John G. Lenic has been working on the Stargate franchise since he was 23 years old. Not many people can make that statement. Over the course of 15 television seasons (Number 16 currently in the works) he has worked his way up from an assistant to executive producers Richard Dean Anderson and Michael Greenburg to a producer himself.
With over a decade of memories and more than 300 hours of TV, GateWorld decided it was high time we had to pick Lenic’s brain. John takes us back to the theater watching Indiana Jones when he first discovered the power of film, to working his way through the ranks at Bridge Studios crunching numbers for production, to finally arriving at SGU.
This interview runs approximately 31 minutes and is available in audio. It’s also transcribed below!
GateWorld: You guys are getting ready to head into hiatus. How many hiatuses are there [for Stargate]?
John G. Lenic: The mid-season hiatus is from anywhere from two weeks to three and a half. It’s been four weeks in the past, long. It really is a time for everybody to recharge their batteries and shut down. There’s this hiatus — the winter hiatus is usually anywhere from three to four months long, depending.
This year it’ll probably be a bit longer quite frankly, between this year and if there is a Season Two because the Olympics are happening in Vancouver and we can’t be shooting during the Olympics. So we’ll probably start a little later next year, then, if we do come back.
GW: Can I ask where you’re planning on going?
JL: Yeah, tomorrow I leave four days in Madrid, four days in Barcelona and then four days in London.
GW: Wow, you’re not going to get any rest.
JL: Then I’m back in Vancouver for a whole week and a half to relax and do nothing after that.
GW: There you go. So that’s your genuine vacation right there.
JL: Yeah, exactly.
GW: So you were 20 years old when you started really getting involved in producing. How did you get involved in this? And was this something that you had always hoped to do? What’s the story here, John?
JL: I was working on a TV movie. I was working for a producer name Tracy Jeffrey at the time. Back then she did a lot of low-budget TV movies and all that. We had just finished ten that year — ’96. They were all moment-of-truth movies, you know, women in peril kind.
GW: You mean the Lifetime channel, right?
JL: Well, they were NBC at the time. They’re NBC movie “disease of the week” where “The dentist got me pregnant.” or She Woke Up Pregnant, was one of them. Harry Hamlin and all those people from LA Law and those kinds of TV shows; Jake and the Fatman and all that kind of thing, way back then.
We were working with a production manager named Ron French. And Ron got the call from Michael Greenburg to come in and interview for Stargate SG-1. At that time they were looking for stage space and we were — the TV movies I was on — were shooting out of the Norco studios where we shot SG-1 for however many years.
They came in for a little tour of the building and at that point I knew that Ron was interviewing for Stargate and I said, “That would be such an awesome show to work on.”
Because for me, it was all about experience. Any TV cop show is all talking heads. It’s fairly straightforward. You shoot downtown, you shoot nights, you shoot cops … You know, talking heads. Stargate would give you the opportunity to shoot special effects, visual effects, everything. I saw the potential there as a show that I would want to work on because of the experience that I’d gain. And so I convinced Ron to hire me as something.
I didn’t want to go into the office at the time because I wasn’t member of any union or guild at the time. So I said, “If there was a producer’s assistant job available I’d love to do it.” I met Michael Greenburg there and he said, “Sure, we’d love to have you.”
I got hired as he and Rick’s assistant ‘slash’ take care of all the paperwork and everything for their company; Gekko Film Corp, at the time. They had a whole bunch of ongoing projects because Stargate only went one or two years, they had other movies and series in the works that they could pick up and run with once Stargate ended. Because, first year series, sci-fi series, who knew whether it was going to go longer than a year.
GW: Showtime had original gotten involved for two years, I think, and then a little ways in they decided to pick up for four. So I imagine that must have been pretty exiting.
JL: Yeah. I think it was halfway in, or three-quarters of the way in [to Season One] they decided to pick it up for four. I remember being on the set when they announced that. And at that point I started transitioning. I was already involved in budgets and the numbers from the Gekko side because Michael wanted me to be the analytical one who also looked through all the budgets to make sure that nothing was being coded improperly, et cetera, et cetera, from their perspective because they were a partner in participation financially.
So I ended up doing that. When they started doing Season Two, MGM took me on and wanted me to be the unit manager and really take care of budgets and numbers and all that kind of stuff along with accounting and the production manager.
