Stargate Universe: Robert C Cooper interview

The co-creator of Stargate Universe, Robert C Cooper, spares some time to talk us through the new show.

Just before the first episode of Stargate Universe aired, and just after we’d spoken to the show’s other co-creator Brad Wright (you can read that interview here), we managed to spend half an hour discussing the show with Mr Robert C Cooper. And here’s how it went…

I’ve just had the pleasure of talking to Brad Wright and he tells me that Stargate Universe was all your fault!

Really? [laughs] It’s all about blame, isn’t it?

That you were looking for a break, looking to do something different. And then the pair of you realised you could do it with Stargate?

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Yeah. Neither one of us really wanted to do the same thing again. We had felt like we had done Stargate, as it was, almost to death. And that 15 seasons of that type of television, we were running out of ways to be fresh and interesting in the writers’ room.

Neither one of us had intended to make Stargate our entire careers. So far, it’s been most of mine. And I think we were really ready to do something very different, but the network and the studio felt there was still value and life in the brand name. And so we proposed kind of taking a new direction, which we felt the franchise needed to do anyway if it was going to survive.

And we really looked at – I certainly looked at – I think we felt that, Stargate was, obviously, very successful but also, in many ways, the longevity is due to the fact that it kind of flew under the radar a little bit. It was successful within its own niche. It never really did break out in a major mainstream way.

I think that we stepped back and looked at why that was and have taken, probably, a bigger risk in trying to… you know the words “appeal to a broader audience”, in some case, some people interpret that as trying to be more commercial or appeal to a lower common denominator. But I don’t think that’s true. I think we want people to watch our show – and we want a lot of people to watch our show. [laughs]

We want to, I think, appeal to that, sort of, well, universal audience. And I think that we’ve certainly taken some steps to try and do that and whether we succeed or not we’ll see very shortly, right?

And how are you feeling right now, just as we build up to the show premiering?

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Well, you never know. I’m not a predictor. The thing about television is you’re really not sure. We’ve always taken the tact of not trying to pander to a particular audience. While I certainly feel we’ve taken a lot of steps to try and appeal to a mainstream audience, it’s not like we’re trying to cater to that – like we’re going for ratings.

We’re trying to make a show that we think is good and that we would watch. And I think Stargate Universe is much closer than either of the other two shows to a show that I would want to watch. As a viewer, when I sit down to watch TV, this is much closer to the type of show I really enjoy.

I just thought that if I was going to continue to do Stargate, that was something I had to do – to bring it a little closer to something I would be really proud of. Not to say I’m not proud of the other two shows, and the work I did on them, but I feel good about the product we’re putting out there as something I would want to watch and I can only hope that enough people agree with me that I can continue to do my job.

Are you happy with how it’s worked out, then?

The experience has been the best in my career.


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Oh, for sure. The cast is phenomenal. The studio has been unbelievably supportive and responsive to what we’re doing. We had a tremendous amount of creative freedom. And people across the board are just really enjoying themselves – having a great time and some of that comes from Robert Carlyle and his enthusiasm and that trickles down on the cast. And the crew is just a crew that has been around, in many cases, for a long time with us in the franchise and they’ve become reenergised and reinvigorated. 

It’s kind of a vicious cycle that everyone involved is just giving that little bit more of themselves and, I think, feeling quite proud of the work they’re doing.

So, yeah, so far I don’t have any regrets whatsoever for having pursued this. It’s been a fantastic experience.

And you’ve gone through quite a reflective documentary feel with the show?

That was certainly one of the elements that we hoped would bridge some of the gap with today’s audiences. That maybe the sort of documentary, verité style would help people to accept science fiction as more reality. That this was potentially really going on because it was speaking to them in the language of reality TV, which seems to have become a bit of a vernacular, a visual vocabulary for people that when they see things in that style, it feels more real.  

That was one of the things I was going to ask. I know it sounds horribly pretentious, but in some documentary material, and on reality TV, it’s almost like the camera is a character within itself. Is that the kind of thing you were going for?

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Yeah. We wanted people to feel like they were voyeurs. One of my favourite shows of all time is The Shield

Oh, that’s a great show.

Yeah. We ended up hiring the DP from The Shield, Ronn Schmidt, who shot our pilot for us and he helped to bring that tone to the show. And he talked about the fact that when they were first putting The Shield together they wanted…they looked at a lot of Vietnam War footage.. and the whole idea was: what would happen if we dropped a documentary crew into south east L.A. to cover the gang wars and the cops trying to deal with that.

