Michael Shanks Biography
Michael directs "Double Jeopardy"
Michael on directing: Leave me aloooooooone!
"You could say that I'd been prepping a while for this," notes the actor. "Directing is something I've wanted to do probably for as long as I've wanted to act. It's just a matter of making the transition. I spent the last two years paying close attention to the way Stargate is shot and how our directors work. Also, whenever I had free time, I'd sit in the editing room and watch how all the pieces were put together.
"So learning the actual step-by-step process of directing and how things are done isn't really that bad. The rest comes out of your own vision of the script that you're given and how you plan to bring the story to life whilst trying to stick to a budget and a shooting schedule. Now that's when you start to feel like you're caught between a rock and a hard place," jokes Shanks.
"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 would be!" 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!"
"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."
"This episode had quite an ambitious storyline and a number of elements to it," says Shanks. "It was probably our longest shoot in the history of the series. Usually we do seven-and-a-half days of principle photography, but in this case it took us ten days. We haven't gone overtime like that since out first year and, in particular, when we filmed our pilot episode.
"We spent two days on location in a forest near Vancouver mainland. All the rest of the work was done inside the studio, and you would not believe the variety of interior locations used for this story. For example, on Stage Six here we built the largest, most expensive set in the history of the show. Then, of course, there was the SGC [Stargate Command] set on the soundstage next door. We also constructed an entire 'world' plus a pyramid within that world on separate stages.
"See, I told you this was a big deal," laughs the actor. "I remember during the first read-through of the script everyone said, 'Oh, my God.' Then the rookie director, me, looked at the script and thought, 'You've got to be kidding.' It was the luck of the draw or just the chips falling where they may, but I ended up with the biggest episode we've done since the series began. It was an overwhelming situation to be dropped into to say the least."
There were many challenges for Shanks. "There's a scene in the episode in which a character is decapitated in front of a pyramid full of people," he recalls. "That took us a while to piece together in the editing room. It was written at the last minute and chock full of story elements. Initially, we were supposed to film it in one day but the work ended up spilling over into the next two days. It was just incredible. There were 25 people in the shot, each of whom had their own beats that were intricate to the scene. So they had to have proper coverage. Then there was the issue of this being somewhat graphic subject matter, and it had to be handled in a way that wasn't gratuitous. We had to be careful, especially because this was for tv.
"Another tricky sequence was one in which Richard Dean Anderson [Colonel Jack O'Neill] was fighting himself. Being the person that he is, Richard is oftentimes very particular about how he wants things done. So to have 'two' of him in the same scene at alternating intervals and then interacting at that level was challenging to pull off," jokes Shanks. "However, Richard made it work. He was the man who pushed the right buttons to make the scene play out smoothly. What a guy!
"I have to give kudos to the entire Stargate cast and crew," continues the actor. "They were super. When I committed myself to this [directing], I did so knowing that I was going to be supported. Everybody stepped up to the plate and was very tolerant and patient with me as I was feeling my way through the process. The questions come much faster to an experienced director and the demands made on him or her are a lot higher. With me, the crew was like, 'Let's just take a breath. We don't have to put the heat on him because he's going through enough already.' The actors were the same, and that helped boost my confidence level."
"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."
"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!"
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. "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."
Does Shanks feel that being an actor helped him as a director? "Yes, absolutely," he says. "Something that a number of television directors do not have is the ability or desire to communicate with actors. You can plan out a scene and know just what you'd like your actors to do, but if you can't express your ideas to them in 'common language' it's going to make both your jobs a lot more difficult. I've had directors or other people with technical backgrounds say to me, 'Jeez, it would be great to be able to talk to actors like you do.' That's flattering to hear, especially since I'm envious of their technical knowledge. SO working with the actors was the easiest part of the job because I was already inside their heads so to speak."
A director must co-ordinate the efforts of all those around, and this took a bit of getting used to for Shanks. "As an actor, you focus on your inner strengths and weaknesses in an effort to overcome any obstacles that might get in the way of you doing the best job possible," he explains. "When directing, you have to pay attention to every conceivable element. The pictures you're 'painting' need to be palatable to the eye of the average person who's tuning in.
"Directing is a completely aesthetic medium. There are times that it's more about how a shot looks than what's going on within it. To me that seems superficial, but it's also incredibly necessary in this medium as well as an important part of storytelling. It took time for this to sink in. I finally realized that, ultimately, it's my job to tell the story regardless of the people that are within its confines. I hope that makes sense. This realization changed my perception of the directing process and really opened my eyes to what it's all about.
"Honestly, my experience directing Double Jeopardy is a blur. The real fun for me came in the post-production process. During the shoot there was no time to relax and enjoy the moment. There was always too much stuff to do in one day and a zillion other things to talk about. Every lunch hour I'd review tapes from the day before and at night I'd prepare for the following day. It was gruelling at times, but it hasn't turned me off from directing. In fact, having finished it, I now feel as though I can take on anything this medium can throw at me."
"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."
