FEATURE ARTICLES

SWITCHING GEARS

An Interview with Stargate's Writer/Producers, Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie


Paul Mullie and Joseph Mallozzi "We switch gears fairly successfully, I think," says Paul Mullie of the scripts he and partner Joe Mallozzi have written during their five years on the writing staff of Stargate SG-1. Given the nature of the largely arc-driven series that seems to defy cancellation despite attempts each year to tie up story threads, that kind of adaptability would seem to be imperative. From physical comedy to moral drama, subtle dialogue to huge special effects, it's not easy to pinpoint a "typical" Mallozzi and Mullie script. "I'm more readily able to identify other writers' styles than our style, I guess,' admits Joe.

"I think we've done a pretty wide variety," Paul continues. "We've done more comedic episodes, but we've also done a lot of very straight episodes. We've done a couple of big episodes. Robert tends to do the bigger episodes. We've done a few big episodes, but we've also done more than our share of, I don't want to say 'cheaper' episodes, but talkier, character driven episodes, or episodes that weren't driven so much by big action scenes or big visual effects. So that pretty much runs the gamut." Adds Joe, "Season seven is just a perfect example. We had the big action episode which was Homecoming, and then we did a more stand-alone off-world episode exploration [Revisions] that kind of harkens back to the Stargate of early seasons: team goes off-world, deals with a problem and goes home. And then we did a funny episode, Avenger 2.0. And we did a clip show," he concludes, his smile and tone of voice indicating that writing for a clip show would not have been his preference.

The season seven clip show grew out of necessity, despite rampant speculation online that the final episode was a mystery being deliberately kept under wraps. Paul laughs, "It's funny, because there was some speculation online that this was the mystery episode, and that we were deliberately keeping this blank slot. They had spoilers and titles for all the other episodes and they didn't have this mystery last episode. And we just hadn't gotten around to doing it yet! We were actually going to do, I don't want to say a 'real' episode, but an episode that involved a story that we hadn't already shot, you know - no clips. What happened was Robert and Brad came out of their visual effects meeting from the season finale two parter, realizing that they were going to spend waaay too much money, and that essentially we had no choice but to do a clip show. They came out of the meeting and said, 'Yeah, you guys are doing a clip show.' So, that was that." However, unlike the look backward of a typical clip show, the resulting episode, Inauguration, moved the story forward, not only laying the groundwork for the season finale, the season eight premiere, and the pilot for the spin-off Stargate Atlantis, but also introducing key characters that would play a significant role in the future of the SGC. Not bad for a last minute change of gears.

In fact, as the series has progressed, and the story arcs have become more complex and intertwined, nearly every script becomes a collaboration of the writing team. Asked if they have ever pitched a story that was entirely different by the time it was produced, they both laugh, "Almost every time!" Paul clarifies, "Not every time, but quite often, yes," and Joe explains, "It's really all a group effort. Either you go in and you pitch a story and everybody says well why don't we do this, why don't we do this, and it becomes very different, or someone else will have a story idea and we'll spin it, and just because of time constraints or what have you, we wind up writing it. For instance, Robert came up with the idea for Avenger 2.0, the notion of a virus that can potentially target and shut down specific gates. And then we wanted to bring the character Felger back, so we married Felger to the virus idea, and we spun that. That was originally his idea but we ended up writing it. Chimera was another Rob idea for actually two different stories, one involving Daniel and Osiris, another one involving Carter and her black widow curse. We ended up marrying the two stories and Damian wound up writing it." Paul quips, referring to Carter's track record with boyfriends in the past, "He had the strange idea of having her out, meet some guy, and having him not dead at the end of the episode.

"But it's really become a committee," he continues. "We do it by committee now. And I don't mean that in a bad way. It's actually a pretty good creative process. I think it's become that way more, though, as the years have progressed. When we came in, in season four, we were pitching ideas, and they were saying yes to certain ideas, no to certain ideas, and then we would write the idea. And it would change and everything, but it would be a story idea that we had come up with that we would see all the way through to a script. By season seven, everything was so arc-y. There are so many threads that have to be dealt with. On the creative side, on the story side, there are all these issues that have to be dealt with, but also on the production side, on the schedule side, we don't have this person for this, so we have to do an episode that focuses on this… There's so many things that are coming from outside that are telling you what you need to do, that just coming up with an original idea in your head and saying, hey, why don't we do this, has become less and less.

