|Michael Rymer GALACTICA.TV interview|
|Written by Marcel Damen|
|Saturday, 02 August 2008|
Marcel Damen caught up with Battlestar Galactica 2003 director and producer Michael Rymer. In this long, exclusive interview he talked about how he got involved with the series and how he directed, produced and wrote some of the pivotal episodes of the series. Michael also talked about his work on the Season 4 finale and what his future plans are.
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, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to do the interview.
Most welcome. I'm thankful for your support.
I've read you were tricked into becoming a director when you were about twelve when you signed up for a hobby class called "Film Criticism." But instead of watching films, it turned out to be making films. Was this the click that made you decide that this is what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
Oh, absolutely, the teacher gave us a Super 8 camera, and a couple of three minute cartridges, and said "Go make a film." I was so excited after that. I used to make short films on a regular basis. Of course, in those days, you had a three minute cartridge that you had to mail off. That would, from Melbourne, Australia, it would sometimes take two weeks to get it processed. And in those days, it would come back sometimes and it would be black leader (laughs). So life has gotten a lot easier on that level. You can pick up a camera now.
With all the digital cameras now, it's very easy to pick up a camera and do your own films.
Yeah, for sure. Load it onto your computer and you're off.
Battlestar Galactica 2003 director/producer Michael Rymer
Any young film maker has to do all sorts of jobs - unpaid internships to be able to just hang around film sets as much as they can, to learn as much as they can. What for you was the most valuable thing you learned during this period which they couldn't teach you in school?
Interesting. I couldn't tell you exactly. I spent years working on sets as a PA [Production Assistant], doing all sorts of things. But when I came to direct, I don't know if any of that experience paid off for me. Maybe except to be a little nicer to the crew (laughs) particularly the PAs. For me the big breakthrough in my own journey was that I had gone USC [University of Southern California] film school, and somewhere along the line realized that I had come into the school very focused on visual communication. Somewhere along the line discovered that one could get an enormous effect with two wonderful actors and some good writing in the room. I think those were the days when independent film was starting to sort of blossom. I saw films like Sex, Lies and Videotape and Withnail & I, and any number of Stephen Frear's films. Particularly at the entry level where no one is going to hand you huge amounts of money, it's actually a very effective way to get a film made.
So I studied acting for two [years]... I wanted to be a director of actors. I wanted to be a good one and know what to say to the people who were my favorite actors at the highest level. So, I went and studied acting for two years. But, I think I learned more about film making, and storytelling, and good drama, and good writing from that experience than I did from film school. But I guess it was another form of school. I guess you could say one of the best ways for a director to learn how to direct is to try to act. To get up and do some scenes and see what that's like. So when you're trying to direct, and help an actor get the most out of a scene, you'll know what's helpful and what's not. I spent a lot of time watching directors say things that are completely unhelpful. (laughs) I'm always approaching the actors and saying "Look, sometimes they'll say something that isn't helpful. So, you got to interpret and say ‘Ok, something I'm doing isn't right. Or maybe it is, but they want something else, so I got to give them what they want. How do I get to what they want, even if they don't know how to tell me?'" That's a whole side of acting that... That's a hard side of acting to learn. I think it's very important for a young actor to not have to deal with people who communicate a different level or don't know the difference.
So coming to Battlestar Galactica, I've read you weren't a particular fan of the original Battlestar Galactica series and considering the Mini-Series was actually a re-imagined version of the original series pilot, what still made you find the story compelling enough to take the job?
As a kid and a teenager, I was a rabid sci fi/horror movie fan. I had sort of collected every famous monster film. And I knew every horror movie ever made back to the ‘20s quite intimately, and most sci fi, and certainly the sci fi that was coming out when I was a kid. I think when I was about 14 or 15, and I read about Star Wars. And I was so excited by the two words: star wars, I went out and bought the novelization because I couldn't stand to wait for the movie to come down to Australia. I tried to analyze that experience. I knew at that age that this was going to be the hottest thing in the world. Why at my age now can I not figure that out? (laughs) So I came at science fiction from a fairly sort of sophisticated point of view. And, I was also a fan of Space 1999, and Dr. Who, and would, quite frankly, watch any sci fi put in front of me. But with Battlestar Galactica, I felt that it was pretty much a rip-off. When I saw the series, I went, "Oh, this is a fairly blatant lift from one of my favorite movies, not done as well." So, I never got past that with that show, even though I have watched and been a fan of other shows that are as... Lost in Space was certainly as camp and silly as Battlestar Galactica could be. For me, the title was never particularly a strong draw. I even lobbied... When the fans of the original sort of turned on us, and became very hostile, and wanted the show canceled, and aborted, and all these things, I said to the producers "Well, they're right. We are not doing their favorite show. Why don't we just change the name?" But they wanted to capitalize on the branding of the name.
