|Michael Nankin GALACTICA.TV interview|
|Written by Marcel Damen|
|Friday, 05 June 2009|
Some time ago Marcel Damen caught up with Michael Nankin, director of pivotal episodes like "Flight of the Phoenix", "Scar", "The Passage" and "Sometimes A Great Notion" (among others) on the Battlestar Galactica 2003 series. A fan favorite director of many fans who, during this extensive interview, shares many great stories about his work on the series.
Below you can read the transcript of this interview. If you rather listen to the audio of this interview then click the "PLAY" button below to start.
First of all, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to do the interview.
Oh, it's my pleasure. Absolutely.
Can you tell us a bit about your background, like where you come from and how you rolled into becoming a director?
Well I was born in Los Angeles and I grew up in a part of Los Angeles called the San Fernando Valley, which is a very quiet suburban neighborhood. I grew up in a medical family so we never knew anyone who was in the arts or entertainment or anything like that. Even though I was in LA I was as far from Hollywood as anybody else. My grandfather put a movie camera in my hands when I was ten years old. It was an old standard 8 movie camera from the forties. That was it for me. Once I had that camera in my hand, I never really seriously considered doing anything else. But it took me a long time to realize that I would actually make a living at doing it. I always thought that I would be a doctor or a lawyer or all the things that all the adults in my life were and that I would make films as a hobby. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I start to think that maybe there's some other way, and there was. I actually went to art school here in Los Angeles. I was thinking about being a painter and an illustrator. I was doing a lot of that and yet it never quite got me as excited as making films. Near the end of college I switched over to the film school at UCLA. That was in the late seventies. That sort of worked the way that everyone dreams that film school will work. I made this very ambitious student film when I got out. The right people saw it. I got a job at Disney Studios and I've been working for thirty years.
Oh, pretty cool.
Yes, I was very lucky.
Battlestar Galactica's director Michael Nankin
What did you do at Disney?
I had a film making partner (David Wechter) and we were hired. This was in 1977 or '78. The studio at that time was run by Ron Miller, who was (Walt) Disney's son-in-law before (Michael) Eisner came in and made, sort of made, the studio over. Walt died and no one could quite figure out what to do. They were making bad movies. Their big movie that year was one of the Herbie the Love Bug movies. (Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo) They didn't know who their audience was anymore. They saw my student film and brought my partner and I on and said, "We want to reach the teen audience and we're going to hire you guys to do that." We made a film called Midnight Madness which came out in 1980. It was the first PG Disney film and it was a college comedy. We got Michael J. Fox's green card to work in the States, his first film. It was the first film appearance of Pee Wee Herman. So we had all of these new faces and then we had all of these great old Disney character actors. We had John Fielder, Fritz Feld and all these guys that we had seen our whole lives working for us in this dopey comedy. It was like this crazy success story. A year out of film school, we're twenty-two years old and making a movie at Disney.
Is there anyone that you can point out as being a mentor during that time?
No, at that time there really wasn't except... there were two at the studio. One was the director of photography they assigned to us, who was this wonderful man named Frank Phillips, who was in his late sixties when we shot this thing. It was interesting because we were so young. When we were crewing up the show, we just kept saying to everyone, "Just get us people with gray hair because we need people who know more than us to help us get through this thing." Frankie Phillips was a savior. His resume went way back, he was the camera operator on Singing in the Rain. He told these wonderful stories. We had this wonderful script supervisor named Meta Carpenter, who actually started the script supervisors union and was Willam Faulkner's girlfriend in the thirties and forties in Hollywood. (She) did all these John Huston films (The Maltese Falcon) and all of Mike Nichols' films and she had been on every interesting movie set for the last forty years and then there she was working with us. It was incredible. It was incredible.
The student film you worked on, is that Gravity?
No, that was something I made early on in college, which won a ton of awards. But the film we made that got us all the attention was a film called Junior High School. It was a forty minute musical comedy in the old fashioned style, very much like what High School Musical is now.
What did you do on the film? Did you also do a mix of the directing and the writing and stuff like that?
Yes, wrote, produced, directed it.
As a young film maker, did you also have to do all sorts of jobs like unpaid internships to be able to just hang out film sets?
Well actually I wasn't, I had two jobs with small commercial houses. I never really had like intern jobs with the studios or in larger stuff. Because of my drawing background, I worked for two commercial production houses that did a lot of animation. So I would get coffee and I'd sweep up and organize negatives, but also I'd storyboard for them and I'd do editing for them. It was one of those great learning experiences with someone would let me do more than what my initial job description was.
What would you say was the most valuable thing you learned that they didn't teach you in school?
Oh. Most valuable thing I learned... well I think, I have to say I learned a work ethic from working for my father, who was an optometrist and had a store front practice in Hollywood. I would run the front office for him. I just learned a very strong sense of professionalism and work ethic that kept me going in Hollywood. Which is something that they don't really teach in film school. They don't teach the business end of it, not the knowing how to finance work, but just doing business. How you do business. How you treat people. How to maintain contacts and build friendships and all of that.
