An Interview with Stargate's Executive Producer, Robert C. Cooper

Robert C. Cooper Just what, exactly, does an executive producer do? It's not such an easy question for Robert C. Cooper to answer. He has been with Stargate SG-1 since the very beginning, and has written some of its most popular and acclaimed episodes, from The Torment of Tantalus and The Fifth Race to Double Jeopardy and Redemption. He also began as the Executive Story Editor during the early seasons, taking on producing responsibilities as a Co-Producer in the second season, a Producer in the third season, a Co-Executive Producer in the fourth season, an Executive Producer in the fifth season, and Executive Producer and all around "show runner" in seasons six and seven. What does an Executive Producer do? The best answer seems to be, "everything."

As Executive Producers, Robert Cooper and Brad Wright, partners through season six, have divided the responsibilities for the 22 episodes of a given season. "We've split the producing role, so that we alternate," he explains. "He'll do eleven, and I'll do eleven. I will write some of those scripts, some of them come in from other writers, which I will then rewrite and take through the production process. But we'll basically alternate the quarterbacking. As far as story development is concerned, we're involved in everything. All the writers collaborate on that aspect. But once it starts prep, and goes into the production process, I handle everything that has to do with my eleven, and he handles everything that has to do with his eleven, and we kind of consult on each other's. That's changed this year because Joe [Mallozzi] and Paul [Mullie] have started to quarterback their own episodes that they've written, so we aren't doing quite as many as we used to. When it's my show to produce, then I'll go to all the meetings. I'm not the one making all the decisions, because there are certainly other people who are key, like Michael Greenburg, and John Smith from a budgetary point of view. Everyone has a say. But what happens on set is going to come off the page. Anything that happens as a result of the prep process then gets filtered through my computer in revisions, so that it says in black and white what everybody's been talking about, so there's no confusion or disagreement or anything. Ultimately, I'm the filter process. I'm trying to balance keeping the story what it was supposed to be, and making sure we can afford to produce it, and that it works for the locations, and if there's something that doesn't work, or that's not right on the page we have to fix that, and how we fix it in line with the budget, and all that sort of stuff."

The production process usually begins with the Concept Meeting, a collaboration of the writer, producers, and department heads. "I've learned quite well from Brad and Jonathan [Glassner] that the concept meeting is a chance to sort of sit back and hear what everyone else's opinion is. I try not to be too vocal in that. I try not to say 'No! It's got to be this way!' and 'This is what the script says!' That's a chance to hear what everyone else is thinking in terms of how things can be done, what they prepared in relation to what they've read on the page. Then there's a series of meetings that occurs where the harder and faster decisions are made. At the individual meetings I'll say, 'You know what, maybe it'd be better if we do it this way.' So it's a finessing type of thing. And then it goes off to set, and they do whatever they want anyway!" He laughs at the variety of artistic visions that cross a producer's desk. "We watch dailies and go, 'Oh, that's interesting. It's not what we were talking about, but okay!' It's all because stuff is very plastic. It has to be. You never know what's going to happen when you get out there on set, and what's going to work and what's not going to work, what's going to look good, and what's going to work for the actors.

"And then the next step which I absolutely love, one of my favorite parts of the process, is cutting it together. That's when you go in and you ask, not 'What was I trying to do? What did the script say?' but 'What do I have? What's on film?' How do you tell what's maybe not even the same story you meant to tell when you wrote the script? What is on film and what works? There's this impression that someone is ultimately in charge of everything, and that you determine every little detail, and that it's somehow part of a preordained plan. It's not! Fifty percent of everything that's in the show is… accidental!" He laughs at his own exaggeration, but the point remains. An executive producer has a guiding hand, but not absolute control, and episodes are more often than not a product of the collaboration of professionals, with a touch of serendipity for good measure. "It's part of this big process. It's all about being able to recognize what's going to be good and how to put it together in a way that's going to tell a story. I've watched dailies for shows that I thought, 'Oh my God, that's going to be a disaster,' and then you get it in the editing room and futz around with it and it turns out to be pretty cool. Other times you think, 'Oh this is going to be great,' and you get it in the editing room and you think, 'Well… that's a little boring,' and there's nothing you can do about it! So the editing process is almost like writing again, almost like starting again. You have to abandon your children. You have to not think, 'Oh, but I LOVE that line, and that was all so important to me!' No, you've got to say, 'That didn't work, it's going to make the show bad if I leave it in, so I'm going to take it out.' You have to be able to look at the whole thing again and say, 'This is going to be a good show because I've cut it this way." He adds with a grin, "And when it works, you take credit for it."