Battlestar Galactica 2003 director/producer Michael Rymer
But I would still argue that we never got past that with a certain type of audience who were never going to watch a show called Battlestar Galactica. And that was certainly our goal - was to break out of the science fiction ghetto. And make the sort of show, I guess, I would have wanted to watch when I was a kid; because I love sci fi but I also love good movies - adult movies that they were making in the ‘70s when I was growing up. There would be nothing I would have enjoyed more than something that approached science fiction in a more adult, literate manner which is I think what Ron Moore did. The reason I did it was the script. I started reading it. I read it in one four-hour session, put it down and went, "Wow, what fantastic characters!" Ron's a wonderful writer. And the other lesson I learned coming up as a film maker was: everything is a script - script, script, script, script, script. It doesn't matter how good a job you do as a director. If the script isn't tight, if the scenes and the intentions of the script aren't working or ambitious enough, it doesn't matter how good a job I do. The film will only ever be a realization of a blueprint. If the blueprint is not strong then it doesn't matter how good a job I do as a director. That's a long winded answer for you.
We also see Glen Larson credited as consulting producer on each episode. Was there ever any consulting that you know?
I don't know what occurred between Ron and Glen. I know Glen wasn't thrilled about it, and I know we would all like to talk to Glen. Glen holds the feature rights, and we would all like to talk about that, but I don't know. I think he still plans to use the title to make a feature version of the old show or some permutation of the old show.
There were also revivals tried out by Richard Hatch and by Tom DeSanto. Did you ever talk to them about the revival of the series?
No, Richard is a great guy, and did such a great job, and had started being quite hostile toward us - wishing we would go away. Then when we didn't and Ron approached him, he took on a great role and a complete 180 degrees from his original Apollo, and made a real contribution to the show. So, I don't know what Richard Hatch wants to do now about that. I personally would rather see him play Zarek in a feature than an old Apollo. Tom DeSanto - I have met. He's a very nice guy. I didn't really get involved in Battlestar until... I gather that he wrote a draft and was going to do it at Fox. Actually, I have no idea why they abandoned that and decided to start again.
Because of 9/11, they were not waiting for any shows like that with the complete annihilation of mankind. So that's why they postponed it for a couple of years, and then Ron Moore came.
Yeah but I don't know how Ron Moore got to... He didn't have the right... Somebody approached Ron, I believe. I don't know why they didn't just go with Tom's script. But, anyway, a bit before my time.
I don't know if the Mini-Series was shot as a movie or more like as a TV series. Because in a TV series you have producers and directors, and in movies you have directors who very much visualize the movie and what it looks like. On series, you have producers who do that. I was curious what was the case for the Mini-Series?
It was a strange animal. Normally, I have done a few television pilots; and they are pretty much made by committee, very much controlled and dictated by the producer/writer, exec[utive] producer, or the even the studio or the network. They are very hands-on. With the Mini-Series, Ron was off show-running Carnivale, so he had very little involvement. So David Eick was sort of the hands-on producer. He and I were making all the casting decisions, the set decisions and design decisions. We had a really decent budget which allowed us to tackle things in a more elaborate, feature-like way. And, we were able to build most of the sets out of that money which allowed the TV show to have a much higher level production value than it might have had if it had to pay for the sets in their own sort of micro budget. So money has a big thing to do with that. Part of that is also the time. We had a very long, feature-like schedule to make that. We showed it on film - 35 mm. So it was very much like a very long feature film.
Battlestar Galactica 2003 producer David Eick and director/producer Michael Rymer
I come from feature film directing. And I, for quite some time as an audience member, really appreciated the long form of serialized... so, eight, twenty hours, whatever it is. Because I started to find the basic three act movie a little bit contrived and unsatisfying. It was just a lot of fun to watch twenty, thirty hours of one show like The Sopranos, like you were reading a book. And when we got into Battlestar [Galactica] there was a discussion about... obviously the network would have preferred more episodic shows, more stand alone shows. And Ron was very firm about that and resisted doing that. And when we did experiment with that, we failed. No one, the audience, really didn't seem to respond to those stories. They were more interested in the bigger arcs. They were impatient, so it doesn't matter how good a job I did at directing some of those sort of "bottle shows" as we call them. It was interesting to see how no one cared, (laughs) because they were so interested in the big story. I think the best shows we did, and maybe this is true about the best writing on television is when you get it all going at once, where you somehow manage to tell a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Yet keep the larger story moving. That's, I guess, the ultimate goal of television writing. And I think we sometimes did a good job, sometimes not such a good job.