That year, MGM basically paid for me to join the guild, which was a five thousand dollar fee, and I was thankful to them for that because it really got me set up in that way. So that was Season Two. And then Season Three I became the production manager while Andy Mikita got his first directing gig on an episode called “Foothold.”
In subsequent seasons they kept giving Andy directing gigs for Season Three and Four. So I got upgraded to production manager for those episodes, beginning and ending when he was going to be a director. Then slowly but surely I took over and he became a director full time and I became the production manager full time.
That was for seasons Five, Six and Seven. Then Season Eight was the first year that I became the producer and production manager.
GW: I’d like to go back to this in a little bit, but first of all I think to really get down to it I want to go to the nucleus of you here. Why did you want to get into this industry? Is it the thing to do in Vancouver? I mean, Vancouver is obviously considered North Hollywood. How did you wind up in this?
JL: When I was a kid I actually wanted to be a doctor. Like when I was a little kid. But then as soon as I saw … It must have been Indiana Jones, one of the Indiana Jones movies, “The Raiders of the lost Ark,” I think. And I said “You know what? I want to be making that kind of a movie.”
I never, in my memory or recollection, ever wanted to be a director. I always wanted to be a producer. And reason being is that a producer sees a project through from the very nucleus, from the beginning stages, from the infantile stages of a project all the way through into the end. And you’re still dealing with the studios years after the project’s done.
I love seeing the whole scope of it and putting all the puzzle pieces together because a movie — or a series — is really like putting all the pieces of a puzzle together. And so for me, that was the big thing. That was what I really was looking forward to doing.
GW: Were you interested in sci-fi when you were younger at all? Or is this just the big thing that’s in Vancouver.
JL: I want to say no, I wasn’t interested in sci-fi from the beginning, but ultimately I did watch “Star Wars.” I love the Star Wars franchise. I still remember I was in tears at the end of “Empire Strikes Back” because I was so frightened [for] Han Solo. I was so scared. That whole image of him being frozen in carbon was just to me … scared me to death. That’s the first time I ever thought of the possibility of death. It was like “Aaaargh.” That’s so scary.
GW: Did you see that in the theater?
JL: Yeah, I did.
GW: How old were you?
JL: Oh, God. I was born in ’74. That came out in ’82 didn’t it?
JL: ’80. So OK, yeah.
GW: You were six? Wow, I would’ve been scared too. [Laughter]
JL: Yeah, I know, I remember that. And I did watch a few … I don’t remember them as well as the Star Wars movies, but the Star Trek movies, “Wrath of Khan.” I wanted to like them and a good friend — one of my childhood friends that I grew up with — he did love the whole sci-fi thing and I just never got into it.
So, doing Stargate was really a journey into that realm. And to this day, just if you’re talking the basis of shows, I really loved SG-1 because it was so tied to Earth. I liked Atlantis and my relationship with David Hewlett stretches far, and it was a great show to work on. But I do love the tie to Earth that SG-1 had and also that Universe is having. I really enjoy that a lot more.
GW: You said you were doing budgets for Gekko, is that correct?
GW: Tell us what that entails. I mean is this budgets for the number of sets they’re going to be producing this season? The props that can be … We never hear about this. We always hear about what David Hewlett’s having for lunch. Talk to me, John. [Laughter]
JL: Putting together a budget, you basically read a script and you break it down; characters, actors. You also break down sets, et cetera. Even in the infantile stages we all start with a template for a budget. And when you’re first budgeting out … I’m just going to take a movie because it has a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s not like a series that runs for months and months.
A movie budget, for example, you’d have the parameters. The next Stargate movie. When we first got a script for a Stargate movie, before we even had a script we put together a budget that was roughly … You throw in five hundred thousand dollars for visual effects and x-hundred thousand dollars for construction and those are just round numbers.
JL: Yeah. It’s a placeholder and you don’t really put together solid numbers until you have a script. And when you have a script you actually break it down into sets, into characters, into actors. You don’t necessarily break down the props, the costumes and all that. You just put in placeholder numbers for them.
You go to the biggest departments and the sets are huge numbers and you can sort of guestimate in your mind based on experience and the sets you’ve built as to what that approximate amount would be. And then, also, with visual effects, if it’s heavy on visual effects you know it’s going to be 500 grand or more. “Tron,” for example, is 100 million dollars in visual effects. You know what kind of scope you’re looking at.
