Robert Cooper, the writer and director of Stargate Atlantis‘ penultimate episode, ‘Vegas’, reveals the hard work that went into the show’s most ambitious location shoot yet!
‘Vegas’ is, obviously, a very different style of episode for Stargate Atlantis. Where did the idea come from?
I threw out the idea of Sheppard being a homicide detective on the trail of a serial killer. What I wanted to do was a bit of a riff on CSI and the style in which CSI is shot. I’ve always admired the style, the look and the way that show comes across, and I thought it would be fun to do an episode that is essentially an episode of CSI, shot in the style that they shoot their show, but with our characters. So that’s when the whole Vegas thing came up. We had been talking about, if we had the Wraith attack a city, where would it be? New York came up but there are so many movies about aliens and movies and monsters attacking New York, and we thought it would be fun, since Area 51 is in Nevada, to have that happen over Vegas. I just really wanted to do something that was completely different, completely outside the box. There’s a lot of times that you’re in the room and you throw out things that would be fun to see on the show but then you just dismiss it as something you would never do. One of the things was, if there was a Wraith on Earth, wouldn’t it be hilarious to see him walking around in Las Vegas? So then we actually did it [laughs]!
How challenging was the episode to write, given how different the style is to a usual Atlantis episode?
I had seen enough to know what the structure of those shows were. But also I just wrote what I wanted – I wrote a procedural type of story with flashbacks that would be a cop show. So I think that it was really about just not being tied to what an Atlantis episode is. In an alternate reality you have the freedom to break the mold, and I purposefully went against type in any way I could to make it seem really different. But I think it allows us to gain a perspective into our characters that we maybe couldn’t have gotten another way. Sometimes, when you step back and look at something from another point of view, it reveals things that you might not have otherwise seen. And, doing an alternate reality that is so similar to ours, the idea I was working with was that sometimes an event will happen and it will throw your life in a particular direction ¬– but if that event hadn’t occurred, or it had happened slightly differently, how would your life be different? Are you the same person at your core, in your heart? And that’s what I focussed on with the Sheppard character. Even though this story is about other characters in an alternate reality, I think there are insights into our characters that come out that maybe couldn’t have come out in any other way. It’s quite nice to see a story in which Sheppard is not the same Sheppard, because of certain events that occurred in his back story differently. Yet we understand that in his basic core make-up he’s still the same guy. And it was fun to see the slight variations that people played on the alternate reality versions of themselves. The fact that Sheppard was no longer the commander made McKay a different character. Suddenly he was less neurotic and stronger as a leader, because he was thrust into that role. And seeing those ripple effects and how they happen, and how the actors played them differently, was very interesting.
So, tell us about filming in Las Vegas.
It was a bit of a big deal – it was a long time in planning. It’s incredible how much you have to plan for two days of shooting. You can’t just get on the plane and take your own crew down to the United States, because there are all kinds of visa issues. We had to bring a crew in from LA, so we had to hire a production manager and go through the process of hiring new people to fill all the roles, and you have to fly down to scout and make sure the locations are going to work for you. And then you’ve got to go and do a whole new prep down there when you arrive. So it’s almost like mounting another series for two days [laughs]. We took some of the people from the show down to Vegas, who had already been part of the American unions – our Director of Photography, Mike Blundel, and Bill Mizel, and James Bamford, the stunt coordinator. Our A camera operator was from Ark of Truth, Steve Adelson. He had been our second camera operator last year, and I took him down to be A camera operator on this. Then the rest of the people were slipped in.
You only had two days to shoot in the city?
Yes. We just couldn’t afford more. It was almost prohibitively expensive as it was. We got permission to break the bank, but only to a certain extent. We certainly could have done more down there ¬ – the script called for three or four more days of Vegas – but we made it work in certain parts of Vancouver. There was the motel that we found that felt a little Vegas-y. We also went out into the interior of DC, into the Okanagan, and there’s a little patch of desert out there. So our crew drove three hours from Vancouver and we all stayed in wine country to shoot for the three days in a town called Osoyoos. That was fun, it was like a road trip!
How different an experience was it for you as a director, to shoot in America?
Well, it was unbelievably stressful because it’s like a high wire act without a net. You don’t have anywhere to fall. We shot on a Tuesday and a Wednesday, and the Tuesday was probably the longest shooting day we’ve ever done on the show. We went 17 full hours, because we just didn’t have a choice. We had a certain amount of work that we had blocked in to do, and even with the coverage being as minimal as I could possibly make it, we had to get to certain story beats. We wanted that look of Vegas at night, so we were night shooting, which is a little longer to set up and shoot because you have to light it. It was probably three, maybe four days of work that we had jammed into two nights. It was quite compromising [as a director], because you don’t get to do things the way you want to do them, you do them the only way they can get done. So you just hope that the finished product is exciting. But we did pull it off and there’s a pretty good act two in the show that takes place in Las Vegas.
We had a couple of fun guest stars in the scene where the Wraith ends up in a high-stakes poker game with Sheppard. It was kind of a fun poker table. Joel Goldsmith, our composer, was there, and Charles Cohen, the Vice President in charge of MGM, and a couple of professional players and a couple of actors that had been in the Sopranos. It was good. Everybody kept saying, “Oh, it’s going to be so fun for you!â€ and I kept thinking, “Well, it’ll be fun for me to talk about afterwards, but not that much fun during the shoot!â€ It was quite stressful. The second night we were shooting in this suite with floor-to-ceiling windows, and the whole point was to be able to see Vegas out of them. But we needed to do it while it was dark out, and we were literally racing the sun coming up to get the final shots. We were there until 7am, and at that point we just had to close all the drapes and just shoot some isolated shots on the table because it was a question of getting the stuff before the sun came up outside.
How do you think the fans will react to the episode?
There’s been some chatter among the fans who I think are worried that the episode is just a filler episode. That it’s an alternate reality, it has nothing to do with our show, and it’s unfortunate that that’s going to be the second to last episode. My reaction to that is two things – one, when we first came up with the concept, we didn’t know it was going to be the second to last episode [laughs]. The fact that Atlantis was not picked up was unfortunate on many levels. This was not intended to be the second to last episode of Atlantis. But also, if you look at it in and of itself, I find it interesting. It’s a story that is completely self-contained within the alternate reality, which I don’t think is something we’ve ever done before. It’s a what-if, but by the same token, it helps you to understand, I think, who Sheppard really is underneath ¬– some of the stuff he’s been going through, and why he is the way he is. So maybe this story would have been better off earlier in the season, when there’s not so much focus on it being the second to last episode. But on the other hand I don’t regret doing that script.
Interview courtesy of the official Stargate Website