As both a writer and a producer, Robert performs a constant balancing act between boundless imagination, and the practical financial restrictions of bringing that imagination to life. With millions of stargates scattered throughout the galaxy and beyond, the opportunities to discover new and unique alien cultures are endless. Unfortunately, the budget isn't. He considers some of the amazing alien worlds that SG-1 has encountered over the last six years and admits, "We'd love to do that every week! It's not about that. We're producers as well as writers. I actually kind of like the Earth-based NID stories, but we do them because we need to be able to shoot outside in Vancouver a couple of shows a year, in order to turn over on the sets and everything." Gone are the days when green make-up and a few blinking lights on a sound stage could pass for an alien culture. Creating entire worlds in a few weeks is a major undertaking, and occasionally story arcs must take into consideration the set that will be required. He offers as an example, "I'm sure you've seen the X-303 set that's down on stage 6. You can't build a spaceship like that for one episode. You've got to find a way to use it for at least two, maybe three. For Jolinar's Memories and The Devil You Know, when those guys turned in that script, we said, 'We can't afford this!' until we figured out a way to do it as a two parter, and build the set for two episodes, and amortize the cost of it. It's simple. You have $100,000 per show to build a set. The set costs $200,000 dollars to build. You've got to find a way to make it work over two shows."

Once an alien world is created, it must be populated, the realm of Casting and Costumes, but still under the umbrella of the Executive Producer who must budget both money and time. As an example, he refers to the world of Pangar, visited during the episode Cure. "Every time you create a world like this, the question becomes, how do you make this an alien world? How do you make it different from Earth? What do the people wear? How many extras can you afford to populate this world with? It costs a lot of money to put extras in costumes! On the big episodes, the ones where we're going to go all out and go to an alien planet, and build a giant set on location, and a giant set on a stage, even if we could afford a hundred extras, we can't afford to make a hundred costumes. They're not wearing jeans and a T-shirt! They're wearing an alien outfit, whether it be a primitive alien outfit or a uniform from a different kind of military. We can afford to make maybe 15 or 20 costumes, and that's with these poor people working around the clock," he says of the Costume Department which works against tight deadlines to dress entire civilizations.

SG-1 has visited a multitude of worlds inhabited by creatures not even remotely human, from radioactive microbes to blue energy crystals to giant invisible insects. Yet among those cultures derived from the ancestors of Earth, the challenge becomes to make the world both alien and familiar. "You're going to other planets, and every planet you go to has got a different look, and a different type of people, or aliens, or wardrobe. We call it "The Doorknob Factor." Is this world going to have doorknobs or not? When you think about it, what are the odds of a completely isolated alien society, even though they're humans that have been taken from Earth 10,000 years ago and transplanted on another planet, what are the odds of them building a society that even remotely resembles anything on Earth? Astronomical! Granted, everybody speaks English," he laughs, "So we just figure everyone's speaking English, and the doors have doorknobs on them."

Is it frustrating reconciling the free imagination and creativity of a writer with the practical reality of producing? "That's the job! That's the challenge!" he answers. "If you wanted the former of what you described, just imagining, and being able to do whatever you wanted, then you should be a novelist. This is a medium where it takes a great deal of money to generate the images on the screen. But the reward is, I sit down and type a script, and two or three weeks later it's being shot, and the words are coming out of actors' mouths, and then we're cutting it, and it's on the air less than a few months later. And people are yakking about it on the internet," he smiles. "That's the payoff, that I get to tell stories. I used to work a little bit in the feature side of things, and it's very very frustrating to write something and have it bounce around for five or six years, and have all kinds of people giving you notes on things, and you do twenty rewrites, and it still never gets made.

