[05/01/08 - 12:05 AM]
Interview: "Battlestar Galactica" Co-Executive Producer Mark Verheiden
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

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Welcome once again to our second season of "On the Futon With...," a semi-weekly feature where I sit down and talk TV with some of my favorite people in the industry, all the while trying to give the impression I'm not some overgrown fanboy.

THIS WEEK'S GUEST: "Battlestar Galactica" co-executive producer Mark Verheiden

Brian Ford Sullivan: Let's start with the easy stuff - how did you get involved with the show?

Mark Verheiden: With "Battlestar" it's not much of a story. I had worked with executive producer David Eick on a project, several projects actually, a number of years ago when he was still working with Sam Raimi, and for some reason he remembered me. [Laughs.] They were looking for someone to come on the show a few episodes into season two, someone who had some television experience and maybe some familiarity with science fiction concepts. They contacted my agents, I came in, I interviewed, and there you go. But... it's funny, I had not -- I don't know why, I guess I hadn't been paying attention, but until the call I didn't know "Battlestar" was back on the air. I hadn't seen any of season one. And when my agent called, I think I had the classic reaction a lot of people must have had to hearing there was a revival of "Battlestar." And I said, "You got to be freaking kidding me." [Laughs.] And then they sent me the first season of discs, I watched them addictively over a weekend and went, "Where do I sign?"

BFS: Was it just your gut reaction to the '70s show?

MV: Some of it. I don't want to put down the '70s show because I think if you look at it structurally, we're truly based on that show. Everything Glen Larson set up in the pilot, a lot of it anyway, we're using. We're just using it in different ways. There were obviously some fantastic concepts in that show. But no, it wasn't my favorite show of the '70s... so when I saw this version, I was amazed.

BFS: So when you come to a show like this, is there some sort of "Battlestar" boot camp? What's the indoctrination process?

MV: For me, I was given an episode to break and write after three days. I had obviously read all the scripts and caught up with where they were at, and then I was given the eighth episode of season two, "Final Cut." So you know, it was a bit of trial by fire, but everyone there did so much to help me out and learn the ins and outs, especially Toni Graphia, David Weddle and Brad Thompson, it just went incredibly smoothly.

BFS: And as far as the mythology aspects of the show how does that work - do David and Ron just announce, "Oh by the way, here's the final five Cylons?" Or is it the "Katamari Damacy" method of let's just roll the ball around and see what sticks?

MV: Ron and David have a very clear vision of where they want the show to go, in terms of big picture stuff. The episodes themselves, though, are mostly open for discussion. We had a big three-day get together in Tahoe last summer [2007] where all the writers got together with Ron to work on thoughts and story ideas for season four. At that point we knew where we wanted to get, but the road getting there was wide open in terms of breaking story. It's a great creative atmosphere here and Ron is a great leader, he knows what he wants but he's also very open to hearing other ideas. If it's a good idea he's willing to run with it. That's been a joy.

BFS: So I know the show is obviously a collaborative process but is there a particular aspect you can look back and point to and say, "That was all me?"

MV: It's such a collaborative thing... I could probably point to this event or that and say I think I threw that into the mix, but it really is a collective process. We all get together in an unfortunately small room and bat around plot points, dialogue, story ideas, whatever it takes. So it's about throwing around ideas until we get to a place where we're happy with them. The last couple of seasons, I've been running the writer's room when Ron or David are out, so my job has been to help us focus in on a direction that feels right and then press on from there, until we have a story we think is ready to pitch. Of the pitch, Ron will give his feedback, we incorporate it, and we're off to outline. Now, on the episodes I've written, I've obviously contributed more to those than others. I just hate to just grab plot points for attribution because I may be misremembering anyway. [Laughs.] I'm very happy being a part of the team.

BFS: In terms of the show's fanbase, do you try to stay in a bubble or do you make an effort to stick your head out every so often and see their reactions?

