As legend has it, two men approached MGM President Jonathan Symes separately suggesting the Stargate property they had purchased would make a good television series. Those two men, Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner, were brought together to bring Stargate SG-1 to the small screen.
Now Wright is about to kick off the third Stargate television spin-off with co-creator Robert C. Cooper. Though Glassner left the franchise over a decade ago, we felt it was high time to debunk some old rumors. What was his working relationship with Wright like? Why did he leave the series when he did?
Jonathan tells us about conceiving the pilot, screening actors for the recurring roles, working thousands of miles from the place he called home, and reactions from the crew when he departed. He also updates us on his current projects!
GateWorld: I see from your IMDb you’ve been doing a lot of directing lately. Is this something that you’ve wanted to do since you first started in this industry?
Jonathan Glassner: I actually came out here [to Hollywood] to be a director. I went to Northwestern University. We had a director speak there, a pretty prominent TV director at the time. His name was Robert Wright, and he said, “If you want to be a director in television, the fastest way to get there is by writing.”
Which made me sort of redirect myself towards writing, which I had not even thought of doing yet. And so I came out here and started writing and sold my first script actually to Alfred Hitchcock Presents a billion years ago. The new one, not the original one. [I’m] not that old. And kept working my way up until I finally got to a point where I could hire myself as a director which is what I did.
I started directing all the shows that I was running. And then when I came back — left Stargate — came back to LA, I went on CSI: Miami as a writer.
[I] was having a rough time of it. It wasn’t really my cup of tea to write that show. So I told the show’s editor that I wasn’t going to come back for another season, and she said, “Why don’t you direct one?” Because I had spent a lot of time actually in the editing room, working on other people’s stuff.
So I did and they liked me, and the Bruckheimer people liked me, so I ended up doing a bunch of them. I kind of had a late career doing that as a freelance director.
GW: So, this has been your master plan?
JG: It was my master plan when I was in college. Now it’s a matter of ‘I’ll do whatever I like doing.’ The one thing I won’t do is work on a show that I’m not enjoying. I don’t need to do that anymore. I used to do that just to have a job, but …
GW: Life is too short.
JG: Yeah. But I’ll do it all. I’ll write, direct, produce, whatever they need, whatever I think I’m appropriate for.
GW: Now, legend has it that you and Brad approached MGM separately. I think John Symes was president at the time.
GW: About doing a Stargate TV series. They put the two of you together to fashion the pilot. What was it about — aside from the fact that a Stargate can go many other places — what was it about the movie that you found so enchanting?
JG: You just said it. To me it never should have been a movie. It should have been a TV series in the first place. At least the way they conceived the movie. Because, why does the thing have that many symbols on it if it only goes one place? Why not just have the seven symbols?
JG: And you just dial them in the right order. And also, why only have it go between two places? Why not have it be all over the place? So, we started thinking about that and it just seemed like, “Wow, it’s a way to sort of do Start Trek without the ship and do it today.” Set it today instead of set in the future.
GW: Have you been a sci-fi fan for a long time?
JG: You know, I stumbled into sci-fi, to tell you the truth. I’ve always enjoyed it but I was not the kind of person who went to conventions and read everything that ever came out and that kind of thing. But I was hired a while back to write a pilot for a show called Island City. That was the only sci-fi I’d ever written and I wrote it and they made the pilot and they made a two hour movie out of it.
It never went to series but that script launched me into sci-fi. All of a sudden I was getting calls from Start Trek and I ended up going over and doing Outer Limits and just kind of kept doing sci-fi after that for quite a while.
GW: You eventually found your way to Vancouver.
JG: Yeah, I was a writer on Outer Limits and the first season … The Outer Limits was, still is actually, probably the hardest show I ever worked on. It was a tough show to pull off week after week.
GW: Why is that?
JG: Well, because basically every week is a pilot. It’s all new sets, all new characters, all new scripts, new visual effects, new creature effects. I mean, if it were just a drama anthology it would be hard but a science fiction anthology with all the effects and the creatures and the mythology and the wardrobes. Sometimes the wardrobe has to be literally otherworldly wardrobe. It’s hard to pull off week after week.
It was hard. And it didn’t have a massive budget and we really wanted it to look like it did. So it was quite a challenge.
