|Richard Colla GALACTICA.TV interview|
|Tuesday, 29 April 2008|
Mike Egnor caught up with Battlestar Galactica 1978 pilot director Richard Colla. In the major exclusive for the first time he openly discusses his work on "Saga of a Star World" and talks in great detail about the sets, actors, producers, problems with the budget, why the pilot was released theatrically, use of the word "frack", and much more. He also gives his personal no holds barred opinion of Glen Larson, including the reasoning why he got fired from the pilot.
This is Mike Egnor, and today I'm talking to Richard Colla, who was one of the Directors for the series Battlestar Galactica. Mr. Colla, I want to take the time to thank you for agreeing to do this interview.
Well you're welcome Michael!
I wanted to start back with your roots. Did you start off with wanting to be an actor or director?
Everybody starts as an actor, don't they? Everybody sees that up on stage and their first job is to get up on stage and see if you can do it.
Most of the actors that I've talked to can point back to one specific part of their childhood, or high school, or what have you, where they got a great reaction, they really enjoyed it, and they got "the hook". Did you have this type of experience?
I started in theatre in high school. I'd been involved in it because I really kind of liked it. My family - nobody had really gone to University - and everybody said "you should go and be a doctor", so I would tell everybody I was going to be a doctor. By the time I got into high school, I realized that I really liked theatre, and so I started there and went to Marquette University and realized that I liked the smell of grease paint better than the smell of formaldehyde. I spent four years there with John Walsh, and another couple of years getting my master's degree, and went off to Yale to take my doctorate there. What do you do with a doctorate? You teach, and that's kind of what I thought I was going to do, but I realized that that was not going to be my life, because I thought the politics of education are too difficult. Though I have a background in acting, and I love actors, and I know the process, and because of all my time working as an actor, I have an understanding of the problems of an actor. So as a director, I think I can help them to overcome those problems. I realized I was better, really, as a director than I was as an actor, and I felt I could do really good and fine work as a director, so that's how my decision played.
Ok, I wanted to ask you about that, because IMDb.com lists your first television or film work as the Director in The Virginian. Is this true?
Actually I think the first thing I did before The Virginian, was The Legend of Jesse James (1966) at Fox. A half hour black and white that Don Siegel was producing. That was where I got my D.A.G. card, the first time that I worked on a lot.
Can you tell us how you got to become the director for this?
That's right. That's where I started professionally. I had done shorts and things like that. I didn't know the film, because my background was in theatre, and I came from New Haven, really, to California. I learned film by working in the streets, shooting whatever I could, doing a lot of shorts, and I took them around and used them as calling cards. Finally it was at Fox and The Legend of Jesse James that I was able to get my first directing gig.
Were you nervous at the time?
Director Richard Colla
In 1965 though, you started as an actor in television, in The Young Sinner, and in 1965 in Days of our Lives.
In 1965? Oh, that was Tom Laughlin's picture, wasn't it? He was the director of that?
Well I think that was in the late 50's, actually, back in Milwaukee, before I left Milwaukee and went to Yale. I'm trying to think of the year it was made.
Well they have it listed as 1965, but they're often wrong.
Yeah, that's incorrect.
And then I did start on Day's of Our Lives as an actor. They offered me the job, you know, so...
How was that being in at the beginning of a soap opera, instead of coming into it after it started?
Well it was great! Because there wasn't anything set, you could just come and do [it from scratch]. I had worked with Mac Carey (whose voice appears at the beginning of every episode "Like sands through the hourglass...so are the Days of Our Lives") on a little short that I had made, and he was willing to introduce me to the executive producer of that show. I went out to talk to him and the director, and he kept asking me if I was an actor and I said "No, I'm really a director." He said he would talk to me as a Director if I would come and read for him as an actor, and so I did and he offered me a job.
Is it easier to be an actor or a director?
Neither is easy. Neither is. I certainly couldn't tell which is easier, I couldn't even tell you which is more difficult.
Ok, then which is more rewarding for you?
Even that is so difficult, because they're so different. The craft is so different. Acting is so introspective and so solitude because you're presenting the whole play from one specific and hopefully unique point of view. As a director, you have a point of view of the overall; of all those interacting characters, and their desires, and hopes, and dreams. So it's such a different craft.
Ok. In 1970 you came in contact with Glen Larson and Leslie Stevens for the series McCloud. How did you come in contact with them?
