Behind The Scenes Of Whispers

“Whispers” is a decidedly different episode of Stargate Atlantis. It’s dark, moody – and to be honest, downright scary. Which was exactly the plan.

“I’ve always been a big fan of horror movies, and we’ve never really done a horror movie on this show,” explains executive producer. Joseph Mallozzi, who wrote the script. “The nice thing about Stargate is that it’s so wide open ¬– you can tell so many different types of stories, and I thought, ‘You know what? Why don’t we do a horror story?’”

Courtesy of Atlantis‘ arch-nemesis Michael, finding a basis for a horror story that would fit into the overall background of the show wasn’t hard. But for Mallozzi, getting the correct tone for the episode was as important as the story itself.

“I pitched out my ideas, and one was being trapped in a deserted village with these creatures on the loose. The other was the fog element, which I thought, just atmospherically, would give it a nice creepy feel,” the writer explains. “Everyone had a different idea about the fog and the reasons for the fog, but I didn’t want it to be separate – I wanted it to be related, somehow, to the story. I finally came up with this idea that the creatures exude this mist or fog as a predatory thing, sort of like a squid releasing its ink as a defensive device.”

Using fog to create a claustrophobic atmosphere for the episode was a great idea, but as with anything the writers come up with, what works on the page has to be possible to achieve in the studio. An element like fog causes more complications still, as the producers have to be aware of working conditions for the cast and crew during filming.

“We ran some tests with the fog, and we had to be very aware of the fog level,” says Mallozzi. “The first time we ran the test we wanted to really smoke it up, and some of the crew members were feeling a little under the weather. So we decided we would use the fog, but sparingly, and we tented some areas so we wouldn’t have to fog the entire stage.”

As a result of those tests, the amount of smoke used was reduced, but filming on the episode was still hard, particularly on the crew. Once a day’s filming begins, every moment is money, and on a television series, time is never on the side of the filmmaker. Cameras have to keep rolling no matter what, and while the actors can leave the set between takes, each member of the crew is vital for the set up of the next shot, so leaving the stage is generally not an option. To stop them inhaling too much, the crew was issued with respirators, and Mallozzi, aware that he was asking a lot of his team, decided to suffer along with them.

“I was on set from beginning to end,” he says. “One of the reasons was that I really wanted the fog, and I needed it to be thick. I just thought that as the guy that wrote and produced the episode, I didn’t want to be going ‘Suck it up, gang, I’ll be up in my office ¬ ¬– let me know how it works out!’” he laughs. “So whenever we shot within those fog tents I went in, and I didn’t bother with respirators because the actor’s weren’t [wearing them]. On the effects stage, we lay down mulch for the village floor, and the fog picks up the particulates and you breathe it in. I’d go home at night and I’d be coughing up particulates for an entire week! So that was certainly memorable.”

Of course, besides the fog, there were the monsters themselves to think about. The make-up effects would naturally be provided by Todd Masters and the talented team at Masters FX, but Mallozzi reveals that he had some clear ideas of what he wanted to see.

“What I find creepy in horror movies are not so much the monsters but things with slight alterations,” he explains. “And these are actually even more monstrous than I imagined. I imagined them as essentially humans without eyes, and I thought that was very creepy. But when Todd Masters and his team were coming up with ideas for the look of the monsters, the problem was that if their eyes were completed sealed, the stunt performer wouldn’t be able to see, so they’d be stumbling around all over the place! So you’ll notice that it’s almost like webbing over their eyes. There are little holes where they can see. Even with that – they were able to see a little, but between the fog and the webbing, it was very tough for them. But they all did a terrific job, and I thought they were kind of cool-looking. Throw in the teeth and the nails and they’re quite creepy!”

Another striking aspect of “Whispers” is the introduction of a whole new SG team, led by feisty Major Anne Teldy. It’s the first time in Stargate history that fans have seen an all-female team, and Mallozzi admits that he felt a certain balance needed to be restored.

“With Carter gone and bringing Woolsey’s character in, I kind of felt that, particularly in terms of recurring characters, we were heavily male-skewed,” he says. “So I wanted to introduce some different female characters. I wanted four very different characters. We had introduced Vega in “Search and Rescue.” Anne Teldy I named after a fan who won an online contest. Then we had the ‘colourful’ one, which was Dusty ¬– Janina Gavankar just nailed it in the audition. They were fun characters, I thought all of them did a great job,” he says. “But another reason why I wanted to introduce them was that in a classic horror movie, you never know who’s going to live and who’s going to die. But in a TV show like ours, you pretty much know that our team is going off world and they’ll come back and everything will be okay! I wanted to make it an Atlantis story, so we had Sheppard and we had Beckett, but by introducing an all female team that we’d never seen before, we introduced the notion that you don’t know what to expect – you don’t know who’s going to survive at the end.”

Sure enough, not everyone did. Actually, in a way, none of them did, because news of the show’s cancellation meant that Mallozzi’s original plan for the team never came to fruition.

“The whole point was to set them up so we could bring them back,” says the writer. “The only problem was that at the time the episode was shot, we already had about six scripts in the pipeline, so they couldn’t appear in any of those. At the time, we had up to 13 and 14, and when it came down the last quarter of the show, there were a whole bunch of storylines that we wanted to address, and as a result we didn’t get to revisit these characters.”

But hope is not lost, as Mallozzi and his writing/producing partner Paul Mullie have been asked to write the first of Stargate Atlantis full-length movies.

“Who knows,” says Mallozzi. “Maybe one or two of them, maybe more, might make an appearance in the movie!”

News article courtesy of the Official Stargate Website