GW: But you guys pulled it off though. It’s one of my favorite shows to this day.
JG: Well, thank you. When it first started though, it was having a really hard time and they ended up asking me and a guy named Manny Coto to move up to Vancouver to try to straighten it out with the idea that we were only going for a few months. And I ended up being there six years. That’s how I ended up in Vancouver.
GW: Had Brad [Wright] not been in the equation for the original pilot, what sorts of differences do you think would there have ultimately been in this series? What in the beginning do you think you would have changed in the nucleus of the show?
JG: We were very simpatico. I mean, we both saw all the great things in the movie and all the problems in the movie. Problems in terms of making it into a series. Between us we each did our share in coming up with a solution. I think that we agreed pretty much on all of that. I can’t think of anything we disagreed on.
Now, keep in mind, that was 12 years ago.
JG: It was an exciting time so it’s pretty well stuck in my head. I think the only disagreement we ever had was some of the things that he and later Robert [C. Cooper] decided to do after I was gone. But that’s his prerogative, I wasn’t there anymore, he can do what he wants.
GW: Tell us about creating “Children of the Gods.” About creating this cast of characters and bringing in Richard Dean Anderson.
JG: Well, I wish I could take credit for Richard Dean Anderson but John Symes called Brad and I think he thought we were going to reject the idea because he gave us this long sort of preamble of, “Now I want you to really think about this before you answer this, but what do you think of, to play Jack … Richard Dean Anderson?”
And we both looked at each other and immediately said, “Can you get him? It’d be great.” [Laughter] Rick wanted to meet with us first and make sure that we were going to make the show that he would like to do and he wanted it to be much more comedic and less dure.
I mean his character in the movie was suicidal and he didn’t want to do that for, you know, ten years — or who knew if for even a year. So we were on the same page, we weren’t going to do that anyway. There he was.
GW: And then Amanda Tapping, Chris Judge, Michael Shanks?
JG: There’re interesting stories on all of them, actually, except for Michael. Michael, we pretty much knew right away when we saw him that he was the guy. It was just between him and another guy who we both had worked with a lot.
We didn’t know Michael and we saw the other actor we had work with, who was a spectacular actor, so it became sort of a, “Do we take a chance on this guy? He seems like he’s really good and he’s got a great look.”
We ended up going with [Michael]. With Amanda it was actually an interesting … It was a bit of a battle. Brad and I were one hundred percent sure she was the person for the part. We loved her. The studio did not.
JG: They were interested in T&A. They wanted this other woman who was sort of the cliché hot woman who didn’t come across as very bright and we said, “You don’t understand, this woman is smarter than anybody in the show. She’s a scientist. We got to believe this.”
And we fought and they finally said, “We think you’re wrong and we may make you make the change later but if you feel so strongly about it …” So we did. To their credit they could have forced us into this right away. And she turned out to be great. She ended up sort of carrying the show, I thought, for a while when Rick left.
I think she’s a great actress. She’s beautiful too. It’s not like she was an ugly woman. [Laughter] She just wasn’t the type they were looking for.
GW: You know, looking back on the show — in my opinion — I would think Carter would be the most difficult to create. Because she was everyone. I mean she had to be beautiful, she had to be strong, she had to be the scientist, the know-it-all. She’s kind of everything rolled into one. You risk making her not believable at that point.
JG: Right. We went into this saying this is going to be our hardest casting part. Because we had written a woman who is brilliant, beautiful and a trained soldier, a lethal killer. To find that credible is going to be tough to find a woman who can carry that off. She’s got to have that strength and for lack of a better word, that sort butchness. And be a beautiful sexy feminine woman, you know?
GW: And then you had Christopher Judge, the stoic background team presence. He always recalls it was like the rainbow team in the original casting session. There were 10 guys of all ethnicities and he was surprised when he got it.
JG: Well, that scared us for a while. We must have seen, I don’t know, nationwide or continent-wide I should say — because we looked all over the US and all over Canada. We must have seen a thousand guys. And we didn’t personally go to each of those. We had casting directors doing it all in each city and they all sent us the tapes and we went through the tapes.
We were getting a little panicked because we wanted somebody who had an interesting and unique look that you could believe was an alien and was not just your typical Canadian or American.
