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Stargate SG-1 Cast Interviews: Michael Shanks

Double Jeopardy
Jenny Wake, Frontier, Fall 01

Michael Shanks sits in the Director's chair for the first time and talks about pranks, storyboards, robots...and loosing his head. By Jenny Wake.

When Michael Shanks petitioned to make his TV directing debut on Stargate SG-1, he hoped he'd be given a straightforward character-oriented episode for his first directing assignment. Instead, he got "Double Jeopardy".

"Once I read the script, I knew that I was in for it, " says the actor, who plays archaeologist Dr Daniel Jackson on the sci-fi adventure series. "It was this real special effects fiesta."

"Luck of the draw," says executive producer and fellow actor Richard Dean Anderson. "He got probably our most technically effects-laden episode of the season. It's huge."

"Double Jeopardy" is action packed with shoot-outs, vicious aliens, and multiple computer generated visual effects. "Also, we're doing the twinning, and it's nuts," adds Anderson.

By "twinning" he means that he and his co-stars play dual roles when their characters meet their robot duplicates - a challenging complication for any director, especially when the doubles come face to face.

They're about to rehearse scene 44, a shoot out between ten characters - two of them played by Anderson, as Colonel Jack O'Neill and his double storm a Goa'uld stronghold. Final body count: sic dead or wounded. Character moments: well, O'Neill rolls his eyes at one point.

"Action Richard!" orders Shanks.

Anderson promptly drops to one knee and aims his forefingers as if they're gun barrels. "Pow! Pow!" he cries. Several stunt guys, costumed as Jaffa guards, flop to the floor.

Amanda Tapping, alias Major Samantha Carter, scoots past Anderson and mimes shooting half a dozen of the fifty or so crew members lurking in the shadows around the set: "Pow! Pow! Pow!"

Shanks surveys the bodies and commences negotiations with the director of photography Peter Woest, first assistant director Bill Mizel and executive producer Michael Greenburg over the sequence of the shots for the scene.

The rookie director has envisioned a complex shot which will take in much of the action with a fluid choreography of actors and camera. But Greenburg and Mizel are adamant that the scene can only be shot within schedule if it's done as a series of shorter simpler shots. Anderson too, uttering many apologies to Shanks, weighs in on the side of the simpler sequence.

Outranked and outnumbered Shanks slumps into the director's chair, his head in his hands. "You guys just don't want me to do the wide shots," he wails.

"I guarantee you won't use the wide shot," insists Greenburg. "If we do the wide shot we can kiss away doing Scene 22 today."

Decision made, the crew cranks into high gear, clattering camera, lighting and sound equipment into position, preparing weapons, firing up braziers on the set walls. Shanks turns his focus to a myriad of smaller decisions, such as which way the robots should lie when he falls, and how much blood should seep from his wounds.

In hindsight, days later, Shanks is philosophical about Scene 44: "My process was to focus on O'Neill's point of view towards everything, and involve as many elements around him, choreographed in sync with his point of view, as possible. It actually meant less shots, but it was a more complex sequence, and it would have meant more takes to get exactly what I wanted.

Being a rookie, one of the obstacles to be overcome is that you have a lot of different voices giving you advice. You're at the helm and you're surrounded by people with far more experience saying 'Look, I know that we're not going to get through what you have planned, so let's find a simpler way to go about that.' It becomes a but of a push-pull. The strategy us to find the most palpable alternative while still keeping as much of your vision as possible.

For me it was bout having more fluidity to this scene, but it's difficult to choreograph action sequences all in one. For all the elements to have gone off in just the right way, it would have probably taken a lot longer than it actually ended up taking. It still ended up taking way too long anyway," he says with a wry laugh.

Indeed the scene, which will eventually edit down to an on-screen duration of just one minute and ten seconds, takes hours to shoot.

As the cameras are fitted with safety shields, Anderson again mimes shooting at the stuntmen. Stunt coordinator Dan Shea side-coaches, calling out to him who he is shooting, who's shooting at him, when he's hit and where.

Anderson counts the timing out load, right hand then left: "1-2-3-Blam! Blam! 1-2 Blam!"

Twenty minutes later, he's still at it, now with a pair of unloaded handguns. When the caterer brings around a platter of food, Anderson wedges a sandwich between two fingers and blams between mouthfuls.

The crew's busy clatter and chatter rises to a mind-addling volume. Surrounded by seeming chaos, Shanks studies his storyboard - a series of crude stuck-figures that he admits to having drawn himself.

"Those are my pictures," he laughs. "I did that with a lot of the sequences, not just the action ones...little rough sketches about how you want the shots to go. It's much easier to design your shot list and direct that way, knowing exactly what you want."

Although today's shots no longer match his storyboard, it's a useful reference nonetheless - a touchstone, reminding of his overall vision for the scene.

"It can be a bit panicking sometimes when you absolutely know that you're under the gun in terms of time, and you thought you designed it so that you're going to be the most time economical as possible, and all of the sudden things start changing, evolving, getting larger, and you realise that, oh my god, I had this carefully plotted out to get exactly what I wanted and now I'm going about it in a different way and I don't know how long this is going to take any more, or how many more shots I need to get the scene."