A 'Frontier' set visit during Michael's stint as director
"Once I read the script, I knew that I was in for it, " says the actor, who plays archaeologist Dr Daniel Jackson on the sci-fi adventure series. "It was this real special effects fiesta."
"Luck of the draw," says executive producer and fellow actor Richard Dean Anderson. "He got probably our most technically effects-laden episode of the season. It's huge. "Double Jeopardy" is action packed with shoot-outs, vicious aliens, and multiple computer generated visual effects. "Also, we're doing the twinning, and it's nuts," adds Anderson. By "twinning" he means that he and his co-stars play dual roles when their characters meet their robot duplicates - a challenging complication for any director, especially when the doubles come face to face.
They're about to rehearse scene 44, a shoot out between ten characters - two of them played by Anderson, as Colonel Jack O'Neill and his double storm a Goa'uld stronghold. Final body count: sic dead or wounded. Character moments: well, O'Neill rolls his eyes at one point.
"Action Richard!" orders Shanks.
Anderson promptly drops to one knee and aims his forefingers as if they're gun barrels. "Pow! Pow!" he cries. Several stunt guys, costumed as Jaffa guards, flop to the floor. Amanda Tapping, alias Major Samantha Carter, scoots past Anderson and mimes shooting half a dozen of the fifty or so crew members lurking in the shadows around the set: "Pow! Pow! Pow!"
Shanks surveys the bodies and commences negotiations with the director of photography Peter Woest, first assistant director Bill Mizel and executive producer Michael Greenburg over the sequence of the shots for the scene.
The rookie director has envisioned a complex shot which will take in much of the action with a fluid choreography of actors and camera. But Greenburg and Mizel are adamant that the scene can only be shot within schedule if it's done as a series of shorter simpler shots. Anderson too, uttering many apologies to Shanks, weighs in on the side of the simpler sequence.
Outranked and outnumbered Shanks slumps into the director's chair, his head in his hands. "You guys just don't want me to do the wide shots," he wails.
"I guarantee you won't use the wide shot," insists Greenburg. "If we do the wide shot we can kiss away doing Scene 22 today."
Decision made, the crew cranks into high gear, clattering camera, lighting and sound equipment into position, preparing weapons, firing up braziers on the set walls. Shanks turns his focus to a myriad of smaller decisions, such as which way the robots should lie when he falls, and how much blood should seep from his wounds.
In hindsight, days later, Shanks is philosophical about Scene 44: "My process was to focus on O'Neill's point of view towards everything, and involve as many elements around him, choreographed in sync with his point of view, as possible. It actually meant less shots, but it was a more complex sequence, and it would have meant more takes to get exactly what I wanted.
Being a rookie, one of the obstacles to be overcome is that you have a lot of different voices giving you advice. You're at the helm and you're surrounded by people with far more experience saying 'Look, I know that we're not going to get through what you have planned, so let's find a simpler way to go about that.' It becomes a but of a push-pull. The strategy us to find the most palpable alternative while still keeping as much of your vision as possible.
For me it was bout having more fluidity to this scene, but it's difficult to choreograph action sequences all in one. For all the elements to have gone off in just the right way, it would have probably taken a lot longer than it actually ended up taking. It still ended up taking way too long anyway," he says with a wry laugh.
Indeed the scene, which will eventually edit down to an on-screen duration of just one minute and ten seconds, takes hours to shoot. As the cameras are fitted with safety shields, Anderson again mimes shooting at the stuntmen. Stunt coordinator Dan Shea side-coaches, calling out to him who he is shooting, who's shooting at him, when he's hit and where.
Anderson counts the timing out load, right hand then left: "1-2-3-Blam! Blam! 1-2 Blam!" Twenty minutes later, he's still at it, now with a pair of unloaded handguns. When the caterer brings around a platter of food, Anderson wedges a sandwich between two fingers and blams between mouthfuls.
The crew's busy clatter and chatter rises to a mind-addling volume. Surrounded by seeming chaos, Shanks studies his storyboard - a series of crude stick-figures that he admits to having drawn himself. "Those are my pictures," he laughs. "I did that with a lot of the sequences, not just the action ones...little rough sketches about how you want the shots to go. It's much easier to design your shot list and direct that way, knowing exactly what you want." Although today's shots no longer match his storyboard, it's a useful reference nonetheless - a touchstone, reminding of his overall vision for the scene.
"It can be a bit panicking sometimes when you absolutely know that you're under the gun in terms of time, and you thought you designed it so that you're going to be the most time economical as possible, and all of the sudden things start changing, evolving, getting larger, and you realise that, oh my god, I had this carefully plotted out to get exactly what I wanted and now I'm going about it in a different way and I don't know how long this is going to take any more, or how many more shots I need to get the scene."
Despite the episode's action orientation, Shanks is determined to keep the focus firmly on storyline and the character: "That to me present the largest problem - how to retain the through-line of all the different characters, so that we don't get lost in all the flash and bang and guns going off and ships landing," he says. "Ultimately, you have to care about the people involved, and retain that sense of story within this sea of technical elements."