There’s just something kind of intriguing about feeling like you’re a voyeur, like you’re on the ship watching what’s really happening there, as opposed to something that’s staged and going on.

What it has done – and this was certainly something we hoped would happen – but, what it does is it actually inspires better performances from the actors. What you’re doing is setting up almost like a stage play on the set, and you’re lighting it in a more free and open way, so that they can just walk in and perform. And the cameras are going to capture it and cover it.

I think when you try and set things up in a traditional Hollywood style, on a television budget, on a television schedule, it’s really hard to get the kind of magic you might get if you had the time a feature does.

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On a television show, when you create a formula where almost anything can happen you do end up capturing these magic moments that are, sort of, accidentally on purpose. I’m finding we’re getting a lot more of those accidentally on purpose great moments.

Certainly the actors have felt very encouraged to explore – really push the envelope – and we’re finding really, really strong performances that are coming from that style.

How did it affect you when you came to direct an episode yourself? That must be quite a different approach.

Yeah. It was something that I’ve studied and been really interested in. I started to bring it into my own directing style a little bit prior to this, sort of experimenting with a little bit. But I just loved it and it was just so liberating. And what it does is it energises you and gets everybody involved – the DPs, the camera guys – and you end up with this collaboration that really helps in the end.

I kind of hurt myself a little bit as a writer on the first episode that I directed [laughs] because about 40-50% of that episode takes place from the point of view of this flying camera ball. So, in a way I had handcuffed myself because of the way I’d written the story. I almost didn’t get to play in that style very much. The perspective of the show I was doing was completely different. It was really much more of a one shot stage play with this camera that’s kind of floating around and capturing the moments in an even different way.

It was definitely an exercise in different styles!

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What’s the highlight of the process for you? Because I can’t imagine anything more daunting  – and yet, conversely, brilliant – than sitting there with a blank piece of paper at the start. But your hands are in the editing room, writing, directing… Is there a particular favourite segment of that to you?

No. I love it all. In this case, I think, the casting process is always painful. You have ideas and you have ideals and finding things that work are… it’s always difficult. We just struck gold and then working with this cast on the set is very, very exciting.

For me, I love editing too. That’s where you kind of rewrite and see it all come together. You’re dealing with what you got. It’s all good.

Has the casting process got any easier or harder in the last 10-15 years as the genre itself has become more popular? Robert Carlyle, is some capture, for instance, and I couldn’t …

Well, the first thing you have to do is write a script that will attract an actor of that calibre. They won’t just agree to do anything. And I know that’s sort of patting ourselves on the back, but that was the… the attitude going in was we wanted to write a better quality piece, and so we could attract a higher prestige level of actor. Then it follows from there. Because once we had him, we found we had a better quality of actors coming in for the other roles.

We just really wanted to have the opportunity to work with him.

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When Battlestar Galactica was first announced and people were like, ‘Whew, why are they making a series out of that cheesy old show?’ And when they then turned around and said, ‘We got Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos’ suddenly they went ‘Oh! That’s different than what we expected’ and ‘Maybe it’s gonna be good’. That simply came from the ilk of actor that they had on that.

Would you ever be tempted to try and get Edward James Olmos aboard the Destiny?!

No, those sort of crossover things don’t really speak to what we’re doing. We are doing, certainly, big recurring cameos from the other SG folks, so… We have Richard Dean Anderson in six episodes this year. Michael Shanks has been around and Amanda Tapping. We’re happy to mine our own universe.

You’ve been very clear as well, from what it seems, that the characters [that] are coming back won’t be permanent characters, they’re just there for a short period. Is that crucial for you in terms of making the break?

Yeah, this is a show that exists within the world of Stargate but is a new show. And I don’t think fans tuning into this will feel like they don’t understand what’s going on or they had to watch the other series. I think Stargate Universe fans may be people who never saw a Stargate before.

There’s certainly going to be a lot for fans of the franchise to enjoy and they’ll see things that will reward them for being long-time fans. But you don’t have to be to enjoy it. I think it was really important to us to make a clean break and start new with this.

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Is the stargate itself set to take a back seat in comparison?

No, it’s a huge part of the show. In fact, that was one of the things that we looked at, was that we felt like in Atlantis the stargate had become maybe not as important. This show is more a return to the idea that the stargate itself is the device that helps us to tell stories. It’s very much a central icon to this show.

