FEATURE ARTICLES

STILL GOING STRONG

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


Robert C. Cooper "I think everyone was a little surprised at how well we did out of the gate, just because I guess it's unusual for a show to be stronger than ever in its seventh season," Robert Cooper smiles. But after seven years on the air, Stargate SG-1 is still going strong. The 'little series that could' was intended to last for five seasons until the SciFi channel gave it a new home and a new life in its sixth year and the ratings only continued to grow. "Before we even started shooting year seven, we'd been talking about season eight," he recalls. "I think that the success that we had early on in season seven on the network was just a reassurance that they were proceeding down the right path, the right course, that Stargate still had a life." Now with season eight well underway and poised to begin airing on July 9th, Stargate SG-1 is second only to The X-Files as the longest running science fiction series on US television.

Looking back over the past year, Robert evaluates some of the highlights. "The thing about season seven, I think, was that they are all kind of departures. Because we were dealing with the Rick issue, and because it was season seven, we took the opportunity to do some stuff that was totally different than anything we've ever done before. I think people probably watch it and say, 'That didn't feel like a Stargate, but yet, it still was entertaining.' I mean, it still was something that I think they enjoyed watching for that hour. One of the things we did last year more than ever, I think, was episodes that stand alone. We haven't done serialization so much. Revisions was, I think, more like a classic Stargate. The team goes to a planet, meets some people, gets into trouble, gets out of it, and comes home. We have definitely been doing much more of that. However, all of the episodes have some sequel element to them. Space Race was about Warrick, who was in Forsaken. Avenger was Pat McKenna's character, Felger, from The Other Guys. So they do have sequel elements to them.

"Grace was a wonderful sort of departure episode. Carter has to deal with the fact that, what if she dies out here in space, is this what she really wanted for her life? And I don't mean career achievement, I mean personal life. She has to explore a lot of the elements of her personal life, and then the repercussions of that get played out in Chimera, which is a wonderful parallel story of Carter dealing with a relationship on Earth, and Daniel dealing with his lost relationship with Sarah, who's become Osiris. To me, it's as interesting to tell that story, about how do you have a relationship when you can't tell somebody what you do for a living? You can't come home and say, 'Gosh, I nearly died today, on another planet.' So how do you have a relationship? And that's why Carter has looked at O'Neill in a romantic way, because he understands what she's going through. So in a way, he's the perfect mate for her. And yet she can't make that happen because of the Air Force and their respective divisions. So I don't know how you DON'T tell those stories.

"Evaluating where her life was going came out of a conversation that Amanda and I had. I mean, she tends to be, in our scripts, the person who does all of the techno-babble exposition, and we sometimes lose track of the fact that she's also a woman, who has a life, and we wanted to explore that too. So then Chimera was about her meeting some guy, and this guy having to decide whether he really wants to be involved with someone like that. So, I think that's all fun." Finding the man to take on the role of Carter's romantic interest proved to be a bit of a challenge in itself. Among the names that were considered for the role of Pete Shanahan was Farscape's Ben Browder. "We considered him for casting," Robert acknowledges. "I love Ben. I think he'd have been great. I would have loved to use him, and I think the crossover would have been a lot of fun. But he turned us down."

Season seven also saw scripts penned by cast members Christopher Judge and Michael Shanks, as well as four new episodes written and directed by Peter DeLuise. Robert gave Birthright its final polish, and he praises Christopher Judge's talents as a writer. "Birthright explores Teal'c and his putting his lost wife behind him, and moving on, and how tretonin has changed him, and how he's come to deal with those issues. Chris did a wonderful job. Chris is a talented writer. But that comes from being on sets as much as he has, from being an actor, from seeing the process, from reading the scripts and seeing what he gets on his plate every day that he has to perform, and having a good ear for dialogue, and then having the commitment as an actor to come and spend time in the room with us writers. I mean, it's not like he just wrote a script and handed it in. He spent a long time with us, breaking the story, and listening to what we had to say about the process.

"And Peter DeLuise is sort of the same thing. I mean, Peter DeLuise is much much farther along in the process now, but he started as an actor, decided that maybe that wasn't ultimately going to be a long term successful route for him, and became a very good director, and then also decided that he had it in him to want to write as well, and be a fully rounded contributor to the creative process. And you know what? He went through a real process of growing and learning how to be a writer, and he has achieved wonders now. I mean, his scripts are great now. He was heavily, heavily rewritten on his first scripts, and will tell you that it was a very frustrating process for him. But he's learned. And it's come from having had the opportunity to do it as much as he has, writing as much as he has, and that opportunity was given to him because he's such a good director. I personally think his scripts last year, Orpheus, Evolution part 2, Enemy Mine, I think they're some of the best episodes we'd done that year. He's been rewritten to a certain extent for the sake of production drafts, things change in prep and stuff, but very much what you see was what he brought to the table. And he deserves a ton of credit for having come that far. And Chris, if he sticks with it, will one day get there."

