|Alan Levi GALACTICA.TV interview|
|Monday, 09 November 2009|
Some time ago Mike Egnor got in touch with Battlestar Galactica 1978 director Alan Levi, who took over from Richard Colla on the pilot "Saga of a Star World" after he was fired. He also later directed the episode "The Gun on Ice Planet Zero". Alan Levi talks about how he got in the business, working with the cast and crew on the Battlestar Galactica episodes he directed, the problems he had with Glen Larson, other work he did in his career, and what's he up to nowadays.
Battlestar Galactica's director Alan Levi
This is Mike Egnor from GALACTICA.TV and this evening I'm talking to Alan J. Levi, director of Battlestar Galactica. Mr. Levi I appreciate you taking the time to do this interview.
Do me one favor, call me Alan please. I hate mister, makes me feel over forty. (laughs)
Alan, I appreciate you taking the time for the interview.
I wanted to start out at the beginning. When did you decide you wanted to be a director?
Well, I directed my first show when I was fifteen. Made my first movie, I should say. I had always had two hobbies when I was in grade school and high school; photography and sound recording -- engineering of any kind. I'd always been interested in the movies - loved them. I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, a place I called "the movie capital of nowhere". Movie making was fascinating to me. Well, I went to see a movie one Christmas vacation night in 1950, it was "Good News" starring June Allison, Peter Lawford and Mel Torme. It was about a bunch of young college students and it was just the "happiest" movie I'd had ever seen. I came home that night, it was a Saturday night, and next morning I said to my folks, "I saw a movie last night. It was so very much fun and everybody loved it so much. I think that's what I want to do and I'm going to go make a movie." They both looked at me like I was crazy, which of course I was.
How old were you?
I was fifteen when I said, "I'm going to make a movie." My folks replied, "We can't afford to back a movie", and I said, "I know that. I'm going to start a little company. I'm going to raise my own money and make a movie." I found a one act play that a friend of mine in high school named Joe Brockett had written. He wrote it and he starred in the play at Clayton High school, which I was attending as a Sophomore. I adapted that play and in May of 1951 made it into a movie. I hired the same bunch of drama class students to play the parts they had in the play. It was a half hour comedy in blazing black and white (and with sound). It was called Keep Your Spirits High. It played all over St. Louis and in all the high schools, as an example of what a teen age company could do. It was on television. The St. Louis Globe Democrat, which at that time was a St. Louis newspaper, covered the making of it with a big story and pictures in their "Sunday Parade" section. It was quite a leap for a fifteen year old - and that was my beginning.
Great. Did you follow up later in high school or trade school in directing? Did you get any further education in directing?
Well, by the time I finished high school, I had made forty three films of different kinds. I mean some of them were documentaries of various sporting events, and many were for organizations that couldn't afford to have a professional movie made by a big company. People like the United States Safety Council (aka National Safety Council). I made commercials for organizations which didn't have a lot of money, for all I wanted was to make movies and make enough money to go to see more films. I was "inexpensive" to say the least. I made a couple of other dramas, and a musical called On Leave For Love, with a music track by the legendary film music composer Alfred Newman, who granted me permission to use a score of his. But when I entered Northwestern (University), I went into engineering school because I had promised my father I would obtain an engineering background. In my sophomore year, I and another engineer built the closed circuit television station at Northwestern, which was their entrance into the motion picture and television education field, although they were very, very famous for their drama school. Then in my junior and senior year, I was awarded a scholarship to teach -- to instruct actually, an instructor in some of the film and live television directing classes.
What did your parents say when you said you wanted to go from engineering to directing?
Well, my dad had implored me to get an engineering degree - something I could fall back on. He said, "You're going into the least secure business in the entire world. Anything could happen so you better get something to rely on." So I took his advice and minored in engineering. Then I switched over. My folks supported that, stating "If that's really what you want to do." They were really very understanding. They have always been terribly supportive. I filmed Keep Your Spirits High at a doctor's house which was about four doors from our home in St. Louis. We began filming at about seven o'clock on a Saturday night and wrapped at midnight on Sunday. We did the whole half hour film in thirty hours and my folks were right there the whole time. So they were in back of it. They were very supportive. They really were, all their life. In fact, my father was such a great guy and he was very proud. When I got out here (to Hollywood) and I began getting television credits on the air, he would sit in front of his television set in St. Louis with his Polaroid camera and shoot every credit of mine that came on the air. I still have those Polaroid shots. That's about as supportive as you can get.
Absolutely. The web site IMDb lists your first directing work on television or movies as Letters To Laugh-In. Is that true?
Well, you know what? I've been trying to figure out what the time line was. That was about 1970 I think. As far as network primetime television, I would say that's probably true, although I had done a lot of other shows. I had directed somewhere around of four hundred network commercials: Toyota, Chevrolet, Yamaha and J.C. Penney to name a few. These were big commercials that I had filmed both in Los Angeles and New York. But as far as drama shows or entertainment shows...I'm not totally sure. In 1969 I became associate producer of (NBC's) Laugh In and a bunch of Special event shows for George Schlatter and Ed Friendly, such as "Like Hep", a Dinah Shore Special. Letters to Laugh-In was part of that bunch. I also directed a pilot for them with Artie Johnson called Arnold's Closet Review. Which was first or which was second, I'm not a hundred percent sure? Then I directed and was cameraman/cinematographer for a bunch of sports shows. For seven years I freelanced in those capacities for (ABC's) Wide World of Sports starting in 1967. I think I did about 60-some-odd segments for them.
Let me back up. You were in St. Louis and you decided to move to California?
Was that taking a gamble? Was that a risk?
