FEATURE ARTICLES

FILMMAKER AT THE HELM

An Interview with Stargate's Executive Producer, Michael Greenburg


Michael Greenburg On Stargate, he's an executive producer, but Michael Greenburg is an accomplished writer and director as well as a producer, and he prefers not to be tied to labels. "To me, I'm a filmmaker," he says. "Back since I was 13 years old, I've always been a filmmaker. Hollywood terms you and defines you. To them, and to television, I'm a producer. When I was doing MacGyver, I was looked at as the action-adventure producer, and now I've become a science fiction producer. It's Hollywood that really describes you on their terms. But we who are who we are out here, we're just filmmakers. You give us a script, we'll shoot it. Or give us some time and money, and we'll write it and shoot it."

And that's exactly what he does on Stargate, overseeing all aspects of production from prep to the final edit, as well as handling the day-to-day decisions on the set. Few television series have the luxury of a full time on-set producer, and Michael sees it as a true advantage. "It's been good for the cast, I think, and good for the directors and cinematographers, to have a person there who's always there. Directors come and go each week, but I'm the constant that's always there. So the cast, I hope, feels comfortable that I'm always there, and I've been there from day one. They know that they can come to work and know that any problems, small or large, will get handled quickly and soundly." Then he adds with a laugh, "But you'd have to ask them that. Maybe I'm a pain in the ass and they'd rather I not be there!"

In addition to producing, Michael is also a prolific writer. He smiles, "If people related to Stargate don't think I write, that makes sense, but if you ask my family, they know I write because I write all the time! During Stargate, I finished a feature called Gentlemen of the Shade, with a guy from the CIA, about the CIA's involvement in Somalia. It's an edgier story than Black Hawk Down. This was a true story that happened to a team of CIA paramilitary guys. They're called the Ground Branch of the CIA, in Somalia. And then I'm just finishing a feature on Leonardo da Vinci. It's a drama. It's kind of like Amadeus, I guess, based on Leonardo da Vinci's life from when he was 12 to 67, when he died. That's been three years in the writing. I know it because I started it the day after my daughter was born and she's going to be three in two weeks. So I'm always writing, because you have to write in this business. Well, you don't have to, but if you don't, then you're always doing someone else's work."

From Leonardo da Vinci to the CIA is quite a range of interests, and he admits, "I kind of like to keep mixing them up and changing." He has written several stories and scripts for Stargate as well, although pure science fiction has never been a favorite genre of his, and he likes to focus on stories with elements of mystery and adventure. "I've never considered myself a sci-fi buff or anything," he explains. "I couldn't tell you one story of Star Trek, because I never watched it. I'm definitely not a buff, but from when I was a kid, I really liked the Voyage to the Center of the Earth, the Bottom of the Sea, the Jules Verne stuff. And then it seemed like there was a huge gap during my lifetime, and then Spielberg sort of brought it all back with Close Encounters, and ET, and then Raiders of the Lost Ark, which had some sci-fi quality to it. I'm drawn to those kinds of stories that are sort of bigger than life. But on a series, you've got to do life stories also."

Asked how he would describe the elements that make the kind of story the Stargate audience is looking for, he laughs, "I don't know! You're probably more familiar with the audience than I am! I try to look at these scripts from a lot of different points of view, a filmmaking point of view, and to me that's a combination of producing, directing, and cinematography. It all sort of melds into one. And I also look at it from an audience point of view, as well as each character and their individual arcs. But our cast of characters have been with the show so long that I don't really have to worry so much about the Jack O'Neill arc, the Carter arc, the Daniel arc, the Teal'c arc. Those are usually there and handled by the actors at this point. But as far as the story and the telling of the story, I do look at it from the audience point of view. I don't want to ever dumb down, or make something too cerebral that they're not going to get, so it's finding that happy medium that is intelligent, but clear storytelling. Vague doesn't really work, you know? As far as what our audience is looking for, I assume they're looking for science fiction! We're on the Sci-Fi channel, it's a science fiction story. But to me, a good story is what's important. We're a science fiction show, so we will have that twist, that sci-fi spin on a character, a storyline, an arena, meaning a planet or a lost world or in space. There will be something in there that has a combination of those elements. But when it all comes down to it, I think people tune in for good stories, and that's what's important, to make the stories original, and good. That goes all the way through the characterizations, and the content of the story, and the message, if there's a message to be told, or the theme, if there's a theme to be heard. Kurasawa said it best, and in simple terms: it all starts with the story. Once you have a good story, and then you follow it up with a good cast, it makes the execution easier. It's the old thing, if it's not on the page, it's not on the stage. So it all goes back to the story."