Chimera

Birthright

Asked if he considers himself a mentor for the newer writers on the show, he considers thoughtfully. "I don't know. I'm not comfortable putting myself in that position. I don't know if I'm right in what I'm telling them. I'm just saying, look, this is what I think. If this makes you a better writer, great. Whether anybody else agrees or not, I don't know. I think Chris, and maybe Michael Shanks, and maybe Peter on occasion, have probably felt maybe that, if we'd just shot their script, it would have been a better show. Maybe they think we've ruined their scripts! But the creative process is really just a matter of opinion, you know?"

The creative process is also a matter of continuous change. From its earliest spin to its final edit, a story goes through hundreds of adjustments, and Robert acknowledges that early spoilers usually don't give a true impression of the finished product. "A script goes through so many changes from when it's written to when it's shot to when it's edited, to what actually appears on the air. People take it as though what's written on that page is going to actually transpire exactly the way they're imagining. And that's not true."

He recalls that the season six finale left many fans wondering if a scene had been missing. "For example, there was a scene in Full Circle," he continues. "There were a lot of complaints about how Daniel came and saw Teal'c, came and saw O'Neill in their times of need, and then never came and saw Carter. And then when he did see her in the midst of the show, he was kind of flip to her, and there was never a moment between them. So what was that all about? Well, I'll tell you what that was all about. Carter was never in any mortal danger, and didn't need his help, in the world of Stargate, in those stories. He may have come and helped her or been there for her, but she didn't need it. Abydos was being attacked by Anubis. What were they supposed to do, stop and talk about how much they missed each other? And furthermore, there WAS a scene. We shot it. And the actors played it kind of flip with each other. And so I didn't use it because I thought it was wrong."

He acknowledges that early fan reaction based on spoilers from Heroes and Lost City expressed concern about those episodes as well, but he feels that in their final form, the two huge two-parters were among the season's strongest episodes. "I think Andy Mikita did a wonderful job directing Heroes, and I think the cast really raised the bar a little bit on their performances, and embraced what we were trying to do with it. I hope people watch the show and appreciate it for what it is. I think it's one of the things that makes Stargate good. People say why is Stargate successful, why is it good? Well, you know what? The jeopardy that we put our characters in is real. People do die. And Heroes is kind of a tribute to all of them as characters and what they do."

Lost City, proved to be a unique situation and a perfect example of how stories evolve. Originally intended as a feature film, it was rewritten as a series finale. When an eighth season was confirmed, and the Atlantis spin-off was still a possibility, the script was rewritten again to act as both a season finale and a bridge to the spin-off series. "As far as the movie goes," Robert explains, "the script that Brad and I were paid to write as the, quote, feature film, in Brad's original plan, was supposed to be the stepping stone, the intermediary creative step between SG-1 and the spin-off. When SciFi and MGM began to talk about doing a spin-off concurrently to SG-1, in order for them to order more episodes of SG-1, to keep that going, suddenly having a transition, a hand-off, the passing of the baton so to speak, wouldn't work. You couldn't end one and start the next one, which is what the movie was designed to do. So we had to rethink everything, and ultimately turned the story that was the feature script into the season seven SG-1 finale.

"We had been building towards it for a long time now. Where is the Lost City, who are the Ancients, the confrontation with Anubis, all those things were something we had been building to, and we couldn't postpone that for another year. It just didn't make any sense. So rather than resolve all those issues in the feature script, we took that feature script and we turned it into a two-part finale for season seven that would introduce concepts and characters that will ultimately head off in the spin-off series. That was certainly not how we would have ended the SG-1 series," he smiles, acknowledging the cliffhanger conclusion. "Had we thought this was going to be the last year, we wouldn't have ended it that way." Instead, the episode served to tie up familiar story threads and open up entirely new questions. "If we gave you the answer to everything, then you wouldn't watch the show anymore!" he laughs. "It's a reprisal of some of the fun elements that were in Fifth Race that I know fans have also really enjoyed, and it's a coming together of all the little hints and stories and threads that we've been kind of teasing everybody about with the Lost City for so long. It is easily the biggest show we've ever done, certainly the most money we've ever spent. And it's a fun, fun script."