So we looked at a lot of different ethnicities and mixed races and none of them could act. We were at the final screen test, we had just seen some tapes on Chris and we didn’t … We weren’t fair, we hadn’t actually auditioned him yet. And we had a final screen test in L.A. where we brought in the final people for all of them. And he walked into the room and Brad literally bent over to me and said, “Please God, let him be able to act.”
And he started reading the part and there was a collective sigh of relief in the room.
GW: You’d found him.
JG: It was him, there he was. We were excited. We knew who the general was going to be before we had read anybody because we had worked so much with him.
GW: Don S. Davis?
JG: Yes. Don Davis, and that was it. That’s what happened.
GW: Don had been on MacGyver as Dana Elcar’s stunt double.
JG: He had been on probably five Outer Limits with me. I mean, we knew him well. I also had produced 21 Jump Street and Street Justice up there and he had been on those also.
GW: How did you feel about his passing?
JG: I was really sad to hear about it. He was a really sweet man, he was a wonderful man and he was such a pro. He was always there when he was supposed to be there, he knew everything — his words. He never screwed anything up. It was usually one take, done, and then move on. It was great. He was just a great guy. I felt horrible when he passed.
GW: There were a couple of interesting problems with “Children of the Gods.” A pilot, I am sure, has a lot of problems. But only just recently have a couple of these come up. The first day of shooting for instance, Daniel and the team on Chulak.
JG: The horizontal rain. We thought we were doomed. We were on the first day of shooting, we had built the sort of castle [where] Teal’c saves them near the end and helps them escape.
That was literally a set that was built up in the mountains rather than in a sound stage so that when he broke through the wall he was outside-outside and we could shoot it contiguously and the camera could follow him out.
And right when we were starting rolling basically it started raining so hard the rain was horizontal. The set was starting to topple over. We had grips out there trying to hold it up and it was just hysterical. It was ridiculous. Inside the set all you heard was the rain so you couldn’t shoot the inside as actually being inside. We finally had to call it a day.
We were thinking “Are we jinxed?” Our first day and this is not good. But we ended up making it up and it was fine.
GW: And Daniel meeting the monks, so much of that you guys had to cut around because the footage was damaged.
JG: Yeah, from the weather.
GW: Are these typical problems in creating a pilot?
JG: Those are typical problems in Vancouver at that time of the year. I mean, it rains a lot there. Although it doesn’t usually rain that hard. That was unusually hard rain.
Because in all the years that I was up there we would shoot in the rain all the time. The crews in Vancouver are just used to it. they go with it like it’s no big deal. And the [directors of photography] there know how to light it so you don’t see the rain most of the time. But this was just raining so hard, it was a hurricane. I’ve never seen rain like that, I’ve been in a hurricane and I feel like I’ve never seen it like that.
GW: Were you pleased with the finished product of that episode?
JG: Yeah. My only negative on that episode was I was unhappy with the score. The guy who scored the whole rest of the show, Joel Goldsmith, he’d set up a beautiful, beautiful score for “Children of the Gods” and the studio felt that it was not exciting enough — and actiony enough — and they made us rescore it by tracking music from the movie.
They cut up pieces of the track from the movie and put it in there. Brad and I argued about it the whole time. But the studio had been so good to us and let us do so many things they didn’t agree with, this was the one thing they were not going to give in on.
GW: This was your concession.
JG: And we went in and we had to leave that soundtrack in. In moments that should have been touching and moving, instead it was, “Bum-adum-bum-pum!” [Laughter] I always thought it was a mistake.
That would be something interesting for somebody to do, is to put the old score of “Children of the Gods” that Joel did on the film and put it back out on DVD, because it was a beautiful score. Joel got to use the stuff he wanted to do on the series from that point on, but not then.
GW: Are you aware that tomorrow “Children of the Gods” is coming back out with Joel’s original score put in it?
JG: No. Oh, really?
JG: Who thought of that? Did Brad think of that?
GW: Yes. Brad has been working for a year and a half retooling “Children of the Gods.” It’s what Joel wanted to do musically the entire time with it.
JG: Great. I wonder if he’s using his original music because it was really wonderful. He’s talented.
GW: So you didn’t know about this, about this DVD release?
JG: You know what? They have cut me off, they don’t tell me anything.