Battlestar Galactica's director Michael Nankin
You started at a time that they also shot the original Battlestar Galactica series. Was that a big hype in Hollywood back then?
Um, yeah I think it was. I mean I remember the hype being... I remember hearing about what an expensive television show it was. It was the most expensive television show ever made. Although I was actually disdainful of the first series because I felt, you know, I felt it was just, you know, was too Star Wars. I wasn't really caught up in the original Battlestar because it came right on the heels of the success of Star Wars. I just thought, "Oh, it's another attempt by TV to cash in on what was an original idea." I sort of wasn't interested in what ways they changed it, what they came up with. It just seemed - I couldn't see past that. So I really wasn't - I never got caught up in the first incarnation of the series. When was this? It was in the late seventies?
The original series? Yes, so I was like - I was a you know - I was a film student and I knew everything. I don't anymore, but then I did. (laughs) It didn't measure up in my eyes.
What did you think then, when they re-imagined it?
It was interesting. I had been friends with David Eick for years. We had met on a television show called American Gothic. We had become friends and we had worked on various projects since. I knew he was doing - actually I think he was an executive at Universal when the first idea, when they first decided to remake Battlestar. When I first heard about it, I went, "Oh, please! Of all the shows that need to be remade, why that one?" (laughs) But he was working on it and I didn't initially see the pilot. At the very beginning, I wasn't involved at all because David and I were working on this other project for Sci Fi (Channel.) We were writing a Miniseries. I was just totally absorbed in that. It ended up not getting picked up, after I spent months and months on the writing end of this thing. I hardly made any money and so I knew he was going into production on Battlestar. And when our miniseries collapsed, I said, "David, you gotta get me a directing gig on Battlestar because I need some cash." So that was that got me into it, I needed some fast money. So he said, "All right." Then once I knew I had the job, I went and got the Miniseries and whatever they had finished leading up to my episode and I was knocked out. I thought it was brilliant.
I had no idea and having a low opinion of the first series, although not having really seen very much of it, but just having a low opinion of it in my young arrogance, I wasn't expecting much. Until I put in Michael Rymer's miniseries and it was just brilliant. I was so excited. The first time there was a shot in space in that show, it was a cut to two Vipers. And the camera sort of couldn't quite follow them? It was trying to catch them with the zoom? At that moment, I knew I was seeing something brand new. Because no one before that had taken the documentary film style and applied it to the visual effects shots. So I thought, "Oh my God, these people really know what they're doing because they're making the whole thing have the same look." They built a new vocabulary, a new film vocabulary for science fiction television. Now every-one's doing it. Then I read Ron Moore's manifesto, which was this document he used to sell the new series to Sci Fi. It was like a four page document saying here's what Battlestar will be. It's not going to be Star Trek. It's not going to be basically a list of everything you had ever seen in Sci Fi television. Then he said and here is what it is going to be. It was very thrilling. And he held true to it throughout the whole life of the series.
So I basically fell into something wonderful. I was very impressed creatively and suddenly went from thinking I needed some fast cash to suddenly worrying if I were good enough to keep up with these people. So I did a lot of homework leading up to my first episode, which was Flight of the Phoenix. After shooting for two days, I called David Eick and I said, "I'll do as many of these as you can possibly give me." Because I realized I had fallen into something, not just a good show, but a beautiful group of people. So Battlestar for me has turned out to be the best experience on a film set I've ever had in thirty years.
Was it hard for you to roll into the style of filming, the documentary style?
I thought it would be. I had always, particularly because I came from a visual arts background, felt that composition was a very important story telling tool. A very important tool in manipulating the emotions of the audience. Where is someone in the frame? Where are they in relation to the other people in the frame? How they move in the frame. It was something that I always controlled very carefully. Coming into this documentary style with the two cameras going seemed to be, at first, out of control. I felt like I was going into a situation where I had to give up a very important tool. It was like approaching a painting and having them say, "Well we don't use red here." and having to try to figure that out. I was worried at first. Can I still tell the story in the right way? Can I still engage the audience without using this compositional tool. But what I found was actually the opposite experience. Instead of feeling like I had given something up, I felt like I actually gained something. It was actually less loose than I had thought it would be. Letting go of my carefully composed images, that I had always sort of used, felt liberating.
