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Stargate SG-1 Cast Interviews: Michael Shanks

Michael Shanks: Action Jackson
Steven Eramo, TV Zone #134, Jan 01

Directing Double Jeopardy

"You could say that I'd been prepping for a while for this," notes the actor.  "Directing is something I've wanted to do probably for as long as I've wanted to act.  It's just a matter of making the transition.  I spent the last two years paying close attention to the way Stargate is shot and how our directors work.  Also, whenever I had the free time, I'd sit in the editing room and watch how all the pieces were put together."

"So learning the actual step-by-step process of directing and how things are done isn't really that bad.  The rest comes out of your own vision of the script that you're given and how you plan to bring the story to life while trying to stick to a budget and shooting schedule.  Now that's when you start to feel like you're caught between a rock and a hard place," jokes Shanks.

"This episode had quite an ambitious storyline and a number of elements to it," says Shanks.  "It was probably our longest shoot in the history of the series.  Usually we do seven-and-a-half days of principle photography, but in this case it took us ten days.  We haven't gone over time like that since our first year and, in particular, when we shot our pilot episode."

"We spent two days on location in a forest near the Vancouver mainland.  All the rest of the work was done inside the studio, and you would not believe the variety of interior locations used for this story.  For example, on Stage Six we built the largest, most expensive set in the history of the show.  Then, of course, there was the SGC set on the soundstage next door.  We also constructed an entire 'world' plus a pyramid within that world on separate stages."

"See, I told you this was a big deal," laughs the actor.  "I remember during the first read-through of the script everyone said, 'Oh, my God.'  Then the rookie director, me, looked at the script and thought, You've got to be kidding.'  It was the luck of the draw or just the chips falling where they may, but I ended up with the biggest episode we've done since the series began.  It was an overwhelming situation to be dropped into to say the least."

There were many challenges for Shanks.  "There's a scene in the episode in which a character is decapitated in front of a pyramid full of people," he recalls.  "That took us a while to put together in the editing room.  It was written at the last minute and chock-full of story elements.  Initially, we were supposed to film it in one day but the work ended up spilling over into the next two days.  It was just incredible.  There were twenty-five people in the shot, each of whom had their own beats that were intricate to the scene.  So they had to have proper coverage.  Then there was the issue of this being somewhat graphic subject matter, and it had to be handled in a way that wasn't gratuitous.  We had to be careful, especially because this was for TV."

"Another tricky sequence was one in while Richard Dean Anderson was fighting himself.  Being the person that he is, Richard is oftentimes very particular about how he wants things done.  So to have 'two' of him in the same scene at alternating intervals and then interacting at that level was a challenge to pull off," jokes Shanks.  "However, Richard made it work.  He was the mane who pushed the right buttons to make the scene play out smoothly.  What a guy!"

"I have to give kudos to the entire Stargate cast and crew," continues the actor.  "They were super.  When I committed myself to this, I did so knowing that I was going to be supported.  Everybody stepped up to the plate and was very tolerant and patient with me as I was feeling my way through the process.  The questions come much faster to an experienced director and the demanded made on him or her are a lot higher.  With me, the crew was like, 'Let's just take a breath.  We don't have to put the heat on him because he's going through enough already.'  The actors were the same, and that helped boost my confidence level."

Actor Self-Help

"Working with the actors was the easiest part of the job because I was already inside their heads so to speak."

"When directing, you have to pay attention to every conceivable element.  The pictures you're 'painting' need to be palatable to the eye of the average person who's tuning in."

"Directing is a completely aesthetic medium.  There are times that it's more about how a shot looks than what's going on within it.  To me that seems superficial, but it's also incredibly necessary in this medium as well as an important part of storytelling.  It took time for this to sink in. I finally realised that, ultimately, it's my job to tell the story regardless of the people that are within its confines.  I hope that makes sense.  This realisation changed my perception of the directing process and really opened my eyes to what it's all about."

"Honestly, my experience of directing Double Jeopardy is a blur.  The real fun for me came in the post-production process.  During the shoot there was no time to relax and enjoy the moment.  There was always too much stuff in one day and a zillion other things to talk about.  Every lunch hour I'd review the tapes from the day before and at night I'd prepare for the following day.  It was gruelling at times, but it hasn't turned me off from directing.  In fact, having finished it, I now feel as though I can take on anything this medium can throw at me."

Busy Acting

Michael Shanks has had plenty to keep him busy as Daniel Jackson.  After four years as a member of the SG-1 team, Daniel has lost some of his wide-eyed innocence, but he remains as passionate as ever about exploring.  According to Shanks, this season was a little disappointing in terms of how his character was, or was not, used.

"Our writers dream up some great ideas when it comes to writing Daniel stories, and I've had some excellent ones this year.  I relish those episodes as they allow me to spread my wings as an actor," says Shanks.  "Unfortunately, in group situations they're still not quite sure what to do with my character.  I think that's been a common theme since the series began.  Daniel is a bit of a loner and a bit of an outsider and, to top it off, he's not a soldier.  So when the fighting starts what do we do with him?  We have him crouch behind a rock and leave him out of the action or we don't have in the scene at all."

"I found this happened more and more this year, especially since the creation of this red-herring relationship between Jack O'Neill and Sam Carter.  The series has gone in a direction I did not expect, and, believe m, I'm not saying that's a bad thing at all.  I'm just saying that I think Daniel has been slightly limited in his actual interaction with the team.  Again, stories where he has been the focus have been wonderful, but they sort of end up excluding the rest of SG-1.  So if anything, my wish for next season would be for my character to be worked a little more into the group dynamic."

Favourite From Season Four

When asked to choose a favourite from the fourth season, Shanks is quick to respond with The First Ones.  "That's a terrific one just in terms of the sense of humour and irony that Brad Wright and Peter DeLuise brought out in my character.  Daniel was in his element.  He spent the entire episode trying to be compassionate and communicative towards this Unas [Dion Johnstone], which, I feel, is where my character's strengths truly lie.  It was a pleasure to work with my pal Dion, who I has performed with on stage in Hamlet.  He is a consummate actor who worked hard to bring his character to life and, in doing so, made it easy for me to work off him."

"Peter DeLuise also directed that episode, which made the shoot all the more enjoyable," continues the actor.  "Peter is the ultimate peacemaker.  He's also an actor and understands what his fellow actors need to guide them through a scene, which is what I was talking about earlier.  He's an excellent actor's director.  Technically, he's also a great storyteller.  Peter isn't afraid to get in there and get the job done.  We have a lot of fun with him."

"I love it when our writers take two characters with such opposing views, like Jack and Daniel, and pit them against each other.  It not only makes for interesting drama but also a neat moral debate topic for the viewers."

"Our writers, Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie, wrote this story [The Curse] in eight days after being told that Richard was going to be away for most of the week's shooting," says Shanks.  "I had a wonderful time working on this one.  The director is friend of mine, Andy Mikita.  We had fun going back to the show's Egyptian mythology roots and delving into Daniel's past."

Is Shanks ready for more journeys through the Stargate?  "You bet," enthuses the actor.  "I started the show when I was 26 and I turned 30 this month.  So much has happened and the time seems to have passed so slowly, but at the same time it's gone by so quickly.  It's had its ups and downs but my overall experience of Stargate has been an extremely positive one."

2001, TV Zone. Buy TV Zone #134 online

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