"And a show like Stargate is an opportunity to do so many different kinds of genres," he continues, clearly appreciating the creative possibilities. "I think that if you watch a season of our show, there are so many different looks. Desperate Measures had such a different feeling to it than, say, Small Victories or Nemesis, or one of those types of "alien" shows. They're just two totally different episodes. We have Red Sky, which is a wonderful sort of moral dilemma issue-oriented show, where we've met a very interesting ancient culture, and it's all about these people and what's important to them, and how they're different from us. And then you have action shows, and funny ones like The Other Guys. As writers we get interested in different things. I may wake up one day and decide I want to write a horror movie, and so that will be the flavor of the show that I've chosen to do. And then sometimes you want to write something that has a love story in it, and that sort of thing. The better shows are the ones where the writer, not just me, but whoever has taken it, has a real passion. That passion, where that comes from, why you get excited about a particular story at a particular point in your own life, is not very predictable.

"You can do so many different things under the umbrella of what Stargate SG-1 is, and it's been because nobody's really stopped us. We've had such little interference from the powers that be on the business end of it, MGM, Showtime for five seasons, and now Sci Fi." He acknowledges Sci Fi's early focus on big name guest stars to promote the series, before they appreciated that Stargate's star and strong ensemble cast would speak for themselves. "It was funny, when we moved to Sci Fi, they said up front, 'We're not going to meddle with the show, it's obviously worked for five seasons, we just want more of the same.' But they also did feel it necessary to tell us what they think, and more for the sake of promotion, they wanted us to stunt cast a lot of stuff at the beginning. And then the shows started to come in, and they started to air and do well in the ratings, and they saw what we meant when we said Richard Dean Anderson is the star of the show, and the other star of the show is this ring that we go through, and we don't really need big guest stars. And they said, 'Yeah, you're right, never mind.' And we haven't heard from them since! So we, Brad and I and Paul and Joe and Michael and Rick, we kind of make the show we really want to make, and so far no one's stopped us from doing that. So, it's great!"

Asked if he follows fan reaction closely on the internet, Robert replies, "Certainly not as much as Joe does, or even Brad does. I think that it's important to listen. I don't just write this stuff for myself. I write it for the audience. And I want to know if the audience is enjoying it. I think that the internet is an interesting way of getting a particular segment of the audience's feedback and opinions. I do follow it to a certain extent, but I don't go home and get upset when I read somebody who hated my episode, and I also don't go thinking I'm the greatest thing in the world when I read someone who loved it, because both those opinions are often out there, and somewhere in the middle is probably the truth. The question is really if I think it's good, and I'm happy with the work I did, and I know that I didn't give a half assed effort, and I did something that I was proud of. If I do something that I'm really proud of and think I've done a great job, and I hear through the grapevine that they're all hating it on the internet, I kind of wonder about that. And then I start to say, what was wrong? Why is my opinion of what I've done so different from everyone else's? But most of the time, if I think I've done a good episode, the fan response seems to be pretty positive." Stargate, like any other show, has had its share of episodes that are more popular than others. "That's the problem in television," he continues. "Everybody also expects every episode to be up there, an A+. It's like a runaway train. When the season starts, you've got six or seven scripts in place, and you kind of know where you're going, and you have an idea somewhere down the line of how you want the season to wind up arc-wise. But there's a point in the middle of the year where you're writing stuff very quickly, and sometimes what comes out at the other end of the machine isn't always as good as what you had hoped it would be. But it's not always your fault. And sometimes it is!" he laughs. "We're not perfect. We do our best. Sometimes you take risks and try stuff that doesn't quite work. But that's what's been so great about the fans of the show, that they've stuck with us through some of the real ups and downs that we've had. I think that when our show is good, it's as good as any science fiction show that's been around, and I think we maintain a very consistent level of quality."

