An Interview with Stargate's Co-Executive Producer, N. John Smith

N. John Smith You need to sink a mothership, populate an alien world, or rewrite the laws of gravity? The man to see is N. John Smith. As the co-executive producer of Stargate, he is the man behind the finances and the schedules, the one who takes the creative vision and finds a way to make it happen within a strict budget and a seven and a half day shooting window. Making the incredible feasible on a daily basis is a challenge, but then, he's had a lot of experience.

In a nutshell, he describes his job, "The writers write the scripts, and they give them to me. I get them before anybody, and I look at them and say, okay, what do we want this to be? Do we want it to be a million dollars over, or do we want it to be a hundred thousand dollars under? Where do we want to be? We have a budget of so many dollars a year. The episodic budget is the number, times 22 episodes a year. So over the year, we have allocated so much money to spend on the series. And it's my job to spend every nickel of it and be one cent under budget at the end of the year. It's what you ideally shoot for, so that our credibility is totally irreproachable from anyone at MGM who supplies us with that money."

Smith allows it's "not too hard a task," despite the many unknowns that must be weighed. Sitting in the SG-1 offices on a sunny July morning, the production is midway through season six as we chat, and the conclusion of the season, as well as the future of Stargate beyond year six, is still in doubt. Hitting the budgetary goal by season's end calls for a healthy dose of foresight. "We try to hit that number. We don't always know what the number is. We're shooting episode 14 right now, and some of the costs for episode 8 haven't come in yet. And it's getting close to the end of the year, so how do we spend the money for the next 8 episodes? We're not really sure, so it's a bit of a crap shoot. At this point in the season, we're a million dollars US, approximately, over budget. I've got to get it back on budget. Just today we saved $70,000 with a little flip of a coin, and instead of doing the next episode in seven days with a half day second unit, I'm going to do it in six days with a day and a half second unit. The budget went from $12,000 over to $47,000 under, just by making that decision. So I let Robert and those guys know what I wanted to do with it this morning, and that totally makes sense."

Episode 17, Disclosure, has already been planned as a clip show which will serve the dual purpose of providing background for the various story arcs and reducing the production budget dramatically. "We're only going to actually shoot 21 full main unit episodes of Stargate this year. We're going to shoot one episode, a clip show, all as a second unit. So in effect we will save almost a whole production budget of one episode, which puts us totally back on budget, in fact under budget, so we can wrap up to the end of the season this year. We'll be under budget enough that we can maybe put some big shows together for the end of the year, just by simply doing that."

Sets, props, cast, special effects, all must be taken into consideration once the writers complete their scripts, and science fiction, by it's very nature, provides some unique challenges. "When they write a story about something, I have no idea how it, in fact, reflects on our budget until I actually see it. Are there ten stunts in it, are there two stunts in it, how many sets are we building, what all does it entail to put this thing together? We start building sets three and four episodes ahead of time on Stargate because our sets are so massive. On a normal television series, like a cop show or something like that, normally you get the script, you build the sets, in seven days you're prepping, and away you go. Sci-fi is a little different, especially Stargate sci-fi, because we do such massive big sets, and we've got to make all these weird props, this stuff that you just don't walk down to the store and buy. You have to make them." Despite this, the story comes first. "Our policy is, don't write with your calculator. Write with your computer, and then let's look at it. If we can't figure out a way to do it with the type of money we want to spend on it, then we'll cut back, but don't write with your calculator. The beauty of it is that our guys know when they're writing something, how much it's going to cost. They know what an effect is going to cost when they write it. So we pretty much know when we read the scripts, oh, this one's going to be way up there, and we all know that. It's just such a smooth operation, and that's all because everybody's on the same page. We don't very often say no to anybody about anything. We always say, sure we can do that! We might not quite do it exactly this way, we'll do it a little bit that way, but we always get to the same final goal, that's that it looks pretty good.