Well, it was and it wasn't. When I graduated high school, I came out to Los Angeles before I went to college. By that time -- and it's a long story, I won't get into it in detail -- I had a mentor out here who I had been corresponding with for a couple of years. He had heard about me through the publicity I got -- like the Globe Democrat story about my first film, and again with the musical I made in St. Louis. He was a mogul in the motion picture industry. So I came out and studied with him for seven weeks during the summer between high school and college. That man was Dick Powell. Dick Powell of course, as you know, eventually in about nineteen -- oh golly -- 1956 or 1957 I think, founded Four Star (production studio). But at the time that I knew him, he was a producer/director as well as an actor. During the summer he arranged to have me spend one week with a cameraman, then with a director for a week, with a make up man for week, with an editor for a week, until I had spent seven weeks. I knew I wanted to come out here. There was no question about it. I graduated college and returned to St. Louis in order to make some money before I made the move out here. There I helped put a television station on the air in St. Louis, Channel 11 KPLR TV, where I directed about two thousand hours of live television. That took about a year and a half. By then I had saved up enough to make the move. Sure, it was gamble, but the only place I wanted to be. That was forty eight years ago.
Before we get into Battlestar Galactica, I read in an interview that you did that you were friends with Leslie Stevens before the show?
Yeah! I definitely was. Well, before Battlestar Galactica, let me give you a small background here. In about 1973, I met Leslie and we became friends. Then in late ‘73 or '74 Leslie put his money up for a pilot that he wanted to make. He asked me if I would do him a favor and direct it and I said I would be happy to. He couldn't afford to pay me for that. We made this pilot, and he said to me "You know what, I will -- regardless of whether it sells -- someday I will make it up to you." He was a great guy and we had so much in common and had such a great time together that, you know, you do what you can to help other people. In early 1975, he called me and he said, "Listen, I'm going to Universal Studios and I'm going to help write and produce a pilot called The Invisible Man. I'm going to try to get you in on that. If it sells, I will get you in on it."
And it did sell. He brought me over and wanted me to talk to the studio about possibly coming in as a special effects expert on the show because there would be so much invisibility, and I had a great deal of blue-screen and green-screen experience. He introduced me to Harve Bennett, the executive producer of that show -- The Invisible Man, starring David McCallum . I got along with Harve sensationally and he one day said to me, "You know we just sold this. You know what I'd like for you to do for me and what I want to do it for you. I want you to direct the first show, the whole show. If you screw up, then goodbye. If you don't, you've got a home." I directed the first show and after that, I directed every other show, and eventually directed over 30 shows for Harve. It was because of Leslie that I got that break at Universal.
During the next 5 years, with Harve's organization, and the organization that sprung off from Harve Bennett by Ken Johnson and Jim Parriott, I stayed at Universal. The three of us, Kenny and Jim and I, were kind of known as the "holy triad". Kenny was a writer and executive producer. Jim Parriott was writer and producer. I was their principal director. The three of us just loved working together with all the shows we made. I directed a pilot called The Gemini Man and that sold. I then directed every other Gemini Man, then The Six Million Dollar Man. And soon after, The Bionic Woman came along and I directed every other episode for the first eighteen months. Following Bionic, I directed one of the two The Incredible Hulk pilots (Ken Johnson wrote them both and directed the first "pilot Episode". Following that sale, I directed many of the Hulk episodes.
So before Battlestar Galactica happened at Universal, I was there and I did forty seven pictures back to back without a break. I became known there, fortunately, to George Santoro and the rest of the Producers there as well -- and Leslie and I remained good friends. Leslie by that time, was very involved with Glen [Larson] in the pilot to Battlestar Galactica. So it was then that George Santoro, who was head of production at the studio and Leslie again, introduced me to Glen [Larson] and that's how it came about.
I knew that whole crowd before they even started shooting Battlestar Galactica. But I was not considered to direct that pilot. Richard Colla was hired -- a hell of an experienced film maker -- much more so than I, especially in the pilot field. Then when they decided to make a motion picture out of it, he was a shoe in. He was terrific. But I did know that whole crew before I got involved with Battlestar Galactica.
Okay, you said in an interview that you thought that Leslie Stevens, it was his idea for Battlestar Galactica?
Uhm... No, he was involved with it. I can't say it was his idea. No, I don't think so. There were rumors flying around at that time that Glen [Larson] wanted Leslie [Stevens] to be involved with him on it. From what I understood anyway, Glen [Larson] developed it. He somehow had gotten a hold of -- now this was all rumor at the time -- the Star Wars script that Universal had turned down before [George] Lucas took it over to 20th Century Fox. Supposedly, that script gave Glen the idea to do a television version. People were saying "rip off". I will say version. I think Glen brought Leslie in on it. Because Leslie was a science aficionado, especially in science fiction. Leslie had written books on all kinds of intergalactic and interstellar relationships and theories. So he was perfect to come in with Glen on it.
Okay, I wanted to hear your side about coming on board. I talked to Richard Colla and asked him about what happened with him leaving the show and you coming on board as director, and I'd like to follow it up by asking what you remember. I'm not trying to say that there's any disagreements that happened over thirty years ago. Memories, you know, can sometimes change. But Richard Colla, who said he directed the majority of the pilot of Battlestar Galactica, said that he was asked to leave because Glen Larson started providing more and more input into what was going on. Richard Colla said that he was too vocal in expressing his anger with Glen Larson's decisions, including Richard Colla calling Glen Larson an "ungrateful bastard." What were you told when you were asked to come on board with the pilot?