Well, there was a lovely man at Universal at the time who was head of production by the name of George Santoro, and I had been there long enough to do enough work that they began to have some trust in me. The very first pilot that I made was for The Bold Ones: The Lawyers, which had Jimmie Farentino and Burl Ives. That was a NBC World Premiere Movie. NBC had just started making World Premiere Movies. They (Universal) had made an overall deal with NBC to do first run, brand new, two hour movies. They had just made that, as a series deal, just a year before. So I got to do that, and I'd done a couple of pictures with them. When this (McCloud) came up, there really wasn't a script. It was pages, but it wasn't a coherent script. I knew Leslie because when I was in college, I did a play of his called The Bullfight, which I really loved as an actor. I did that play, and when I came to California, I had the opportunity to join the Director's Guild. You have to get three directors to sign your application. So I went to find Leslie [Stevens] because I asked him to sign my application [because] I really appreciated his work. So I knew him, and at the time I don't think I even knew that Glen [Larson] was involved in the project.
It really was pretty much through George Santoro who said "here's something to do", because I was under contract. They would just throw me a script and I'd go off and do it pretty much. But by that time he'd at least ask me if I wanted to do it. I knew that Leslie was doing it, so I said "Sure, it looks like a delightful piece." and I had met Dennis [Weaver] earlier, and I liked Dennis. He was such a nice man. So Leslie and I went off to New York to get something together that we could make a movie out of. I would go with the location people, go out into the city, and began to look for locations, and places to put scenes. I would come back and talk to Leslie and I'd say "You know that scene there man, why don't we do this? McCloud goes looking for this girl. Why don't we put her in a photo shoot in a brass bed in the middle of Times Square at night time." And he's say "Oh, good idea", and would start to write things. He was kind of pretty much sitting in his hotel room writing, and I was out looking. If he didn't know where it was, he would just say "McCloud enters the location carrying a groovy prop." And then we'd figure out where to shoot this. So that's really...it was my time with him that we spent putting this thing together. And then we brought a whole company...because that's pretty much what you had to do at that time. To do all the New York stuff, we had to bring the L.A. company.
Ok. McCloud had some experimental cinematography. It had extreme low angles of filming, a lot of wide angle shots, and used a setting sun or sun spots in scenes instead of avoiding them. Did you discuss this in advance with cinematographer Ben Coleman?
I'm trying to remember the first time I met Benny. The thing I talked to Benny the most about is if we could find fast enough lenses, because I kept wanting to shoot it against New York. You can't light New York, so I had to find fast enough lenses to where we could shoot, especially night time. Sometimes there was only one lens around that would photograph at night time and give you an image. The low angles and the wide angles, that was me because Universal would say to me "Don't ever go on location without bringing it back". So I learned early enough that if I'm going to go anywhere, make sure I shoot it.
Ok. Let's move on. How were you approached, or otherwise come into contact with Battlestar Galactica?
Oh, well. Let's see...I don't know. It's quite an interesting story, perhaps. I don't know if anybody's ever asked me, so...I don't remember what I had finished. I just finished a movie and Glen - I didn't know what he was doing - I was never really close to Glen, I never really worked closely with Glen. So whenever I finished whatever picture it was, I went into George Santoro's office, and I would sit down and chat with him. We got to be friends. He was really my mentor. He was a guy who had worked in the crew, and had worked his way up to the tower, into his position, so he really knew how to make movies. He knew the ins and outs, the ABC's of it, the craft of making movies, so I found great insight and great wisdom from this man. I went into his office, and I said "What do you want me to do?" and he said "Well, I've got a couple of scripts, what would you like to do?" I said "I'd like to do a picture on a warm beach with a lot of pretty girls", and he said "Well, you know I've got this pilot with Dennis Weaver to be made in Hawaii." (Pearl 1978) He said "Would you like to do that?", and I said "Well, gee, Dennis and I got along really well, that's kind of a nice idea", and he had this other thing sitting on his desk, and I said "Well, what's that?" He said "Oh, this" and he picked up this fairly thick script, and he said "This is Battlestar Galactica". He said "We're going to get going on this pretty quickly."
Now at that time, did he tell you that it was going to be a television series or a movie?
Oh, he didn't tell me anything. He just said they were going to do this. This was for television. This was not being thought of a theatrical motion picture. This was a television movie. I knew that Johnny Dykstra was attached to work on it, and he said "Would you like to do this?" I said "I don't know, let me read it", so I took it back with me, and I read it, and I came back to George and I said "So George, you're going to make this movie?" And he said "Oh yes, we're going to make this." I said "Boy, this is really ambitious. How much is this movie going to cost?" He said it was going to cost a million eight ($1,800,000). I said "It's going to cost a million eight???" We were making movies for $750,000, you know? He said "Yeah." I said "Wow!" I said "I don't know George, are you sure???" and he said "Well, sure." He said "But, if you want to do it, you've got to let me know because we've got to get started." I said "George, can I have another day?" and he said sure.