GW: Is it just budget or is it also timetables as well? And how long things need to get done? Like you said, visual effects, those take time, those take man hours and when you build sets, lumber and all the people who have to come in and build it, all that comes together.
JL: That’s an all encompassing numbers. For example if we had a set for a movie or something, you’d say, “the alien ship set,” you put in 220 thousand dollars because that’s approximately what you built an alien ship set for in the past. It could be more than that, it could be less than that. You define it sort of as you go with the production designer and art director.
GW: You became full producer in Season Eight. With Atlantis, I think most of the actors had a contract for five years at the beginning. But with SG-1, you guys didn’t know if the show was going to keep coming back.
So as the show got older I imagine it must have been really, really complicated to budget it. Not just from the actor’s payment standpoint but the show is … The visual effects obviously get more expensive and you don’t know if you’re coming back year after year at that point. I know you guys didn’t until Season Nine.
JL: No, no. And really when we were budgeting it out … The actors know — that was one thing you kind of threw in a rough number for every year. You’d say X-amount percentage increase, what have you.
What the hard part was is really, we’d throw in our perfect scenario for what we thought the budget should be based on increasing crew rates, increasing cast rates. Then you come to a number and MGM comes back to you and says, “You actually get a hundred or 200 thousand less an episode to do it.”
And then you have to back out and you pull your numbers down and then you tell the writers what the numbers are and they have to write within those boundaries. And when you’re seating in meetings, that’s how it worked. You put in your best case. It’s like a negotiation with the studio. You put in your budget for what you thought it would cost to make the show and then they come back to you with a number potentially lower than that, and then you’d have to either find some middle ground or make your numbers work to what theirs are.
GW: Especially for Atlantis, which is obviously a massive city and you want to show it. In Season One, I remember Brad [Wright] saying, “We want to have a window here but we simply can’t afford it because we know that “The Siege” is going to be so expensive.” As the show gets older obviously you figure out new ways of doing things and find more cost-effective ways of achieving stuff.
JL: In Season Eight we ended up six days an episode and that really killed the crew.
GW: Is that down from seven days an episode?
JL: Yeah. It was down from seven. Right now on Universe, in Season One, we’re doing eight days an episode. SG-1 started in Season One, and through Season Three, I think, doing seven and a half days an episode, and then went down to seven days an episode. Eight really is the perfect time, quite frankly.
GW: Which means that you give more time per page, per episode, and you get to fine-tune.
JL: As opposed to moving from thing to thing and moving on. And you get a chance to define the show. When we did do six days an episode it really killed the crew, the cast, because trying to shove this amount of work into something this big, I think the show suffered.
Now, when we got into Season Nine, we went back to a seven day episodes and subsequently in Season Ten, we went back to seven days an episode. And due to where we were financially during the season, some episodes you do in six and sometimes you did them in eight. It just depends on the size and scope of the episode that you’re talking about.
GW: Location shooting, bottle episodes, everything like that. It all factors in.
JL: That’s right. Exactly.
GW: One massive soup. [Laughter]
JL: Right. Exactly. And you know, ultimately you have X amount of millions of dollars to do all 20 episodes. So, as long as you come in on that number, or under that number, you’re in a good standing.
GW: John, how do you sleep? I would be pulling my hair out with that kind of level of responsibility. Do you just roll with it?
JL: In the beginning seasons I worked weekends. Constantly thinking. With experience comes a little bit more relaxation around that stuff. You find a way to get through it and you really are working as a team. And everybody’s working together to try and put it all together as a package.
Everybody’s on the same page. And if you have the support of your executive producers like Brad [Wright] and Robert [C. Cooper], who have been fantastic, you go to them and you’re up front with them. You’re not trying to hide anything. That’s the biggest thing. As long as you’re transparent with these guys and it’s not us versus them.
The way the studios is used to run — and this is not the case now — but the way they used to run it was “us versus them.” So you’d have production being somebody like me or John Smith, versus the creatives. And it’d really be the clashing. “The executive producers are running us into the ground and costing us so much money,” so you have to stand up to them.
On this show, that isn’t the case. And as long as the team of us are on the same page as where we’re headed financially or what we’re doing, then you’re all working together. And the writers can effectively write to the budget. You’re just playing the game together.