Well, you know what? I had heard that. Glen called and asked me to come up to his office, then asked me about taking over the pilot. What Glen told me was he was unhappy with the recent footage that Richard [Colla] had shot. He told me he had talked to Richard and Richard, being hired as the director of the pilot - said he was unwilling to do it Glen's way. From Richard's point of view, [he] was hired to direct the show as he saw fit from the script. And of course, any director is under the hand of a producer. And so whatever stamp of individuality you put on it, should also satisfy the producer. Glen was dissatisfied. I didn't get into any particulars. I didn't want to know any particulars. But that was what I was told, that Glen said he was very unhappy with the way it was going.
Okay, I read in an interview that you did that you initially turned it down because your family or your parents were coming to visit?
Yes. Yes. He asked me if I would take it over the following week. My folks had never been out to Hollywood. I told him, "You know, I can't do that. My folks are finally coming out here. I've been out here a number of years. I've finally sort of hit the big time as it were." In other words, I was at least an employed director in television (laughs) and doing some fun stuff and at a major studio. I was really very happy. Since I was a kid, I always dreamed about doing what I was doing and I was finally doing it. So my parents were coming out here for the first time. I said, "Glen, I can't take the show over, because I won't see my folks. They're only going to be here for six days." He said, "I'll tell you what. I will give you, for the whole week that they're here, my personal limousine and my driver to be at your disposal and your parent's disposal. My driver will take them everywhere and anywhere. On the weekends, it's yours to use. They will be picked up at the airport." I mean, what he was basically saying was, we'll give your parents the absolute royal, golden treatment. (laughs) If you'll do this, I'll reward you by making their stay more rewarding than they've ever dreamed of. And I couldn't turn that down! I mean, that was a hell of an offer, and I knew my folks would be in seventh heaven
I can imagine. Here you were trying to impress your parents of your work and now you can have a limousine for them to ride around in.
Well, hello. I mean, the marvellous part about it was -- I think the best part about doing the Galactica thing -- that my parents were there during a week of filming. We were in the Viper hangar with three Vipers, sitting down there surrounded by the whole cast and the crew. I had maybe, including all the Viper pilots, probably somewhere between forty and sixty actors on the floor, and I had Richard Hatch and Dirk [Benedict] and everybody climbing into the Vipers and the whole bit.
I was up on a big camera crane. We were planning this huge shot. I mean, we took over the entire stage for this gigantic hangar. I'm up there directing. Lorne Greene was down there he was talking to Richard and Dirk before they got into the Vipers. We set up this big shot. Now I'm up on the crane and the door opens and in walks Glen [Larson] and my parents and the chauffeur. I hadn't seen my parents in a long time and I saw them come in. I took a deep breath (because you don't just stop a rehearsal, much less a big take) and yelled, "All right everybody, take five. Just get me down off this thing." I came down off the crane and everybody was looking at me like what happened? What's wrong? (laughs) I ran over and hugged and kissed my mom and my dad. Lorne Greene walked over and put his hand on my shoulder and he said, "If these are your parents, I've got to meet them. I have never seen a man stop a $200,000 an hour shoot to go over and say hello to his Mom and Dad." (laughs)
And Lorne and my dad didn't stop talking for an entire week! They just sat together on and off the set and they had such a wonderful time. He adored both my folks. Lorne thought my mother was the cutest thing this side of Chicago. That part of the entire Galactica shoot turned out to be unbelievably memorable, and an experience that both I and my parents cherished totally.
That's a great story.
It really is. It really is. It brings tears to my eyes even thirty some odd years later.
I wanted to go back to something else that Richard Colla had said. That when he was asked to leave, he said that were supposedly only four days of shooting left. I read in an interview that you did half the pilot.
So obviously there was more than four days of shooting when you came on board.
Yes. You know, I'm not sure how many there were? But I don't really remember exactly what that was. Today, when I was thinking of it as I was driving home - there must have been much more than four. Because I can remember six or seven days that had never been touched, and then the interior of the Galactica had not been shot at all. So I had all that to do. I thought there was much more than that. Now what did happen, and this is factual, is that Richard shot for twenty seven days. I shot original scenes and then retakes on scenes that Glen [Larson] wanted reshot, for twenty five days. So Richard actually shot a little bit more than fifty percent of the time. But I think that he had somewhere around sixty five percent of the footage and I had about thirty five percent of the final footage. For that thirty five percent of the footage was also those retakes that Glen wanted done.
Okay. Unfortunately, you were uncredited as director on the pilot?
Did that bother you?
Oh, it made enemies out of Glen [Larson] and I. No question about it.
It made enemies out of you and Glen [Larson]?
Oh, yeah. When Glen Larson first asked me to do it and I said no I couldn't, and then my parent's situation came up, he gave me that offer, which was terrific -- very nice. I said, "Okay, there's only one other thing that I want from you. I want your promise that you will go before the Director's Guild, if I'm going to shoot and re-shoot all the scenes that you have showed me." Before we had this part of the conversation, he had showed me a bunch of scenes that he wanted re-shot and I knew that I was going to be on it at least two to three weeks. I said, "I want your promise, you will go before the Director's Guild and petition them for dual credit -- directed by Richard Colla and Alan J. Levi." And he said, "You got it. I promise." And then he went back on his word.
But it did go to arbitration? You did send it to arbitration?
Oh, yes I took it to arbitration and Glen refused to come in. He refused to show up and testify as to how much of the footage I had shot. I took in all the documentation I could. It didn't -- it didn't -- he betrayed me, is what it was. It was a simple betrayal. What had happened was, toward the very end of the shoot, I had shot let's say twenty five days and Richard had shot twenty seven. The powers at Universal, the executives at Universal, were getting a little bit tired of the reshoots. The budget had gone from -- I think Richard said his original budget was $9 million dollars -- it had now gone to $13 million. So there was almost a forty percent overrun.