I talk to Brad every now and then because he’s a friend and he might tell me these things, but the studio doesn’t tell me anything, or send me anything. For one thing, it’s all new people at the studio — from when I was there — none of them know me.
I’m not saying they are being jerks or anything. I don’t exist, they don’t know. They don’t remember that I exist.
GW: This is something that we were told about a year and a half ago. Brad wanted to go in and do different takes, a couple of different takes, add a scene or two, very minute changes.
For instance, the strange glider that drops Apophis and his troops near the end of the show — that we never saw again — has been replaced with a cargo ship. So, little things like that have been changed.
But I have had mixed feelings about it because the pilot that you guys created was a product of two people. What it really comes down to, it was a product of you and him. Now, in some ways, it’s a product of one man. So we really wanted to know what you thought about that.
JG: Well, it’s still a product of two people. And one of the two does the final edit is fine with me. From what you tell me so far, it sounds like he’s doing what I would have done anyway. For example, that cargo ship, we wanted to do that but we didn’t have the money for it.
So, that’s fine when he does that. And we were kind of unhappy with it having nudity in it, but the studio thought that it would help the ratings on Showtime. Because Showtime, at that time, was the only thing they were known for. I remember they had full nudity.
And then, when we finally finished the script and we got the cut, we were like, “You know, this is a family show, kids could watch this if we didn’t have this one scene in it.”
GW: The nudity is gone.
JG: Is it? I had a feeling it would be.
GW: Yes, it’s completely gone.
JG: Yes, it should be. You know, at the time we were making the pilot, at the very first, nobody really knew where it was going to end up tonally. That is the example you were asking me before.
This is always a problem with pilots. You’re always trying to find what the show is in the first half of the first season. And one of the great things about being on a network like Showtime is that they ordered 14 episodes of the show to start out with. [And then] 44 shows altogether.
So we had the time to find out. We didn’t have to worry that they were going to cancel us after three shows because we did something stupid in an episode or whatever. We got to find the show. But you see that we are finding the show a little bit at the end of Season One. If you look at the first half of it or so, we got a few dogs there.
It has a lot of strong episodes, that first season. You guys found your footing — in my opinion — remarkably fast compared to some others shows. Next Gen, hailed as one of the greatest sci-fi shows of all times … in Season Two it’s still strange.
JG: For example I wouldn’t have done “Emancipation.” We were still trying to find Carter.
At first she was a little too much of a feminist. Amanda never let me live that down. She always blamed me for that.
GW: ‘Just write me like a man and the feminine parts, by their nature, should come out.’
JG: When we were writing her, we were writing her like a feminist which we didn’t need to do, that was stupid. Just by nature of being who she was made her stand out. We didn’t need to do anything beyond that. But, you know, you find these things.
GW: What were some of your favorite themes that grew out of earlier seasons? We had the Jaffa who were the warrior caste and carried the larval form of their leaders. You also wrote the two episodes that introduced the Tok’ra.
JG: I loved the Tok’ra. I was really glad we came up with that. I feel my favorite thing that I can take credit for was Samantha’s dad which first appeared in an earlier episode.
GW: Jacob Carter.
JG: Carmen [Argenziano] was just brilliant. He and Amanda had chemistry; they felt they actually were related.
GW: She loves him so much. You guys really picked well.
JG: Yeah, he’s great.
GW: “Forever In a Day” is another one of my favorites that you wrote. The death of Sha’re. Dangerous move, but I think a very freeing one, because it allowed Daniel to move on. Not only start looking for the Harcesis, but it freed him up as a character.
JG: I have to give some credit to the actors because Michael came to Brad and I and said, “How long are we going to do this Sha’re thing? It’s getting old.”
And Brad and I hadn’t even thought about it at that time. We looked at each other and we discussed it a little bit and said, “You know he’s right. We’re beyond that now. We can get beyond that.” So I said, “Well, why don’t we kill her? Why don’t we get rid of her?” [Laughter] “If we’re going to get rid of her, let’s really get rid of her.” So we did.
Let’s end that quest for him. Because otherwise it’s always going to be if he left, or if he cured her, or if he rescued her, or any of those things. Then you’re still stuck with it, really. And try to decide what to do with the character. And there wouldn’t be anything left to do.
GW: And in the very next season, a Goa’uld takes over his girlfriend. [Laughter] So, in many ways, they do it again.
