An Interview with Stargate's Director/Writer/Producer, Peter DeLuise

Peter DeLuise Actor, director, writer, creative consultant, co-producer... As far as we know, Peter DeLuise has not yet tried his hand at catering, but the many other talents that he has contributed to Stargate SG-1 give him a unique perspective into the magic behind the series.

Peter joined the Stargate family midway through the second season when he was hired to direct the episode Serpent's Song. He returned to direct the episode Show and Tell, and by the following year he had become one of the main directors in the rotating schedule for the season. He has written seven episodes to date, three of which he has also directed. During the show's fifth year, DeLuise acted as creative consultant, and even appeared in a guest starring role as the director of Wormhole X-treme!. For the current sixth season he has added the role of co-producer to his list of credits. From the initial story pitch to the final edit, DeLuise has made his mark on the evolution of Stargate, and he is in the perfect position to describe the creative process that brings the series to life.

"What happens usually," he explains, "is Brad and Rob, more specifically Brad, oversee the development of every single story. So, it starts off as just a concept that is 'spun,' that's the word that we use. That means we all hang out in a room and we say, 'What if this happens, what if that happens?' That's spinning an idea. And then whoever had the idea will go off and write the outline, and submit it in written form. Then we'll spin it again, and see if there are any flaws in the structure. And then with Brad's blessing, they'll do what they call 'going to script.' And then that script will be written by that person. Then more notes are given, and changes are made, and that could happen as many as two times. Then Brad or Robert will take over the project, rewrite it, sometimes extensively, sometimes not extensively, and then it will be turned over to begin prep."

Once an episode goes into prep, it is still subject to changes and alterations for any number of reasons from creative adjustments to time or budget constraints, and these changes can have a significant impact on the other departments which are preparing for the episode simultaneously. "A lot of times the story's not finished before they have to start building the sets for it because it takes so long to build the set. So sometimes the sets are indicative of what the set should be in an earlier genesis of the story. The story changes, but the set doesn't change. In the case of The Sentinel, the force field to get to the Sentinel, with the musical keys, was all made before the script came. So we had to adjust it to fit the set that was built for the original story, and not the story that it ended up being. Some sets are incredibly grand and gigantic, and yet the page count is very short and very small. An example of that would be The Devil You Know and Jolinar's Memories. I think in one script we had only four pages in this gigantic cavernous dungeon, and they had spent a hundred thousand dollars on this beautiful gigantic set, but the page count wasn't there to justify that kind of expenditure. Well, that was because in the original version of the story, they had envisioned a lot more of the story happening in that set, when, in fact, as you recall, they were all in that strange pit. So that was a little bit of a mix-up that didn't quite work out. So those things happen."

It is vital that the various departments remain closely coordinated during the various stages of pre-production leading up to the actual shooting of the episode. As the person with the creative vision, the writer is involved with all of the decision making, yet it is the producer who holds the reins. In the case of Stargate, very often the writer and producer are one and the same. "A writer will come from the very first day of prep to the very last day of prep, the writer-slash-producer will be involved in all the meetings and in all the decisions that are affecting the show. So if a director says 'I want this wardrobe or that prop,' the writer/producer is right there to oversee if that's in agreement with their vision as well. Television is a writer's medium, by that I mean series television consumes so much material. It's a hungry monster that consumes story after story after story, every week it needs a new story. So the writer becomes the figurehead, the spearhead, the person who is ultimately in charge. And that's why there are so many writers who are also producers, because they have taken a position of power in television." Speaking as the director, DeLuise adds, "So my job, ultimately, is to please my boss, so that I don't get fired, and he'll let me work again. So I have to help him make sure that his vision is achieved. But then in a feature film, there's really only one story, and that story can take an entire year to be developed. So a feature film is more of a director's medium, where the director is the captain of the ship, and he's sailing the boat in the direction that he wants, and the writer is subservient to him. And sometimes the writer is the director, and that's even better!"