So I actually had this new tool of the fake documentary style that I've used since in other things. And the way it worked that I found out is that there's two cameras rolling at all times, or almost at all times. Sometimes when you get in close there is not enough physical room to get the second camera in. But what I would do is I would use A camera - one of the cameras is designated A camera and there's B camera - so I would use A camera as my compositional camera where I knew that at a certain point in the scene I needed to drop back or I needed to move off of one character onto another, or whatever. Whatever I'd come up with. And then B camera was sort of the X factor. We would change the angle from take to take and be getting stuff that I hadn't thought of, very often better than I had thought of. I quickly embraced it. I loved it. The hard part is sorting through all of the material you end up with in the editing room. There is just so much when you're shooting with double cameras going for every take. But it was a gift coming out of a show with that style.
Battlestar Galactica's director Michael Nankin on set
So had you ever worked with HD video before?
Yeah I had, but never in the way that Steve McNutt (DP) uses it. I've been on shows that shot in HD where the director of photography would say, "Well, here are the rules of HD. It doesn't like red. It can't really overexpose if it goes off. If the luminance is above a certain thing, it blows out. We can't do this. We can't do that." And all of the stuff I've shot in HD where the DP was very careful about staying in the rules, it was dull and looked like HD video. Where Steve McNutt shoots HD video like film and he doesn't follow any of the rules. He shoots it like film. He adds grain. He lets the whites just blow the frame out. He's not worried about shooting any color. And it looks fantastic! It looks like film. I teach a directing class and I showed my students some Battlestar stuff on a big screen and everyone thought it was film.
He really goes into the camera and adjusts it on the spot. And he doesn't leave anything to post production, only small bits.
Yeah. Yeah, he's a smart guy.
Had you worked with anybody else from the cast and crew before besides David Eick?
I had worked with Steve McNutt on American Gothic, him and Eick. Aside from that, it was all new people.
Anyone that you like working with in particular, that you want to work with in the future again?
Everybody. (laughs) See, the secret about Battlestar - everyone thinks that the secret about Battlestar is how it's going to end? - but the secret about Battlestar is that it was the best set in television. What I realized when I got there was that here was a group of people who were dedicated to making the best show possible. There was no selfishness involved. Everyone was there to push the envelope, so to speak. To devote themselves to making the quality of what they were doing better, everyone equally so and to help everyone else. I kept expecting, having done lots of different shows, I kept waiting for the monster to show up. And there was no monster. There were no tantrums. There were no prima donnas. There were no people with personality problems. There was just this - from the people in the office, to the post production, to the crew, the cast, the writers, I mean everyone involved in that show was a consummate professional. And they all had a big heart. It was just like going to heaven. Plus, I had an amazing amount of freedom as a director, more so than I had ever encountered in episodic television. From the first episode, they more or less handed me the script and said, "Come back with your movie."
Wasn't that a bit scary?
No, not at all. It was fantastic.
Michael Rymer is very much an actor's director. He'll have actors try out and play stuff. What's your signature that people can recognize when watching your episodes?
I'd have to say the same thing, although I think it's a bit presumptuous to compare myself with Michael Rymer. I think he's a genius. But it's all about performance for me as well.
Did you ever give the actors that much freedom that they could do improv as well?
Oh yeah. I'll tell you a story about my first scene with Mary McDonnell in the first episode I did. I had shot a couple of days, but I hadn't worked with Mary yet. I don't think I had even met her yet. So this is my third day of shooting and my scene with Mary McDonnell is coming up. I'm a huge fan of Mary and a friend of mine, who was involved with New York theater, was telling me of her legendary status as a Broadway actress. So I was really, I was so, I was kind of awed by her. I wanted very, very much to be the director that she deserved to have.
Her scene was the third scene that I had to do that day. I went as fast as I could through the first two. I made them very simple and got them in very quickly so I would have extra time with Mary. So I didn't have to show up and make my first scene with Mary McDonnell one of those, "Hey we're doing episodic television. Stand here. Let's shoot. Let's go." I really didn't want to do that. I bought myself some extra time so we could sit and think and play with the scene. It's a scene where she comes into sick bay because Doc Cottle has done a series of tests and he has the results about the advancement of her cancer. It's a two and a half page scene and it's all technical, medical jargon. It's about the cell count and how it's metastasized and how it's moved through her body. And it's just Doc Cottle talking for two and a half pages about medical things. We come to the set. We read it through a couple of times. And it's just a horrible scene. Not to take anything away from the writers, but it's just, you know, it's just blah blah blah blah blah on and on and on and on and on in Doc Cottle's deep stentorian, somewhat soap opera-y voice with all of this exposition. I'm thinking, "This is my first scene with Mary McDonnell and it's the worst scene I've ever shot. This is horrible. What am I going to do?" So I have them read through the scene a couple of more times, not because I need to see them read through it, but because I need time to think. I figure out well, I have to make it visually interesting.