In addition, Stargate has maintained the delicate balance of weaving together increasingly intricate story arcs and threads, while also creating stand-alone episodes that don't rely on an intimate knowledge of what has come before. "We've always been dedicated to the mythology in roughly 50% of the shows, and we try and do what we call one-offs," he explains. "Yet even in a show like The Other Guys, which stands alone very much in its storyline, the mission they're on is still about finding out something about Anubis. So there's still a little thread towards the overall mythology that we're working on in that season." As the sixth season draws to a close, and the possibility of a seventh season or a feature film looms ahead, has it become necessary to place more focus on the story arcs in order to tie up loose threads? "I don't think we're doing more continuity stories than we've done in the past," he answers. "I think it's just been a building process. One thing we're doing more of is putting "previously ons" at the beginning of episodes so that the casual viewer isn't going to say, 'What the heck is going on in this one?' There are certain things that are paying off from previous seasons. In Prometheus, it's all about Simmons using the Goa'uld to hijack the X-303 and go to another planet. Well, who's Simmons, and where did this Goa'uld come from? For the devoted fan, I think that's great. I think it pays off. I hope that for the casual fan, the show still works, and that you can still enjoy it for what it is, which is… fun. An action adventure romp."

One of the episodes from this season which is key to several story arcs is Frozen. Alternately praised by fans for the questions it raised and criticized for the questions it left unanswered, it relied more on dialogue than the action adventure aspect. "Sometimes you're going to have people talking in a room," he points out. "But I agree with some of the criticism of Frozen too. It was always meant to be a tease for the movie story, which was supposed to come at the end of season six. And it was supposed to remind you that there was a second gate found in the Antarctic, and that that storyline has not died out, and that people have been working down there. And it was supposed to tee up a little bit more mystery about who the Ancients were, and where they may have come from, and what they were like. But ultimately, I always felt that that episode suffered because it didn't build to a climax that was intrinsic to the story. It had to take a left turn because ultimately what it was intended to do was to set up Abyss. It's called "result writing." It means that you have to take a particular story beat, and you have to work up to that, work backwards from that moment, and somehow have your story lead into it. Ultimately it's going to be a great payoff, and I think when they see Abyss, the fans are all going to think, whoa, that's cool, now that I've seen that. But I was always running towards an ending in which O'Neill gets a Tok'ra symbiote in him. That was the resolution. If I was writing Frozen without that story point hanging over it, I probably would have written a completely different climax to that show. I think it would have had a better climactic ending, and one that was more related to the illness and the story of Ayiana, and it would have been a better episode as a whole than it turned out to be. But it is what it is because it's got Abyss coming on its heels." Not to mention a feature film with further revelations.

Occasionally result writing is necessitated by factors beyond anticipated story arcs. At the end of season five, Michael Shanks chose to leave the series, and storylines were adjusted to lead up to his ascension and to pave the way for the introduction of Jonas Quinn. The gradual acceptance of Jonas by SG-1 mirrored in many ways his gradual acceptance by the fans. Robert admits, "The truth is that we're also fans. Some of it was knowing the fans are going to react this way to Jonas, but just as writers we said he can't just come in here and be instantly on the team, especially because he's an alien, and O'Neill is who he is. You just have to make it gradual. It's going to be a challenge. And in a way, that's why we were energized by the change, because it allowed us to do all kinds of really interesting things that we couldn't do without a new character. I think it's a mix. The fans are saying SG-1 would never accept him so quickly, and we too wanted to make that a gradual process, of having it be a challenge for him, which makes him a more interesting character when you finally do see him join the team and understand why he's been accepted by them. But it also gave us all kinds of fodder for good dramatic scenes."