The stories Michael has written for Stargate have tended to evolve from a "what if" scenario, which is the kind of adventure and mystery he especially likes to contemplate. Crystal Skull and Message in a Bottle had originally been pitched as a single episode, from a story on which Michael had collaborated with his godson, Jarrad Paul. Jarrad is also an accomplished writer, as well as an actor, and Stargate fans may recognize him from his role as Skeeter in the short-lived Richard Dean Anderson series Legend. "Jarrad wrote with me on Gentlemen of the Shade also," Michael explains. "He's an actor. He does pretty well. He was in Legend with Rick and I, and he was in Action, and a show that shot up here, UC: Undercover. He's a working actor, and a really good writer, and my godson," he smiles. Their original story pitch was too large for a single episode. "The first title, which no one knows, was Stargate to Heaven. Like Stairway to Heaven, you know, Led Zeppelin, my favorite band?" he clarifies. "That was the original title, and Brad Wright said there's too much here for one Stargate. Let's make them two different ones. So Jarrad and I wrote the Stargate to Heaven thing together. That started when I was thinking about these messages in a bottle, or these things that NASA does, where they take things from society and put them in space or plant them underground so thousands and thousands of years from now, people are going to see what we were like. So, my 'what if' was, what if an entire planet civilization could be downloaded into this orb because their planet was dying? And now the orb finds Earth, and says hey, I can live here, and… whoosh! All hell breaks loose. So that was basically the genesis of that story."

The other part of Stargate to Heaven, which became the episode Crystal Skull, underwent a number of changes, including suggestions and input from Michael Shanks and Brad Wright. "Michael was very helpful to me in Crystal Skull. He was very involved in that story. The myth part that relates to the Mayan culture, Michael gave me. He gave me this book. He said look, this is pretty cool, and I integrated it in there. The thing about the skull having these extraterrestrial qualities, Michael gave me that idea. When Michael gave me this book, they had these crystal skulls. I think there was a series of them, maybe ten or eleven of them, of which only a couple have been found to date. They really do exist. But the Mayans believed that the crystal skull has extraterrestrial properties. And the grandfather, I have to credit Brad Wright to. The whole grandfather thing was Brad Wright, as far as bringing him on stage. The way I had it in the script, I don't think the grandfather was ever on stage. And I think I just referred to him, and it was his grandfather's archaeological study that found the crystal skull. But Brad put him in this asylum, because everyone thought he was nuts, and I think that added a really great dynamic to the story." Although Nicholas Ballard has been referred to once in season seven, he has not been heard from since he stayed behind on P7X-377, and he is a character that Michael would love to revisit. In fact, he admits that he and Michael Shanks have discussed the possibility of pitching a story that could see the return of Nick Ballard in season eight.

Michael also collaborated with Peter DeLuise on the story idea that underwent many alterations before eventually becoming Fragile Balance. "Peter DeLuise and I wrote the original story. It was kind of to attack the Asgard and their obvious physical and intellectual evolution. When you look at these creatures, they have big heads, big brains, and their bodies are kind of genderless. We wanted to examine that and we came up with cloning. They were just cloning themselves and cloning themselves and cloning themselves, with the potential of the vicious cycle that that would create, and then un-create, meaning they reached a point where they couldn't reproduce on their own, so they solely had to resort to cloning and the diminishing returns of that kind of continuation. So that's what the story was about. And our antagonist in the original story was this character Odin, who was half human and half Asgard, and he was out there in this renegade ship in space. Because of this cloning continuum that was showing diminishing returns, he kidnapped O'Neill, who had the mind that they wanted to tap into, and the DNA that they wanted to tap into, to try to abate the diminishing returns of cloning. So that was sort of the foundation and the genesis of that story. And then it got completely changed!" he laughs. "I haven't written that many Stargates but my experience in writing the stories is they just change. They change for lots of different reasons. Hopefully they're for the better. I'm pretty happy with Crystal Skull and Message in a Bottle, even though they're different from their original stories. They're still good, I like them. Maybe the originals would have been favorites too! It's just part of the game."

Building upon the foundation of Fragile Balance, the collaboration of Michael Greenburg and Peter DeLuise has also produced a story that is a possible pitch for season eight. "I wrote another story that we haven't done yet with Peter DeLuise called You Ain't Jack, which takes the character from Fragile Balance, the young teenager who's O'Neill, and puts him together with Maybourne." Oh, the possibilities! "Yeah, it's really fun, because of the O'Neill/Maybourne stuff," he adds, hoping that Robert Cooper will approve it for the coming season. "You'd have to ask Cooper about that. I think it's a great story."