Revisions

Avenger 2.0

"It's much more driven by constraints of our past arc, and our character availability, and our budget, and stuff like that. So all these outside things are dictating. We're sort of internalizing as a group and saying, okay, these are the problems we have to deal with, so what stories can we come up with, rather than just sitting at home thinking, oh, it would be nice to do a story where something like this happens, just ideas coming up out of the blue. That's much more a group effort, because we all sit around and talk about the various problems that have to be addressed, whether they're story problems or production problems. In the room, we'll just go, well why don't we do this, why don't we do that, and whoever's available will get assigned to the specific project. So, it's become less and less about just an individual writer pitching an idea and seeing that idea through.

"Stargate's pretty unique in that there aren't that many shows that run this long. But even from season five on, the idea of a freelancer coming in and pitching a story was getting harder and harder and harder. It became much more about being in the room, and being here for all the different conditions that were being forced upon us as a group, and knowing those factors and factoring them into your creative process, rather than just a person on the outside having a cool idea for a science fiction story." Joe concludes, "And things change so fast. I mean, we've had people want to pitch, and they'll talk about story ideas, and you'll have to say, 'Actually, no, we can't do that, Teal'c lost his symbiote two episodes ago, or this happened, or this is going to happen, or we're working on an episode.' So if you're not in the loop, it's next to impossible to get a story assignment."

Add to that the fact that few people expected the series to extend beyond five years. All the story arcs were headed toward a logical series-ending conclusion at the end of season five when word arrived that the SciFi channel had picked up the ball and Stargate would have a new life on a new channel. Joe explains, "Season five was supposed to be the last season of the series, so we were heading towards wrapping things up. We wrapped up a number of loose ends, and then down the line we heard, oh we'll be doing a season six. So we held off on wrapping up all the loose ends, and we came up with another story arc, the rise of Anubis. The same thing happened with season seven. Going into season seven we kind of had a feeling that there could potentially be a season eight. We've gone through so many instances where we assumed we were dead, only to be revived in the last second resuscitation, but this time we went in expecting good news, and as it turned out, we came back for season eight. Originally the wrap up for this ongoing storyline, Anubis and the Ancients, was intended to be a two hour movie that Brad had written for season six. It was actually to follow Full Circle. And of course it got pushed back because we got another year. But they decided, we're going to wrap this up this year so that we can, in a sense, set up Atlantis, and move ahead to season eight."

In the original scenario, however, the Atlantis spin-off was meant to follow the conclusion of SG-1. It was only shortly after season seven was underway that the idea of producing a spin-off and an eighth season concurrently was suggested. "But we always knew that season seven was going to set up the spin-off in such a way as it would just be a separate entity. There would be a new team going to a new place, dealing with new villains, in another galaxy, and all that stuff, and essentially SG-1, whether or not you were watching them, would still exist. I don't think there was any plan to wrap up any of those storylines," Paul explains. Joe agrees, "So there was no big change to go from the original plan, which was just stop SG-1, and let another team in another place continue on while in theory SG-1 was still going, you just didn't see it, we weren't filming it. That's why the feature that Brad wrote was able to work as a season finale for season seven, because it wasn't a M*A*S*H type series finale as opposed to a Cheers type series finale. I mean, with M*A*S*H, it's wrapped, the war is over, everybody goes home. With Cheers you're left with the feeling that things are just going to continue and their adventures in the bar will go on."

Another challenge that the writers have faced in the later seasons is working with Richard Dean Anderson's schedule as his screen time has become increasingly limited. Creative scheduling allowed for "Jack-lite" episodes when necessary in season six, and although his absence was more noticeable in season seven, he was present for all but one of the episodes. "There were originally going to be three episodes at the end of the season without him in it at all," Paul explains. "But because of budget issues, we shot a lot of second unit, and so we shrunk the schedule. Instead of doing episodes in seven days, we did some in five days, some even in four days with some second unit days. So the end of the season has moved back from mid September to late August, which was Rick's cut-off point. The more we pulled up, the fewer episodes he was out of." The situation will be similar for season eight, as O'Neill's new position at the SGC, stories focusing on other team members, and careful scheduling, will allow for as much of Jack O'Neill on the screen as possible.

As the episodes shift toward stories that allow for more focus on the other three members of SG-1, Joe and Paul consider the effect of the new team dynamic. Paul explains, "More and more we've split the team up and got A stories and B stories and stuff like that. We like to mix it up. We like to have different things in different episodes, episodes that focus more on certain relationships, and then in the next episode a different relationship, kind of thing. We want the show to be about the whole team, and accept the different relationships between the team members."