The sixth season was expected to be the last, and story threads were carefully being woven to lead into a possible feature film and spin-off series, both of which were already in the works. However, Stargate was such a successful and consistent ratings winner for Sci Fi that the channel sought to extend their hit series for an additional year. Before summer's end, they had already entered into negotiations with MGM for a seventh season, and the final few episodes of season six had to be written in an open-ended manner that would allow for any contingency. In addition, as filming of season six came to a close with the fate of season seven still up in the air, Michael Shanks, who had appeared in three episodes over the course of the year, expressed an interest in returning to the show. Robert recalls, "The way this transpired was that Michael came to us, basically. After Full Circle we had a big wrap party. We still didn't know if the show was being picked up. Michael was invited to the wrap party, because he had been in the show that year, and we continued to be friendly with him. And it was there that he expressed a desire to basically clear up what had transpired between everyone upon his departure, and also said if there is going to be a season seven, and if it's at all possible for him to come back to the show in a more permanent way, that he would be open to the idea. And so we kind of discussed it internally and felt that if that was what he wanted to do, we wanted to give him the opportunity to finish what he started." When negotiations for season seven fell into place, Michael had the option to rejoin the series, and he chose to return. Now with filming under way for what is once again expected to be the final year, Michael seems to have discovered a new outlook. "Quite frankly, he's got such a wonderfully renewed energy this year, that I think the fans are going to see a totally different, well not different, but the old Daniel. He's got this wonderful energy and temperament, and Michael Shanks himself is a happier guy, and it all seemed to have worked out for the best." In an attempt to simplify, he smiles, "He was an unhappy guy, and he needed some time off. He took the time off, and now he's back and he's happy. That's the shorter version of it!"

The return of Daniel to SG-1 will also affect the future of Corin Nemec's character, Jonas Quinn, who will no longer be a series regular. "It was not a failure in any way on his part," Robert says of Corin, "but rather just Michael Shanks offering up his services again and wanting to come back. He was in a difficult position. He came in, he filled Michael Shanks's shoes very admirably, he did a wonderful job complementing the team. And I created the character, so I have a certain personal stake in it," he adds. "I wanted to see that whole side of the series satisfied." Although he has not been contracted for a specific number of episodes, Corin will appear in the season opening two parter, with the possibility of future appearances. "We really respect the fact that Corin has agreed to come back and do the first two episodes of season seven, in which we give him a 'hero's sendoff,' let's just say. And it leaves the door open for him to return to the show again throughout the series. That will depend somewhat on Corin's availability, obviously, if he can fit it into his schedule. I know he's up for a couple of other things." Plans for at least one additional appearance are already underway. In fact, the story is coming from Corin himself. "He's working on a story, so he's going to be writing at least the story, and possibly the script, for the episode that he would come back for. Hopefully we'll be able to get that all going. He had an idea that was very interesting." Corin is not the only actor who is becoming involved at the creative level. "The cast is really getting involved this year. Amanda's going to be directing an episode. Chris Judge has already written an episode that will be shot in the first half of the season, called "Birthright". And Michael Shanks will be writing an episode as well." Despite the changes in the cast, the familial atmosphere of the team remains intact, and Jonas is still an important part of the show. "I think the fans will see that he's not only leaving amicably, but the character is going out a hero, and the actor has been very pleased by his experience and is going to hopefully return. He's continuing to work with us at the story level and as an actor. So Jonas will be alive and well in the Stargate mythology."

What lies beyond season seven is still uncertain, but for now, fans can look forward to at least 22 more weeks of adventures through the stargate. Robert Cooper is proud of the show's success, and of its bright future, yet he hastens to point out that there are many people who had a hand in making Stargate what it is. "The Executive Producers," he concludes, "are the ones that are aware that they have talented people around them, and that let them do their jobs and do it well, and step in when something is just creatively not in tune with everything else. A lot of times, that's what it's about. You're one of the few people who have the big picture, and so you want to make sure everything feels like it's all part of the whole. Does the wardrobe really go with that set, or with that tone of those people? But it's just being smart enough to let good people do their jobs. On this show, I feel like everybody's really excited about what they do, and part of that is because they really get to contribute creatively. They feel like their voices are going into what we do. They can all watch a show and say, 'I did that. Nobody told me make that green. I chose to make that green!' And I think it's a better show because of that."

Millions of Stargate fans would agree.

Ritter, Kate. "Executive Decision." July 18, 2002.

Previous Article | Next Article