So I took the script back to my office, and I read it again, and then I started going around the lot to all the department heads that I knew; to camera, to editorial, the grip guy, etc.. I went to ALL the different departments, and I sat down with everybody, at different times, and I said "So you guys have this script? What's it going to cost in the camera department to do this?" And they would dig out their estimates, and I asked "Can I have a copy?" and they said "sure." So they'd give me a copy of this thing and I took all of these estimates from all the different departments back to my office.
I sat there, and I looked at them all, and I read the material. I added them all up, and I thought "Oh, that's really interesting". So I went back to George's office - he was up on the eighth or ninth floor - and I said "George, what's the budget for this movie again?" He said "It's a million eight. We sold it...Glen [Larson] sold it to ABC for a million eight. That's what we're going to make it for." I said "George, I just spent a couple days going around talking to all the department heads. You can't make this movie for a million eight!" And he said "Sure you can. I've got the budget right here in my drawer", and he opened his bottom drawer, and he pulls out this budget for a million eight. I said "George, I've got the budgets from all the departments. This picture is going to cost you nine million dollars!" He said "No!" He said "No! It's a million eight!" I said "George!" So he called all the guys, all the department heads from all the different departments, and we had a meeting in George's office. George asked "What's this going to cost us to make", and they gave him their budgets, and it was nine million dollars. Well they sold it to ABC for a million eight!
Director Richard Colla on the set of Battlestar Galactica's "Saga of a Star World"
What was George's reaction?
Well he was stunned! He was stunned! What were they going to do??? They'd already made the sale. Glen had sold this thing to ABC for a million eight, and committed the studio to make this thing for a budget that was going to be nine million dollars. And I said "Wow! Goodness!" Now, everybody else left, and George and I sat there with a cup of coffee, and I said "You know I'll help you any way that I can possibly help you here, but how...how...how can we do this?" And he said "I'm going to need a lot of help here." I said "George if I can help you, I will, but this picture can't be made for a million eight, whatever it's going to be made for." And so he got the budgets from a lot of the departments; like the stages and sets. Well how do you build the inside of a starship [and] how do you do the hold of a starship when you haven't any money to build a set? What do you do with the bridge? How do you do all the special effects? How do you do front projections? What stages do you work on? How do we do front projections? Front projection was a fairly new thing at the time. So there was no pre-production on this picture.
By the time we got it cast and started shooting this picture, there was...The studio was not twenty four hours ahead of us in getting things ready. [We] never knew for sure what sets would be ready, or what sets wouldn't be ready. I would turn sometimes, and I'd say "George, you know in another day or so I've got this huge scene to do and there's no sets for it." And he said "Well, have you any ideas?" I said "Well, I tell you what. Let's go over to Stage 12", which was the biggest stage there. "Get me a bunch of the steel shipping containers, the forty foot containers. Let me stack those up, just have them go in there and stack those things up. Let's take the green beds 1.) from up above, on their chains, and just drop them down so that they're like ramps all through this thing." I said "I don't even care what's on the other end. I'll get the other end of the stage", which was their biggest stage, "and I'll start shooting everything on 300 and 600 millimeter lenses to get some sense of size to this thing." Well that's what we do. We pump a little smoke in to confuse things, and give a sense of depth, of scale to these things.
It got to the point where... George and I used to have these wonderful conversations. I'd be out making something, and he'd come down after dailies 2.), and he'd chat with me about it, and I'd say "So how does it look George?" He said "It looks just fine...It looks just fine." I used to kid him about the place just being a factory, and that we were churning out automobiles. I'd say "So, does it look like a Chevrolet, or does it look like a Cadillac?" And he'd say "In this case...In this case I need a Volkswagen." I said "George! I can't give you a Volkswagen here. We both know the only way the studio's going to get out of this is by making a picture that's good enough that you can release it theatrically first. That's the only way you're going to make you're money back."
1.) Green beds are scaffolds (metal pipes) that hang from chains above the set and used to mount movie lights.
So releasing it theatrically was your idea?
Well, I don't know if I'm the only one who had that idea. But certainly with my conversation with George, it was apparent to me that if they hadn't thought of it, they'd better start thinking about it, because that's the only way they were going to make their money back. They were in to this thing at least seven million dollars in deficit, and that's not something Universal [Studios] likes. So we began to work this picture, and I finally had to get a motor home and move onto the lot, because I would never see my sets unless I walked in at 4:30 in the morning. Because that's when they were starting to get ready. They were still usually painting them. They were often wet when we went to work. So it was very difficult...very difficult!
My goal always was to keep the pressure off of the actors. Not let them feel any pressure from anybody. If people from the tower came down, I would grab them and pull them aside. I would not stand in back and whisper back and forth with them, because every actor on the set knew that we were talking about them. And that would make it so difficult for them to work. So I would just tell these guys that "I can't talk to you here. I'll talk to you later, whatever it is, but not in front of the actors." So it was each day, trying to get the day's work done, and some days it was that we couldn't do that days work, we had to do something else. It was very flexible, and it had to be for us to keep any kind of a schedule, because with them so far over budget to begin with, I had to at least keep a schedule for them. And that's pretty much what I did, was to keep the schedule, and try to make them a movie that they could release theatrically without it looking like a Volkswagen.