Did you discuss any [other] series and what [Battlestar] should look like? Because I always thought there was a resemblance to a ‘90s series, Space: Above and Beyond, which is also an action/drama in space with a very specific military feel to it.
That's one show I've never seen. I have heard of it since. I have heard people bring that up. It certainly wasn't one of my influences. My influences are pretty predictable in terms of the movies I reference. There's 2001 [A Space Odyssey] and anything one can do to touch the greatness of that film, even for one scene. There are various and numerous homages to that film. Obviously, the way Ridley Scott handled Blade Runner and Alien. Those are the sort of films you watched to get your own game up as high as you can and say, "Okay, this is what they were able to do." Then there was the hand-held work, which was something that was actually tacked to the front of the script of the mission statement by Ron Moore. So a lot of the so called documentary style of the mini, which at Ron and David's request got more intense in "33." They wanted more of that. Whereas I'm always trying to do dolly shots and sort of balance and mix it up a bit more. But that basic idea was contained the first time I read the script.
Because I also saw that you have a very documentary style of camera work and the shake and rack focuses. The other directors of the episodes don't have that particular [style]. What do you feel that adds to the story?
Can you start that again? Are you saying that the other directors of the show don't use that as much?
I find the other directors have another approach. Your documentary style is far more in the foreground - the shake and rack focuses. And I miss that a bit in the other directors.
Well that's interesting. I wouldn't have generalized in that way. (pauses) Look, I have a basic approach to directing which is basically set up something like a scene that's happening and make it as real, and truthful, and behavioral as you can, and then just shoot it. So it isn't terribly often that I will block a scene with preconceived notions about who is going to stand where, and what image I want to get out of it. Sometimes I'll have an image, some imagery that I want to try to convey. And I'll coax the actors into sort of helping me out with that, or argue that they would be standing farther apart because it's better, more dynamic, or whatever; or it's more truthful. But, most of the time, I am just trying to just be present on set and see what's going on. It's like "Okay, here's a scene, it was written as a love scene; but it's not playing that way. It's all about the tension between them and you sort of have to go with what's happening." You have to sort of be very present and throw away your preconceptions. So often over planning a scene in pre-production, I think, can be very limiting.
Obviously, if you got a big five minute steady cam, or big crane shot, or something that you know you want to do, you have to organize that. You just can't ask for it in the minute. Even [with] a $180 million sum, they are always still finding time. They've got a lot more money, and time, and stuff to get it right and reshoot if it doesn't work and so forth. But there's always pressure to be judicial in your choices; and what I tend to try and do as shows are very long, so I shoot as much coverage as I can get. I'll say "Oh, no, I need a wide shot. I need a reverse. I need this." Usually I'm saying that just as an excuse to get another shot at the acting, because we have an unspoken process that goes on on this particular set. And this is certainly something I set in motion, because my background is in improvisation that I like to give actors a lot of takes. And if they have a lot of takes, or if they know they are going to get a lot of takes, they tend to be a little braver and a little less result oriented. And one of the things I'm most proud about is the acting in my shows where there is a subtlety and nuance in there that I really worked to try to get in there, as well as sometimes flamboyance particularly from someone like James Callis or Michael Hogan.
Battlestar Galactica 2003 director/producer Michael Rymer with actors Michael Trucco and Jamie Bamber
I know there is another director who only likes to do one or two takes and when the actors figure that out, they bring up their game. And, they sort of peak quicker. So that's another approach. For me it's about process, though. I love the process of creating a shot that evolved and developed from the actors, sort of unfold into it. Five or six or seven takes later, it's an unrecognizable piece of cinema from the first take, hopefully. If it doesn't go anywhere people start to ask "What are you looking for? What are you trying?" (laughs) I go, "Well, I'm just trying to get this actor to relax. I'm trying to get this actor to let go of the stupid idea they keep trying to make work." (laughs) There's a hundred reasons to go that many takes. I have a big advantage over the other directors on the show; because I was the pilot director, and I helped create it. I can sort of speak with greater authority. I don't know what it's like to step onto someone else's show and have to figure out how the crew works, and how they shoot, and what the style is. Normally on TV shows, you have a show runner. And they have a tone meeting, and they pretty much spell that out very entirely. Don't do this, do this. Do that, don't do this. On Battlestar, you're lucky if you get a tone meeting, and we actually encourage the directors to bring their own shit to the table. We want them to bring their ideas and staffings. There's pretty much nothing that cannot be made to work, once the communication lines between the actors, and the crew, and the director are flowing.