You talk about a central icon to the . The other one, from where I’m sitting  appears to be the Destiny. What were you looking for with the Destiny? What were you looking for with the design of the ship itself?

The Destiny is a character in the show too. It plays both protagonist and antagonist in a show in which it is more about the complexity of human characters than it is about heroes and villains, and good guys and bad guys.

In a way, the Destiny is part of what is a challenge to our people. They’re trapped there and the mysteries of how it works and the fact that it’s very old and falling apart and that we don’t have mastery over it was all very important. It needed to feel like it could be a villain in the story. It’s dangerous. It’s scary.

Those aspects to it were very integral to the design of the series. That the place we were trapped in was going to help to motivate the behaviour of these people. That’s essential and James Robbins, our production designer, did a phenomenal job. 

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Would it be fair to say, then, that one of the underlying themes of Stargate Universe is this feeling of just being out of control? You talk about the ship as a villain, which is a fascinating concept.

Yeah. I see it as a western. It’s like being truly back as a pioneer on the frontier. Not cowboys and Indians western, but people without the means of survival having to scrounge for whatever is around them to survive, as they are hurtled towards an unknown destination.

Whenever I’ve ever flown over the mountains in North America, I’m always amazed that people used to cross that in a horse and carriage. They would just set out for the west coast with what they had. And that aspect of completely being abandoned is an interesting position to put people in, given our contemporary lifestyles. Also, the themes of what we are going through as a people here on Earth, where we’ve kind of returned, in some ways, to pay more attention to the very essence and elements of life. We’re starting to become concerned about air, water, space, all those things.

Does all this allow you to, basically, make every character vulnerable? I’m a great fan of 24, but I know, watching an episode of 24, Jack Bauer’s going to walk away no matter what they to it. You seem to be very much heading for a different dynamic here.

It’s science fiction so it’s never going to be 100% reality, but I think if there’s one recurring theme we came across in the conversations about how to do this show was: make it more real. Make the performances more real. Make everything – visual effects feel more real. Everything, and including the characters.

We always felt that one of the other positives that Stargate had going for it was that it was contemporary. It was placed in the here and now. So when we set out to create characters, we said, look, we have the opportunity to create characters that a really broad spectrum of audience can potentially identify with. Make these real, flawed, three-dimensional human beings that are being put in a somewhat supernatural situation, but that maybe we can identify with their behaviour.

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That is what we were going for on the show. Make it more real. It’s never going to be real, or reality; it’s a sci-fi show and crazy things happen. But I think we tried to, from a dramatic point of view, make the show more contemporary. It always had that going for it and I’m hoping audiences that might not normally embrace a science fiction show, who might tend towards drama, may cross over and say, ‘This is a show I can watch.’  

I know it’s not a completely accurate parallel, but are you looking to something akin to what JJ Abrams has just managed to do with Star Trek? That kind of changing the perception, if you like, of what the show is.

I think if you want to draw the JJ Abrams comparison, then it’s more Damon Lindelof, it’s a little closer to Lost. Where Lost is, essentially, a genre show that crossed over and appealed to drama audiences. That people who might not normally tune in to a hardcore sci-fi show, like a Star Trek or a Stargate, will watch Lost and… It’s as much sci-fi as anything else. It doesn’t have the same skin on it. It’s not all about techno babble. It’s more about the people in that situation. So, I think, if anything, that is probably a better analogy for what we’re trying to do.

Lost is interesting in the way that science fiction is perceived on television now, I think, in that Lost as a show almost hid the fact – it pretended not to be science fiction for a period of time.  

That’s it. If you watch it very much, the explanations for things and the rationales are all… well, maybe not science fiction, but fantasy. And I think there’s definitely room out there for shows, like Heroes and Lost, where they’re essentially genre shows, non-reality shows – it’s not a hospital show, it’s not a doctor show, it’s not a lawyer show – that do appeal to broader audiences.

How far are you into planning the future of Stargate Universe now?

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We’re almost done the season. We’ve shot 17 episodes and we’ve written everything for this year. We’re starting to talk about the beginning of next year. The last two episodes of this year kind of dovetail into the beginning of next season. So we’ve already started to spin that.

Right now we’re just kind of wrapping things up and dealing with what’s in front of us!

Robert C Cooper, thank you very much!

Stargate Universe is on Sky1 and Sky1 HD, every Tuesday evening.