Let me ask you this. Did you have any input from Glen Larson during this time?
In the early period? Well, Glen was involved in getting the Cylon costumes together. He had never figured out how the Hell we were going to shoot it, but he liked the costumes.
You're talking about the shiny surfaces that reflected the cameras and lights?
Yeah, that was a bit of a problem.
How did you work around that?
We just did. You've got to position those guys and the camera at such an angle that you don't see yourself smiling at yourself. But, through the beginning of it, nobody had any answers of how this thing was going to get made. I greatly appreciated Johnny Dykstra. John's problems were so great, that very often we'd have to figure out what was going to happen in the miniatures. What was going to happen in live action? How that was going to be put together? Where we were going to blue or green screen these things? Where the mechanicals, and where the pyrotechnics had to happen on the live action set, and how that was going to integrate with the miniature work. Very often we would have to go to a location and say "All right, we will shoot this particular scene, from this specific spot, with this specific lens" and we would indeed drive a nail into the ground so that that's exactly the place that we would come back to when we shot it with the 35 or 28 millimeter lens. So that John could keep on working, and his shop could keep on working, and we could keep on shooting.
Ok. You were talking about Glen [Larson] and the Cylons. Was there any other input that you got from him?
Oh, not in the beginning. There wasn't a lot he could give anybody because there wasn't an answer. The only answer was for everybody to go to work and do it. So there wasn't much time for kibitzing. It wasn't until ABC and Universal realized that we actually had a movie, and that it was going to work, and that it would be possible to mount this as a theatrical picture, and maybe recoup their money that Glen [Larson] became more involved.
You worked with Terry Carter before that on McCloud. Did you talk to him during Battlestar Galactica when you saw him?
Sure. I talked to all the actors. Part of my joy is talking to actors.
I've recently interviewed your college friend Jim Peck who was one of the commentators on the destruction of Caprica. He told me that he showed up, was taken to a trailer and given pages of dialogue with a short time to learn them, which completely surprised him. How did you get him involved in it?
Well...(thinks for a few seconds) It's always best to use somebody who knows how to do whatever it is that is being required of the character, if that is something that is a special skill. I needed somebody to be a broadcaster. Jimmy knew how to do that.
He had done some game shows.
He did. So he knew how to stand up there, and grab a microphone, and talk. The reason that he got pages and pages [of dialogue] is that I realized that I was going to need stuff to fill. I didn't know how long it was, I didn't know how much we would need. It was to be integrated over action, a lot of it. So I just said to Leslie [Stevens] "We're going to need stuff in here, stuff for people to say." So pages would come in, and I'd grab these pages, and I gave them to Jimmy, and I said "Here. Learn this. Here's something for you to do." I never minded if he got it exactly right or wasn't exactly right. That wasn't the purpose of it. It really was the invasion of the planet by a foreign enemy and the excitement that would engender in whoever it was that was broadcasting that.
Were there other people that you chose specifically for different parts?
I don't remember now. You know, it was 28 years ago. But anytime I'm faced with a situation that the character needs to know how to do something, I will try to find somebody who knows how to do that besides actors. If you saw today's Trades, today's Variety, there's a show in New York that just opened called Ring of Fire. Have you heard of it?
I have not.
The Ring of Fire is a musical about Johnny Cash (www.ringoffirethemusical.com). They've just opened. It's really delightful here, because the last line of this thing, talking about the musicians [says] "and Drummer Ron Krasinski, who smacks a mean percussion rhythm out of a metal chair and a tin bucket in ‘Folsom Prison Blues.'" Ronnie Krasinski is a drummer. Ronnie Krasinski is a drummer that a couple years ago I was doing a picture (Blue Valley Songbird) with Dolly Parton in Nashville. We were laying down tracks before we started the shoot, for playback, and Ronnie was the drummer for the session. I got to talking to him, and one of the characters in the story was a drummer. Well how do you find an actor who can learn how to drum? You're not going to find an actor who can - not on a television schedule - learn to drum. So I said to Dolly "What do you think of Ronnie here? Wouldn't he make a good person for this character?" And she said "Yeah, we should hire him." So I did, because you can't teach an actor to drum, or play a guitar, or be a news announcer, a standup, not on a television schedule. So it's always good to get people who know how to do it to do it, if they can act. And Jimmy could give me what I needed in that part better than any other actor that I could get a hold of at that moment.