Despite the episode's action orientation, Shanks is determined to keep the focus firmly on storyline and the character: "That to me present the largest problem - how to retain the through-line of all the different characters, so that we don't get lost in all the flash and bang and guns going off and ships landing," he says. "Ultimately, you have to care about the people involved, and retain that sense of story within this sea of technical elements."

Amanda Tapping is disappointed that Shanks wasn't given a more actor-oriented episode to direct: "I had hoped he would direct 'Prodigy', because I was really excited about having him direct me in some of the bigger scenes I've been given this season. He's a very cerebral man, highly intelligent, and an actor, so he is coming at it from the actor's perspective, but I don't think those tools are coming into play as much as he might have hoped. The show that he's been given to direct is high action, so it's: 'Come around the corner, point your gun and shoot. Now, how am I going to film this?'"

Anderson has rehearsed his handgun choreography to a dynamically precise rapid-fire sequence of violent action. As he waits for the cameras to roll, he announces the "Riverdance" version, and prances through the sequence with his toes pointed and his knees high, in a spoof or Irish dancing. The crew disintegrates into laughter.

Moments later, the soundstage still to a breathless hush. Eyes clued to a video monitor, Shanks calls for action. A grimfaced Anderson whirls and shoots, his guns spitting fire, spattering cartridges, and battering the studio and surrounding neighborhood with a heart-stopping din. The camera zooms in for a close-up of the weapons, too late - Anderson is already falling out of the shot. Mercifully timing comes together on the following take and, with a collective sigh of relief, the crew starts setting up for the next shot.

Shanks is grateful that the pranksters amongst his fellow actors have by and large stayed focused on the job: "All the key actors of the show have been supportive and helpful. As an actor it may not seem like a big deal, but because a director has to think of so many different elements, it's really important that everybody is there to work, with their lines and their beats memorized, and they're focused and prepared to give you what you need.

Key to me getting through it is that I've been very well supported from all the departments," he acknowledges. "Everybody has helped me step up to the plate and provided their best for me."

That's not to say there hasn't been any leg-pulling at Shanks's expense, most notably during filming filming for a scene in which Shank's character is decapitated.

"It was funny, actually," says Shanks. "It opened up a lot of room for jokes about the size of the episode and how long everything was taking to do. But I've already lost my head, so what worse can they do to me?" he laughs.

At the end of the first week of filming for "Double Jeopardy", Christopher Judge, who plays Teal'c, phoned Shanks at home, and almost convinced the exhausted director that he'd missed half a day's work.

"I was really in quite a sleep-deprived state at that point," groans Shanks. "He said, 'What's going on with you?' and I said, 'I was asleep!' He said, 'Dude, it's one o'clock,' (meaning it's one o'clock on Friday afternoon) 'what are you doing in bed?' and I said, 'One o'clock? Oh my god!' and I looked out the window and said, 'But it's still dark out!' and he said, 'That's because it's one o'clock in the morning!'"

"We're best friends," says Judge, all joking aside. "I feel bad for him that his first experience as a director is such a huge episode. He cares about the acting, and he cares about the relationships, he cares about the story arcs. But it becomes not about about working with the actors. It becomes a matter of being on the clock - how many set-ups can you get by lunchtime, how many can you get after?

He's definitely risen to the challenge," Judge reckons. "I have completely respect for the fact that he hasn't just thrown in his hat and said, 'Oh, just do whatever.' He won't do that. He battles for every shot, he battles for every piece of coverage, and that's great. As and actor, that's what you want a director to do."

"Shanks? Is he directing?" ribs Anderson, with a look of mock disbelief, when asked how his colleague is doing at the helm. "He's doing wonderfully. He's done his homework, he's worked his fanny off. But it's not without it's maddening moments. He's turned to me a couple of times and given me the universal gesture for wanking off!"

There's no question that Shanks first directing assignment has been a baptism of fire. But two weeks later, he has completed a rough cut of the episode and is pleased with the way it is coming together: "As an director, when you read a script, you visualize it in your mind a certain way, and then the achievement of brining it to life in a way that you imagined it would be is very gratifying."

And several months later when "Double Jeopardy" first screens in the US, for many fans (judging by critiques in the Internet Forums) the episode stands out as one of the highlights of Stargate SG-1's fourth season.

So, given the opportunity, would Shanks direct again? "There wasn't a lot of time to relax and enjoy the process," he says. "Every day was much too big to do. There was such a frantic pace and such a stress level at all time. There were so many different things to think about, especially given the size of the episode. But it never put me off directing. It's something that I want to do eventually. I love acting and still every much plan on pursuing that on a full-time basis. Eventually I want to be able to do both, just to have that diversity of experience.

If I learned anything," says Shanks, "it's how to minuscule in the film-making process the actor's actual involvement can often be. And I learned how much of a character the camera can be, in terms of telling the story. The actors become pawns of this larger thing.

As an actor you become very self-centered in thinking that it's all about you and your story," he admits. "As a director, you realize that the whole mosaic involves so many more elements."

Given an option, Shanks may not have chosen to cut his directing teeth on "Double Jeopardy", but what an opportunity to lean how to handle action and technical effects! In the Stargate SG-1 blend of science fiction and adventure, episodes are never solely character-oriented. And a "flash and bang" episode still needs a director who can bring out the character and the story. So perhaps, after all, "Double Jeopardy" was the perfect challenge for Shanks.

2001, Frontier.

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