So we set up a light behind one of the translucent screens, like there's a curtain around each bed. These blue curtains that are semi-transparent. So I have Steve McNutt set up a light behind one. I go to Mary and say, "Now Mary, you're getting some heavy news here. If there's a time during the scene where you want to step away from him, go behind the curtain, take a breath and collect yourself and come back out. I'll be able to see what you do back there because it will be silhouetted. Your shadow will be thrown against the curtain. I'll be able to see you in silhouette." She liked that idea. She said, "Okay, good." So while we worked out the digital blocking, she comes in and we realize that she's the president and he's holding this clipboard with all of her information. She reaches out and takes the clipboard and she looks at it. And as she's starting to get the bad news, she kind of takes a few steps away from him. She puts the clipboard down on the bed that's now between them. Then she goes behind the curtain and we see her kind of fall apart a little bit, take a breath, collect herself, become the president once more, come back out, shake his hand and leave. I'm starting to like the way it looked. Mary McDonnell is starting to like the way it feels. But there's still this page and a half of blah blah blah blah blah. It's just horrible. It drags everything down. So I said, "Let's try something. Do the scene one more time. Just do the blocking. Nobody says anything. There's no dialog in the scene anymore. Nobody opens their mouth." "Okay, we'll try that." She walks in and we know what's going on. We know that she's had the test. We know he's got the results and he's holding the clipboard. She walks in. He stares at her. She takes the clipboard. She looks at it. She puts it down on the bed, takes a couple of steps away from him, goes behind the screen, takes a deep breath, comes back out, shakes his hand and walks out. And everyone on the set just got like this chill, that's the scene.
You don't need to say a word. But I'm thinking, the producers were not around at that point, I'm thinking, "Okay, I know that this is better, but if I hand in dailies and I don't shoot any of their dialog, they're going to fire me." I know it's like day three with a new director. I can play with the dialog but I'm not going to like eliminate it. I can't take it upon myself to eliminate it. So I just thought okay. I got Mary and Donnelly together and said, "Here's what we're going to do. For every shot we'll do a take with the dialog and we'll do one silently, just to cover ourselves." So they were all down with that and it was great and I was like Mary McDonnell's hero. I mean we sat there until the scene worked. Then what happened in the cut, what turned out to work the best was actually some of the dialog. We took out all of the exposition. She came in, took the clipboard, looked at it, put it down, stepped behind the curtain, comes back out. She says, "How long have I got?" He says, "Four weeks." She shakes his hand and says, "Thank you." and walks out. That worked the best. I was actually glad I covered the dialog as well. So yes, I guess I'm answering your question do we ad-lib and stuff, yeah. To the extent of throwing out everything, we ad-lib.
Battlestar Galactica's director Michael Nankin on set
I did that with Aaron once too. There was this scene in Ties That Bind where he's having problems with Cally. Where he's sitting with Cally and their child Nicky. There's a long, long, long scene about him saying, "No, I'm not having an affair with Tory." It was like the same information over and over again. We shot that one silent as well and ended up with a mix of some of the dialog. It's a great technique because then in the calmness of the editing room, you can sort of pick and choose the important lines instead of in the fog of war when you're on the set. Especially with that particular episode because the baby we used never stopped crying once for a second. (laughs)
That's hard, yes. (laughs) Michael Rymer also said that Aaron did a lot of improv. They never did the actual scenes according to script. He improvised a lot.
Yeah, well it was interesting, there was a period of time where the writers were getting very upset because it was starting to get away. It was starting to get out of hand, the amount of improvising. Because the writing is awfully damn good on that show. It's dangerous to think that you can improve it every time when you're on the set. Sometimes things seem great on the set and then they're really not. They're not thought through. And yet getting these actors together and actually putting them into a situation can also, you can also find better things to say. Usually it's saying less than what's in the script, rather than saying different things, is what makes it better. Because these faces in the situation are just so eloquent. The real test of the writing is its structure, so by the time you get to the scene the behavior of the people really tells you a great deal of the story. You find you don't have to say everything that's in the script. A lot of times things are put in - the process is - these writers are really good. They generally don't overwrite. But once the network and the studio get involved, they're always asking for - their fear is that things aren't clear enough. So the writers are always adding explanations, or people saying things that they ordinarily would not say to each other, just to assuage the fears of the network that the audience isn't going to get what's going on. Then you get to the stage and all those lines just stick out like a sore thumb. You usually don't - you realize you don't need them. Then the network is fine when they see the show because they realize that that idea is being communicated anyway without having said it.
As a director, are you like Hitchcock who figured out everything in his mind beforehand and shooting is the most boring part or do you want to be surprised?