The writer/producer continues to direct the development of the episode throughout the production and post-production as well. Still speaking in his role as a director, DeLuise continues, "After they see me make all my decisions, they also watch dailies every single day - that's why they're called 'dailies.' The editor will deliver a cut to me, and then I will re-cut his cut to be more in keeping with how I thought it should be cut, and then I will turn it over to the producers/writer, and they have the ultimate, the final cut. So then it is up to them to bring it to time. So if I deliver a show that is a couple minutes over, it's up to them to then say, 'Okay, this is exactly 44 minutes and 17 seconds of the delivered story, and this dialogue was not necessary to help tell the story, so I'm going to cut it.' That's up to them. They can also ask me, although they never have, to re-shoot scenes that I've done poorly, or they can add scenes to help better to find the story. That's the kind of control that they have over the piece."

DeLuise enjoys having this kind of control over his own pieces. He has written seven of the Stargate scripts to date, and finds it easier to direct his own scripts than to try to describe his intentions to another director. "I know exactly what I was thinking when I wrote it, so I direct it that way, and I don't have to tell somebody else, or try to get somebody else to figure it out. Generally the scripts are only 45 pages long, so there's only so much description that you can put in there. So it's easier for me to direct my own stuff, although Martin [Wood] did do a wonderful job in Beast of Burden, when he directed that script that I wrote. I had hoped to direct that myself, but the schedule being what it was, I wasn't able to." The directing schedule is planned far in advance, so it's not always possible to be able to direct your own work. "It's a bonus to be able to direct your own thing, but it doesn't always come out that way. I didn't direct Menace. I think I only ended up directing Warrior, Allegiance, and The First Ones. Those are the only three that I wrote that I also directed. The rest of the four, I didn't. Which is sad, because I want eventually to write and direct my own feature films."

It gives him an appreciation for the writers' viewpoint, however, as they watch their scripts being interpreted by a director. He laughs, "But of course the other writers and producers on the writing staff, when I go, 'Oh, this is not what I meant! When I wrote this, I meant it to be such-and-such,' of course they think that's very amusing. So a lot of times when I direct their material, then they go, 'Ha! Now, revenge is ours! Because you don't always direct the scenes the way we intended!' So sometimes you make it better, sometimes it's not quite as good, but you try to keep it within the quality control range."

A 45-page script leaves little room for detail and description, so the finished product on the screen is usually a meeting of the visions of the writer and the director, and it's not always easy to tell where one ends and the other begins. DeLuise tends to imagine the story as a director when he writes, and so his scripts reflect his vision. "When I write scripts," he admits, "I over-write my scripts as though I was going to direct them as well. A good writer will leave it open for the director to interpret it. But I'm a novice writer, so I write the images, as opposed to a good writer who just sets the tone, or sets the environment, and lets the director put it together."

He appreciates the flexibility of a more open script, which grants him the freedom to interpret the scene in his own way. Many of the signature images in Stargate were never mentioned in the script. They came from the interpretation of the director. An example of this director's vision occurred in Point of View. "After the alternate Apophis tells all the Jaffa to evacuate after the Asgard are coming, we sent a whole bunch of Jaffa through the stargate, and the last one, the very last Jaffa, leaped through, and right as it shuts off, the end of the staff weapon is severed. And that falls on the ground. And that was nowhere to be found in the script. I added that. And what I wanted it for was to punctuate the fact that they had just left by the skin of their teeth, and that the end of the last staff didn't make it through. And also I got this great image of the butt end of the staff weapon falling on the ground, and that was my exclamation point. So, at first, I think a couple of people were surprised. That wasn't expected, but it was a great detail. So in that situation, that was me putting my mark on that. I was very proud of that," he smiles.

The mood or look of a scene is also often drawn from the mind of the director rather than from the pages of the script. DeLuise laughs at the suggestion that many of the episodes he directs have a certain style. "Yeah over the top! 'Bigger, bigger, bigger!'" he jokes, quoting his counterpart from Wormhole X-treme! But the cinematography of a scene is actually the work of the Director of Photography, or "D.P." who works in close partnership with the director, and DeLuise is quick to acknowledge the unique contributions of his partners. "You're giving me a lot of credit, and I do like to think that I shoot pretty pictures, but I have to give a lot of credit to both the D.P.s, Jim Menard and Peter Woeste, because they're the best in town, and we've got them. We've got them both. We do take a lot of time. We're one of the highest budget shows in town, and we do take the time to light it right. So I can't take all the credit for that."