Director Richard Colla on the set of Battlestar Galactica's "Saga of a Star World"
You had mentioned Leslie Stevens. What was it like to work with him?
Well...(ponders the question) You know, it all depends. I really loved Leslie as a writer. He was an extraordinary poetic writer. I suppose he is one of these idols with feet of clay for me, because finally I realized that it wasn't about what we were doing. I grew up in art school. I learned theatre as an art. I never learned motion pictures as a business. The only way I learned anything about the business was sitting down and having coffee with George Santoro who used to fill me in about what's important from a studio's point of view. I never understood that, you know? I thought what we were shooting was what was really important. I thought making the movie was important. Well that wasn't what was important! It was the tours. The tours is the biggest money making thing that Universal had. For us the tours was something that got in the way when we were shooting The Virginian in the back lot. So I found finally that Leslie - and he admitted it - would shift-shape. He would simply become whatever anybody needed of him at the time. And there were times on this picture - which was the last time we worked together - which was so difficult to do, that I needed help, and sometimes when I would turn to somebody for help, it wouldn't really be there, because it meant sticking your neck out. You couldn't do this without sticking your neck out.
Ok. If I could, I'd like to go through a list of the actors, and see if you have any memories, or reactions of working with them?
Oh let me just cover them all by saying "I love actors!" I do, I do. My job is to make them comfortable so that they can do the very best job they can do, and to give them the freedom and encouragement so that they could do those kinds of instinctual...what would you call it...Many times actors have feelings, and they want to express them in a certain way, and there's always a self monitoring going on, saying "Oh I better not do that, they won't like it. Oh it'll look terrible in the dailies. Oh I better not do that." So they kind of squash themselves down, and limit their own performance, and I just want to encourage everybody to try anything they want to try, anything that feels good. You know, hit the mark for the camera folks, but within the scene, you're really free to express that character any way you want to. Surprise me. If you don't surprise me, you're not going to surprise an audience.
Ok. But surely it was something to be able to work with actors like Lorne Greene?
The "Dean". Absolutely. That's one of the wonderful things at Universal, you know, at that time, because MCA understood that there was going to be some value in television. And they kept making deals with movie actors who were no longer making movies. So I got to work with the Broderick Crawfords, and all the different actors that they brought in at the time, and it was wonderful. Ray Milland. I mean, who gets a chance to work with Ray Milland?
Can you remember anything specific about working with him?
Well I kidded him at one point about keeping a pint in a light fixture in the ceiling.
What about Wilfred Hyde-White?
Well...See all these great guys, you know? It's just wonderful to be able to talk to them about their lives, let alone the parts that they were doing.
Did you feel intimidated?
I never felt intimidated by these guys. They were just such real people.
What did you think about the models and the miniatures for the show that John Dykstra did?
Ah. They were great!
Did you collaborate with him at all about what they needed to look like, or did you just give him free reign?
No I didn't. He didn't have time for anybody to collaborate with him. (laughing) His task was so great to try to do this within the time constraints, because even though that everybody understood that we were going to end up releasing this as a theatrical picture, we were still forced to make it as a television show.
Did you have any part in directing those scenes? Or was that given to an assistant director?
No, that was all kind of laid out. No, I certainly would sit with John and all of that stuff was story board, so we knew all the pieces. We knew where the wide shots were, what the close ups were, and where the actors cut into that stuff; in the cockpit of the vipers, or on the bridge of the battlestar. All of that was choreographed, so we all knew who's on first. But we didn't have a lot of time to think about it, or second guess, and Johnny was really good at this. So unless I had a story point, and I don't ever remember talking to him about a story point that needed to be altered or he had to alter something because of the story point.
When I mention Battlestar Galactica to you, is there a particular scene that stands out in your mind?
When you say "Is there a particular scene" it's like watching the edge of one of those little flip books. A hundred and twenty stills go through [my head], so it wasn't the individual pieces, it really was the overall...
It was the experience?
It really was.
Ok. You talked before about putting sets up in a hurry. Were there any accidents, like fires, or the sets falling apart or collapsing?
Well there was the day that we set fire to the Phantom Stage. Stage 27, the old Phantom of the Opera Set. Some of the pyrotechnics got a little bit exuberant, and we all had to get out of there. The firemen came in and put the fire out.
How much rebuilding had to be done?
It was hard to know, because so much of the real set had been covered by older stuff, so it was the real set that was the jewel. It wasn't terrible.
Do you remember what particular scene you were filming at the time?
Oh I think it was in the catacombs of the ant creatures.
fire on the set of Battlestar Galactica's "Saga of a Star World"
On Carillon. What do you remember about the number of takes that you would make for a particular scene? Some directors like to experiment with a lot of different angles so they can figure out later which one is right for the cut. Is this your style?