MV: We're aware there are fans who are definitely into the show. [Laughs.] Yeah, we peek out from time to time. But what we don't want to do... look, the fans are fantastic. But I worked on the show "Smallville" for three years, and one thing we learned there was you don't necessarily want to give people what they think they want, because then you're giving them what they already expect. It's interesting to see the enthusiasm, to hear what they like and don't like, and some of that is very worthy in taking into consideration. But in terms of it being the engine that drives us, ultimately we have to do what we think works. Also, there are many considerations that go into television beyond the story � casting, budgets, locations, a million different things that go into making a show that fans aren't aware of, nor should they be aware of. But their passion and enthusiasm is fantastic.

BFS: Was there anything that sticks out in particular - positively or negatively?

MV: They are certainly vocal expressing their likes and dislikes, and that's great. Frankly, I'm impressed with how they've mostly accepted some of our bigger leaps of faith. I'm thinking specifically of the year jump at the end of season two, and then the revelation of the four Cylons at the end of season three, which were both challenging, series-altering events. One of the great things about a fanbase for a science fiction show, a show like this, is they're able to run with that. There didn't seem to be a big groundswell of shock and awe, "Oh, what have they done?!" I mean, some folks certainly had issues with some of those decisions, but it's cool how most people [in the end] more or less accepted these situations. And accepted them in the spirit in which they were done, which was to say, "Okay, that show you were getting comfortable watching? It's going in a different direction now." The year jump, for instance, was something you just don't see every day. And we always wanted to reveal the last Cylons... but I think the choice of those characters, the song and all that was certainly an interesting way to get in. Incidentally, the Dylan song ["All Along the Watchtower"] was something Ron's wanted to use since the beginning....

BFS: With the show winding down is there a sense of nostalgia going on?

MV: You know, I don't spend a lot of time looking back. Maybe it's the freelancer in me, but I'm always trying to look forward to the next project. In the immediate, on "Battlestar," that means I'm looking forward to shooting my next episode and helping finish out the show in the best way possible. After that... well, it's been a great experience, but nostalgia's probably a little ways off yet because I'm still here. [Laughs.] I'm sure at some point I'll look back and go, "wow, that was amazing." In a larger sense, it may have been a novel experience in the sense of, will the television landscape continue to support expensive episodes of big science fiction shows with effects and other pricey stuff every week? But that's another issue. Incidentally, I don't take for granted that people at the studio and Sci-Fi Channel supported the show and allowed us to do stories that I think... no, I'm sure, might have been troublesome elsewhere. I've worked at other networks and you know, you bring up, "Let's do a story about abortion." And it's like: "No." [Laughs.] Or it just becomes this insane minefield. On "Battlestar" they've been wonderfully supportive of characters who are heroes and yet are remarkably flawed, but I think flawed in a way we all understand, in ways that make the show a richer, more dramatic experience. That's been the real fun of this, exploring all our different characters.

BFS: Is there anything in particular you'll take from this show and add to your writers' toolbelt so to speak?

MV: I learn something every day, from both what works and from our mistakes. I think when you stop learning "new tricks" you might as well quit. In terms of "Battlestar," for instance, I really admire the leadership style of David Eick and Ron Moore. It's something I would emulate if I were ever running my own show. Because to be that open, not threatened by new ideas being thrown out, to encourage that sort of thing, is very empowering as a writer on a staff. And I think it makes for better shows. Aside from that, from a writing standpoint, I feel the bar is pretty high here. We're all competing with one another to write "the great script." That's fun and challenging, too. On "Battlestar," "good enough" is the start, and then it's, how do we push it that extra mile, how do we make this into something fresh and unique and go, "okay, now that is something we haven't seen before. There's a twist on a character that I never imagined. Or, that's a dark place or a happy place we haven't explored yet."

BFS: Looking forward then if ["Battlestar" prequel] "Caprica" goes - do you hope to stay on?

MV: I'm open to anything, but an actual series is still a ways out there. Obviously, it's been an incredible experience working with Ron. I only hedge because I don't want to... this is a crazy business. I hope it goes to series. I hope everything works out, but another thing I've learned is that if you start counting on things that haven't happened yet, you can mess yourself up. But I would work with Ron anytime.