No, no, no, shooting is the most exciting part for me, although I do figure out everything ahead of time. I figure out a version of everything ahead of time. But the film making process is such that every step that you go through, you learn more about the particular film that you are making. When you read the script, basically that's all you have. So you start forming opinions about it based on the script. Then you go and you cast it and based on the people that you have, now you know more about how it's going to work. And then you see the sets and you know more. You see the costumes and you know more. As you go through prep, you're educating yourself as to how this film is going to come together. Some of the things you thought of in the script phase are still valuable, and some of them are no longer valuable because you didn't know enough back then. The one thing you don't know is what happens when you arrive to shoot. When you show up on this day, with these actors in costume on the set, having come from whatever they've come from in their lives. There's a great unknown that doesn't happen until you're actually there. So what I do is I make the tightest, most detailed plan I can. And I put it in my back pocket and I don't say a word. I show up and see what's going to happen on the set. Then as we're rehearsing and blocking, I try to give everyone as much freedom as humanly possible. I don't want to put them into my plan. I don't want to squeeze them into my plan at all. I want to see what they have. Because I haven't heard the actor's ideas yet. I haven't heard the DP's ideas. I just want to see how it flows and then I'll pick and choose. Where their ideas are better, then we go with those. Where their ideas are not, I stick to my plan. I usually end up with a patchwork quilt of new and old ideas unlike Hitchcock. And that makes the process much more exciting for me. I mean Hitchcock was bored on the set, I'm just thrilled because it's a discovery process.
How much of your actual plan do you actually end up with?
Well, it's interesting. I put a high value on the way a scene will begin and the way a scene will end. Because there's a story telling element in how scenes are cut together. The last image of one scene and the first image of the next scene, the juxtaposition of those two images, is a story telling tool. The most blatant example is the comedy one. The end of one scene is the girl saying, "I'll never wear that dress!" and the first shot of the next scene is her wearing it. So you get a laugh. The way the end of one and the beginning of the next scene go together is very important. Almost always that will be intact from my plan. The bookends of the scene are intact because no one else on the set is thinking about how this thing cuts together. I generally have an overall view of movement within the scene and how that's going to enhance the drama. Although there's still a certain amount of discovery as we go. More and more I try to keep it loose. I've become confident enough to invent in the moment. I like letting it evolve. I like in the course of shooting a scene of going in different directions. Like here's the intent we all had for the scene emotionally, well we've got that, now let's try something else. Now let's try something different than that. Try something completely opposite. Until you're there shooting, you're never certain. Experimenting with it on the set gives me the opportunity in the cutting room to create really any performance or any dynamic I want. Because I've got the quiet take. I've got the emotional take. I've got the silly take. I've got all of this material. In the calmness of the editing room basically make it whatever I want.
Battlestar Galactica's director Michael Nankin on set with Katee Sackhoff
What actors do you particularly like working with because they always surprise you?
Well, I mean you know, the entire Battlestar cast is in that category. (laughs) I've had a very - I've had a wonderful experience with Katee Sackhoff. I've directed two or three episodes that really feature her story and really, really demanded that she stretch as an actress. You know Katee is not a trained actress, she's just a natural. I've never known quite how much she prepares, I suspect it's not that much. She just throws herself in the moment and her instincts in the moment are just fantastic. When we did Maelstrom, which was a journey into the psyche of Starbuck, Katee and I just went - we got - it was a very intimate experience. I saw her dredge up things from her own life and inject it into the character in ways that were - I was filled with respect for her and her courage and her ability to just go anywhere. We had a great, great rapport on the set. And then you've got Mary and Eddie who just can do anything. I love Jamie Bamber. People don't immediately go to him when you talk about the actors in Battlestar because he's subtle, he's such a subtle actor. But his instincts are just rock solid, I love working with him. Tahmoh's able to show the audience who he really is. Helo is just Tahmoh because he's able to just become completely transparent through the character and just reveal himself. Aaron's great you know. Oh and Michael Hogan! Michael Hogan is amazing. (laughs) To do two seasons with one eye and still communicate everything that he did. There was a moment where I was shooting close ups in the CIC of everyone reacting to Starbuck's death. In that moment, I changed the style of the show because we shot it just very - we put the camera on a tripod - because I was getting into this very, very emotional moment. I wanted the series to feel different in that moment. So we stopped with the hand held documentary style. I just shot them very classically in that moment where they all realize she's gone forever. Michael Hogan does this thing where he just, he doesn't really emote? But he dies with her on screen. You see the life just run out of him. It's an incredible moment of acting. Who have I left out?
Oh Callis, Callis is great. (laughs) Callis is probably - Well I was going to say he might be the smartest actor I've ever met but he might be one of the smartest men I've ever met. I've had more intellectually stimulating conversations with him when he was drunk than with most people sober. Yeah, he's amazing. Unfortunately my work with him has been limited! All of his really big stuff were never in my episodes.
Mm, too bad. What were your favorite episodes that you shot or your favorite scenes?