Michael Greenburg

Michael Greenburg

With writing, directing, and producing to his credit, have there been any acting roles from Michael Greenburg that we might have missed? "Only in grade school, and you're not missing anything!" he responds with a laugh. "I think I had one line, 'Coffee break,' in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. And I struggled over that line!"

Beyond his brief moment on the stage, Michael's experience has remained behind the camera. Born in San Antonio, Texas, he grew up in Scarsdale, New York, and studied film at the University of Southern California, followed by a year of graduate work at UCLA. He seemed destined for a career in film even from an early age. "My company is Big Pix Inc.," he explains. "It always has been, since I was a teenager. My filmmaking buddy, Kenny Neigh, who was tragically killed in a car accident when we were young, we came up with the name together. There used to be a movie theater in our neighborhood called The Pix, and so we came up with the name Big Pix Inc. In Kenny's honor, I've kept that name as my company. That's the name that means the most to me, and everything in this business I will do under Big Pix because of that. We started out as filmmakers together in high school, and we'd probably still be together today making films if he was alive. So he's alive through my work. His father was president of the Presbyterian Church back when we were in high school and university. And his father gave us our first paying job, which was six hours of the history of the Presbyterian Church. That was the first time I ever got paid as an assistant director. I was actually Kenny's assistant director. We made films together, we did everything together. Sometimes I would do the sound and the lighting, and he would do the directing and the camerawork, or I'd do the camerawork and he'd do the directing, we just did it all together. But he directed this history of the Presbyterian Church, and I was the AD. That got me into the Director's Guild!"

After a few years as an assistant director, Michael got his producing break in 1979 with the NBC Mini Series The Golden Moment. He has since produced over 300 hours of prime time television, including telefilms such as In the Eyes of a Stranger and The Vegas Strip War, and has also produced features as well, including Alan Quartermain and the Lost City of Gold. His association with Richard Dean Anderson began during MacGyver. "We met on MacGyver," he says of his business partner. "We didn't know each other before. I was at Warner Brothers and I met Steve Downing, who was producing TJ Hooker. I was producing TV movies and miniseries, and I had done an IMAX film at Warner Brothers. We used to see each other in the commissary, and we got friendly, and then he went over to do the first year of MacGyver, and I was still at Warner Brothers. But then they got into some trouble on the first year. Paramount and ABC weren't real happy with the first year, I guess, in its look, and the expense. So I got a call from Mike Schoenbrun, the head of production at Paramount, to come over and talk to them about this series, and would I be interested in producing it. And I had never done episodic television before. I didn't even know what it was, hadn't a clue what was involved in it. But I attacked it from a filmmaking point of view, because that's all I really knew in my whole professional life. So I guess they sort of liked what I had to say, and what I would do to change things. Anyway, I got the job, and I thought it was going to be a three month gig. Then it became six, then a year, then, the rest is sort of history! Seven years and then two TV movies in London, which were a lot of fun." Recently, in fact, the executive producers of MacGyver, Henry Winkler, John Rich, and Stephen Downing, undertook to bring the concept back to television with a new series entitled Young MacGyver. Although Richard Dean Anderson declined to appear in the new series, he and Greenburg were approached as producers. "They approached Rick and I at the beginning, but [we declined] because of our exclusivity to MGM and Stargate. Maybe we could have pushed it and had some involvement, but we didn't. I read the script, and sent them my notes. They said they wanted them!" he laughs. In the end, the new series was not picked up by the WB network, and its future is still in doubt.

Following MacGyver, Michael and Richard continued to produce projects under the Gekko Film Corp name, including a new television series, telefilms for CBS, and a CBS pilot for the proposed series Firehouse, before coming to Stargate. By far, their favorite project was the short lived UPN series Legend. "That's the one thing I look back on in my professional life, and it's the big, 'Damn!'" he says wistfully, "because Legend was so great. It was such a phenomenal concept, and a great character. It was created by Michael Pillar and Bill Dial, and then Rick and I got involved in it, and it became this really special, special show. It's the one thing that Rick and I really loved to make, and it was just an incredible joy going to work every day. We would spend all day there if we had to. I mean, there were times when we spent 20 hours or more on that show. Talk about fun. Wow. And with John DeLancie, and the cast that we put together, it was just so much fun making it. Talk about a creative process. Every scene was pushing that character and that concept to the limit, as far as we'd think it could handle it."