GW: Obviously it comes down to budgets and everything like that. But tell us some of the moments that you’ve had over the course of 13 years of working on this massive project where you have said, “This is why I am involved in this.”
JL: Well, funny. I was telling [Publicist] Carol this story earlier. It came a couple of months ago. It was during the first few weeks of Universe and we were shooting a scene with Robert Carlyle and it was just him in the scene.
The scene we were shooting, he walks into a room, puts his iPod in a docking station, it starts playing. He goes over the side of the bed, looks at a picture, and starts crying. There was about six of us behind the monitors at that moment and we were all in tears. All had watery eyes and it was like, “Holy crap. What an amazing sensation to feel that.”
On a set, very rarely does that happen. Because you don’t have the acting talent that can generate that much charisma at any given moment. It was just wild. And then you go “Wow, that’s why I’m here.” That really was exciting to get that and to hear that and to see that. So that really is, for me, the most recent defining moment as to why I love my job.
GW: You get to see all that really from the bottom up. And then get to go online and watch us either tear it up or say, “Wow, we agree.”
JL: Yeah. No, and it’s true, we all have our gratifying moments and that to me, was one of the big gratifying moments for me currently. Because Atlantis was a hard show. There were a lot of personalities and it was difficult at times.
So being on something that re-inspires you, yet it’s a different variation of the same thing, because it’s the Stargate, but it’s a completely new cast, completely new storylines and it’s that much different. It really was an amazing sensation.
GW: So when you became a full producer in Season Eight, what kind of changes did you have in your daily routine? What were some of the new challenges that you faced?
JL: Well, that was also the year where we started doing two shows at the same time. So that in itself was a huge undertaking.
GW: Forty hours a year. That’s extraordinary.
JL: I’m still shocked that we did that. Would I do it again? I can’t say that I’d jump at the opportunity. It was extremely stressful. Extremely intense. So busy, so busy. It makes now look like a walk in the park. Even the last couple seasons of Atlantis when SG-1 wasn’t happening, it made them seem like a walk in the park comparatively just because so much of the shows were tied together.
You had to watch what stage you were shooting in on what day. We had this master calendar in the production office that you’d go up to and you’d look to make sure that you won’t conflict, one show won’t conflict with the other.
So all of a sudden you’re sharing actors, all of a sudden you’re sharing stages, all of a sudden you’re sharing all the crew. Not all of the shooting crew, but all the prepping crew. And it sent your mind in for a loop.
GW: When they started doing two shows at once, you guys were obviously talking about being able to share stages, share assets and everything like that. In hindsight, was it worth it?
JL: For the financial profile of the shows we were trying to make, yes it was. At the time. Financially, yes. Creatively I don’t think so. But fiscally yes. At that time, it was about, “Let’s get another Stargate on the air.”
I mean, when we originally embarked on Atlantis, SG-1 was going to wrap up nicely after Season Seven. “Lost City” was going to lead into the Stargate SG-1 movie which would then offshoot into other movie projects.
Atlantis came along and then SCI-FI picked up SG-1 at the same time and said they want two Stargate series. And what were we going to do? The most cost-effective way of doing it was the way that we did it. It was a killer and brutal on the crew and myself and George Horie — the production manager on Atlantis at the time.
It was great for me because my job changed. Because John Smith was basically totally focused on Atlantis at that moment, because it was the new series. It was, you know, “Let’s make this big and spectacular.” SG-1 was,” Let’s just keep this going.”
So I was left autonomously, basically, with SG-1 and with the constant updates. We’d share information, et cetera. So, being autonomously in charge of SG-1 was a great experience for me because it just built my own confidence. Confidence in the job.
GW: I know for a while there you were considering changing the title of the show from SG-1 to Stargate Command in Season Nine. Re-branding it, effectively making it a new show. Tell us about that major shift. It was a new show in Season Nine. What kind of challenges did that bring you personally? What kind of challenges did it bring the show from your perspective?
JL: Always having new actors involved in the show, especially coming in to a long-running series is always new and exciting. Ben Browder was fantastic and Claudia Black was fantastic. They fit in remarkably well.