Well...no, we didn't do it that way. We didn't have time for a lot of takes. We did it very efficiently, very quickly, and we knew pretty much what we were going to shoot, and what the coverage was, and what I needed to have to get to the editor, and really did not have the luxury of being able to shoot things from a lot of different angles. Just to get a second camera was like pulling teeth.
Because of the budget?
And it wasn't done. It's so strange. When motion pictures began, and guys were shooting these things in the east and came out here because of the weather, everybody would load up on a morning and they would go out to do a one reeler. They'd carry two cameras! They shot two cameras! But as soon as things got on the studio lot, and the studio lots gave the motion picture companies control over their costs because their crews weren't out there running around on Hollywood Boulevard. Now they were on the lot. But what happened, and what's so interesting about it is, in doing that they created the wall around the playground, and they could therefore control what went on in the playground inside. But with the unions, the unions would create rules about how you could play inside that playground, and because you're stuck inside that playground, because of the size and the weight of the equipment, and the cameras, and the sound, and how much lighting you need to do to get a good exposure...All of that got so heavy and so unwieldy, you could never escape. You could never get out again.
So it became, certainly for television, one camera is all you got because otherwise you'd have to have another crew, and that would add costs. So what started out as being "Let's stay inside here and control the playground" [changed dramatically]. The studios finally found that they were captive of the unions inside their own studios, because there were times in the early days when...Do you remember a guy by the name of Fouad Said? Did you ever hear that name?
Fouad Said put together a little thing called the Cinemobile. He was the production entity for a series called I Spy, with [Robert] Culp and [Bill] Cosby. Do you remember it?
No I don't.
They were two spies going around the world, and they shot it on location. Well this was phenomenal for television! Nobody went off the lot at Universal shooting television. If you couldn't shoot on the lot, it wasn't in the show. So this whole idea of going off and doing things on location for television was just beyond [anything that had been done before.] So no, we never had the luxury, in the television department at Universal, of doing a lot of different setups from a lot of different angles and deciding what we wanted to use in the cutting room. We had to figure out what we were going to do before hand. Those other setups were going to cost at least forty five minutes to an hour.
Some directors know exactly, beforehand, how every scene in the movie will come out, and for them it's not fun in filming because it's the most boring part. Others don't know, or don't want to know at all, and like to film almost like a documentary, where you often only get one shot in filming, and take it as you get it at the moment. What kind of director are you?
Well your question has to be put in context. I'll go back to what I was just talking about. If you're going to do a theatrical motion picture, you have time. You have time to get a script, and when you've got a script, you have time to go and take that script, and break it down, and figure out how you are going to produce it; where the locations are, what you need, what you want. And then when you get there, on the day, you have time to work and perfect the scene within it. In television you don't have that. In television, it isn't that parenthetically that [Battlestar] Galactica was different than other television things, because television certainly had a certain amount of chaos to it.
Unless you were doing [something like] Ironside with Raymond Burr, because everybody knew exactly what that was, pretty much. But if you're doing a television movie, and the script says "It's a bright and sunny day", and you get there on Saturday, or on Monday morning at 6:45am, and it's raining, you don't have the luxury of saying "Well guys, you know it's raining today. Let's just pack it up and we'll come back on a sunny day." Because you only have 18, or 19, or 20, or 21, or 22, or 24 days. That's what you got, and if you don't get it done in that time, somebody's going to get very upset. So in the midst of doing television, if you get there on the day and it's raining and it's not sunny, well then let's all get out in the middle of the rain. Let's get the actors out there. Whatever it is. It's a love scene. Let's get them out there and let the rain fall on their faces, and let it run down their cheeks. Let's get out there because the audience doesn't care what the writer wrote, or what the writer hoped for, or what the producer sold. They only care about that something is going on out there in front of that lens that touches their heart, that makes them feel.
Did you have any communication with the writers when shooting Battlestar Galactica?
Very little. Didn't have time to. There were times when we would get into trouble, and we would just have to work around it. We never had time to shut down and say "Let's get a writer in here and fix this." We just did it. We just did it. If the actors had a problem, we would find out a way. If they would get frustrated because they wanted to say "Fuck!" in here, and you can't say "Fuck!", I said "Well then say Frack!" Let's just say something else. Let's stop saying "Gosh darn it!" because isn't that stupid in the middle of it, but some other guttural, kind of expression that you can just use and it'll feel ok. So, in television, you go out and you capture moments. It's much more like the Jackson Pollock approach to film making; looking and waiting for the happy accident, giving the actors freedom to do what they do as well as they can, encouraging them to surprise you [and] surprise the audience. It isn't like Mr. Hitchcock. When Mr. Hitchcock was asked one day who his favorite director was, he thought for a moment and said (in Hitchcock's voice) "It's Walt Disney. If he doesn't like his actors he tears them up and throws them away." But we, in television, don't have the luxury of a lot of takes. We don't have the luxury of rehearsal. We don't get rehearsals.
