After a recent press preview screening in Vancouver, SCI FI team members managed to sit down with: Brad Wright, executive producer N. John Smith and production designer Jams Robbins. Here is an excerpt of the interview.
Brad Wright, how does creating and writing a Stargate feature compare to creating TV series episodes? The funny thing is, we’ve done so many two-parters you’d think it would be easy to make it longer. A feature script has its own structure. A good feature is in three parts, while a good two-parter has a great cliffhanger in the middle. It’s a very different structure, and it’s much more fun in some ways to do a feature. The story can evolve the way it’s supposed to, and it doesn’t owe anything to the episode before or after. The fun part was setting out to write a movie and not just a long episode. Hopefully, that’s what we achieved. It’s tough. I have to say my first version was way too long, but my scripts always are.
Talk about those moments where the movie slows down and spends some time getting to really know the characters.
I love the fact that I had an hour and a half! Normally I have 44 minutes with credits, and you can’t get a lot of character development in there. The scenes in Continuum where Mitchell goes back to the farm and Carter goes shopping and Daniel goes to the bookstore; these are things in an episode that are the first thing to go once I go to the concept meeting and look at the budget. I just don’t have the schedule for it, because you need to move a whole unit to a location and shoot what is ultimately five seconds of film. To me, it’s character building, but those silent moments [with Carter] told a lot about how she felt about her situation, and it’s not something you can do in television.
You had a lot of fun with those scenes where the team had to adjust to a world that isn’t quite their own, didn’t you?
I like seeing characters forced to look at themselves in a different way. For one example, Daniel phones himself. That’s kind of a neat scene. I didn’t know what to do with him. I had Carter having been an astronaut that brilliantly sacrifices herself, as usual, and saves her crew. Ben doesn’t exist because I wanted to do the grandfather paradox literally, for fun. But Daniel phones himself and reads his own book. I thought it was neat to have him talk to himself and say, “I know you’re right,” and, “trust your feelings.” He’s compelled to give himself a pep talk. I called Robert [C. Cooper] and asked, “So is it weird for Daniel to phone himself and give himself a pep talk?” He said, “Yeah, but do it anyway.”
N. John Smith, watching the movie, it’s obvious that a lot of behind-the-scenes work went into getting all that on the screen. For example, how did you get those shots in the high arctic?
I was at a convention. [Director] Martin Wood and I were signing autographs and a fellow by the name of Barry Campbell, who was a retired submariner from the American Navy, approached me. He put a photograph down of a conning tower of a Los Angeles class submarine sticking up through the ice and he said, “Would you and three of your friends be interested in coming to an ice station in the Arctic two years from now?”
And I said, “Well, yeah!” So we started e-mailing back and forth, and I asked him what he thought about the possibility of us coming up there with a small crew geared up to shoot, sort of documentary-style, a couple scenes from something. I wasn’t sure at that time what it was going to be. He said sure.
So I talked to Brad and Robert as soon as I heard that and told them we have an opportunity to do this. I’m not sure whether we do it as part of the SG-1 series or hold it for a movie or make it some kind of a special event, and it was decided we would do the movie. So it took about two years to put it together.
And you got to use a real nuclear submarine?
We’ve been a very pivotal thing, apparently, for the Air Force. They really like us as a recruiting thing. Apparently a lot of the young folks look at the space program, and we represent that aspect of what they do. So, anyway, the American Navy thought the same thing, maybe it would be a real positive influence on their recruiting program. We knew that there were going to be two submarines up there. At the time we were there, there was an American boat and a British boat there, and basically what they do up there is practice war games under the ice. They’re using their sonars and bouncing off ice. They don’t really tell us.
But we went down to San Diego —Brad, myself, Charlie Cohen from MGM, Richard Dean Anderson, my wife, Martin Wood, we all went down and got aboard a sister ship of the one that was going to the Arctic. We had lunch on it and surveyed the boat and had a look around and kind of got an idea of what we’d be looking at, had discussions with these guys as to what we were going to do. And they said sure, everything you want to do is feasible and possible, so it was a go.
What was it like shooting when you got up there? What was the biggest challenge?
Smith: Just keeping the cast warm! We were prepared to shoot at minus 50, and the day that Rick and I arrived up there it was minus 58 with a wind-chill factor of another 40, and we couldn’t shoot. It was just too cold.
We got up the next morning at 6:00 and we went out and started looking for a location that we could access without going four miles away from camp, because everything kind of happens at camp. And we found a location about 400 yards from camp. The submarine was just right, kind of over there. The wind was blowing across —it was quite windy. We didn’t fake any of that, that was real wind that was blowing. There’s no snow up there. That stuff you see drifting around is ice particles.
So was everyone OK? The actors were supposed to only have whatever cold-weather gear they’d been able to scavenge.
We were worried because the cast had costumes. They had good gear underneath them, though. We went to great lengths to get them the best gear money could buy. And I have to say there wasn’t one complaint from anyone on the crew or the cast the whole time we were there. No one got cold, because we were having a good time.