When it comes to those moments of character development, sometimes the reactions of fans can take them by surprise. Paul laughs, "I don't want to diss the fans, because the show wouldn't exist without them, but they're so hyper-aware of little things. And because there are so many little things to be seen, you see what you want to see. I mean, there's plenty of screen time to go around. We do 22 episodes, and the reality is we only ever really do one or two episodes that focus on one relationship or another. And the rest is just kind of background stuff. It's usually just kind of accidental. It's not like there's this deliberate plan to go more in one direction than the other. It just shows they're passionate about the show, and I can't complain about that. But there are times when we just kind of shake our heads and go, whoa, I didn't see this. I had no idea that they would react like that to that! They react so strongly to things that aren't necessarily intentional on our part."

They both agree that they have no true preferences, one character over another, although dialogue for Teal'c can be a challenge. "Teal'c's always kind of hard," Paul admits, because the strong silent type gets taken a little bit too far sometimes. Although [Teal'c's way of speaking] sometimes can be fun. You can get good humor out of Teal'c sometimes by just picking your spot for him to say the right weird alien twist on what's going on. He can be a good funny character sometimes if you can find the spots for him."

They've enjoyed the opportunities presented by some of the recurring characters as well. Paul continues, "I like writing for Ronny, for Senator Kinsey. He's so serious and so heavy, and he brings such a weight to the stuff he delivers. He's such a good villain. John DeLancie was like that too. The character of Simmons was the same way. He was a fun character to write for because you could write this really meaty dialogue, and you knew that John DeLancie would just deliver it with such a terrific force. He could just command a scene that way. And writing for Patrick McKenna was a lot of fun. Writing for the character of Felger is fun, just because he's a fun guy. Damian wrote the original part and then they cast Patrick McKenna, who was perfect. And it was obvious when you were watching The Other Guys that it would be a good idea to bring him back." Joe adds, "Much like Willie Garson in Point of No Return. The great thing about both of them, Willie and Patrick, is you write dialogue for them, and then when you see them, I mean, they add so much. They just use that as a starting point, and just run with it, which is very funny. We got some terrific outtakes from that!"

In addition to writing, Joe and Paul both take on producing responsibilities. At first they produced their own episodes, but eventually they began producing a few of the episodes written by others as well. This has given them a unique perspective and the ability to put their own personal stamp on certain episodes, while experiencing others for the first time as a fan. "This year we're producing our own episodes plus some others," Paul remarks. "Because we were doing more producing of other people's stuff, I've actually paid less attention to the stuff that Robert's been producing. So it's actually cool because you're not in the loop so much, so when you see it, it's all kind of new. I'm looking at it more like a fan, or a TV viewer, who's just kind of going, 'Oh, that's cool!' " Looking back on some of the episodes that have aired, he adds, "Space Race was all kind of new. Birthright actually turned out pretty good. I wasn't sure how that one was going to turn out, just because I wasn't sure how the whole Amazon thing was going to play out, but it was actually better than I thought it was going to be. A favorite episode? I liked Avenger, just because I just thought Patrick was funny. It's kind of a departure episode, so I never know how the fans are going to take it. But I think that they must know by now that our show is very…" Joe finishes his sentence for him, "…diverse, in terms of the storylines that we do tell."

"I don't think there's a typical Stargate episode anymore," Paul continues. "We used to think that there was, the kind of one-off, stand-alone, but then they became so rare that now they're atypical." Joe agrees, "Which is why I like Revisions. It was atypical and something that we haven't done in a long time." Paul goes on, "In a sense, every episode is a departure. There's no model anymore. We've mixed it up so much now that I don't think there is a standard Stargate episode that we can vary from. It's good to have the actual gate in an episode! It is called Stargate. We should try to actually get people to go through the gate!" he jokes. What awaits on the other side, however, is the variety that makes the world of Stargate an unexpected adventure.

****************

NOW IT'S YOUR TURN...

Many questions were submitted by fans hoping to hear an answer from the cast, crew, and production team behind Stargate SG-1, and several questions were selected for this interview. Here is how Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie responded to the fans...

From: paula1962
My name is Paula and I live in Cyprus and my husband and myself are great fans of Stargate. We both think it's a fantastic series, so keep up the good work. My question is for the producers/writers. Why not have a series where X-Files meets Stargate? Thanks.
Regards to All,
Paula Sewell

Joe Mallozzi:
I wouldn't mind! I guess Nightwalkers was as close as we ever got. Of course we'd love to, we'd love to do crossovers with other shows but realistically it's unlikely.