You said you had visual style and sense. Does it also mean you know beforehand in your mind how every scene will come out and actually shooting it is the most boring part?
No, no, the opposite. That is sort of what Hitchcock does, right? He was the prototype planner. He would plan every shot, and storyboard every shot down to the last frame, and didn't enjoy shooting much. For me, it's the opposite. I like to have a plan. Obviously I have the script and have imagined it in my mind. But for me a lot of the real magic on the show happens in the moment when we're shooting.
Because you let the actors try out stuff and play a bit.
Yeah. And I'm hopefully completely present, and alert, and focused on what they're doing, and the ping-pong match that's going on between the two actors. Sometimes I'll come up to you [and say], "If we just drop this line, or hold this, or this is better unspoken, or if there is a delay here, or if we move the blocking around, suddenly something very exciting is going to happen." And usually with this cast, it does. Just exciting stuff happens. The process of shooting for me is the pleasure. I love being on set, particularly with this cast and particularly with this crew. These camera guys often don't know what's going to happen. And they are able to anticipate, and read the scene, and know where you want to be, and when you want to pan away, and when you want to zoom in. And that's something I'm also proud of. In the first two years, the operators spent a lot of their energy getting beaten up by me and Steve McNutt pissing "Why did you pan off there? You can't pan off in the middle of an important speech like that." If someone is crying and sobbing, you don't need to just go into a screaming close up. Little directing lessons basically that have got them to a point where they can pretty much figure out how to shoot a scene without any director there.
You named some examples of actors like James Callis and Michael Hogan who are great at improv. Can you remember one particular scene that made you lean back and say "Wow, I never imagined it like that, but it looks awesome?"
I'll give you a little moment that I always remember in "33." The scene in the hangar bay, standing by one of the vipers, and Lee is haranguing Kara about taking her meds. The pilots are being given speed to keep them awake, and Kara has a little hissy fit. They are playing the scene and I think take 5, I just said "Okay, fine, we got that, let's just try something different. She's pretty worked up, why not just laugh?" And they liked that idea and cracked up on the next take. It was just a little bit of unexpected, spontaneous human behavior that you wouldn't write. It was too sort of illogical. That's the great thing about improvisation. You listen back to what they are saying and go "God, I'm a writer. I would never have thought of that person responding in that way."
Battlestar Galactica 2003 director/producer Michael Rymer with actress Katee Sackhoff
I could give you more examples, but there are so many. Pretty much most of what Aaron Douglas says is improvised. Even in that moment actually, when the two [of them] are yelling by the viper, Lee leaves; and Kara turns around and sees Aaron looking at them. And she goes, "What's your problem?" And, he just shrugs and raises his shoulders and goes, "Hey, leave me out of it." It was so funny, and human, and real. You just got this sense of this family on this ship, and their relationships, and the shorthand that they have. That, for me, is the whole substance of what we are doing.
Essentially, television is about bringing people's faces in your living room. You come home, and who do you want to spend time with? Do you want to spend time with Bill Shatner and James Spader? Do you want to spend time with Eddie [Olmos] and Mary [McDonnell]? Do you want to spend time with Tony Soprano? It's sort of the last bastion of character. Look, I'm also very proud of the action and the visual effects, and I think Gary Hutzel and Mike Gibson are amazing. And when the shows are finished, by the time Bear [McCreary]'s done his music and the sound design is in, it's an amazing thing. It's a very exciting show. But if those little human gestures weren't there, that to me is what makes it. We are being inundated with comic book movies, waves and waves of them coming at us. And every time I see one, I am looking for that little human moment that's going to make me connect. Okay, it's a guy in a suit; but he is just like me in this moment. I get that. I don't have to save the world; but I get what he is going through with his friend, or that girl, or his boss, or whatever.
Many actors turn to directing and become fine directors, because they understand the actors better. You studied acting for the same reason. Eddie Olmos is good example of an actor turned director. What have you learned from him working on the show, and what has he taught you in his direction of episodes?
The lessons I learned from someone like Eddie have more to do with life than directing. Eddie is an amazing person to be around. He's very elemental. He works from his gut, and sometimes he's completely crazy and wacky. He'll just start talking stuff and you are like, "How the hell do I get him away from this?" But a lot of the time, even when you are having that instinct, you have to really listen and make sure there isn't some genius thing hidden in what he's saying. Things that you wouldn't think would work.