JG: In a way, yeah. You got to keep the romantic stuff going somehow with the aliens, with the sci-fi part of it. [Another one] I probably would not have done was “Hathor.” I understand it’s a bit of a cult favorite. [Laughter]
GW: I thought it was interesting. But in the fabric of SG-1 — the overall arc — it doesn’t fit in with what ultimately came about.
JG: Well, I’ll tell you where it came from. At the time, the studio was pushing us to do more sexy stuff. We hadn’t done enough sexy stuff and they thought that was important. They were wrong, but they thought that was important.
So I sat and sat and I thought, “OK, let me come up with some sort of sexy alien.” And Katharyn [Powers], she was the expert on all the mythology, said, “So, there was this girl Hathor and she would be kind of cool.” So I read up on Hathor and that’s where it came from. But I wasn’t thrilled with it.
GW: But you know, it’s first season, dude. It’s OK. You get a free pass. It made for an interesting character, but one that eventually got frozen.
JG: Yes it did.
GW: The Replicators, how did you feel about them? They were introduced just before you left.
JG: I love the Replicators. We were actually talking about the Replicators for quite a while before I even knew I was leaving. I think the Replicators are great. They’re fun.
GW: You introduced the Asgard, obviously you guys wanted to introduce an an ally that put the Goa’uld in their place, but then in order to keep them from saving the day every week, you had to give them an enemy.
JG: Right. That’s where it came from. There were too god-like a race that could do anything. So we needed to make them vulnerable.
JG: [Brad] brought them back in Atlantis, too, didn’t he?
GW: Yeah. A different version. The grandfathers of the block Replicators whom the Ancients created. It all comes back to the Ancients. They just screwed everything up. [Laughter]
Was it creative differences that encouraged you, that had you decide to leave at the end of Season Three? Was it the direction of the show? Or were you just ready to move on?
JG: Absolutely not. To this day I am sad I left. I was moved out there for the Outer Limits. And I was promised that it was only going to be for a year. And then I would move back to L.A. and write it from L.A. and it would go on with the production and all the writers would all be down here. But Brad quickly became afraid that that was not possible, that the show would be more complicated than that.
When you have to create all these creatures somebody who actually has the idea in their head has to be there to say, “No, that’s not what I meant … This is what I meant.”
GW: To implement it.
JG: Yeah, to make it happen efficiently and quickly. And not have it show up on dailies for the first time we see it and it’s all wrong and then we’re in trouble. So, I ended up having to stay up there.
So every year, I would say to MGM, “I don’t want to be here anymore, I am going back to L.A.” And they would say, “Well, what if we let you have a penthouse on the top of a high-rise.” They just kept giving us that as the incentive. I finally moved my wife up and my dogs up and then the kids at the time.
And every year I would say, “I just don’t want to stay, I want to leave. I want to keep writing this show but I want to go back to L.A.” And they would way “How about if we give you this and X, X, X.”
So finally I ended up staying for three years and after the third year I called John Symes and I said, “Now John, don’t offer me anything. I’m telling you, even if you offer me a billion dollars, I am not coming back next year.”
GW: It’s not your home.
JG: It wasn’t my home, my extended family is down [in L.A.], my wife’s extended family is down here. My wife didn’t really have anything to do up there. I mean, she wasn’t working or anything. She was kind of miserable. And part of the problem is that we had moved up there under the assumption that we were only going to be there for a short time so we never really made a life for ourselves up there.
I mean, I was working all the time and my wife didn’t really have a chance to. And [Symes] came back with, “We have a 44-show series guarantee from Showtime. It’s yours if you’ll stick for three more years.” How do you turn that down?
So, I said, “Well …” I actually was going to turn it down, I actually said, “Well, the only way I’ll do it is if you can let me do Stargate.” I said “You have this movie in your library and I think it’d make a great series. I’ll do that.” And he said, “I don’t think we can do that.”
At the time they were already in negotiations with the guys who did the movie and he thought that wasn’t going to happen. So I said, “Then I don’t think I can stay.” And two weeks later he called me and he said, “It’s yours as long as you’re willing to do it with Brad.”
And it turns out that Brad had sort of said the same thing to him. Neither of us knew what the other one was telling him. I mean, I was like, “Are you kidding? Brad would be the first person I would bring in anyway. That’s great.”