It was a nice fit. RDA [Richard Dean Anderson] was spectacular all the time but really shooting around his schedule, and he would only work three and a half days a week and had every fourth week off. Amanda, Chris and Michael — we were working to the bone to accommodate Richard Dean Anderson’s schedule.
Going from that and to all of a sudden not having to deal with that and yet being able to do a show that was really about taking it in a new direction with the Ori. It was exciting, it was exciting. At that point, because Atlantis was shooting, we afforded ourselves the build of the huge village set that we had, which would never been able to be done just on a single series.
GW: Is that still intact this year?
JL: It is not.
GW: What an extraordinary piece that was to have for the years that you did.
JL: Yeah, it was quite an amazing set. It was beautiful. When we first built it, it was spectacular and when we first used it, in the first episodes of Season Nine, it was like, “Wow. Wow.” That was one of the fun things about having the ability to spend the money on two shows which you wouldn’t be able to afford normally just on one show.
GW: Absolutely. You know Rick, obviously he’s earned the right to have the priorities that he does. He has earned the right to spend more time with his daughter. But when he left the show I really think, it was obvious for me as a viewer that you guys were freed up far more than you were [before]. And you were able to stick in Ben Browder whenever you wanted and your four team members. Did morale really improve at that point too because of the types of shows you were able to tell?
JL: Absolutely. Morale across the board. It became a little bit more freedom in terms of shooting freedom, what you were able to do, because you didn’t have a scheduling issue. Yeah, you said it right, Rick earned his stripes big time. He was the reason that SG-1 got made in the first place.
He was the one major reason it went for so long and drew in all the viewers. Rick is Mister Charisma. If you had to sit any other actor down and say, “This is who you want them to be like,” in terms of people skills. Rick is so charismatic. He can walk into a room and light it up.
He’s very private and he has this other side of him which is very private and just likes his own space. But when he walks into a room you really feel like, “Wow,” he’s a personality.
GW: Who does that on SGU?
JL: I am trying to go through my head. I mean Louis [Louis Ferreira] is hysterically funny in his dry sense of humor, Bobby [Robert Carlyle] is just … He has a charisma and he’s just a gentile man and just so wonderful to speak to. Huge history buff, knows so much about world history, [I] just love chatting with him.
Brian Smith and I are really good friends and we do a lot together. We hang out a lot. David Blue is David Blue. I mean, he’s larger than life and he’s a great guy. Elyse Levesque is wonderful. Jamil [Walker Smith], he’s is a mix of all the good things of Chris Judge and of Jason Momoa all wrapped into one package. He is loud and hysterical, and you can hear … his laughter is infectious and you can hear it a mile away. Alaina Huffman is actually my second cousin.
JL: In real life yes, yes. She’s fantastic because she’s family. [Laughter] And she’s loved by all. She’s Croatian as well, so that’s, you know why. To work with people like Ming-Na and Lou Diamond Phillips … Ming specifically came from … Lou, his reputation precedes him as being such a wonderful guy and so genuine.
[He] talks to everybody and is the sweetest guy in the world and that is so true. And Ming-Na just is so lovely. She’s funny and she’s fantastic. There was one day on set shooting the pilot where — you can print this or whatever — they laugh at fart jokes. [Laughter]
GW: Oh jeez.
JL: So, Alaina and Louis got out the fart machine and all day long for a full 12 hour day, he and Alaina and Ming were laughing hysterically every time he pressed the button on the fart machine. [Laughter]
I am not one for fart humor because I am a bit of a prude and I just don’t get it and I think that it’s rude but that’s just me. Every time, for 12 hours on set, they would be in hysterics. Putting it beside somebody and pressing it as they walked by. They got a new crew member or a new cast member every single hour. They just had the most fun. And that’s Ming. You can hear her laughter a mile away.
GW: It’s so important for your cast to enjoy each other. It so important not to go to the folks above you and say, “You know what, I can’t get what’s his face out of the trailer,” and “I can’t get what’s her face out of the trailer.” And when you said Bobbie instead of Mr. Carlyle, I assume you were talking about Robert Carlyle.
JL: Yes absolutely.
GW: That says it all. That says it all about your relationship and what will make it to the screen. Because that’s where it has to begin.
JL: Absolutely. And you know, one of the things I endeavor to do in starting this new show is I really wanted to get the cast … and really make sure that them, as a group and individually and myself, were allies. Because really, we have to work together.