"Our creative people on the show are exceptional, I think second to none in television. I've been doing this a while, I've seen a few other shows and how they do things, and our stuff stands up. It's feature quality on television. And that's what we're trying to do here. We're trying to, basically, on a TV budget, give a feature look. And so the production people are all on the same page. We never argue about anything. We just do it. We're all tuned in to do exactly the same thing, and it's just so much fun to do it that way because you're all part of the same direction. You know, some executive producers have these big swelled heads and it's like, 'You're not going to do that with my script! You're not going to shoot that fourth scene second unit. No! I have a vision of this!' And they will not vary from the vision. Well that's one way to do it, but it's not necessarily the right way to do it, and it's not the way we do it here. It's a collaboration. Everybody on the show is as important as the other person. And it's basically my job to funnel it into the right place so that we can, number one, have a good creative effort from everybody, and number two, have the show looking good and the ratings stand up."

With different episodes in a constant cycle of pre-production, production, and post-production, Smith manages several episodes simultaneously. In addition to keeping an eye on the budget, he is also responsible for putting together the crew, and for organizing the scheduling. Richard Dean Anderson regularly acknowledges his gratitude to John Smith for the magic he accomplishes with shooting schedules, allowing Richard more time with his family, and thus influencing his decision to return to the series each year. That kind of involvement doesn't make for many 8-hour days. "I'm prepping one and shooting one at the same time," Smith explains. "My responsibility now is if somebody phones me from the set, and we're behind an hour, I've got to go over there. I come to work at 5:30 in the morning. I'm there when everybody gets here and I'm usually there when everybody leaves. I'm a really hands-on guy that way, because that's how I started doing it. Most producers come in the office at 9:00 and they leave at 5. That's not how you get the job done. I have breakfast with my crew in the morning, and if anybody's got anything going on, I usually hear about it. And then when I hear about it, I address it right away. And that's sort of the secret. My production manager, John Lenic, is the same. You don't find out what's going on, you don't hear what's going on unless you're there. You've got to be there, morning and evening. And what it does for the crew is, it shows them that 'This guy's prepared to get up the same time of day as I am.' They can't say production only works 8 hours a day. It's a team effort. I'd rather be one of the guys. Brad's the same. Brad's in here at 6 in the morning, lots of times, writing. Robert, he probably gets up at home. Those guys do their creative stuff, they write at home 'til midnight. So, the whole production team on Stargate, which is basically responsible for the show being what it is, we say, if we have a problem pulling this off in seven days, okay, I'll fix it so we can."

In addition to long hours, the job calls for a certain amount of flexibility and spontaneity as well. In mid sixth season, the future direction of the franchise was still very much in doubt. "We've all been spending a lot of time in meetings looking at different scenarios," Smith explains from the perspective of that morning in July. "We've had some different scenarios thrown at us from MGM, so we're at a situation right now where I'm not really sure, are we wrapping a season this year, are we doing a feature after, is there a spin-off, what's going to happen? We're just kind of proceeding along. The writing staff we have, they're very talented, they're all really good, and they can all dance around a little bit. We may have to put in 24 hour days for a few days to write scripts, to finish the year off, but we have some really good positive ideas for finishing the season." As for the proposed feature, Smith adds his opinion, "I think, business-wise, if the product is good, and you have an audience, and the fans say we want it, then they're going to try and make it. If everybody that watches the show every week went to the feature, it's in a profit situation. It totally makes sense to make it. Whether it happens or not, I don't know." Although he feels the cast and crew are more than up to the challenge. "Everybody on this production has worked on features. I've done lots of features. Michael Greenburg has. We have a feature quality crew. Stargate as a production team has proven itself over the last six years. But for all intents and purposes, if the feature's made, it would be nice if we were working with the same bunch of people that make the series. It's a pretty tight group of people who do a great job."

Beyond that July morning, after months of uncertainty, season six had already wrapped when the decision finally came from MGM. Not only would Stargate return for a seventh season, but the proposed spin-off, Stargate: Atlantis, would continue in development, and the feature film is still very much a possibility on the horizon. As Stargate looks ahead for the debut of season seven in June, the future of Stargate looks brighter than ever, a credit to that talented team that has made it happen.