The powers were getting very angry at Glen [Larson] because he just kept re-shooting. So Glen still had about, I don't know, four or five days of re--shoots to do. And Universal wanted me to do a mini-series called The Immigrants. So finally they pulled me off of Galactica -- I was under contract, so they could do that. They pulled me off and said, "Okay, Glen find somebody else to do any other re-shoots that you want, but we're pulling Alan off because we want him to do this other movie and he's got to start right away." That led to Glen accusing me of leaving him. Of -- what's the word I'm looking for -- betraying him and walking off the show. But I did not walk off the show, I was taken off by Universal. All he said to me was, "Bullshit." That was that. So he held that against me the whole time and when I went to arbitration, he just refused to show up and testify as he'd promised.
Yeah, I was really hurt by it. But, what happened was because of what had happened on the pilot credits, the other people who had come onto the show, John Dykstra and George Santoro and everybody else, really wanted me to direct the second movie. I think that was negotiated -- if I'm not mistaken the second movie was negotiated -- during the re-shoot of the pilot as a gift of some sort to me. Some sort of payback for taking over the pilot. I'm not 100% sure. That's what is in my memory and for some reason Glen could not cancel that. He couldn't fire me off of that. So that's why I got to do the "The Gun on Ice Planet Zero" -- the first two hour episode after the pilot.
What was it working with Glen Larson at that time, did he provide input into what he wanted during "The Gun on Ice Planet Zero"?
Oh, sure. Oh, absolutely. I mean, here's the thing. Arbitration didn't come up until after "The Gun on Ice Planet Zero". So there wasn't quite the animosity there that existed after the arbitration. So it was fine. But yeah, I mean every producer has a vision of what he sees in a show. It's up to a director, in my estimation anyway, to satisfy the producer's vision as well as his own. That's why he hired me. But also, surely, to put my own vision on it, my own stamp of individuality and creativity.
Okay, I guess my question was as a producer did he try to put any more of his opinions into it than any other producer, or was it just the normal course of a day's work?
Well, I think Glen Larson possibly got a little bit paranoid toward the end of Colla's shoot -- Glen's a funny guy -- and I think Glen always wants the credit for things. I think Richard Colla was probably, you know, perhaps being a little too stubborn and shooting it exactly the way he (Richard) wanted it and not taking any guff from the producers. I don't work in the same way. Any input that Glen wanted to make to please him, I took it and I responded to it, and then I put my own stamp on it. Whether he did it any more than anybody else? No, I don't think so. Sometimes it's the way somebody says something. You know what I mean?
Two producers can tell you almost the same thing in two different ways. One you will accept happily and the other one you will get kind of ruffled on the back of your neck. That's basically what it was. I didn't mind Glen's input at all. But don't forget that at that time Richard Colla was a much more experienced director than I was. He had a reputation of making successful pilots and being in the business for a long time. He was getting to do features if I remember correctly. So he was coming from a different place than I was. I was just basically getting my feet cemented into the successful arena. So I was not quite as independent, shall we say? (laughs) That make sense?
Yeah, it does. It does. So because of the problems with arbitration and Glen thought that you had abandoned him and you thought that he had abandoned you, you weren't going to be directing any of the other episodes of [Battlestar] Galactica?
Well, you know what, I wanted to move on also. I had done half the pilot. Then I had directed the mini-series The Immigrants, then the two-hour Galactica episode and I just wanted to move on to other things. In the year after that, I directed the mini-series Scruples. - I did the original Scruples with Lindsay Wagner over at Warner Bros. There was no thought of me continuing with Battlestar Galactica. That's all I can say. By that time I'm sure it was mutual.
You got to work with Enzo Martinelli?
With Enzo? Oh my God yes. I was the one who brought Enzo on the show.
You said it was important to bring him on as the director of photography?
Oh absolutely. Bennie [Colman] (The Galactica pilot/Movie DP) moved on to other shows. I think Bennie did the pilot to Flash Gordon -- if I remember correctly. Now I had worked with Enzo Martinelli since I came to Universal in '75 on The Invisible Man. Then we all moved over to Bionic Woman when The Invisible Man went off. He did The Invisible Man with me, he did Gemini Man with me. We did Bionic Woman together. He and I had the just most marvellous relationship. It was just terrific. When we did -- when I had the second movie, I think it was Glen who said to me: "Do you have any idea who could shoot the hell out of this second movie?" and I said: "Absolutely. There's this one guy that I think you will fall in love with. I've worked with him for a long, long time: Enzo Martinelli." He said: "I know Enzo. You've worked with him?" and I said: "Yes. I've done 35-40 pictures with him." He came on and we just had the same wonderful time. He was a true genius with his lighting and technical knowledge.
Bennie Colman was terrific -- a different kind of person. One thing about the original Galactica that I've never equalled since -- and I don't mean to put anybody else down for it, because that's not the way I'm saying it -- Doug Knapp my operator -- was the operator on the pilot of Battlestar Galactica. I been a director/cameraman (film-maker) for most of my adult life and I loved working with cameramen and operators, because I set up some interesting and difficult shots. Doug Knapp is probably the most incredible operator I've ever worked with in my life. He was sensational and we're still friends. We see each other all the time. No matter what I designed or asked him to do, he did it. And improved upon it. But Doug couldn't come over to do the second movie with me. So Enzo's son -- who was also an operator beyond terrific (he eventually became a talented DP himself) came over with Enzo and we have worked together on that show. Enzo was not just a beautiful guy, but with his technical wizardry could do anything. Enzo came all the way from the silent film era and he could do special effects within the camera that people knew nothing about. The younger DP's knew nothing about it at all. He was a genius. He was just marvellous.
Okay. Let me ask you about "The Gun on Ice Planet Zero". You said you got to meet and work with Don Bellisario?
Don and I had known each other, but I don't think I worked with him on that particular show, that I can remember. I think he came on as one of the producers/writers. He didn't write "The Gun on Ice Planet Zero". At least I don't remember that he did.