Heroes

Lost City

With a new president in office, a new person in command of the SGC, and the fate of Colonel O'Neill in the balance, certainly there are plenty of questions to be answered when SG-1 returns for its eighth season and launches a whole new series of adventures in Atlantis. Robert is looking forward to both series, and he offers some hints of what Stargate Atlantis has in store. "Brad and I never wanted to make just another pale imitation of Stargate SG-1, because it has its own life and its own fans. We wanted to do something that I think respected what is successful about that series, but also wiped the slate clean a little bit and gave us something fresh and new. I think we've explored a lot of the stories that we can within this sort of galaxy that we've set up. Atlantis takes place in another galaxy, and what that allows us to do is kind of reset to zero. The Goa'uld are not the villains. There's a new villain. While we may not have explored every stargate that's in our galaxy, we do have a real good sense of what's out there now in SG-1. Just sending another team into that same world means we're always having to address the familiar. What about this, what about that, why aren't they meeting these people? There's so much baggage that comes along with going into the same gate network that SG-1's operating in, plus there would be this feeling, if it's just SG-2, why aren't we watching what's happening to SG-1? So the idea is that they end up in another galaxy, with another whole new set of gates, basically another area code.

"It's the people from Earth, and in many ways they're working on the same mission as SG-1 is. They are trying to find technologies that we can use to protect Earth. They're just doing it somewhere else. SciFi has, I think very smartly, asked us to keep them separate, so that if you watch one, you're not feeling like you have to have seen this episode of the other in order to understand what's going on. They're both going to be self contained. But there will be acknowledgement of the fact that both worlds are coexisting, both storylines are coexisting. And yes, there will be some crossover [of the cast]. It's another gate system. And how they get there, and why that other gate network exists, is something we kind of want to save as a revelation when you see the spin-off. But the point is, it's a new frontier, to quote a Star Trek old axiom. It's a brand new galaxy to explore with all kinds of new allies and villains that you wouldn't expect."

Reflecting on the Stargate adventure that has led to this point, Robert smiles as he looks ahead to carrying both series into the future. "One of the things that I love about Stargate is that it doesn't just reset to zero. It grows. The universe expands, the characters change. We embrace those changes, and I'm happy that the fans have continued to embrace them as well, and grow with us and change with us."

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

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 Robert Cooper responded to the fans...

From: rossvetkarie
Although there are many fan-fictions around on the net, few I have found would truly work as an episode. However, if there was someone that had a story that they feel would work as an episode, how would they find an agent to be represented to the show?
Thanks so much,
Karie Vander Werf

Robert Cooper:
My advice to writers is that writers write stuff. We do not accept unsolicited scripts. There's just too many legal problems with any of that. Write stuff, write stuff that you can use as samples. Send it to agents, send it to agencies. They really do read this stuff. They have readers, they will read your work. If it looks like a script and sounds like a script, you may actually get an agent. And then those agents will submit their work to us. It's a tough business. It's not easy to do. A lot of people think that all I need is a computer and some good ideas and I can be a writer. There's much more to it than that. And often people who look as though they've become overnight successes and won the lottery with million dollar scripts have actually been doing it for a very, very long time prior to that. You just haven't heard about them until that moment when they hit the spotlight.

From: bethm
What kinds of things did you do to get into the business? What qualifications, etc? Oh and just to everyone involved in the show - great work, the show is wonderful! So funny, interesting, and at the same time thought provoking!
Smiles,
Beth Manning
New Zealand

Robert Cooper:
I pretty much did what I just said. I went to film school, first of all, four years of film school. There are really two ways to break into the business. One is to start working as a volunteer, or a trainee, on the crew side of things. And then you work your way through various crew positions. And what you need to do is decide which discipline you want to be involved in, whether you want to start with camera or whatever. I mean, just to say 'I want to be a director,' well everybody can say that. You can go out and get some money and make some movies and prove that you can be a director, and do it yourself. Or you can work your way through the AD [Assistant Director] group. Martin Wood, who is one of our regular directors, was an AD for a number of years before he got the opportunity to direct. Or you do what I did, which is come out of film school and write some scripts. I wrote three feature scripts, and I put them in a bunch of envelopes and sent them out with a letter explaining who I was. And the thing is, none of those scripts were good. In fact, they were all terrible. What got me noticed, and what got the attention of people in the business was that I had three. It's an odd thing, but a lot of guys walk around with one script in their pocket. And what that says is that they sat down and wrote a script. That doesn't make you a writer. What makes you a writer is your commitment to the process, and the fact that you are prolific, and that you're passionate and committed to the idea of being a writer. The fact that I sat down and wrote three feature scripts - now, they were bad by most people's standards - but they still, I think, demonstrated some spark, or some indication that maybe I had some talent. But I think it was more the fact that I had three different ideas, chose to lay them out, understood how a script was written, not just the formatting, but the structure, and demonstrated that. So that got me a job as a junior staff writer at a company that was making low budget feature films. And over that period, the next two or three years, I wrote, like, 20 feature scripts, some of which got produced, some of them with or without my name on them. And they were awful, awful, awful movies, but it was an education for me. It was like going to script camp. It's a process. You've got to be devoted to it. It's not something, I think, that you can do very well in your spare time. There are a lot of books on screenwriting, and one of the best pieces of advice I've ever read in one of them is that a writer writes. And that's what you do. You learn from making the mistakes of what doesn't work, and that comes from writing dozens and dozens and dozens of scripts.