With the future full of possibilities, Smith looks back fondly on the road that brought him to the Stargate team. As a witness to the birth of the film industry in British Columbia, he has played a significant role in the evolution of the business. "I've been working in the industry since when there wasn't really an industry here," he says. "I've been doing it since 1964. I was going to school, and I worked as an extra on one of the biggest feature films that were ever shot here in Vancouver. It was an English-Canadian co-production. And it was a big thing in those days. It was a two and a half million dollar budget in 1964, which was a ton of money to spend on a feature film. It was called The Trap, and it starred Rita Tushingham. But it was a big production. It was a period thing, and it was a lot of fun to work on."

As fate would have it, his experience as an extra was only a taste of things to come. He found himself drawn back into the business when a television series literally came knocking on his door. "I lived in a little fishing village up the coast called Gibsons. It's on the mainland, but it would be a long way to drive around to it, and there's no road, so it's a ferry ride across to it. My grandfather built a building where I used to live, and this television series approached myself and my family in 1970 to do a television series based on what I did for a living in those days. I was in the salvage business, I salvaged logs. The timber industry on the coast here is a big industry, and when there are storms, the booms break loose and there are scattered logs everywhere. Somebody has to pick them up. That's what I used to do for a living, and I'd been doing that since I was 14. And this film came to my hometown. I was a young man, my first child wasn't even born yet, and they wanted me to do four months as a technical advisor on this series, and they said we want to rent your equipment, and we want to rent a building that you own. So I said, this is great. I mean, it's something I don't know anything about, but I'd be more than happy to. So I worked on that for four months, and they came back for 19 years. It became the longest running series that ever went on in Canada. Everybody in the film industry in Vancouver in those days worked on that show." The series was The Beachcombers, and Smith acknowledges, "It was basically the beginning of the film industry in the province. It became a training ground for all these people that went through the show that are now the art directors, the directors, the head props people, in the whole film industry in British Columbia."

His expertise with boats continued to bring him work, and as more productions discovered the magnificence of the British Columbia coast, he found himself more and more in demand by the filmmakers. "I ended up in the production end of the film business. I met a lot of people, any time a boat movie, or anything to do with water, came to British Columbia. And feature films always had scenes on the water. That's one of the reasons they came here was all this. It's beautiful, so let's write a scene that involves a boat in it. I got to work on all of it, so I met a lot of people. I got to know people from all over the world."

Even when he chose to retire to raise his family, the business continued to seek him out. "Then I retired," he continues. "I got divorced, and I have custody of my four kids. They were all young, so I said, I'll sell my business, and I'll stay home and raise my kids. And I did that for two years, and I got a phone call from somebody at MGM who I'd worked for years ago. He said, 'I want you to produce a television series for me.' I said, you don't even know me. He was just a guy that I'd done a project with as a boat operator. I didn't really know him as anybody, but he checked me out. So he said 'I want you to produce this show, I know you can do it.' I said I don't know anything about production, and he said, 'I know, but you're a business person. You can do this if you want to do it.' So I said, send me the stuff and I'll look at it and put it together, and I managed to pull it off. We shot 22 hours of it, some here and some in the Bahamas, and shot it for US$600,000 under budget, and he was as happy as a clam. So they offered me a job down in the States, and I continued. That's how I got into the production end of the business. And I've never stopped. I've been totally busy, doing either one or two projects at the same time for the last 15 years. That's sort of a back-end way of getting into the business, and to watch the industry grow."