If you're in theatre, and you have this wonderful thing of rehearsal; where you get out there, and you start to work it, and you say the words, and you walk around, and after awhile you get some sense of the emotion of the scene, and you develop that, and it explodes, and it happens in rehearsal you say "It's great! Good! Good!" You come back the next day, you try it again, and the explosion isn't there. Now you've got to remember what it was, and what you were looking for. It's like dance routines. You learn a step. You put the steps together, and you get a combination. You get a combination, you put some combinations together, you got a routine. Now you've got to learn that routine. Step by step, you've got to learn the routine, and after your body learns how to do it, well then you have time to put the soul back into it.
It's like a pianist who knows this great melody. Well he's got to sit down, and he's got to work on this Tchaikovsky piece to get his fingers to work right, so that once he learns how to do it, and his fingers can play it, then he can get his soul back into it. That's what actors do on the theatre. They learn it, they rehearse it, they experiment, they find things, and then having found it all, and know where all the marks are, and their body knows the performance, they can turn their mind off the performance because their body knows it. Then they can fill it back with their hearts. But in television you don't do that. You shoot the rehearsal, because the rehearsal is where you're most liable to get the real, first, emotional impact from the actor. So "Always shoot the rehearsal" is my motto.
Did you make any friends with the cast or crew during that show that you've kept in touch with?
Well, I felt a great friendship with a lot of them. But remember, I was working twenty three hour days here, so I never had a chance after the day to go out and have a beer with anybody. And by the time it was over, I wasn't there, so I never had a chance to go out with anybody.
With the enormous amount of actors, crews, special effects, and budget involved, was that the hardest show that you had directed at that time?
Well it was the most complicated, which is why I took it. It had more ingredients. If I had to learn to juggle before, this was juggling elephants. So you really had to be at the top of your game to do this, which was the fun of it of course. To be able to have some actors, and get some good performances out of them, and juggled in the midst of complications of time and money.
Ok. Let me move on. During the filming, you left directing the show. Can you tell us what happened?
Well, I'll try to say this politely. As I said before once, the network and the studios knew that they had a picture...Glen [Larson] felt more comfortable in coming down and making suggestions, and many of the suggestions he made did not seem to be proper for keeping with what we were doing, and I guess I was vocal enough to tell him so.
Director Alan Levi continued afterwards.
Did you talk to him at all.
No. Nope. Never had a chance.
Yeah, I think we had about four days of shooting left. But it is so interesting, because once we had a movie, and Glen [Larson], I guess, felt that he needed more control than he had had. He then had occasion here to be able to go back and add a scene, and rewrite some things, so I guess they spent a little more than the four days that were remaining.
Let me ask you about that. You said that there were only four days of shooting left for "Saga [of a Star World]" when you left?
I think that's amazing that they expected to get anything different, or to get anything significant, with only four days remaining.
It wasn't about that. I think it was my outspokenness, and anger at Glen [for] coming in at that point, and...
Do you remember anything specific? Any specific changes that he wanted to make that you didn't agree with?
It simply got to be not a matter of large changes, but a lot of little complaints, or unhappiness, or things that he found fault with.
It was just something that built up over time?
It seemed to be, because...I mean it's just that I don't understand it. When you set something loose like that, you've either got to step in and carry the thing yourself, and finish it yourself, or somebody's got to come in and do it. Well, that's kind of what I did for George. George had always been very good to me, and when he need help, I was there for him. So it wasn't about Glen. It was about making this thing work for George, and when in the end Glen kept finding little faults, I just told him he was an ungrateful bastard, because everybody was working so hard to pull his ass out of the fire here, and now he's in there pretending like he's the one who has all the ideas here. Well it was his idea originally. Nobody can fault him for that. You know, it's him and the Mormon church. So if you say ok, this is mine, well that's just fine, and I applaud his ability for all of the work that he's able to do in television, all of those opportunities that he saw in movies and then made television shows out of, all that stuff that he was able to convert. So I could even understand where he would want to feel like he was back in control of it once the major roaring fire of this thing was out, and some hope was in the air, but I just found him very ungrateful to all the people who worked so hard for him.
Well, ok, I think we can leave it at that. Moving on, your daughter appeared in two shows that you directed.
Sarge and Zigzag. Was it fun to have your daughter involved, or...
Always! And I hired her for some televisions shows too.
Was it difficult to direct her?
If I asked her that, would she give me the same answer?