One of the things... Like the first scene Eddie ever did. I said to Eddie - I was scheduling this film - "Right now we have to do the funeral in the first week, which was the end of the Mini-Series. Is that a problem for you?" And he went, "No, no, that's great. I want to start at the end. That's perfect." So we had been shooting for a few days, and the whole cast comes out for this big funeral scene. On paper, it seemed that the scene would play quite gently. But he was... He'd been yelling at the crew for the first three hours going, "We are at war! Forget about the dead. Get on with it. Fight your guts out." And when you go the funeral, it's like, "Well, we're lost. And we're screwed, and we don't know where we are. We lost people. We have no hope. But, maybe we can find Earth." And Eddie started barking this thing out, like just ferocious. A big part of it was him playing off the fact that Elosha had said "So say we all." And there was this sort of half-hearted response. And he understood in that moment, I think maybe the actor understood in that moment as much as the character that he had to do something to pull these people together. And he got up and just was fiery, and ferocious, and just stirred them. And the other thing that was going on behind the camera was David Eick, who is a big American football fan, wanted everyone to cheer spontaneously. And me, being a repressed English/Australian type, was sort of cringing at the idea that it would turn into this big - with all these dead people - would be going rah-rah. Anyway, it became a moot point because by the time Eddie got through first take, the entire cast and eighty [or] a hundred extras were cheering spontaneously and crying. He had really conjured up a whole world just in this one take. I made him do thirty other takes and different sizes and shapes and directions and got some more modulated - quite a bit just in case, which we used. But there was a sort of raw, elemental energy coming out of Eddie that really... I mean, he was a great quarterback on the show. He would really carry the spirit of the cast with him and just fire them up.
And as a director, he would do the same thing. He would just get everyone really worked up, all the time. Just sort of anarchy when he's shooting, he just shoots. He shoots things he just thinks of. He's quite fearless in that way. But I'm not really sitting, watching him direct that much. I'm busy prepping or cutting another show. But Eddie is obviously a great director. He's done great features before he did Battlestar.
Battlestar Galactica 2003 director/producer Michael Rymer
So what do you think? In your opinion, could he still improve in his directing?
Could Eddie improve in his directing? We could all improve. We're never not learning, we're growing. I think Eddie is a great director. He's done some of the strongest shows. Usually the problem with the shows, if there's a problem, has more to do with script and story than execution. If I learned one lesson from working as a PA and a reader before I got to director, again it's script, script, script. And you've got to hone and rewrite until it's perfect, and tight, and everything makes sense, and everything works. You got to really write something as excellent as you know how to make it on paper, even as boring and frustrating as that is. And when you are doing twenty hours of television a year; and there are many, many factors limiting you. Usually we get a script and go, "Well, that's a great script, guys, but we can't afford to do any of this." So they start honing and hacking away. So there are financial concerns, but there are also the time constraints. There is just too much work to be done, too quickly. And that was the hard lesson I learned going into television from features. In a feature, you make every frame of the song as excellent as you know how to do. In TV, there are episodes that are not going to come out as well as others, and you just got to say "Oh, well. Move on." In the first season, I said, "No, no. This is not acceptable, we have to reshoot." They looked at me like I was crazy. (laughs) That was never going to happen.
I was asking about how Eddie could improve, because I wondered if you think it was a good thing that actors turn directors, or if should they should just stick to their own profession?
Oh, no, you couldn't say that. Some of the best directors working today are actors. If you've seen Eddie's work, directing American Me, it's a damn excellent movie. The thing about Eddie's shows is he's sort of fearless. He's always trying to take risks and do things that are bolder choices. I think the last two shows Eddie did, turned out great. You've probably seen the one is Season four. And the amazing thing is to watch Eddie directing and acting. He'll be on camera giving instructions to somebody. Then he'll play his part of the scene - be fiery and fully engaged, storm off the set. And then run behind the camera, run behind the monitors and start yelling directions like "Push in." He's able to juggle these two balls in the air quite easily, which is fun to watch.
I also wonder how often you sit down with the writers to discuss the episode you're directing.
There's a ritual. The scripts come in and then we basically throw darts at the writers (laughs). We beat them to a pulp and go, "That's ridiculous, we've already played this scene. Why would he say that? Why would he do that? This is stupid." And just hammer them. It just... Bless their hearts, not all of them but most of them are very, very good listeners. And they go, "Okay, take the blows." They've been very, very relaxed about changing things to make them work better for us or for the production. And if some improvisation happens, they get quite excited if they happen to be there.
How about Ron Moore and David Eick, are they steering you in that way?