Amanda Tapping is disappointed that Shanks wasn't given a more actor-oriented episode to direct: "I had hoped he would direct 'Prodigy', because I was really excited about having him direct me in some of the bigger scenes I've been given this season. He's a very cerebral man, highly intelligent, and an actor, so he is coming at it from the actor's perspective, but I don't think those tools are coming into play as much as he might have hoped. The show that he's been given to direct is high action, so it's: 'Come around the corner, point your gun and shoot. Now, how am I going to film this?'"
Anderson has rehearsed his handgun choreography to a dynamically precise rapid-fire sequence of violent action. As he waits for the cameras to roll, he announces the "Riverdance" version, and prances through the sequence with his toes pointed and his knees high, in a spoof or Irish dancing. The crew disintegrates into laughter.
Moments later, the soundstage still to a breathless hush. Eyes clued to a video monitor, Shanks calls for action. A grimfaced Anderson whirls and shoots, his guns spitting fire, spattering cartridges, and battering the studio and surrounding neighborhood with a heart-stopping din. The camera zooms in for a close-up of the weapons, too late - Anderson is already falling out of the shot. Mercifully timing comes together on the following take and, with a collective sigh of relief, the crew starts setting up for the next shot.
Shanks is grateful that the pranksters amongst his fellow actors have by and large stayed focused on the job: "All the key actors of the show have been supportive and helpful. As an actor it may not seem like a big deal, but because a director has to think of so many different elements, it's really important that everybody is there to work, with their lines and their beats memorized, and they're focused and prepared to give you what you need.
Key to me getting through it is that I've been very well supported from all the departments," he acknowledges. "Everybody has helped me step up to the plate and provided their best for me."
That's not to say there hasn't been any leg-pulling at Shanks's expense, most notably during filming filming for a scene in which Shank's character is decapitated. "It was funny, actually," says Shanks. "It opened up a lot of room for jokes about the size of the episode and how long everything was taking to do. But I've already lost my head, so what worse can they do to me?" he laughs.
At the end of the first week of filming for "Double Jeopardy", Christopher Judge, who plays Teal'c, phoned Shanks at home, and almost convinced the exhausted director that he'd missed half a day's work.
"I was really in quite a sleep-deprived state at that point," groans Shanks. "He said, 'What's going on with you?' and I said, 'I was asleep!' He said, 'Dude, it's one o'clock,' (meaning it's one o'clock on Friday afternoon) 'what are you doing in bed?' and I said, 'One o'clock? Oh my god!' and I looked out the window and said, 'But it's still dark out!' and he said, 'That's because it's one o'clock in the morning!'"
"We're best friends," says Judge, all joking aside. "I feel bad for him that his first experience as a director is such a huge episode. He cares about the acting, and he cares about the relationships, he cares about the story arcs. But it becomes not about about working with the actors. It becomes a matter of being on the clock - how many set-ups can you get by lunchtime, how many can you get after?
He's definitely risen to the challenge," Judge reckons. "I have completely respect for the fact that he hasn't just thrown in his hat and said, 'Oh, just do whatever.' He won't do that. He battles for every shot, he battles for every piece of coverage, and that's great. As and actor, that's what you want a director to do."
"Shanks? Is he directing?" ribs Anderson, with a look of mock disbelief, when asked how his colleague is doing at the helm. "He's doing wonderfully. He's done his homework, he's worked his fanny off. But it's not without it's maddening moments. He's turned to me a couple of times and given me the universal gesture for wanking off!"
There's no question that Shanks first directing assignment has been a baptism of fire. But two weeks later, he has completed a rough cut of the episode and is pleased with the way it is coming together: "As an director, when you read a script, you visualize it in your mind a certain way, and then the achievement of brining it to life in a way that you imagined it would be is very gratifying."
And several months later when "Double Jeopardy" first screens in the US, for many fans (judging by critiques in the Internet Forums) the episode stands out as one of the highlights of Stargate SG-1's fourth season.
So, given the opportunity, would Shanks direct again? "There wasn't a lot of time to relax and enjoy the process," he says. "Every day was much too big to do. There was such a frantic pace and such a stress level at all time. There were so many different things to think about, especially given the size of the episode. But it never put me off directing. It's something that I want to do eventually. I love acting and still every much plan on pursuing that on a full-time basis. Eventually I want to be able to do both, just to have that diversity of experience.
If I learned anything," says Shanks, "it's how minuscule in the film-making process the actor's actual involvement can often be. And I learned how much of a character the camera can be, in terms of telling the story. The actors become pawns of this larger thing. As an actor you become very self-centered in thinking that it's all about you and your story," he admits. "As a director, you realize that the whole mosaic involves so many more elements."
Given an option, Shanks may not have chosen to cut his directing teeth on "Double Jeopardy", but what an opportunity to lean how to handle action and technical effects! In the Stargate SG-1 blend of science fiction and adventure, episodes are never solely character-oriented. And a "flash and bang" episode still needs a director who can bring out the character and the story. So perhaps, after all, "Double Jeopardy" was the perfect challenge for Shanks.