From: kate7581
Is it possible, or have you thought about Martouf descending back to Earth like Daniel did?
Kathy Hanley
Boston, Massachusetts

Robert Cooper:
Martouf? No, Martouf, we tried to get the actor back, but he declined at the time. He was busy doing other things.

From: malong
Will Jonas be back on the show again?
Mary A. Long

From: tericarlson
I would like to see the return of Jonas Quinn as a member of the SG-1 team permanently. Why can't there be 5 members on the team? Having both Jonas and Dr. Daniel Jackson working together would really get Col. O'Neill going. I really hated seeing Jonas leave at the end of the season. Bring him back!
Teri Carlson

From: scaptrans
I was wondering why Jonas was terminated from SG-1. He was a great asset to the program. I feel there was enough room for both Jonas and Daniel. It would have made a great team.
Curious.
Rocky Scapellati

Robert Cooper:
I think that five people on a team is too crowded. From a writing/creative standpoint it would never occur to me to do that. It's just too many people. I don't think any of the characters would get properly serviced in any story, and somebody would end up on the periphery. You know, we have that problem with four people. Sometimes one character gets kind of pushed to the side a little too much for too long, and then we go, 'Hey, wait a minute, we haven't done a Teal'c story in awhile!' or something like that. So creatively, I just don't think it works. There's a very in-depth writing theory about groups of four, four characters being the perfect symmetrical number for writing. There was an analysis of the Coen brothers' movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? about how, within classic storytelling, having four characters is not just creatively, but mythologically, the best scenario. Anyway, it just works so much better. And also, fans don't like to think that this is all about money, but, you know… it's all about money! I mean, we are making the best show we can given the resources that we're given. It's economics too. If this were on a network and getting a 20 share, then there might be a whole different mentality around it. I mean, I love the character of Jonas. I think he had a wonderful arc and there was some great closure to his character. He kind of went on this great journey of being considered an outsider, a traitor to his country and to his planet, and then kind of growing and learning about what's happening in the galaxy and in the world of Stargate, and then going back as a hero and kind of becoming a leader of his own world. I think that was a nice story, it was a nice arc. Daniel Jackson was the guy from the feature film who started it all, and has a much grander arc to be fulfilled within the world of Stargate. Jonas is not dead! He's still out there.

From: sam_o_neill
Do you plan to bring some closure to the Sam/Jack storyline, like a kiss or a fishing trip or something?
Sam

Robert Cooper:
We get the polar opposites of, we want to see shipping, and non-shipping. A lot of what happens in terms of looks between characters is determined on set. Sometimes they'll do something, and they don't even mean to do it. Or to be honest with you, we need a reaction shot and we'll steal it from another scene, just to get a reaction shot. And then the fans will all go, 'Oh, he looked at her like this!' and 'What does that mean?' I think that people are afraid that if Sam and Jack get together, it will destroy Stargate. It will be all about their relationship, and not be about going on adventures. That's ridiculous. Stargate SG-1 is never going to be a soap opera in which all we talk about are how people feel about each other and not about whether we're going to save the world or fight the Goa'uld or go on missions through the stargate. That's what this series is. The other stuff is just really nice interesting character stuff that keeps our characters moving along and interesting, as opposed to just two dimensional cardboard cut-outs going on missions. These are people who work very closely with each other. Of course they're going to develop close personal relationships. I think that learning as much as we can about the relationships of our characters is a lot of fun, and I will always, always continue to explore drama wherever it can be found. There is some fun sexual tension between Carter and O'Neill. That we are exploring that as drama this season should be no surprise to anyone.