Well, Ron's steering - it's more about loose reins. He allows - Ron particularly - allows me to try stuff. He knows I'm going to bring some big shots, some big imagery, something to elevate his stuff. And if there is something that isn't working, we've been working together long enough that he won't ignore me. He'll listen. Which is a point we've come to, it wasn't always the case. David's been pretty much absent for the last couple of years really. David got pretty preoccupied with Bionic Woman and now he's on another show. They all have got fifteen shows going.
You also wrote some of the episodes.
I got one episode, two episodes which I wrote a draft on and went, "Gee, I don't want to do that again."
Battlestar Galactica 2003 director/producer Michael Rymer with actor Michael Trucco
What freedom were you given on those?
Not much, you're given an outline and you say, "Well, hang on, this doesn't make sense. This doesn't work." And Ron says, "Yeah, well, do it anyway." Then you do it; and he goes, "Yeah, you're right. It didn't work. I'll fix it." So you go, "That was a waste of my energy." (laughs) Look, Ron was rewriting most of the scripts the first two years. I think it petered out the third and fourth year, except for the scripts Ron wrote himself. Being a series writer, writing under a strong show runner, seems to be mainly an exercise in sort of being egoless. You have to just sit back and understand that [it's] nothing personal. Your stuff will get rewritten or chucked out whether it's good or bad. It's got nothing to do with it. Not to say David [Weddle] and Bradley [Thompson] and Mark [Verheiden] and Michael [Angeli] - they have written a lot of strong stuff on their own steam. But they have also had a lot strips chucked away, for reasons that weren't their fault. It's like, "Okay, that idea didn't work. I know you told me it didn't work, but I wanted to see it anyway."
Is it easier to direct your own episodes since you tend to avoid problems in directing later?
Not really because I am able to... If it's something I haven't written and if I think it doesn't work, I'll shoot their version. I make sure I shoot a version I think works better. And most of the time, I'm right about... Not that their scene didn't work, but I got a better version by changing a few lines or deleting a few lines. If I wrote it myself, same issue really. As a director, you go, "What idiot wrote this stuff?" It sounded good when you wrote it on the computer, but now we're here trying to make it work. From my very first feature, I remember, because I wrote that, and I directed, and I've written and spent years refining it. I go on set and went "This all sounds fine, but is this the truth of it? And let's find the truth of it." Usually you end up back on text; because if you've written it well enough, if the beats are there, the actors naturally sort of fall back into the response that was honed, rather than something they're just making up. For me there was always sort of this unspoken process of ritually getting rid of the writer. There is no writer here. They are an idiot, even if I wrote it. Here we are. We have to make this scene. Put the responsibility on the actors. What are you doing? What are you saying? Why? Make sure that they have a complete understanding of all those things even if the writing doesn't.
Do you try to get in some extra storylines for your favorite characters?
(laughs) Yeah. I always enjoy working particularly with James Callis, and quite liked the fact that he got quite serious and heavy for a season and a half. But was quite keen to find a way to bring the old Gaius Baltar back a little bit in Season Four. I was sort of lobbing heavily for this cult of nubile female followers. I think there is something inherently funny about that. This guy who just can't help it, just falling over women everywhere he looks. And James does it so well.
Did he pull any pranks on you?
No, we didn't have time for a lot of goofing around. Eddie will try stuff occasionally, but it's not one of those sets where it's just... We are usually just scrambling to get our stuff. And people are just... There's a lot of laughing and the fun that goes on. But to waste a take on a practical joke is something that'll happen only very rarely.
I'm also interested in some of the cultural iconography. When Roslin was sworn in, for example, the shot very consciously mimicked the iconic photo of LBJ being sworn in on Air Force One and Jackie Kennedy looking on. Was that your doing or was it Ron Moore's?
I can't remember. I think it was in the script. I know that David Eick was very excited about that. And we went to great pains... I guess we didn't go to great pains. We looked at the photo (laughs) and went, "Yeah, we can do that." All the analogy and the allegory - it seems to work really well on the show. I've seen it not work on other shows, probably more contemporary shows, where you're dealing with our world. And somehow, sometimes the symbolism seems a little heavy handed and a little manipulative. But for some reason, we are able to get away with outrageous, sort of allegorical journeys - from torturing prisoners, to stealing elections, to sort of genocide trials. I have come to the conclusion that in the broadest possible way, Battlestar is very much an allegory for the psyche of America, the empire that was blindsided by this terrible tragedy. The reality and the truth of 9/11 and the causes of it are something that are really only beginning to be explored in the public arena. But it's something we've been talking about since Season one or since the mini which is we created this problem.
