really effective.
BW: You got fleeting glimpses of the monster, because you didn’t really want to be standing there with a camera pointing at the monster, because he would eat you. [Laughter] I loved that, I mean not that we have monsters … well, we actually do have a few monsters!
RC: We are going to do a few monsters, yeah.
BW: But, it’s not like we are operating the camera at all times. But it’s going to seem more realistic, in that sense.
RC: We hope.
BW: We hope.
RC: From what I’ve see so far of the cut footage and the way it’s going, other people watching it, is it gives you an immediacy and a sense of feeling like you are a part of what’s happening, to a greater extent.
BW: For the performers, as well. It allows them to do a scene in the space and it becomes about capturing that performance, as opposed to —
RC: — instead of shooting a shot, a scene, with a master and then coverage, and then somebody is reading off-screen while there is a green screen here, and you have to act to this, or whatever. You set up the scene, they walk in and they perform it as though they are the real people in that situation, from start to finish.
BW: And it is our job to capture it. As opposed to shooting in one direction, close-up, master, turn around.
RC: So, there’s arguments, there’s overlaps in those arguments, people are able to talk as though they are really there in that situation and not performing for the artificial construct of the camera and the lights. Which often makes you act within a box and makes everything feel just that little bit more phony.
It’s an idea we’re exploring and hopefully people embrace it.
BW: Well, it’s part of an ongoing vocabulary of filmmaking that’s changing in the world, I mean …
RC: Reality television, videos, YouTube, the fact that people are becoming accustomed to things like video cameras adjusting to the light and auto-irising and the imperfections of your own personal camera use, your home videos. Seeing things slightly out of focus or zooming in on you at the wrong time. All of those things become the language in your brain of what reality looks like, or what the real world looks like through the lens of a video camera. And using some of that to give drama, in this case sci-fi, a little bit more reality is where are going for.
GW: This is a really interesting time for fans, because Atlantis and SG-1 obviously overlapped — but now we are in sort of a “time between the times,” and we’re all waiting expectantly to see what the new show is going to look like — how it’s going to be the same and how it’s going to be different. So, one of my questions that is outstanding, looking ahead to the premiere in the fall, is: Is there a team? Are there recon units that go and visit planets? And then, how does the Stargate itself become or remain a focal piece of the show?
BW: The Stargate is still very-much a part of the show. It’s how we get to these other planets that we’re visiting.
I don’t want to give too much away from the show. But there is an additional element, when you’re in a moving ship that is going through galaxies, that changes things. It adds a whole other layer of drama to storytelling. But believe me — we haven’t forgotten the Stargate.
RC: And there is a nice ticking clock that [is involved]. Because the ship is a runaway train, basically. We can’t control it, we don’t know how to fly it or turn it.
BW: These are the things that I didn’t want to give away.
RC: Really, I thought that was out there?
BW: Alright. I guess it is.
RC: My point is, it stops for a period of time when it comes into range of a gate, and then it might be six hours, it might be two days. But the point is, you don’t have control over that and maybe what you want is on that planet and you have a certain amount of time to explore it, or get what you need, or do whatever you want to do — and then get back to the ship.
To answer your question, I think it is much more an ensemble. No, there is not a four-person team that is the focus of the show. There are eight or nine characters who are an ongoing part of the [show]. Which is incredible.
It is a challenge. It’s incredible juggling that many balls and trying trying to get everybody something. And the thing is, they’re all great. You sit there and go, “Gee, I would love to write a scene for this character because I love seeing them in action.” And you realize you have nine people to do that for, and squeezing that all into an hour is tough.
GW: It looks like you guys have really great cast.
BW: Oh man, we’re very happy.
RC: I think you’re going to fall in love with them, I really do. And we are, I think, doing a pretty good job at balancing it out so far.
BW: These guys are good.
GW: Well, thanks guys! I cannot tell you how excited we are to see the show.
RC: Yeah, it’s going to be a little more serialized than the other shows. Character-wise the stories will still hopefully resolve within the hour.
B>GW: You’re finding your way and we’re watching that unfold, and by virtue of how you are approaching it, it’s more real. So we’re experiencing it just along with everyone else. This is our show as much as it is yours.
BW: … Could you make a few for us then?
GW: We take ownership of it. We welcome it into our homes and it becomes a part of our lives.
BW: Definitely part of our lives right now! Just ask my wife.
Interview by Darren Sumner and David Read. Transcript by Kerenza Harris.