Yeah. Well I have to leave out the two that haven't aired yet. Although I directed the season opener for the last season. The next one you see will be mine. (Sometimes a Great Notion) I think that's the best thing that I've ever done, as far as just everything came together. And I think everything came together, not only does it pick up where the season ended where they get to Earth and it's a burnt out cinder. So it's dealing with those emotions which are gigantic. So I was very lucky to get that episode. But we shot that during the writer's strike. All during prep, we didn't know if we were going to shoot it or not. The writers went on strike and the night before, we basically found out that we were going to go ahead and shoot it. Although the writers and producers would not be there. And we couldn't change a word because that would be writing. So we went into it and at that point, we didn't know if the writer's strike was going to be two weeks or two years. There was a distinct possibility that that would have been the last Battlestar ever. We were very fortunate that it wasn't. It was great stuff from the actors. But the fact that everyone felt that it could be it, the actors just threw themselves into this because it may be the last chance they have. There was so much dedication and abandon and artistry in evidence on that episode, that it was astonishing.
That was the episode that was shown on David Eick's video blog where you took over from Michael Rymer right?
Yeah. Right. Right. Yeah, because when we were down on that beach we had to share. We had to share everything for that location.
Where Stephen McNutt jokes that Michael Rymer gets the big crane and you don't.
Yeah, Rymer gets the crane and Nankin gets the pain. That was very funny... and true. What were you saying, what were my favorite episodes? I think, hm mm.. I think I would say Scar. I think. I enjoyed Scar partly because I got a chance to do some comedy - you know with the nuggets they're in training - which is very rare in Battlestar. I felt like I was able to hit the comedy notes not too hard, so that it stayed within the show. I remember Katee's whole journey was delicious to go through with her.
Battlestar Galactica's director Michael Nankin on set with Tahmoh Penikett
Scar reminded me very much of an episode from Space: Above and Beyond, The Angriest Angel. Do you know that?
No, I don't know it.
I think the script was more or less borrowed from that. I wondered if you had seen it.
Some actors also turn to directing, like Eddie Olmos is a good example of that. I was wondering what you learned from him as a director?
What did I learn? I learned from Eddie, I learned to really push for psychological truth, all the time and not to be satisfied with anything less. That's what I learned from Eddie Olmos. You know who became my mentor on Battlestar and since is Bob Young. It's really interesting, Bob Young I had seen his films over the years. I had seen Caught and I had seen Dominique and Eugene. Every time I go and see his films, I never sought his films out. But every once in a while I'll go to the movies and see some brilliant and perfect independent film and think, "God, who did that?" Well this guy named Bob Young. "Yeah, I've heard of him. He did this other film I saw." So I was a Bob Young fan, not ever knowing who he was or what he looked like or anything. So I get to doing my first Battlestar and the director ahead of me is Bob Young. So my first of day of prep, I go down to the set and check everything out and meet everybody. And there's this ninety-one year old man sitting in the director's chair directing. So I started talking to him. He was as sweet as could be. We immediately bonded and after talking to him for an hour, I said, "Bob, you're my hero." He said, "Why, because I'm so old?" I said, "Yes! That means like thirty years for me, ahead of me. I'm not going to like, age out of this business." Then it took another few weeks before I put together the fact that this guy was actually the same Bob Young who did all these movies that I loved. Once I realized that, I started taking up as much of his time as humanly possible. I'd just go to the set and watch him work. I would take him out to lunch just to learn something that he knew. It was astonishing.
Getting back to Eddie Olmos, do you think it's a good development that some actors turn director or should they stick to their own profession?
Well, if they all can become directors like Eddie Olmos they should turn to directing. He's one of the better directors I know. He's really has the goods in every way; camera, performance, movement and everything. He's fantastic and he's a joy to work with. Let's see other actors turned directors? You know it runs the gamut. There's some guys who should never do it. Who just don't know. Who think that everything you know as an actor is enough to direct, which it isn't. But there's a lot of directors who weren't actors that shouldn't be doing it either.
Battlestar Galactica's director Michael Nankin on set
Because Michael Rymer also said that he did some acting for two years to really get acquainted with the job as an actor. Did you ever try that?
I did that too. I went to HB Studios in New York. It was a Hagen studio. I studied there just to learn. Because I had started, you know I came from visual arts. So when I started directing, it was all camera and lenses. It was the image because I felt comfortable in that arena. It was easy for me. I started looking at my work thinking it's not as affecting as I wanted it to be. It's not as real as I wanted it to be. It didn't feel mannered to me. The performances weren't as real as I wanted them to be and I had no idea how to make them real. So I thought, "Okay, I better like now go back." Maybe not turn myself into an actor's director, but I knew I had to go study acting and learn what they knew before I could do that.
What was the biggest challenge for you working on the series? What was the most difficult scene you had to shoot?
On Battlestar? Well the most difficult scenes were the scenes involving babies. (laughs) You can't direct them. You can't control them. They're tired, they cry. They're hungry, they cry. We had a particularly unhappy baby on one episode. It's very difficult. The actors are trying to act. The baby's screaming and they're trying to shoot around it. You can't think with a screaming infant on the set. I think logistically that was the hardest stuff I did.