(Big laugh) I hope so! I hope so! She had a good time at it, and I had a good time at it. I remember a summer when she called me and said "Dad, can you get me a part?" I said "You want a part? In a movie?" I said "Well. If you are serious about being an actress, I will see about getting you classes, but if this is a call to get a job because you think it's easy to make money as an actress, well then I can't help you with that at all." She said "Oh. Ok." Well, it wasn't her intention to take lessons or study theatre. It was just a summer job.
Ok. You directed an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
How did that come about?
Well I knew Gene [Roddenberry]. I'd known Gene for years. We did a pilot at NBC at Universal called The Questor Tapes. I knew him from that. I knew him, really, from the first Star Trek, though I never directed Star Trek. So when he got into this next one, it was just natural for him to say "Would you like to come and play for a day?"
Was there anything specific that you learned from directing science fiction, like Battlestar Galactica, that you used when directing Star Trek: The Next Generation?
No. Not specifically. I mean every thing that you do, every scene you ever do, every movie, every episode, every setup, every actor you work with, every cameraman you work with, it all creates a little like a Rubik's cube. It's a moving thing that all has to unify into a cohesive hold, and work together to capture an emotional moment. That's really what we set out to do. And learning the craft of film making, is really important. It's like we were talking about before. It's like playing the piano. Only once your body can play the piano can your spirit be free to express itself. Only once you've learned the craft of making a motion picture can your spirit be free to communicate to that, which is what allows you, after awhile, to say ok, I can put the camera there, or I can slow this down, or I can speed this up, or I don't have to have this piece. I can move from here to here. You learn all the time, and as you become more comfortable at your craft, I think it allows greater creativity, greater expression.
Director Richard Colla
When you look back at these years that you've directed is there one that stands out, that you would say was your favorite to direct?
Oh... (pondering) It's such a difficult question. I love making movies. I love it better than theatre, because you can run it like film through your hand and through a moviola... That was in the old days, you know, before digital film. I love the process. I love the creative process of it, but when it's finished, it's not like a house. Like an architect finishes the design of the house and if he knows a builder he can go build the house. And when it's finished, he can go sit in the kitchen and have a cup of coffee. You can do that next Thursday. But movies, once it opens, once it's on television, then it's kind of finished, you don't go back and revisit them. It's not like the house you built. It doesn't have that place in my heart. There are, I think, only a few directors who can really, probably can look at the body of their work and have some real sense of quality about their body of their work. We can always find little scenes here, or moments there in a lot of different movies that we learned things from, a lot of times. Some are cautionary tales, some will be careful of what we say. We must be careful of how we move our audience, because if we move them in a particular way, which is what we as filmmakers, as storytellers, are supposed to do, well there is this thing of having to take responsibility about the direction in which we move them. So there needs to be some... wisdom, I guess is the right word, about deciding what we will make.
Do you have any word of advice for young aspiring directors?
They tell me that you learn to be a good golfer by playing golf, and I guess it's the same thing by being a good filmmaker. What's so wonderful today with these little digital cameras... Boy! You know, eight year old kids are out there making their own movies. If you're going to start at the time you're eight years old, six years old, by the time you're eighteen or twenty years old, boy, look at all the experience you got! If you really want to do it, you've got to go out and do it. It's like writers. I meet people out there who say: "I'm a writer." and I say: "Are you? What are you writing?" They say "Nothing at the moment but I'm planning to." and I say: "Well, okay, but you're not a writer unless you write. You're not an actor unless you act. You're not a painter unless you paint." Same thing here, except today, what used to be so expensive, to make a film... It wasn't like you can go out with a couple of tubes of paint, some brushes and a little board. You've got to have all this stuff, but today you don't. You can do it if you want and all it's ever about is the telling of the story. Isn't it wonderful that kids have this today? So, the limitations that we used to face, of the expensiveness of this... All of that is gone. You can take it home and edit it on your own computer, and make movies with your friends, and tell stories, and find out if anything is in there, anything at all that anybody else cares about. That's all it's about.
What are you involved with or doing these days?
I have a ranch up in Ojai and I spend a lot of time up there. I have a house at the beach and I love to be there. I have a really large international motion picture that I've been trying for some time to put together. I've got a couple of television pilots that are being written. I'm doing a small movie, an independent movie that we're putting together in New Mexico. Another script that's being written for a theatrical picture. And I'm so delighted I'm doing this house here in town, and I have this little group of... a little complex up in a little town called Ojai, California. All little cottages built in 1929 that I'm going back in and I'm doing a major restoration project on them. That's one of the things that seem so real. When you get your hands on a hammer and some nails, and do something real. So I have a lot of stuff that I'm involved in. There's not enough time in the day to get everything done.
I'm glad to see that you're keeping busy.
Boy, it's hard not to.
Mr. Colla I'd like to take the time to thank you for doing the interview. It brought back some wonderful memories and there are a lot of Battlestar Galactica fans that will enjoy hearing from you.
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