I never even used a blanket when I was sleeping at night. It was too hot. It was minus 25 on the floor of the hutches we were staying in. And I was on the top bunk. It was 85 degrees up there. I was dying the whole time, until you get down to put your boots on and you’re freezing. Huge fluctuations. Anything on the floor was all ice. So you hang everything.
N. John Smith and James Robbins, the freighter, both above and below decks, plays a big part in the film. Was that an actual ship or a set?
We were actually going to shoot that as a practical. We started looking around for boats that we could use.
Robbins: The problem there is you can’t move around on a real boat. There’s narrow passageways; nothing lights or is camera-friendly.
Smith: They don’t look real. Real boats look like sets.
It’s very convincing for something you built on a soundstage.
Robbins: That was the first ship I’d ever been called upon to build. I sat down without any references and just drew a ship at my kitchen table one night, and there were very few changes, quite honestly, from what I drew initially to what the real thing was. When we started looking at references, my chimney stack was a little too wide and I had a couple masts here and there, but the overall feel was eerily close to exactly what you needed for a 1920s ship. And getting authentic pieces was integral in selling it. Set Dec did their part. They went to town. The radio room … We found a photograph from a 1918 freighter and there was not one detail that was wrong with what we put in there.
Smith: The windlass on the deck was all built out of plastic, but it was built off of a plan. Fiberglass mold, and they built it up, and it looked totally real, but it was plastic. Two guys could pick it up and pack it.
Robbins: Even the deck was like these old different boards, and the production department was out there with chainsaws and chains, and they hacked it up and gave it such life and character. I loved walking around on that set. I was very sad to see it go. And we were in there for such a very short time. Then we had a 14-day turnaround from the initial version to frozen.
The frozen hold is really a great set. How’d you do that, especially since you needed to make it look good right next to the real Arctic shots?
Smith: We brought in big refrigeration units and refrigerated the whole stage so we could get the breath. We took the stage down to minus 8 [degrees], and then we had humidifiers. We’d turn them on every morning before the cast came in. And then you backlight it. You can create cold, obviously, by what we did with flocking, and we can make snow and things like that, but the real thing is to be able to see the breath, so we were real careful to backlight, and you’ll notice a lot of flashlights and stuff in there. And when I watched it the first time you kind of want to button your shirt up a little. It really sells the cold.
Robbins: We found some very nice references. Boats that work in the Arctic get a lot of exterior ice collected, which is a little different from what we were doing, but it was enough to get started. Ours was more like a freezer-burned version of that. And we needed a “kawoosh hole” in ice. What’s that look like? So we had to come up with different treatments. We had a foam sculpt that was the backing piece, and that had a paint job on it, and after that we put a gel layer over the paint job. And then we laid in an acrylic sheet that had been warbled and molded with heat to form into that dome. What we were trying to do was create that sense of being able to look into the ice a little bit.
The crates that they were opening, we had multiples of those, and they were kept in a refrigerated truck, and those were actually sprayed with water so that when the actors opened them, real ice was formed on those, and it would break off. Even the parkas were frozen into the pieces, because once we flocked the tops, you can’t interact with them anymore or you ruin the finish, so the first time in everyone had to be very careful about what they touch and what they don’t.
N. John Smith, can we ask what the budget was?
Let me put it this way. I’ve done similar —not Arctic shoots and all that —but I’ve done some movies with similar production values that cost about four times what this cost, 10 years ago. We got a lot of bang for the buck. But the tie-ins with the military, I mean, where do you get bombers? Where do you get a $2.7 billion nuclear submarine, helicopters, snowmobiles, anything you want in the Arctic? That’s production value you just can’t buy.
Brad Wright, although Continuum is a direct-to-DVD film, we just saw it on a big screen, and it looked great. Was a theatrical release considered? Or is it a possibility for future Stargate movies?
The reasons that this could never be theatrical are entirely business and not at all creative. Apparently it had to do with pre-existing deals with the original feature film and subsequent production. In other words, we would have to go into a theatrical release with a lot of deals already made. We can’t just make a movie and put it on the screen. But Charlie Cohen can green-light two DTV movies.
That said, one of the reasons I wanted to do Continuum was as an audition to prove we could do Stargate as a theatrical release. If this does as well as I hope and think it will do internationally, we may get that shot.
What about rumors of a third series, Stargate: Universe?
Stargate: Universe is very much something we’ve been discussing with SCI FI and MGM for a long time … too long, actually. They need to make some decisions. I think we are at the point of finding out soon. We know what we’re doing and what we want to do. We’re excited about the prospect, but as long as Atlantis is going strong and as long as there are prospects for new movies … it doesn’t matter to me if my next project is two more movies for next year. Essentially we would put a third series off another year, but MGM wants one. They know the franchise is still strong.
Interview courtesy of Sci Fi