No I don't think so.
We'd known each other then. That's where we got acquainted with each other. We didn't become friends until Magnum PI. That's when we really became good friends as we are today. I have directed 71 pictures for Don, more than anybody else for him.
You have said in another interview that if you directed Don's scripts, you knew you wouldn't have a problem with them.
I knew I would not have a problem with them? Oh absolutely.
Why is that?
He's just one of the most amazing writers, most prolific and exciting writer I've ever had the pleasure of working with. He's brilliant. I've never known anybody who writes like Don does. Most writers sit down and they outline a script -- they've got an idea in their mind and they outline: this is Act 1, this is Act 2, Act 3, Act 4 and so on -- how characters change, how the story changes. Don has an idea in the back of his head -- he can say: "I got an idea about green leaves falling from the sky." and I would say: "What are you talking about?" He'd say: "I don't know yet." Then two or three days later he might call me and say: "You want to read Act 1?" Of course I would. I would read the first act and I would ask (every time): "Holy cow! What happens next, Don?" and he'd frown at me and reply "I don't know. That's not how I usually do it. I write and it just flows." You would read Act 1 and you would read Act 2 and it would be a perfect flow. You would get a perfect 30 minute Act break and you would get a cliffhanger and again you go: "What happens?" and he'd say: "I haven't figured it out yet." But he would -- every time, and it would be as perfect. So there's no way in the world that he knows what he's doing until the time he meshes that entire script together, it flows so well.
It's amazing. It's always been a pleasure. Sometimes difficult, because he's very demanding. He's the most demanding producer I have ever worked for, but he knows what he wants. He's a great writer and it works. And if I felt something might not work I would always go down to Don and say: "This thing doesn't work for me because of such and such." and he'd go: "Yeah, you've got a point there." The next morning you'd get new pages and it would work perfectly. Amazing guy.
Can you tell us what it was like to direct Lorne Greene?
Lorne was a father figure. He was terrific, he was such a nice guy -- a nice human being. He was really a father figure to everybody in that cast, including Terry Carter. He was grandpa. Everybody loved him. He was supportive of everybody, especially the young kids. If they had a problem -- not directorial -- if they had a problem with anything they could sit down with Lorne and talk about it. Marvellous. Lorne and I became friends and we saw each other after the show -- after the show had been cancelled. I spent some time with him no more than two months before he passed away. Terrific guy.
Okay. You mentioned Terry Carter.
Terry and I had a great time together. The most marvellous thing about Terry is that he's got the greatest sense of humor. Nothing disturbs and nothing can go wrong. In the middle of the scene when he trips over a wire that he did not see he just goes into wild laughter. Everyone would have a good time and we'd just do it over again. He was delightful to work with.
Well, it's hard to separate Richard and Dirk [Benedict]. They were joined at the hip. (laughing) They were squabbling brothers. They were always combative between themselves. If I remember correctly, if you gave one of them a close-up during a scene and you didn't give the other one a close-up during a scene, you heard about it: "You gave Richard a close-up and you didn't give me a close-up." but it was all done in good spirit. They were very hard workers and they enjoyed it -- they really enjoyed it. They really got into that science fiction thing a lot, along with everybody, but the two of them were comically combative.
Herbert Jefferson Jr.
Herb was kind of a young pro. He had a bit more experience than the rest of the young people. He was fine. I've worked with him several times since the show was over. I heard him say he didn't think he was doing a good job, but he was fine. I think he always wanted to do more than he did, but I don't know any actors who don't.
Well, it was hard to know Noah terribly well because he was so young and when he wasn't on stage, he was rehearsing or studying in school. But he would hang around and he was very interested in the art of filmmaking. He's talked to everybody and he got to know what the camera was. He gained a pretty good sense -- for such a young chap -- on where the camera was all the time. How to just go for it. I saw Noah after he'd grown up and he'd become a filmmaker. He's made some films and done some stuff. He was quite a lovely guy. I remember his mom. His mom used to bring homemade cookies to set all the time. I think that was Noah's finest hour. He was a cute kid.
Can I ask you some questions about "The Gun on Ice Planet Zero"? You had to get air conditioners because the parka's?
Yeah, that was a funny story. We started filming. The entire cast (who were on another planet) had to wear heavy parkas and breathing masks on this unfriendly and snowy terrain. Almost immediately I went to the studio's production manager. I called and said "Earl, we need to get two air conditioners on this stage. We have got to get that temperature down on stage to about 55 degrees." It was Earl Bellamy jr., Earl and I were good pals. "I don't know about two air conditioners, but I will have an air conditioner on set for you on Monday." We started shooting and by four or five that afternoon, we'd only completed about half of what we wanted, because every time we rolled the camera the sweat would just pour off every actor. So I called Earl and asked "Can you just come down?" He said: "Do you have a problem?" and I said: "You might say so. Can you please come down?" He came down and the next morning we had at least two air conditioners on that set. He saw the problem. Not only were the parkas hot, but all the actors were wearing those intergalactic masks and they would steam up like you wouldn't believe. You couldn't see through the masks anymore -- they couldn't see out and you couldn't see in. Finally, when the temperature finally dropped to what was comfortable to the actors, the crew began wearing heavy jackets like everybody else. But it worked. It worked with the actors for at least five or ten minutes of film before they became sweat soaked. And because the snow was constantly falling -- (a sort-of white plastic cornflakes) -- when a person was perspiring and the snow is falling it would start sticking to them, like little tiny Band-Aids. So everyone would look a little funny after a while.
How did you find all the doubles to play Denny Miller?