Battlestar Galactica 2003 director/producer Michael Rymer
What else? It was funny... An interesting example, there was an episode which I think was very well written and very well acted which I directed called "The Woman King," which was basically a story about a doctor who was racially... He was ethnic cleansing the ship, getting rid of people he didn't value. At the time I was joking about how this was sort of our Alan Alda episode - that racial profiling is bad. Normally the politics that we present on the show is much more complexly portrayed than that. Where it's a bad thing happens, you wag your finger at it, and say "Bad." I was trying to make the show not so much about this bad doctor but the other people, Tigh and Adama included, who were privy to this going on but didn't do anything about it. That was my personal, enigmatic belief that evil is not so much about the terrible things men do, but when good men do nothing. Whatever resonance that had at that point in the season, the audience didn't really give a shit. They just wanted to know who the final five were or whatever.
They care more about the story arc than the bottle episodes.
I'm sorry, getting back to my point. What we do, what we've always been quite subversive about, is we have our heroes doing the terrible things that [President George] Bush has done: condoning torture, executing prisoners, rationalizing really, really harsh laws. We have these two liberal icons - Mary McDonnell and Eddie James Olmos - that are basically in a Shakespearean melodrama and doing terrible things sometimes for totally the wrong reason; out of anger, resentment, fear, all sorts of reasons. That's why I love directing the show, because the richness of emotion that's presented. It's not a show that's told in pastel colors. It's bold. It's a bold, rough hewn oil painting - bold strokes, bright vivid colors, emotionally at least if not visually. That and the universality of the timelessness of these stories also helps disguise what could seem as a fairly glib, transparent statement on some kind of affairs issue.
During the third season of Battlestar Galactica, you became both a producer and director. What exactly is your role as a producer and why did you want to become one?
I was sort of doing it anyway. I was giving notes on scripts and cuts, and helping build new sets, and establishing new casting. I was sort of working as a producer, so they basically said "We want you to do more shows, so we're going to make you a producer. We'll pay you more and we'll give you more power. And you basically don't have to do anything that you're not already doing." So it was a formalization of something that was already in existence.
So do you also get first choice of which episodes you direct now?
No, I never got that. The truth is the writers don't know what they're writing that far in advance. In general, it's not that well planned. By the time they start trying to book directors, because good directors obviously are at a premium, and you want to tie them up for another show, [and] book them. We are basic cable, so we don't pay the same rate as a network show. So it's harder for us to get the high level directors. Lately, it's been easier. First, we had a stable of great people, like Eddie and Mike... I've spaced his name. Michael [Nankin] - my other favorite director. And we have had a lot of lemons. We had a lot of guys that came in who didn't get the show, and didn't get us, and didn't do a great job, and didn't listen very well, and didn't direct very well. Then we had guys like Sergio [Mimica-Gezzan]. Sergio did the season opener of 3; and he was always really strong - strong, strong visual director, good with images and action. And then, Felix [Enríquez Alcalá] also very, very strong visually with action. I tend to be more of an actor's director. So I'm quite partial to Bob Young's episodes, because his performances always have a richness to them. Bob Young is one of our heroes. He's an old friend of Eddie's. He's in his 70s and I won't say he's not affected by that, but he does a great job with the show and keeps pace. Makes me feel good. I'm in my 40's, that gives me another thirty years. (laughs)
Were there any constraints placed upon your direction by the producers before this period and how has it now changed?
No, Ron and I had a clash somewhere in Season 3 about a series of different story things, but pretty much a lot of the cast and David Eick disagreed with a direction he was going in. Ron dug his heels in, and I don't know. I got to do all this. So, we've certainly had moments of conflict. And I had a producer credit. It doesn't matter when it's still the same chain of command. It's Ron's show. It's his vision. And if he disagrees with everybody, he's being foolish; but it's his right (laughs). And I think, in general, one of the strengths of the show is Ron never really bothered about the practicalities and the realities of it. We're all parts of his head, of his imagination. And I think any great piece of storytelling, whether its film or TV, it has to come to a single point. If something is done by committee, it's very apparent. So having Ron as the head, the tip of the pyramid, is fine. You had to deal with his lack of practicality or his lack of... Sometimes he wouldn't listen to an actor about what he wanted the character to do. For the most part, he was extremely receptive. But in five years and 100 shows or however many there were, there were times where he just didn't want to... just wanted it done his way. So me being a producer didn't really change that. It was a generous thing that they did, and they wanted me to do more shows. So it was a way of basically taking me off the market where it would be worth my while.
Battlestar Galactica 2003 director/producer Michael Rymer and actor Donnelly Rhodes
You directed many of the pivotal episodes like the opening and closing episodes for all the seasons, the Pegasus arc. I was kind of surprised you weren't asked for Battlestar Galactica: Razor.