Paul Mullie:
Because those shows are on other broadcasters and done by other producers, and, in fact, are canceled now, it seems unlikely to me.

From: kgehm
Would the Jaffa (or even some of them) ever consider becoming Tok'ra as a way of breaking free from the rule of the Goa'uld without having to become dependant on a drug instead? I really, really enjoy this show, and commend everyone involved with it. This is the best treatment I have ever seen of a movie-turned series, still going strong in the seventh season!! Hurrah and thank you!!!!!!!
Karen Gehm

Paul Mullie:
There's some debate as to whether the Jaffa can become hosts.

Joe Mallozzi:
In 1969 Chris unfortunately ad libbed a line. He said that once his symbiote matures it's going to crawl up into his head.

Paul Mullie:
Apparently that wasn't supposed to wind up being bible. So I'm not sure where it stands.

Joe Mallozzi:
Yeah, it came up again, didn't it?

Paul Mullie:
Yeah, I think we've kind of tried to avoid the issue, to be honest.

Joe Mallozzi:
The question is whether, just as Jaffa, whether they would want to become hosts, which I think would be highly unlikely, and would the Tok'ra themselves, just given what we've set up with Allegiance and with Death Knell, whether they would welcome a Jaffa/Tok'ra into their ranks. So, once again, it's highly unlikely.

From: dihajek
Would you ever consider writing a story about Vlad the Impaler, or someone like that who was not considered a god but maybe ruled with fear? For instance, SG-1 goes through the gate and is met by people impaled on poles leading down a road? Thank you for the opportunity to ask a question!
Dianna

Paul Mullie:
We've had a lot of different vampire pitches over the years, freelance pitches, but nothing that's ever been pitched in a way that would be usable for us.

Joe Mallozzi:
Yeah, I mean, there are a lot of interesting ideas out there. It's just a matter of how are you going to build a story, an engaging story, around these interesting ideas? And a lot of the times the interesting ideas just die…

Paul Mullie:
Yeah, they don't turn out to be good stories.

From: katarina.falkeman
In the episode A Hundred Days O'Neill had an affair with a women, and it was hinted that she was pregnant with his baby. Was she? And if this was the case, was it a boy or a girl?
Katarina Falkeman

From: katlyn
Hi, I love the show. I would like to know if Jack will be going back to the planet from A Hundred Days. I would love to know if he has a young child living off-world.
Kathy Monahan

Paul Mullie:
People have suggested that we should do a story about the woman that O'Neill left behind in A Hundred Days. And it's like, yeah, that would be a great idea - what's the story? And no one has yet come up with it.

Joe Mallozzi:
In fact, actually, I remember once, there was a writer who came in and was pitching, and said, 'I think we should do a story where O'Neill returns to the planet and Laira has given birth to a son.' And Brad was like, 'Okay, well, what's the story?' And she goes, 'Well, I don't know, this is just a pitch.' And Brad says, 'Yeah, that's a pitch… It's just a matter of coming up with a story now.' I mean, you can't just come in and pitch a notion. This is really what it is.

Paul Mullie:
Again, I wouldn't rule that out. If somebody came up with an interesting angle on either her and/or a child, great!

Joe Mallozzi:
There you go! A ready-made reason why O'Neill is going to be lite in season eight - the fact that he's off visiting his child on the other world! Which is uncannily the truth! It uncannily mirrors reality!

Paul Mullie:
The truth is that children are a little bit problematic, and I think you'll find if you could look back for other examples of science fiction on other shows, very commonly what happens is, in some science fiction way, the child is artificially aged. Because doing a story where there's a three year old is virtually impossible. It's really hard to do stories with toddlers. You can do babies, where they don't actually have to do anything, and often they're just a prop, and you need one real baby for a quick shot. But it's much easier to shoot kids who are in the 10, 11, or even in their teenage years range, especially if there's going to be any kind of jeopardy. Nobody wants to see a toddler in any kind of jeopardy. So, if we were going to do a story about O'Neill's child, I think we would have to find a way to artificially age him. The Harsesis was a perfect example. He was a baby, and then we met him again, and suddenly he was ten years old.

Joe Mallozzi:
Yeah, it was funny because I remember going online, and there was a thread on Laira, and should they revisit, and they were like, how are we going to do it? And one of them was like, 'Okay, if they do it, they're going to use the old sci-fi cliché, and he's going to be artificially aged. So, for that reason alone…!