I think extra casting just did that or maybe casting did. I'm trying to remember exactly what it was -- how that happened. We only used the doubles to shoot over shoulder shots. We had a bunch of guys who resembled him to a certain degree -- his body structure. We gave them matching haircuts, we dyed their hair to his color. It wasn't terribly difficult. It's done all the time. Denny is a pretty big guy. He's probably like 6'4" or 6'5", I would think and he weighed a good 250-260 [pounds] and he was in good shape. I don't remember exactly who did it, but it wasn't difficult. He had at least two of them on stage. One of them, I think, was his stand-in and the other was a body double.
Okay. What did you think of the models and miniatures for the show?
I thought they were extraordinary -- absolutely extraordinary. This was the first time (the pilot) television had ever seen something like that. I mean the Vipers and the battlestar Galactica itself and all the other miniatures that were used. And this was all John Dykstra's doing. John was truly an expert in the field. John and I are still friends, I just saw him last month. I have the utmost respect for him. We had a lot of fun, because he -- me having an engineering background and visual background and he having an engineering, graphic and visual background -- when we communicated we had immediate understanding. We were both pilots. We would sit and talk about our piloting experiences -- flying airplanes and happily landing without crashing. We had a really good time on it. Most -- a lot if not most -- of the special effects were already in the works or very well in the works by the time I got on to the original show -- that part I did for the pilot. I didn't have a lot to do with that. Most of it was all on the drawing boards and they just constructed it and so on.
On "The Gun on Ice Planet Zero" I did have some input on that. John really directed that. I had very little of anything to do with the photography of the miniatures. Richard Edlund and John really did those. It was a totally separate unit. We coordinated between us, so I knew which direction we were going, which way our actors had to look, etc. John had storyboards on the miniature shooting sketched out so we could get together and revise them. If I said: "Can we do this?", he said: "Sure." It was a great collaboration, but that was John's expertise and I was no way that I could ever equal that.
There was some filming of snowy landscapes, some mountains to show the roughness of the ice planet. Do you know where that was filmed?
That was all stock footage. I think we got some from... Oh shoot, what was that big Cinemascope film that was done in the Arctic...anyway, it was all stock footage. We bought the footage. In fact I think we bought some from Warner Bros. and some from 20th Century Fox.
This was the first episode we saw a gold Cylon. Do you know what brought that about?
If I remember correctly, the gold Cylon was sort of the queen bee. I think he was one of the Cylon commanders, was he not? I can't remember.
Yes, you are right.
I think this was probably Leslie [Stevens] and Glen [Larson]'s input to make him like a queen bee or a king or whatever you want to call it. And also because you could tell them apart immediately, who the other Cylons were protecting, who was in charge. Otherwise you couldn't tell one Cylon from another.
Was it difficult shooting with the shining surfaces on the Cylons?
Not really. Very few of the surfaces were not curved. The only time you would get into trouble with mirrored things is when there's a flat surface. Then that becomes a direct mirror. Now this was a curved mirror. You never got close enough to them with the camera to see the camera. One thing that it did do was that you could see every light or at least the source of the light that was hitting it where ever it was, but we used that to our advantage. It just made them sparkle more. The DPs would use star filters so it gave this a bigger than life effect. So lights that we saw in them, we never tried to hide those. Both Bennie and Enzo made use of that. It made them look more sinister. We never -- we hardly ever had a camera problem. Sometimes we'd have to be really careful what was in the back of us. If there were lights in the back of us - part of the stage was lit in the back of us or whatever. We had to make sure we had a big black curtain or gobo up in front of it to make sure it was black -- that you didn't see anything.
What I ask you about Battlestar Galactica which scene first comes to your mind?
It is probably the first scene that I shot. The first scene I shot was a night scene, all night long - the first night I took over the pilot. The reason I remember it so well was probably three fold. For one I was the new kid on the block. I had come in to replace a director that had shot for more than four weeks. Everybody knew him and worked with him and as far as I knew liked him a lot. I had to walk in there and prove to them as well as to myself that I wasn't going to be like a second unit director or a second class director. I was there to make a statement, I was there to make it work. So I had a huge job to do that night. To gather everybody around in a cohesive unit and do what we had to do.
That was one aspect of it. The other couple aspects were: it was a big scene. If you remember the pilot, they were in the gambling casino and the Cylons invaded. They were having a meeting upstairs and also in the gambling hall on the floor -- if I remember correctly -- when the Cylons broke in, there was this mass exodus out through this cave into the streets where people scattered and where tanks arrived with our heroes on them to rescue the pursued and to defend against the aggressive Cylons. It was a huge night scene that was shot outside of Stage 25 at Universal. Having to shoot that big a scene and knowing that everybody was going to look at the dailies the next morning -- and knowing that possibly everyone in that screening room would decide whether or not I would continue on the show after seeing the footage I delivered from the night before, was a little unnerving. Then, of course, just getting the job done, it was a big job, making sure I and the crew would work together in a successful partnership. And fun -- you have to enjoy yourself with what you're doing and we did get along famously getting it done. Also, in the (Executive) Tower the next day, they had to justify that all that could be solved by bringing on a new director for X amount of dollars over from what they had to pay to Richard [Colla]. And the shooting schedule had to go on. Does that answer your question?
Absolutely. What do you remember about the sets? Were there any accidents or fires or sets falling apart?
Not really -- are we talking about the pilot or...?
They were different sets and problems. The first one there were big problems because there were lots of sets and scenes that Glen was not happy with. So he had sets rebuilt and he had scenes reshot. If there were six, nine or ten days shooting left, supposedly when I took over and I shot for 25 [days], there was another 2 or 2 1/2 weeks of shooting. So you gather much of that was because of reshooting scenes that Glen for whatever reason wanted to reshoot.