How about working on location? Was that good for you?
I like working on location. You have time constraints that are unavoidable. It's like the sun's going down. There's nothing that you can do about it. Whereas when you're on the stage, you might be able to squeeze an extra hour. It's just money. It becomes a negotiation to get extra time on the stage. But on location you can't negotiate with the Earth. It's turning no matter what you say. But I sort of like the constraints with locations. And I like going into a little apartment and you can't move the walls. I sort of enjoy that. The hardest thing about location work is if you have to move from one location to another in the course of a day because then you lose hours of time. I'm trying to think of the hardest scene I did on the show creatively. I think it was the scene in which Tory airlocks Cally? The scene where she talks her down? And the fact that there was a screaming baby. That was a scene that was very difficult to get right. It was partly fighting the baby but it was also we got there and the set looked really bad. The rails, for some reason the rails that the ship goes down on the floor, they were all beat up. And you could see that they were beat up. I wanted to do shots of Tory's feet walking closer and closer and every time I did it, you could see the plywood. Then they made foam ones, foam rails because we had stunt work. Cally got knocked down and the baby fell down so we had to have foam. Those looked horrible. It was like one of those scenes where the problems just kept piling up. Every time I wanted to turn the camera on something, there was some problem with it. Then we had to do some work with this rubber baby for the close work and it was, I think, silly. Sometimes the universe conspires to help you and sometimes it works against you. It's never predictable.
How was it to work with special effects guys like Gary Hutzel? Did you discuss scenes in advance like how your scenes connect to his?
Oh, yeah. Battlestar is the only show I've ever heard of, an outer space show, where the director is invited to design the effects sequences. I sat down in prep on all my episodes with the storyboard artist and boarded out all the green screen and all the CGI work. Then Gary comes in and we have our first meeting and he says, "Well, it will cost this much." Then the producers say, "Okay, cut out half of the shots." Then we have to rethink it. It's a give and take along the way. Then it changes to a certain degree when you edit it. But I find that the initial storyboarding is really valuable because we shoot the storyboards on video and then we cut with them. So we have little placeholders in the cut while the CGI is being done and the opportunity to refine it then. But Gary, you know Gary is a filmmaker. He's not just a shot maker. He really knows story and how to tell the story. How to get the most value out of a shot because each one is incredibly expensive. There's a lot of - there's a battle to justify every expense. The transition between the stage work and the CGI work is seamless. Especially because the director shoots seven days on the sets and then you shoot one day on the green screen stage. So you're actually shooting all the elements including those that go into the CGI work. Gary is always on the set making sure it's done properly. He handles all of that. He's also there as a collaborator saying, "Well, putting the camera here might be better." He's great.
Battlestar Galactica's director Michael Nankin on set
Do they need to show you things in advance? How they are going to look like on the green screen after they've done their work?
Usually they try to get these things called pre-viz to you, which are very low resolution versions of the CGI work. But we could never get them in time. We just shot people in cockpits against green and cut it into the show. We never saw CGI, the finished CGI stuff until much later. Battlestar has a very long post production life. It's not like it's shot and goes on the air a month later. It's shot and goes on the air six months later.
In some cases, that's good as well because you have a long time to work it out.
In what way are you sitting down with the writers to discuss their work?
Yeah, the other thing is that many episodic shows can't quite get their act together in the sense that they don't always have a finished script when you start prep. Which has almost never happened to me on Battlestar. I don't think it's happened to me on Battlestar. I've had scripts that have undergone a lot of changes during prep but I've always had a script. As a matter of fact, in most cases I've had a script ahead of time. So even before I move to Vancouver to start prep, I'll have had the script for a week or so. And I get on the phone with the writers and with Ron Moore and I have my notes, where I think it can be better. The writers are great. Then as things develop, what's great about having - I've done episodes where the writers are there and I've done them where they're not - the great thing about having the writers there is that stuff I come up with in prep, bits of business or props that I need or changing scenes around, is that we keep putting out script pages to reflect all of the production pages so that everyone knows what's happening rather than the script says one thing and my notes say another thing and we're going to add this on the set. We just put all of the stuff into the script so everyone has it. No one is caught by surprise. What's interesting is by the time I shoot, I hardly have any hand written notes in my script anymore. All of my hand written notes have gone to the writers and they've all been put in the script.
You're also a writer yourself. Was there ever any talk of writing episodes for Battlestar?
No, no there wasn't. They staffed things together very early, it was a great staff and I was very happy as a director with their material. I think it worked out perfectly.
Michael Rymer said he was given a chance to do some writing and he said he hated it. So maybe it was for the better.
How about producers Ron Moore and David Eick? How much are they steering your work?
