Stargate Universe: Brad Wright interview

The co-creator of Stargate Universe, Mr Brad Wright, chats to us on the eve of the show’s first episode…

The cancellation of Stargate Atlantis was a hammer blow to many of the fans who had followed the show for five seasons. But with a bigger budget, a new premise and the promise of many fresh adventures, will Stargate Universe fill the gap in their lives, and also open up Stargate to an even bigger audience? We talked to its co-creator, Brad Wright, to find out more… I can’t imagine what you must go through a week or two before the show goes out. I’m wondering just how you’re feeling now. Are you so knee deep in the back end of the season we’re just about to start seeing? Or do you get the same butterflies in the stomach that you did first time round?

Well, yes. The butterflies are very much there. But this time, because of the nature of how we proceeded –  we thought SyFy was going to launch us in the summer and that we were aiming for a July premiere. And then we, basically, started prepping for that and they looked at the dhow and said, “You know what? This show is going to be very good. We don’t want to hide it in the summer. We want it to be out there in the fall with all the other mainstream shows.”

And so, we ended up with a ton of time. [laughs] I’ve now done a pass on the final two scripts of the season and we haven’t even been on the air yet. So, in some ways, it’s great. I get to focus more energy on the launch and on conversations like this, because the lion’s share of the preparations for the season have already been done. We’re well into the back of the season and that’s kind of unusual. [laughs] Usually you’re scrambling.

Can you give us any clues to what are in those final two scripts? I have to ask.

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The last two?  No, I’m not gonna tell you that! You’ve got 18 episodes to look at first.

Worth a try!

When the project was very first announced there were initial comparisons being drawn with Star Trek Voyager. And then there was talk about launching a show like this in a post-Battlestar Galactica. Are you conscious of those influences? Were you looking for the direction that Voyager took?

Oh, no. I mean, Voyager was on the air quite some time ago and was rooted in a very, very different kind of mythology. Star Trek is in a distant future and Stargate is set in the here and now. So, our characters carry the sensibilities and characteristics of twenty-first century people along with them. And that has always been the thing that made Stargate unique as a series.

And that continues in SGU, probably even more so, because unlike SG-1 and Atlantis, where seasoned, highly, highly trained professionals were the ones going through the gate, Universe is very much about folks who are not prepared for this. And who are, kind of, thrown together. Not as chosen as a team, but thrust together by circumstances. And so we are finding ourselves with these rich differences between characters that allow conflict from within and not everyone is a hero, which has been the case quite often in previous Stargates.

So are we like Voyager in a sense that we’re way out there in space and can’t home? Yeah, yeah. You could say that. [laughs] And are we like Galactica in that we’re on a ship and things have gone wrong? Sure. You could say that. But beyond that, this show is unique and all speculation will go away as soon as we air. It’s very unique and will stand on its own.

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Is there a frustration to the amount of speculation that your shows tend to get surrounded by – because you generate an enormous amount of content – whether true or not?

Well, you know, the thing about the Internet is that I can make a show, put it up there and read a post from a fan that says, ‘Wow. I was inspired. That’s the best thing I ever watched.’ And click down one post and have another fan say, ‘Wow. That was the worst piece of crap I’ve ever seen.’  So, you know, at the end of the day you have to trust yourself and the general fan response, not specific fan responses. And that comes down to viewership – are people tuning in and do people seem to watching en masse? That’s the only real barometer you have.

You say ‘trust yourself’. You also seem to be challenging yourself an awful lot with Universe. You’ve gone far more down an ensemble approach. I’m also reading about you’re going, almost documentary style. Was that important to you to kind of differentiate and shake up what you wanted to do with it?

Very much so. And I have to give a lot of the credit for that to Robert Cooper, who really out of a desire to do something other than Stargate, realised that – we together realised that we could do Stargate and something different at the same time. It’s sort of have our cake and eat it too. [laughs]

We wanted to bring the show into the twenty-first century. Shows that we watched and admire like The Shield or Friday Night Lights in the States, or Firefly, which was, we thought, a magnificent and short-lived show, they brought a style and an energy to the documentary style, the handheld look, that allow performers to work in their space in a way that really, really adds energy to a show.

Basically, we knew that – from the beginning – if that was our plan, we could do it. As opposed to trying it in fits and starts in certain episodes. Which is what we had been doing. We had been experimenting over the last several seasons. 

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Where are you pitching this one? Because, obviously, you’ve got such a rich heritage with the worlds that you’ve created before, and yet there seems to be a keenness to get this to appeal to a brand new audience as well.

Well, that is true. And one of the ways we think we’ve been able to succeed in doing that is by stripping away – we’re acknowledging that the mythology of the other two shows exists – but we’ve kind of created a situation where that has been stripped away and is not necessary for a new viewer to get what’s going on.

The stories, certainly in the beginning of SGU are very elemental. They’re very literally elemental. We’ve decided that our shows are called ‘Air’, ‘Water’, ‘Earth’. Very, very, man-against-man, man-against-nature stories.