BFS: Has the "Caprica" era [50 years before our "Battlestar"] already been established internally by the "Battlestar" staff?

MV: The "Battlestar" writing staff really had nothing to do with it, as far as I know. It's a wholly separate project.

BFS: I mean as far as the legacy of you and the staff knowing how the Cylons came about, things like that.

MV: I'm sure that informs that story a bit, though to be honest, I haven't read the script yet, my hands have been full with "Battlestar." "Caprica" was created by Ron and another writer [Remi Aubuchon] and David Eick, so it's just a totally separate project as far as I'm concerned. I'm itching to read it, though.

BFS: In terms of your own TV tastes, is there anything you follow right now?

MV: Yeah, though unfortunately a lot of my favorites have recently deceased. I thought "Deadwood" was one of the finest shows ever produced. Brilliant show. "Sopranos" I loved. I like "24" a lot. Let's see, what else is actually on right now... oh, I love the "Law & Order" franchise, all versions. I'm addicted to the reruns because they're on late, and in television we can work the occasional late night. "House" is a great show, I have a lot of friends working on that. Great show. "Heroes" is a lot of fun. That's probably enough. That's a lot. [Laughs.] A lot of people recommend "Lost," which for whatever reason I missed. I've been so busy working. So I have the DVD sets now, I definitely want to get into that.

BFS: Do you still follow "Smallville?"

MV: You know, I guess I don't as much as I should. I still have a lot of great friends over there and the show's always been a lot of fun, so it's not out of any "issue" per se. It's funny, when you're on a show, you're just so immersed in it. I tried to keep up with "Smallville" for a while but after a while, I don't know, maybe it just wasn't the same experience after having been so involved. It's not slam against them. More power to them. Eight years - wow! It's amazing.

BFS: Back to "Battlestar," without obviously spoiling anything, can you talk about what themes and subjects you're hoping to cover - this being the final season and all?

MV: I think there are going to be some character revelations that will be stunning to folks who are used to things [being a certain way]. And I don't think we're pulling a fast one... it's all justified by where the characters have been and where they are going. I think what we want to do � actually, now I'm speaking for myself, I shouldn't speak for the whole show. But I think after three years of the humans on the run from the Cylons, there's a question -- and whether this actually happens in the show or not you'll just have to watch, no spoilers! -- but in the universe we've created we've got two warring factions going at it. And we're getting to a point where it doesn't look like either one will have a very satisfactory existence unless they can find a way to get along. Question is, will they? Is there a way to make peace at some point? Incidentally, in the "Battlestar" universe, it's entirely possible that there isn't. It's obviously a real world issue, where warring factions fight for hundreds of years over their differences, so it's not like people don't understand where those emotions are coming from, but is it possible to transcend them? But in the less macro sense, we have four regulars who have just discovered they've been Cylons all along. Obviously that will impact their relationships, their inner feelings and how they deal with one another. Also when we left season three Dr. Baltar was "rescued" by some ladies who seemed to think he might have something spiritual to offer. That's a new wrinkle. And Laura was rediagnosed with cancer at the end of season three. How does that impact her? And finally, of course, Starbuck has come back from the dead, so that's a big monkey-wrench, too.

BFS: I know Ron's gone on the record saying he would be remised if he didn't answer the Earth question. For you, even just as a fan of the show, is there a sense of we have to resolve X, Y and Z?

MV: I think we need "resolution", but that doesn't necessarily mean tying everything up with a neat bow. When you get to the end of this series - and this is the last season - there will be a resolution. It won't be a Journey song, then black and you think your TiVo went out. [Laughs.] Though that was great! So there will be a resolution, but whether you agree with the conclusion or not is a whole other thing. [Laughs.] I think it will be very satisfying, but I'm of course biased. I don't know that we'll solve every single outstanding issue, but we'll certainly try. Incidentally, tangentially, another great thing about the show is we can go back two years or three years and say, okay, here's an interesting note, let's pluck that out...

BFS: So is there a checklist somewhere of every outstanding plot point and you go and check those off as the season progresses?