In 1987, Smith's production experience brought him to the name that is synonymous with the television industry in British Columbia - Stephen J. Cannell. As the writer and executive producer behind dozens of series, many of which came out of Canada, Cannell helped build the industry in Vancouver, and Smith worked with him for nine years. "He was just a real nice guy," he recalls. "He did a lot of cop shows, like The Commish, and the A Team type of show. And we shot in warehouses. We had all these great warehouses and sets built in warehouses all over the city, before there were any studios." At the same time, Paramount had moved its production of MacGyver to Vancouver, but Smith recalls that the Cannell organization didn't always see eye to eye with "Hollywood North" productions like MacGyver when it came to production decisions. "They had a lot of money," he says of MacGyver. "We were always trying to control the cost of things. And we'd film at a location, like an office, for a couple weeks, and we'd pay them $1000 a day, or something like that, and then we'd go to use that same office a year later, and find out the price is now $2500. What do you mean $2500? How did it go from $1000 to $2500? 'Well that's what MacGyver pays us.' They had a ton of money, and they spent it. But we were working for Cannell, and we had to control the prices. The Cannell organization was basically responsible for bringing the first people that really invested in Vancouver as a place to work. I mean, Paramount did it here, but left. Cannell actually built a studio. The studio is still the biggest studio in Canada."

He shakes his head and smiles at the talent that was nurtured in those early Cannell productions, only to go on to bigger and bigger things. He had worked with Jonathan Glassner on a series called Street Justice, starring Carl Weathers and Eric McCormack. "Yeah, I gave Eric McCormack his first job," he says proudly, "and he won the Emmy for the best male actor last year on Will and Grace. Michael Chiklis was the Commish. I did the pilot for The Commish with him. Michael Chiklis is now nominated for an Emmy this year. Johnny Depp was on 21 Jump Street, who Stephen Cannell discovered. I'm looking and thinking jeez, we had all those actors in Vancouver years ago, doing television, and they all came out of the same production company. So it's kind of cool."

They don't all leave for Hollywood, however. Some of them come back. "Peter DeLuise and I worked together on 21 Jump Street. I produced that. I gave him his first gig as a director because I could see that he was a better director than he was an actor. He had all the qualities of being a good director. Jonathan and I gave Peter an episode to direct on Street Justice. I told him years ago, get your landed immigrant status and I'll put you to work. And he phoned me six years ago, and said I have my landed immigrant status, and I said come on in the office here." Peter has been writing, directing, and producing on Stargate ever since, yet another product of the budding Vancouver television industry.

Smith's own family has found a home in the industry as well. In fact, all four of his children have been involved in the business. "My youngest daughter worked for Paramount and had a really good job, but decided she didn't want to do that, and I totally understand why. It's not particularly the best business to have a family and raise kids. It's time intensive. But my daughter Tracy has been my coordinator and my assistant for years. My son is a camera focus puller. My other daughter manages the biggest studio in Vancouver."

Having witnessed the growth of the industry, John Smith enjoys a sense of having come full circle. "Now we have a viable business here. There are places to make movies in Vancouver. Big feature films come up here because they have places to go. This whole how-it-started thing is really kind of interesting." In fact, it is the subject of a new movie that pays tribute to productions like The Beachcombers. "There is a film coming out right now, a two hour movie called Inventing Grace, Touching Glory. This young guy is doing this movie based on the beginning of the film industry in British Columbia. I was brought into the thing very early on, talking to him about different things. So we've been doing interviews. The project is almost finished, and it's really good. It's an interesting project, and it's sort of nice to become involved in that. I mean, several people in those days were keys to bringing the whole industry to the province."

Many would count John Smith among those keys. Now after nearly four decades in the business, and six years on Stargate, he couldn't be happier. "I have the best job of anybody, because it's not doing the same thing all the time. My days are never ever the same. Not that Robert's or Brad's are. I mean, Brad and Robert are terrific producers, and I've worked with some really really good ones, some of the real old pros. I've been very fortunate in my career. And it's kind of an interesting legacy that the industry has given my kids and my family and everything. If Stargate goes on, if there's a spin-off, I'll most likely retire doing Stargate."

Better later than sooner, we'd like to hope.

Ritter, Kate. "Above the Line, and Under Budget." July 18, 2002.

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