There was more contact with them in the first couple of episodes I did. But after they saw my work, they liked it and they just left me alone. It's interesting, I think that I've had one of the most successful collaborations in my career with Ron Moore and yet I've hardly spoken to him. He's a show-runner who has the confidence, self confidence, to hire people and let them do their jobs. The more frightened a show-runner is, the more they micromanage. Because they're afraid no one is going to do anything right and they've got to get in and deal with every detail and they makes themselves and everyone around them unhappy. But Moore, he knows what he's got. He knows how strong his material is and how strong his concept is and that it can absorb different voices as it goes along. He has faith in the people he hires. It's great. It's how it should be.
Battlestar Galactica's directors Michael Nankin and Michael Rymer
Michael Rymer said you were his favorite director to work with. Is that feeling mutual?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, I learned a lot from Michael Rymer. I think he's one of the best directors I know. We both have very different styles on the set, but we're both striving for excellence in performance and finding the moment. He's an amazing guy.
Battlestar Galactica has ended for you now. Have you looked back on the whole experience?
Oh yeah, I have. Before I go on to that, I have to tell you one thing. There was one thing really interesting is that we never talked about it, but in the last two seasons there started becoming between [Michael] Rymer and Eddie Olmos and me, there became this little sort of healthy competition. We were all trying to out do each other. It was never sort of officially said, but we were all looking over each other's shoulders and trying to check out what each other did, then sort of trying to top it: pushing things farther, new visual ideas, pushing performances farther. I think the show really benefited from it. We kept trying - our egos got into it - and we were always trying to do better than the guy before.
How is that now with the new movie coming out that Eddie is doing?
I tried to convince him that he should just act in it and let me direct it, but that didn't work.
They're not doing that?
The movie? No, Eddie's directing it. I suspect it was part of his acting deal, which in his position is what I would have done.
Yeah, that's true.
But you know with the ending of Battlestar, I feel like I've said goodbye to fifty friends. It's very, very difficult for all of us. When I was shooting my last episode, David Weddle and Bradley Thompson had written it. They've written most of mine. It was a couple of days before we finished and I was doing a scene with Eddie and Mary. David comes up to me and says, "This is our last scene with Eddie and Mary, ever." I suddenly realized it and so it was like this overwhelming wave of sadness came over me. I looked up at him and he was crying, bawling away and wiping his eyes and I'm thinking, "I can't go talk to him. I have a job to do here. I have to direct the scene. I can't get all weepy." But it was very powerful, very powerful. Saying goodbye to people that you've worked with for three years, who you fought in the trenches with and you've done your best work with and whose company you've enjoyed on and off the set, it's very, very difficult. Because all of us who have been doing this for a long time know that at the end of these projects everyone says, "Oh, we'll still see each other. We'll get together." But it doesn't always happen. It was like losing my second family.
We've seen some of that. There was a cast and crew movie that got leaked out on the Internet. Michael Rymer's wife leaked that one. We were not supposed to see that but it's spread pretty fast because all of the fans thought it was so amazing. How warm and how nice it was on the set. Everyone wanted to see it even though it had some spoiler material and Universal didn't like it getting spoiled. All the fans were so amazed by this family and everyone saying goodbye and how nice everything was on the set. It was so heartwarming.
Oh, it's incredible. I've never seen anything like it. It's interesting because the show is so dark and so tragic at times. Yet the experience being on the set was so nurturing and sweet and friendly.
In that way, are you hoping that Caprica goes to series so you can try again?
You bet. Yeah. (laughs) Every one's hoping that it's just all the same people reassembled for that show so we get to work again.
Battlestar Galactica's director Michael Nankin and Tricia Helfer
What are you currently doing and what are your future plans?
Right now, I'm just finishing a rewrite on a four hour miniseries for AMC. Which is a story set in World War Two about a B-17 crew shot down in occupied France in 1942. I'm just finishing a huge rewrite on that, which I've had to pick up and put down and go direct Battlestar and then come pick it up again. They've been very patient with me, it's great. I'm going to go direct an episode of The Sarah Connor Chronicles next month which will be my first post Battlestar set. It will be very interesting to see how it goes. Then I've got a deal brewing to write and direct a movie. Those are my future plans.
How is it different shooting something in World War Two than science fiction? Is there a lot of difference between the two?
If you do it right, there's not much difference between the genres because on a scene by scene basis it's about creating human emotion.
It's still about the actors and the story.
Yeah. It's always about that. It doesn't matter whether in the exposition scene they're talking about retro rockets or P-38's. It doesn't make any difference. It's not the real stuff. The real stuff is what does this man think of this girl? Are they going to get together? Did he betray him? That's the stuff, drama. I'll probably have as much green screen work on the World War Two show as I do on Battlestar.
Not a lot of old airplanes around anymore.
There's enough. I only need one.
I'd like to thank you for taking the time to do this.
Oh, my pleasure! It's absolutely good and I'm very happy about what you're doing and good luck to you.
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