Paul Mullie:
Production-wise, it's very difficult to do stories with young kids, in terms of casting them, and getting actors, and the hours that they can do, and realistically what kind of stories you can tell about kids in that situation. You would really want to wait until he, or she, was a little bit older, or artificially age them. But then you get into this particular problem of, 'Oh, not that old cliché again!' So it's a difficult story! So again, it's out there, it conceivably could be a story, but nobody has yet come up with a really fun and interesting way to address all those issues. I mean, I'm sure Brad would like to do it. Brad originally wrote A Hundred Days. It was his thing, and I'm sure he would love to do a story like that, but… not yet!

Joe Mallozzi:
Season ten!

Paul Mullie:
Exactly! We'll just wait until he's old enough, and then we'll bring him back!

From: vhump
Are there any stories you would really like to have done with the SG-1 team but couldn't be done realistically, i.e. because of budget, length, actors not available, military regulations etc.?
Vicky Humphrey
Ontario, Canada

Paul Mullie:
Our musical! Our musical!

Joe Mallozzi:
Our all singing all dancing Stargate! [laughing] There are stories that we've pitched over the years that were shelved, or seemed to die at the pitch stage, that were resuscitated.

Paul Mullie:
Yeah, almost everything we've ever pitched has come back in some form.

Joe Mallozzi:
The Tomb, for instance, was one of the first stories we pitched when we came over in season four, and eventually ended up doing it.

Paul Mullie:
It was originally unproducible. It was thought to be unproducible because of the set. But then they okayed the set because they were going to reuse it. But then they ended up not reusing it, I think. I can't remember how it all played out.

Joe Mallozzi:
Descent, for instance, was another season four story we pitched.

Paul Mullie:
And Revisions, that's been kicking around in different versions for a couple of years too. So sooner or later they all come back.

Joe Mallozzi:
When we first got here, we'd be pitching, and they'd be like, 'Uh, no, no, no, that's not going to work, that's not going to work,' just the normal frustration. All these story ideas were dismissed in season four, but come around season six, they're going to start looking pretty good!

Paul Mullie:
That has been the case. I can't remember any pitches that we've ever done that have just essentially died. I'm trying to think if there's anything we ever wanted to do that we just couldn't do because of budget. I mean, [in Descent] we were going to crash the ship in the ocean, but we weren't going to have it flood. And Brad said, 'Oh, that would be really cool, we could flood it!' And I'm like, 'How the hell are we going to do that??' And he was like, 'Yeah, yeah, it'll be cool! We'll do it!' And then it was going to be just one room. We might use just a small room. You know how you do that, right? You build a three-walled set at a pool, I think it was at UBC, and then you sink the set, and you put the cameras where the empty wall is, and it just looks like water rising. So you're literally just lowering a three-walled set into a tank, and it looks like the water's rising. When he first said that we would do that, we were like, 'Are you nuts?! Do you really want to do that??' And, granted, it wound up being insanely expensive and a big deal. It was difficult to do, but it looked great. And it really sold the episode. And Corin did a great job swimming. Who knew that he could hold his breath for, like, two minutes under water? You know, it's a good point, actually, because, it's actually been almost the opposite. We haven't been in too many situations where they said no, we can't afford to do that. In fact, more often than not, people say we can do this, or we should do this. They'll take our stories and say, 'Well why don't we do this kind of effect, or this kind of a scene in your story?' And we're, more often than not, surprised by how much we can actually get away with, rather than being told no, you can't do that, you can't do it. It's more like people saying, 'Hey, we could do this, we could do this!' And we're like, 'Are you nuts?!' And then they do it! The show is always bigger than we think it's going to be. If there's been one trend from day one when we arrived to now, when we write something, we always imagine the small cheap version, and it's always bigger and more spectacular than we imagined it. Like the camp in Enemy Mine, after the camp in Orpheus, which was this huge thing, and it was expensive and it was a big deal, they were originally going to do this really big camp, and we were like, 'No, no, no, we're going to do the small version, we want it small, scaled down. We can't do any more of these crazy camps. We're going to do the small version.' And then we saw the dailies, and I'm looking at it going, 'This is the small version?!' It looked huge!! So, again, they always surpass our expectations in terms of effects and sets and explosions and extras. It's always bigger than we think it's going to be. So that's what's kept it fun for us. It hasn't been this painful thing where, 'Oh no, we can't afford to do that, no, we can't afford to do that.' We tend to think in terms of just the characters and the small moments, and then you get this gigantic tableau of these huge visuals, and stuff. It's great!

____________________
Ritter, Kate. "Switching Gears." July 25, 2003.


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