Isabelle Meunier, SFX #70, Nov 00
Michael Shanks' introduction
to directing for TV hasn't quite turned out as he was expecting.
A nice, easy, dialogue-heavy,
character piece, they promised the aspiring actor who's been playing Daniel
Jackson on Stargate SG-1 for 4 years now. The kind of filler episode where
he could rely on the relations he's built up with his fellow cast members
to ease him into his shot calling duties.
That's not quite how things
turned out, as Shanks' knackered voice on the other end of a transatlantic
phone call pays testament.
"When I first read the script,
I went, 'Oh my God, you've got to be kidding me!' Because it was the complete
opposite of everything that, in a perfect world, I had hoped the script
And he doesn't mean that in
a bad way. He wasn't handed Stargate's equivalent of "Spock's Brain" or
The Phantom Menace. What he'd been handed was, he recalls, "one of the
single biggest episodes we've ever done.....if not the biggest ever in
terms of the elements involved."
And though it's now all done
and dusted and in the can, he still sounds exhausted. "Absolutely! I think
I'm still kind of feeling the effects of it." He chuckles. "Every day I
had a little leap of joy in my heart when everything went right and I had
an incredible sinking feeling when something was not working and I didn't
know how to fix it. The ups and downs were incredible!"
"Double Jeopardy" will be one
of the major event episodes of season four, drawing together various plot
strands, advancing the show's mythology and setting the scene for the ongoing
background plot in season five. Quite a responsibility for a first time
"It was an eye-opener for sure,"
laughs Shanks. "Not completely unexpected because I had anticipated most
of the pitfalls. It was very difficult because of the nature of the show
we were doing."
Having prepared himself mentally
for 6 months to do one kind of episode, did he doubt his producers' sanity
when he saw what they'd actually given him?
"Oh absolutely," he laughs.
"I was a little bit scared, wondering I'd signed myself up to do, but I
think the key to overcome that is preparation; talking to all the right
people and making sure that every detail is as specific as possible."
Finally feeling confident every
possible angle was being covered, Shanks enthusiastically went to work,
but was immediately thrown off balance by the unexpected problems.....
That's one reason why it was
so exhausting; you have to be on the ball all the time, control every conceivable
department, answer all these questions. And all the time you come across
little things you hadn't thought about! You really have to learn how to
think on your feet and do a little bit of tap dancing every now and again
to cover your butt, because you have been looking at the broad strokes
too much or paid too much attention to something that probably didn't need
that much attention."
Each SG-1 episode will have
an average of seven and a half days shoot, but "Double Jeopardy" proved
to be anything but an average episode. "This ended up being a ten and a
half day shoot, plus second unit." Shanks explains. "We had a lot of action
elements involved, special effects and whatnot. It was like there was some
kind of catch to every scene we shot; some element of visual or special
effects was always gonna take up more time than we planned for."
Thankfully, nobody blamed Shanks
for having to work overtime, understanding that he had been thrown in a
very deep deep end. "That's exactly it; you get tossed in and it's 'Swim
boy, Swim!' but it wasn't like anybody was saying. 'why's it taking so
much time?' There's obviously time constraints in television, but everybody
knew at the outset that this was an unusual story, and that it was going
to be 'a challenging thing for Michael to take on for his directorial debut'
so to speak."
So his producers, co-star, Richard
Dean Anderson included, must have had faith in his abilities. Either that
or they really hate him! Shanks laughs.
"Ultimately, it's not just about
faith in me; I'm supported by a bunch of very talented and experienced
people. They were around to stop me from dropping the ball any time it
looked as like I was about to, which you know, I'm sure happened- I just
couldn't tell you specifically where. With a group of people like that
watching your back and covering your butt, that's exactly why I chose to
make my directorial debut on this shoe; you know that, ultimately, you're
gonna be more supported than you would be if your tried it somewhere else."
The technical side of the episode's
storyline demanded the whole gamut of directorial nightmares; blue screen
interaction, visual effects photography, action scenes and, for good measure,
"We had a lot of fight scenes,"
he recalls "and a lot of twinning - twinning being character duplication
- because of the theme of the episode is that the SG-1 team comes across
their old double robot selves that were duplicated in the season one episode
"Tin Man". So that involved a lot of split-screens, photo doubling and
things like that. We also did 2 days on location in a forest somewhere
in the lower mainland."
But was it fun?
"Surprisingly, no." he sighs.
"Not fun because of stress. But I enjoyed myself. I cherish and savour
the experience. The learning process for me is very enjoyable. The fun
quotient was very minimal due to the fact that we were so under the gun
every day; there was no time to relax and soak in the experience, It was
always go, go, go!"
The Stargate crew are notorious
pranksters, but this time, reckons Shanks, they were sensible enough not
to prat around. "Nah, they were very good," he reckons. "They hinted that
they might be up to something, but because they're friends and very supportive,
when push comes to shove they were very professional, prepared and ready
to rock 'n' roll. They gave 100%, went above and beyond what they would
Having grabbed the bull by the
horns with "Double Jeopardy", directing another episode must seem a doddle
"I definitely gained some confidence
by going through this experience," he concedes, "and given the nature of
the episode, I don't think there's a technical element you could hand me
on a show of this nature that I would feel uncomfortable with, because
I've literally seen it all. It's just a question of what I'd do differently
or better the next time how to overcome the mistakes that I feel I've made."
So he wasn't put off by his
recent experience? "That's one thing it didn't do. What does not destroy
us makes us stronger, and I definitely wasn't put off directing! It was
certainly a unique experience for me in terms of jumping into the fire,
and it was quite a large fire! I would say maybe not as enjoyable as it
could have been," he adds ruefully, "but it certainly made the learning
curve much sharper and stronger for me because I had a lot of elements
to deal with."
Before he next dons the director's
hat again, Shanks first has to recover from his ordeal, which should take
"A whole year!" he laughs.
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