The cinematography of Nightwalkers, for example, used light and shadow and unique camera angles to set the mood. It was the work of the Director of Photography. "Peter Woeste got an idea. It was, okay, this is Nightwalkers, this is Dawn of the Dead, this is 'Let's do a horror movie.' So we used super wide angle, right in your face. I don't know if you noticed that, but a lot of the shots were spooky, dark, in-your-face, wide angle lenses, what you would expect to see in a horror movie. So we embraced that style and just went with it." One of the characteristic images included a line of soldiers arriving on the scene at night, using light and shadow, backlighting and flashlights to set the tone. "It was my idea to do that, but Peter Woeste actually achieved the result," DeLuise recalls, imitating Woeste's incredulous reaction to the suggestion. "He went like this, 'You want to do what??'" Peter Woeste, overhearing the conversation, joins in, laughing, "When?? How long??"

DeLuise and Woeste had also worked together on Demons, another episode that used memorable cinematography to set the tone. "In the case of Demons, all that medieval stuff, I mean, it's not an accident that it looked so cool," DeLuise explains. "There was a lot of planning, a lot of money spent on that. You know, the costumes, the studded hoods, I loved that medieval stuff, and the chains and the bracelets, and the leather. I just love that stuff!" The episode also included a scene in which Teal'c was taken to a river to be drowned, and the low camera angle over the water created a remarkably artistic mirror image. "Remember the bridge, and the figures in the water? That was his fault," DeLuise points out, indicating Peter Woeste again. "I remember that day. He went, 'What if we include the reflection as well so that the people are above and below the bridge?' It's cool! That was him getting a good idea on top of my idea." Woeste has just returned from the morning's concept meeting for the upcoming episode Paradise Lost, where a similar type of artistic camera angle over water, this time using a boat, was being discussed. He acknowledges DeLuise's praise by joking back, "Don't say so much, because I'm going to repeat it as if it was a brand new idea on this next episode!"

The problem with the artistic camera angles, however, is that they are often the first to go in the editing process if the episode is running long, especially if there is no dialogue. DeLuise urges Woeste to be sure to have the actors talk during his upcoming water shot from the boat, then he turns to explain. "What we're talking about is when you have really cool camera moves, but nobody's talking. Let's say you have a show that is five minutes too long, and you've got to cut some stuff out. Well, the first thing you cut is not going to be dialogue that helps tell the story. And who makes this decision? The guy who wrote the story, right? So he's not going to cut his valuable dialogue before he cuts, say, some really sexy shot where no one's talking." He offers a hypothetical example. "So there's a child, and a thing, and you go up in the air and you're following the children and you go to the village and you land and there's people having a buffet - but no one's talking. That's gone. That's cut. Because nobody's talking! Okay, so that part, that thirty seconds went away. So eventually you begin to cut down dialogue only as a worst case scenario."

In the editing process, the scenes without dialogue are usually the first casualties. "The first stuff to go is what is commonly referred to as 'shoe leather.' That's people walking up to a place before they begin to talk. That's referred to as 'shoe leather.'" On the other hand, if an episode is running short, then these very same scenes must be expanded. "In the episode entitled Descent, you will notice that people start all the way over there, and they walk down the hallway quite a lot, and then they begin to talk. Well, that's because we were horribly under. And that's a result of that - people walking down hallways." In the case of Descent, a number of hallway scenes were shot, not necessarily with the intention to use them. Colin Cunningham, who had guest starred on the episode, had kept a diary of his experiences that he shared with his online fans. He told of a scene in which he and the other actors were sent repeatedly running up and down the same hallway until they noticed the crew breaking into laughter. Reminded of the incident, DeLuise laughs. "And there's no shots of them running at all! That's very funny. That comes with power! I just kept making them run up and down the halls… 'Run!! Come back!! Run again!!'"

Once an episode has been shot, the editing process is the final stage in piecing together the words and the images that will tell the story. The director needs to be directly involved in selecting the footage to be used to match the vision he intended when the footage was shot. "Because it's a television show, we can't shoot every conceivable version of the story from every angle, like you could if this was a feature film. So I have to choose what I think is most likely going to make the final cut, and shoot those angles. I can't shoot wasteful angles that have no chance of making the final cut because that would be a waste of our production value. So because of that I can't really experiment a lot." A gifted director needs to be able to capture the images that will best tell the story in the most efficient way possible.