And because there is no enormous mythology of a big, overriding alien, that we have to learn, then it’s mainly about the characters. It’s a character drama. So, as you learn who these characters are, you’re finding out about the show at the same time. And that’s all you need to know to enjoy SGU.

The trailer that we’ve seen – we’ve not seen an episode yet – looks really good, and also looked really expensive. Two things, really: number one is I’m reading that you really pitched for a heavier investment this time round. It also seems that you’re centering most of the show, around 70% I’ve read, in what is in effect one location. Does that help you out as well in what you’re trying to realise, in stretching the budget further?

Well, no. They gave us more money. [laughs]

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It’s true. MGM stepped up to the plate and this looks like a network quality show, and it is. I’ve often said when fans, or anyone, has said, ‘Your show has fun storytelling but it doesn’t look like as expensive as a network show.’ My answer was, ‘Well, it isn’t.’ And this is. It looks fabulous. You’re absolutely right, it looks like money. But it is also incredibly well designed by James Robbins and we have still managed to come up with ways of scrimping and saving and getting it all on the screen.

I wouldn’t say it’s seventy percent in one location. We go to Earth. We go to several other worlds. It’s just that we’re not going every week to a different planet. We’re definitely telling stories aboard Destiny. Because Destiny in itself is a wondrous location.

When you started off doing SG-1 people were watching these shows on 4:3 ratio smaller TV screens. Now more and more of the homes that your shows are going into are going into high definition widescreen TVs. Does that change how you approach a show like this? That you think you can be more cinematic to a home audience?

Well, yes. In fact, I would argue that to fully enjoy SGU, HD and widescreen really help. Because it feels more cinematic. It is. The framing of 4:3 seems so old-fashioned now. And it really does feel more cinematic in full 16:9, it really does. I mean, hell, we’d like to go 1.85:1. [laughs]

Do you think you will one day? Do you think that’s in the future?

I don’t know. It will take time. I’d dare say not more than half the population has 16:9 high definition televisions yet, so… I wish they did, but I don’t think they do.

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You talked about the overriding threat of the aliens just before. Again, much has been written here about how we’re moving away from men-in-suits aliens, not just on Stargate, but across the board, really. Your aliens in SGU are CGI – do you miss the immediacy of seeing the shot in the camera lens? Or is it just completely offset for you by just what you can do?

Does it seem weird to watch the dailies and watch a cut? It’s actually a challenge when you’re putting the episode together in the editing room… I mean, don’t forget we actually participate in the editing process, and so we have to help decide, okay when does the alien come in… okay, they’re coming around the corner now and so… But most of that is pre-planned. And quite often the CG alien is replaced with a person in a grey outfit with a grey sock over their head. So, it’s kind of funny to perfectly honest. [laughs]

But we’ve done CG creatures for so long, whether or not they’re full-size – human-size – but we’ve done a lot of CG creatures over the years and we’re just used to it. It’s like putting a cut together and having to imagine the music. That’s part of the skill of being a television producer.

Personally, I’m really excited to see Robert Carlyle heading up a TV show, appreciating that it’s an ensemble cast.

You should be, because he’s bloody magnificent.  He really is. I can’t tell you how delighted we are and how amazing he is.

I’ve been a huge fan of Robert Carlyle’s for a long time. I think it’s long overdue he gets a TV show like this. I couldn’t be more thrilled that he’s in it. It really is throwing someone completely different into the mix, which you seem to be doing quite a lot with your casting. What was your approach there?

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Our approach was we had this character that we thought would be interesting to someone of Robert Carlyle’s ability and because it’s not the hero. He’s almost as much a villain as he is a hero, and definitely is so when we meet him.  We didn’t think we’d get him. [laughs] I’m not gonna lie to ya. He was number one on our list and our casting director said, ‘I think I get him on the phone with you to have a conversation.’ And I thought we’d have a nice chat and that would be it. But we really got along quite well and he responded to the material, and he was at a point in his life where he wanted to try something new.

So, it just… I feel very, very fortunate. I’m still quite surprised every time I see him and go, ‘My god! He’s in my series! [laughs] But he’s also this wonderful guy. And a great, great actor, with the most amazing work ethic.

That’s the one thing that I think  – we have a lot in common in terms of how we like to approach work. It’s not supposed to be a root canal. It’s supposed to be fun. You come prepared and you do your scenes and television, when it’s going well, and when the scenes are good, it’s fun! And everybody’s having a very good time. And it’s brought the bar so high.

We’ve also got Ming-Na and Lou Diamond Phillips. These are big, strong actors and our young kids on the show are really strong too.

I was talking to Lou Diamond Phillips last week about it and one of the things he said was it was important to him, that he just came completely cold to the show. He didn’t arm himself with lots of DVDs and have a big viewing marathon. And the casting you’ve done seems perhaps not anti-Stargate, but certainly very different from where you’ve gone before?

Well, we have. In part because these are the wrong people. These are not the people that are supposed to be on the ship. And so you have the teen computer geek in Eli Wallace. He’s not a guy you would send on this mission. Chloe Armstrong (Elyse Levesque) is very beautiful, quite young, well over her head, fish out of water in this show because she found herself in circumstances, and shouldn’t be here.

