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Stargate SG-1 Cast Interviews: Michael Shanks

Action Jackson
Isabelle Meunier, SFX #70, Nov 00

Michael Shanks' introduction to directing for TV hasn't quite turned out as he was expecting.

A nice, easy, dialogue-heavy, character piece, they promised the aspiring actor who's been playing Daniel Jackson on Stargate SG-1 for 4 years now. The kind of filler episode where he could rely on the relations he's built up with his fellow cast members to ease him into his shot calling duties.

That's not quite how things turned out, as Shanks' knackered voice on the other end of a transatlantic phone call pays testament.

"When I first read the script, I went, 'Oh my God, you've got to be kidding me!' Because it was the complete opposite of everything that, in a perfect world, I had hoped the script would be!"

And he doesn't mean that in a bad way. He wasn't handed Stargate's equivalent of "Spock's Brain" or The Phantom Menace. What he'd been handed was, he recalls, "one of the single biggest episodes we've ever done.....if not the biggest ever in terms of the elements involved."

And though it's now all done and dusted and in the can, he still sounds exhausted. "Absolutely! I think I'm still kind of feeling the effects of it." He chuckles. "Every day I had a little leap of joy in my heart when everything went right and I had an incredible sinking feeling when something was not working and I didn't know how to fix it. The ups and downs were incredible!"

"Double Jeopardy" will be one of the major event episodes of season four, drawing together various plot strands, advancing the show's mythology and setting the scene for the ongoing background plot in season five. Quite a responsibility for a first time lensman..... "

"It was an eye-opener for sure," laughs Shanks. "Not completely unexpected because I had anticipated most of the pitfalls. It was very difficult because of the nature of the show we were doing."

Having prepared himself mentally for 6 months to do one kind of episode, did he doubt his producers' sanity when he saw what they'd actually given him?

"Oh absolutely," he laughs. "I was a little bit scared, wondering I'd signed myself up to do, but I think the key to overcome that is preparation; talking to all the right people and making sure that every detail is as specific as possible."

Finally feeling confident every possible angle was being covered, Shanks enthusiastically went to work, but was immediately thrown off balance by the unexpected problems..... "

That's one reason why it was so exhausting; you have to be on the ball all the time, control every conceivable department, answer all these questions. And all the time you come across little things you hadn't thought about! You really have to learn how to think on your feet and do a little bit of tap dancing every now and again to cover your butt, because you have been looking at the broad strokes too much or paid too much attention to something that probably didn't need that much attention."

Each SG-1 episode will have an average of seven and a half days shoot, but "Double Jeopardy" proved to be anything but an average episode. "This ended up being a ten and a half day shoot, plus second unit." Shanks explains. "We had a lot of action elements involved, special effects and whatnot. It was like there was some kind of catch to every scene we shot; some element of visual or special effects was always gonna take up more time than we planned for."

Thankfully, nobody blamed Shanks for having to work overtime, understanding that he had been thrown in a very deep deep end. "That's exactly it; you get tossed in and it's 'Swim boy, Swim!' but it wasn't like anybody was saying. 'why's it taking so much time?' There's obviously time constraints in television, but everybody knew at the outset that this was an unusual story, and that it was going to be 'a challenging thing for Michael to take on for his directorial debut' so to speak."

So his producers, co-star, Richard Dean Anderson included, must have had faith in his abilities. Either that or they really hate him! Shanks laughs.

"Ultimately, it's not just about faith in me; I'm supported by a bunch of very talented and experienced people. They were around to stop me from dropping the ball any time it looked as like I was about to, which you know, I'm sure happened- I just couldn't tell you specifically where. With a group of people like that watching your back and covering your butt, that's exactly why I chose to make my directorial debut on this shoe; you know that, ultimately, you're gonna be more supported than you would be if your tried it somewhere else."

The technical side of the episode's storyline demanded the whole gamut of directorial nightmares; blue screen interaction, visual effects photography, action scenes and, for good measure, location filming.

"We had a lot of fight scenes," he recalls "and a lot of twinning - twinning being character duplication - because of the theme of the episode is that the SG-1 team comes across their old double robot selves that were duplicated in the season one episode "Tin Man". So that involved a lot of split-screens, photo doubling and things like that. We also did 2 days on location in a forest somewhere in the lower mainland."

But was it fun?

"Surprisingly, no." he sighs. "Not fun because of stress. But I enjoyed myself. I cherish and savour the experience. The learning process for me is very enjoyable. The fun quotient was very minimal due to the fact that we were so under the gun every day; there was no time to relax and soak in the experience, It was always go, go, go!"

The Stargate crew are notorious pranksters, but this time, reckons Shanks, they were sensible enough not to prat around. "Nah, they were very good," he reckons. "They hinted that they might be up to something, but because they're friends and very supportive, when push comes to shove they were very professional, prepared and ready to rock 'n' roll. They gave 100%, went above and beyond what they would normally do."

Having grabbed the bull by the horns with "Double Jeopardy", directing another episode must seem a doddle in comparison.

"I definitely gained some confidence by going through this experience," he concedes, "and given the nature of the episode, I don't think there's a technical element you could hand me on a show of this nature that I would feel uncomfortable with, because I've literally seen it all. It's just a question of what I'd do differently or better the next time how to overcome the mistakes that I feel I've made."

So he wasn't put off by his recent experience? "That's one thing it didn't do. What does not destroy us makes us stronger, and I definitely wasn't put off directing! It was certainly a unique experience for me in terms of jumping into the fire, and it was quite a large fire! I would say maybe not as enjoyable as it could have been," he adds ruefully, "but it certainly made the learning curve much sharper and stronger for me because I had a lot of elements to deal with."

Before he next dons the director's hat again, Shanks first has to recover from his ordeal, which should take him.....?

"A whole year!" he laughs.

2000, SFX. Buy SFX online.

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