Choosing those images depends on the story itself. In addition to artistic cinematography, DeLuise is also known for his use of tight close-ups, especially in the more character-driven episodes where the intimacy becomes important. "You can overdo it," he admits, "and I probably am guilty of overdoing it. But I feel that the way the characters are feeling is just as important as the spaceship blowing up. So I do get very tight on their faces and I do probably overuse the extreme close-ups." He sites the episode Threshold as an example. "Threshold is a character study about Teal'c and his life with Apophis, before he came to be with us. It's a study of Teal'c, and it's a study of people interacting together. So it's not an alien device, it's not an alien creature. It's about people. It's about Teal'c, and the friends that he made and that he was interacting with, and how he felt during those times, times of problems and passions and things that he was going through. So where does that occur? That occurs on his face. And because he's such a great actor, and because it was very important to see how he felt at all times, I did keep the shots very very tight on everybody's faces. In Threshold, specifically, I did that on purpose." Threshold is also an example of the collaborative balance between the vision of the writer and the director. While the director used close-ups to emphasize the characters' feelings, it was the writer's decision to use the series of fast clips to represent the character's thoughts. The final rapid montage of images as Teal'c relived the moments of his life and his mind returned to SG-1, was the work of Brad Wright. "That was all Brad," DeLuise acknowledges. "Brad wrote that. He chose the shots. I can't take credit for that. That was his genius."

One of the more playful and characteristic DeLuise touches to any episode is the series of cameo appearances for which he has become known. From a random SF to a voice in the crowd, DeLuise has made a brief appearance in many of the episodes he has directed. It began with the episode Show and Tell. As the young Charlie came through the gate and faced a room full of soldiers pointing weapons at him, DeLuise felt that the scene needed a touch of humanity, a character to emphasize the apprehension of the moment by peering around his weapon toward the boy. DeLuise recalls, "I would have had to direct an extra to make that face, which was, 'why are all these adults with big guns pointing at this little kid?' Which would have made him become an actor, and we would have had to pay him more money. So I thought I'd just do it." Like another famous director known for inserting his own cameos, the appearances became a trend. "It all started with the Hitchcock thing. I thought, well, that will be fun, that will be something to do." Each new appearance is a test of creativity. Sometimes a character from the script is selected, sometimes a new character is created, sometimes only an image or a voice is used. "It's different every time. Maybe I'll say something, or I'll be in a prop photo. Sometimes it's a character that is a voice-over character only, like someone screaming from a crowd. And sometimes it's a character that never existed at all, and I just go, oh, I'll be that guy. So it changes all the time." Sometimes an appearance makes use of subtle inside humor. For example, in the episode Descent, DeLuise appeared as the DSRV Navy Lieutenant who delivered Teal'c and Jonas to the submerged mothership. Although it was not clearly visible on screen, he wore a nametag identifying himself as "Lieutenant Dagwood," a nod to the popular character DeLuise had played in the television series SeaQuest DSV. Perhaps one of the most subtle cameos grew out of a suggestion from cameraman Will Waring. In Threshold, as Hammond and O'Neill speak during a scene in the observation booth, the initials "PD" can be seen spelled out in candle flames in the reflection from the glass. "Do you remember that?" he grins. "That was Will Waring's idea. I loved that idea!"

Often the cameos are spontaneous suggestions that grow out of a need in a particular scene. Currently, DeLuise is shooting the episode Smoke and Mirrors. He hadn't planned for an appearance, and realizes in hindsight that there was a missed opportunity during the shooting the day before. "You know what would have been a perfect cameo in this episode? There was a screen up with a personnel file on it, and I could have been one of those faces, easily. But then, I didn't think of it." However, the scene shot earlier this morning presented another opportunity for a voice in a crowd. "That will probably end up being my voice," he decides. "You'll hear my voice then. That will be pretty subtle. Maybe no one will get that. And it saves me from having to get dressed up." In any case, it's one more hat for the multi-talented Peter DeLuise to wear.

Ritter, Kate. "Man of Many Talents." July 15, 2002.

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