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Beyond that, of course, Lou Diamond Phillips’ character is a tough guy and he was supposed to go and, of course, he end up not going. And that’s the crux of his character. 

But, you’re right. We went for an ensemble that we knew we could balance and throw a number of them together and they could perform together and create sparks. And they certainly do.

Would it be fair to say that it’s going to be an ever-changing ensemble too? It’s been reported that several characters don’t make it to the end of season one. And without wishing to dig too much into spoiler territory, is it your longer term intention to keep replenishing the cast and keep changing the ensemble around?

It’s kind of more like Lost where – you know how suddenly there was somebody on the other side of the island? [laughs] In Lost there’s a lot of people on that plane and you didn’t get to know them all at once. So some of them step forward… and in this sense, there’s over 80 people who end up on the Destiny and we’re not going to get to know them all at once.

So sometimes you’re going to meet some and they’re going to stick around. And sometimes you’ll meet some and they’re not.

Have you any idea how Lost is going to end? Have you got contacts there?

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[Laughs] I have no idea!

One of the things I like and, obviously, it’s appealing to the fans, is you’re bringing a few of the old faces back for cameos. Was that important for you?

Well, it’s important for a couple of reasons. First of all, it helps our fans, our ongoing fans remember and realise that this is part of the Stargate universe [in the small ‘u’ sense]. If Jack O’Neill is head of Homeworld Security in SU1, then so is he in Stargate: Universe. That’s part of it.

And I think fans of the show – fans of SG-1, certainly – and hopefully, going forward, fans of Atlantis will be happy to see the familiar faces. We didn’t invent this. Star Trek did it for years!

Talking about Lost just before, one of the things I wanted to ask you is it must be an enormous job mapping a series like this out. Do you have an end point of it when you first conceive it?

No. Whether I do or not, I’m not going to tell you. [laughs] Robert and I have learned one thing over the years on SG-1 and Atlantis and that it that creating opportunities for more stories is always the way to go. And widening the universe of your series is a way of giving a show legs, if you know what I mean.

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We have now, in Universe, added another amazing storytelling device in addition to the Stargate, which is maybe the best ones of all time. And that is a ship, a ship called Destiny.

And so, the possibilities are so enormous in terms of storytelling potential going forward that I wouldn’t race toward any kind of ending any time soon.

You talk about the ship there almost as if you treat it as a character in itself.

It is. This is a beautiful, beautiful set designed by James Robbins and it is – there’s a Jules Verne feel to it. It’s very old. It’s not pristine like Atlantis was. It’s got a steampunk feel. And Rush, especially, has a bond with Destiny that’s [deep] and is getting deeper. So, yes, I think it is a character. Definitely as part of the milieu, it’s very rich, very rich. And part of the reason the show looks like a million bucks.

Obviously, the world is still full of SG-1 and Atlantis fans. I’m sure you’re asked this all the time, but I have to add my name to the list, I’m afraid. Is there any movement or any news on the TV movies?

The fact is that this is not a climate that MGM is capable of launching a DVD movie. The DVD market has just collapsed and so both movies are on hold right now. I don’t know how long we can stay in this situation but we still have the scripts, we still have the intention and we still have the desire to do them. It’s just, unfortunately…a lot of things changed in the world in the last year, since we started this process and I’m just delighted that at least we can move forward with SGU. If we don’t get everything we want, it’s because of that climate.

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Is it your longer term intention to give SG-1 and Atlantis a definite end at some point?

To be honest, no. I don’t like ending things that don’t need to be ended. Like I said earlier, one of the reasons I want to include Daniel and Jack and Carter in cameo roles – and they’re actually bigger than cameo roles, in some cases – in SGU because it reminds the audience that there is, sort of, an SG-1 world continuing on.  And that those folks are out there doing their thing right now – which I think is more fun to think about than they all went home. [laughs]

Do you see future Stargate series to explore or there other dream projects on the side that you’re looking to investigate at some point?

Well, I certainly would love at some point in my career to do something other than Stargate. I had such a good time doing The Outer Limits, because it was science fiction and then Stargate but I didn’t do science fiction before then and I would love to any other kind of show.

As long as I’m having fun, and I certainly still am, I have no great burning desire to run out of the building and do something else. But whether or not Stargate continues… it’s out of my hands. It could happen ten years from now there’s another Stargate series and I wouldn’t be surprised because it is a brand now, a franchise. It’s larger than anyone person and I’m happy to still be associated with it and still be, in many ways, one of the driving forces behind it. But it could be interesting as an old man in my rocking chair to be watching Stargate Whatever [laughs], launched by a bunch of  new young guys who were watching my shows when they were kids.

I think you’ve got an awful lot of DVDs to watch when you get to that rocking chair!

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[Laughter] Don’t forget, I’ve seen them all!

Brad Wright, thank you very much!

Stargate Universe begins in the UK on Tuesday 6th October at 8pm. It’s on Sky1 HD and Sky1.

Check back soon when we’ll be talking to the show’s other co-creator, Robert C Cooper!