From: pooh8959
What is Jack O'Neill's first name? I've seen it in "official" biographies (magazine articles, interviews with producers, etc) as Jonathan "Jack" O'Neill. Yet, on the show, I've seen it listed as John J. O'Neill. Since both have come from official sources, which is correct? And if it's John J. O'Neill, what's the middle J stand for?
Thanks again!
Karen Ford

Robert Cooper:
I don't know! Maybe it is set in stone somewhere and I just don't know about it.
[Note: Different sources, such as the Art Department or Publicity, might work from different resources.]

From: martina.bittl
Whose idea was it to put the logo "Anderson Air" on the plane in the episode Sight Unseen? Was there any deeper reason behind it? Was it really on the plane or put into afterwards with the computer?
Thanks for your efforts,
Martina Bittl

Robert Cooper:
I think it really was there. I think maybe it was that the plane was there, they had a choice, and they chose to use the one that said Anderson Air because they thought it was funny. You'd have to ask somebody who was there that day they shot it. Pete Woeste directed that episode.

From: lcooper
Does Robert Cooper have relatives in the western part of Virginia?
Lawrence Cooper
Atlanta, GA

Robert Cooper:
No. Not that I know of anyway.

From: cylkoth
Actor Keith Hamilton Cobb, formerly of Andromeda, mentioned to a gathering of fans (of Andromeda) in England, that he was reading a script during a plane ride, of Stargate, for a possible guest appearance. There has been no mention of his making an appearance on the show since. Have you spoken with him about guesting on the show this season? What episode was the script for, and what character would he have played?
Thank you,
Casey Coleman

Robert Cooper:
We offered him a role that he turned down. I think he was offered the role of a Jaffa ally, a friend of Teal'c's, I think? And I think it was in Redemption. It was back in the start of season six.

From: Kathryn Stuart
Why, in the last seven years have we NEVER seen SNOW on the mountain outside of Cheyenne Mountain? The stargate is supposed to be in COLORADO. Colorado has snow in the mountains. Therefore why have we never seen SNOW in the outside scenes of Cheyenne Mountain? (PS I'm originally from Colorado so this really bothers me.)
Kathryn

Robert Cooper:
We shot that in first season, and we've been using those shots ever since. In season one, we sent a crew down to the real Cheyenne Mountain and shot a bunch of stuff. And we apparently got some really old cars! Even at the time, I mean, that was only seven years ago, but they look like 1970s cars going in and out. I don't know what that was! But that's not stock footage. That is real stuff that we shot for the show, but did so in season one and haven't been back since. In fact, it's 16mm, and we shoot on 35mm now. You know how expensive it is to take a crew down there? We desperately, desperately need new shots of the establishing shots. I'm really sick of the same two trucks going in and out of the mountain and the same two guys walking back and forth!

From: shanilka
I've been frustrated by the Jack-lite aspect of season 7 and I wondered if perhaps anyone had considered doing a couple of Jack-less episodes so they could concentrate RDA's limited time into at least a few solid Jack focused stories?
Thanks,
Shanilka

Robert Cooper:
Well, he was quite prominent in the mid-season two-parter, Evolution. I don't think anyone thought he was missing in that one. His role was as big as it has ever been in any previous season's show. And he was the star of Lost City. He was wall-to-wall in it, in almost every scene. So Lost City was very much his showcase episode. Other than that, he's here and there. But the choice is what you're getting, or nothing. I mean, he's doing what I would do in his situation. And the ratings are going up instead of down. And the executives who are in charge of making these decisions are saying we will take any amount of Richard Dean Anderson in the series. And while it hasn't actually come to this point ever in the past, I have always firmly believed that the people paying to make this show probably wouldn't proceed with SG-1 without him. So we're doing the best we can to make it work. I do think he brings a quality to the show when he's on screen, and he elevates the show when he's there, but I also don't think the show has really suffered because of his schedule. For us, budgetarily and schedule-wise, we've had a lot of brain twisters to deal with. But I think season seven has been the year of the other three, actually four, because Don has quite frankly done a couple of episodes that I think he deserves awards for. But they've all stepped up and done wonderful, wonderful work. I have no problem telling stories about the other characters on the show, and they've all been great episodes. And I know Rick has had a great time. He's told me so. He's been enjoying his contributions, and he feels like his absence has been dealt with well, to his satisfaction creatively. Having said that, I'm not sure we could proceed creatively with the status quo, because I think that you can only come up with so many reasons why he's not there. How many times can he have to go to the bathroom? Probably a lot if it was Rick… (laughing)

____________________
Ritter, Kate. "Still Going Strong." July 23, 2003.


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