Since 1997, Michael has taken his place behind the monitors as the on-set producer for Stargate SG-1, and he speaks with similar fondness of the people behind the series. "We try to keep it light and fun," he says. So much so, that it's not easy to narrow down specific examples of the day to day antics of the cast and crew that contribute to the atmosphere on the set. One particular incident comes to mind, from the day the opening banquet scene was shot for Scorched Earth. "A guy comes in from the woods and collapses in front of this banquet table," Michael recalls. "And everyone's there, I mean everyone's there. It's a big huge master. Dan Shea, the stunt coordinator, who also plays Siler, had a pad standing by in his hand. He was to throw the pad down during the rehearsal so that the actor wouldn't hurt himself as he launched himself and collapsed on the ground. Dan threw the pad down, but to the side of where the guy fell. And for some reason, it just struck everyone's funny bone, and it was hysterical to watch. And then he did it again. It was just a very funny moment. It may not translate to the written word. It may be a 'you had to be there' kind of thing!" he laughs.

Stargate also finds humor in cameos and inside jokes that observant fans will notice. In season seven, a running joke has been the frequent and unexplained appearances of Sergeant Siler in the background during scenes in the infirmary. From a broken nose to a neck brace, the hapless sergeant has been treated as a patient, perhaps leading up to an upcoming scene in Heroes. "He's in an experiment in Heroes, and he gets blasted," Michael says of Siler. "They're testing this new material in the vest, to see if they can withstand a staff blast. And Teal'c's staff blasts him and he gets launched back into the wall, and so he's reeling from that." A body cast will be the result of that particular misfortune. "We're always looking for places to put Siler," Michael continues. "We love the character. And it's one of our fun through lines." Other regular cameos have included directors Martin Wood and Peter DeLuise, and Michael himself made a brief appearance in Wormhole X-treme!.

Even Michael's wife, Nikki, has appeared in small roles in a few episodes. "Yes, she's been on the show. She's done three or four episodes. She's not really an actor, but she is in a way. She is an accomplished dancer and choreographer. I mean, she does the quality work," he says proudly. "She went to the Royal Academy of Dance in London. She was a touring adage specialty act, and a professional dancer since she was 14, but really peaked in that arena in her late teens and early 20s. Then she became a director and choreographer of extravaganzas like at Sun City, and Vegas, those kinds of big shows. And then for the last five years she's gotten back into her classical world, and she's the choreographer for the Chicago Symphony, LA Philharmonic, and the Pasadena Symphony, when they do live stage stuff. The director is John De Lancie, and he was looking for a choreographer and asked me if I knew anyone. This was five years ago, and I said yeah, I'm married to one! They met and hit if off. But Nikki, because of her training, she's got incredible chops as a choreographer and dancer, and also because of the Royal Academy of Dance, she's got the classical background, which really helps in doing the classics, which is what she's been doing with John De Lancie with these symphonies. They just got booked for a tour of five more cities to do Bourgeois Gentlemen, the Moliere play. They've done it in LA and Chicago, and now they're going to be doing it in New York, Virginia, Florida, and Minneapolis. And they've done Midsummer Night's Dream, and Romeo and Juliet, and the classics. That's becoming successful for them. And then my kids, Dimitri is going to be six in November, and Kenya is going to be three in August. And they're the joys," he smiles proudly. "They're… my biggest fans. Dimitri's a big hockey player, and Kenya, last night, got into Nikki's makeup and fingernail polish, and did her entire body!" he laughs.

Looking ahead to what season seven has in store, Michael spotlights without hesitation his favorite episode of the season. "I think so far this season, my favorite is the two-part episode Heroes. I think it's the best television we've done on the series in seven years. It's the most compelling drama, it's the most topical, and it has a great cast, an absolutely great cast. We've got Robert Picardo, and Saul Rubinek, and of course our cast. It's just a really well acted, special Stargate, because it's really good television. I put it up there with the West Wing, Practice kind of stuff."

Beyond season seven, there is already an eighth season to look forward to, as well as a spin-off in the works, and talk of a possible feature film. The future is full of possibilities, and Michael points out one project in particular that he has his heart set on. "You know, we're still trying to resurrect a two-hour reunion Legend movie. We pitched it to Sci Fi channel. They're a little concerned about putting a western on, but they liked it a lot. I sent them tapes, and they really liked it, and liked what we had to say as far as the reunion movie would be concerned. They liked the story, but I think they're a little nervous about the genre, even though it is sci-fi. I've talked to Kathy Lingg over at Paramount, and she's thinking about it. It's going to take a special broadcaster to come up to the plate and hit the homerun with us, but we'd look forward to it. It's one thing that we'd love to do on our hiatus from Stargate," he declares enthusiastically. "It would be great to be able to do that again!"

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Ritter, Kate. "Filmmaker at the Helm." August 5, 2003.


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