It’s me scheduling them and them being able to show up and do the lines and be happy about their schedule and all that. I made a point taking every one of them all out to dinner individually just because it’s so important to me to know where I’m coming from and for me to know them so that we have this mutual respect. That was extremely valuable and our relationships have grown since that. We spend a lot of time together even outside of the studio, and outside of work. We actually go out for dinner. They’re great.
GW: Oh yeah. I’ve seen the Facebook photos. [Laughter]
GW: Fans are going to kill me if I don’t ask you. The Atlantis movie, any updates?
JL: I don’t know anything. We haven’t heard anything. As far as I know it’s in the works and it’s just a matter of the studio saying when.
GW: Where do you see yourself in five years? Do you still see yourself with the show? With this hit Stargate Universe that’s doing just as good as Battlestar Galactica and LOST. Or do you see yourself moving on? I mean, at what point do you say “You know, I need a career change. I love you guys, but I feel stagnant in my career.”
JL: You know, it’s interesting, I have thought of that and I thought of it more while doing Atlantis. Atlantis was a tough show for me. It was really a tough show and ultimately at the end of that I was like, “You know, maybe it’s time to move on.”
It was a serious consideration of mine if it went Season Six whether I’d want to do it or not. Yes, there’s many reasons to do it as there was to not do it. One of them is my friendship and allegiance with David Hewlett and with Brad and Rob and Joe [Mallozzi] and Paul [Mullie] and Carl [Binder]. But then you go, “Well, maybe it falls into Life’s Too Short category as well.”
It was when Universe got picked up, I was jazzed. I absolutely love working with John Smith, best guy in the world to work with and awesome. But when he had mentioned that he was slipping into retirement and giving me the reins of the show, it was kind of like, “Wow, that’s really cool. I would love to do the job.”
It’s something new, right? It’s giving me the ability to do what works for myself and hiring people that I want to work with as well, or that have worked with us for the last how long and really developing a relationship with them on this new series.
Bobby Carlyle fell into place right at the beginning and it was like, “This is an amazing opportunity. This is a new show.” And I saw the direction that we were heading in and it was something completely different than Atlantis and it was really exciting. It was like I felt that excited feeling again that comes over you when you start working on a project that you can just feel is going to be excellent.
GW: Atlantis was a spin-off of SG-1, and it’s important to reinvigorate yourself and it’s important to go into a new direction. Because if you don’t change, you stagnate and you die.
That was one of the most exciting things that I heard about Universe. You were wanting to go in a completely new direction. And I myself as a viewer — I can’t speak for any of the other fans who disagree with me — I as a viewer, need that. I need something new. So it’s on both sides of the table.
JL: Brian Smith actually did an interview which will be posted online in the coming weeks, and he said something that really rings in my head. We’re hoping that the fans who watch a series, who’ve watched it for 13 years, will look forward to something new and exciting as opposed to just the same old same old. Anybody can do the same, but to do something new and exciting, outside the box, and gritty and not neat and clean and reality, we hope that people are going to be reinvigorated by that whole aspect of it.
And that’s the passion that comes with working on the new show, with the new cast, with the new stories, with the new scripts. And character drama, character drama, character drama. It feels like you’re working on something that’s going to be great.
And where I see myself five years from now? I’ve thought about it but I don’t know. I don’t know. As long as I’m enjoying coming to work every day and as long as I love getting up every morning and coming to work and don’t start resenting it, I’ll be here.
That’s the most important thing because I’ve been at the place where I resented it and it’s not fun, because you get up and you’re like, “Aaargh.” But coming here every day on this show and how it’s been for the last few months has been awesome.
GW: That’s great. It’s a whole new ballgame. Obviously it’s going to depend on how Universe does on the air and whether or not they pick it up for another season, but it’s going to be an interesting journey.
JL: Absolutely. Without a doubt. Like I said, these cast and myself. I mean, I am in this new position. This whole new series is about exploration and discovery. And that’s really the bottom line here. And for me too, on a personal [level], how I am exploring this job and how it’s different from what I was doing in seasons past. It’s exciting and it’s all about discovery and the new challenges that it brings you. I wake up everyday saying “I’m learning something new every day.” And long as you keep doing that, that’s the most important thing.
Interview by David Read. Transcript by Kerenza Harris.