On "The Gun on Ice Planet Zero" we had very few problems except for the snow -- making the place cold and making the snow come down properly. We all had to wear masks because the snow was plastic you don't want to inhale that stuff. That was the most memorable difficulty that we had. I mean, the entire crew had to wear masks and goggles and a parka to keep themselves warm and deal with all the elements we had to bring into that along with our actors. We had Cylons in the snow. We had all of our main people in the snow. We had to make sure that they were comfortable and could work in it the entire time. It was kind of a major undertaking for a television show at the time.
I wanted to ask you about your directing style. Did you take a lot of different shots with different angles? Did you do a lot of different takes with the actors, trying things different ways?
Not trying things in different ways, no. In television -- in motion pictures you have the luxury of trying things; to try a scene this way, to try a scene that way, or try something different from what the script says to see how it works -- but in television you've got such a rigorous budget and time frame that you really can't do that. You've got to map it out. My style of directing is that I spend about an hour on the set for every three hours I shoot, with nobody on the set at all. On the weekends, at nights, whenever. I walk every scene, every actor, I draw, I plan exactly what my camera is going to do and what coverage I'm going to need.
Now that's not locked in stone, that's just my first pass of how I'm thinking how I may desire to shoot it. If I have a suggestion for an actor to move from here to there and he says: "That's not comfortable for me, but can I do this instead." I can say: "Yeah sure, try it, see what happens." If it works for him and it works for me then I will have to alter my original plan which is easy to do because it's just a plan. But I would say in television that for the most part most directors (and for that matter, actors as well) have a pretty good idea what they want when they get to the set. For directors - how they want that scene to appear, what coverage they want. They might want a couple of medium shots, a couple of close ups, the couple over shoulders, a low angle or a high angle, a SteadiCam shot, et al. They plan it to a certain degree, but sometimes you have to throw all these plans away if you get behind. If you get ahead sometimes you say: "You know what? That might be interesting. Let's try a shot here." Once you get the scene together with all the actors, the cameraman and his technicians, then you pretty well -- you go from there.
Sometimes the DP will say: "You know what? What if we did this." and I will be the first to admit: "That's a fantastic idea." Because he's sitting there watching and he has his own ideas. Most of the DP's are extremely creative photographically. A lot of them are directors as well today, so it's a combination of both. The fun of it is working together and creating something. My style of directing is that I do a huge amount of homework. You will at least have to give me a head start on it. I'm not intractable. I do big changes all the time, depending on how everything works.
In the later episodes the show was completely rushed and a lot of people involved with it felt that the quality wasn't as good. They were taking the dailies on Friday and used them as promos on Sunday. Did you suffer from any of that on "The Gun on Ice Planet Zero"?
Not really. "Ice Planet Zero" was the first two-hour movie after the pilot. I don't remember what the budget was at that time, but I mean we had to stick to the budget. I don't remember that we got -- I guess the word is -- "cheated" that fast. As a series goes along, usually in your first four or five episodes, you spend more money than what you want the series to really cost you for a number of reasons. You want the best quality when the audience starts watching. You shoot longer or hire better people so you have star value and quality value so that you gain an audience. Once that happens, many shows start to try to regain the money overages that they spend at the beginning of the series. You've got to save that money later on. I suspect that down the line the studio was trying to save or regain some money and that's always difficult on both a line producer and a director. If your budget is a buck and a half and somebody says you got to do same thing but you only have a buck, that's the challenge.
Did you have any communication with the writers?
Certainly not on the pilot. I'm sure I did on "The Gun on Ice Planet Zero". By communication I guess you're referring if I had any comments on scenes, on the script or on the relationships between characters?
I probably did. I don't remember, but I would say that I always do so my recollection is that I probably did. The thing is when you give a script to five different people you're going to get five different reactions. Usually some people love it, some people hate it, some have trouble with this scene and so on. So, I as a director always look upon it from a storyteller's point of view. I will talk to writers on any show and say: "Let's sit down and talk about this scene or this character or this relationship." We then talk about it and from that viewpoint I either get an education about what they are intending and they have a chance to see what I'm talking about and if it's going to be a problem. I'd say most of the time it turns out to be a very positive experience.
Okay. Were you involved in editing your work?
No question about it. On both shows. I think Richard [Colla] had gone in while he was shooting the show and had done some editorial work on it. I‘m not 100% sure, but I thought I remembered that he did. When I took over the show I told Glen [Larson] that from my standpoint I did not want to go in and edit Richard's scenes. I said I wanted Richard to do it. I think he said that that was his obligation to do so. I never talked to Richard about it. I definitely edited all my scenes and when I put together the entire pilot I went back and made suggestions, and made changes at the end on the overall pilot whether I shot it or hadn't shot it -- that portion of it -- and made my corrections or my cut of the entire show. Of course Glen then took over from Richard and I and then made the final cut of the entire show.
On "The Gun on Ice Planet Zero" I cut the whole picture. Particularly on shows on television you never make the final version. There's always someone (of the producers) that comes in and does their thing on whatever you've done, but yes, I cut it. It took weeks.
Was there anything that you particularly disliked about shooting Battlestar Galactica?
(pondering the question) No. There was nothing that I disliked about it. It was all a positive experience. I loved the people. I had a terrific crew. The relationship between everybody on the crew was marvellous. If I really needed something, somebody made it work. Whether it was the line producer, Leslie Stevens or George Santoro or even Glen [Larson] at that particular time in our relationship. If it was really important somehow they managed to give me what I needed to make the picture. Both of them, the take-over on the pilot and the show I did, were extremely positive. And I was working with so many friends by that time. The cast were all friends of mine from the pilot and also some of the new ones that we cast on that show and I was working with. The majority of the crew were people that I have worked with for years at Universal before I brought them onto that show.