So we signed on. I had to commit to three more years up there. And I promised my wife that after these few years we would come home. So, at the end of those few years I kept my promise and we left.
We had our first child there and it was a bit of a nightmare because of the socialized medicine. We wanted to have more kids and she said, “If we are having more kids, we’re not doing it here.”
It was a life decision, so we left. It’s one of those decisions that I will always, my whole life, will never know if it was a good decision or not because Stargate is going in its third series now and it’s a career. But Brad and I, we’ve be getting along great. Brad, I have nothing but admiration for him and Rob Cooper. And the cast.
Rick [Dean Anderson] couldn’t stand to have a talk with me, he was very angry when I told him I was leaving.
GW: Was he disappointed?
JG: You know, I don’t really know. Once I told him, he pretty much clamped at that point. He wouldn’t even give me the time of day, so I honestly don’t know. I don’t know if he would’ve cared. But I think it made him angry because he was in the exact same situation. He had a kid up there and he really …
GW: “So if you’re doing it, why can’t I?”
JG: Exactly. He had a kid up there, he really didn’t want to be up there, he wanted to come down here and raise his child. But he was the star of the show. He didn’t have that option. So I think he really kind of felt like I was deserting him. I don’t blame him. I don’t blame him.
By the way, I should be so lucky as to have somebody like him as the star of my next show. I mean he was great to work with. He’s just a really good person. Unlike so many other stars I do work with in this business, he’s a human being.
GW: Not only is he great in front of the camera but he always insisted on humor as a huge equation behind the scenes, too.
JG: Yeah. And one of the things he said to Brad and I in our first meeting was “I have a saying, life’s too short — LTS.” Every once in a while he would yell “LTS.”
I mean, life’s too short and he just would not tolerate the baloney, all the drama that happens on so many sets. And that was great.
GW: Are you continually surprised that this show — the franchise — is now going for 320 some-odd episodes? In some ways you really can’t be because you saw that the Stargate could do that anyway.
JG: I’m actually not surprised at all. If there is any surprise it’s from a business standpoint. Because it’s been through so many chefs. It was on Showtime, then it was on Syfy.
MGM has changed its management a few times in the time period and kind of got out of television with the exception of Stargate. And so I’m just surprised the gods of business haven’t destroyed the show.
GW: Brad says that he owes a lot of that to [MGM President] Charlie Cohen.
JG: Yeah, that’s what he says. I don’t know Charlie so I can’t say.
GW: What about you? Where is your career going next? Are you going to continue doing directing with these shows?
JG: I’m actually writing a pilot right now for ABC Family. For a teenage show which is quite a departure for me as a writer. It’s been interesting.
GW: We’ll it’s a good exercise then, isn’t it?
JG: It’s been interesting getting my head into that space where “Who gets to go to the prom?” is the most important thing. [Laughter] I’m really enjoying it. I’m actually very happy with the script now. I was struggling at first, but now I’m actually happy with it. It’s been a blast to do it.
It’s called Cover Girl if it goes on. Everybody watch it! A long way off but that’s what I’m doing right now. Hopefully they’ll let me direct it, but we’ll see.
GW: We’re going to have to be on the lookout for it. Not really my cup of tea but I’ll watch it. I’ll watch the pilot, how does that sound?
JG: OK! I also hope it will appeal to adults too, that’s actually one of the reasons they hired me do it. They came and said, “If you can come up with something that will appeal to multiple generations, so they can watch together … Write it.” That’s what I came up with.
I was directing CSI: Miami and it was very funny … I was standing on the side with David Caruso, talking about my experience on Stargate. And I’m in prep actually for the next episode. I wasn’t directing the episode they were shooting at the time. They call [Caruso] and he walks on to the set to start shooting and I’m standing at the monitor. And the guy he literally looks at across the table is Michael Shanks, who I had no idea was even in town. And so I freaked him out when I went up to him and started talking to him.
GW: That’s awesome.
JG: So I’m like “Michael, if you’ll step through the Stargate here …” And he turned right away. [Laughter]
GW: Isn’t it a small world?
JG: Yeah it is. And he is a great actor. He should keep working. I hope he lands on something serious.
Interview by David Read. Transcript by Kerenza Harris.