I was. Look at the time, I couldn't do both. I couldn't do... I was so excited about the end of Season 3 and really wanted to do the beginning of Season 4, and there was overlap. Razor was finishing as I was prepping, so there was no way I could have done both. And the script I read of Razor was pretty much incomprehensible to me. A lot of work was done in the editing room to make that show work. I think it turned out well, and I know the fans love it. But it's certainly, amongst those of us who work on the show, it's not something we have particularly strong positive feelings about. But it turned out pretty well and I think we just... A lot of us would rather just do the season, and do as well as we can. It's not like we are that brilliant that we can afford to be too dispersed. And that we don't dilute the value of what we do by sort of churning out TV movies.
Did you also work on the final Season 4 episodes?
Did it end like you expected it to end?
No, but the script was probably the best thing Ron ever wrote, which is saying something. So I think we were all terrified that it was going to suck and be really lame (laughs). There was always a lot of good stuff in the season finales. But most of the time, by the time I got the scripts, I got them late. They were patchy and didn't make sense. My creative involvement is most evident in the season finales. I would always shoot extra bits, and plan on doing a lot of cross cutting and tying together, to sort of connect things. I was always the guy harassing Ron saying, "Please, before you conjure up some new mystery, please give the audience some answers to something we've already seen." The season finales were always a big thing, a big job; but they always turned out great, they are always very collaborative and very exciting to work on. But this script was just... It was a work of art. It was a beautiful piece of writing, and very dense, and very complicated, and tonally very subtle, and all sorts of things going on. And that's all I'm going to say about it. But it was a big challenge. It was just enormous. I think I'm not giving any spoilers to say the script got split into three parts, three hours instead of two; because it was just too big. And none of us had the heart to find anything to cut.
That sounds good. So we also learned they are planning on doing as many as three new Battlestar movies or straight to DVD movies. They greenlit the first one, written by Jane Espenson and directed by Edward James Olmos. Are you involved in any of those as director or producer?
No, I'm done. When I deliver my cuts of the series finale, I'm done with Battlestar Galactica. I had a fantastic five year experience, and feel very close to the cast and crew. We did some of our best work, on Ron's best work in the last month. And it was very emotional, shooting everybody's last shots. And I'm sitting in Vancouver here in the sun recuperating. And have nothing but great vibes. So I really have no idea about these TV movies. I know they're sort of ancillary stories that are focusing on other times and other characters. But I need to move on and work on something else for awhile.
So you are also not involved in the prequel series, Caprica?
No, I have no involvement in that. I was actually busy doing another pilot for Sci Fi called Revolution which is currently in post[production], and we are waiting to hear if Sci Fi channel is going to pick that up or not.
According to IMDb, you also have been tapped to direct the new Witchblade movie? Will this be based on the comic or TV series?
Definitely the comic book. I've been talking about that with Arclight [Films] for a couple of years now. And they finally decided to move forward with it. Basically we are going to try to do a comic book in a slightly different way. We don't have the resources of these other films that have $150-$200 million; so we are going to try and approach it in slightly more adult, R-rated manner. And have it be more psychological and more... a little scarier than just an action film. But we are just starting a draft on that now.
Battlestar Galactica 2003 director/producer Michael Rymer
You once said you'd rather have done a character piece with people talking in rooms at the time you were offered Battlestar Galactica. I guess now multiple interesting projects are stacking up for you to pick from. Is there anything on your wishlist to top all of this or is there an urge to do really small independent movies with these small character pieces?
When I'm not employed by a network or studio, I am working usually on a small independent project. I wrote a script last year that I'm trying to get set up. I've got numerous projects in various stages of development. The problem is the independent film sector is very anemic right now. It's very hard to get small films made. And most of my projects are very much on the dark, edgy side, and therefore even harder [to get made]. So I'm very lucky to be given these opportunities to work in television, doing pilots. And hopefully, I'll find another show that I can do a pilot for that I fall in love with, and want to be a part of that I can come and go from. That's a perfect world for me.
You have lived in Vancouver for a long time now, is there any urge to go back to Australia?
I don't really live in Vancouver. I only come here to work on Battlestar [Galactica] which is usually in three, four month blocks. My wife and I are pretty much gypsies. We move around. We do go home every year. We spend two, three months of the year in Australia, with our families. Then take off for another period of work. If I'm not working I would generally tend to be sitting in Australia, writing or trying to set up a small Australian film.
I would like to thank you for taking the time to answer all the questions I had. It became a great, long interview; so I would like to thank you taking the time to doing that.
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