You went on to direct -- it's too numerous to count -- shows like Dr. Quinn, JAG, ER, Navy NCIS, you were producer of Airwolf and Columbo... Is there one show or movie that stands out in your mind, that you want to be remembered for or that you were most proud of?
I think the show I probably enjoyed most was a show that I directed which was called The Immigrants, which was based upon a book and was about an immigrant who came over in the late 1800s and wanted to make good -- it's his story. I love period pictures. That was a miniseries that we shot up here and in Northern California. We also shot up in Oregon. It was just a marvellous, marvellous experience. I just loved the shoot, and more so because it was a period show. I loved it!
I loved doing Scruples with Lindsay [Wagner]. Lindsay and I had done 20 some odd pictures together before that. I think we did 19 episodes together and we'd really become like brother and sister. We were very close and still are. But I actually took over Scruples in similar fashion than the much earlier Battlestar Galactica. The director had shot only three days on Scruples when they replaced him with me. So I had the same challenge going in there but that was a terrific week. High class, high calibre, beautiful show on which Joe Biroc, Academy Award winning DP, was the DP. The two of us had an absolute ball together, as well as the people who were in it. Between those two movies of the week, I'd say that those are probably the two I'm most proud of and in my memory were the most pleasurable to work on. I loved every minute of it.
Series -- there was nothing that could beat Magnum, P.I. Great cast, great crew -- and not a bad location. One of the final shows guest-starred Frank Sinatra, and that show stands out to me to be the most remembered episode of any show I've ever directed. Loved that man a whole bunch. It was an honor. And we had a ball together.
You were producer of Airwolf and Columbo. How was it different being a producer than a director?
Well I produced Airwolf, Columbo, Probe, Voyagers... There's a big difference. A producer is a war room general and a director is a frontline lieutenant. I don't like producing only because I can't be on set doing all the fun. (both laughing) A producer is an overseer. We're talking about an executive producer, since when you go down the line they're all different. An executive producer is an overseer, mostly the writing and the main production. A line producer makes sure that everybody is hired, the crew is hired, the locations, the people and the wardrobe, etc. He has an organizational overview that is extremely important, but then when you actually come to shoot something you really don't have any fun. The director has the fun on set.
The fun to me in making movies is to... My definition of a director is: he's a catalyst. If he catalyses the actors and the cinematography, if he catalyses everybody on set to do their best job and gives them the freedom to do just that, the guidance to do that, the cooperation and coordination to do that, everybody together is going to make one hell of a better picture than when they're all acting like separates. That's the fun of it. To watch my vision take shape through all the people that we've put together in a working organization. That's the fun of it.
I noticed in one of your notes to me you asked if I was the kind of the director who hates to shoot, because the fun of it is in the planning. It's just the opposite for me. I enjoy the planning, but when I go to a set and if I'm on a set for like four or five hours, I plan two or three days of shooting. I'll come home with an excitement about how I figured it out and how I visualized it, but then going on the set itself and making that happen with all your buddies and friends around you, that's the real fun of it. So between producing and directing for me it's hands down that I would rather direct than produce.
Okay. What are you doing these days?
Well, I pulled back from episodic directing, mainly because I've done it for so long, it's fun but I've done that. So recently I've been -- about a year ago I almost had a feature off the ground. I put in about a year or a year and a half of work on it. At the very last moment it had a giant burp and it did not get off the ground. So what's new?! I'm now working on another one and I'm reading scripts as fast as I can. It's difficult, very difficult to find really good scripts today. My agent told me: "You know, there are probably 7,000 scripts circulating in this town right now and the chance of finding one [that's good] is very difficult" for an independent producer like myself. Studios have readers and they read hundreds of scripts, so studios are able to get the good scripts first. Once the studios have turned them down, they start circulating in the independent circuit. It's difficult to find one, but you know what? If I find one, I'll go for it and if I don't find one, I'll still have a good time. Right, having helped Don Bellisario get NCIS going the first year, now I'm going back and direct the new NCIS Los Angeles. A surprise hit show following the original, and a really super bunch of people. It's going to be a ball.
That's great to hear. Do you have anything to say to the fans that you have from Battlestar Galactica or any of your other work?
Well, the only thing I have to say about it was that it was a terrific compliment -- to what we did thirty years ago -- to have David Eick revisit the Galactica basic idea and story. I think David took that idea and really capitalized on it so well. It was a beautiful series. It was a compliment to have an old series renovated like that. It's still very, very popular. I think it was a different kind of a show, but there are still a lot of people out there who remember our characters: Adama and all the wonderful people we had on the show. You know, that was very early, advanced television -- space travel and stuff like that. It was shot a little bit more simply as it's shot today. Today every hour episode of most of the shows on the air are a mini-feature. We weren't doing that. We were doing television and it was pretty good television for that time. We had a good time doing it and I think it was wonderful.
I'm overjoyed that a lot of the shows, like Bionic Woman, Quantum Leap, Dr. Quinn, Magnum PI and others that I had such a happy time on are well remembered by folks who are old enough now to have been around at that time.
The only negative about my whole experience on Battlestar Galactica was the betrayal of Glen [Larson] in not supporting the double credit in directing part of the pilot. That probably will never go out of my mind. That was something I don't like to see happen in our business. You have difficulties, but loyalty is something that you can't buy. Other than that it was a most marvellous experience.
I'm sorry to hear that it turned out that way. I did read you were rewarded with one third of the royalties?
Yes. Royalties of residuals, yes.
I'm sorry. Residuals is what I meant. Alan I appreciate you taking the time for the interview.
Mike, thank you for it. I hope it's of some value. It was a nice interview you did with Richard [Colla]. I've always admired Colla. And I thank you for this interview -- it brought back some terrific memories.
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