MV: We do make lists and sometimes we even look at them. [Laughs.] We don't want to obsess about the dangling plot-threads at the expense of character. Though we certainly do, obsess, I mean. We try to look at how we want to explore the different plot threads, what's an interesting way to turn something on its head, where is this character going and why, that sort of thing.

BFS: One of my favorite moments of the show was the rescue on New Caprica where the Pegasus runs into a basestar, blows up and fragments of it hit another basestar. Is it surreal just to write those few lines and then see the end result be that ridiculously exciting?

MV: That's descriptive of the whole process. I'll write a scene for Eddie Olmos, and two weeks later I'm on a stage watching him give another amazing, fiery performance. But in terms of the FX work, the answer is yes, it's surreal and invigorating and even spine-chilling. The effects are astonishing. Gary Hutzel and his crew do fantastic work. It's a real blessing to have him on a show like this because they are, because there's a real passion there. You don't get that kind of quality work because someone's coming in and punching a timeclock. You get it because they really care. There's some FX work coming up in season four that I obviously can't to talk about, but internally, our jaws are just dropping. But even if it's only, for instance, a view of a fleet ship seen in a different way, these guys never cease to amaze me. They do such an incredible job.

BFS: Do you know what the last shot, the last words of the show will be?

MV: Yup. Unless Ron changes his mind. Which he has been known to do! But yeah, we've been talking about it for awhile now.

BFS: So knowing that, how does it reconcile with when you first joined the show? Was it where you saw it going?

MV: One thing that's interesting about episodic television... I think some people outside the business have this view that showrunners have this big clipboard, they're wearing a white lab coat, that's it all very clinical, and they go, "alright, guys, I've worked out the entire show. We're going to go here, here, here, then here. This is the story we're telling." And I'm sure there are people who have done it that way, but it is one thing to have an idea where you're going, and quite another to have it totally charted out so there's no room to explore, to take the unexpected into account. So I would say we've wiggled all over the place, but never wavered from the core conceit of where Ron and David wanted to go. I know Ron's said he's had the last few shots in mind for quite a while, but it's so much about the journey, how we get there. As each script is written and honed, it naturally changes how we move into the next. It's like building blocks, each on top of the other... without the base, there is no "top." You have to go with that flow, otherwise you could miss some real opportunities. One "for instance" is the Romo Lampkin character, played by Mark Sheppard. He really worked in the last three episodes of season three, so naturally you think about bringing a guy like that back. So to be rigid and go "Episode 15 is this, I figured it out four years ago" seems like a dead end to me. I guess this is a very long-winded way of saying that "Battlestar's" evolved in an organic way, not through some mathematical process. You sometimes see online, not just about "Battlestar," but also other shows - "Lost" comes to mind � where the criticism is, "oh, they're just making it up as they go." Buddy, I'm sorry, but that's how it works. Yes, you have benchmarks, you know where you want the story to go, but making it up? That's called writing. You make it up as you go. If it was all worked out in advance you wouldn't need writers, just transcribers.

BFS: To wrap things up, what do you sort of see as "Battlestar's" legacy? Has it closed the book on what a "spaceship" show can do?

MV: I hope not. [Laughs.] I really don't. I hope it opens up the world to more science fiction, especially material that doesn't have to have the cheesy trappings that a lot of people associate with the genre. If anything I hope the legacy of "Battlestar" is more thoughtful science fiction. That doesn't necessarily mean spaceships, it just means good, speculative fiction. What "Battlestar" has shown is that the genre can have a lot of the fun stuff - killer robots, space ships, dogfights, sex - but it can also be very political, honest and fraught with human drama. I hope we see more of that. That said, I do think that "Battlestar" is one of the best science fiction shows to come along in years, and I'm truly proud to have been part of it. I think we all are. There's a "pinch me" element of having been associated with the show. We talk about this occasionally, very occasionally, but 20 years from now I think people will still be able to watch this show as a sort of snapshot of where one piece of the socio-political mind was, from 2001 through 2008. I don't think it will date, I think themes we've explored will still be issues as we go forward...

  [may 2008]  


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